Saving Jahan – Interview with American Novelist Who Spent Two Years in a Turkmen Village

A recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego is deciding what to do next in life: start a tour business some place on the Adriatic, or join a friend and open a shisha lounge in his hometown of Livermore – a suburb of San Francisco. Johann Felmanstien (the lead character in the novel) isn’t too keen on either option, so he decides to volunteer with the Peace Corps and go somewhere he has never been before – Eastern Europe or Central Asia.

Johann is hoping to go to Georgia, a country with high mountains, warm sea and excellent wine. But when the long-awaited placement envelope arrives – none of the volunteers know where they’re going until the last minute – instead of Georgia, he is sent to Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan countryside. This image and all below are kindly provided by Hans Joseph Fellmann – the novel’s author

After several months of training, Johann is placed in the village of Gurbagahowda (its name literally means “frog pond”) in the Ahal region, where there is nothing but a smoking garbage dump and an endless expanse of desert. Rather than his customary American food the author has “gut soup” almost every day. He urinates in empty water bottles and keeps them in his room to avoid going to the outhouse, which has hordes of flies and two bricks on either side of a hole in the ground. Johann hates this place, hates his Turkmen host family (the dislike is mutual), and sees no point in his work at school, as most of the children don’t want to learn, and the school administration and officials just see education as a source of personal gain. He becomes depressed and doesn’t leave his room for days. He drinks too much, and only finds happiness in socializing with fellow volunteers who work in other regions. But life isn’t too good for them either – his best friend is raped by her school director. He ends up putting all his effort and knowledge of languages into helping a colleague, a young lady called Jahan, who is also sick and tired of the hardship, hopelessness, and unfair family roles of village life. Does he manage to save Jahan? Or perhaps it isn’t her that he is trying to save? editor Ruslan Myatiev read this fascinating autobiographical novel in just a few days, then spoke to its author – Hans Joseph Fellmann (he is portrayed in the book as Johann Felmanstien and also “Han-guly,” as his Turkmen colleagues and host family called him).

Hans Fellmann at his Turkmen site. Slide for more
Turkmenistan countryside

– I have not been to Turkmenistan for 12 years, and you brought me back for a while. I’ll tell you it was amazing! It was as if I walked through the dusty streets of that village and ate that ‘gut soup’… You left Turkmenistan in December 2008, but your novel Saving Jahan, which is based on your experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer there, didn’t come out until 2020. Why is that?

– I moved to Turkmenistan in the fall of 2006 with the intention of one day writing a book about my experience. During my twenty-seven months as a Peace Corps volunteer in country, I produced an enormous amount of material, including five-thousand pages of journal entries, thirty-plus hours of video footage, hundreds of emails, dozens of letters, and many gigs of photos. In December 2008, I left Turkmenistan and backpacked from Cairo to Cape Town. When I returned to my hometown of Livermore, California in April 2009, I put Saving Jahan on the backburner, so I could write my first novel, Chuck Life’s a Trip, which is based on a life-changing journey I took around the world with my childhood buddies in 2006. I completed the first draft in July 2010. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Prague, Czech Republic to teach English and write Saving Jahan. It took almost seven years for me to complete the first draft, partly because the amount of material I had to sift through and organize was immense, and partly because I was editing Chuck Life’s a Trip and working on compilations of poems and short stories, intermittently. In the summer of 2018, I returned to Livermore to edit and self-publish my novels. What was supposed to be a six-month sabbatical turned into an indefinite hiatus when I fell ill with pancreatitis. I won’t get into the gory details; suffice it to say, I almost lost my life from all the hard partying I did in Prague. It took two years for me to recover completely. During that time, I polished and released Chuck Life’s a Trip, Saving Jahan, and a compilation of poems entitled, The Heart That Beats, which chronicles my life as a writer in Prague.

– I’d like to clarify the placenames in Saving Jahan. Your permanent site is called “Gurbagahowda” … Where the hell is that? From some of your route descriptions, it’s got to be somewhere north of Tejen, but there is no such location on the map. It has a bank branch, several schools – since yours was #17 there must be #1-16 as well – so the town/village is rather big. Or is it a fake name and you actually lived somewhere in Babadayhan?

“Gurbagahowda,” “Turkmenhalk,” and others are fictional names I assigned to real places. In the interest of protecting identities, I will not comment on the actual names or locations of these places.

