Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird
by Ray Nayler
[ places - november 06 ]
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women around you?
I: Three channels
On the television in my new apartment, I have only the three Turkmen channels - Yashlyk, Altyn Asyr, and Watan. All of them broadcast non-stop propaganda and kitsch. There is nothing more degrading, I think, to the culture of a people than to have it bent and twisted into some bright, flowery thing to serve the purpose of power. The Turkmen have every right (as everyone in the world does) to be proud of their history, of the unsurpassed artistry of their carpets, the sleek beauty of their horses, the lovely excess of their jewelry, the minute detail of their embroidery, their traditional dances, their poets and their people. But what the television stations broadcast is not this, but something far more sinister, and literally nauseating. It is everything good and beautiful about Turkmenistan reduced to its basest elements. Reduced the way a dead dog is reduced, to make soap from its fat and ashes from the rest of it.
Let me try to make it real for you. I can't, but I will try. Imagine, if you will, a small-town parade, flag-draped and drenched in red, white, and blue, saturated with marching bands and cheerleaders and moms with apple-pie smiles, and the Prez waving like some dull-eyed vacuum-cleaner salesman from horseback in front of a float advertising his new book, which will now replace all history books in the United States. Little girls throw flowers at everything and Madonna sings 'God Bless America' in a drugged, stiff way - as if she is in a trance. Imagine this saccharine parade looped, with variations on the theme but no real change, on three channels, the only three channels. Imagine it is interrupted only by the news, which shows you a constant parade of slides of flowering American fields, women carrying babies, and factory technology. And always, the president. His profile in gold at the top of the screen. Everyone on television keeps saying his name, saying it over and over again. And talking about his book - even when it has nothing to do with what they were talking about before. More parades, more dancing.
Now imagine that you have no job.
Now imagine that you have no vote.
Now imagine that it is very possible that none of this will go away in the foreseeable future. Or that something will come after that is worse. Imagine your child coming home from that parade, humming songs from the President's new book and turning on the TV. This is your child that will never be able to get an education, unless you can get her out of here. And somewhere Marilyn Manson is being beaten with rubber hose in the seventh sub-basement of the CIA bunker because the President thinks he tried to kill him with the evil eye. He will disappear. Somewhere in a filthy prison a gas-mask is being put on someone and the air valves are closed and they are suffocating and being shown pictures of their family being beaten. This is happening because they are related to someone that did something anti-US once. If you can imagine all of this, you might have felt for a second what it feels like, every day, to be a citizen in Turkmenistan. If you found yourself amused and frightened at the same time, perfect. I think that is what it's like.
I gave someone here a copy of 1984 to read, and I'm not sure that I will do that again. She woke up screaming in terror for a week after finishing it. She could parallel everything that happened in the book with something from her own life. From the first page, she said, she knew what the book was about. It was about this place. I did not say these things. She said them. I didn't tell her anything about the book. She just asked for something to read, and I gave her something. Later, I felt as if I had slapped her in the face for no reason.
II: Saturday, 28 January
I found the book in the library of POET, the Professional Organization of English teachers, where I run a teachers' club every Thursday night for local English teachers, plus a film club and a reading club. POET is located in an apartment on the first floor of a two-story soviet apartment block off a main street downtown. The stairwell sometimes smells like urine. It is always dark in the stairwell, because alcoholics steal the light bulbs to sell for more liquor as soon as anyone replaces them.
I have just finished teaching a workshop on creative writing. The teachers learned to write list poems and acrostics. We rewrote Raymond Carver's poem 'Fear', replacing his fears with ours. Now, the teachers are in the other room, laughing and talking in Russian. I am in the library, which once was a bedroom. The bare boards of the floor are painted, and the paint on them is cracked and flaking off. The shelves are mismatched, scrounged from many places. The wallpaper in the library is lumpy and peeling. I have seen enormous cockroaches drop out of the wall along the baseboards and scurry across the room, but right now there are no cockroaches.
Among the library's contents, besides the book I now hold in my hand, I have noticed Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and several Dover editions of Poetry, To Kill a Mockingbird, Where The Red Fern Grows, and How to Win Friends and Influence People. People check out books by signing their name in a big grey notebook. If POET does not know them, they have to leave something valuable in exchange.
With the laughter coming in from the other room, I am in a very good mood. I love these teachers. On the wall of the library is a faded poster with the goals of the POET organization.
