Sunday, November 23, 2008

There are no camels in Lebap

With less than two weeks of training to go, I am already looking
forward to moving to Lebap. When I visited Lebap I realized that thus
far my entire perspective on Turkmenistan has been from the Ahal
Welayat point of view. There are 5 Welayats in Turkmenistan and Ahal
Welayat is the most conservative. Ashgabat is relatively liberal
because there is a mix of ethnic Russians and ethnic Turkmen, but the
Ahal villages are as conservative and traditional as you can find in
Turkmenistan. I had only heard about the differences between Welayats
from the PCVs, but when I arrived in Lebap I experienced culture shock
all over again (in the same country). People's behavior, mannerisms,
speech, dress and traditions are different than Ahal.

When I met my host mother and sisters, they were so warm and welcoming
with big hugs and kisses on both cheeks. As it turns out, I have an
18 year-old host-sister, not a brother. Her name is Rahat and since
that is a boy's name in Ahal, they assumed she was a boy. I was
really excited to have another sister. Bibinar, the 24 year-old
sister is currently living at the house as well but will soon be
moving to Turkmenabat to work. Everyone smiled when I met them
(except for the KNB officer, but I will get to him later) and treated
me as family after that first introduction. Although there are still
gender divisions and separation in Lebap, they are much more lenient
and vary according to family. When I went to visit with my
host-mother's family, her father stood up and shook my hand which took
me by surprise since men and women seldom touch in Ahal. In Lebap
they speak a different type of Turkmen with a completely different
accent, so I felt unprepared with the Ahal Turkmen that I have been
trained in. My host family speaks Turkmen, Russian and Uzbek. At
home they speak mostly Russian and Uzbek but at my workplace I will be
using Turkmen and Russian. So, I think that I will be learning all
three and speak a weird tri-lingual mix by the time I leave. It was
difficult because one word was Turkmen and the next was a Russian word
with a Turkmen suffix. I was trying to hang in there, but I will
definitely be taking advantage of the money that Peace Corps gives us
for language tutors. At work the female teachers wear professional
clothes such as Turkmen dresses and western suits. At the "World
Bazaar" I saw lots of nice, winter fabric that could be tailored into
a fashionable suit that I could wear to work. My sister has already
introduced me to my new "tikinchi," or dressmaker. She is from
Kazakhstan and has an impressive portfolio with all her clothing
designs. I think she will be able to make me something fabulous!

While I was in Garashsyzlyk, I got to experience my first Lebap
wedding. The night before the wedding all the girls went to the
tikinchi's house to give their new dresses a final fitting. My koynek
was definitely the most conservative and modest out of all of them.
My host sister's was black, transparent velvet fabric with a plunging
neckline and gold trimming. Her friend's was a tight fitting, red
dress with sequin-studded neckline. These were dresses that they had
designed and that clearly fitted their personalities and personal
taste. In Ahal, a woman's choice of embroidery might express her
personal style, but the dresses don't vary by much. In Lebap the
dresses ranged from spaghetti strap dresses to more traditional
Turkmen koyneks. The bride wore a white, shiny dress that made her
look like a wedding cake with too much frosting. Her hair was done up
in a fashionable style with at least a can of hair spray used. In
Ahal, the bride wears a head covering, traditional koynek and keeps
her mouth covered during the entire ceremony. For thirty days after
the wedding, she wears a heavy outfit that includes an intricate
process to get into and out of, and it jingles as she takes tiny steps
from house to house making visits. In Lebap, the couple got up to
dance and their friends toasted them with long elaborate speeches and
shots of vodka. All the while, the belly dancer moved among the
audience and pulled people to the dance floor. The dancing still
included the hand swirling and moving counter clockwise in a circle,
but the girls shimmied their shoulders and swayed their hips with this
elaborate finger snapping trick. I was having troubles in the
purple-suede stilettos my host sister had loaned me but I think I held
my own okay. Weddings seem to be the ultimate window into Turkmen
culture. There are so many cultural, tribal and ethnic aspects that
are exposed at an event like this one.

