Azerbaijan International

Spring 2004 (12.1)
Pages 76-79

Afaq Masud
Dormitory (1981)

Afaq Masud [pronounced ah-FAHG mah-SUD] is one of the very few women in Azerbaijan who have succeeded in making a career out of writing. She was born in Baku on June 3, 1957. She graduated in Journalism from Baku State University, and has worked in Azerbaijanfilm Studio. She has been a member of Azerbaijan Writer's Union since 1981.

Masud is the author of the following books: On The Third Floor (Uchuncu Martabada), Transition (Kecid), Saturday Night (Shanba Gejasi), Alone (Tak), Crowd (Izdiham) and Freedom (Azadlig).

Three films have been made for television based on her scripts: Punishment (Jaza), Sparrows (Sarchalar) and Night (Geja). Her works have been translated into Russian, English, German, French and Turkish. She has translated the novels "The Web and the Rock" by Thomas Wolfe and "Autumn of the Patriarch" by Marquez Gabriel Garcia from Russian into Azeri.

Presently she is the Director of the Center of Translation for Art Works and Literary Relations of the Azerbaijan Writers' Union.

In Dormitory, published here in English for the first time, Masud provides a satiric spoof on what it is like to have everybody poking their noses into everything you do. No doubt, since it was written in 1983 when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, her story has meaning on numerous levels. The author concludes, however, that societal restraints, no matter how limiting, have their own place. Dormitory was translated by Aynur Hajiyeva and edited by Betty Blair.

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Art: Vugar Muradov. Visit for contacts.

When Mastan said: "My back hurts," everybody in the building, replied: "Jan".1 When Mastan sneezed, everybody in the building said: "Be healthy!" Mastan coughed, everybody in the building brought medicine. Mastan's wife cooked a dish. Everybody in the building praised it, whether they liked it or not. Mastan's wife bought a pair of shoes. Everybody in the building said: "Mubarak"!2

Mastan's child fell down in the yard, everybody in the building sighed. Such was the building where Mastan lived. It always seemed to Mastan that he was not living in a house, but in the street or in the middle of the courtyard. He was afraid to act freely at home. Whatever he wanted to say, he would think about it 30 times before saying it. It was as if Mastan's apartment had ears. If he sneezed twice, there would be a big confusion among his neighbors, and they would call him all day long to ask how he was. That's why Mastan, his wife and child always behaved very cautiously. They were talking to one another, using the polite forms of "yes," "no,"
3 "Here you are," 4 and "You're welcome." 5

Mastan wore a tie at home. Several times a day, he would check to see that it was straight and that he was neatly groomed. And at night when everyone in the building was sleeping, Mastan couldn't even be comfortable in bed. His wife would turn this way and that way in the bed and look at herself, checking hair in the mirror, opposite the bed. Neither of them dared to sleep without the blanket, even on the hottest summer nights.

It was as if there was a big camera in Mastan's house, which was recording everything that they were saying and doing from morning until night, and it was transmitting everything directly from Mastan's apartment into the courtyard for everyone to see.

Of course, it wasn't only Mastan's family. All the tenants of the building - all 150 families - felt the same way. Maybe, that was the reason why no accident had ever happened up to that time in any of those 150 apartments.

The only place where Mastan could feel comfortable was in his study. Every day when he arrived at his office, he would lock the door from the inside, sit in his chair, look around and enjoy the strange loneliness of his study. His study was the only place that provided any solace for Mastan. Sometimes, he would look around his study and his heart would start to beat because he was afraid that this loneliness could disappear one day. Then he would chase away these frightening thoughts and be proud of his small refuge. He would think: "Four walls, the ceiling, the floor and me." This small room was turning into such a sweet and charming place for him that if no one would have criticized him, he would have brought his bed to his study and slept there.

Art: Vugar Muradov. Visit for contacts.

Mastan's apartment had three rooms. Each of those rooms was twice as spacious and full of light as his study. In addition, there was beautiful furniture, comfortable, soft couches and carpets in his apartment. In spite of all these things, he found comfort only in his small study and this situation made Mastan feel very strange.

Maybe the reason was that Mastan could sit as he liked in his study. If he wanted to, he could even put his feet up on his desk. He could snap his fingers for two hours, write poems and take off his clothes. Nobody saw Mastan there. Nobody expressed any opinion about his behavior there or asked additional things. And this was worth the entire world to him.

This study where Mastan was happily breathing every day was the manager's office of the dormitory of a technical school. And Mastan was the "owner" of this office; that is, he was the manager of the dormitory. He did his job very well. Sometimes, he would even write poems.

