PN Review: Letter from Washington

‘Letter from Washington’, James Womack, 2018. Featured in PN Review 241, Reprinted with permission from PN Review.

I had been warned that DC was a city on the fritz, ragged around the edges, with a berserk president hiding in the storm drains dressed in a clown suit. This was not entirely true, but it was hard to get lost: you could measure your proximity to the White House by the number of people standing in the street and smoking. There was something in the air, and under the ground as well: a throb of power, maybe, but in whose hands was unclear. Despair on the cusp of becoming anger. Abandon. The idea that something had been lost. The best placard I saw in Lafayette Square read simply ‘MAKE AMERICA AGAIN’.

 I was there because of Turkmenistan. In 2002, around sixty people (the so-called ‘Novembrists’) were arrested in the Central Asian republic and accused of planning a coup against the president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov. One of the alleged Novembrists was Batyr Berdyev, a former foreign minister. He was arrested in December 2002, and the last reliable reports of him date back to 2005. In 2007, Niyazov’s successor (and keen heir, and former dentist), Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, said that he thought Berdyev was still alive. Since then, nothing.
In 2003, Berdyev managed to smuggle a document out of prison. Not a manifesto, but a collection of thirty-six poems, addressed to his wife and infant son. We hope that Berdyev is still alive – he is a focus of the human rights campaign that aims to find out what has happened to the Turkmen disappeared ( – but it is difficult to read the poems as anything other than a testament, a leave-taking. They are written from beyond a wall. Anyway, I co-translated the book; the book came out; I was invited to Washington to speak about it, and to engage in that kind of soft power that seems so unfashionable nowadays.
That’s all background. I tell you, I was scared of the city, and nothing helped calm me. No reassurance in the supposed reassurances as I was lined up and processed through immigration. The Dignitas slogan of the concourse transit: Welcome to Washington Dulles International Airport. We’re here to help you along your way. The advisory video on a painful loop as one hour at the border turned into two and then three: Why are you taking mommy’s fingerprints? Good question! To make sure someone isn’t pretending to be your mom, and to keep you and your family safe.Someone had lost a passenger and made regular calls for him over the intercom. Peter Surreal, Peter Surreal? Could Peter Surreal please come to the information desk? I told the man on the desk I was there for a few human rights meetings. Human rights? I’m just going to have to take both sets of fingerprints, sir.
The day was where the night should have been. Hotelled, I slept on a vast bed until three a.m., when I decided to walk to the Lincoln Memorial from where I was staying, in Alexandria, in a different state. I walked alongside the Potomac, through patches of odd creaking wildness, happy not to have thought in advance to google Are there bears in DC?. There were no bridges unvehicled humans were allowed to cross, so I kept on walking, the Washington Monument sparking red in the distance. I had to pass Arlington Cemetery before I found a permitted crossing, but I didn’t think I had time to go and sit a while with the dead.
Even before most of the city was awake, there were still rubberneckers, wedding parties, ad campaigns crowded round the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A woman in a sari, alongside her husband-to-be, having photos snapped at the feet of the vast statue. So white and secure of itself, with the seven a.m. sun upon it. I sat with the statue behind me and looked down the mall, sitting between others, mostly couples, doing the same thing. It’s a perfect photo fucking op.
Later, we went to the State Department. As well as the organisers of the Turkmen campaign, a Kazakh journalist came as well, a representative of one of only three free newspapers in the country. A guy ahead of us in the queue to pass the scanner was allowed to bypass the beeping gate and sign his gun directly into the Weapons Log. Our contact led us through the hall of flags, and into an underground bunker. We passed the cafeteria. If you have any questions or comments, write to The room we went into, through three sets of security doors, still had the minutes of a previous meeting lying on the table. We looked away while they were shuffled into a cardboard folder.
Diplomacy, like dictatorship, is another one of the arts of euphemism. We were given generally positive answers to difficult questions, but no assurances – our contact could give us none. We were gently pressed for information we did not really have, that could help formulate a policy we did not know. Afterwards, the campaign organisers said that it had been a very good meeting, and described the lines I had to read between. Given the way we are being sold America at the moment, as the domain of a Falstaff with no irony or joy – an unscrupulous fat man scared of death – ambiguity was welcome, or at least refreshing.
At one of the other meetings we had during the week, I sat next to a woman who had ‘Ask Tillerson’ written in her notepad. Tillerson was euthanised four days after I got home. Behind all the monuments, power in the city seemed like something unruly. Meetings, meetings at which I was told that ‘things had got done’, seemed from the outside to be exercises in treading water, waiting for the current world to end. That night, when I got back to the hotel, I saw two white-stick blind men holding hands with a prostitute, which sounds like the punchline to a joke, but isn’t.