Cooking place in the family. Slide for more images
"Gut soup" ingredients. Slide for more
The "gut soup".

– You have Turkmen names, words, and certain expressions quite right. Did somebody help you with these, or did you learn Turkmen that well?

I’ve always had an affinity for languages. This is probably the result of having grown up in a biracial household where Spanish and English were both spoken. Employing my skills to learn Turkmen well was a huge priority for me, as I had little else to offer. During my first year of service, I hit the language hard and absorbed every part of it I could. My studies petered out in the second year due to lack of motivation, but I still managed to team up with my counterpart “Jahan” and write a grammar book entitled 501 Turkmen Verbs: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Using Turkmen Verbs and Their Corresponding Prepositions and Noun Cases … So, to answer to your question: yes, I did learn Turkmen that well.

I was routinely scolded or thrown out of class. One of such incidents occurred the day before Zoya, the boss LCF at Peace Corps, performed our preliminary Turkmen oral exams. Hurma was teaching the days and months a la Türkmenbashy while I was piddling with one grammatical anomaly or another. When I finished, I handed in my assignment and sat next to Mick. Poor bastard was trying his damnedest to learn how to ask what the date was in Turkmen. Hurma repeated, “Şu gün aýyň näçesi?” a half-dozen times. Mick tried to mouth the words but only looked like he was blowing a ghost. He threw up his hands in defeat.

“I can’t fuckin’ say ‘Shoo Nancy Reagan outta the room’ or whatever,” he said. “It’s all just in one ear and out the other.”

I giggled into my fist. Hurma hissed at me then turned to Mick. “You tell after me,” she said in her bar hag’s voice. “Şuuuuu… güüüüün… aýýýýyň… näääääçesi?”

Excerpt from Saving Jahan

– Do you keep in touch with any Turkmen nationals you met during your service?

– I keep in touch with my eldest host brother, as he was the only person in my host family, with whom I formed any kind of real relationship. I also chat with a few of my former students, on occasion … A couple months after returning home, I wrote my host family and each of my counterparts a letter. I know they got the letters because the volunteer who served at my site after me, hand-delivered them. Sadly, no one responded. I took this as an indication that they were not interested in maintaining contact.

– I laughed my ass off at the way you described your first experience with a Turkmen outhouse. I also found it hilarious how you and your host brother “Merdan” cooked that first shashlik, and you hoped the bricks he used to prop up his makeshift grill weren’t taken from the disgusting family outhouse. How did you feel about the fact that Turkmenistan is so rich in gas, oil, and cotton, yet its people live in such bad conditions? In Ashgabat, you see lavish marble buildings, and a few miles away, broken roads and people still using outhouses.

– I find it sad that a country so rich in natural resources has a government, which spends its money on marble buildings, golden statues, and giant rugs rather than on the health, education, and well-being of its people. However, I’m not going to sit here and wag my finger in contempt, because, truth be told, I’ve done little to help the situation in Turkmenistan, other than writing a vulgar account of my experience there as a drunken and unmotivated volunteer.

The shower room in the family. Note, the next photo may be unpleasant to view!

– Well, at least you tried to teach the kids, you tried to help your counterpart “Jahan” get out of shitty “Gurbagahowda” and achieve her dreams. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunities you provided her, she simply made excuses. Among them were taking care of her sick mother and being nominated for the “People’s Council” at your school. She even insinuated that she may have been part of the 2002 assassination attempt on former Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov… I got the feeling that she was lying to you in all these cases, and that in reality, she simply didn’t want to accept the challenges that came with changing her life. What do you think? Did you believe her?

At the time, I definitely believed her. But looking back now, it’s hard to say. I know she hated her situation and wanted to escape; most of her reasons for holding back seemed plausible. Healthcare in Turkmenistan is terrible and many of the elderly are chronically ill. And she was a good teacher when she wanted to be, so it’s no leap to think she could have had a sick mother and been nominated for the “People’s Council.” It’s a little hard to believe, given her shy and timid nature, that she had been part of an assassination attempt on the president. But she was at university at the time, and universities can be hotbeds for political activism. Whatever the case, I know I did everything I could to help her. For that reason, my service meant something.

