Turkmen Culture Tips

Here are some tips for how to get along in Turkmen culture: suggestions on Turkmen friendships, family relationships, religion, and dating in this Silk Road country.

Travel is easier when you know a bit about the local culture; this lets you avoid unexpected gaffes and get to know the local people easier. If you find yourself in the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan, here are some basic facts you should know about the local traditions:

  • Religion: The vast majority of the Turkmen are Sunni Muslims. Since independence from the Soviet Union, there has been a revived interest in religion, including the proclamation of several religious state holidays. However, the Turkmen people also show vestiges of earlier pre-Islamic beliefs, including the veneration of sacred places and shrines, ancestor-worship, fear of the evil eye, belief in spirits, and a number of related shamanistic and animistic beliefs. As in most of Central Asia, the Sufists had an enormous influence in Turkmenistan, and their particular mark on Turkmen religious faith is still evident.
  • Physical and Literary Culture: The Turkmen are famous for their excellent carpets, embroidery, women’s dress, and jewelry. They have a rich musical and literary tradition. The most famous Turkmen poet is Magtymguly, who is the 18th-century author of many nationalist and lyric poems.
  • Family and Friends: Turkmen are intensely attached to their families, and Turkmen parents exercise an enormous amount of control over their children’s lives. Families are very close-knit, and siblings share clothing, use each others’ things, and are constantly in each others’ private space. Sons will usually live near their parents for their entire lives. Arranged weddings are still quite common, and parental control extends far beyond childhood for many Turkmen. Relatives assist one another emotionally and materially. This assistance is expected, and can often extend to corrupt or nepotistic activities in the workplace. Time off is often spent with the family, and people without families or who live away from home are viewed as unfortunate. A Turkmen proverb is “He who leaves his country will weep for seven years. He who leaves his tribe will weep for a lifetime.” This sense of interconnectedness extends to friendship, with Turkmen often expecting friends to go much further for them than Westerners are used to.
  • Tribe: Tribal affiliation and genealogical structure in Turkmenistan can be extraordinarily difficult for Westerners to understand. There are many overlapping and indistinct boundaries between tribe and clan. Even the concept of a unified Turkmen nationality only emerged relatively recently during the Soviet period, although the pre-existing tribes did recognize common cultural traits and territories. Many Turkmen trace their tribal lineage to a mythical ancestor named Oghuz Khan. The three largest tribes in Turkmenistan are the Teke, Yomut, and Ersary. There are, however, many tribes, with many of them having a unique carpet design or “gul” as well as unique embroidery patterns and other customs.
  • Courtship and Dating: In Turkmenistan the lines that separate the sexes are much more clear than they are in the west, and there is no such thing as “dating” in the western sense of things. Mixed activities are always in groups, and even in urban areas a girl who goes out alone with a young man is very much in danger of losing her reputation as a “good girl.” It is common at even large gatherings for groups of men and women to sit in separate sections of the room.
  • Hospitality: Guests should remove their shoes when entering a house. They are seated in the place of honor, usually the location opposite the room’s entrance, but should only accept this seating after being repeatedly urged by the host. Guests are expected to eat everything that is put before them. Turkmen do not stay in hotels, commonly sleeping at the house where they have been invited as a guest. They must ask permission to leave. Prayers after the meal are common. During small gatherings, women and men commonly eat in one room, but larger gatherings are more segregated, with women not even entering the male room to serve food—often simply placing it in the doorway, out of respect.
  • The Table: The “table” (often a tablecloth lain on the carpeted floor) is the central part of the Turkmen home. Meals and tea-drinking, and lively conversations over the same, often last for hours. Older people sit farthest from the door and are served first. It can be rude to look at or inquire about female members of the family.
  • Tips and Table Manners: Don’t sit on top of pillows or countertops: the buttocks are considered very dirty, and this is rude. A good rule of thumb about sitting is that you should never be more relaxed than the eldest person at the table. Men can sit cross-legged (Indian-style) but women should draw their legs underneath them or to the side. Never step over the tablecloth on the floor, or hand anyone a dirty item, such as a washcloth, over it. Never pass between someone and the tablecloth—always go behind them.
  • Gender Issues: The Turkmen have a patriarchal culture. Females should understand that body language can be interpreted differently in Turkmenistan than back home. Women in general are expected to be shy and non-confrontational, and to avoid making eye contact with men, especially in rural areas. Men should understand that being alone with a Turkmen woman, visiting her at her home, or showing any kind of affection toward her in public can damage her reputation and marriagability. Walking together is a major form of courting in Turkmenistan, so be careful who you are seen on the street with.
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