I couldn’t sleep that night. Early the next morning I got out my pencil and notebook and sat in the yard waiting for the old man. What would he tell me today?
The sky had been overcast since early morning; the bare plains were silent as though they were as anxious as I was to hear the voice of the last Ubykh, to know what happened to him in that foreign land where he had not yet arrived yesterday in his distressing story.
I couldn’t have imagined when I first came here that somewhere in an outpost of Turkey I would meet the only Ubykh man who could still speak his native tongue.
It was fortunate for me that his mother was Abkhasian so my native Abkhasian language could be the thread that brought us together yesterday and would continue to unite us today. If he hadn’t known Abkhasian, or had forgotten it, what would I have done? With my poor knowledge of Ubykh we would have had no choice but to speak Turkish. And that would have been one more bitter twist of fate.
Oh, mahajirstvo,* Exodus of Caucasian mountain people to Turkey and other countries of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.—Ed. the tragedy of the Ubykhs. I’ve known that word since childhood, although I couldn’t fully appreciate its significance then. Because of that cursed word Abkhasia was devastated three different times.
When our elders get together to talk about some long ago event, one of them will inevitably say it happened during the first mahajirstvo, but another will insist it was actually during the second. When asked when he was born my father Luman would invariably reply: the year after the third mahajirstvo.
Consequently, the word was deeply etched in our consciousness. When someone would say our people were victims of mahajirstvo when I was a child my imagination conjured up some large muddy body of water carrying the Abkhasians away somewhere.
This murky water swallowed up tens of thousands of Abkhasians, but in the end our ethnic group survived, unlike the Ubykhs, thanks to the Abkhasians who remained in their homeland and kept their fires burning, emitting warmth to all Abkhasians to this day. However, it didn’t necessarily have to be that way. All the Abkhasians could have, whether voluntarily or against their will, followed the doomed path of the Ubykhs.
Who then would have been left to trace the bloody tracks to this land, to study the Ubykh or Abkhasian languages? I couldn’t have; I wouldn’t have even been born!
All that I have today—my education, my profession, my homeland, my teachers and my students—would have been impossible. It’s as simple as that.
What I had heard from this lone elder, from this last living man among the dead, made me wonder if the doomed fate of the Ubykhs had been preordained, if the Ubykhs couldn’t have chosen another way. But I was also the son of a people who had suffered much, a people with a similar history, but a different destiny. I had come to Turkey from a country whose past said: Yes! What happened to them could have happened to us. It could have, but it didn’t. And since it didn’t, the logic that insists the Ubykhs were destined to disappear is somewhat muddled as far as I’m concerned.
Once again I go over everything I know about our own history that is similar to that of the Ubykhs, and I just can’t agree. I don’t want to agree that their future couldn’t have been different! The fact that I, an Abkhasian, am sitting here today is living proof.
“What are you thinking about?”
I turned around and saw Zaurkan.
I jumped up, said hello and answered his well-meant and leisurely inquiries: how did I sleep, was -the bed comfort able, was I hungry?
Then he slowly sat down on his homemade bench and leaned back against the tree trunk. His eyes got that far away look and without wasting another word on me, or on anything around us, he sank back into the last century where his thoughts continued to dwell.
The waves were so powerful as they pushed us on our way; they seemed to be rushing the Turkish ship taking us away from our homeland. I must admit, Sharakh, that our hearts were filled not only with alarm, but with hope as well. Finally, the voyage was over and all those who had chosen to emigrate, young and old, men and women, stepped on the shore of a land we knew nothing about. But, you know, no one was there to meet us as though we had come unexpectedly, as though we had not received the sultan’s generous invitation. The Ubykhs sat down in groups all along the beach. We looked like flocks of birds that had lost their way in a storm and, finally exhausted, landed in an unknown place. Among the servants of Shardyn, son of Alou was our family. We had come on the Nusred-Bakhri, a large steamship for those days. When we disembarked we found a place not far from the bay in the outskirts of Samsun and tried to stick together like horses that sense danger. Our baggage was light, just the bare necessities, as though we had fled a fire, and had grabbed only what we managed to take away as we escaped the flames.
Oh Lord, how miserable and doomed a person feels when forced to live and die in a foreign land!
