May 2, 2008

POSTCARD: James & the Giant Missile

My good friend James is a true traveler and passionate historian, as well as a delicious writer. He just got back from Turkmenistan, so I asked for a snippet.

The twenty-foot torpedo-shaped bombshell in the courtyard, ominously pointing at the chicken coop, admittedly, unnerved me a bit. Somehow I had missed this rather prominent piece of lawn decor while being swept, with effusive Turkmen hospitality, into my host family’s cinder-block home the night I had arrived in Serdar*, Turkmenistan. It was only in the early dawn of the next morning that, bleary-eyed with jetlag and focused on finding the outhouse, I stumbled into the projectile. By the end of the week, however, I was as comfortable propping myself against the cool gray shell to read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or to scribble in my journal as I was picking my way through Serdar’s dusty back streets, dodging past the occasional lazy, shaggy camel, on my “commute” to School #34. No one in the neighborhood seemed concerned by the bomb. There were, as I discovered soon enough, many more such relics strewn across the town’s low-level sprawl, remnants of a Soviet-era munitions plant. Empty threats transformed into items of strange, defiant beauty. Turkmenistan, despite the surreal legacies of Turkmenbashi’s megalomania, is not unlike those casings: hard and threatening at first glance, yet beneath the surface you find a surprising warmth and, yes, beauty.

-James Kessler

*Formerly Gyzylarbat, but, like everything else in this most reclusive of the ‘stans, it had been renamed for the former President-for-Life – “serdar”=leader.

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