When I opened the front door that led directly to the large kitchen, the centre of the family life of my Turkmen hosts, I saw my hostess and some ten older women sitting in a circle on the felt mats that covered the floor. They were facing each other, each with her teapot and cup in front of her, looking sad and earnest, and obviously engaged in a discussion about some problem rather than enjoying the small talk of a casual visit.
I greeted them with “Salam“, the Turkmen form of greeting, and they greeted back, but I felt that the kindness that is usual among Turkmen people was missing. They looked at me, not in an unkind or hostile, but in a somehow strange way, which I could not explain to myself. I walked past them to my room, got my passport, which I had forgotten and which was why I had come back from town, said good-bye, and went back into the afternoon heat of the oasis town, with an uneasy feeling.
In the evening, when I came back, the women had gone, but a close friend of my hostess, who was a lecturer at the German department of the university, and who helped me as a translator, had arrived. She said she must tell me something. She had been asked by my hostess to do so, as her German was better than my Turkmen and Russian. She explained to me: “The thing is, Hermann, the women who were here found out that the problem is the wedding dress.” I did not understand. She continued: “As you know, the oldest son of this family married a Türkmen girl, Amangul. They are still living here with his parents. They like this spacious flat, the old part of Ashgabat, its streets lined with plane trees. Now, while you were here, the time had come for the young mother to give birth to her first child, and she was taken to hospital yesterday. To the great dismay of all of us, she suffered a stillbirth.” I was shocked. I told her that I had talked with Amangul only a few days ago about Turkmen costume. I had explained how it struck me from the moment it first appeared in European galleries in the 1970s, that the clothing and jewellery had been brought from Afghanistan by hippies who had travelled there to escape the European narrow-mindedness of the time (she found that difficult to understand). I added that ever since Turkmen costume had not stopped capturing my interest. Amangul seemed pleased to see that I valued her culture. “I cannot say how sorry I am,” I said, “that now she has lost her child.”
“Yes,” said my translator, “the women came to find out what the reason for stillbirth could be. They said Amangul had always been in good health, and there had not been any complications during her pregnancy. So there must have been a reason unknown to the young mother, unknown to us all, and they came to find it out.”
And they did find it out. My translator told me, after many excuses, that the women thought that I myself was the culprit—though quite unintentionally, as they admitted. What had I done? The thing was that I was preparing an essay on Turkmen clothing, including not only the traditional phase, but also the Soviet epoch and the independence since 1991, and I had asked Amangul would she sell me her wedding dress as a splendid example of contemporary Turkmen clothing. (This also gave me an opportunity to support the young couple financially without looking paternalistic.) Amangul agreed, I offered a good price, and everybody was happy.
“Well,” said my translator, “that is exactly where the problem lies. The women knew of an old Turkmen belief which forbids to give one‘s wedding dress away, or misfortune will follow. Now they think that the reason of poor Amangul‘s stillbirth is the fact that she gave her wedding-dress to you.” Amangul herself as well as her mother-in-law affirmed they had been completely unaware of that belief.
I was therefore asked whether I would be willing to give the dress back. Of course I did, and Amangul suggested a solution worthy of Solomon: she made an exact copy of her marriage dress and gave me that.
In the meantime, she has given birth to three healthy children, two boys and a girl.
The wedding-dress is one of my treasures. On the one hand it may be said that the copy lacks the aura of the original; but then, Amangul made it herself: it is a second original. And the pieces of Turkmen clothing and jewellery have always been copies of copies of copies. Furthermore, the new dress gave me the priceless gift to open my mind to the essence of Turkmen costume. I would like to mention three points.
First, the incident shows that, although there are good hospitals in Turkmenistan, many people, particularly the older ones, still adhere to the old beliefs. One should keep in mind that the shamans‘ healing powers are a mystery to Western orthodox medicine, as I experienced myself a few years later. Diseases as well as any other misfortune was, and to some extent still is, ascribed to the workings of the evil eye, evil spirits, black magic and unfortunate actions like giving away one‘s wedding dress. This whole field is a complex topic with different levels. Clothing plays an important role in it.
