A land full of melons with a real banana as its President

by Caitlin Moran

August 20, 2002

Fans of nutty dictators with problem childhoods and frustrated artistic leanings have had a ring-a-ding August this year. Turkmenistan's President, Saparmurad Niyazov - a name which, until a few months ago, would have meant little to the world save possibly someone trying to say "Vosene my trumpets" backwards - has, in remarkably little time, risen to be one of Earth's leading exponents of cuckoo.

Clearly discontent with the background madness of Turkmenistan -this is a country where the national flag has five carpets, rampant, in its design, and which lists its premier export as sulphur, and its prime crop as melons - Niyazov has literally rewritten the country's history. His book, Ruhnama, is the main text in the country's schools. With the populace suitably softened up by this devaluation of fact, Niyazov has subsequently had a free rein to go all-out to make his country internationally recognised as the cradle of la-la.

He began by renaming the months of the year after himself, his mother, who died in an earthquake when Niyazov was eight, and a few of his favourite words ("Flag Month", for example); and followed it up by decreeing that old age officially doesn't begin until 85. This was possibly in relation to both his 62nd birthday - which he celebrated by dying his hair jet-black - and his rampant hypochondria. On Turkmenistan's website, there is more about Niyazov's recent doctor's appointment than on melons and sulphur combined. "I cannot help but admire [the President's] inexhaustible power of life!" his doctor, "famous surgeon" Hans Meisner, is quoted as saying. Apparently, millions of the poverty-stricken people of Turkmenistan "sighed with relief" at the news. "Let us remember it uninterruptedly!" the website urges. With little else but melons and sulphur to contemplate, this shouldn't be hard.

I have to admit to having spent the past week being childishly fascinated by Turkmenistan - not least because I half-suspect it doesn't actually exist, and was just made up by the CIA in 1956 to see if anyone was paying attention at the back of international diplomacy lessons. It has a vaguely mythic, Gormenghast-with-camels feel about it: with no opposition party, 300,000 phones between five million people and press releases like "On virgin land, cotton is harvested with machines", it makes Albania look like Blade Runner. Its national motto is "Water is a Turkmen's life, a horse is his wings, and a carpet is his soul" - which makes one simultaneously fear for the safety record of Turkmen Airways, and wonder if a lino-salesman has ever made it across the border alive. It also has the best Bank Holidays of any country I have ever seen. Check out A Drop of Water Is a Grain Of Gold Day on April 6, or Horse Day on April 27. Day of Neutrality (December 1) sounds a mite trickier -! presumably one spends all day shrugging, and unable to negotiate menus - but the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Melon Day (July 10, which is, I should hazard a guess, melon-tastic) more than makes up for it.

Faced with this admirable pre-installed nuttiness, Niyazov's plans for Crazy Turkmenistan, version 2.0, have had to be fairly left-field. This, of course, is no problem for someone as artistic as Niyazov. He started, as most dictators do, with statues of himself: Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, features a 12m-high gold-plated statue of Niyazov, perched on top of a 23m-high tower. Niyazov's, however, unlike the many busts of Stalin it replaced, revolves on a motor-engine, so it always faces the sun. Niyazov has also commissioned an attempt at the world's biggest handmade carpet, which is 300 metres square and entitled "The 21st Century: The Epoch of the Great Saparmurad Niyazov."

Couple this with his announcement that he will be celebrating his recent self-election to President-for-life with a volume of poetry about his dead mother, and you've got a fairly potent publicity campaign for somewhere that was, until recently, slightly lower-profile than the post-wedding Anthea Turner.

I can't help but think, however, that Max Clifford would have saved everyone a lot of trouble by simply having the country photographed coming out of the Met Bar with Natalie Imbruglia instead.

But being sandwiched between Iran and Afghanistan must be like finding the only spare seat on your train is between, well, Iran and Afghanistan. Maybe Niyazov is doing the diplomatic version of the trick my friend Charlie employs in such situations, which is to have a long and heated discussion with Jesus, who is apparently sitting in the luggage-rack, until the carriage clears. It rarely takes more than one stop. I mean, would you invade a country run by a frustrated art student obsessed by melons and his dead mother? I wouldn't even ask to borrow their lawnmower.