Our caravan consisting of thirty camels, twenty horses and some fifty men advanced through the desert to the plaintive jingling of bells. We’d been on the road for a month already after leaving heavily populated and noisy Cairo.
I can still see Ismail Sabbah riding ahead of us on his black Arabian steed, wearing a white burnous.* A hooded mantle or cloak, as that worn by Arabs.—Ed. He was wiry, light-footed and tough. He was a Bedouin and felt at home among the sandhils. His bodyguards swayed in their saddles following him on both sides. They could understand their master from a mere glance or word barely uttered. If he’d give the sign “Die!“, they’d die without hesitation. We who worked on the caravan were a mixed,
disorderly bunch, but an order given by Ismail Sabbah was law for all of us. If you’d disobey, he’d kill you.
When he was a boy, without a penny to his name, he latched on to a caravan and ever since then that hazardous nomadic trading has been his passion. He had one mirage since early childhood in that boundless sea of sand—money. The wild youth achieved his treasured dream: he became a caravan leader. In the desert he was God Almighty to us. Everyone has his sovereign. And Ismail Sabbah had his too. He was Kerim Effendi of Cairo, a well-known merchant and moneybag who wasn’t averse to making illegal deals. When I first met Ismail Sabbah he was already past his prime. He was tall, dark and had a black, glossy mustache. His eyes were green like a tiger’s. I said they were green, but they weren’t exactly, because they were very strange: they changed colors several times a day. I never heard the caravan leader laugh his heart out. When he laughed he showed his yellow teeth and let out a sound like an animal roaring, but there was no joy on his face at all.
They say, Sharakh, that when your patience runs out the grave is near. Apparently, to my great misfortune, fate granted me tremendous patience and that’s why I’m still alive. Born in the mountains, among the evergreen vegetation, I ended up, worn like a flint, in the desert that was as sterile as the groin of a mule. You can’t keep up with me, Sharakh? Well, I won’t talk so fast. Or maybe you’re tired of my babble? Since you’re not, then have your pen keep up with my tongue...
There was an old prison on the edge of Karaburun* Black cape. where pirates were once hanged. Condemned to death by a religious court, I was waiting for the sentence to be carried out for over four months. That means I was dying every day. Exhausted by waiting, my tortured soul begged for it all to end. The only thing I didn’t feel was repentance for murdering Scum Pasha, neither then, sitting in my prison cell, nor later, throughout my long life. Held in shackles, doomed to die, reviewing in my mind all the events of recent years, one after another, like one would count black devotional beads, I wasn’t concerned about God, but about my sisters, Feldysh, my mother and father. Were they still alive? I also worried about what had happened to my brother Mata and to Muhammad. What had become of them? The walls of a prison are deaf arid dumb. All I could hear was the murmur of the sea. I would have asked the waves, but I couldn’t speak their language.
Suddenly one day at midnight when I was dreaming about the land of the Ubykhs, the door of my cell creaked as it came open. I looked up to see the prison warden and a sailor I’d never seen before. Each of them was carrying a burning candle flickering in the dark.
“Look, there he is. He’s as big as an ox! If you give him some food you can harness that one.”
“Hey there, turn around! Flex your arm muscles! Bend your neck!“ said the sailor as he examined me.
I figured they were trying to decide whether the noose would hold me or not. My heart froze.
Then an armed guard came in and gave the order:
With shackles clanking, I obediently followed my new master out of the prison. It was pouring outside. Clouds hung low over the sea.
When lightning struck I could see from a cliff overlooking the sea a schooner with sails. Soon I was in its hold. The sailor who had examined me in my cell turned out to be the captain. I guessed right away that the warden had sold me to him like cattle. It’s not hard to explain the disappearance of a condemned man: he hanged himself and his body was thrown into the sea. That happened often enough...
I suppose I should have rejoiced at the sudden turn of events. Well, I escaped death, but only to become a slave. A slave isn’t a person; his master can do anything he wants with him—the master’s whim is law. While you have the strength and work like a horse you’re fed; when you can’t you’re shot. You’ve got no one to complain to anyway.
The slave schooner, taking great care, headed for Cairo. There the merchant Kerim Effendi bought me from the captain. Sitting on a chair on the balcony of his country villa Kerim Effendi sized me up and said in Turkish:
“I know everything about your past. I heard another man’s life means nothing to you. The Turkish pasha, apparently, wasn’t your first victim. I don’t even want to know how many men you’ve murdered. Let it be on your conscience. You’re from the Caucasus, aren’t you?”