At home, Mastan never dared to write a poem because, once, on a day off while he was sitting on the sofa, Mastan had drawn a picture just for fun and this caused great trouble. Two hours later, all the building had learned about it. The phone calls started. One was congratulating him, another was making fun of his new hobby, and others were asking what he had drawn.

Afterwards Mastan was very careful about such things. Now whenever Mastan wanted to draw a picture or read a book, he would go to the bathroom. Even there, he couldn't sit for a long time. All the building would say to each other: "What happened to Mastan?" "Is he having a stomach ache?" "Maybe he caught cold?"

Mastan had moved into this building the day he married. They had been living under the same roof for 16 years already. They had a son who was 15. But still they were treating each other very modestly just like when they got engaged. They couldn't tell each other what was really in their hearts; they even had to hide their anger inside. It wasn't a joke, they were living together with 400 people, and they couldn't say and do what was on their minds.

During those 16 years, Mastan had never joked with his wife the way he wanted to. Sometimes when Mastan was in a very good mood, he wanted to jump with joy, to hit his head against the wall. Or sometimes he would shake and become green with anger, but he could never share his anger or his happiness with his wife.

Their balcony was adjacent to the neighbor's and just like all the other apartments; their balconies were separated from each other only with a board that substituted for a door. Therefore, in the middle of the day or night, Mastan would see the neighbor's child across from their balcony coming to get a drink of water in the kitchen. Or see someone hanging clothes out to dry on the balcony or rinsing them in the bathroom.

So, during all these 16 years, Mastan's anger and joy had accumulated like a heavy stone inside him, and the anger and fury of 16 years had accumulated like venom in his heart. That's why Mastan felt alone exactly like he had when he was young and not married. He would drink a glass of water when he got angry, and go to the bathroom and bite his finger when he got happy; after all, a grown man couldn't jump up and down like a ball in the midst of 400 people. The entire building would have shaken with laughter and, God knows, maybe, the building might have collapsed.

Lately, he neither had time nor needed to talk to his wife and son about anything. His wife would share all her problems with the women in the neighborhood, learn from them what she wanted to learn and say what she wanted to say. And his son would spend time with the boys living in their building and rarely be at home.

The neighbors would flow like a river with its many branches here and there across Mastan's rooms, not leaving the slightest chance for Mastan and his family to even talk or look at each other.

As the years passed, Mastan got used to this world of his.

Even when the lights would go out at night, Mastan would sense that everyone in the whole building was sleeping with him in his own bed. Even in his dreams, Mastan wouldn't lose his control over himself.

In fact there was no difference at all between Mastan's work and home. They both seemed like a dormitory to him. The only difference between the dormitory of the technical school and this one was that the tenants of that dormitory were temporary, but these were permanent.

Sometimes, especially at nights when Mastan was thinking about this, he would become horrified. He arrived at the conclusion after thinking a lot that he would have to live in this damned dormitory for the rest of his life, having a great desire for freedom and independence. When thinking like this, Mastan's hair would stand on end. The most frustrating moments were related to thinking about the end of his life for even when dying, he would be together with his neighbors.
It was impossible for him to imagine that he would be allowed to lie alone in some cemetery, far from his neighbors, and that his neighbors would live quietly in their houses as if nothing happened. Mastan's building really resembled a dormitory. It just didn't have a manager.

The exteriors and interiors of all the apartments were the same. Most of the furniture in the apartments was the same too; even the interior design of the apartments was alike. Why were they the same? Because 400 people were appreciating and giving their suggestions to the interior design of every apartment. All apartments had a glass buffet with expensive dishware, including, at least four or five pieces of crystal and a china tea set. Such buffets were the norm in this building. To decorate one's living room in a different way would have either been viewed as indecent or illegal. It was as though it had never occurred to anyone that maybe the room could have a different interior design; for example, even without a buffet. The strange thing was that nobody was getting tired of these buffets. It was as if they had taken the buffets over from the government just like a wall of the building.

Then everybody definitely had to have a color TV. Why? Because 400 people couldn't fit into one or two apartments. And in Mastan's building, one couldn't watch color while someone watched a black-and-white TV. First of all, nobody would have wanted to watch a color TV if his neighbor was watching a black-and-white one. Everybody had to be the same. Everybody had to have the same lot of everything. Everybody had to get happy and enjoy something, get sad and cry the same amount.

Mastan was feeling sick because of this fountain of mutual sensitivity - love and care. What was the reason of this kindness?! Why did they need such an illness like care?! Didn't everything have its limits?

