Autumn 1994 (2.3)
The Cloth Peddler
Arshin Mal Alan
Choosing your own Bride
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"Arshin Mal Alan" is one of the most well-known and dearly-loved stories among Azerbaijanis today. It is based on Uzeyir Hajibeyov's operetta of 1910 which is still performed to this day. Several movies have also been made. Most recently, Artist Tarlan Gorchu has created a Children's Marionette Theater and chosen the story for his first musical comedy. The story follows:
"Once upon a time," (or as Azerbaijanis traditionally begin their imaginary tales, "There was a time and there wasn't a time") when a very wealthy young merchant named Askar was in search of a young woman to be his bride.
Now in those days, it was customary for the families to choose partners for their sons and daughters. Many parents protected their daughters so much that young men never had a chance even to see them, much less get to know them.
Despite this, Askar was determined to choose his own bride. "Look, I'm a merchant," he would say, "don't I always examine goods carefully before purchasing? Then why should it be any different when I choose the woman with whom I'm going to spend the rest of my life?" But despite all his wealth, he could never figure out how to counter the strong practices and traditions prevalent in the society.
One day, Askar's close friend, Suleyman, came up with a possible solution. "The only man who ever gets a chance to see any women is the peddler who sells cloth. So why don't you take a yardstick (arshin) and a bundle of cloth (mal) and roam through the alleys selling your goods? That way, you'll be invited into the homes and courtyards and there you'll get your chance to discover the girl of your dreams."
And so the rich young merchant disguised himself as a poor peddler and began wandering the streets and lanes selling his cloth. All day long he would call out, "Arshin Mal Alan!" ("Goods for Sale!"). Days passed and Askar saw many women, but he could never find one who captured the imagination of his heart.
But Askar was not the only one who wanted to meet the love of his life. Gulchohra, Sultan Bey's daughter, had the same wish.
And so it happened that one day while passing Sultan Bey's house, Askar was invited to display his array of materials. And that's when it happened. The first moment he set eyes on Gulshohra, he knew she was the woman he had been looking for. It was love at first sight.
Not long afterwards, Askar sent his aunt to arrange the wedding. Now she herself, it turns out, was a widow and Sultan Bey, just happened to be a widower, who was also looking for a wife. When Sultan Bey met Askar's aunt in the courtyard, it didn't take him long to propose.
The cloth peddler then saw his chance to strike a deal with Sultan Bey. "I'll give you permission to marry my aunt if you, in turn, let me marry your daughter."
But the notion infuriated Sultan Bey. "You scum! You scoundrel! Never, ever would I allow my daughter to become the wife of a poor peddler! Get out of here!" So Askar left, once again perplexed.
Suleyman again tried to resolve Askar's dilemma. This time he, himself, decided to go to Sultan Bey and suggest that Gulchohra be given to Askar, whom he would describe as the merchant that he really was, not as a poor peddler in disguise.
This time Sultan Bey was easily persuaded. "Why not?" he reasoned. "Askar is young. He's rich. And he's one of the most respected men in this city." And so it was settled.
Except for one thing, Gulchohra had already made up her mind that she wanted to marry the peddler and that she wanted nothing to do with any rich merchant.
This time Askar's friends took a radical approach. They decided to resort to the ancient tradition of kidnapping the young bride. So under the dark cover of night, they slipped into the Sultan Bey's residence to steal the bride. It wasn't until they returned home that they discovered they had made a terrible mistake. Instead of kidnapping Gulchohra, they had kidnapped her cousin, Asya.
And so back they went again. This time they found Gulchohra.
But Askar's problems weren't over. Gulchohra was broken hearted, "It would have been better if I had killed myself," she cried.
It was then that Askar revealed his secret. "Don't you see? I'm really the Cloth Peddler. I disguised myself as a Cloth Peddler just so I could choose the woman who would share my future."
And so it was that Gulchohra finally understood that Askar, indeed, was the man she really did want to marry after all.
In the final scene, there is an extravagant wedding, not only for Askar and Gulchohra but for the three other couples who had met through the course of all these confusing events. Gulchohra's father, Sultan Bey, marries Askar's aunt; Askar's friend, Suleyman, chooses Gulchohra's cousin, Asya; and Askar's servant, Valli, takes Gulchohra's maidservant, Tilli.
And we have every reason to believe that they all lived happily ever after...
From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Summer Issue 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.