The first month of spring was just beginning. The country we had entered and would live in seemed to be barren and unfriendly. I even had a hard time breathing as though there wasn’t enough air. Perhaps because of my heavy heart I kept on wanting to take deeper and deeper breaths of air. Just as soon as the sun hid behind a fleeting cloud it was chilly, but when the sun reappeared the cold instantly turned to sweltering heat. And every time I looked up the sun seemed to be a yellowish-white, as if it had faded.
Oh, my dear Sharakh, we began the road to extinction that very hour we took the fatal decision that led us to the ships whose masts were adorned with green crescent moons. May they be cursed, those ships!
I already told you that we sailed on the Nusred-Bakhri.
There were also a few other three-stack ships. So many years have passed, but I still remember their names. They were assisted by some sailboats. The ships’ captains were paid the same for the passengers as for cattle, by the head. There’s a saying that a scrooge can squeeze water from a rock. The ships were stuffed to the limit with live cargo. Our captain said with regret: “I’d take on more, but I’m afraid we’d sink.”
We sailed a long time. We ran out of water and food soon. Then there was a storm. The people got seasick. Even the most courageous among us were frightened. The people prayed, cursed, and prayed again. The crew was no help at all. Their attitude was, if you don’t have the strength to endure the suffering then die. Funerals were no trouble— you didn’t even have to dig graves.
Winds didn’t blow the way ships wanted them to. During the storm one of the sailboats was carried by the wind far to the west toward Varna. Because of the continuous pitching, lack of water and an accumulation of excrement, typhoid fever broke out. People died like flies. When the sailing vessel reached Samsun there were only a handful of people still alive. They weren’t allowed to come ashore so the fever wouldn’t spread to the city. The sailing vessel set anchor at sea and the unfortunate emigres called for help to the people they saw on shore wearing Circassian coats. But what could we do? We could only row up to the ship and send up jugs of water on ropes. The shore guards swore at us and threatened to open fire if we didn’t stop trying to help.
People are people, no matter what, Sharakh. The small Sadz community set off after us on a white sailing vessel. The storm tossed the ship to and fro like a nutshell. The angry waves wouldn’t let it get near the port. The people, crazed from thirst, began drinking sea water. The first to die were the children. They died like moths on a rainy night. The sailors threw the bodies of the infants overboard. One of the women was a widow. She was all alone in the world except for her infant son. The baby of that poor woman fell ill and soon died, but his mother kept singing lullabies to him and held him to her bosom. When sailors would come near she would sing: “Go to sleep, my baby, go to sleep.” When the sailors went away her song would turn into a heart-rending lament. The people knew that the baby was dead, but they kept quiet. The third day the sailors could smell the corpse so they wrenched the dead child out of its mother’s arms and threw it into the sea. The woman was beside herself with grief and jumped overboard after her son. No one could stop her.
People are living creatures, not mindless cuckoos. All those who had been spared death at sea saw when they got to shore, to their sorrow, that this was a God-forsaken land. There was hardly any vegetation here and the earth looked like the wrinkled face of a eunuch; it was nothing like the evergreen coast we had left.
It’s true, Sharakh, that we can appreciate what we have fully only when we lose it. How could we help thinking about home, about the virgin forests that filled up the hollow canyons where the leaves of the plane trees glistened in the sun as the coat of a marten, and ice-cold springs murmured enticingly underneath huge trees. Our land offers everything you could want to eat or drink. If a stranger wasn’t taken into any home, which was unheard of anyway, he could easily escape hunger and cold, whether it was winter or summer. Nature itself would take care of him. He could eat his fill in any meadow—juicy wild straw berries amidst all kinds of herbs, and a bit later in summer all the raspberries and blackberries he would want. And in early autumn all he’d have to do is go a little deeper into the forest to find nature’s gifts galore—yellow bunches of ripe grapes, the wine-like berries of wild fig trees, walnuts, chestnuts in their polished shells, deep red cornelian cherries, and in the hollows of trees, combs full of wild honey giving energy to anyone who wants it for the asking. And if a man has a gun or can set traps there’s no better hunting grounds on earth: mountain goats and roe, wild boars and aurochs—hunting trophies fit for a king. And there’s so much wild fowl, all kinds and best you could find. But if he doesn’t like meat, so what! He can make a fire on a riverbank and fish to his heart’s content. He can even catch golden trout with his bare hands. There’s no other such paradise on earth. But if a man flees from paradise he can only end up in hell. We realized that only when we got to Turkey. We understood, but it was already too late: the doors of hell shut tight behind one who enters.