I nodded in reply.
“We have Abkhasians in Egypt. Once long ago twelve Abkhasian women, the wives of noblemen in Cairo, you might say ruled Egypt. Their descendants took the surname Abaza. To this day there are many Abazas.” The merchant laughing roguishly, commented: “If Abkhasian women were good at running the affairs of state, an Abkhasian man like you should be smart enough to catch a fish with his teeth. You’re a lucky fellow, you know: your head was going to be chopped off, but there it is in place. I bought it. But if you don’t do what I say... It’s not in your interests to cross me.”
Then he handed me over to Ismail Sabbah. And that’s how I went to work on a caravan.
From then on I was called Abaza, which in Arabic means Abkhasian. I was, after all, half Abkhasian. At first my job was to feed the camels, pack and unpack the cargo. Ubykhs had always had horses; I had never seen a camel before in my life. When I started the job I disliked those humpbacked freaks, but then I got used to them and began respecting these uncapricious, intelligent and hardy animals. They helped us out many a time during sand storms and even saved our lives.
My Lord, how defenseless, small and weak a person seems up against the silent, barren desert sands! The wandering wind—the vulture’s brother—whistles as it sweeps up sand waves that look like saber blades. In eight years numerous times I crossed the desert where countless numbers of people were buried. An hour after someone was laid in the ground there wouldn’t even be a grave mound—it would he swept away by the wind. From the moment the morning sun opened its fire-spitting jaws and until nightfall the heat was so fierce that if you could endure it there was no reason to fear hell. Under these circumstances, close track was kept of every drop of water in the bull-skin flasks. But at night it was dreadfully cold and you couldn’t light a fire—there was nothing to make it with.
Ismail Sabbah knew dead plains, where rattlesnakes change their skin, like the palm of his hand. He had travelled many a time through the golden sea of sands to various parts of Africa. You’d like to know, Sharakh, what goods we were carrying across the desert? For the sake of appearance we packed silk, utensils, prayer rugs and other ordinary wares. But the main goods hidden in our packs and saddle- bags were opium and gunpowder. It was illegal to trade such items, but that was no obstacle for Kerim Effendi and Ismail Sabbah. If they were caught with the goods, they’d bribe their way out of the fix. I already told you, Sharakh, that the color of the caravan leader’s eyes changed many times a day, but he also had a way of transforming himself from a cooing dove to a raging panther. He was willing to do anything, though, to get hold of precious diamonds, gold or fragrances at a low price. And at such moments it seemed that a more gracious customer couldn’t be found anywhere else in Africa.
“I’ll pay a good price, my king, a very good price! May all your illnesses be mine if you think I’m not paying the right price!“ he persuaded a stubborn seller.
And when he managed to buy some precious merchandise at a profitable price, he was truly happy, happier even than he would have been if all his dead relatives had come back to life. But when he was furious he was a real beast, especially if his fury was caused by a person of lower station.
One day a small leather bag containing a copper coffee pot was missing. Ismail suspected one of the men:
“Where is it?”
“I have no idea, Sir!”
“You sold it, you louse!”
We begged the enraged caravan leader not to punish an innocent man. We even got down on our knees before Ismail Sabbah.
“Many others can slip on the dung of one camel,” he retorted.
At that he took a Turkish knife from his belt and thrust it right into the heart of the accused. The poor slave gasped his last breath and dropped dead at the feet of his murderer who then sat down on a woolen mat nearby and began chewing on a leg of lamb. He ate with a hardy appetite, contentedly smacking his greasy lips, and his squinting eyes went from crimson red to yellow.
Ismail Sabbah took his time cleaning the bone, stood up, pulled his knife out of the dead man’s chest, and ordered us to get the camels ready for travel.
“Let’s get moving!”
Vultures appeared in the sky...
Have you ever seen real ivory, Sharakh? If ivory could cure diseases it would be worthwhile crossing the desert where there’s no shade for protection. But the tusk of an elephant is only ornamentation for the wealthy. Ivory is hard, so hard a bullet can’t penetrate it, but it’s easy to carve.
