When I was nearing the place I had come from, I saw from a distance a gray crowd of Ubykhs and heard the buzz of many people talking. I caught up with an old man on his way to the gathering and asked:
“What’s the meeting for?”
“The Samsun governor Omer Pasha is supposed to give us the honor of meeting him. He wants to talk to us,” answered the old man as he stuck his staff into the dry earth.
We came up to the crowd. Besides the people of Shardyn, son of Alou, there were also some other Caucasians I didn’t know. The people were talking excitedly, arguing, and gesticulating with their hands; some had grim predictions and others were hopeful. Their eyes looked like sparks from a fire that a rock had just been dropped into. There were women in black standing next to the men. Old shriveled-up women covering their mouths with the edges of their black kerchiefs sighed continually. Looking around the crowd I noticed my father; he was standing there leaning on a stick made of box wood. We caught each other’s glance and I realized, to my sorrow, that he could tell everything just by my look.
“Hamirza!“ someone shouted to my father and he turned his head the other way.
My brother Mata came running up to me out of breath. “Thank Allah that you’ve come back alive and unharmed!“ he exclaimed by way of greeting. Then he clung to my shoulder and looked into my eyes: “Did you find Aisha?”
Poorly concealed fear was in his direct and impatient question. How could I dash his hopes?
“Yes, I found her! I found her!“ I lied, taking pity on him. “They’re doing fine.” And to keep him from asking any more questions I was the one to inquire: “And how are you getting along here?”
“All right, Zaurkan! Mother was very worried about you. She was in bed for three days and just today got up, as though she felt you were coming home.”
A broad-shouldered Ubykh in a patched Circassian coat and youthful-looking although he had gray hair, came through the crowd and said facetiously:
“I’d like to know what happened to our spiritual leader, the pious Sakhatkeri?” He wasn’t talking to anyone in particular, but to everyone all at once. “Long before we moved our pious mullah went through the villages telling us fools’ fairytales, tricking us into coming here.” Imitating Sakhatkeri, he chanted in a blissful sugary voice: “My dear people, Turkey is a flowering paradise. It’s a heavenly garden for the righteous. It’s never too hot, or too cold there. No one there profanes the name of Allah; they only pray in gratitude.’ Where is that dirty liar? If I could get hold of him I’d wring his neck! “ The giant shook his huge fists in the air as though he was already holding the invisible Sakhatkeri by the throat.
“You’d have better luck looking for a needle in a hay stack!
“Just as soon as we got off the boat he vanished into thin air!
“They say he’s gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca.”
“May the black rock crush him there!“ Hamida interrupted the men, while she wiped a tear from her eye with the edge of her kerchief.
“Turkey is a big country... Maybe from here on the outskirts of Samsun we can’t see things in their proper perspective, just like a hen that can’t see farther than her roost. Maybe it’s true that Sakhatkeri went off to find us the fertile lands we were promised? Our leader, Shardyn, son of Alou, has also gone off,” said the well-meaning Shrin, from the Sadz tribe.
“A man with money will eat, sweets even in hell! We’re dying like flies, my dear Shrin, but you still believe that our benefactors will come for us to take us to paradise. Take off your blinders!“ the angry Caucasian, who was the first to mention the scoundrel Sakhatkeri, lashed out against Shrin’s rosy illusions.
Dziapsh Nouryz, son of Barakai, pushed his way through the crowd. He looked around as though he was trying to find someone. A hot-tempered man, he was like a pistol that’s always cocked. Usually Dziapsh Nouryz did not just stand up, but jumped up; he could interrupt someone in the middle of a sentence and always acted on impulse.
My brother Mata, nodding at him, explained: “He just got out of his sick bed.” I could see the son of Barakai was deathly pale, and hunched over. He looked so ill you couldn’t help pitying him.
“I don’t see any point in arguing about who’s to blame for our misfortune,” he began in a hoarse voice as though he had a cold. “One thing’s clear: we were deceived and sold like a flock of sheep. Where’s Haji Kerantukh gone off to? Huh? You don’t know! I can swear to you that unlike us he’s doing very well. That kind of man feels at home anywhere. We aren’t at a majlis* Council meeting in Southwest Asia.—Tr. where people wag their tongues arguing all day long. I’ll be brief: I’ve told my relatives, foster brothers and friends that I’m ready to lead anyone who wants to go back home. If we can’t manage to do it peacefully then we’ll take up arms. I’d rather die in battle with my head toward my homeland than starve to death for nothing in this foreign land. It’s time to act! And pointing in the direction of the sea he shouted: “We leave tomorrow!
Most of those gathered there were surprised to hear Dziapsh Nouryz, son of Barakai, talk that way. Although people were used to his headlong decisions, his “we leave tomorrow” had them puzzled. Everyone of them had women, old people and children to worry about. Taking them along was easier said than done. But who could leave them here to fend for themselves and be at fate’s mercy? Dziapsh Nouryz knew all that. The crowd was hesitant.