God created us to be equal, but he gave us different purses. Our lord Shardyn, son of Alou, had no trouble resuming his acquaintance with a local merchant who took him into his comfortable home in Samsun. But we ordinary mortals had nowhere to go. Where could we find shelter? When you’re in trouble you have to be resourceful. We saw some stone structures not far away; around ten of them. They were used to store the cornmeal Turkish merchants had brought from the Caucasus. All of them but one were empty. The cobwebs were so thick a person could have slept on them; they’d take the weight. Some butterflies that looked like locusts crawled on the walls in the dark and flew in circles under the ceilings. Without waiting for permission we occupied those dreary hovels with stale air and considered ourselves lucky, because we had at least some protection from rain and wind. Our lord and benefactor, Shardyn, son of Alou, was surprised to find us in such a desperate state.
“Apparently there’s been some mistake,” he consoled us. “I’ll get to the bottom of this and try to straighten things out. In the meantime cheer up and be patient.”
Leaving us with renewed hope, he got ready to go to Istanbul. Of course, one doesn’t leave one’s wealth without supervision. Before he started on his journey he sat his wife in front of him and gave her strict orders:
“Keep a close watch on my only sister. In this Muslim country a woman is a prime commodity. Anyone who gets my sister, either by deception or kidnapping, can expect a handsome price for her. If anything happens to Shanda you’re responsible!
Shardyn, son of Alou, had good reason for apprehension: any brother would be worried sick being in charge of such a beauty as his twenty-year-old sister Shanda. Even in the land of the Ubykhs her reputation as a rare beauty was known all over the mountains. Many daredevils from Abkhasia, Adighe, and Kabarda, known for either their valor, nobility, or wealth, or all three, sent matchmakers to her. Although she found some of her suitors appealing she could not disobey her brother, who sent each of the honor able matchmakers away with polite words of refusal. Shardyn, son of Alou, was too proud and conceited. Even when it came to his sister’s future he couldn’t forget his own interests. He was holding out for some almighty brother-in-law whose golden glory would shed still more luster on the name of Shardyn, son of Alou.
It’s only fair to say that the glamorous Shanda also knew her worth. Spoiled in childhood, she liked showing off among the Ubykh nobility in her fancy clothes. But when men would play up to her she was much too trusting. That was what particularly worried her sister-in-law when she found Shanda in her care.
Don’t forget that name Shanda, my dear Sharakh. Soon I’ll tell you how capricious fate deceived her. Fortune and misfortune walk together. Shanda, captivating Shanda! Who could ever imagine she would be the cause of her own brother’s death and make our hopeless lot even worse.
Wherever there is life there is faith in the future. Shardyn, son of Alou, went to Istanbul while we waited and hoped. A week passed, then another, but he remained absent.
Hunger can make you chew a rock. All the food the Ubykhs had taken with them from home had disappeared the first few days as if swept away by the waves. While we still had some money we bought bread in the neighborhood bakeries. When our pockets were empty, we began selling the few family treasures we had. We sold everything for a song, because hungry men don’t bargain. When shop owners and tavern keepers saw how many people were starving, they closed down their places in fright. They knew that hunger could even drive a wolf out of the forest.
First the sultan’s government played on our gullibility, raising up our hopes; then it became confused, perplexed, not knowing what else to do. Seeing that we were armed, the government refused to keep its promise to let us settle where we wanted. Fearing us, the government decided to scatter us to different parts of the country. It’s not hard to guess that those places were remote and unpopulated and had unfertile land plagued by droughts. We soon forgot about the heavenly lands and rivers of milk, we’d been given nothing but fair words. We got none of the cattle, nor the assistance we had been promised. We were angry and demanded:
“Make good your promises! You said the Ubykhs wouldn’t have to pay land taxes for five years, but now you’re making us pay! You swore on the Koran that you wouldn’t take our sons into the army, but now you’re making them serve! How can you do that?”
But who could be made to answer for it all? All we got was cunning smiles and the insolent reply:
“Where’s the paper with the sultan’s signature that says so? Oh, he gave his word? One’s word is tax-free. It’s not an order!”
One thing was for sure: they were afraid of us. And they had good reason. The desperate are capable of anything.
Maybe that’s why they left us alone at first thinking we might eventually calm down. They hoped we’d lose our will and become compliant. Hunger and deprivation will take them down a peg or two, they thought.