Wealth leads to whims. The chess pieces that Kerim Effendi moved on his black and white sandalwood board, and the handle on his walking stick, were made out of ivory. The stem of the hookah he smoked, and the butt of his rifle, were decorated with ivory. Kerim Effendi wanted to be surrounded by expensive things: that’s why he wanted the table and chair in his living room to be decorated with ivory. And why shouldn’t he? After all, they say a rich man’s rooster learns to lay eggs. I heard that in Kerim Effendi’s office there was a white, slender, nude woman carved out of one large ivory tusk. When Kerim Effendi looked at it he would sometimes sigh, recalling his youth. And his noble wife also wanted things made of ivory, and not only powder cases, or jewelry boxes for her diamonds.
And so we would cross the yellow desert, suffering from intense heat, thirst and mosquitoes, then travel through the jungles where the humidity was unbearable, and come to rivers filled with crocodiles just to buy the white ivory from black men at the lowest possible price.
But more valuable than anything else were diamonds which, when cut, were more precious than gold. To get diamonds from the Africans Ismail Sabbah was ready to turn all of us men, and all the camels into a handful of dust and turn himself inside out forty times. A greedy man’s sense of smell is better than any dog’s. White men from overseas had crossed half the world to uncivilized lands whose lower depths contained diamonds. They suddenly appeared with soldiers, alcohol and their own clergymen. I saw with my own eyes, Sharakh, how black natives turned into slaves worked in the diamond pits. There’s no drudgery worse than diamond mining. When the work day was over the guards would search the men; they looked in their ears, their nostrils and their mouths. God forbid that anyone should be caught with a hidden precious stone— death was imminent. Sometimes the black tribes would rise up and rebel. Armed with arrows they made their captors tremble, even though the enslavers had rifles. I was a witness to how fear made the sun helmets of the white colonizers jump!
If a man’s conscience is clear, but he meets one calamity after another, he has reason to believe he’s being made to suffer for someone else’s sins.
I was younger then than you are now, Sharakh, but I kept thinking more and more often that I was being punished for the sins committed by my ancestors. True, I had no idea what they had done to kindle the wrath of the gods, but I was certain that I was paying for some evil they had done.
Then one day I was spared the execution I’d been sentenced to and ended up outside prison alive. Perhaps fate had finally smiled on me? The hell it had!
Remember I told you that we adopted the grandson of Hamida who drowned herself in the river. Well, Shardyn, son of Alou, wanted that clever boy to accompany his heir to Istanbul. The boys were a year apart in age. When I returned from Africa Tagir had finished his studies and was still living in the home of Shardyn, the sultan’s brother in-law. Tagir knew many secrets. For instance, I later learned from him that when the chief of police had told the grand vizier about the death of Vali Selim Pasha, the sly old fox spoke his mind for the first time:
“That Ubykh fellow, without even realizing it, did us a big favor.”
The grand vizier immediately told the sultan what had happened, knowing the news would be received with great pleasure. And he wasn’t mistaken. It was all quite simple. Scum Pasha was close to some men involved in the conspiracy of the Young Turks who wanted a new ruler. The sultan didn’t have enough evidence to accuse him of treason and send him to the executioner’s block, but he already distrusted the Izmid governor and couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Then I entered the picture, jabbing my Caucasian dagger into the chest of the disgraced pasha. Maybe that’s why the sultan, Abdulaziz, wasn’t in a hurry to sanction my execution. That was probably his way of warning all those who went along with the man I had killed: “Whoever goes against me will be outlawed, and I will not be hard on the assassins of my opponents.”
Tagir was convinced that Shardyn, son of Alou, had helped make the deal between the prison warden and the captain of the slave schooner. Shardyn was quick to use my name to his advantage when he inadvertently mentioned to the sultan:
“Incidentally, that Ubykh youth who murdered the unfortunate pasha is my foster brother’s son. The poor lad was avenging his dishonored sisters.”
Shardyn, son of Alou, didn’t tell the sultan that he had actually guided my hand himself, but the way he worded his remarks did not exclude that possibility.
The bells of our caravan could be heard in many parts of Africa populated by various tribes. Once, after traveling for many days under the fierce pitiless sun we met some Tuaregs* Indigenous Caucasian ethnic group in North Africa.. The tall, broad-shouldered, small-waisted men wore daggers on their belts. The women with their olive-colored skin, and beautifully shaped eyes were revered, although they had to live by strict ancient rules.
