The Protector says, "Head for the Racetrack." (From an official 2011 calendar.)
It’s April in Turkmenistan, so horse fever is in the air.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s beloved Horse Day is being celebrated on the last Sunday of the month, and so officials of all stripes are being strongly encouraged to head down to the races this weekend.
As the Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports, students from high and middle school are also being forced to turn up at the hippodrome. Lest anybody think nobody is checking, people in Ashgabat say that failure to comply by those instructions last Sunday prompted concerned queries.
In case the races weren’t enough, state newspaper Neutralny Turkmenistan has over the past few days been printing impassioned verse celebrating the virtues of the equine beast and the country’s pre-eminent jockey: Berdymukhamedov, aka Arkadag (The Protector).
Here are a couple of stanzas from “Akhan,” by People’s Writer Gozel Shagulyeva:
How gracefully you pranced, Akhan!
By your stature you charm me!
You have become a symbol of the era of Arkadag.
What playfulness my Akhan.
By Arkadag you were adopted,
And a symbol of his greatness you have become.
You, beauty of beauties, have soaked up of the fragrance of spring,
Your movements, a pleasure to the eye,
The admiring gaze cannot love you enough.
For the uninitiated, Akhan is a star horse at the presidential stables and is held up as an exemplary descendant of the original specimen of Turkmenistan’s prized Akhal-Teke breed. The poem, published on April 24, is illustrated with a picture of the white steed himself gracefully galloping through hills specked with poppies.
Berdymukhamedov has been trotting out this horse fixation for quite a while. Back in 2008, he penned a book on horse racing that he gave to diplomats posted in the country. So proud was he of the tome that he even opened a Cabinet meeting ostensibly devoted to discussing the economy by talking about his book, which is naturally available in all bookshops.
Last year, the president wowed audiences by turning up at a racecourse in Ashgabat and doing a few spins -- very skillfully, it must be said -- around the track.
Still, it does leave a bad taste that people are actually being forced to go to the races, which are a genuinely popular pastime among young and old. The Ashgabat hippodrome is regularly packed with cheering supporters indulging in some unauthorized gambling, while police officers helpfully look the other way.
In Ashgabat, Sunday races last from 10 am until lunchtime. Now, when you factor in all the accompanying concerts and such, going pretty much takes over the whole day.