One of the stone structures, as you remember, was filled with cornmeal. Hunger gave the command. I pity the person who would have tried to stop us. After tearing the bolts off the doors, we emptied out the storeroom. We each took as much as we could. There was no mill nearby, so we had to grind the cornmeal ourselves. Some did it with stones, but others had an even, simpler solution: they boiled it. Hunger is the best cook you know.
The corn didn’t last long and when it was finished we went hunting for food in the neighboring villages. I must say the Turkish peasants shared what they could with us. They would hand over some worn clothing to a person standing before them in rags and shivering with cold. They also gave out bread, but not as alms; they actually shared their bread with us.
But just how many mouths can be fed that way? A hungry crowd of people is like an overflowing river; there’s no way to control it. Before we knew it we became thieves. We were in tatters, but we kept our weapons in silver sheaths. Led by hunger, the young went around in bands stealing cattle and sharing the fresh meat with their fellow-tribesmen. They raided towns, robbed dry goods and shoe stores. The truth will out, Sharakh: blood was spilled on both sides. We became known as ruffians. The Ubykhs were used to frighten children into good behavior. Caucasians haunted the streets of Samsun like bums. Their eyes were glassy from hunger and had a streak of madness. Their shoulder-blades and collar-bones protruded from their tattered Circassian coats and dirty toes stuck out of torn shoes. They walked into cafes and coffee shops with a roving look as men possessed, striking fear into the owners and customers. The sick and the old, the weak and the helpless lay in the shade of trees on dusty and torn capes; their faces thin, cheeks sunk and with only enough strength to shoo pestering flies.
I had lost Feldysh like one migrating bird loses another. Maybe she died at sea, on the ship, when she was coming here? Or... Terrible thoughts plagued my inflamed mind. I knew her parents were elderly and were unable to help her out of any trouble. With her auburn hair, that she wore in braids reaching down to her feet, with her slender figure and eyes like almonds, she was too seductive to go unnoticed on the shores of Turkey.
Most of the women in the harems of the Turkish lords and wealthy merchants were from other lands. Feldysh was an Ubykh and word about the charm and merits of Ubykh women reached Turkey long before our people emigrated there. On the other hand, maybe Feldysh was in rags and dying of hunger somewhere nearby, and satan was taking pleasure in keeping me from seeing her.
“Feldysh, my love, do you hear me? Say something! “I would cry out in my mind. “Who could I ask, who would know what happened to her?” I thought to myself like a man obsessed.
The very day we arrived here ... oh no, the very hour, all I could think about was where I could find the leader of the Ubykhs, Haji Berzek Kerantukh? Well, I wasn’t the least bit interested in what had become of him personally, but wanted to know what had happened to Feldysh. She and her parents were supposed to be among his people. Rumor had it that the ship that had brought Kerantukh and his subjects here had stayed for a while in the Samsun harbor, but then it weighed anchor and set off for Istanbul.
I would often go to the shore as if I could learn about Feldysh from the waves or the chattering seagulls. If only they could give me a hint, I thought. One day a felucca made port, I heard someone shouting on board and saw four Turkish sailors kicking off a tied up man in a Circassian coat. “Adlia,”* “Dog” in Ubykh. he cussed, and added a dirty swear word.
The felucca cast off. I went up to the man and helped him to his feet. You can imagine my surprise when I saw he was one of Haji Kerantukh’s foster brothers—Said Dashan.
“What happened? Why did they tie you up and throw you off?” I asked.
“What happened?” he echoed and still furious he added: “What happened is what has happened to us all, the worst possible, Zaurkan.”
He had once been a strong man who could, like a giant, break a thick rope with one pull, or force a bull by the horns to the ground. Now he was just a shadow of the former Said Dushan and could barely stand upright.
“My mouth is all dry,” he said as he licked his parched lips with his tongue. “If you’re a man get me at least a sip of water.”
“Just a minute, Said, just a minute,” I assured him as I used my dagger to cut the rope tying his hands.
We walked along the shore. He had to lean on my shoulder, he was so weak. The sun was going down. The sea reflected its last beams. Twilight had fallen. We were now quite a distance away from the city. Said was leaning still more heavily on my shoulder. I realized he was dead tired and could barely move his legs. I laid him down near some thin bushes, promised to come back soon, and set off to look for water.
I managed with difficulty to get a piece of bread and a bottle of water. Said drank greedily. His adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he drank and I could hear the water trickle down his dry throat. Having quenched his thirst a bit and catching his breath, Haji Kerantukh’s foster brother looked up at me with eyes full of sorrow, tears glimmering:
“It’s all over for us, Zaurkan! .. For all the Ubykhs... It was suicidal to come here! ..“ he whispered as if condemning himself and the rest of us for that fateful mistake.