When I heard the music of an amzade, much like an apkhiartsa, I couldn’t help thinking of the Caucasus with its brave warriors and beautiful women. Tribes differ, but the people in them cry and laugh the same way. My peasant heart would melt when I would watch the Moors or the Berbers milk their cows. The milk would drip into containers made of huge pumpkins and I would be reminded of our Ubykh wooden milk pails. The milk fresh from the cows and the cow barns smelled the same; the cows had the same way of mooing; the roosters had the same way of crowing; and the goats had the same way of reaching up to the branches to get a taste of the leaves. And the sounds of the wedding tom-toms reminded me of our mountain drums. Some tribes prayed to Allah, others to Christ, and still others were pagans who worshiped the sun.
Once I saw heaps of human bones along our caravan’s route. Some of them had the loose rings of shackles around them—they were the remains of black slaves. But wasn’t I a slave myself? I was a white slave that Ismail Sabbah could kill like a dog; there was no one to defend me, nor anyone to mourn me after I died.
The measured step of the loaded camels, the dismal ringing of the bells—there seemed no end to it all. Caravan routes crossed, came together and again parted ways. Sometimes events stretched serenely like sand-hills, some times they swirled like the yellow whirlwinds of sand storms.
Once I remember we settled down for the night, unloaded the camels, had a meager supper and divided up the night watches not to fall easy prey to thieves. About the same time a caravan of black slaves roped together stopped nearby. The chief of the escorts turned out to be an old friend of Ismail Sabbah. There was no moon out that night and the dark blue sky with a crimson lining boded evil. The head of the escorts asked our leader a favor: to let him have some of our men, of course, for money, to increase his watch on the black slaves whose tribesmen are ever ready to free them. When Ismail Sabbah heard the word money he didn’t put up an argument. On the contrary, he was glad to appoint six men, including myself, to keep watch over the black slaves. We stood guard in three shifts. Another man and myself were assigned the second shift, and the third shift was to be taken by two flunkies of Ismail Sabbah; they were constantly telling on the others. At midnight when I took over the watch with my partner, the only thing I could think about was finishing the watch and getting at least a little sleep. Soon afterwards the wind began blowing, and the full moon peeped out from between the clouds. Against the moon’s silvery light the slaves, lying on the sand, were like pieces of black marble columns of some very ancient temple. Suddenly my eyes met the eyes of one of them. At first they were hateful, then they began questioning me:
“Do you have a father and mother?”
“Yes, I do.” I wasn’t able to look away.
“A brother, too?”
“Yes, I have a brother!”
“Where are they?” those terribly melancholy eyes inquired.
“I don’t know! Fate separated us,” admitted my sad look.
“Maybe your loved ones are also being taken slaves, like us. And my brother is escorting them,” his eyes spoke persistently, like that of a voodoo.
It was witchcraft! I lowered my eyes, but then some unknown power lifted them again to meet the slave’s penetrating expressive eyes.
“Believe me,” his eyes implored, “if my brother were sent to guard your enslaved relatives he would help them get away, because he values freedom and respects the laws of his homeland.”
I tried to resist his look, but his eyes held me like fate and lured me like freedom.
“Don’t ask that of me. I’m a slave just like you; I can’t help!“ and turned away ashamed.
Just as soon as I turned away I heard the voices of my father, mother, brother and sisters. They kept saying the same thing: Help that boy! Help him! Maybe, Sharakh, that was my conscience talking in their voices? The edge of the sky was growing lighter. Soon we would be replaced. I made my decision: a Turkish knife fell silently in front of that fellow who was tied by one rope with the other prisoners... After my partner and I were relieved, we got back to our camels and lay down on a woolen mat. My partner slept like a log, but I kept waiting, wondering what would happen. At dawn I heard shots and the warlike shouts of the blacks. All the slaves vanished into the bluish fog. In pools of blood lay three guards: our two, and one of the slave trader’s hired men.
Who hasn’t ever met up with someone whose features are similar to those of a good friend, or been to a place that looks as familiar as home...
The Southern Cross constellation was right above us when we left the god-forsaken Sahara and headed south. Soon afterwards the sun woke up behind us. Suddenly, in the first gleam of daylight, I spotted mountains. I was flabbergasted. Ever since I had left the land of the Ubykhs, I hadn’t seen real mountains. I was overjoyed, as though I was seeing a close relative. The slopes were green and the peaks were white. Was I dreaming? I almost believed I was standing on the north shore of the Black Sea and blissfully admiring the Caucasus Mountains.
