Opening the iron gate, Tagir and I walked into the yard of Mansou, son of Shardyn. To my surprise we didn’t hear the guard shouting, “What do you want?” No one was at the gate. It was quiet; there were no servants rushing about outside.
“Are they all dead?” whispered Tagir.
“It’s too good to be true.”
When we went by the ground where I had seen the cock fight I had visions of bloody roosters and could almost hear the noblemen, making merry, cheering in encouragement. I sensed nothing good would come of this visit. Near the house a servant seemed to appear out of nowhere. All we had to say was that Mansou, son of Shardyn, had called for us and the servant responded respectfully:
“He’s expecting you!”
He pointed to a spiral staircase leading up to the second floor. At the top of the stairs we found ourselves in a large room with a soft carpet. Mansou, son of Shardyn, was reclined on a sofa cushion, his legs crossed. He was wearing a loose-fitting Turkish robe and puffing smoke from a cigarette perched in an amber holder.
“Oh, come on in and have a seat,” he said in welcome.
We sat on chairs opposite him. I looked carefully at the man of the house. The last time I saw him he was wearing hunting garb and had on a straw hat that covered his forehead down to his eyebrows. He was still a strong man, although he was already sixty, and I couldn’t see any trace of gray in his cropped hair. His eyelids were slightly puffy and his small eyes were deeply set. I had known him when he was a boy, but that was so long ago; there was not one hint of childhood on his face now. Mansou’s hands, visible beneath his free-flowing sleeves, were almost blood less, slightly yellow, like corn stalks grown in the shade. On one of his bony hands there was a glittering ring.
“How’s life? What’s new?” asked the son of the former sultan’s brother-in-law as he puffed his cigarette for the last time and shook the butt out of the holder.
“I’m just an ordinary peasant living in a small house. I’m sure you can see better from where you are on the second story,” replied Tagir.
“Don’t give me that! You’re no peasant. Everyone around here calls you the learned one. Your house is full of books and you never stop writing...”
“Of course, that’s very true! I’ve devised an alphabet and am writing the history of the Ubykhs, but I eat only the food I plant and pick with my own hands.”
Both of them spoke in Turkish.
“You’re a man of extraordinary talent. I knew that back in Istanbul. But reading so many books hasn’t done you any good—books have confused you. It’s sad and ridiculous to go against the tide of time.”
“Each man lives according to his own conscience.”
“A stubborn learned man is worse than a mule. Just what do you think you can change? The circumstances are stronger than you. It’s like knocking your head against a brick wall. You should think about yourself and your children...”
“I would be more than happy to follow your advice if you would only think of the people in your care...”
Mansou, son of Shardyn, pulled out a snow-white hand kerchief and wiped the sweat off his face. Then he opened up a silver cigarette case and offered it to us:
“Would you like a smoke?”
“No thank you,” said Tagir for the two of us.
Mansou began smoking again and went on to say:
“Why sow hostilities between the rich and the poor? That won’t help the people. Surely you don’t think men like you, Tagir, are capable of changing human nature? It’s utter vanity and conceit. It wouldn’t be so bad if because of your own rash conduct you die, but you’re stirring up the people and don’t seem to realize you may destroy others.” Wanting me to back him up, he asked: “Aren’t I right, Zaurkan?”
“Tagir wants to help the people and does that with an open heart. He isn’t doing it for himself, or for any ulterior motive. After all, Mansou, forgive me for being so frank, but people don’t come to you to protect them from injustice. However, it’s your duty as their guardian to be concerned about all the Ubykhs in Karinjovasy.”
Mansou, son of Shardyn, smiled wryly.
“I see you’ve been poisoned too by that self-made preacher,” he nodded at Tagir. “Or maybe when you were in prison you got those foolhardy ideas along with the lice?”
“Poverty and prison will teach a man reason.”
Mansou, son of Shardyn, lowered his head; he was trying to figure out something. My eyes, roaming the walls over the sofa, caught sight of a picture. I was so surprised I started. It was a picture of a sleeping woman, beautiful and shamelessly naked; her blanket had fallen down and was lying carelessly on the carpet near her bed. Her hands were tucked under her head in such a way that you could see her arm pits with golden hair, and one leg was touching the other... I was so embarrassed I shifted my gaze. It was sinful and sacrilegious to have such a painting in a country where Allah forbade any pictures of people, where women hid their faces. The thought running through my mind was that Mansou, son of Shardyn, must be a man of many vices.
