Azerbaijan International

Spring 2004 (12.1)
Pages 112-115

Elchin Huseinbeyli
Letters of a Gray Donkey (1999)

Elchin Huseinbeyli wrote "Letters of a Gray Donkey" and "Answer to the Gray Donkey" in 1999. Told from the perspective of a donkey that was left behind when members of a refugee family fled for their lives, the narrative touches upon the unfathomable psychological loss that human beings feel when they are separated from their villages, their land, and all associated memories. Even ordinary, daily routines take on sentimental value that they can never be forgotten.

Elchin was born in 1961 in Jabrayil in southwest Azerbaijan. Since 1993, this region has been under military occupation by Armenians. Though he had moved away to Moscow for university studies and was living in Baku at the time when the Karabakh war broke out, members of his family were forced to flee the region. Elchin also considers himself to be a refugee because of his close identification with their sense of loss. He, too, is unable, at present, to return to the land of his childhood memories.

Elchin's literary works include: Dancing Boy, Fish Man, Song of the Wolf, From the Top of the Mulberry Tree, and Fanatic. His dramas include: It Will Be All Right in the End, and Everybody's Sin.
He was honored with a Presidential stipend by Heydar Aliyev as best young, talented writer.

"Letters of a Gray Donkey" was translated by Gulnar Aydamirova. "Reply to the Gray Donkey" was translated by Aynura Huseinova. Both were edited by Betty Blair.

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Art: Vugar Muradov. Visit for contacts.

("I kept braying, but no one answered me")

The donkey that we had left back in our village after everything turned into chaos somehow got hold of the letter that I sent to our village without an address. Since nobody had answered him despite how much he had been braying - both out of joy and grief - he finally wrote me a long letter.

Before talking about the content of his letter, let me say that there are many reasons why I'm very sympathetic towards that donkey. First of all, I was born on the same day as the great grandfather of our donkey. Secondly, when a child is born in our village, he sees his parents as well as the donkey in the yard, and he grows up together with all of them. Thirdly, it is the lap of one's grandmother and the back of the donkey that children sit on and rock back and forth, instead of in a hammock. And, fourthly, and most important of all, a person who doesn't have a donkey in our village is viewed as someone who has just been released from prison.

I don't think it's necessary to dwell on this as I've written about my special relations to our donkey in the story, "A Ballad About a Donkey." Besides, I don't want to take the reader's valuable time. So let's get to the letter that our donkey wrote me:


Since you left - I mean since you fled - all the other people also ran away from the village, and I am no longer a donkey. I don't feel like a donkey anymore. It's because of what has happened to me. If I don't tell you everything, my heart won't become quiet.

I woke up as usual that day. I brayed, stretched, lay down and wallowed in the dirt and started smelling the hay and the fodder that had been left from the evening before. That's when your older brother came and put an armful of dried hay in front of me. He came through the gate where there was a haystack and then he rubbed my back. He didn't say anything. I mean he didn't put the packsaddle on my back. And then he left, untying the rope around my neck. Usually, I kick about from happiness when they put hay in front of me. But, it was very strange that he had given me dried hay when there was wet grass available.

Your brother's behavior surprised me so much that I forgot this important ritual, I mean - kicking
about from happiness. Usually, whenever the rope was untied from around my neck, they would tie the rope around my leg or take me to pasture and tether me there. But it didn't happen this time. To tell you the truth, I had a sense of foreboding, and I stretched my head a bit forward and smelled his hand that had the scent of grass. But your brother didn't pay any attention and he left.

For a while, I was preoccupied with the hay and didn't move away from my place. True, they had untied the rope from my neck. But I had forgotten about it. I have never walked around without being tied like that.

I stayed in the same place until the afternoon and when I felt like wallowing, I couldn't help myself and I went down on my right side and that's when I discovered that the rope around my neck was untied. That really surprised me. I thought about it for a while. But you know that I don't have a head to think (I'm just joking) or, perhaps, it's just that I don't have the patience to think. That's why I went into the yard and stretched my long eyelashes upwards and looked around with my big eyes.

I took a few steps towards the middle of the yard to break the silence. To tell you the truth, I started to become frightened by the silence. I remember hearing a wolf that afternoon. I brayed. But there was no answer. Then I wallowed in the best and neatest places in the yard, one by one. I chewed some leaves from the mulberry tree in the yard, but still nobody chased me away. I smelled the flowers that were planted in the yard but, again, there was no trace of anybody. That's when I really got frightened and started to worry.

