In the desolate desert country of Turkmenistan, there's one aspect of the landscape that's more familiar than its ubiquitous camels and sand dunes.
It's the pudgy, middle-aged face of Saparmurad Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi — "Father of all Turkmens," as the locals call him.
Niyazov, 62, is the president-for-life of the Central Asian republic, which has emerged as an ally in the U.S. war on terror. And in Turkmenistan, Niyazov has established a cult of personality not seen since the salad days of communism.
His portrait appears on the country's money, on banners and posters, on bottles of aftershave, on flasks of vodka and boxes of tea. There are many statues of him in the capital, Ashkhabad; there's even a golden one of him that sits atop a giant arch, and rotates so that his arms always point to the sun.
And across the country, there are Turkmenbashi streets, mosques, factories and airports — even military divisions. There's also a port city called Turkmenbashi.
But the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Mao have nothing on Niyazov, who has even put his imprint not only on products, but on time itself.
In August, Niyazov decreed at a meeting of his annual People's Council: "We must have a calendar with months named after national personalities."
And who better to kick off the year than the biggest celebrity of them all? "I offer to call the first month of the year Turkmenbashi," he said.
Niyazov said that April should be named "Mother," apparently in reference to his own mother, Kurbansultan Edzhe — who was made a national heroine in July by Turkmenistan's parliament for her outstanding services to the country.
Never mind that Kurbansultan died in 1948. She perished in an earthquake when Niyazov was a child, but he has had statues of her erected across Ashkhabad.
October would be called "Rukhnama," or "Spiritual Revival," after the title of his quasi-religious spiritual guide, which was published last year. It is required reading in schools and colleges.
The rest of the months would have their names changed to things that Niyazov thought would be good for the nation — like "The Flag," "Independence" and "Neutrality." Names of national heroes and poets would also be used.
Niyazov said he also wanted to rename the days of the week, and call them respectively, Bash Gun (Main Day), Yash Gun (Young Day), Hosh Gun (Good Day), Sogap Gun (Blessed Day), Anna (Friday), Rukh Gun (Spiritual Day) and Dynch Gun (Rest Day).
The Ponce De Leon of Central Asia
Niyazov has also bent time to his will by officially extending adolescence to the day citizens turn 25, and postponing old age until their 85th birthday.
The new decree divided life into 12-year cycles, a practice in parts of East Asia but previously unknown in Central Asia. According to the edict, childhood lasts until 12, followed by an adolescence that extends to 24 — far above the age when most women bear their first child.
A "youthful" stage lasts until 36, and after that, Turkmens are considered "mature" until age 49 when the stages of "prophetic," "inspirational" and "wisdom" follow.
"Wisdom" lasts until 85, when old age finally sets in.
The average life expectancy at birth is 60 for men in Turkmenistan and 65 for women.
Sharper observers joked that Niyazov was obviously in his "inspirational mode" — because he celebrated his 62nd birthday this spring by dyeing his hair jet black.
The Ancient Practice of Give-and-Take