Mastan would quietly think about this only when sitting in the office of his small study. Sometimes, he would provide such answers to his own questions that he would get frustrated and nervous, pound the folders on his desk, leave his study, calm himself down by smoking a cigarette as he wandered in the semi-dark corridors of the dormitory. But it wouldn't last long and he would get afraid that the watchful "projectors" that lit up his apartment's interior would do the same with his brain, enabling the neighbors to see everything in his head as clearly as they saw everything in his house.It was as if this disease - like solicitude and kindness of Mastan's building was increasing, day by day, instead of becoming less. It seemed to Mastan that the building was trembling with kindness from the neighbors, the apartments, balconies and garages were coming closer and turning into a single large area, melting the walls between them. The kindness of the building even affected the dogs and cats as well. These street animals, which were usually chasing after each other, started licking one another all day long.

And when the summer came Mastan's trouble would only become more serious, it was as though a rock as big as the building of the dormitory was falling on Mastan's head from the sky. During the summer time, the dormitory would empty out and Mastan could not find any work there so he would have to spend most of his time among his kind neighbors.

After thinking a lot on one such summer day, Mastan decided to move to his sister's dacha (country house) in order to get away from this confusion for at least 10 to 15 days, to breath freely and to have a sense of peace.

The dacha thing worked. All the building came to say good-bye to them. The neighbors kissed them and cried. The following day they moved to the dacha.

When he entered the dacha, it seemed to Mastan that he had arrived at the most native place. What a dachasilence, spaciousness. Even the birds were singing.

The moment he got inside, the first thing that Mastan did was to take off his clothes. It had been a long time since the curly black hair on Mastan's body, chest and back had seen the open air and sun.

He rolled up his trousers to his knees and took off his socks. It had been a long time since Mastan's big feet - his crooked toes that sweated in his boots and socks all winter and summer long and which were covered with corns - had felt the fresh air and sun.

After taking off his clothes, he flew to the garden as if he were jumping into a cold swimming pool. He started whistling freely, walking barefoot among the trees.

Nobody could ask anything of him now. Nobody could ask why he was whistling and smiling like an idiot. Nobody could ask why he was walking barefoot. Nobody could give their tactless and disgusting advice.

So he cheered up and started to sing.

"They won't let you get married to me, aman [pronounced ah-MAHN], yellow bride,

Aman, yellow bride, aman, yellow bride."

Suddenly Mastan's wife saw that Mastan had climbed to the highest limb of the tree like a bird and his voice could be heard all over the place. No matter how loud she yelled, no matter how hard she shook the tree, Mastan didn't hear a thing. Mastan's eyes became glazed over from singing. They became as big as plums. Mastan's face became swollen from singing. Swollen and ruddy-colored like fresh bread. His chest expanded like a lion's.

While singing, Mastan was feeling that something was slowly happening. Something was draining out of his body, his innards and marrow. Mastan was becoming relieved and comfortable as he was singing.

That day Mastan sang until he lost his voice. He came down after his voice got hoarse, and he became breathless and his heart started beating faster.

That very day Mastan's wife said a lot of nasty things to him. She said everything that she had wanted to say for the past 16 years that she had kept in her heart until now.

And Mastan, even though he wasn't itching anywhere, confused, first started scratching his stomach and then his head. Then he rubbed his hands nervously together. It wasn't a joke. During 16 years this was the first time that Mastan was seeing his wife - her red face and bulging eyes. It was the first time in his life that Mastan realized that his wife's mouth was really big. When she was angry, her nostrils expanded like walnuts and she had the face of dragon from some horror movie.

It was as if that evening Mastan saw his wife for the first time. It was as though Mastan had lived with a different person - a quiet, warm and young woman up until then. As if even her face and voice were different.

The following day Mastan's son tied two cats together by their tails and rubbed their backs with something. This was the same son who was always getting top grades at school and whose photo never was omitted from the honor boards of his school for studying and good behavior.

Suddenly, the screams of the cats were heard all over the dacha. A day later, his son drowned someone's hen in the pool.
Mastan was really confused and lost. Every day either his wife or son was doing something crazy. Things were getting worse, day after day. His wife had turned into a witch and his son into a mad goat. They were turning everything upside down at the dacha. His wife was wearing anything she could get hold of, and she was wearing it the way she liked and walking in the streets of the village that way, disgracing him. And her clothes were so dirty. She would go for days without changing her clothes and combing her hair.

Once Mastan noticed that his wife's manner of walking and posture had changed as well. Her manner of laughing was scaring Mastan for some reason now. She was stirring up the dust in the air when she walked. His son was climbing the walls. He was biting into the trees like a wolf and saying nasty things to his parents. There was not a single dog or cat left in the dacha because of him. They had all run away and hidden in some corner.

Mastan had really lost himself. What was going on? Was this a dream? Why were they acting like this? Was this what they called a quiet and independent life?

