Iranian town marks anniversary of legendary Turkman
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
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.
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)