“There’s no point in wrangling, Mansou,” I heard Tagir’s voice. “Tell us why you wanted to see us.”
The servant we met downstairs brought in a tray with three cups of coffee and left.
“Ever since the Ubykhs came here they’ve been a thorn in the side for the Turks,” said Mansou, son of Shardyn, calmly and gravely.
Tagir should have been patient and let the man finish what he was saying, but even an experienced sharpshooter can forget to lock his firearm:
“The thorn isn’t the cause, but the effect!”
Mansou acted as though he didn’t notice the venom in Tagir’s voice.
“It is the belief in this country that the ruler has his authority conferred by Allah, is Allah’s representative on earth. That’s why all subjects are supposed to be Muslims through and through. The government clearly understands that if people lose their faith it will lead to anarchy. But the Ubykhs go to the mosque just for the sake of appearance.”
“The sultan should realize that all subjects have their faults. The only ones who don’t are in heaven where black- eyed beauties wait for the sultan with open arms. Besides, I’d like to point out to you that Muhammad was against using force against those who refused to be converted if they obeyed his every command and paid him tribute. And you know only too well that we pay our taxes!”
“Only the sultan can interpret the teachings of the prophet and you’re not even a vizier yet. The time has come for the Ubykhs to assimilate with the Muslims under the green banner with its golden crescent .moon. They should take Turkish names and surnames and officially declare themselves Turks.”
“Most of them have already forgotten Bytkha, speak Turkish, go to the mosque and now they’re supposed to change their names. That’s going too far...”
“That’s the law! Anyone who lives in the Turkish Empire must be Turkish. I warn you, Tagir: don’t stir up trouble. Be careful or you’ll destroy yourself and others. A match that is lit to set fire to a mosque bums up before the mosque. Set an example to the Ubykhs and change your name.”
A side door opened with a creak and a young woman walked in. She had on a long white dress with short sleeves and a low neckline. The air carried the scent of perfume and roses. She looked like the woman in the painting. Tagir and I got up at once and bowed. The beauty smiled in reply and, going over to Mansou, son of Shardyn, said something in a language I didn’t know. Later, when Tagir and I left Mansou’s house, Tagir told me his wife had spoken French She was going on an outing and wanted to visit Mi Hazret Pasha.
“Don’t forget to pick me up tonight,” teased the young woman and, before leaving, she reached out her hand to Tagir, then came up to me with surprise in her eyes and exclaimed: “Oh la la! The Caucasus!”
Carefully touching my belt, dagger, cartridge pockets, the expression on her face reflected both fear and admiration at the same time:
The woman left us just as quickly as she had appeared.
Tagir turned to Mansou, son of Shardyn:
“Don’t you think it’s sinful that your wife doesn’t hide her face like a Muslim woman?”
“She’s a French woman, a Catholic...”
“Allah forbids the faithful to depict human form. But you have a painting of a naked woman over your head... If any Ubykh hung up a picture like that in his house...”
“When we were at school together you once told me a Latin proverb: Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.* What is permitted Jupiter is not permitted the bull.—Ed. I’m not a Turk or an Ubykh; I’m a European.”
“Then why are you, Mr. European, lecturing us and warning us to be careful?”
“I have a kind of feeling for you.”
“Oh, so that’s it! Well, if you care about us then would you mind parting with some of your money and give us enough to build a school and publish at least my reader?”
“I could. But who needs it? Don’t you understand how ridiculous your plans are? When a big nation adopts a small nation, even if by force, it’s dictated by the times. Even your Sons don’t know Ubykh. They’ll attain much more in life knowing Turkish than Ubykh which nobody else speaks. People don’t speak Latin anymore although there was a time when books were written in that language, and great books at that!”
“Following your same logic, the whole world could be forced to speak in one language, French, for instance. And as for Latin,” said Tagir getting heated up by the argument, “it continued to be spoken many centuries after the fall of the empire where it was the official language.”
“Just cast a retrospective glance, you stubborn man, at that history of the Ubykhs. Can you name one outstanding person? No, because there wasn’t one. Who can you boast about? No one. Who will you tell Ubykh children about? About the leaders of raids, about shaggy revenge-seekers, about devil-may-care outlaws? I think you should take pity on the children and understand that history itself has decided the fate of the Ubykhs. It’s silly and useless to try and stop the course of history. The sooner Ubykh youths assimilate with the Turks, the more they stand to gain because in terms of literacy, culture and crafts, the Turks are far more developed than many small ethnic groups, not to mention the Ubykhs...”
