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Books for the Turkmen Desert

Monday, December 18, 2006

Packing for a two-year trip to one of the world’s most remote locations, I asked friends to suggest reading material. Their answers changed my life.

When you have no real language skills, regional expertise, or experience living abroad, getting to Eurasia isn’t easy.  Most firms and NGOs aren’t that eager to ship you overseas. I did get one job offer, but it was a post at the Eurasian desk in a Washington office – a far cry from Eurasia itself. So I joined the Peace Corps.  I was going to Turkmenistan to teach English. Or to train English teachers. I wasn’t entirely sure. I’d spoken to some former volunteers and it seemed like I was supposed to figure it out when I got there. I gathered that I might have a fair amount of spare time on my hands. Bring duct tape, a Leatherman, and books, they said. Lots of books.

Bound shortly for just beyond the middle of the nowhere, I asked my friends to name the books they thought I should not go through life without having read. Thomas Jefferson could claim familiarity across the width and breadth of Western knowledge—a feat long since rendered impossible by information growth and subject specialization—but with two years at the edge of the Gara Gum desert, I would settle for knowing what an educated person should.  

Considering that the goal was the completion of a college education, the list my friends came up with was strikingly contemporary. Some of the books were daunting members of the canon I had scrimmaged with before and failed to complete, but many were books, like Catcher in the Rye or One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, that all my peers had read but I had somehow passed over.  Most of the list’s contributors were under 25, and I wanted to mix pleasure with my erudition. After borrowing the ones I could, I purchased the balance of a 53-title collection.  On to Turkmenistan!

I worked at a village school in the eastern part of the country, near Afghanistan, but I tried to vary my work and would travel often to the city to visit other schools and run teachers’ seminars. On the nights I still had some energy I would go out and visit the teachers I worked with or the parents of my students. When I was tired, I stayed in and read.

It wasn’t all recreational. One bizarre detour from my planned reading was the Turkmen President’s holy book, the Ruhnama or Book of the Soul. It was a disorderly hodgepodge of Turkmen oral history, folk bromides like “Respect your elders and love your juniors” and screeds glorifying the President and announcing the dawn of Turkmenistan’s “Golden Age.” I was often asked to help English teachers and their students prepare skits from the book to present at Ruhnama competitions. I didn’t think I had joined the Peace Corps to help prepare skits to glorify a dictator, but sometimes you just swallow hard and lend a hand.

My favorite book on the list? Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop. The story was gently told, and I needed something gentle. The story of Jean Marie Latour, the first archbishop of New Mexico, who set out in 1851 to oversee a Diocese that included all of the southwestern United States and vast tracks of northern Mexico. I later read in one review that Cather described the landscape so lovingly it became a character. I was living in the desert for the first time, and I found it monotonous and bleak. Cather celebrates the power of faith in one Latour’s life in such a way that it resonates even among those of us to whom organized religion seems entirely alien. I was lonely – Latour traveled with God. Perhaps I liked it for these reasons, or perhaps it was just a good story.

My friends and family continued to send me books throughout my service. The Turkmen government opened and read all foreign mail, but while a fellow volunteer once received a package containing a Snickers wrapper and no Snickers, the books I was sent were generally repackaged intact. The resulting curriculum served me well.

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