I WISH I COULD EXPLAIN why I got caught up searching out Dr. G. M. Levin and his pomegranates.
In the summer of 2001, while driving home on back roads in northern California, I caught some Russian words on a public-radio program called The World. The segment was being broadcast from rural Turkmenistan, near Iran’s northern border. “The birthplace of the pomegranate was here in the Kopet Dag Mountains of Central Asia,” the speaker said. “And here is the last place on Earth where wild pomegranates grow.”
Sonorous language rose over the sounds of rustling leaves and cries of birds. I heard the English interviewer exclaim over sweet wild grapes, pungent arugula, and acres of wild pomegranates that stretched their canopies along the riverbed. A Russian-born botanist, Dr. Levin, the lead researcher at an agricultural research station called Garrygala, said that conditions were going from bad to worse. The station’s sprawling collections of pomegranates, persimmons, pears, apricots, apples, figs, and native grapes were dying from drought, and there were no pumps to bring water up from the Sumbar River. “We often carry water cans to each tree,” Levin said. “In the pomegranate forests some miles above our station, sheep and cattle are grazing on wild grasses and destroying the young wild trees.”
Garrygala, the American voice interjected, had been in dire need of financial help since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Moscow stopped financing science in its former republics.
Levin confessed that he was losing heart and ready to retire, but he lacked a successor and feared the collection would be lost. The orchards were overgrown with weeds, the Turkmenistan government wasn’t protecting the forests or paying workers’ salaries, and the facility was quickly becoming a ruin. Only help from the outside world, he said, could save Garrygala.
After the program ended, the fruit still glowed like rubies in my mind. I felt that more than chance had carried his voice from Turkmenistan to my car radio. To my ears, Levin had been delivering a personal plea — and an invitation for me to visit the last wild pomegranates.
A FEW MONTHS after the radio program, September 11 happened. It became difficult to obtain a visa to Central Asia; but I was able to locate Dr. Muhabbat Turdieva, a plant geneticist at Tashkent University, who had contact with Garrygala. While I waited for permission to visit Turkmenistan, Muhabbat and I corresponded. From her I learned that Levin had spent most of his adult life trekking in Central Asia and the Caucasus collecting 1,117 varieties of living pomegranates from twenty-seven countries on four continents and had written more than 150 scientific papers.
By poring over everything from Levin’s papers to articles in Agricultural Research, I absorbed a trove of information. I also began simplifying Levin’s scientific prose into something readable for a fundraising brochure for the research station.
By studying the pomegranate on my own, I traced its path into antiquity. Some biblical scholars argue that Eve pulled down the suggestive pomegranate, not an apple, in the Garden of Eden. Persephone herself became perpetually betrothed to a god she feared after he convinced her to taste the fruit. Moses’ priests are said to have worn pomegranate-embossed robes. The pillars of Solomon’s Temple were decorated with them. In the Koran, as in Persian iconography and poetry, images of pomegranates symbolized fertility, and in China, a bride and groom went to bed with seeds scattered on their covers to assure conception.
In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish carried crateloads of them across the sea because the vitamin C-rich fruit guarded sailors against scurvy. The friars on board, meanwhile, brought roots to plant in the New World, where the fruit flourishes four hundred years later in California’s Mediterranean climate.
Folk healers have long used every part of the fruit to staunch wounds and treat illnesses like dyspepsia and leprosy. And these days, scientists in Israel have been actively researching the fruit’s pharmaceutical properties (the country harvests three thousand tons annually) to battle everything from viruses to breast cancer and aging skin. The pomegranate contains a flavonoid that is a powerful cancer-fighting antioxidant. The fruit is also rich in estrogen, and one company is now marketing pomegranate-derived EstraGranate as an alternative to hormone-replacement therapy. In the works is a condom coated with pomegranate juice that will reportedly fend off HIV.
In rural Sonoma County, California, where I live, stores now carry pomegranates from fall through winter, but we are offered only one variety, called Wonderful, grown by Paramount Farms, the corporate farm giant. Our nurseries carry only Wonderful seedlings, so when I wanted to plant a pomegranate, it had to be Wonderful.
EARLY IN 2002, I sent $500 to Muhabbat to print the fundraising brochure we had created together. I hoped that Ruby Treasure: Securing the Wealth of Pomegranates in Central Asia might reach donors who would help finance the rescue of Turkmenistan’s wild pomegranates and the station’s irreplaceable collection. The brochure felt like my own passport to Garrygala — but still I waited for my visa to arrive.
In Turkmenistan, where Levin had collected his 1,117 different rare and unusual varieties, the news was not good: both wild forests and trees in Garrygala’s collectionâ€””the unique wild and cultivated patrimony” as Levin had written in one scientific paperâ€”were dying.