I could imagine myself drinking water from a spring as I stood on my knees holding a rifle atilt, and then walking up along a narrow hunting path ascending to the sky through the brushwood of blackberries, blackthorns and clematis. Birds were singing. And a keen eye could spot the trail of a wild boar and mountain goats. I sat down on a moss- covered boulder, listened attentively, looked through a narrow gap between the branches forced apart by the wind, and—oh, how lucky could I get: there was an auroch on the edge of a cliff near the eternal snow...
If only Ismail Sabbah would let me go hunting. But it was no use asking! I knew beforehand that he wouldn’t allow me, and would take away my rifle on top of it. The dew had not yet dried when I decided to take my chances, and was climbing the mountain, holding my rifle atilt, moving from rock to rock. Eagles soared in the sky. Oh, I would give anything to be up as high as they are, I thought to myself, then I might even be able to see the mountains of Ubykhia, a picture I have always carried in my heart.
There was a babbling stream nearby with churning waves. I saw two chamois on the cliff of its high bank. The wind blew from behind them so they didn’t sense the danger. My passion for hunting got the best of me. Clinging to a rock, I got down on my right knee and aimed my rifle. The mountain echo repeated my shot three times. The J shook as though no one before me had ever fired a gun there. The dead chamois, striking against the rocks on the slope, rolled down on the bank of the stream. The second chamois melted into the sky, the thunder of gunfire in its ears. I hurried down the slope to skin my prey, and as I was coming down I noticed a black man standing at a distance with his bow lowered. I greeted him in a friendly tone of voice. Apparently, this local hunter had aimed at the chamois at the same time I had, but my bullet was faster than his arrow. Squatting before the catch sent to me by the god of the animals, I cut off its head. If one man looks intently at another, the one being watched will surely turn to look in the other’s direction. And that’s just what I did. When I turned around, I saw the African was staring at me.
“Come here! “ I called to him and signaled with my hand.
He came quickly and made some friendly remark in his own language. He probably said something like: “What good luck! “ He took out his knife and helped me skin the chamois. In keeping with the ancient hunting rules of our ancestors, I carved the carcass in half.
“Here, take your part!“ and I laid half of the fresh meat in front of him.
He understood me, accepted the gift with a wide grin, and bowed. Then he took an agate necklace off his muscular neck and put it around mine.
“Ngugi! Ngugi!“ he said, pointing to himself with his index finger.
I did the same, saying, “Zaurkan! Zaurkan!”
The black man nodded joyfully and repeated after me “Zaurkan!”
Then he ran off to gather b and made a fire in a flash. He cut two pieces of meat from his share, took off his belt a small leather bag with salt, and salted the meat on both sides. Then he whittled a twig from some aromatic tree and put it into the fire with our meat on it. When the meat was done, he gave me a big piece. We ate, praising each other and gesturing with sign language the whole time. All the time Ngugi and I were talking he kept looking at my rifle. I handed it to him. Then I put a bullet in it, cocked it, and fired. Ngugi danced for joy. He had probably never held a gun in his hands before. I had no doubt that he wanted it. Who knows, maybe he needed it for hunting or for self defense, or maybe to fight for his homeland?
It was time for me to be getting back. Ngugi showed me the shortest path to the valley. When we were saying goodbye, I took the rifle off my shoulder and gave it to him, along with the cartridge belt.
“Take this gift in memory of an Ubykh who has lost his homeland. I hope this gun serves you well!“ I said ii Ubykh.
I don’t imagine he understood my words, but I’m certain he got their meaning. We embraced! After walking half a mile, I looked back. Ngugi’s body was gleaming in the sun. Raising the rifle over his head, he stood there and bowed as I walked away.
You’re probably surprised, Sharakh, by what I did. The mountains were to blame: they awakened my rebellious spirit, urged me into crazy generosity, and made me forget that I was a slave myself.
When I got back to where our caravan was standing and took the still warm, fresh meat off my shoulder, my friends became overjoyed. After all, for two months they’d been eating only jerked meat, stale bread and dried bananas. But Ismail Sabbah’s eyes turned blood red. It was a bad sign. His thin lips tightened and he inquired with a menacing s
“Where’s your rifle and cartridge belt?”
“When I was returning from the hunt, some ruffians it tacked me and took it away,” I lied awkwardly.