To encourage community among local teachers of English
To encourage pride in the our profession
To provide resources to teachers of English
The goals are simple, but what the teachers are talking about right now is not. They are trying to figure out how to register their organization, so that it will be legal. The teachers are all criminals right now, meeting in an unlawful assembly. This particular unlawful assembly has included a significant amount of tea, both black and green, as well as cookies with their bottoms dipped in chocolate, and a discussion of poetry and how to teach children to write it. For this, these teachers could be arrested. It is forbidden to meet without permission in a group larger than five people. It is forbidden to form an organization without registering. But it is nearly impossible to register. That is why POET has been hiding here for six years, in this secret apartment in a darkened stairwell. The teachers are trying to figure out a Turkmen name for their organization, and a way to word things so that the KNB, the secret police here, will not shut them down. The KNB would be more terrifying if they were not so incompetent and ridiculous. But despite the fact that they are indeed incompetent and ridiculous, they do manage to be terrifying every once in a while. People disappear in this tragicomedy: people are killed. No-one you know, but people nonetheless.
I sit down at the small table in the library and open the book. It is titled Soviet Turkmenistan, and is in three languages: Turkmen, Russian, and English. It was printed in the 1970s.
III: The book
The book is nicely bound, and inside it is full of photographs. All of the photographs are staged - as every photograph is staged.
In the book, people are very happy. They are happy because the soviets have taught them to read. They are happy about rich harvests of cotton and wheat, they are happy about modern combines and harvesters. Their faces are uptilted, looking toward the future. They are happy because of the many parks and fountains and modern buildings in Ashgabat. They are happy because in the pictures they wear their traditional clothes and play their traditional instruments. Their culture has been preserved by soviet power. One woman is happy because she has raised 11 children and has been given many medals. She is a Hero Mother of the Soviet Union. In another picture citizens are sitting in a field, and they are happy because of the friendship between peoples, illustrated by the different forms of traditional dress.
The people in the pictures are happy because their canals are being dredged, or because they are successfully exploiting their natural resources. Brezhnev is happy because he is visiting Turkmenistan. Perhaps he is happy because the plane behind him is a modern Aeroflot jet. Everyone in the book is either happy or serious, but when they are serious it is because they are happy in their work. Maria comes in and I show her the book and she is glad to look at all of the old buildings. She remembers Ashgabat the way it was before - the way that she loved the city when she was growing up. She tells me where the old buildings used to stand, and what new buildings are there now. The book contains a lost world of futurist carpets with Lenin's image and sheaves of wheat held aloft by beautiful Homo Sovieticus girls. It is unclear who the book is trying to fool.
Leafing through the book, what I see is a parallel to the images of America in the 1950s when we, too, were wildly happy about industry and looking to the future, even in ads for Coca-Cola. One way to look at things is to see the similarities; another is to see the differences.
IV: Twilight, a Thursday, winter
The stream of ravens across the post-sun sky is constant, an unbroken line across the horizon. We are about to take a taxi home, but we are walking a few blocks. It is very cold, the puddles with a skin of ice over them, the sound of cars and the sound of ravens. It must be some sort of trick - there cannot possibly be this many ravens. But there are, and the mob of them, thousands upon thousands, keeps crossing the sky like a videotape looped and looped for at least five minutes - then, possibly ten. There must be a raven for every soul in the city. A few thousand of them decided to settle in my neighborhood, taking up residence for a couple of nights on the roofs and darkening the trees like incredibly loud fruit. One thing it is easy to forget is how enormous a raven is. Outside my windows they shake the last dead, papery clumps of leaves on the trees as they hop from branch to branch, calling to one another, scrimmaging, taking flight suddenly and circling in the night air and then settling again. The sound of them makes one superstitious. It is impossible for me to hear a raven and not think of death, Halloween, rain, Santa Cruz, the past.
V: A weekday, coming home from the Institute
The dog rushes out at me from the yard. It is covered in mud and its tits are swollen with milk, splattered with filth. It rushes at me, snarling, and I swing my bag at it. A small boy comes out of the yard with a stick and starts hitting the dog. My heart is hammering in my chest. I had just been thinking that everything here was starting to become routine - normal. I laugh nervously as I walk on, embarrassed at how frightened I was.