Secondly, the Turkmen regard their traditional clothing and jewellery not as mere objects, but as power-laden, active subjects, as imbued with power conveyed by the materials, colours and motifs embroidered and applied on them. They were, on the one hand, protective: they warded off evil in all its aspects; and, on the other hand, auspicious: they helped to attract good forces, health, fertility, prosperity. These beliefs, which resemble those of Siberian shamanism, existed side by side with Islam. As my story shows, they are gradually being forgotten.
Thirdly, this slow, but steady process of forgetting was, and is, due to the influence of Communism, radio, television and other modern media, in a word: modern times. Three generations may be enough for it to take place: the grandparents practised the old beliefs, their children have a vague knowledge of them, but no longer practise them, and their grandchildren and their descendants do not know them any more at all. “Times change, and we change with them,” said the Romans.
The story happened in the late 1990s. I have changed the name of the young woman.
Andrews, Peter Alford, “Crowning the Bride: Some Historical Evidence on Türkmen Women’s Costume. With Drawings by Mügül Andrews.” In Folk 33 (1991): 67–106.- Written by two of the leading experts.
Andrews, Peter & Mügül Andrews, “Costume”, “Jewellery”. In M. Burkett (ed): The Turcoman of Iran (Exhibition catalogue Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal et al.). Kendal, 1971: 71-72, 78-123.
Andrews, P(eter) A(lford), “Clothing and Jewelry of the Turkmen”. In Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. 5 (1992): 854–856.
Andrews, Mügül & Peter, Türkmen Needlework. Dressmaking and Embroidery among the Türkmen of Iran. (Central Asian Monographs 2). London 1976.
Bairieva, Adjap, “Turkmen women’s traditional costume: Yesterday and today.” Ghereh 19 (Spring 1999): 21–31.
Beresneva, L. The Decorative and Applied Art of Turkmenia. Leningrad (St. Petersburg) 1976. The early classic overview.
de Blocqueville, Henri de Coulibœuf, “Quatorze mois de captivité chez les Turcomans 1860-1861.“ Le Tour du Monde. Premier semestre 1866: 225-272. Interesting first-hand account.
Frembgen, Jürgen Wasim Töchter der Steppe, Söhne des Windes, Gold und Silber der Turkmenen. München 2015.- Excellent text.
Harvey, Janet Traditional Textiles of Central Asia. London 1996. Good survey.
Janata, Alfred Schmuck in Afghanistan. Graz 1981. Excellent text.
Kalter, Johannes, Turkmen Jewellery. (Pola Research Institute of Beauty & Culture Collection 3). Tokio 1992. Authentic pieces, text ordinary.
Markov, Gennadij Evgen’eviç, Kočevniki Azii. Moskva 1976.- Classic textbook.
Medzhitova, Elmira Turkmen Folk Art / Turkmenskoye Narodnoye Iskusstvo. Ashgabat 1990.- Authentic pieces, little text. Nice coffee-table book.
Rudolph, Hermann Der Turkmenenschmuck, Sammlung Kurt Gull. (Exhibition catalogue Museum Rietberg Zürich and Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin). Stuttgart & London 1984. Typology of Turkmen silver jewellery.
Rudolph, Hermann “Schutz und Segen. Abwehr und Fruchtbarkeitsmagie in der turkmenischen Frauentracht. Eothen 4 (2007): 303-356 and plates 53-59.- About protective and fertility magic. Complete captions are printed on pp. 354-356!
Schletzer, Dieter & Reinhold Schletzer Alter Silberschmuck der Turkmenen. Berlin 1983.- English ed.: Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman. Berlin 1983.- Authentic objects, text debatable.
Sukhareva, O. A. (ed.), Kostyum narodov Sredneĭ Aziĭ, Moscow, 1979. Academic book, with drawings.
Arts and languages, foreign peoples, particularly the Orient, nomads and oases with their bazaars have always fascinated me. After studying Art History and Modern Languages in Germany, England and France, I work as a language teacher and freelance researcher based in Germany.
Like the article? Do think about joining the conversation by leaving a comment below. Authors (and fellow readers) are interested to know what you think. And if you haven’t already, consider becoming a subscriber.