TURKMEN CHARACTER AND CUSTOMS

TURKMEN CHARACTER

Turkmen have traditionally been insular, secretive and suspicious and even hostile to outsiders. The long years in the desert have the made the Turkmen a very tough people. But despite this Turkmen have a reputation for gentleness

Traditionally a nomadic people, Turkmen descended from several separate tribes or clans, each speaking a different dialect and with its own style of dress. Turkmen are renowned for their lavish hospitality, respect for seniors, honesty and sincere generosity. To this day, a visitor will be offered tea and food before even being allowed to explain why he has come! No tradition of democracy. [Source: centralasiacultures.com |+|]

Among the most important values for the Turkmen are friendship and love, always maintaining friendly relations with their neighbors. Turkmen say: "" Before building a home find out who thy neighbor is", "If your neighbor is happy you will be happy too", "First of all take care of your neighbor", "A neighbor next door is better than a brother far way". Turkmen have traditionally loved and valued their horses as much as neighbors and family and clan members. One Turkmen saying goes: "Water is a Turkmen's life, a horse is his wings, and a carpet is his soul." The Turkmen Akhal-Teke breed of horse is the national emblem. |+|

Turkmen Hospitality

Turkmen are famous for their hospitality. They offer plateful of pilaf and gallons of tea to anyone who visits. Turkmen often judge a person by the way he treats his guests. A guest is greeted by phrase "Khosh geldiniz!", followed by ritual phrases such as: “How happy we are to see you! What an honor you have rendered to us!" [Source: advantour.com <=>]

A cloth with food on it is considered sacred. It is taboo to step on it. Before eating everyone according to tradition should praise the Lord. Muslims say: "Every guest is sent by Allah!”. It means that hospitality is not only the host's duty but part of his religious life. This tradition was born in the ancient times and is rooted in modern Turkmen lifestyle. <=>

In old days hospitality was a form of security. People could not survive the hardships experienced in the desert without each other's support. If somebody was inhospitable to a traveler, even relatives of such a person would despise him.Turkmen consider bread and salt sacred. Stepping on them, Turkmen believe, will bring misfortune.

Turkmen Honor, Morality and Respect of Seniors

Turkmen respectful attitude toward seniors is also based on ancient traditions. It is considered very rude and disrespectful not to help them, to argue with them, to look at them with frown, to show discontent and expect gratitude from them. Turkmen say: "Gold and silver do not grow old, the father and mother are priceless". As the family head, the father has the right to evaluate his children's behavior and is obliged to protect them. Children should worship their mothers and respect them. For the slightest display of disrespect or inattention to a mother, a person is not only denounced but stopped on the spot. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

A Turkmen who had visited the United States was asked by Paul Theroux in a New Yorker article what he liked. “Good people. Clean conditions. No bribes.”Theroux: “Tell me what you didn’t like.” “The way that children treat their elders. Not good.” What had surprised him especially, Theroux wrote, was the casual way that teenagers spoke to their parents: offhand, disrespectful, sarcastic. “My host family was very nice to me, but one day coming home from school the daughter was smoking a cigarette. I said that her mother wouldn’t like it. She said, ‘My mother’s stupid. Don’t pay any attention to her.’ Imagine that.I was shocked. A mother is holy!” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Turkmen are highly moral people. They display this by cultivating hospitality, honoring seniors and placing importance on modesty, nobleness, truthfulness, honesty, boldness, sincerity and generosity. Cowardice and ingratitude are despised. Turkmen say "Only a noble person can keep his word". Gossip has traditionally been looked down upon. On this matter Turkmen say; “the one who gossips with thee, can gossip about thee too". <=>

Turkmen highly value honor. "My honor is the honor of my family, my nation, my people", they like to say. Turkmen possess a strongly developed spirit of kinship and appreciate sincerity. "Tell the truth even if it is against thee". Duty and obligation are honored. Kaziness and talkativeness are denounced.