But Nouryz realized that cheeks don’t burn unless they’re slapped.
“Some of you, decent and brave people, warned that we were walking into a trap! Nevertheless, like sheep following a lascivious goat, you led your children and wives into this cholera-ridden hole!
“What you’re saying is true, my dear Nouryz,” said the old man Sit as he shoved the edges of his hood behind his back. “Your brother Ahmed tried to keep us from taking that fatal step. But at that time you...”
“The pasha is coming! The pasha!
This shout prevented the old man from finishing what he wanted to say.
The pasha, accompanied by a convoy of ten armed horsemen, approached along the road from Samsun. Soon he reached the crowd. The crowd made way for the pasha to come right into the middle. He was a huge man with a dark complexion, wearing a fez-like hat with a tassel. His reddish mustache seemed pasted onto his pouting upper lip. He looked over the crowd with his lilac-tinged eyes as he sat astride his portly, tall roan horse. The stirrups were lowered as far as they could go so it seemed the long- legged rider practically touched the ground with his feet. Many Ubykhs knew the Turkish language. But usually they were noblemen or their servants, or smugglers, not the common folk. Omer Pasha couldn’t speak to the crowd of mostly commoners without an interpreter. That’s why Mzauch Abukhba, a smart young man who could read and write, was by the pasha’s left stirrup and acting as interpreter. He was a Sadz from Gagra.
After greeting the people the pasha inquired:
“Is everyone here a Muslim?”
“Yes, everyone, Governor!“ replied the old man Sit.
“If everyone is a Muslim then why don’t you go to the mosque and pray five times a day like the devout?” It was impolite, to say the least, to start off a conversation with reproach.
“Honorable Pasha, allow me to point out to you that Allah has rid the naked of the need to wash clothes. We would go to the mosque but there’s no bread there to relieve our hunger, and no medicine to put out the flame of contagion that burns in our midsts.”
I was startled by my own voice which sounded like steel while my right hand was clenching the haft of my dagger. It was as though I were seeing the pasha’s face in a delirium and floating past it was the ghostly shadow of my dead sister Aisha whose live baby was still sucking her breast. My sister’s black braids fell to the hoofs of the horse the pasha was sitting on. Mata instantly came between me and the pasha to protect me. But the interpreter turned a frenzied bull into a submissive sheep.
“We are hungry, Sir,” was how he translated my words.
“Beginning with tomorrow every family will get a loaf of bread,” declared Omer Pasha so solemnly and with such stateliness as though tomorrow he would open up the gates of paradise for us.
The pasha didn’t hear any shouts of joy. On the contrary, the old woman Hamida, who looked more like a sick bird, jumped forward and squawked:
“How can some stale bread help us? All our children will die without milk!”
“What kind of gratitude is that,” one could read in the pasha’s eyes which betrayed his dissatisfaction.
“That’s not the Muslim way,” he spoke out loud and in great anger. “Women aren’t allowed, especially without veils, to be where men are. You should forget the ways of the infidels. This is not Russia! The women must get out of here at once!”
“Please be kind enough to hear me out!“ appealed the gray-bearded Soulakh, folding his hands and bowing to the distinguished pasha. “We Ubykhs have our shrine, the Almighty Bytkha. I have the honor of being its high priest. When we sing glory to our shrine, when we pray to it, our women are together with the men. That’s our custom! We have carried on that custom from our ancestors.”
When Mzauch Abukhba translated the high priest’s statement word for word, the pasha hung his whip on the saddle and, raising his hands to the sky, muttered:
“There is no God but Allah...” and interrupting his prayer, he threatened the crowd: “You apostates must go to the mosque! All of you must go! Pray that your sins be forgiven or you will not see heaven!
I was choking with rage:
“Give us a chance to live like people on this earth and we’ll let you have your paradise!
Mata once again guarded me, ready to fight, and I caught my father’s critical look which seemed to say, Where’s your self-control, Son?
Omer Pasha, whose rhetoric I interrupted, looked back. One of the horsemen pointed the handle of his whip in my direction.
“Damn you all!“ swore the Samsun governor and, shedding the mask of well-wisher, declared: “In the name of the great sultan, the representative of Allah on earth, I have ordered that a list be drawn up of the young people capable of military service. Those on the list will be drafted. Whoever volunteers will be rewarded: his family will gain the protection of the state.”
There was complete silence. It was broken by my father:
“They want to take away our sons! Deprive us of our last hope and support!”
“Oh, Hamirza,” someone said with total lack of spirit. “If you don’t agree today, tomorrow they’ll take your Sons by force. The sultan’s sword is long...”