Hans Fellmann. Slide for more images
Turkmen kids in Lebap province. Slide for more
Summer camp for children in Mary province organized by American volunteers

I woke up the next morning feeling grand. My head wasn’t clouded from drinking or lack of sleep and the knowledge that I was going to Jimmy’s that weekend had me feeling happy as a motherfucker. I was determined to make it to school on time. I hopped out of bed at nine-thirty, took a refreshing bucket shower, and threw on my suit. […] As always, Laika was lying on the adjacent dirt mound with his back to me. He looked like a slab of filthy marshmallow. I funneled my hands around my mouth and inhaled.

“Gooooood booooy.” He lay on his side. I squinted my eyes and scratched my head.

“You coot boy,” I said. “You’re so lazy this morning.” I hiked up my pack and walked up to him. I reached down to pet his hind legs. He didn’t seem to be aware of my presence. In fact, he didn’t seem to be aware of anything at all. I pulled my hand back and stood above him. I hoped he would suddenly jerk to life with one leg like he usually did. He just lay there like a pressed shirt. My face sagged.

“Laika?” I said. There was no response; just a rustling of fur as the wind blew over his body. I noticed that one of his legs was so stiff it didn’t even touch the ground. My eyes welled with tears.

“Get up, boy,” I said. He didn’t move. My face cracked apart. “Laika,” I cried.

I stood for a moment and stared at his lifeless body. His eyes were closed tightly as if he’d forced himself into a deep, troubled sleep. I wanted to wake him from it, but I knew I couldn’t. I did the only thing I could do.

“Goodbye, buddy,” I said. I imagined a little smile descending across his lips. It was as if his miserable cage was unlocked and he was finally set free.

School was a blur. I taught as much as my mind could bear. As I walked home, I wondered about Laika’s body. Patma [Johann’s host mother and the most hated person in the family] had told me after hearing of his death that the street sweepers would come and take it away. This had shocked and infuriated me. I’d wanted to give him a proper burial, but I knew it would only incur laughter and ridicule from the Turkmen. Dogs were regarded as nothing more than appliances to be made vicious for protection from thieves. Burying one with any kind of ceremony would be like doing so for an alarm clock or a radio.

Excerpt from Saving Jahan

– There were some sad parts in the book. The instance where you were encouraged by your first host family to eat the boiled eyeball of your pet sheep “Baa” comes to mind – did you really eat it? Also, the death of your host family’s dog, Laika, with whom you had a strong bond… I loved how you described Turkmen as seeing their pets as appliances – that is so true. It used to be mostly in the rural areas, but now more and more people have this view toward pets in cities, including Ashgabat. I’d say you are quite strong to have endured all that. Did you ever think, “Well, fuck it. I’ve had enough. I’m leaving this dreadful place.”? If so, can you describe these moments? Were there perhaps some that didn’t appear in your book?

– To answer your first question, yes, I really did eat Baa’s eyeball. As I’m sure you know, it is tradition in Turkmenistan to serve the guest of honor a dish called “kelle bashayak,” which is boiled sheep’s head and hooves. Everything, including the brain, eyes, cartilage, fat, tendons, skin, and muscle is generally eaten. I don’t know whether it was because I was a guest and it was the end of Ramadan, or because my host family enjoyed watching me squirm, but they offered me Baa’s eyeball, and to be polite, I ate the fucker. If you wanna know my thoughts on how it tasted, reread the middle of chapter three…

Still living Laika. Slide for more
Cooked Baa...

As for moments where I wanted to say, “fuck it” and leave, there were many. Most I described in the book. One I merely glossed over was when I first moved to my permanent site at the end of December 2006. It was New Year’s Eve. I had locked myself in my room with tons of booze and would only leave to shit or vomit. I came outside to do the former. My bratty host brother and his friend were standing in the courtyard. I said a begrudging hello to them as I walked by. I heard a hissing sound emanate from their general direction. It got closer and closer and closer. I looked down, saw a bright flash, then heard POP! The little pricks burst into laughter. I realized they had just thrown a lit firecracker at my crotch. Before I could react, they did it again. This one really almost scorched my balls. My first instinct was to grab a pickaxe and hack the kids to bloody bits. Unfortunately, there was no pickaxe around. My next instinct was to call Peace Corps and tell them “I’m out.” I’m glad I didn’t, but it took years to feel this way.

To be continued. In the following part of the interview we will discuss the PCVs work in Turkmenistan, politics in the country and the government’s attitude towards to the Peace Corps. Saving Jahan can be ordered here.