A summer afternoon brought out the blazing sun. Chickens would hide from the sun, waiting for relief from the heat with open beaks. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. You could feel its heat even through your boots. The roofs, leaves of scant trees, chicken coops, gates, and camels forever chewing their cud were all covered with dust. If you slapped the side of a camel with the palm of your hand, or put your finger on the gate the hot volatile dust would fly. The whole village seemed dead; even the dogs didn’t bark. The people would wait out the heat in their windowless homes. They would wake before sunrise, work until the air became burning hot, and then they’d wait until evening to finish their chores. It was the only way to survive the summer. I lived in Karinjovasy like a temporary boarder. At any rate, that’s the way people regarded me. “Since he came it means he’ll eventually leave,” was how the neighbors thought about it.
There was a mosque in the middle of the village. Five times a day the muezzin would climb up on the minaret and call the faithful to say their prayers. He would say, “There’s no God, but Allah...”
...In the autumn the Jamhasars (who belonged to the Uarak tribe, nomads by tradition) would make a camp east of Karinjovasy. They lived in a tight circle and according to their own strict adat* Creed, unwritten common law among some Muslim peoples.—Ed.; and they didn’t allow aliens in their midst. Even in their commercial dealings they wouldn’t have anything to do with outsiders except when absolutely necessary. Like all nomads used to the saddle they were stately in their bearing, thin and dark-complexioned. They were livestock breeders, herding their goats and sheep from pasture to pasture. At the end of the summer when the nomads stopped for a short while some distance away from the Ubykh villages their black woolen cloth tents made one think of ravens at rest, but ready any minute to fly off. The chief of the Jamhasars was Javad Bey, a severe and uncommunicative old man. Although he had Ubykh women in his harem, he had no concern for the Ubykh people. He would even send his men to raid Karinjovasy, abducting women and stealing cattle.
Naturally, the Ubykh exiles took up arms to defend their property and honor, and each time blood was shed. But who thinks of the consequences when rushing headlong into a skirmish?
The Sharuals lived west of the bare plains. They were friendly and polite in manner, but actually rather cunning, calculating and even a bit roguish. Generation after generation of Sharuals engaged in only one occupation—trade. They had control over all the bazaars, near and far.
When a Sharual mother rocked her son to sleep she sang him this lullaby:
Sleep my sonny, rockaby,
Things will come to you in time.
One day you will be on top
Like your father owning a shop.
Practically the very next day the Ubykhs arrived in Karinjovasy, the Sharuals came to check them out and vend their merchandise:
“Lavash for sale! Lavash for sale!”
“Kerosene! Kerosene!” called out the newly-arrived peddlers.
Soon one of the enterprising Sharuals opened up a shop in an Ubykh settlement. Another one opened up a coffee house and yet another began loaning small amounts of money with interest. When a mosque was opened the mullah there was a haji* A Muslim who has gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca., .also a Sharual. The village elder was his nephew three times removed. People said that even the province’s governor was from the tribe of the closefisted Sharuals.
In time the Ubykhs and the offspring of the Sharual merchants were not only doing business together but were intermarrying. The sharp-witted and artful young Sharual men would forget all about market days, profitable deals, and their debtors when they looked at beautiful Ubykh women. The wedding toasts in these cases were in two languages, and most often in Turkish so most of the guests could follow along. Ubykh men who had been born subjects of the Turkish Empire gladly married Sharual women with dowries that came from the profits made off trade and money-lending.
Sharakh, you remember Tagir, the grandson of Hamida who committed suicide by throwing herself into the Chorokh River? When I was in the prison for lifers the son of Mzauch Abukhba, bless his soul, told me that Tagir, who had become a learned man, followed the exiled Ubykhs of his own accord. And that was true. He taught the children how to read and write in their native language. I’m sure you realize that he had to have books if he wanted to pursue his noble goal. But there were no books in Ubykh, so Tagir personally devised an Ubykh primer. Of course, his book, probably, the only one in our history, was a written manuscript.