The people were in a state of confusion. At that point Nouryz emerged in front of Omer Pasha. Sticking his short staff into the ground and hanging his saber on it, he said in Turkish, making his position clear without beating around the bush:
“You know, governor, your land of ‘happiness’ doesn’t suit us. Either we aren’t worthy of it, or it isn’t worthy of us. Half of those who sailed here with us are already in their graves. The same fate awaits the rest of us. So listen here, governor: we’ve decided to go back to our homeland! Give us ships! If you don’t we’ll walk, only open up the frontier. If you do us such a great favor we’ll pray eternally for the health of your sultan.”
The crowd was dead silent. But Omer Pasha wasn’t startled in the least by what was said by Nouryz, son of Barakai. He was probably expecting the exiles to make such a demand and that’s why without hesitation he ex claimed:
“It’s impossible! If it were only up to me, but I don’t have the authority to change the conditions specified in a treaty between two great nations—Turkey and Russia. You will prosper under our crescent moon. Even the prophet wasn’t recognized at first. Your sacrifices will not be forgot ten. Patience is the sister of success. There’s no god but Allah! Don’t forget to go to the mosque every Friday and purify your souls...” With that farewell, after prancing for a while in front of us, Omer Pasha spurred his horse and trotted on his way.
His convoy followed after him. A cloud of dust hid the horsemen from us. The crowd broke up. People were de pressed by all they had heard. Soon my father, brother and I were standing together. My father gave me a penetrating look. I couldn’t take it and so I lowered my head.
“I see by your eyes that Aisha is in great trouble! Tell everything as it is while we’re still alone,” and putting his hand on Mata’s shoulder, added: “we, men!”
Not concealing any detail, I related to them everything that had happened. Father’s jaws quivered, but he showed no other sign that the terrible news broke his heart. He even took his hand off Mata’s shoulder, supporting himself by his box wood staff. But my poor brother wept like a child. Of course he was just a young man and it showed. After giving Mata a chance to cry out his grief, father spoke in the voice of a man who has endured the most terrible tragedy in his life:
“Keep this sorrow, like a deep secret, behind the fortress wall of your teeth. Neither your mother, nor your sisters are to ever know this. If they find out it will kill them. Zaurkan, you go to them quickly and give them hope. Go now my sons!
My father left us and went to the edge of a stone-covered valley where some stunted trees grew. He had adored his elder daughter Aisha. She was the family’s first child. Now Father had to be alone to mourn her in the shade of the dusty branches. He sought solitude, so necessary for meditation, prayer and tears.
Mata followed after me. He was no longer sobbing, just sighing. Before I went off to find Aisha I noticed how he was losing weight and shouting in his sleep. His peace of mind was disturbed. I felt he was tormented by mental anguish, not a physical illness. He was suffering and didn’t have the strength to restrain his feelings that would have been hard for even a mature man to conquer. Every time he opened his mouth he’d say something about our mountains, our homestead, and our land.
“Recently,” he admitted, “I’ve been having bad dreams. Just last night I dreamed I was carrying a full sack of corn very early in the morning up to our old mill. The door was opened and at the threshold sat a gray dog I’d never seen before. He looked like he was ready to sink his teeth into my throat. The cursed creature was barking, but made no sound; it was a voiceless dog... I picked up a rock, threw it at the dog, and it jumped out of the way. I walked into the mill and saw in amazement that the lower wheel was moving at full speed, but the millstones stood still and there was dust on them three fingers thick. Instead of the wooden trough where the flour was supposed to fall, there was a black casket. I was terrified and ran outside, but it was pitch dark outside although just a minute before the sun had been shining brightly. The sun was gone and instead there was a dull circle in the black sky that looked like a ball of smoked red cheese. I was probably shouting in my sleep, because Father woke me up...”
“He’s like a man whose hand has been chopped off in battle but he still has the sensation his fingers are moving and hurt him,” I thought to myself.
“Be patient, Mata. Maybe things will work out.”
“Zaurkan,” he said after thinking it over a moment. “You know, if I don’t manage to find a way to go home I’ll die.”
A chill went up my spine: I realized he wasn’t just talking.
“Don’t sing a death song,” I rebuked my brother while at the same time trying to warn him of danger and distract him from his disturbing thoughts. But what I said just fell on deaf ears:
“Nouryz and his friends are already getting ready to go back home. If Mother and Father find out about my plans to go with them they won’t let me go not for anything. I beg of you, Zaurkan, talk to them for me. They say it’s a risk; we could easily get killed trying. But misfortune has no laws; it all depends on luck, Zaurkan. Of course, I have to consider Mother, Father, and our sisters, but if I’m killed you’ll take care of them. And if I manage to get to our abandoned home I’ll light a fire in the cold hearth. I’ll look after the homestead; I’ll plough, sow and take in the harvest. I can do all that. I’ll buy some livestock, go hunting, and then, no matter what it costs, I’ll hire a schooner and come for you.”
