Turkmen literature is largely unknown. Its poets wrote about different universal topics but few of them have stood the test of time and the region’s historical changes. One of such figures is Kemine. A satirical poet who on many occasions directed his sharp verses against the powerful, whether begs or mullahs. His verses, despite being a few centuries old, can fully resonate in present times and that is perhaps one of the reasons why he has not attracted the attention he deserves.
Mämmetweli, who would later adopt the penname Kemine (“modest”), was born some time around 1770 in Sarahs, in present-day southern Turkmenistan. As the main Turkmen literary figures of his time, he looked north to pursue his education and studied in madrasahs in Bukhara and, according to some sources, Khiva. The two cities were not only the region’s political capitals but also its main cultural centers.
Despite a long career, only around 40 of his poems have been preserved. Kemine wrote about love, sighing for his beloved, sometimes called Selbiniyaz but most of times anonymous, with a strong dose of symbolism. He often complained about his loneliness, poverty and melancholy or wrote with a carpe diem spirit reminiscent of classic Persian poetry. But what makes Kemine stand out was his satirical poems about those responsible for the sufferings of ordinary people.
The scourge of the powerful
During Kemine’s time, begs, beys and khans held political power, kadis were the judges, while the spiritual realm was dominated by mullahs, pirs or muftis. Their greed, lies and abuse were all the target of the poet’s literary works.
In one of his poems, later titled Age, Kemine criticised the oppression of the lords, the corruption of judges and the hypocrisy of religious figures:
Friends! This is a ridiculous age.
Evil walks beside man.
A bey is a bull in the world,
The poor man is in the bey’s yoke.
You’ll become a thief yourself by hiding a thief.
Our judge is crooked, our master is a liar!
Where the straight eliff used to walk,
A crippled dal walks with a bend.
In our bad times
The truth is not seen by the sighted.
The pir is the real Satan.
Mufti goes to a certain girl’s house.
An informer has infiltrated every home,
And slander is the tongue of the slanderer,
And Kemine is used to it,
That sin is the head of the age.
The kadis did not escape Kemine’s wrath either. He vehemently accused them of dishonesty (and foretold tough times ahead for them):
You are a perjurer, that’s what they say.
O my guardian, that is right!
You sell false words
To whom do you sell them, my kadi!
Kemine will kill you with praise.
I say, you are a slander against my people.
For the poor, the hour of reckoning will come.
The faces are burning with enmity, my kadi!
The wealthy were also by Kemine. The poet reminded that that despite their riches, death will catch up with them too, and he warned them that they will pay in the afterlife for the greediness.
Do not rejoice: the carefree spring will pass,
And leave you to the mercy of harsh winters.
Death awaits, but it will come to you for your soul
And leave your body to lie empty.
May you rule the world, like Suleiman of old,
Let Seyunhan come to bow to you,
You will die anyway: for all men share the same fate;
A man will leave his skull dry to the sands.
Neglect, blind man, worldly fuss,
Or vanity itself will neglect you,
The miser, when he is full, does not share food,
And the generous will eat a piece – leave a piece to others.
And Kemine knows: the rich man, when he dies,
For each well-fed day, a year will starve.
Death will scatter wealth and honor to dust,
And he will leave the greedy soul to evil shaitans.
The above are a few examples of Kemine’s wit and sharp verses. Despite Kemine’s constant attacks on the powerful, he managed to live to around 70 years of age before passing away in 1840.
Kemine’s literary legacy has been in the shadow of Magtymguly Pyragy (1724 – 1807), considered the founding father of Turkmen literature. Magtymguly was elevated to that role during Soviet times, similarly as Alisher Navo’i was in Uzbekistan or Rudaki in Tajikistan. During Turkmenistan’s independence Magymtugly has taken even a more central role, with the latest developments including a 60-metre statue and a book about his poems by the former president. Although his works have not received as much attention. And what about Kemine?
Kemine also has a handful of statues in the country, notably in Ashgabat, streets bear his name as does the theatre in the town of Mary. Back in 1992, the Turkmenfilm made a movie Kemine about his life and some years later a commemorative coin with his effigy was released by the Central Bank. But his works have received much less attention.
The only aspects of Kemine’s literary output that are mentioned by authorities and state media are his love poems and humorous stories akin to those of Nasreddin (Molla Ependi) in which he plays the role of the witty and wise man. The rest of his poems, which are the ones that set him apart, are overlooked. It is not difficult to understand why his attacks on the powerful and wealthy can be considered problematic. But it is worth noting that not even the works of the much-praised Magtymguly are widely published and distributed in the country.
Despite the technologies available in this day and age, the accessibility of Kemine remains an issue. The easiest way to be able to read his poems is to rely on Russian translations that date back to Soviet times. A far from ideal situation for Kemine, Turkmenistan’s greatest satirical poet.
Note: translations of the poems in the article done by the author based on Arseny Tarkovsky’s translations to Russian
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