When his son again started to gnaw on the trees like a mad goat, Mastan got really angry and lost his temper. He was repairing the handle of the door that his wife had broken when slamming the door. And the heat was burning his back.
That moment a clamor rose from the depth of the dacha, and Mastan understood what was going on. He found himself grabbing his son by the ears and lifting him up and screaming and yelling as loud as he could.

He didn't realize himself what he was doing. He couldn't pull himself together or stop his hands from shaking. He was biting his son's arms, twisting his ears, pinching his cheeks and kicking him.

No matter how much his wife tried, she couldn't calm Mastan down. Mastan himself tried, but couldn't calm down. He was trying to stop, to cool down, but his hands and legs were not obeying him.

His son's voice was heard all over the dacha:

"Daddy, I'm dying. Dad, please, don't beat me"

But Mastan couldn't stop. When he got tired of beating up on his son and needed to rest his tired hands, he climbed up on his son's back. He was biting his son's ears and screaming as loud as he could until his eyes became bloodshot. His hands were pinching and twisting whatever they could get a hold of.

At last, his wife called the neighbors for help:

"Hey everybody, he's killing him, don't let him do that. My husband has gone crazy, please stop him!"

Mastan's wife had completely lost herself. During those 16 years, her husband had never slapped their child. Now all of a sudden, she was lost because of her husband's strange behavior.

Mastan was going around the garden riding on the back of his son who didn't know where to run. He was just trying to escape from his father who was screaming and yelling and making his body black and blue from pain. Now he was remembering the cats that he tied together with their tails. Mastan was confused by his own behavior. It was as if a big unreasonable, cruel monster that had got bigger, little by little, for 16 years inside him had finally awakened. It was as if Mastan had fed the monster with all his problems up to then. And the monster had become bigger and fatter, thriving on all those poisons.

By the time the neighbor men came to help, Mastan's son was lying on the ground, moaning. And Mastan was out of breath, sitting on his son's back.

Mastan's wife was leaning against a mulberry tree, crying. It seems she was more afraid that her husband was going crazy than for her son.

That night neither Mastan, nor his wife, nor his son could manage to fall sleep until morning. His son's ears and nose had become blue and swollen. He couldn't move his arms or head because of pain. He tossed back and forth, and kept moaning until morning. Mastan's wife was also tossing from side to side. She couldn't understand how things had turned out like this. Everything had been so good. Up until then, there had never been any problems at home. Why were they having such a hard time since they had moved to the dacha?

But Mastan was worse off than the others. On the one hand, he was ashamed of what he had done; on the other hand, he felt sorry for his son. He was terrified to realize that the independent life he had been wishing for up until then, and the 10 to 15 days that he had wanted to have for himself and his family had turned out to be so dangerous. How had things turned out to be so bad?

Mastan thought a lot and decided that they should return home in the morning.

So they did.

As soon as they got home, the whole building came out to greet them. Everybody was interested in the black and blue ears of Mastan's son. They said that he had got into a fight with some kids. Then the whole building said: "Jan". Then for a whole week they kept bringing medicine, delicious dishes and fruits for his son. His son's mad goat phase passed. The kid became the well-bred, shy boy just as he had been before. He felt embarrassed and shy with everyone that he saw. His wife's face became happy again, her mouth became smaller. She started responding to him, using the polite forms of "yes" and "you're welcome."

After everybody cooled down and recovered, Mastan went out to the balcony and took a deep breath. He looked out over the city. From here - from Mastan's house - the buildings looked very small.

After thinking about it, Mastan arrived at the conclusion that, for sure, this is how things were supposed to be. In fact, this was better. It was as if you were standing on 50 or 100 feet, not just your own two. As if you are thinking with 100 brains, not just your own. As if you were seeing with a thousand eyes, not just with your own.

It was as though Mastan saw the city for the first time, despite that he had been looking at it for a long time. All of a sudden it seemed to him that all the gray buildings in the city were big dormitories in good condition just like his own building. And in those buildings everybody was eating, getting up and going to bed at the same time.

He didn't know whether he thought these things just to console himself, or whether it just occurred to him

End Notes:

1 People say, "Jan", to show that they care and are worried and concerned. "Jan" literally means "soul".

2 The word, "Mubarak" is used to congratulate someone for something new.

3 "Yes" (bali) and "No" (kheyr) are used in formal speech; "ha" and "yokh" are informal or colloquial.

4 "Here you are" (buyurun) is the polite way to request someone to do something.

5 "You're welcome" (daymaz) is the polite way to say, "Thank you."

6 "Yellow Bride" is a well-known Azerbaijani folk song.

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