I couldn’t control myself any longer:
“To put it more bluntly: One must howl with the wolves.”
Strangely enough Mansou, son of Shardyn, didn’t blow up in anger, but continued persuading us:
“If the Ubykhs want to survive there’s no other way than to put their fate in the hands of the sultan. Ali Hazret Pasha, who is lord of these lands, is organizing fighting units against insurgents. Ubykh youths should also join ranks under the sultan’s banner.”
“Where do you expect to find those Ubykh youths? Most of them never returned from the Balkans. And those who did are either cripples or ill.”
“If you and Zaurkan put out the call the Ubykhs will take up arms.”
“May your mother rest in peace,” I said. “Tagir is right. What good can we do?”
“Every little bit counts. But if you don’t support the sultan in his struggle against Kemal Pasha, he’ll regard it as treason and won’t forgive you for the treachery. And don’t count on any help from me if Ali Hazret Pasha sends his troops against you for aiding the enemy. He’ll run the Ubykhs off the land and turn their homes into cotton barns.”
“Then you won’t last long here either!” I blurted out.
“I know that!” agreed Mansou, son of Shardyn, calmly, and getting up, he went over to the mirror. “But don’t worry about Mansou,” and he smoothed out his brows. “Husein Effendi wants to buy my estate. I’m going to my father-in-law in France. In the province of Champagne I’ll have a vineyard in a picturesque area and cellars full of wine. I’ll drink to the health of Turks faithful to the sultan and, if you don’t heed my advice, to the repose of your souls.”
“You’ll be sipping wine there while we’re being tram pled here!” interrupted Tagir indignantly.
“I’m not playing this game anymore. I could have left without warning you, and that would have been the end of it...”
“No matter where you run, the sorrow of the Ubykhs will finally grip your throat and choke you.”
“Enough talk! I want you to know I’m not indifferent to the fate of the Ubykhs and that’s why I warned you of danger.” Turning to Tagir he spoke distinctly: “Just remember, you preacher of yesterday, if you throw my advice to the pigs, you’re responsible for what happens. Goodbye to both of you!”
Holding his head up high, Mansou, son of Shardyn, walked out of the room.
That evening Zaurkan stopped talking earlier than usual. He sat there for a long time, tired and quiet, and then, when we began talking again—about everyday matters—he complained that he couldn’t remember some word either in Abkhasian or in Ubykh.
Finally, it turned out the word he had forgot was frying pan.
“What a simple word,” said Zaurkan annoyed with him self. “But for so many years I haven’t heard it spoken in Ubykh. It’s as if I live in a grave. I forget words I don’t hear!”
He continued sitting there for a long time, upset and silent, and with his hands around his head. I couldn’t help but watch him and think about the tragedy I had come to know living in that house.
When I first met Zaurkan he seemed not to believe that the Ubykh language no longer existed, and he even tried to convince me that his mother tongue could still be heard in his native Ubykhia, that it couldn’t die out any more than the mountains, forests or rivers. I didn’t argue with him; I just listened in silence, amazed by how hard he hung on to his mistaken convictions.
Suddenly that night I realized that the old man, living with a language no one else around him could understand, like the only man alive among the dead, was just consoling himself. It was like the feast of the dead I witnessed on the first night I arrived.
Zaurkan Zolak didn’t know the word “problem”, because the scholarly meaning of the word didn’t exist in his language. But life itself many times over tragically posed to him the “problem” of language, a problem he had no solution for.
For years at a time he had only himself to talk to and yearned to hear his native language, like one yearns for a loved one gone forever. How many times, trying to make out the words somebody spoke in the distance, he hoped with all his heart it would suddenly turn out to be his native language. Then when he returned to his people, after being away for so long, what a bitter realization it was that there were less and less of the old people to whom he had spoken Ubykh since childhood, and more and more young people who knew the language poorly or not at all...
And so life itself brought him up against this problem that, if he had lived at home, he would have never given a thought.
In my case, as an Abkhasian, I had no such problem, because it was solved once and for all for my people.
As a linguist however, I was concerned about learning the Ubykh language; it was my job. What happened to the Ubykh language did not happen to the languages spoken in my country. But I couldn’t help but be troubled by the disappearance of another language, no matter what people spoke it. I suppose if it didn’t matter to me I wouldn’t have sailed across the sea and come all this distance to the edge of these bare plains, and two men, a man of a hundred and a man of thirty, each affected by this problem in a different way, would never have met.