A NEWSPAPER FROM ABKHASIA

Tagir’s home, like any other peasant house, was plain and cramped, but not a day went by without someone coming to visit. Everyone felt welcome there because any word spoken from the heart will enter another’s. There was no way to get justice with the mukhtar. It was useless even going to him. Tagir’s doors were always open: Tagir would give advice, write out a complaint, but most importantly, he would listen, comfort and judge who was right or wrong in a dispute. People came to him even for herbal medicine although he hadn’t learned medicine in Istanbul. Their trust in him forced him to know these things and Tagir learned all about medical treatment in old books. The mukhtar envied and hated him. He was beside himself that some Ubykh, who was not endowed with power, was so revered by the emigres. Their spiritual leader wasn’t a mullah, but a simple teacher, a commoner whose father and mother no one could remember. Ah hah, such people had to be watched very closely. So the mukhtar placed Tagir under surveillance and wrote reports about him to Mi Hazret Pasha. Tagir knew that, but he wouldn’t back down; he refused to be cowardly.

Noticing I had walked into the yard, Tagir came to the door:

“Zaurkan, have a seat in the shade a while and rest. I’ll be with you in a minute. Some people are here to see me.”

“A guest is in the hands of his host,” I responded and sat down in the shade.

Gulizar, Tagir’s wife, quickly brought me a cup of coffee. She was Turkish, from Istanbul. The slender, dark-complexioned, friendly woman, who didn’t wear a veil or shy away from men, reminded me of Feldysh; every time I saw her my heart skipped a beat. Gulizar, whom Tagir had married late in life, understood our language, but she couldn’t speak it. They had two boys, and not like those who were playing in the road when Sit and I were going to Soulakh the priest. Tagir’s boys were brought up to be polite like the Ubykhs of the Caucasus. Soon, after Tagir saw off the villagers who had come to see him, he called to me:

“Come in, Zaurkan. Excuse me for making you wait so long in the yard. I was writing a petition for the peasants.”

Tagir led me into a small room connected to a larger one. It was the first time I’d been in it. I was surprised by the number of books in the room. It was unheard of for an Ubykh to have books in his home. Yet Tagir had a whole library. Sharakh, you are also a big reader, I’m sure. But I’m like a blind man when it comes to reading, if I had opened up even one book in Tagir’s room and tried to figure it out, it would have been useless. I looked at those books and the thought crossed my mind that if you could read all those books you could put any grand vizier in his place.

Pointing to the walls, Tagir said, “You’ll find ancient and rare books there on those shelves. We Ubykhs are not just weeds; we have a great past. We were written about by men of letters in ancient Greek, Arabic, Turkish and many other languages. We ended up in this sad state because of our deceitful leaders. If they hadn’t talked the people into emigrating, we would be a strong nation today.”

“How did you get all these books?”

“Shardyn, son of Alou, gave Mansou a lot of money. While we were going to school I was forced to be his irresponsible son’s confidant. He gave me money to buy books be cause he wanted me to study for the two of us. He was too busy having a good time to read books, so I would tell him what they were about and he would pay me extra for the service. That’s how I collected my treasure you’re seeing.”

Tagir pulled up a chair and had me sit down at a table with a thick manuscript on it.

“This, Zaurkan, is the history of the Ubykhs from ancient times till the present. I’ve been writing it for a long time. If I live long enough I’ll finish it. The living change and the changing live. Maybe the day will come when we as a people will disappear, be assimilated and remain only a memory, but my book will tell the world about us, about our greatness and our decline.”

“That’s a noble pursuit! Good luck to you! I remember how our fathers, even when they were losing a battle, would sing the song of heroes. The song bolstered their faltering morale and put fear into their enemies. Your book is like the song of heroes. Without it we won’t even be remembered. But the written word is eternal: it will be read by people who will say with respect: ‘Throughout their existence the Ubykhs never lost their courage.’”

“Thank you, Zaurkan!”

Tagir stroked the manuscript like a strict father would pat his beloved son, and I couldn’t help but compare what I’d heard there with what I’d heard at Astan’s house. At Astan’s the spirit said a prayer for the dying and at Tagir’s it made a toast to health; at Astan’s the spirit was declining and at Tagir’s it reigned supreme. Tagir picked up a pen from the table.

“Do you know what this is?”

“Yes, it’s for writing.”

“Believe me, Zaurkan, it’s stronger than any saber. If we Ubykhs, like the Georgians, for instance, had had a written language, we would have had a weapon that couldn’t have been taken away from us. I’m so sure nothing would have happened to us. If a people can read and write they will never perish. Our forefathers are to blame for our disastrous plight. Many mountaineers who have come to Turkey have woken up, better late than never. The Abkhasians have devised an alphabet; they want to be literate and they are trying to start schools for their children. The same with the Adighes. And I,” Tagir pulled toward him a pile of paper with writing on every page, “have made up an Ubykh alphabet.” Taking up the first page, he said: “See, these are the 1etters: a, b, c...”