VI: Health Road, Kopet Dag Mountains, Sunday, 22 January
We are above the fog now, and it slips between the clefts between the mountains, filling them with white. The elimination of the ground, far below us, and the sharp outlines of the rocks makes everything look like a Japanese painting. I am walking with Chinar. Her cheeks are pink and she keeps asking to stop and rest on the way up. She also keeps calling herself fat. She's so ridiculously beautiful that it's hard to even respond to her self-criticism. Every once in a while we stop and take pictures. She likes to have her picture taken, but I would prefer to take pictures of the landscape. Chinar's olive coat and brown sweater blend perfectly with the colors around us. The road winds along the ridges, a white rope toward the horizon. Above the mountains are high, long clouds in the stratosphere and the sun cutting through. The girl and the mountains compliment one another. Later we descend stairs down into the fog and I teach Chinar what lichen and moss are. She does not know the words for these things in Turkmen.
VII: The United States Embassy, 10:56 am, Friday, 27 January
The embassy is surrounded by a 10-foot iron fence with spikes at the top. Anti-vehicle barricades disguised as planter boxes surround it on all sides. The building is set back 50 meters from the street. First you pass your passport through a slot, where it is checked against a list of approved visitors for that day. If it matches the list, the reinforced bullet-proof glass door is opened and you are led into a guard booth containing a metal detector. A guard asks you if you have a cell phone, a camera, any electronics. You pass through the outer guard booth into the courtyard, where there are more armed guards, to the main building. The doors are of mirrored glass. Inside, you pass your passport through another slot beneath another pane of bullet-proof glass, to a marine in full dress uniform, with a khaki tie that matches his khaki shirt. The marine cannot understand who you want to see so you have to raise your voice and tell him several times. The marine is, of course, armed. He keeps your passport and passes a badge through the slot. The badge is to be clipped to your clothes and must be visible at all times. It reads: "Not To Be Admitted Without Escort." You are here to get money from the embassy for a book project you are planning, but all you can think of is bombs going off. All you can think of is terrorists. You feel personally guilty, as if you were thinking of blowing the place up. You also feel ashamed, because this is what your country has been reduced to. This is the face you give to the world.
VIII: Turkmen Airlines to Mary, 5 November
Maria and I are settling down into our seats when the little old woman pushes past us to the window seat. The entire airplane is full of people pushing - pushing big bags into the overhead compartments, rolls tied with string, plastic packets, pushing past one another in the aisles, yelling at each other because nobody has taken the right seat on the airplane, and now they have to find new seats. The woman is very little and very old. Her eyes are blue - almost violet, but clouding with age. She stands somewhere under five feet. She is in a traditional Turkmen dress, but her wizened crumple of a face looks Russian. I help her open the window which she is scrabbling at, and she says "Thank you, Comrade."
The engines increase in volume and the plane begins to back away from the gate. The little woman looks at me. "Comrade, do you have the time?" As the plane taxis out onto the runway, she cups her hands in front of her face and prays to Allah. The window-blind is faulty and slams shut as the plane accelerates, startling her. I lean over and open it for her, and she thanks me before going back to her prayer.
Once we are in the air, she stares out the window watching the clouds - not as if they are beautiful, but with a sort of suspicion. The window-blind keeps slapping shut, and every time it does this she jumps. The stewardesses come around with rolls and drinks. The old woman asks for my roll, which I am not eating because I mistakenly ate one before and they are disgusting. I give it to her. Then she asks for Maria's roll as well. She puts them in her bag, along with all of the plastic cups we just finished with. When the stewardesses comes around to collect the plastic cups, the woman looks guilty and reaches for her bag, as if she has been caught red-handed. I pat her on the shoulder and shake my head, and she smiles at me for the first time.
The stewardess moves on without questioning why we have no trash. This woman will be using those "disposable" cups for quite some time.
When the plane begins to decelerate and the flaps change for landing, the woman stares straight ahead. As soon as we are on the ground, she shoves past us and is gone, the first one off of the plane, quick as lightning.