What he said made my heart contract with despair and not just because the sinister reality confirmed Said’s prediction, but because the man who was talking had once been strong-willed and never lost hope under any circumstances.
In the distance where the sea met with the sky a crimson beam was fading. For an instant I thought I saw Feldysh. But then her image vanished into nothingness. I came to my senses and realized I had a thin thread of hope in my hand:
“Said, where is your foster brother Haji Berzek Kerantukh?”
“The hospitable rulers of this friendly country gave him land on Rhodes”, he answered with bitter irony. “All of his subjects, except for my family, are with him.”
My temples throbbed, the news set my heart at ease, and, carefully, not wanting to press my luck, I asked him:
“Tell me, my dear Said, was the peasant Abij Vardan with Kerantukh’s people?”
“Is he a friend of yours?”
“Yes,” I said relieved.
Said looked at me closely, and spoke slowly as though bandaging my wound:
“When I left, Abij and his family were alive and well. He has a beautiful daughter, very beautiful... They all went to the island...” And then, lowering his head, he continued:
“Beautiful women -will suffer shame before they die.”
But his words didn’t register with me. I felt relieved of a heavy burden. A man in trouble lives for today. A mere spark can fill him with joy. He doesn’t seem to understand that more evil awaits him tomorrow or else he just doesn’t care to think of it, once he has been given a moment of respite.
Today luck carried me out of that gloomy stone structure, I thought to myself. Feldysh, my wonderful Feldysh is alive! Now I’ll find her. I’ll definitely find her even if I have to swim to get to the island where she is now, I promised myself triumphantly, and with determination.
Sitting across from me in the same pose, Said lowered his head, and didn’t seem to notice my pitiful joy. Crumbling off bits of the stale bread, he put them into his mouth with an absent look. As I watched him I suddenly felt ashamed of my being so impolite; I hadn’t even asked him why he had been thrown off the boat by the Turkish sailors, how come he was here when all of Haji Berzek Kerantukh’s people were somewhere else.
When I brought up the subject Said stopped putting the crumbs in his mouth, became morose, like a wounded falcon with ruffled feathers and began in a roundabout way:
“Do you remember, Zaurkan, how we once unsheathed our daggers ready to kill each other as though in blood revenge? The reason was because I was really insulted...”
Said changed into a more comfortable position so that his back was propped up against a jut of the shore, and looking out at the sea where after the sunset the sky was turning dark blue, went on with his story:
“You had the honor of being proposed to serve as one of the bodyguards of the chief of the Ubykhs, my foster brother, Haji Kerantukh, and you refused the offer. Your refusal was insulting. Blood rushed to my head. And if someone hadn’t pulled us apart I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
He caught his breath, still peering into the distance. His eyes were concentrated and immobile as if fixed on some object, although there wasn’t even a lone sailing vessel on the scaly surface of the sea.
I waited a minute or so, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought, and then said:
“You know, Said, that since I was a teenager I worshiped Haji Kerantukh. He was a god to me. I wouldn’t have hesitated to die for him. But, Said, one can’t pray to the heavens while trampling everything sacred on earth.- When
Kerantukh agreed to stop fighting and move to Turkey, I no longer valued the life of our leader. That’s why I refused to be his guard. Heads are crowned, not feet. Forgive me for saying this, but your foster brother became the leader of flight.”
Here I suddenly realized that Said couldn’t be blamed for the actions of the nobleman who had been reared in his family and whom he idolized. My harsh words could offend an innocent man. But Said listened with a stone- cold expression as I spoke so disparagingly about Haji Kerantukh. His face took on an air of suffering for just a fleeting second.
“As far as I’m concerned Kerantukh might as well be dead,” I added.
My voice sounded reconciliatory as if to say: oh, well, who cares about Kerantukh; let’s not stir up the past. But Said went on in the same vein:
“He’s dead as far as all of the Ubykhs are concerned! We, the blind, have regained our sight just before dying!
I was taken aback, because the man who spoke those words always regarded Haji Kerantukh as someone even closer than a relative.
“Listen to me, Zaurkan,” he said quietly to get my close attention. “I probably won’t tell this to anyone else.”
What he said next was like the lash of a whip to me.