“Oh, Tagir, even if they weren’t so small, but the size of an elephant I still wouldn’t understand them. Don’t even try and teach me. Even glasses wouldn’t help.”

“If you were the only one like that it would be a pity, but when everyone’s like that it’s a tragedy. That’s all there is to it. If I could get permission from the authorities to open up an Ubykh school for our children I’d use my home for a classroom and would teach with no pay. Opening day would be the happiest day of my life.”

I held the manuscript of the reader on the palm of my hand with the same tenderness as if I were carrying a new born babe:

“I suppose your book is a good thing and probably, just because I’m so backward I can’t fully appreciate your work. Excuse me for saying this, but I’ve heard Turks claim our language could never be written down on paper because it’s too much like bird talk. Husein Effendi calls it a buzzard language.”

“Husein Effendi has a pumpkin for a head. There isn’t a language anywhere that can’t be written on paper. If only I could get this reader printed and open up a school. I’m hopeful.”

“And I think you should be.”

Tagir picked up both manuscripts, evened out the edges of the pages, and put them in a trunk standing in the corner. Gulizar brought in cups of hot black coffee just off the fire.

Tagir rested his head on the palm of his hand and ran his fingers over his mustache. I sipped my coffee. I was so comfortable and calm, as though I were sitting in my own home in Ubykhia. Tagir rolled himself a cigarette and began smoking. His words came to me in a cloud of smoke:

“I’m forever thinking about Ubykhia which I remember like a sweet childhood dream. I’ve already told you that Russia, including the Caucasus, is now governed by the people. Do you realize what that means? There will never be any internecine wars or strife between ethnic groups, no more fighting between the peoples inhabiting Russia. All people have been proclaimed brothers. If only we hadn’t left our country we’d be all right today! I can’t believe any other people has had such bitter repentance as ours. It’s so damned frustrating.”

He sighed so deeply it was as if he were weeping inside! Then another cloud of smoke covered his face.

“I just can’t believe it. I can’t imagine, for instance, Ali Hazret Pasha changing from a wolf into a lamb, dividing his land up and sharing it with someone like me!”

“He wouldn’t give up his land voluntarily, but if all the plowmen, all the blacksmiths, all the gunsmiths, all the horse keepers, and all the longshoremen unite, people like Ali Hazret Pasha change from tigers into cats.”

“Don’t make me miserable telling me about living in freedom.”

“When I was in Istanbul the last time, I met a Greek in port. He was sailing from Sukhumi to Athens. When he found out I was from the Caucasus he told me all about Abkhasia. He told me it was an independent state. And when we parted he gave me a newspaper...”

“What’s so special about a newspaper?” I asked.

Tagir opened up the same trunk where he had laid the manuscripts of his two books and got out a newspaper.

“This isn’t just any old newspaper, but the newspaper of your mother’s fellow. It’s called Red Abkhasia. Red is for the blood spilled to win freedom and independence. Here, you see this picture? These are peasants who have taken land from the nobility. Look, maybe you’ll recognize someone?”

“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing at a man’s portrait.

“He’s the head of the Abkhasian government. He’s, making a speech to the people.”

“Oh, my Lord,” I exclaimed in utter shock. “Thank you for letting me live to see this day. It would have been a great injustice if I hadn’t.” And I kissed the paper. Only a man in my place could have understood me at that moment. “Oh, you’re tormenting my soul, Tagir! If you were given life by a compassionate woman, please do me a favor: the day I die put this newspaper on my chest. Bury me with it. It will be the same to me as a handful of my native earth.”

Tears streamed down my face. Where had they come from? I thought they had dried up long, long ago. Had I lost my self Sometimes, Sharakh, when a bow-string is pulled too tight it splits unexpectedly. I sat there in Tagir’s home until late in the evening but although he insisted I spend the night, I refused to stay over.

“Tomorrow morning Mansou wants to see us said Tagir when I was already outside.

“I don’t want to see him!”

“If it were up to mc I wouldn’t see him ever again, but I think he wants to talk about something that concerns all the Ubykhs. So, whether we want to or not we have to go.”

We said goodbye and arranged a time and place to meet. I spent the whole night wandering through the dark, quiet open spaces on the outskirts of the village. I held next to my bosom the paper Tagir had given me. If anyone would have seen me he would have thought I was a madman walking aimlessly and talking to myself. Sometimes a person can dream while he’s awake. I dreamed I was walking to the village where my mother’s brothers lived. I could see the mountain ridge of Tsebelda, the Piandj Mountain and from its peak the panorama of all of Abkhasia. One edge of the Kvanachkhir cliff shimmered in the sun and below, in a rocky gorge, was the roaring Kodor. Listening closely I could hear the song of horsemen coming from Dal, the clatter of hoofs and guns firing a salute in honor of some festive occasion.

Finally I came to Sit’s house. I walked onto the veranda, lay down on the wooden bench and listened to the roosters greeting the dawn.