When my tourist visa finally arrived, I was granted a week in Turkmenistan with a tour group leaving that October. We flew from Istanbul to Tashkent, and then went by bus to Ashgabat. The first image that greeted us on the Turkmenistan side of the Amu Darya was the huge billboard-sized head and small squinty eyes of Turkmenbashi, the country’s all-seeing, all-powerful dictator. Whenever a village appeared, so did the dictator’s visage, and his little eyes seemed to follow us from above.
Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmen Communist Party chairman when the Soviet Union collapsed, took power in 1991 and soon renamed himself Turkmenbashi the Great, Father-Leader-Greatest of All Turkmen. In 1999, a rubber-stamp legislature elected him president for life, and in the decade since, he has dedicated the resources of his impoverished country to a Stalinesque personality cult, renaming cities, streets, mosques, factories, airports, and even days of the week after himself. And lest one forget him in the privacy of the home, his face appears on postage stamps, vodka bottles, teabags, and in digitally enhanced images on every TV screen.
“You are fortunate to be in Turkmenistan in October,” Ali, our guide, told me, “because October — actually we no longer call it October but Rukhnama — is the most important month of the year. It is the anniversary of the terrible earthquake, of our Independence Day, and the month our president published Rukhnama.”
Variously translated as Soul of the People or Spiritual Renewal, Rukhnama is Turkmenbashi’s little red bookâ€”red but not so little. It’s meant to be recited every Saturday along with the Koran, and in it Turkmenbashi instructs Turkmen on the correct ways to live. No detail is neglected.
Out of the desert blackness our bus approached Ashgabat, which glowed with a million lights. Massive pillared structures, inspired by the Greeks, Romans, and Persians, stood eerily illuminated on broad, empty avenues. Trevi-like fountains spouted plumes of colored water.
At the highest point, visible for miles around, the golden statue of Turkmenbashi rotated 220 feet in the air.
“He always turns to the sun,”; said Ali. “He doesn’t rest, not even at night.”
IN THE MORNING I looked out the window of my Ashgabat hotel room through a hazy sky to the Kopet Dag range, which runs southeast along Turkmenistan’s border with Iran and peters out near Afghanistan. The tan ridges, dangerous old crags on a major tectonic fault line, appeared deceptively soft through the smog.
My group left on a city tour while I waited in the lobby for Muhabbat, who still hadn’t registered. Two modestly dressed people stepped through the revolving doors. One was a stocky woman with flat Central Asian features, dressed severely in a Soviet-era black suit that matched her grim expression. Beside her stood an elegant, slender man in his fifties who looked like a Chinese sage.
“Miss Barbara?” asked the woman. “I am Dr. Lena, a native plant specialist at Ashgabat University. Thank you for your interest in us. Dr. G. M. Levin has recently emigrated to Israel. I would like to present the director of Garrygala Experimental Station, Dr. Makmud Isar.” Isar, she said, had taken a bus from Garrygala at four in the morning to be here.
“We are preparing for Independence Day,” Lena said. “Because Garrygala is located close to the border with Iran, for security reasons the authorities have decided it is too dangerous for you to travel there.” She avoided my eyes.
“In three days, I’ll be crossing into Iran myself,”; I said, realizing that my dream of visiting Garrygala was vanishing before my eyes. “The holiday is two weeks away.”
“Dr. Muhabbat Turdieva also failed to get a visa from Tashkent,” Lena said. “But Dr. Isar has come to show you the city.”
“We are so sorry for the trouble,” Isar said, handing me two bags of pomegranates nestled like Christmas balls in tissue; garnets, golds, and hot-pinks. He looked embarrassed. I was in shock.
Isar invited me to take a walk and I ambled beside him. The sun glared off glass and metal facades. Cars spewed black exhaust. Smog now completely blurred the Kopet Dag’s eleven-thousand-foot escarpment. Inexplicably, the part of my brain that remembered the Russian I spoke thirty years ago kicked in, and I found myself understanding most of Isar’s softly uttered comments.
He said that Turkmenbashi gave every citizen free water, electricity, and gas, but cars were old and new parts unavailable, thus the pollution problem. Since the president had given up cigarettes, he’d forbidden smoking in public. According to recent decrees, radios must not be played in public. Young men must cut long hair and shave their beards.
We stood before a massive fountain where marble steeds pawed the hot air over cascading waterfalls. What I saw was not a wonder of Rome but an aquatic extravagance in the desert. At Garrygala, weren’t the trees dying of thirst? Isar said only, “If we had a mini tractor, we could dig deeper wells to bring water from the Sumbar River.”
It isn’t just Garrygala that suffers in Turkmenistan. Despite massive infusions of dollars for rights to natural gas and oil paid by U.S. and international corporations, the national bank is insolvent, university degrees are no longer accredited abroad, official unemployment is listed at 25 percent but is more likely 50, and most recently, the school year has been shortened to stem budget deficits. How many gold statues and domes, marble-pillared halls and fountains did it take to run a budget deficit with so much oil and gas?