“Why didn’t you shoot your way out?”
“There were a lot of them and they all had guns!”
“Look here, I’m not an ass. You sold the rifle and the cartridge belt to those thick-lipped thieves!”
“Have me searched and if you find any money on me you can cut off my head.”
“You hid the money, you creep! And now any of us could be killed by a bullet from your rifle,” and with that he ordered the men to tie me up.
Ten hefty Bedouins, having forgotten all about the fresh meat, fell on me, tied me up and threw me at the feet of the caravan leader. I lay there not even able to wiggle, while Ismail Sabbah, with his legs crossed on a woolen mat, began drinking a cup of coffee someone had handed him.
He drank slowly, not looking at me once. When he finished, the “tiger of the desert”, as we called him, picked up a whip and walked up to me.
“Don’t whip me, just shoot me,” I beseeched him.
But he cracked the whip and one blow followed another. That could have never happened in the land of the Ubykhs. If anyone had even whipped my horse Bzou, I would have made him count his own guts. It was the first time I had ever been whipped in my life. I was disgraced in front of the others. I didn’t even feel the bodily pain, but my impotent fury was more than I could bear: it burned my brain and grabbed me by the throat.
“Stop whipping me! If I live through this I’ll murder you!“ I wheezed and coiled like a snake.
But Ismail Sabbah went berserk, he kept whipping me like a man possessed. And here—you won’t believe me, Sharakh—I tensed every muscle in my body breaking the rope that was binding me. The very instant I got to my feet I hurled myself at Ismail Sabbah like a wounded panther. I grabbed the whip out of his hands, broke the handle, and threw it Lord knows where. If one of the men hadn’t stopped me, I would have choked the caravan leader to death. Then several men fell on me and tied me up again. But by that time I didn’t care at all. And the caravan leader had calmed down, too. My hands and legs were tied all night long, but neither Ismail Sabbah, nor anyone else came near me. In the morning, the caravan leader came up to me as though nothing had happened, and cut the rope that had pierced into my skin.
“Eat and get down to work!“ said Sabbah peaceably.
From that day on for some reason the caravan leader was more attentive to me, didn’t give me the worst jobs, sometimes asked my advice, and told me what to do without raising his voice. But I realized that the knife that had cut the rope binding my hands and legs could, whenever he wanted, be thrust into my chest...
Once Biram was late and didn’t bring our supper at the regular time. The sun was already setting, but there was no sight of him.
“What’s the matter? He’s never done this before! I don’t care about myself, I’m ashamed my guest should be kept waiting for his meal. As it is you have to eat our plain food not fit for company,” grumbled Zaurkan, and I kit that even though I kept insisting I didn’t mind, he was getting more and more worried.
He picked up his staff a number of times, but finally got up to go:
“I’ll go to Biram and find out what happened to him!”
He barely got to the gate when Biram appeared carrying his sack.
The old man turned around and sat down quietly, leaning n his staff.
Biram came up to me.
“Excuse me, dear Sharakh,” he said. “My wife is ill and couldn’t make supper on time!
“What’s wrong with your wife?” I asked.
“Since yesterday, and the whole night, she’s had a terrible headache, but today she’s a little better!”
Zaurkan listened, but didn’t say a word as though his tongue was tied.
After supper when Biram was getting his kitchen utensils together, putting them in the sack, I went up to him and said:
“If it had taken you just a little longer, Zaurkan would have gone to your house. He was worried.”
“What a pity! If I had known I would have taken even longer on purpose!“ was Biram’s reply.
“Why?” I asked.
“I think it’s been around ten years since Father has been o my house! “ he said, speaking even more softly so the old man wouldn’t catch what he was saying.
“He doesn’t visit the neighbors, and he doesn’t visit me. I suppose it’s because he’s angry with my wife. I told you already we don’t have any children. He tells me all the time: It’s bad enough I’m all alone. You’re going to be alone, too, and it’s all her fault!“ I don’t even know what to say to him; he’s a difficult man to get along with, very difficult! “ said Biram sadly, shaking his head, and then he left.
Zaurkan and I sat down across from one another and went on with the work we were already accustomed to.
The sun set; it got dark outside. I went into the house, lit the wick lamp and the old man followed me. There he continued his story.
