Introduction / History Although the Turkmen are one of Central Asia's major people groups, they are a minority in Afghanistan, which is notable because they have formidable economic impact there. As a slight portion of the country's total population, their herdsmen supply world markets with prized Karakul sheep pelts and magnificent wool carpets from their renowned weavers. More than utilitarian or even an art form, carpet weaving is integral to Turkmen culture.
Wandering as tribal nomads for centuries, carpets laid on bare tent floors and used as tent flaps, blankets and trade items aided a family's survival in harsh climates. This skill allowed refugee Turkmen to weather recent years of war as weavers in neighboring countries. An ancient art, the technique of pile weaving is thought to have originated with the Turkmen. Their world-famous, distinctive ruby-hued rugs are considered the best oriental carpets woven in Afghanistan and by refugees in Pakistan because most are still hand-loomed and colored with natural dyes. Traditionally a family enterprise, women used hand-spun wool from their flocks to create exquisite carpets on collapsible horizontal wood looms from memorized patterns that preserved tribal history.
Cross-like designs may indicate a past history of Christian influence that left an indelible print and were preserved among time-honored symbols. Prior to the introduction of Sunni Islam by Arabs in the late 10th century, Nestorian Christianity had spread among Turkmen in the 4th century A.D. First called Turkmen in the 10th century as well, they are descended from Mongolian Oghug tribes that invaded today's Turkmenistan in the 8th century, where one tribe eventually established the fabled Ottoman Empire that lasted for seven centuries and from which evolved both Turkmen language and customs. Not until the 19th century were they forced by Russian expansion southward to begin uniting their separate tribes and only became the independent republic of Turkmenistan in 1991. Despite this, tribal identity, of which there are 7 major ones - Tekke, Ersary,Yomud, Gsklen, Salor and Chowdor - is still strong.
Turkmen groups migrated southward at various times in history from east of the Caspian Sea, settling along the rim of the Kara Kum (Black Sand) desert which extends into Afghanistan. A Turkmen legend aptly describes this habitat. "When God created the world and distributed land, Turkmen were the first to receive abundant sunshine and the last to receive water." Once feared as the infamous "children of the desert", they lived as nomadic herdsmen/warriors whose fierce raids on caravans stole plunder and slaves to sell in regional markets. Today, a relatively small population of Turkmen is concentrated in a narrow region in north Afghanistan, extending along the border with Turkmenistan. Some continue a semi-nomadic life, while others line in permanent homes or tents, farming, raising livestock and weaving carpets.
As with most of the region's peoples, hospitality is a defining characteristic. It is said Turkmen serve tea and a meal, likely including vegetables, fruit, nuts and bread, before the purpose of a visit is stated. This "red carpet" treatment reflects a host's respect for his guest.
Traditional men's dress includes supple leather boots, belted tunics, voluminous long-sleeved coats and Persian lamb hats. Now, in more urban areas, this attire is replaced by neat suits, a crisp tie and polished shoes. Turkmen pride themselves as neat dressers. Women wear long colorful, floral-patterned dresses over leggings and accessorize with a jewel-bedecked turban-like headdress and ample jewelry, particularly bracelets and anklets. Covering the face is not customary.
Ideally marriages are arranged so as to preserve appropriate tribal liaisons and are sealed by a bride price paid in cash or livestock. Interestingly, the bride's family compensates the groom's family with a small sum for raising him to manhood. Immediate pregnancy is expected and failure to conceive can lead to the extreme of divorce. Underlining the importance of children, names have specific meaning, often related to the day of birth, with a holiday birthday being especially auspicious.
Turkmen are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School, although the designation is largely one of cultural identification. Few know or practice its beliefs, intertwining them with old shamanistic holdovers that include curses, "evil-eye" charms and magic.
Family structure is patriarchal, thus a father is accorded the highest respect with his eldest son next in line. Even so, historically Turkmen have lacked powerful chieftains or political figures. The seven major tribes maintained a neutral stance during Soviet and Taliban domination, avoided joining the Northern Alliance of Uzbek and Tajik resisters, and formed no fighting force of their own. These choices proved a great disadvantage when a new government was formed after Afghanistan was liberated by Allied forces in 2001 because they had no political leverage as did other ethnic groups. A council was formed from the Turkmen community to emphasize to government officials their eagerness to become fully engaged in re-building Afghanistan. Their official statement called for election of local councils, freedom of the press, women's rights and notably, the availability of education to all in mother tongues. The latter is especially important to Turkmen who have had to study in Dari, the official language of Afghanistan, rather than in Turkmen - a factor they cite as a barrier to full social engagement. A project now underway to provide textbooks written in Turkmen may prepare their youth as more passionate and more informed Turkmen voices in Afghanistan's future.