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Iranian town marks anniversary of legendary Turkman poet

By Bruce Pannier

Prague, 19 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Today marks the anniversary in Turkmenistan of the birth of celebrated 18th-century poet Makhtum Kuli.

Festivities began Monday in the village of Haji-Gowshan in present-day Iran, where the poet was born in or around 1733.

So important is the poet to the Turkmen people that President Saparmurat Niyazov made a rare trip outside his country to attend the ceremonies. Also in attendance was Iran's Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani.

To understand the importance of Makhtum Kuli to the Turkmen people, one needs first to appreciate the role of poets and poetry in Central Asian history. Not only were poets great favorites of the courts of emirs and khans, poets were among the few who could criticize leaders and thus endear themselves to the hearts of ordinary people.

Central Asian poets were masters of metaphor and simile. People understood the oblique criticisms of leaders contained in poems and could laugh among themselves. But these criticisms were so artfully rendered that an offended official or ruler could be easily miss their significance.

Though the exact year of Makhtum Kuli's birth is not known, it's almost certain he was a Turkmen. In one poems, he wrote: "Tell those who ask about me that I am originally a Gerkez. I hail from Ertek and my name is Makhtum Kuli."

Makhtum Kuli belonged to the Giyshiklar clan of the Gerkez part of the Turkmen Gokleng tribe. He also wrote only in the Turkmen language, which sets him apart from other Central Asian poets who wrote in Persian or Chagatai.

When Makhtum Kuli was young, Turkmens were beset by two enemies: the Bukharan emirate from the northeast and Nadir Shah from the southwest. Nadir Shah's death in 1745 destabilized the region, and competing factions from Afghanistan, Khorasan (present day Iran), and the Qajar rulers of the southeastern Caspian struggled to control Turkmen territory. Kuli's two older brothers disappeared in the fighting at this time, though Makhtum Kuli's father, also a very respected figure, lived to the 1760s.

The disappearance of Makhtum Kuli's brothers was just one of many tragedies from which the poet drew inspiration. And even today, his saddest poems remain the most popular.

Makhtum Kuli was in love with a girl from the Giyshiklar clan named Mengli. But he was young and when he asked for her hand, Mengli's parents refused and found for her another suitor.

He wrote:

I am a nightingale crying and sobbing,
I am separated from my garden of roses,
Tears of blood pour from my eyes,
I am separated from the one I love,
Her home is amidst the towers and hills,
A land of cool spring,
She is a Gokleng, her name is Mengli,
I am separated from my graceful beloved.

Makhtum Kuli eventually married but this union appears to have been unhappy. His advice on matrimony from a satirical poem goes like this:

If you wish to become a well-exercised donkey, a beast of burden,

Go and get married!

Though a Muslim he was against the practice of multiple marriages, writing that a man with two wives is the third woman in the family. In one poem, he advises a young man to "marry someone he truly loves."

Aside from being works of art, Makhtum Kuli's poems are valuable historical documents, providing details about foreign rulers as well as Khans of the Turkmen tribes. He describes where the Turkmens lived: "between the Oxus (now Amu-Darya) and the Caspian Sea," which is roughly the area of present-day Turkmenistan.

Makhtum Kuli's idea of unity among Turkmen tribes still finds meaning today. Kuli wrote: "Oh tribes of Teke, Yomut, Gokleng, Yazir and Alili, I wish you all could serve a single state!

While in Iran to mark Kuli's birthday, president Niyazov invited Turkmen in Iran to visit his country and to send representatives to a council of elders to meet in December. Niyazov said the date of the poet's birth remains "a memorable day" for Iranians and Turkmen and helps strengthen friendship between the two nations.

(Zarif Nazar and Arne Goli also contributed to this article)


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