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Digital Sketches

digital citizen media, ict with a focus on Central Asia and the Middle East.

The Ruhnama (book of the soul) is in the West an unknown book. But for most youngsters in Turkmenistan it is the only book they know, sometimes even by heart. It is taught on every school and is supposed to be the most important and most of the times only schoolbook.  Every student should have read the book several times, according to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi, late president-for-life of Turkmenistan.  The book describes his life and experiences. Pages are filled with advice for the right Turkmen lifestyle according to the president and of course according to Allah.  Former president Turkmenbashi processed his biography along with his ideological ideas in this book. After his death, the personality cult and the strange rules he set hardly diminished.

Last year I attended the screening of Shadow of the Holy book at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) . The film of investigative journalist Arto Halonen shows that companies such as Nokia, Siemens and John Deere have to organize a translation of the Ruhnama in their language, in order to get approval for doing business in Turkmenistan.  The film exposes the immorality of international companies doing business with the dictatorship of oil-and-gas-rich Turkmenistan. English, French and German translations of the book exist but would there also be a Dutch edition, I wondered. After some half-heartily search on the internet, the question vanished to the background.

Until two weeks ago……

Two weeks ago, meanwhile a visit to Bishkek, I learned (from a Dutch lady who has been living in Bishkek for ages) there is a Dutch version of the Ruhmana. And I could easily get a copy of the book. Not at a Shell or Philips office but at the HQ of Koning Aap in Amsterdam Noord. Quite amazing because Koning Aap (Monkey King) has the imago of small, alternative travel operator.

This sunny afternoon I cycled to Amsterdam Noord to collect a copy; and the story. Four years ago there was a presentation of the Dutch version in Amsterdam. Koning Aap was asked to attend, mainly to fill up the room with ‘interested’ people.  The director went, with a few curious co-workers, to the presentation and they found the surrealistic presentation rather funny. For example, a slide show was stopped by Turkmen officials because they thought the traditional way of baking bread too primitive to show. Censorship in-real-life. In appreciation of their presence Koning Aap received a few thousand copies of the book. Most of them disappeared in the waste paper bin. Only a few copies were left behind in their office. Of which I now own one.  After reading a few pages I know for sure the book is a bore. Poor students in Turkmenistan.

Some investigative journalism is needed to find out which Dutch companies paid good money for the Dutch translation in order to do their business. It should not be that hard. I will give two clou’s: the Dutch Ruhmana is published in 2004 and the presentation was held in the West Indisch Huis in Amsterdam.

P.S. By the way, flmmaker Halonen was denied access to the Olympic games in Beijing.

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