Spring 1996 (4.1)
"My Dying World"
by Ismayil Shikhli (1919-1995)
Translated by Farhad Mustafayev
Photo: Ismayil Shikhli, writer
Ismayil Shikhli (1919-1995) was one of the leaders in Azerbaijan's realistic movement in literature. But in the hearts of those who knew him, Shikhli is more than a prose writer. For 30 years, he chaired the European and American (non-Russian) Literature Department at Baku's Pedagogical Institute.
Shikhli began writing after World War II and is best remembered for his novels, "Forked Roads," and "The Violent Kura" as well as hundreds of short stories. For many years, writers were not able to focus on the historical events in Azerbaijan when the Soviets took over power in the 1920s. After independence in 1991, such restrictions were lifted; but by then Shikhli was nearly blind. In the introduction of his final novel, "My Dying World," he apologizes for any mistakes he may have made as his sight had deteriorated so much by then that he had to rely entirely on memory and dictate the entire plot for his wife, Umida, to write down.
Many Azerbaijanis consider Shikhli among their most talented writers and compare his works to some of the greatest literature ever written, including Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina", Dostoyevski's "Crime and Punishment", and Dreiser's "An American Tragedy". All these writers depict the struggle of the world against injustice, brutality, hypocrisy, ignorance, poverty and despair.
Shikhli is also deeply respected as an ardent fighter for freedom and independence. When the Soviets troops attacked Baku on January 20, 1990, many of the 300 members of the Parliament (Supreme Soviet) were afraid to convene. Finally, when they managed to gather a quorum to be able to official open a session, they realized their leader was not there. When no one knew what to do, Shikhli bravely stood and took command. Under his direction, the Parliament drafted a statement: "Gorbachev is a criminal; the blood of our nation is on his hands and soul." He could easily have been killed for such bravery. Ismayil Shikhli passed away in July 1995.
In the third chapter of his final novel, "My Dying World," (which we present here in English for the first time), the final scene takes on more significance when the reader understands the meaning of "breaking bread" in Azerbaijani tradition. To consent to "break bread" with someone (share a meal) means you can never, in good conscience, ever betray that person for his entire life.
Left: Front cover of Jalil Mammad Gulizade's satiric Azerbaijani magazine, Molla Nasreddin (1911). Obviously, the victim of censorship.
The boy waited, squatting near the door. Upon seeing Kassamanli, he stood up and greeted him with a bow. Kahbi Kishi (kah-BI ki-SHI) looked at the boy in rags. He saw the shabby papakh, the patched shirt, torn trousers and dirty socks, and the toe poking through the child's worn-out shoes. Despite all this, the boy carried himself with the air of confidence and dignity like a grown man.
"Who do you want, sonny?"
"You, Uncle Kahbi."
"How is it that you know me, my son?"
"I'm from the same village as you, from Kassaman. I have something to tell you."
"Couldn't you have told these guards?"
At that moment the guard on duty came up and interrupted them.
"He's a persistent child. Early this morning we told him that Uncle Kahbi would be coming late so he should tell us what he wants. He refused, wanting only to talk with you in private."
Kassamanli smiled and opened the door and let the child enter. At first, the boy did not know where he was and what to do in the illuminated room. Kahbi Kishi offered him a chair and then sat down opposite him.
"Would you mind if I smoked?"
"Who am I to object, Uncle Kahbi?"
Kishi again admired the boy's behavior. He smiled and took a cigarette out of his cigarette case and lit it. He smoked to relax and forget the speeches of the Regional Party Committee. Fatullayev's words were still ringing in his ears, "Ugly elements of society must be killed." After inhaling once more on his cigarette, he crushed the butt in the ash tray. He felt calmer.
"Now, say, sonny, what do you have to tell me?"
The child, pulled his chair forward, and leaned over the writing table.
"Did you know Gazanfar Kishi, the Soviet Leader of our village?"
Kassamanli stiffened a bit, blinked, and then stared coldly at the child.
"What happened to him?"
"I killed him!"
"What are you talking about, sonny? He was killed two months ago and the murderers are in prison."
"No, Uncle Kahbi, those men in jail are not guilty. I killed him." The child suddenly stood up, reached into his pocket and pulled out a pistol, placing it on the table.
"I killed him with this. I shot him right in the middle of his forehead. Here is Gazanfar's bloody papakh and his pistol inside."
"But why did you kill him?"
The child's face hardened. His eyes glazed over as if he could not talk. He swallowed and then with a manly resolve, confided, "He forced my sister."
Suddenly, the child withdrew, seeming almost to disappear under the writing table. Now that he had told the secret which he had been carrying around in his heart for the past few months, he felt at ease. Now he was no longer nervous as he prepared to face the punishment for his crime.
Kahbi Kishi stood up and began to walk to and fro across the room. He began smoking endlessly, the room, filling with smoke. He knew the dead Soviet leader Gazanfar was a villain. He was ignorant and shameless. He was a robber. The village people were sick and tired of him. The people who surrounded him were among the ugly elements of society.
In fact, Kassamanli himself had been looking for ways to get rid of this man and when he had heard about the murder, he was somehow pleased. He believed the witnesses' words and sentenced two of Gazanfar's friends. But now the secret that had been revealed so unexpectedly, left him both confused and delighted at the same time.
Kahbi Kishi approached the boy, picked him up by the shoulders and sat him down on the table.
"Did you tell your secret to anybody?"
"No, even my sister and mother don't know about it? Every man must hold his own secret but I had to tell you the situation."
Kahbi Kishi pulled the boy to him and embraced him.
"I swear to God you're quite a man! Quite a little man. You're very brave. 'May your mother's milk be 'halal' to you! (May your mother's nourishment enrich and bless you!) But, my son, you're very young to have killed and spilt blood. Don't do it again. There will come a day when you will regret it." Suddenly, Kahbi Kishi became serious and asked, "Can you read?"
"Do you want to?"
Kahbi Kishi took the child and put him down, went to his table and picked up the phone and called the directory.
"Hello. Give me the orphanage."
"Hello, Mammadov, is that you? I'm going to send a boy to your school. Accept him, give him new clothes, put him in the boarding house. Keep an eye on him and I'll visit him as often as I can."
Kahbi Kishi stood up. The boy stood up, too. Kassamanli looked at the "haiba" (woven bag) on child's shoulder.
"What's in it?"
"Bread, Uncle Kahbi, I brought bread to eat in prison."
"What else do you have?"
"Cheese and herbs and onions."
"Take them out and put them on the table."
The child stared at Kahbi Kishi who grinned back at him.
"I think you're hungry. I'm hungry, too. Let's eat together with great appetite."
The child opened his "haiba" and placed everything on the table.
Kassamanli rang his hand bell. The door opened halfway and the guard on duty appeared at the door.
"Bring us two glasses of sweet tea, please."
From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.