During my visit I spent two days at School #1. I mostly wanted to say
hello to people and to introduce myself to as many people as I could.
My introductions always went the same way, "Hello, how are you? Are
you a teacher here? What do you teach? Oh, that's great. I am the
new English teacher. I will be coming in December. I am 23. No, I
am not married. No, I don't have children. Yes, I can understand you
and no, I (still) don't have children." (Over and over again) Because
marriage here is so important for women, that is always the first
question that I get. I am the perfect age to marry, and I had several
teachers say that they want to make me their daughter-in-law. I think
they were joking. Also, many people assume that I don't have a family
because I am here by myself. Since Turkmen live with their extended
families for their entire lives, they have a hard time understanding
how I could come this far from my family. I usually explain that it
is difficult for me to be this far away from my family and friends,
but that I talk to them on the telephone and we write letters. They
are usually satisfied with this answer. School #1 is huge with over
1200 students. Classes are held just in the mornings and there are
over 100 teachers. I will be taking over the old Ruhnama room and I
was told that I would be getting some of the new desks that just
arrived. I met my counterpart, Mehriban the morning that I arrived.
During college, she had a PCV working at her teacher's institute and
she still uses the communicative methods that the PCV taught them.
She told me that some of the games and activities she uses are out of
date and that he is very excited to learn new methods. I was really
relieved to have an enthusiastic counterpart who immediately expressed
interest in working with me. She teaches grades 4 through 9 and we
will be co-teaching most of her classes. Apart from these classes, I
will hold clubs and other activities at the school.

During our pre-orientation in Philadelphia, we were warned that we
would all probably be assigned a "keeper" by the local police office
and KNB, or secret police. Turkmen law mandates that the police know
the whereabouts of all foreigners at all times. Since there are not
many foreigners in Turkmenistan, this is actually possible. And since
there are no foreigners in our villages, we are it. I arrived in
Garashsyzlyk at 8am and by 10:30am the KNB was calling my house. How
they found out that I had arrived beats me. I didn't have to talk to
them because I was napping, but they asked my host-father who I was
and why I was there. This made me a little uneasy because after this
I felt like I was being watched. Because we were only visiting, the
Peace Corps had not registered us in our etraps yet and they had not
been notified of our arrival. Nevertheless, they knew that I was
there! My sister assured me that this was normal and that this was
simply the Turkmen system. Along with a suspicion of foreigners,
Turkmenistan also inherited the Soviet system of filling out a form
for everything. In Russia we spent a good part of a semester learning
how to properly fill out all types of forms and what grammar to use on
each. This knowledge will again be put to test here. The school
director immediately asked for my information, and he filled out a
form with my passport information, birthday, name and surname. When I
come in December I will need a photograph, a copy of my passport and a
copy of my college diploma. Giving all this information to my
employer is so foreign to me and made me question his motives, but he
showed me the huge file that he has with all of the teacher's
information. Again, this is the system here. Everyone has your
passport number, name and birthday. Oh, and of course they asked me
if I am married. On Monday night when five girls came over to do
make-up and hair for the wedding, we were interrupted by the arrival
of a police officer who "wanted to get to know me" as my host-father
said. It was comical how awkward the officer looked amongst six girls
running around with curling irons, hair dryers and make-up waving
about. I sat down with him and my host-father in the living-room and
I showed him my Peace Corps ID which has a letter from the president
in Turkmen about Peace Corps. The officer did not know what Peace
Corps was or that I would be working at the school. He asked my
parents' names and where I was born. I really don't know why they
need this information or what use it is, but I was cooperative and
gave it to them. Mom, Dad, the Turkmen police now have your names
too…sorry! He talked to me for no more than 10 minutes and then left
in his little police car as quickly as he came. I know that he got
the orders from someone to come to my house and I apologize that my
life is really not that interesting. In the past there were problems
with PCVs working for the CIA and there is still a huge suspicion that
we are spies. But I hope that after a while they see that my life is
a routine between school, family and friends and that I am not up to
anything suspicious. Maybe to make his job more interesting, I can
invite him to chai. You know what they say about three cups of tea?
By the third cup you are family.

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