Standing in front of me was an Ubykh lad who looked like an eagle in captivity—no one could take away his dream of soaring into the sky. I was careful not to clip his wings, yet at the same time I didn’t want to give him false hopes of success.
“Omer Pasha just dashed your hopes. He spoke on behalf of the Turkish government. Who can be sure that he’ll be given the right to live in former Ubykhia even if he does manage to get there? Look before you leap! But if Nouryz and his friends have chosen this thorny path and you want to join them I won’t stand in your way. You’re your own master.”
I wanted so badly to go with the daring group organized by Nouryz, son of Barakai. I could just see my home: the fire flickering in the fireplace, our door open to anyone. Yet I didn’t let on at all. Not a single muscle moved on my face. The Samsun governor was probably telling the truth about the treaty signed between the two countries. That meant that all of us were doomed to perish: those who wanted to follow Nouryz, and those who would remain behind. Where was the way out of the vicious circle? Who could possibly get the czar and the sultan, those long-time enemies, to reconsider their decision about the Ubykh exiles? My head was like a beehive that thoughts flew out of like bees, without bringing back any honey. The bitter taste of truth grew stronger in my mind. We were approaching our stone quarters that looked more like a crypt when Mata put his hand on my shoulder:
“Wait a second, Zaurkan...”
“What’s the matter? Are you tired?” He shook his head and suggested:
“Let’s go listen to old Sakut. Just for a little while...”
“What about our mother and sisters...”
“You’ll still have time to tell them that hopeful fairy- tale. And anyway I still haven’t pulled myself together... They’ll see through me...”
“This is no time to listen to music, Mata. This is no time at all!
“You’re wrong, Zaurkan. This is just the time. Only the strings of an apkhiartsa can ease our sorrow and soothe us, at least a little. Come on, I beg you...”
We walked toward the lone tree that stood on the seashore. Gray-bearded Sakut, with his back up against the trunk, was gazing with his blind eyes out where the waves, like horses with white manes, rolled in the roaring vastness of the sea.
Sakut was surrounded by people who had come from the meeting. There were at least fifteen of them. An apkhiartsa and bow were lying on a faded horse cloth next to the blind singer. I knew that every day at sunset Astan guided his grandfather to the lone tree. People would soon gather around to hear him sing, would secretly shed a tear and get some relief from their sorrow. Sakut never sang his songs twice, making a gift of each one to the people. After all, who would give the same present twice? Old Sakut, ever since he went blind, could recognize people by their voices. He would say hello to anyone who greeted him and would call him by name.
“Good day, Sakut,” I said as I approached.
“Oh, Zaurkan. I could tell that was you from your footsteps. May God bless you, the eldest son of Hamirza. You know, my friend, whenever I hear your voice it reminds me of the heroes who lived in the days of my ancestors. They lived a long long time like the Narts—the giants of our fairytales... I wish you their long life! I’m so glad you came. I have a request to make f you. My grandson Astan is so young and inexperienced. All our relatives are now dead so I ask you this favor, Zaurkan: after I die don’t leave him without your counsel. Be an older brother to him. I have already told the others to bury me, a sinner, under this tree with my head facing toward my native mountains.” Pointing to the leather sack attached to his belt, he explained: “In here is a handful of earth from our homeland. Sprinkle it on my chest after you lower me into my grave. And hang my apkhiartsa on this tree. The wind will touch the strings and I will be able to hear their sounds.” Then he rubbed his quivering palm over the rough tree trunk. “Where’s your brother, Zaurkan?”
“Greetings, grandfather,” said Mata quietly.
“Now you come closer to me. Bend down! Come on, bend down!
Mata leaned over to the old man who felt his face with his thin sensitive fingers.
“You’ve been crying, lad?”
“That’s all right. You need not feel guilty about your tears. May they turn into courage! “
Then he fumbled around for his apkhiartsa and bow. He put the instrument next to his thin chest and strummed it a few times to tune the horse hair strings. Sakut was in no hurry. He turned his eyes to the sky as though he could see its light, the floating clouds, and the birds soaring in its endless expanses.
“Every day has its song,” he announced.
The people became silent. The bow, led by his hand, moved down smoothly and then went up sharply.
Wa-raida, don’t stop
Playing my apkhiartsa,
Give us hope like you’d give
Stirrups to a rider.
Blind man, touch the strings.
May light come through darkness,
And let hope fill again
Thousands of brave hearts.
A son is weak from days of thirst:
“Mother, I’m thirsty!”
“Patient be, beloved son
Till Sister brings you water.”
“I haven’t eaten, Mom, for days!
I need some food or I’ll die.”
“Your father is grinding the barley,
Be patient, my dear son.”
The mother is soothing her only son—
Her husband and daughter are in their graves.
Wa-raida, may always hope
Be lighting up your darkest nights.