“I know for sure that all of us were sold at a good price, like sheep. They called it migration and all of us fell for it. Where our leaders go, that’s where we’ll go! What asses! And one of those who made good money on us was my dear foster brother, Haji Kerantukh, may he die of the plague!
“That’s enough, Said, a shaved head isn’t as hopeless as a bald one. Anger won’t heal an insult,” I said, refusing to reconcile myself with the horrible meaning of his words. I wanted to stop Said, but he went on vehemently:
“I swear to our sacred Bytkha that I’m telling the truth. What I’m going to tell you will unravel the mystery. Do you think it’s physical pain that tortures me? No, Zaurkan, no! Be brave and listen carefully to what I say. What would you, a courageous Ubykh, think if you knew that the head of the Ubykhs sold out to the generals of the Russian czar? Well?”
I was shocked and wanted to express my doubts, but Said wouldn’t let me:
“Wait, I’m not through yet! The generals offered him a deal: ‘When the bloodshed is over and you persuade your people to emigrate to Turkey you’ll get enough from the czar to take care of you and your grandchildren for three lifetimes. Both sides need peace. It couldn’t look better.’”
“That’s just speculation, but where’s the proof?” I cut in.
“I don’t have any direct proof, but indirect evidence is just as good. I was the bodyguard of my illustrious foster brother and didn’t leave him for a second. The day we boarded the ship two Russian officers from headquarters came to him and I saw with my own eyes that after having a friendly conversation they gave him an expensive small chest. I can’t say for sure what was inside of it, whether it contained gold or not, but I think you’ll agree there couldn’t have been sheep’s droppings in it. Besides, I heard with my own ears how our leader asked them to convey his gratitude to the vicegerent of the Caucasus, who is the czar’s uncle. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”
I had the feeling, Sharakh, that a landslide in the mountains had caught me off guard on a mountain trail. It was as though I was hearing a rock overhead, and more coming behind it. Said’s words were inexorable, like heartless rocks tumbling from a mountain peak I had been admiring just a moment before. It seemed as though Said wanted to finish me off. What he said was like self-flagellation; between the lines he seemed to be repeating with reproach: That’s what we fools deserve! And then another boulder would hit me in the chest.
Said’s accusations against Kerantukh became more and more credible as he spoke, and finally there was no way to deny it. What had happened could not have been an unfortunate coincidence.
“Our ship,” Said Dashan went on, “like all the other ships, headed at first for Samsun. When we were a few miles away from shore a Turk who looked like someone from the port authority came on board from a moored felucca. He turned out to be a personal envoy of the sultan. He invited Haji Kerantukh to go with all his people to Istanbul. “The grand vizier is waiting for you,” the Turk informed him. When your luck’s not with you, you can drown even on land. Passing up the Bosporus we arrived in the city of Istanbul. Only Kerantukh, the head of the Ubykhs was allowed to get off. But we insisted that he be accompanied by his bodyguards, that is, by us three brothers whose mother had nursed him in infancy.
The reception quarters of he grand vizier was a mansion with windows in the shape of semi-circles. Guards stood at the doors. We were led to a chamber with an elaborately patterned carpet so soft that when you walked on it your steps were as noiseless as birds flying. An elderly man with a black beard and wearing a tall fez sat with his legs crossed on a beautiful soft divan. He was the grand vizier. This man, who seemed to be dozing, didn’t stand up, nor did he hold out his hand to Haji Kerantukh. He just pressed together the palms of his hands in front of him, and bowed his head slightly. A servant, shadow-like and bowing low to the grand vizier, seemed to have come out of nowhere with a cup of aromatic coffee and placed it in front of the grand vizier on a small table. Having sleepily sipped some coffee, the vizier, his eyes half closed, spoke to Haji Kerantukh who stood before him in a white Circassian coat with sixteen cartridge pockets on both sides of his chest, and with his palm on the silver haft of his dagger:
“The representative on earth of Allah, sacred father of all true Muslims, our gracious and merciful sultan and caliph, expresses his deep satisfaction that you did not let your people be killed by the hellish flame and hatred of the infidels, but instead brought them to safety in the heavenly land of our incomparable sovereign, and accepted his citizenship and protection...”
The grand vizier stopped talking and closed his eyes.
