Reports about Jennifer Lopez’s weekend birthday tribute to Turkmenistan’s president have mostly focused on her apparent lack of concern for the country’s staggering human rights abuses and systemic repression – her pleas of ignorance notwithstanding.
But The Wall Street Journal probes why it was China’s state-run gas company that paid for J.Lo to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at 56-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s glittery birthday bash on June 29.
Good question. And the answer, in part, lies in the multiplier effect of an opaque, cronyistic, energy-hungry economic powerhouse doing business in an opaque, cronyistic, energy-rich dictatorship.
Turkmenistan, home to the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, is integral to China’s energy plans. As analyst Alexandros Petersen wrote recently, Beijing has made Turkmenistan “the spoke at the center of its regional wheel of energy infrastructure” by building the 6,000-mile Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which opened in 2009. The pipeline is expected to carry 60 billion cubic meters a year, and connects to one of the world’s largest gas fields, Galkynysh, which is slated to come online this fall during a visit to Turkmenistan by the Chinese president.
Importantly for Berdymukhamedov, the pipeline helps him diversify: Previously most of Turkmenistan’s gas infrastructure pointed toward Russia, where it was bought at discount rates.
UPDATE: The publicist for J.Lo (or J-Low, as she's being called on Twitter) has effectively admitted not knowing how to use Google: "Had there been knowledge of human rights issues [of] any kind, Jennifer would not have attended," the Associated Press quoted her representative as saying.
Pop star Jennifer Lopez performed at a glitzy birthday bash for the dictator of totalitarian, gas-rich Turkmenistan on Saturday, AFP reported, prompting fury from human rights activists.
Held at President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s multi-billion-dollar Avaza resort on the Caspian Sea, the party was a gift from the China National Petroleum Corporation, a company representative told AFP. In 2009 CNPC opened a pipeline carrying Turkmen natural gas to China.
Dressed in a clingy outfit, the singer danced with half-naked backing dancers and shook her famous behind in a rare performance for the Muslim country, watched by ministers, ambassadors and chief executives of state-owned companies, all of whom applauded enthusiastically.
She later appeared in a traditional Turkmen dress to sing "Happy birthday, Mr President" along with stars from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and China.
Berdymukhamedov's 56th birthday bash at the glitzy resort in Avaza, which means "land of singing waves", is officially tied to Turkmen cultural week, which culminated on Saturday with the opening of a yacht club at the resort and a firework display which lasted 20 minutes.
On Turkish television, these are dangerous times to be a historical figure or a cartoon character. In recent weeks, Turkey's state television regulatory body has accused The Simpsons of blasphemy, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested prosecutors take a look at a hit soap opera loosely based on the life of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, accusing the show of denigrating the country's Ottoman past.
In the case of The Simpsons, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) fined private broadcaster CNBC-e $30,000 for showing in September an episode of the long-running animated series that the agency determined was "making fun of God." Writing in The Telegraph, Justin Vela reports:
The episode in question was the Halloween special 'Treehouse of Horrors XXII,' that originally aired in the US in October last year. In one segment of the episode, titled "Dial D for Diddly", the religiously-devout character Ned Flanders goes on a killing rampage after being given orders by what he thinks is the voice of God. Later in the episode, the Devil demands God bring him a cup of coffee. "Yes sir," God responds, revealing it is actually the Devil that runs the world.
RTUK stated that the episode shows "one of the characters is abusing another one's religious beliefs to make him commit murders.
The Bible is publicly burned in one scene and God and the Devil are shown in human bodies."
RTUK also said that God serving the Devil coffee can be considered an insult to religious beliefs.
Considering it took place some 500 years ago, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 feels like it happened only yesterday -- at least in Istanbul. In recent years, an Ottoman history magazine titled "1453" has been introduced, a municipal museum called "Panorama 1453" has opened, and increasingly lavish commemorations and reenactments of the Ottomans' victory over the Byzantines are being put on.
But now the mother of all tributes is here, with the premier today of a $17 million big-screen Turkish production (actually, the country's most expensive film ever) that tells the story of the conquest. Perhaps not surprisingly in a place where 500 years is just a blip in time, the movie, simply called "Conquest 1453," is already leading to some controversy. From the Wall Street Journal's report on 1453 (the film):
With directors promising a two-and-half hour spectacle of blood, action and tub-thumping Ottoman triumph, it’s also shaping up to be one of Turkey’s more controversial cinematic offerings.
Even before the film’s release, the trailer, screened in January, appeared to enrage some Greeks. The preview was met with consternation by Greek weekly To Proto Thema, which reported that “Turkish invaders are presented as the masters of the world… (The director) Faruk Aksoy fails to show important historical events such as looting and mass slaughter of Greeks.”