He talked about all his experiences in Africa. Tried to recall where he had been, what peoples he had seen. Some times he even remembered words from the different languages he’d heard over his years of travel there. Mostly he talked about the deserts, but sometimes he described African jungles and the huge rivers that ships sailed.
At times he mixed up facts and would start all over again: “Just a second. Don’t write that down; it’s all wrong! Has everything dripped out of this old pumpkin, I wonder?” he exclaimed angrily as he pounded his forehead with his hand.
But in general, despite this stopping and starting, I ascertained that for eight or nine years straight he travelled, mostly walking, with caravans throughout the vast expanses of Africa...
Nine years is no laughing matter—it’s a whole lifetime! A boy who was born nine years ago and sucking his mother’s breast, nine years later can run so fast you won’t catch up with him.
When we sold all the goods and loaded our camels with the treasures we bought, including opium, our caravan went back to Cairo. Some of the men who had families in Egypt were glad to get home. But what was waiting for me there? Only money for illegal labor. Even if I had been freed and went back to Turkey where my family was, I would have been executed for the murder of Vali Selim Pasha.
Ismail Sabbah was in a hurry to get back to his caravan. We made longer marches and stopped for shorter periods of time. We had already passed the city of Siva. The “tiger of the desert” was cautious. He never tired of reminding us to be on guard at all times. He was always on the alert, sniffing the air, as it were.
“Bands of ruffians on this road have robbed caravans a number of times,” he warned us.
He gave each of us a double supply of cartridges. One night when there was no moon out, we pitched camp for the night near a well. We had just sent out guards when suddenly some horsemen burst out of the darkness and charged us like a hurricane. They shot at us as they rode, surrounded us, and we fired back. Darkness, the whistle of bullets, the roar of frightened camels, the snorting of horses, the hooting of the assailants—all that blurred into one. One of the horsemen attacked me and, hanging from his saddle, raised his saber to slash me. I overcame him and shot him right in the heart. Falling onto the sand, he shouted his last words in pure Ubykh:
“They got me! Now I’ll never see home again!
I was shocked. I was ready for anything, even death, but hearing my native language among those sand-hills where a demon wouldn’t linger was too unexpected and unbelievable. Besides, the man’s voice was so familiar. Meanwhile, the thieves on horseback realized they weren’t going to get anywhere with us and vanished as instantly as they had appeared. I ran over to the wounded man. He was dying. I was overcome with horror: even in the black of night I recognized him. It was Said, Haji Kerantukh’s foster brother. I lifted his head, feeling the warm, sticky blood staining my hand.
“Said! My Lord, Said! Is that really you?” I mumbled in a state of total shock.
The glimmer of death was in his eyes. He apparently recognized me and, whispering something incomprehensible, lowered his eyelids. My friends surrounded me carrying torches. Happy we were all alive they couldn’t fathom why I was crying over the dead man’s body.
I lost my senses; I wanted to die. Such inconsolable sorrow overtook me; living any longer seemed useless and impossible. I pointed the barrel of my rifle at my chest and was ready to pull the trigger when Ismail Sabbah, who was standing nearby, kicked the gun out of my hands. Then he pulled my knife out of its sheath on my belt.
“Tie up that madman!“ he shouted to the men.
But I got away from them while they were sticking their torches into the sand and ran off into the darkness. I ran fast, as though I was trying to catch the soul of Said, the man I had killed. I ran, not feeling my feet underneath me, until I had no more strength to move and fell to the ground.
Poor Said! The last time I had seen him we were in the outskirts of Samsun, and he was dreaming of going back to the land of the Ubykhs. I figured he’d died on the way to our native mountains. How did he end up in Africa? What evil spirit brought us together that way? What evil spirit wanted me to murder my freedom-loving fellow-tribesman?
I was in a stupor till morning; the wind was covering me with sand while I tossed and turned lying on those dead plains. In the morning I got up, as if out of the grave, and after brushing the sand off my face I looked around me. There were two jackals about ten steps away from me. Barely able to stand up straight, I staggered over to them: they jumped up and ran off, looking back all the time. Why hadn’t those filthy creatures eaten me up? I was half alive, defenseless and unarmed. Maybe they couldn’t stand the thought of eating a man who had killed his own brother in misfortune? The desert rocked beneath my feet, like the deck of a ship during a storm. I was dying of thirst, and the sun was rising higher and higher. Soon I could see trees here and there. It wasn’t a mirage, I had come to an oasis...