A Festival in the Making

Mary, Turkmenistan
August 6, 2019

Wandering out to get some dinner before boarding the train, I saw streams of women dressed more elaborately than usual, heading somewhere. Following them, I found the large plaza at the corner of the street transformed. Carpets had been laid out covering the plaza dotted with yurts dressed in colorful tassels. It was crowded with men, women and children, all dressed in traditional finery. What a feast for the eyes!

The elders were seated on takhts dotted around the area. They sat, drank tea and gossiped. On the top of the steps, some women were seated as if on a stage, indulging in their own gossip. All around the perimeter women were lined up, busily directed by a few women who were clearly in charge. More than one group of musicians had arrived dressed in the giant fuzzy Astrakhan hats and long robes. An orchestra was gathering in one corner. Children were directed in some sort of play.

I asked a few people and was told it was a festival. One told me it was Kurban Bayram. It seemed like a rehearsal, but nobody wished to elaborate. Some of the women posed as did the older men. Some even smiled in return but for the most part my presence was completely ignored. A few looked askance and look away quickly. Not all seemed thrilled to be there. The children stared, but none wished to talk. It is as if I was invisible.

Since nobody was inclined to speak, let alone object, I took full advantage. I lurked around the edges snapping away to my heart’s content. But after the lovely introduction to Turkmenistan in the bazar of Turkmenabat, this strikes me as strange. I cannot fathom this lack of interaction. Is this normal and yesterday an anomaly? Perhaps the next few days will tell.

But my snap-happy moments are short-lived. With the arrival of the official photo and video team, came a man who spoke English.
“Do you have permission to take photographs?” was the first question I heard.
“What?” I exclaimed, adding that I had no idea if this was forbidden. I was trying hard to get an appropriately baffled look but probably failed in the attempt.
“No” he replied, “after half hour you can come back”.

Not pristine to begin with, non-stop travel has me looking a quite a bit scruffier than usual. Maybe I was marring their picture-perfect photography? I had no clue. In any case I had a train to catch; I could not be back. The musicians had been tuning up but sadly, I did not get to see any of the performance.

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