The mullah couldn’t ignore such reprehensible, in his opinion, behavior on the part of the “Circassian”: “Why should children learn some heathen language? It’s one thing when I, a mullah, teach them the Turkish alphabet so they can read signs and some day sign their names to a draft notice. Since they go to the mekteb they must also learn Arabic. In an Islamic country people must know their prayers by heart. But it’s harmful to learn a language that you can’t read prayers in, or the name of the sultan. It just keeps the students from learning what they’re supposed to. If we ignore what that self-proclaimed teacher Tagir is doing, heaven forbid that the offspring of this tribe of scoundrels should take their lessons seriously and actually learn how to read and write in Ubykh. And then the day may come when they write something subversive and the authorities won’t even know what it is they’re up to. Allah only knows there are enough trouble-makers as it is.”
Obsessed with suspicion, the mullah was more and more certain that Tagir was up to no good:
“Where did that scholar Tagir come from? From Istanbul! And where did he grow up? In the family of the traitor and assassin Shardyn, son of Alou! That explains everything.” And so the mullah told his superiors: “I’m informing you that the impious Tagir is not only teaching the children of foreigners a godless language against the law, but is acting as the mouthpiece of rebels and murderers. Having no respect for the sultan’s laws, he has encouraged his fellow tribesmen not to pay taxes to Ali Hazret Pasha, has written complaints about the mukhtar* Head of the local government of a town.—Ed., and about the manager of Pasha Husein Effendi’s estate. Tagir wrote complaints, or rather slander, supposedly in the name of the people, and he personally delivered many of them to the palace of the grand vizier.”
Well, it’s true, my son, that Tagir was the people’s de fender and mouthpiece. The prophet tried to get his thoughts across through the scribe; the Ubykhs did it through Tagir. But the vizier wasn’t the least bit concerned about our troubles. All he had to say was, “Who? The Ubykhs? Haven’t they all died out or become assimilated yet? Well, if they didn’t it’s their own fault!”
All of Tagir’s efforts were in vain. The mullah got his way: Hamida’s grandson was forbidden once and for all to teach the children Ubykh. That happened just before I arrived in Karinjovasy. I wanted to see Tagir, but he wasn’t available. He was in Istanbul again trying to get justice for his fellow villagers.
As you can well understand, Sharakh, I couldn’t be a parasite in Sit’s home. I thought about going into the black smith trade I learned from David’s son, but you can’t build a blacksmith shop on good intentions alone. I had no way of getting hammers, anvils, tongs and whatever else I would need to run a shop. I would have borrowed the money from Sit but he didn’t have any. He would bitterly joke, “All I have in my pocket is a flea in a snare.” Just to get coal in that treeless valley I would need a lot of money. So the only thing left for me to do was help the old man out with his farm; he and I sowed wheat, although what kind of a harvest could you have on land made barren by dry winds? And don’t forget that the plot Sit and my aunt owned was so small you could practically cover it with a cape. We would have liked to plant cotton, but we gave up the idea: we couldn’t have found enough water.
One day we got hold of wild pumpkin seeds that produced bottle-shaped pumpkins. We planted the seeds and were surprised ourselves how good the harvest was. So we had lots of pumpkins. Necessity is the mother of invention: we dried out the pumpkins and made ladles with pretty handles, colanders, cups and other utensils. We also learned how to make toys out of dried pumpkin: dolls decorated with bird feather, masks with whiskers made of wool and holes for eyes. Our goods sold well at the bazaar. Of course we couldn’t make much money; each time we brought home just a few copper coins.
Thank the Lord my father didn’t live to see the shameful day his son, born to be a farmer and warrior, ended up a market salesman of these trinkets.
One sweltering hot day when the flies were particularly annoying I stayed at the bazaar till evening, selling our wares made of pumpkin. The sun was going down when I took the money I’d earned and spent it on salt, kerosene and bread and went on home. I was depressed just because what I was doing was not worthy of a true man of the Caucasus. I was also upset by the latest news. People were talking about another war. They said Greek soldiers were getting ready to land in Izmid, French ships had already dropped anchor in the Mersin bay, and the English were telling the no longer independent sultan what to do and involving him in bloody deals. I told Sit about the rumors I’d heard at the bazaar and said I was worried about what would happen to the Ubykhs.
“When the prince fights with his princess the maid is the one who suffers most,” said the old man gloomily.
I would go to the mosque on Fridays. Don’t think Zaurkan Zolak took to the Muslim faith. I only went because I didn’t want Sit and Aunt Himzhazh to have any troubles on my account. What would people say about them if the man they sheltered in their home had a reputation for being faithless?