Haji Kerantukh put his hand to his forehead and bowed to the grand vizier who, with a barely visible foxy smile, continued:
“The Russian ambassador has asked us that you, noble Haji Berzek Kerantukh, be conferred special charity. The almighty sultan, ruler of half the world, has generously agreed to grant this request. Besides, the ruler of half the world, to the glory of Allah and his prophet Muhammad, filled with generosity and feeling well-disposed to you, Haji Berzek Kerantukh, in recognition of your merits, grants you the title of a Turkish pasha, payment accordingly from the treasury, and an estate on Rhodes. Take your four hundred peasants and go there so that in prosperity and happiness you can pray and sing praise to the kindness and generosity of the great sultan.”
Haji Kerantukh expressed his gratitude to the great sultan and his grand vizier. My elder brother whispered like an adviser during negotiations to warn Haji Kerantukh:
“As a relative I beg of you to think this over. You have suffered many adversities for the sake of your own people. You have always been above us like a silk banner, been our true and only leader. You can’t retire now. The Ubykhs are counting on your leadership. It would be a mortal sin to betray their faith in you. ‘You have no right to think of yourself when the life of your people is at stake.’
Kerantukh grew angry. Pretending that nothing had happened between him and my elder brother, he spoke through his teeth but with a smile still playing on his face:
“Don’t tell me what to do! This isn’t the time for that! It would be easier to resurrect the dead than restore my leadership. It was burned to ashes across the sea, together with the house made of chestnut wood. An alien god or one’s own devil—it’s all the same.”
Having as much as told my elder brother that one who plays with a panther had better get used to scratches, Haji Berzek Kerantukh respectfully went up closer to the grand vizier and, putting one hand to his forehead and the other to his heart, he bowed low:
“The sultan’s charity is infinite! Under this blessed roof, Grand Vizier, I’d like to assure you that I’m prepared to serve the first star in the eastern sky—the great sultan— and you. You will find in me a true and faithful servant!
The grand vizier livened up, his dark eyes glistened, and there was a fleeting imperious spark of self-satisfaction in the look he gave us all.
“It’s a big honor to be a pasha of the great sultan. To prove you’re worthy of the confidence and hospitality bestowed on you by the ruler of half the world, you must agree to two conditions...” After getting up off the divan and taking a seat in the armchair nearby, he added: “The conditions are in keeping with our faith.”
Kerantukh bowed his head to show he was all attention, but did not ask what the conditions were.
The clever vizier appreciated the cautious silence of the Ubykh leader, and as though saying a prayer he spoke:
“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet! Whoever is given the title of pasha must have a name befitting the Koran. We, unlike the Christians, don’t have surnames. From this day on, instead of Haji Berzek Kerantukh, you will be called: Haji Suleyman Pasha. Your name will be inscribed in golden letters in the government’s book of pashas. That’s the first condition! The second is that each pasha must dress according to his title, so you will have to stop wearing your Caucasian clothing,” said the grand vizier in a tone of voice indicating the finality of the decision. What had happened to his drowsiness?
Haji Berzek Kerantukh’s face turned pale. The leader of the Ubykhs was torn between conflicting demands: the grand vizier sat in front of him and we, three sons of his own people, stood behind him. The eldest of us couldn’t contain himself any longer:
“The golden Berzeks, born to rule, are inseparable from the glory of the Caucasus. No family of nobles is an ancient and high-ranking as yours. You’ve been asked to change your name. Come to your senses! Tell him you’re not a slave or a captive.”
“Quiet,” said the perturbed Haji Kerantukh in a barely audible voice.
But my elder brother wouldn’t give in:
“Remember how the Russians made you a colonel to win your friendship, but you found within you the pride to reject such an honor and tossed those golden shoulder- straps into the fire. Now the fighting falcon is being turned into a goose. It’s just shameful! You’re not a concubine in a harem to be wearing wide trousers with fancy designs. If you give in the next thing they’ll do is make you wear a veil. Tell that black-bearded one that the best clothing for a man is a Circassian coat.”
The grand vizier didn’t know Ubykh, but he could tell from my brother’s expression his words were like fire next to a powder keg. But the sultan’s first minister was an experienced fox and so he didn’t let on that he was alarmed. On the contrary, he kept right on fiddling with his amber devotional beads.
“I’m waiting for your decision,” said the vizier.
But the man he was talking to seemed to have missed these words and didn’t answer.
The grand vizier squinted, and added:
“Our holy Koran says: ‘Know how to serve the one who brings you happiness.” “Suddenly his voice became harsh: “I would like to know whether after consulting with your people,” the vizier threw us a withering look, “you accept the proposal made by the all-merciful sultan, or do they, not you, make your decisions?”