Brother, a donkey with neither rope nor master simply isn't a donkey. It's something like a rabid dog. God created the donkey so that it could constantly be ridden, beaten, sworn at and never left in peace - not even for a minute.
I made my way out to the village road, trying to rid the sadness in my heart. I kicked a few times to cheer myself up. I jumped into the middle of the road and ran on all fours towards the bridge and then brayed once at the upper end of the village and then once at the lower end. But I heard no sound or voice in return. There was something like a donkey's braying in the distance, but later that sound faded out as well.

Later, I passed the railway and went to have dinner. I ran a lot here and there in the soccer field where you used to tether me. I ran, kicking and braying, kicking and braying, but there was no sound in reply. There was not one single living creature around - at all. I lowered my ears, hung my head and returned to our yard. I didn't even glance over at the haystack - the place that I always longed for. I lay down sadly and started thinking about my situation. It wasn't a good sign that everybody had disappeared all of a sudden.

My dad once said that in olden times, people used to move from lowlands to the highlands and then back to the lowlands, and they would take everybody - even the donkeys with them.

He would bray in a special voice about the fact that people couldn't do without donkeys and that these two creatures had lived together since the creation of the world and that even when they died, they couldn't be separated. He would be moved to tears, telling how once his cousin's leg didn't respond when he was going down a mountain path and how he fell to the bottom of the rocks along with the person that he had been carrying and how they both had died.

It was impossible that you would go to the highlands and leave me here. I thought a lot about that and, maybe you won't believe this, but I had no appetite and didn't eat anything all day long.

When morning came, I got up and walked about in the yard. First of all, I noticed that there was a ball beside the fence that children used to play with. I kicked it and rolled it away from the fence. I stroked it with my nose and could detect your smell from it. I could still sense the excitement of children playing from this ball.

Then I discovered that the door of the storeroom had been left open. I went in cautiously; the flour sack had been left open. Your saj
2 was left, leaning up against the wall. The fireplace was still warm. I came towards the door of the house. I placed my front paws up on the side of the porch and looked inside. The kilim3 that had been handed down from your grandmother had been left on the floor of the porch, but the rooms were empty. I thought maybe you had moved. I became very depressed and with black blood4 running through my heart, I headed off down the road to the other end of the village, hoping to find a companion.

It was with reluctance that I drank from Simuzar's spring despite how much I had always longed to drink water from there. I looked at the pastureland. I glanced at the ponds where the water buffalos always used to lie. But I saw nothing. In the distance, crows were flying and cawing over the manure, which was still fresh.

After a few days, I didn't know whether it was afternoon or evening. Just as you used to set your watch according to my braying, I used to know what time of day it was according to when I was taken to the pasture or brought back. Now the only thing that I knew was that the sun was shining brightly.

Suddenly, it seemed as if it were thundering and lightening. The sky separated, weird sounds were heard and something huge fell into our yard and exploded. The yard shook from it. Tamasha's dog hid under the house and came out whining and ran to the ditch and suddenly jumped in the water.

I couldn't understand anything and got up to take a look. But whatever it was that had fallen from the sky, it wasn't anything like hail; it was something big and it made a huge crater in the ground.

Later on, Karkhulu Gulamali's one-eared donkey said that that thing which had suddenly fallen out of the sky was God's punishment on people who had behaved so foolishly. Then people who didn't speak your language arrived in the village. They examined me very closely, looking here and there, raising my tail and looking under it. They took turns, riding me. In the end, they kicked my rear end and left. They never came back again.

In the worst scenario, I was ready to accept them as masters as well, since that is the fate of donkeys. In order to be donkeys, we need masters. Even if it offends you, I must say that patriotism of donkeys is all about having a master. But, these days, nobody even thinks about us donkeys. Even wolves don't come close to bother us. You wouldn't even recognize me if you saw me now. We've become totally useless.

Sometimes when I get bored, I talk with Karkhulu Gulamali's donkey, and we recall the past. It turns out that he didn't answer my braying for a long time simply because he couldn't hear me. He had been deaf since childhood. I say "since childhood" because he had never heard his own braying, but he knows how we bray, thanks to guesswork. And he, himself, brays so loudly that any living creature that happens to be around when he does it, runs away. He's a very intelligent and wise donkey, despite being deaf. He says that he has been interested in newspapers since childhood and read so much that in the end Karkhulu Gulamali cut off his ear. He didn't even mind that his ear had been cut off because he didn't need that ear if he couldn't hear. On the contrary, it was an obstacle to him when he wanted to get into a garden or anything else

We share our sorrow with each other. When we remember the time when children would happily ride us to the pastureland, we choke up with sorrow. What could be nicer than making children happy?