We approached the pseudo-Eiffel Tower atop which a thirty-six-foot-tall golden statue of Turkmenbashi slowly rotated.
“He always turns facing the sun,” Isar said flatly.
We rode an exterior glass elevator up the tower. Around us, a crowd of shabbily dressed people pressed their noses to the glass, open-mouthed and wide eyed. To these peasants, perhaps, Turkmenbashi had built wonders. To them he was a golden man, a khan of old, a prophet who protected them with his raised gilded arm.
“My daughters will prepare you Turkmen pilaf,” Isar said later as we walked in the tower’s shadow. He hailed a taxi and we drove up a potholed alley to a poor neighborhood only ten minutes from Turkmenbashi’s glittering monuments, to Isar’s house.
His daughters came at their father’s call to cook a traditional meal. As the lamb sizzled in fat on a two-burner stove, Isar and his sons began to roll pomegranates out on a flowered quilt. They were yellow, pink, peach, crimson, maroon, and purple — no two alike. Isar expertly opened one after another. Some had an acidic bite, others were boldly sweet, and a big pink one tasted like honey. As I swallowed the seeds, my eyes filled with tears. This was not Garrygala I’d reached, but I felt such sympathy for Isar and so welcomed by him that I could almost see the trees.
After dinner, Isar lugged the pomegranates into a taxi and we drove back to Ashgabat’s center. The night was warm, the imperial fountains cool. We wandered from one to another, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, reluctant to say good night. Arriving finally at the hotel, I thanked him. “For everything, the pomegranates especially,” I said.
BACK IN CALIFORNIA, I stayed in touch with Muhabbat, who had sent news of Garrygala, that some staff had received salaries and conditions had slightly improved. The Global Crop Diversity Trust that supports apple collections had indicated that it might give the pomegranates some help. Still, old machinery needed repair and the water problem was far from resolved.
The morning Grigory Levin’s name popped up on e-mail, I was too moved to open it immediately — it was the first time I’d even seen his first name. “Dear Madam Barbara I thank you for your letter,” wrote Levin, who used a Web-based translation software to turn Russian into English. “It was very pleasant to me to found out that in U.S.A. there are still people whom pomegranate interests.”
Levin wrote often. He’d left Garrygala, he said, as the station started to break up before his eyes. It had become too painful to watch the collection perishing. He’d brought plantings to Israel where the pomegranates were growing well and now he wanted his life’s work”what he called a theoretical book on pomegranates”to reach a larger audience. He wished that his “work done has not gone to waste and was accessible to science. This is our common cause.”
Once again I began dreaming about, and planning on, helping Grigory Levin. On a brilliant November day last year, I visited the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard at the University of California at Davis, one of several National Clonal Germplasm Repositories. Greenhouse manager Jeff Moersfelder and his technical assistant Joe Wehrheim cracked open red, purple, and yellow pomegranate globes for me to taste. Hanging alongside mature fruit, color-coordinated flowers glowed against the blue sky. Moersfelder showed me trees marked PROVENANCE TURKMENISTAN. It was as if I knew them.
“They must have come from Grigory Levin,” I said. “He managed the largest collection of pomegranates in the world in Turkmenistan.”
I told them how to reach Levin in Israel. Days later, Grigory wrote that the UC Davis botanists had contacted him. Indeed, he knew their pomegranates well. “Of course,” he wrote. “I personally sent them pomegranates.”
I told Grigory that I couldn’t publish a scientific work but that his adventures as a pomegranate explorer and his descriptions of forays in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia could make for a fine book for my small publishing house, Floreant Press. He responded immediately: “Forty years I am engaged as hunter behind plants, gathering and creating collection. I am calmed by this news and hope that work is not vain, but also sometime will be read. For this, my gratitude does not have borders.”
Grigory has written a hundred pages about his quest. I haven’t seen the translation yet, but the chapter titles alone tantalize me: “The Road to Kugitang,” “About the Pomegranate with Rosy Petals,” “Something Unknown about Pomegranates,” “Dark Clouds on the Borderline,” “The Holy Place of Shevlan.”
Curiosity led me to the Kopet Dag Mountains in search of the original pomegranate forests and the man whose voice I was strangely drawn to. I was devastated to travel so far, only to miss them both. But I’ve come to accept that the pomegranate has an unusual power over me. As red amphora-shaped blossoms sway on bare trees in the last days of autumn, I still imagine Persephone returning for her rendezvous in Hades’ Underworld, as I am equally, and inexorably, drawn to a rural outpost in Turkmenistan called Garrygala.
This article has been abridged for the web.