Haji Kerantukh gritted his teeth in anger, sharply turned away to the wall, but then took control of himself, and came up closer to the- grand vizier:
“I would like to see the sultan, whose subjects my people and I have become.”
“It’s now the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Ramazan. The great fast. The representative of Allah, the glorious sultan, has given up all earthly matters for the duration. He isn’t seeing anyone; he devotes all his time to prayer, to prayers of purification. There’s no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
Haji Kerantukh knew that this was the time of ramazan and that orthodox Muslims didn’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, but he didn’t believe the sultan was so pious, .so lie tried to outwit the vizier by reminding him;
“The Great Sultan’s mother is an Adighe; the Adighes are relatives of the Ubykhs. She knows our customs and will sympathize with our predicament. The Grand Vizier has the power to let us see this noble woman at least for a minute.”
The grand vizier pressed his palms together in front of himself and answered as though praying:
“Say your prayers, perform the purification, and kneel together with those who are already on their knees. When the leader of all Muslims speaks to Allah, those near him also give up earthly cares, and direct their thoughts to the heavens!
The grand vizier closed his eyes again as though he were dozing off.
Haji Kerantukh realized the old man would not give in. He also knew it would be risky to keep pressing the grand vizier, especially in our presence. So he sent us back to the wharf to wait until he returned.
“It’ll be easier for me to deal with this fox when I’m alone with him. Go now. Do as I say!“ he ordered.
“Don’t let your anger get the better of you. Don’t blow up! Fury is a bad counsel!“ we warned him.
“Don’t worry! I won’t lose my head and will not accept any condition that entails loss of dignity! “ he reassured us.
We left and waited patiently for him at the wharf until the moon appeared. Believe me, Zaurkan, it was the worst day of my life.
What do you think was the decision made by that man who had led heroes, who hadn’t bowed his head to the entire army commanded by General Yevdokimov; a man whose name had been on the lips of the Ubykh people for so long, to whom mothers had sung praise at their sons’ cradles: “Grow up my little boy to be brave like Haji Kerantukh.” There’s no use fooling ourselves, Zaurkan! He betrayed us, changed his name to please his new masters, became a Turkish pasha and put on Turkish clothes. If our mother had known about this, she would have jumped overboard, feeling it was her fault she hadn’t raised her foster son properly.
The next day at noon our ship carrying around five hundred Ubykh families left Istanbul and set off for Rhodes. Neither my brothers, nor my poor mother, nor I were on that ship accompanied by a snow-white sailing vessel that belonged to the grand vizier. We had taken our mother off the ship before it set sail. The Ubykhs headed for Rhodes were confident that their silk banner—Haji Berzek Kerantukh—was following them in that beautiful sailing vessel. They still had no idea that Haji Berzek Kerantukh no longer existed. A newly born pasha, Haji Suleyman, was on that vessel. Our mother too didn’t know what had happened; we decided not to tell her.
Since then I have been possessed by only one thought— to go home. If I didn’t manage, I decided I’d shoot myself. I called my brothers aside and demanded they give me the right to do as I wished. They refused to.
“If we die, we die together!“ was their reply.
Sometime later I sneaked away from them. I managed to hide on a ship leaving for Samsun. I had heard from one of the sailors that the next day there was a ship leaving from Samsun to Adler on the Ubykh shores. It was to pick up and bring over some Akhchip people. I was so eager to get home that I would’ve strapped myself to the mast. But the Turkish guards found out about me when we were leaving port, tied me up and, as you saw, removed me from the ship and took me to shore.
The round moon, like a severed head dripping blood, rose higher and higher. The waves echoed Said’s story in a muffled roar.
“You’ll die in vain if you try to stow away once more. Stay with us! God willing, things will get better!“ I persuaded Said.
But he was deaf to my pleas. Tying the end strings of his riding hood, he stood up and said:
“Ahmed, son of Barakai, acted like a man! He was a prophet. Goodbye Zaurkan. Maybe we’ll see each other again.” And he added, “In the land of the Ubykhs.”
Haji Kerantukh’s foster brother went toward the wharf, merging with his own shadow.
“Oh, Said, Said! It would’ve been better to remain mortal enemies,” I thought as I watched him walk away.
Many years later, without intending to, I killed him.
That sin I committed involuntarily is a heavy weight on my heart to this day. I’ll tell you later how it happened.