I sit and listen to the tales of Gulamali's donkey about the past and his views about the future. I can't get enough of them. You know how I love tales. I'm like my great grandfathers in this regard. There's a wise saying, "Spring will come, clover will grow,"
5 which is dedicated to us although you people abuse it sometimes. Well, what can we do, you can use it as much as you want. We don't rule over you in any sense in any way. "We've all drunk from the same spring."
Spring - that reminds me: Simuzar's spring has dried up. It shed its last tear the other day. Oh well, I don't want to upset you talking about such things.

Gulamali's donkey, I mean "my brother and friend" tells very interesting tales. According to him his great grandfather and my great grandfather had been friends since olden times - since the creation of the world. I remember you used to think that everything happens by fate and I'm glad that finally my fate has brought together the children of two friends. I don't want to give you a headache talking about their friendship and how close they were.

But there are some things that I can't believe that Gulamali's donkey says. Brother, according to him, in the past we, donkeys, could swim in the sea and fly in the sky. I don't know whether it's true or not. And he keeps saying everyday that if we want, we can fly. Sometimes, he points to Mollali Mountain and says that he has been training for a long time and that when the time comes, he will jump off the mountain and fly. If his body is heavy, his spirit will lift him up to the sky. If you were here, I would ask you if this were true or not.

I should mention that Gulamali's donkey doesn't have a name. Anyway, they don't give names to donkeys. But I took a chance, I mean I took the chance since there is no person around, and I've been calling him "One-eared". He doesn't mind because he doesn't hear. So, poor One-eared didn't hear the sound of the "misfortune" that God sent.

Gulamali didn't untie him when he left. When I heard this, I had so much pity for him that my heart ached. You know that I've been emotional since childhood. The poor thing didn't make a sound for three days and nights for fear of wolves. Finally, Gulamali's dog came and chewed One-eared's rope and set him free. He wandered around and looked for somebody - just like I did. At last, he came to my place quite by accident. Brother, I swear to our Creator: had I not found him, I would have forgotten how to bray by now. We usually bray from happiness when we see each other just because we are so afraid of being left alone. Besides, when a donkey knows that nobody will hear his voice, he doesn't feel like braying. Our kith and kin also bray to persuade themselves and others that they exist in this world.

Brother, I swear upon your health that I have forgiven all the offenses I had against you. I just want you back. This place isn't the same without you. You always used to call me, "Murtuza's Dowry," to tease me. That's how my name became "Dowry".

Remember when your elder brother had a baby, Murtuza gave me as a present to his grandson and you used to make fun of me. I was just starting to carry loads. In order not to break my honor, I didn't make a sound and walked with pride when all the kids would ride me and even when I was tied to a cart for the first time. I used to get offended sometimes because you would think so little of me. Believe me, I'm not offended anymore. Such things happen. I only remember the good things about you.

I remember once when you were coming from the pastureland, you were competing with the children. I don't know if my leg was hurting then or if it was something else, but I couldn't run very well. And you, my dear breaker-of-the-rules-of-the-game, you didn't like such things. You always wanted to be first, and then you struck me so hard with a sickle on my head that everything went black in front of my eyes. My legs stumbled and I couldn't keep my balance and I fell. You were so sorry then that you jumped off my back, untied the cart, put me up on my legs again, and then you hugged my neck. I will never forget your care. I loved you a lot then. I become very emotional when I remember those days.

And once, remember you galloped me so fast that the bars of the cart, which were attached to me came forward and you flew over my head and fell. I couldn't help laughing and I stopped at once so that the cart wouldn't hit youOh, those were good days.

Brother, I grieve a lot. I walk up and down the village. I kick, bray, wallow as much as I want. In general I do all the things that God allows me. There's a lot to eat as well. I've gained weight from eating. There are no bruises on my face anymore. I look like your purebred cow that I always envied. I can't help it. When I eat grass and hay and gain weight, I feel as if I betray you and eat your share. Anyway, there are many things to write; I have so much grief
Gulamali's donkey achieved his dream, too. I begged him but he didn't listen to me. I told him that if he flew, who would be left on the ground? Who would be my mate? But, he didn't listen and he jumped down from there. No matter how much he moved his hands and legs, he couldn't fly and he hit the ground with a thud. He opened his eyes and said: "I flew well, right? My spirit left my body. I'm going to look for my people. Always remember me when you look up in the sky; look for me among the stars." And thus, he closed his eyes. I'm wondering if he came to your place. If any one has seen him, let me know, too.