Experiencing Turkmen Friendliness and Naivety on a Train Ride

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “I sat in my four-berth compartment with a soldier in a dark uniform, a student of about twenty-two, and an old man with a long chin beard, wearing traditional Turkmen dress—a cylindrical black lambskin hat and a long brown cloak over a smock, one of those national costumes which seem eternal and comfortable everywhere, in all seasons. He saw me and began to address me, using the student as a translator. “Salaam. Dhayf al-Rahman,” he said. “Welcome. You are a guest of Allah, the Merciful One,” the student translated. “Please thank him for me.” The man spoke again. “He has a question for you,” the student said. “Will you answer?” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

“I heard the whistle blow. The train slowly pulled out of Ashgabat Station, and within minutes we were in the desert. The old man was delivering a monologue. “He says that some years ago an astronaut went to the moon,” the student said. “He was from America. When he got to the moon, he heard a strange noise. It was an azan”—the call to prayer, usually issued by a muezzin chanting from a mosque. “The astronaut recorded it. When he came back to earth, the scientists in America analyzed it, and they came to think that it was the voice of the Prophet Muhammad.” “On the moon?” “Yes. On the moon.” “Furthermore, he says that because of this the astronaut became a Muslim and began praying five times a day.” ~

“The old man was facing me, as though defying me to deny the story. “I haven’t heard this story.” “He says he believes it.” “What does he think about it?” When this question was translated, the student said, “For him, it’s good news.” It seemed to me like a Turkmen version of a Pat Robertson story: divine intervention in an unlikely place, resulting in a beatific conversion, the sun breaking through the clouds. Instead of Jesus speaking to a searcher, it was Muhammad, but it came to the same thing. Later, an Arabic scholar told me that a persistent urban myth in the Middle East is that Neil Armstrong—sometimes confused with Louis Armstrong—converted to Islam. ~

“The old man’s name was Selim. He had been born near Mary. He had not gone to school. As a boy, he had worked in the fields; he had picked cotton his whole life. He had married a woman from his clan and had four children. He challenged me to guess his age. He looked about seventy, so I guessed sixty. He laughed and said that he was fifty.” ~

“Approaching Mary, I gave my heavy long-sleeved polo shirt to the student, who had been so helpful. “It’s a lucky shirt,” I said. In return, he gave me a multicolored cord to ward off the evil eye. Selim said, “I will wait at the station until eight o’clock. Then I’ll get the bus to Yoloten. It costs five thousand manat. A shared taxi costs ten thousand manat. But I say, better to take the bus and give the extra money to my children.” It was a lesson in rural Turkmen economics and paternal love: this man who’d had a fitful night of sleep on the train would crouch in the cold of Mary Station and wait for three hours wrapped in his cloak to save thirty cents to divide among his four kids.” ~

Turkmen Customs

Old customs, rituals and cultural practices have been revived since the break up of the Soviet Union and independence. The Turkmen were a nomadic people for most of their history and many were not settled in cities and towns until the Soviet era. Horses and horsemanship have traditionally been highly valued in Turkmen culture. Important matters were traditionally made with the consultation of tribal elders, whose advice has traditionally been eagerly sought and respected, The Soviet system severely restricted freedom of movement and collectivized nomadic herdsmen. Some customs are similar to those Turks.

Gurbanjemal lliyasova and Amangul Karrieva wrote on turkmenhost.com: “Turkmen culture is rich in traditions, deeply rooted in ancient times. These traditions, like any genre of folklore, have gone through a development and transformation process, some eventually disappearing because they are no longer relevant, others becoming an integral part of everyday life. The traditions, which mostly concerned with family relations and events, such as wedding ceremonies, childbirth, and death, are linked to certain popular beliefs. "This world is full of noise; beginning with the celebration of a new born child and ending with weeping at his death," wrote the 18" Century Turkmen poet, Maktymkuli.” [Source: Gurbanjemal lliyasova and Amangul Karrieva, turkmenhost.com]

People generally remove their shoes when entering their homes. As a rule wherever there is a carpet you should remove your shoes. Guests are given the best place next to the stove. People sometimes remove their shoes when entering a tea house. Local women never enter teahouses.

A cloth with food on it is considered sacred. It is taboo to step on it. Before eating everyone according to tradition should praise the Lord. Turkmen consider bread and salt sacred. Stepping on them, Turkmen believe, will bring misfortune.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016


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