IX: Every day
I cut vegetables every day. I cut mushrooms that look like they have been recently found in the woods. They are wide and flat and fungal and irregular, with complicated folds and creases, more like some sea urchin or tidepool creature than what an American might think a mushroom is. I cut onions that have to be thoroughly washed because they are still covered with the earth they have been torn from. I cut tomatoes, but I rarely eat tomatoes in the winter. In the summer, tomatoes are ¢30 a kilo, but in the winter they are over one dollar. I make less than $130 a month, and so one dollar is a lot of money. I chop garlic. I chop it as small as I can, until I am sick of cutting it. My knife is dull, but I am used to it. I have only one knife, and it is no larger than a steak knife. It is not ideal for cutting vegetables, but I make do with what I have. Sometimes I cut green onions. These hide the dirt and you have to wash them three times as long as you think. The dirt hides in their roots that are like antennae. I cut lettuce. The lettuce has mud down near the bottom. It never seems to dry out, and is always wet in the salad. I don't cut many potatoes. When I lived with a Turkmen family, we ate potatoes twice or three times a day. I do not like potatoes anymore, except every once in a while, when I roast a whole chicken, surrounded by carrots and potatoes and mushrooms, in the oven. A month or so ago I chopped cilantro and made a salsa which was the best salsa I had ever tasted because it had been so long since I'd tasted salsa. I was surprised to find cilantro at the bazaar, but the more I look, the more I find things that I did not think they had here. By the time I leave, I will have found all the comforts of home. Then it really will be time to go.
X: 5 am, Wednesday, 2 February
Whatever I am doing at the moment it seems as if my time would be better spent doing something else. If I am writing, I should be studying Russian. If I am studying Russian, I should be writing. If I am eating I should be taking a shower. If I am at home resting I should be working, but if I am working I should be resting more. But at night, at least, I am at home in my spectacularly strange dreams, populated by things and people that I could not create myself (and yet I have created them, haven't I?) In the one that woke me up my ex-girlfriend Shannan and I were house shopping. We were really happy, because we had found the perfect house. It was rotting into the ground almost. It would need to be rebuilt from the ground up. It was not rotting - it was paper thin. It had nearly been worn away. It was located in a neighborhood full of Victorians in various states of disrepair and renovation. Scaffolding, eaves, mold, fresh paint, weathervanes, coach houses. What made me happiest about this house was that it was, somehow, moveable. These inexplicable things of dreams. The house could be folded up like a tent and put in my pocket. It would not hold us down. And yet it was ours.
Gulalek shows up at teachers' club to tell me that she is a semifinalist for the UGRAD program. She will go to America to study at a University for a year. She wants to thank me for helping her. We shake hands in the kitchen of POET center, and I realize that, with any luck, she will be in America long before I am. And if she goes, I will know that she would not have gone without me - holding her hand while she cried, coaching her through the stress of filling out the application, walking her to the center to make sure she turned it in. She looks radiantly happy in the kitchen. "You look great!" She says. "I've missed you so much!" My heart quickens in my chest.
XII: The haircut
The Ukrainian cuts hair in a little kiosk in front of the hospital. It used to be a guard shack, but now it serves as a salon - a single barber's chair, a zinc water tank nailed to the wall with a spout at the bottom of it, because there is no running water, a cracked mirror, and the Ladas and Volgas passing nearby on the street. The Ukrainian has one blind, cloudy eye. He pulls hard at the hair and cuts it efficiently. He does not speak much, though I try him in Russian. He answers in one word, or a sound like a word.
Outside, mourning families share broken benches near the dry fountain. The young nurses pass by under the dusty trees before the hospital, laughing together on the broken paths under the trees, and I watch them pass until he firmly turns my head to get the proper perspective. He cuts the hair with an immaculateness, he shaves my neck with precision, the way he has cut hair for decades while countries around him collapse and new governments spring up. This Ukrainian who has never been home.
XIII: 11 September, 2003
Getting off of the plane is a dream of what things might be here. What are the first things I notice? The white van on the Tarmac. The heat of the night, heavy and thick but dry. Desert evening heat. My bags are heavy, and I have to go to the bathroom because I forgot to go in Baku. There are always the little physical discomforts to interfere with perception. On the side of the airport I see, for the first time, a portrait of the President in golden profile and the words WE SHOULD GLORIFY OUR MOTHERLAND!
We are herded into the airport, where I see my first Turkmen soldier. The enormous hat on his head makes him look tiny. He looks 15 years old, and malnourished. I will see the portraits, the slogans, and the soldiers thousands upon thousands of times over the next year, a design endlessly repeating itself, but I will never look at them in exactly the same way - with that sense of danger and wonder at crossing the threshold of some strange new world, whose entire substance differs completely from anything you thought you knew. This sense of danger and wonder was why I came here.
It was not why I stayed.