Now I'm left all alone. I watch the sunrise and the sunset everyday. I play with the moon at nights. And I don't take my eye off the yard door. I listen carefully whenever I hear a sound. I'm waiting for you and missing you so much.
Not long ago, I went up to Yaloba in the foothills and passed Gurbanali's garden and arrived under the lone mulberry tree. Remember, you always used to tether me under that tree. And I would sleep under its shade and sometimes chew a few leaves. I would talk to the tree of my sorrows. I would talk to him of your naughtiness. That lone mulberry tree likes you a lot because you often slept under it as a child. Your mother used to gather cotton, and you would sleep so sweetly under that tree. Remember?

Now that proud lone mulberry tree that used to invite everybody to enjoy its shade is so depressed. It has become old and pale. It's as if he is ashamed of his situation - old and lonely. You probably know its history. You probably have understood it from the whispers of its leaves: how he withstood enemies, how he hid Gachag Gara
6 in its cavity.
Brother, I said "outlaw" which reminds me of something. I will say it even if it offends you. We have a saying: "Bravery is 10; nine out of which is because of clothes and one because of running away.
7 It seems our people chose the tenth variant. Anyway, we shouldn't blame them.

Poor, lonely mulberry tree. I wanted to cry, he didn't let me. He asked: "Why are you crying? I'm not dead yet." Poor old, lonely mulberry tree. It's gotten old, lost its strength and gradually started to fade away. Who needs a tree whose shade isn't needed?

The mill channel where you used to bathe as children has also dried up, and the fish have died of grief. What's the value of the water without fish, or a channel without water?

Those paths by which we used to go to the pasture are now overgrown with grass. Who needs a path on which no man walks?

The birds have also left these places forever. It's if this place has no spring or fall. The trees don't blossom. Who would they blossom for anyway? Only for a donkey? Who cares about him?

Brother, my aim in writing these things is not to make you cry, but to let you know about the situation in our village.
Brother, I'm not expecting an answer from you. I know that you are as busy as ever. But I want to ask you for a favor. I brayed a few times in your direction after I finished this letter. If you can, bray in our direction, too

1 "Gagha" is term used to show respect when addressing one's father and elder brothers in the Karabakh region.

2 A saj is a flat somewhat concave pan used for making lavash, a flat paper - thin bread.

3 Kilim is a tapestry - like woven rug.

4 "Black blood" is an Azeri expression, which refers to sadness and grief.

5 "Yaz geler, yonja biter" in Azeri. The more complete variant is "Olma eshshayim, olma, yaz geler, yonja biter." "Don't die, my donkey, spring will come and clover will grow."

6 "Gacha Gara" means "Outlaw Gara."

7 The original saying is "Beauty is 10: nine of which are due to clothes. "Gozallik ondur, dogguzu dondur." Another saying goes: "Half of bravery is being able to run away in time" Igidlik ondu, dogguzu dondu, biri gachmagdi "Igidlik ondu, dogguzu gachmagdi"; Donkey combined these two expressions to come up with a third expression.

Answer to Gray Donkey's Letter (1999)

Translated: Aynura Huseinova

I thought a lot about it. I tried, but couldn't fulfill the wishes of our donkey to bray. The more I tried, the worse (I mean, the more human) my voice sounded. I think it's best for everybody to bray in his own language. I answered my donkey and told him that there was no point in his braying because nobody hears us refugees either. No matter how loud we scream, the world doesn't hear us. Well, you shouldn't confuse the world with our Karkhulu village1 where you could hear the sound of voices from Mahmudlu, a few kilometers away.

In short, I decided to answer our donkey because not replying to his letter would have been very rude. On the other hand, there are some things that donkeys understand better than human beings and there are some notions that our donkeys should definitely learn in order to develop their way of thinking. Here's what I wrote:

Honorable Master Donkey,

I received your letter and became disappointed. I'm really sorry for what happened to you. Your galloping off to the center of the village like a mad sheep and your braying without end reminded me of when I was an infant and lost sight of my mother right in the middle of the yard. I started to cry and broke into tears, and wanted to take comfort and nurse at her breast. I understood your situation.