I must tell you, Sharakh, that while I was in Africa and serving time in prison all the Ubykhs became Muslims. This surprised me greatly. They even seemed more devout than the Sharuals who lived among them.
Every Friday all of them, young and old went to the mosque. My fellow Ubykhs now fasted according to the Muslim calendar. Of course, that wasn’t so hard since the people had so little to eat anyway. And the Ubykhs also refrained from working on holidays, especially during Uraza* The 30-day fast held by Muslims during the month of Ramadan.—Ed. and Nauruz.* New Year’s day.—Ed. Lifting their heads skywards they would no longer say: “God help us!” but would utter: “Help us, Allah!” and put their palms together in prayer. But what surprised me most was that they never drank any alcohol. These people acted less and less like Ubykhs.
You ask about Bytkha, Sharakh? I was just going to tell you about that. Bytkha still existed and the elders continued to worship her. That shouldn’t surprise you. When I was a young man I once saw how the Shapsugs worshiped the trunk of a pear tree with a cross on it although they were pagans. And the Circassians had two or three faiths: some of them worshiped Christ, others were Muslims. And still others had minor gods—Christian saints combined with pagan gods—like Merisa, patron of the bees. These Circassians insisted that one cold year all their bees died, except for one which survived because it hid in the sleeve of the virtuous Merisa. And so they claimed that this one bee started off a whole new family of honey bees.
The priest of Bytkha was still Soulakh. By that time he was very old, like I am now.
One day Sit said to me:
“Soulakh is ill. Let’s go visit him, my son! Besides, you haven’t even seen the old man since you’ve come!”
I agreed it was time I paid Soulakh a visit and so we set off to see the ailing priest. Sit was dressed as though he were going to a festive gathering. He had on a Circassian coat, a tunic underneath, a dagger on his belt, and was carrying a staff with an iron tip. The old man wanted to please the priest. On our way there people greeted us:
Thrusting the point of his staff into the ground, Sit would reply each time:
No one used any Ubykh greetings. Instead of “good day” or “glad to see you” what we heard was just “selam aleykum”, “vaaleykum asselam!” But these were Ubykhs talking! ”What’s wrong with them all?” I asked Sit. His answer was brief:
“They’ve got used to it.”
Some boys were playing in the street. When we walked past them not one of them looked up to get out of our way. All of them acted as though they didn’t even see the gray- bearded men and just went on playing, oblivious of our presence. So we walked around them. One black-haired boy, who seemed to be the oldest, looking at Sit shouted:
“Why don’t you take off all that wool clothing, Gramps! Give your bones a chance to cool off.”
The boys had a good laugh. But Sit didn’t even look back. Probably that wasn’t the first time he heard such little boys shamelessly ridiculing their elders. New times— new customs.
“Oh, dear! I wish I had never been born!” the old man muttered and seemed to be lost in thought. Maybe he was remembering his youth in Ubykhia. Oh, believe you me, everything there was different!
In the old days if one of the elders would just utter, “My horse!” the young Sit would dart off for the tethering post and bring the elder his horse. While the horseman was mounting, the boy would hold the stirrup. If the boy would have the honor of accompanying the horseman, he’d ride to his left, half a length behind. When the elder was ready to dismount, Sit was already on the ground and holding the rein with one hand and the stirrup with the other, assisting the rider. Then he’d hurry on ahead to hold the gate open.
When elders would sit down to eat young Sit would bring them a pitcher of water, a wash basin and towel so they could wash their hands before eating. And no matter how long the elders sat at the table, even if it was three days straight, Sit would serve them, not sitting down for a minute. Unless he was asked a question, Sit wouldn’t say a word.
The years raced by, and Sit became an old man himself, but the young were not the same anymore. Those whippersnappers playing in the street were Ubykhs by descent, yet there was no trace in them of the traditional upbringing. They were only Ubykhs in name, but what they really were—well, it’s even hard to say...
When we walked into Soulakh’s yard I saw him dressed all in white as though the priest was ready to perform religious rites. He was sitting on a bench close to the ground and was holding a staff with an iron tip. His ash-gray beard went down to his belt. The local elders sat at each side of him. Soulakh recognized me, got up and hugged me.
“May there be happiness in the home that has given you shelter.”