Has Armenia's National Film Center pulled off a massive cinematic coup? According to reports issued last month by some Armenian outlets, the Yerevan-based Film Center is in negotiations with director Steven Spielberg and Schindler's List screenwriter Steven Zaillian to make a film about the 1915 Armenian genocide. Per the reports, the film would premier around the time of the centennial commemoration of the genocide.
So will the director of E.T. and Jurassic Park be lending his cinematic skills in support of the Armenian cause? Not likely, it would seem. Following up on the Armenian press report, Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News checked in with Vartan Abovian, the deputy director of another organization, the Armenian National Film Academy, who said he was "baffled by the story" (although acknowledging that his group also has plans to make a movie about the events of 1915).
Fans of the comedy show Saturday Night Live might remember The Church Lady, the Dana Carvey character who routinely blamed “Satan” for society’s woes. Well, it looks like an incarnation of The Church Lady is now coming to you … live from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Uzbek state television broadcast a TV documentary called “Melody and Calamity” on February 21 that portrayed Western music, specifically heavy metal and rap, as a pernicious influence on Uzbek young people.
“Evil forces created this satanic music to bring about the total moral degradation of youth in Western countries,” the Uzbek documentary claimed.
It asserted that “rock music originated from African hunting rituals,” adding that "rap was originated by inmates in prisons - that's why rap singers wear wide and long trousers."
The documentary extolled the virtues of classical Uzbek music, claiming that scientific research showed that listening to traditional tunes had health benefits.
President Islam Karimov’s government in Tashkent has long been known for its antipathy toward freedom of religious expression. This latest diatribe against Western cultural influences suggests the government in Tashkent, feeling embattled on the economic front, is in the process of trying to seal the country off from outside influences. Karimov may be trying to emulate former Turkmen despot, Saparmurat Niyazov, by turning his country into a hermit khanate.
The jail where the events in the 1978 film "Midnight Express" were supposed to have taken place may today be an elegant Four Seasons hotel, but the movie remains a sore spot for many Turks, who feel it portrayed their country in an unfair light. In pop culture terms, "Midnight Express" certainly remains one of the leading references for Turkey. Now, in an online interview and in an upcoming episode of the National Geographic Channel's "Locked Up Abroad" (a show about Americans who have done prison time overseas), Billy Hayes, the man who's story "Midnight Express" tells, is providing some more details about his experience and his views on the film's impact.
The biggest problem I had with the film is the fact that you don't see any good Turks at all in the movie. It creates an overall impression that Turkey is this terrible place and Turks are a terrible people. Which is not valid or true, both to my own experience and to reality. I actually loved Istanbul. I got along great with the Turks until I was arrested.
Bianet, a left-leaning website that closely tracks worrying trends in Turkey, has an article out today about a television talk show that has been fined by the Turkish state's television watchdog for what appears to be exceeding the limits of discussion of the Armenian genocide issue. From the report:
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) decided to impose a broadcasting ban on the Turkish
television station Haber Türk on the grounds of writer Sevan Nişanyan's thoughts on the "Armenian genocide".
Nişanyan was guest at the program "One to one" hosted by Fatih
Altaylı and had referred to the killing of a huge number of Armenians by the
Ottoman Empire in 1915.
RTÜK took the decision on 15 June and notified Haber Türk on
21 June. The Council indicated that Nişanyan, one of several guests in the program,
"exceeded the limits of criticism" with his statements that allegedly
"humiliated the Republic of Turkey".
RTÜK suspended the broadcast of one program of "One to
one". The "One to one" program on issue was broadcasted on 9
March 2010 at 8.00 pm during the process when the Armenian Bill was accepted by
the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Tomorrow marks the start of Sonisphere, a three-day metalfest in Istanbul that will bring together for the first time the "big four:" Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath and Anthrax. The powerpacked bill also includes German shock rockers Rammstein and a host of other big names. Needless to say, music lovers from across the region are rejoicing, with Iranian metalheads already arriving in Istanbul.
Another example of Turkey's ability to straddle different worlds? Not for the folks over at the Islamist Vakit newspaper, who are having none of this musical bridge between east and west business. In an article published yesterday (here -- in Turkish and with a graphic photo from a Rammstein concert), the paper exposed Sonisphere for what it really is: a Mossad plot to mock Turkey.
From the Hurriyet Daily News's account of the story:
Turkish daily Vakit yesterday harshly criticized the
festival and called for officials to cancel it. Defining the festival as
“disgrace,” Vakit reported that Akbank, affiliated with Sabancı Holding,
sponsored the festival, which is being organized by an Israeli company and will
host Europe’s most scandalous music band, Rammstein.
According to Murat Alan’s story, while many festivals are
cancelled in the country in order to mourn martyrs who died because of
terrorist events, the Sonisphere Festival will poison young Turkish people for