In Surprise, PEN Honoree Attends Gala
A novelist from Turkmenistan whose books have been banned and who has been under house arrest for two years became the first writer in 20 years to personally accept a Freedom to Write award from PEN American Center, the writers organization, at its gala dinner Tuesday evening in New York.
His appearance was a last-minute surprise. Until Friday, government authorities had told the writer, Rakhim Esenov, 78, that he would not be allowed to leave the country. According to PEN, he was arrested two years ago when he returned to Turkmenistan from a trip to Moscow with 800 copies of his banned trilogy, ”Ventsenosny Skitalets” (”The Crowned Wanderer”), about a 16th-century Turkmen poet and general, Bayram Khan, who is said to have saved the Mogul empire from breaking apart.
Mr. Esenov was accused of smuggling the books and with inciting national and religious hatred. Although he was released from prison a few weeks after his arrest, he was forbidden to leave Turkmenistan, even to seek medical treatment in Moscow. Many of his books were burned.
Before a crowd of 650 people on Tuesday night, Mr. Esenov accepted the honor from Barbara Goldsmith, an author and historian who co-sponsors the Freedom to Write award with PEN. ”In my heart, I am racing,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. ”In the Gospels it says ‘hallowed be thy name’ and I say hallowed be your name, dear friends. Thank you.”
According to PEN, Saparmurat A. Niyasov, who has been Turkmenistan’s president since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, banned Mr. Esenov’s trilogy as ”historically inaccurate” in 1997, evidently in part because he portrayed Bayram Khan as a Shiite rather than a Sunni Muslim.
In an interview before the dinner, Mr. Esenov said that although he had published 30 books he considered ”The Crowned Wanderer” his most important and that he had worked on it for 27 years.
Expressing anger at his country’s leadership, he said: ”The only countries where actual books have been burned are Nazi Germany and my country.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Ms. Goldsmith said that typically winners of the award are in prison or consider it too far to travel. She said she had no idea Mr. Esenov would be coming to New York until Sunday, when she received an ecstatic e-mail message from a PEN representative who was passing on a message from a United States embassy official that said , ”We’re wheels up.”
In a telephone interview, Tracey Ann Jacobson, the United States ambassador to Turkmenistan, said that embassy officials accompanied Mr. Esenov and his daughter to the airport in Ashgabat, the country’s capital, on Sunday. But she said embassy officials had tried to help other people leave the country to no avail.
”In the end he was brave enough that he wanted to try and we supported him in that courage,” said Ms. Jacobson. ”This was clearly a decision on the part of the Turkmen government to let him go.”
A spokeswoman for Turkmenistan’s mission to the United Nations in New York said that officials here were not aware of the situation. ”We are not in the position to give any information,” she said.
On Friday, Mr. Esenov plans to fly to Moscow for the medical treatment to which he is entitled as a World War II veteran. He expects to return to his homeland after that. It is unclear what his status will be then.
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