He sat me down next to him although I wouldn’t have dared to take such an honorable seat on my own. The old man was suffering from headaches, but at that moment he seemed to have forgotten them. At his request I told him about my travels and my years of imprisonment. He was moved by my story.
“My brothers,” said Soulakh to all those present, “if you hadn’t come to me today I would have called you here myself. Zaurkan has come just in time. I have decided to give up my-duties as your priest.”
We were all shocked by that sudden news.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, but hesitated to mention it because I was afraid that you, the last of the Ubykh elders, would take it too hard.”
“Forgive me for being so forthright, but you can’t do this. You are still of sound mind and just mustn’t make a rash decision. The duty you have been entrusted by the people is not an easy one, but because our fellow Ubykhs are disheartened as they face the prospect of extinction, your decision is too hasty,” countered Sit with unconcealed alarm.
“Being of sound mind is more important than being of sound body,” Daut added.
“Of what use is a leader if there’s no one to lead? A tree can’t go on living if its roots are torn loose! Who needs a priest for a shrine that’s been long forgotten?” said Soulakh lowering his head and with sadness in his voice.
“Honorable Soulakh, as long as there’s one Ubykh who worships the sacred Bytkha, you cannot step down,” said Tatlastan to support Sit who was about the same age.
“What you’re saying comes out of your fear for the people’s future, but what I’m saying,” replied Soulakh, “is the truth, bitter as it is, but unavoidable...”
The old man was quiet. He had one of his headaches so he sat still for a long time until it passed. He was already old, and decrepit. The wrinkles on his forehead were as deep as furrows. The skin covering the hump of his nose, protruding like a rock under the snow, was so thin you could almost see the cartilage. His lips quivered as though he was constantly whispering. Hi eye sockets had sunk, and from their depths his eyes covered with a hazy film glimmered like pale blue cold shards of glass. The priest’s voice, which was once so loud, could barely be heard now as though it were coming from a cave.
“It is said: comply with the desires of the old and young alike. Let it be your way,” uttered Soulakh when his headache receded. “We’ll call a meeting and see just how many people still seek Bytkha’s protection.”
“There are fewer worshipers, but there are still some left,” said Daut to the elder in encouragement, but not so sure of himself.
But the priest was a realistic man and felt Daut’s words were just wishful thinking:
“A calf follows a cow, and a tale follows a teller. We won’t have to wait long to see for ourselves. Call the people together this Thursday. If they come...”
“Oh, if only we were at home all we’d have to do is blow the horn and everyone would come at once,” sighed Sit.
We got up to go our separate ways, but Soulakh asked us to wait a minute. He called his sickly, one-armed grandson and quietly gave him instructions. The grandson nodded, went back into the house and within a minute brought out a beautiful ancient dagger on an Ubykh belt and the sacred brass horn.
Soulakh got up, thrust his staff into the ground with the little strength he had left and patted his beard.
“My brothers,” he said with unexpected ardour. “You ought to know that this has been passed down to me from my forefathers. This dagger was made back when the land of the Ubykhs enjoyed glory and fame. All its owners were real men and the hand of each of them was the continuation of the steel blade. And this horn called the people together, was the heralder of their joy and sorrow. Even the mountains echoed its call. I have one foot in the grave. My grandson, as you know, is not well and has little experience.” Soulakh turned to me: “My son, Zaurkan Zolak, you are younger than all of us here, but you have suffered far more. The weak hearted are broken by suffering, the strong are tempered. That’s why you alone are worthy of inheriting these objects that carry the stamp of fate.”
“Wait a minute,” I was dumbstruck. “How can I possibly deserve them? After all, I’m stained with the blood of innocent Said and my conscience is not clear because I do not believe in Islam, yet I go to the mosque...”
“You must do as I say. I know best!” retorted my elder.
The others began congratulating me. Putting his hand on my left shoulder, Soulakh made this request:
“On Thursday morning you are to come to the sacred mound. You shall stand on top of it, put your lips to the brass horn and blow for all the people to hear. Its call will remind the Ubykhs who they are! Those who have been disheartened will regain hope, and those who have for got who they are will rediscover themselves. If God still has mercy on us we will have our meeting!”
The old men cheered up and looked ten years younger. I stood before them not knowing whether to rejoice or to cry.