I felt sorry for the mulberry tree. I recalled our village, the narrow crooked lanes, its various sections, its center, the bridge and Bilal's willow.

I was deeply moved when I saw the shirt that was sent to refugee Mammad, our neighbor, both in the village and in the city. It came from Europe as humanitarian aid and had the writing "LEUBOR" (labor) on it.

To be honest, that shirt really was quite good. It was so colorful. Poor guy put it on and started to prance back and forth in front of the mirror. Since there was no way that he would be able to show up on the bridge, he got upset. You probably remember how our people used to show off their new clothes either on the bridge or riding on a donkey.

Let me describe, in general, what our daily life is like. I'll tell you the story from the very beginning of how we arrived in Baku. One day my brother woke me up to say that our brave soldiers had left their arms, cannons, and their positions and had retreated. Since they were running away, their guns were a pain in the neck for them to carry. And I think they were right in leaving their guns all over the place. So it meant we had no choice but to flee as well.

Anyway, we took a car and followed our soldiers, and went towards the place where light was coming.

My brother's youngest son, to whom you were presented as a gift when you were born by his grandfather, was crying his heart out. Even he scratched his mother's face for leaving you behind. And my brother swore that as soon as everything got quiet, he would come and fetch you. Also, he said that we didn't need to worry because he had untied you. I have told you before but just want to confirm that it is obvious that our villagers love your folk very much. The ones who forgot to untie their dogs and donkeys have such deep regrets and cry when we gather together. The only person who is proud of himself is my brother because he untied you in time.

So, after crying awhile, my brother's son fell asleep in his mother's arms and we started off. We left with the hope of returning to the village very soon.

Honorable Master Donkey, the most dangerous thing happened in middle of our trip. My sister's family was ahead of us. Suddenly, my brother-in-law stopped the car. Everybody tore out of the car and scattered in different directions and lay down on the ground on their stomachs. We got so frightened that we stopped, too. Our brother-in-law yelled at us that we should lie down, too. We followed his order.

After lying on the ground for a while, my brother asked our brother-in-law why we were doing this. My sister, who had studied for four years, said that a bomb had exploded in the car.

But I think if a bomb has already exploded, there would be no point in being afraid. That's why my brother got up, approached the car and opened its trunk. It turned out not to be a bomb at all, but a jar of pickled tomatoes. While fleeing, my sister didn't want to leave the jar behind so she stashed it in the trunk of the car. My poor sister! How could she have known that the tomatoes had become rotten? Had she known, she wouldn't have brought it along.
Honorable Master Donkey, we hid our gun under a pile of straw - the one that grandfather had used to shoot Kandkhuda
2 Mammadali in the eye, and as a result, no thief had dared to come close to our house out of fear. We did the right thing because we had not lubricated it for a long time and it had already become rusty. Furthermore, if the police had discovered us with a gun, they would definitely have taken it away. So now that we're on the run, we talk about our heroism and become deeply moved.

Let me tell you something before I forget it. Now we have settled into a building that was used as a kindergarten. And the number of children increased. They say that the reason is because the rooms are so small. All of the people sleep on the floor in a row, and according to Muslim tradition, the husband doesn't sleep separate from his wife. This rule is followed very strictly: "Where the husband is, the wife is there, too".

That's why, when a wife or husband turns over, he or she sees the other half. So it's impossible to stop producing children.

Let me tell you about our new home. Baku is a large village. The only difference is that since the city is so large, the donkeys and men are usually confused. The other day I saw a cartoon in the Molla Nasraddin magazine
3. I'll describe it to you now and everything will be clear to you. In that caricature, the donkeys ride the people. And the caption read: "Everyday observations." You might have heard about Molla Nasraddin because your grandparents were his best friends.
I'll write you often not so that you won't feel lonely. But I have one request. Honorable Master Donkey. Don't bray from now on. Anyway, nobody will hear you. Either people have become dumb, or they've stuffed their ears with cotton. When you feel lonely, just write a letter

End Notes:

1 Karkhulu village is located in Nagorno-Karabakh. It has been under military occupation by Armenians since early autumn 1993.

2 Khandkhuda means "the head of the village".

3 Molla Nasraddin was a magazine published in the early years of the 20th century, famous for its satire on social, political and religious issues.

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