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Turkmenistan capital as ghostly as the Jews who still live there

  • Turk4
The remaining Jews of Turkmenistan – less than 1 000 of them – have precarious status and usually don’t want to disclose their religious origin.
by PAULA SLIER | Apr 18, 2019

Today, they have no rabbi, no synagogue, and by all assessments, no future.

This former Soviet Republic (bordered by Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian Sea) is the seventh least visited country in the world. Its capital, Ashgabat, is described by the Lonely Planet travel guide as a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang.

It’s easy to understand why. The main avenues are lined on both sides with breathtakingly beautiful buildings, all made of imported Italian white marble. No two are the same, as commanded by the president. Neon lights adorn the top of each façade and like Vegas, the flashy city rises as an oasis in the middle of the desert.

But Human Rights Watch says the country remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Disparagingly referred to as North Korea with oil – the country boasts the second largest natural gas reserves in the former Soviet Union – the glitz and glamour is artificial. During daylight hours there is not a soul on the street except for cleaners who dust the shrubs lining the roadsides. The parks are empty, the roads are quiet, and no-one walks the perfectly manicured pavements.

An extravagant city in an isolated country, home to a Jewish community that time and history has forgotten.

According to Professor Zeev Levin of the Hebrew University, the first Jews to arrive in Turkmenistan were part of a wider group of Iranian Jews who spread from ancient Persia to central Asia. Archaeological evidence of their presence in the region dates back to the ninth century. At that time, Turkmenistan was an important junction in the Silk Road trade route that connected Europe with Asia.

“They were quite small in number so we cannot consider them a unique group,” says Levin.

“They adopted quite a lot of practices and customs from the surrounding environment. The women wore a veil, and some of their folklore and prayer practices were common to the Persian environment, although some were unique.”

Most of these Jews were involved in merchandise, and families would move with the father’s work. Commerce was the cornerstone of the community.

“Don’t romanticise those times. It was difficult,” says Ze’ev Wolf who remembers his father singing songs from Turkmenistan that were passed down from his grandfather who travelled the area selling fur and china.

“The Jews didn’t behave like they were different. They wore almost the same clothes as the Muslims. The food was similar, there was no alcohol, the music was the same. In some synagogues, people would take off their shoes before entering, like in a mosque. They also treated their women badly. It was only after coming to Israel that women became literate.” Jerusalem-born Wolf taught his mother to read and write when he was seven years old.

“My mother’s family didn’t have much,” he reflects, “but they were full of dignity. The house was always open to guests, even if there was only a little food. My grandmother taught me that a guest always brings luck.”

Most of the community left for Israel and America in the 1940s. But in 1948 when a major earthquake wiped out 80% of the population of Ashgabat, among those who came to rebuild the city were Jews from Russia and Ukraine. Ephraim Yekutieli’s family was among those trying to get out. They headed for the Iranian border.

“When they got there, my grandmother suddenly remembered she had forgotten a pot with all her gold and jewellery at home. My father, Yosef, went back to get it. But the KGB caught him and put him in jail,” says Yekutieli.

“My grandmother waited for him, living on the Persian side for a few years. But when he didn’t come, she left with her children for Israel in 1948.”

Five years later, Yekutieli’s father was released from prison and returned to Yoloten, a city in south-east Turkmenistan where he married and had children. Yekutieli and his nine siblings grew up behind the Iron Curtain.

Little is known about those Turkmen Jews who lived under Soviet rule as they were isolated and cut off from major cities and communication links. Many also changed their surnames.

“We lived like everybody else. My father was a businessman, an importer, but that was not accepted there – it was looked down upon because of the communists,” says Yekutieli.

“There was no anti-Semitism, not from the people or the government. The communists were the problem. They took my grandfather because he was a wealthy and important rabbi and sent him to Siberia, where they killed him. As a child, I played basketball in the gymnasium without knowing it had been my grandfather’s synagogue before the communists converted it.”

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Yekutieli’s family was among about 2 000 Jews to leave Turkmenistan. He settled in Israel. The former First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party, Saparmyrat Nyýazow, declared himself president for life of the newly independent country, and soon became one of the world’s most totalitarian and despotic dictators.

He named a meteorite after himself, banned gold teeth, made it illegal to drive dirty cars on the road, and because he disliked dogs, had them killed in barbaric ways.

In 2003, he passed a law that made Russian Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam the only religions permitted to practice in the country. He tore down the city’s only synagogue, and built a fountain featuring a traditional Turkmen hero over it. The Jewish community was forced to register itself as a cultural, not religious, organisation. Until today, non-Turkmens are treated as second-class citizens.

In spite of an unemployment rate of 60%, Nyýazow’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, continued the excesses of his predecessor. He ordered police to impound black cars in the capital and force their owners to repaint them silver or white because they were his lucky colours.

To beautify the city, tens of thousands of homes were demolished and their inhabitants poorly compensated. A whole village, Choganly, was raised to the ground so that the new airport, which operates at 10% capacity, could have an international bus terminal. This is in spite of the fact that for the first five years of its existence, the airport did not serve a single international route.

“But,” insists Yekutieli, relaxing in his home in Holon where most Turkmen Jews settled in Israel, “the people of Turkmenistan are very special. They are ‘Muslim lite’. If we didn’t have bread, they would give us. At our weddings, everybody came; also to our hennas. The heart of the Turkmen is very special. They will give you everything they have. When we left, the older people cried. They said that now because the Jews were leaving, they would not have any blessings.”

In a certain sense that prophecy came true. Years of seclusion and secrecy have created a capital city steeped in the future while being stuck in the past. And which – just like the Jewish community it shelters – is eerily empty.

  • A longer version of this article was commissioned and first printed in The Jerusalem Report.

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