Azerbaijan International

Spring 2004 (12.1)
Pages 118-123

Kamran Nazirli
The Old Baby (2003)

Kamran Nazirli, born in 1958, is the author of several books, including "Love Story" (1991), "Among The Natives" (1995), "Araz - My Life" (2002) and "The Devil's Light" (2003). His book entitled "Society Is the Mirror of Policy" (1999) was awarded high prize named after Hasan Bey Zardabi, founder of the Azerbaijan press.

This story was written 10 years after Azerbaijanis had fled their towns and villages in Karabakh and the neighboring regions. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were forced to flee because of the war. Today about 15 percent of Azerbaijan's territory is still being held military by Armenians. Many of those who fled are still living in refugee camps. Life goes on as best it can and babies are still being born. Nazirli describes the complicated efforts of a single family in its effort to perpetuate life.

"Old Baby" was translated by Aynura Huseinova and edited by Betty Blair.

·  ·  ·

Art: Bayim Hajiyeva. Visit for contacts. 

It was nearly 7 o'clock in the evening. The sun was about to set though the temperature was still hot. The stuffy weather exhausted the men, who were sitting on the rocks nearby the ditch a few steps away from the tents. Now they were hoping that the dark and ash-colored clouds that appeared in the sky would cool the oppressively hot summer day - and give at least an hour's reprieve.

Everyone was expecting heavy rain. Every time the dark, ash-colored clouds appeared in the sky, it would rain afterwards, and the elderly people had observed that rain always followed. But this time there was no sign of rain. Nor did the stubborn clouds let the people watch the sunset. Nor did the wind blow. It was impossible to predict such weather.

One of the old men finally unbuttoned the two top buttons of his shirt. "It's impossible to breathe. We're just melting here. What kind of weather is this?" he grumbled, looking off into the distance at the ash-colored village at the foot of the small, barren mountains about 30-35 kilometers away. "I bet the weather over there in the village is wonderful. The wind always reaches to the region of the plane trees," he continued.

Nobody heard what he was saying. Well, maybe they did, but they didn't take him seriously because at that moment, it was not their concern that their village had been forcefully occupied by Armenians in 1992. For example, 60-year old Abbas, who was sitting beside the man wearing the light summer shirt, was smoking a "hookah" (water pipe). He focused all his attention on the tent, straining to hear the birth cry of his first grandchild. That was the only thing on his mind.

His daughter-in-law would soon be giving birth. But the young woman's contractions were so strong and the pain so severe that she had lost control
1. Her screams were even causing the other women "to climb the walls" - the tarpaulin walls of the tent.

From time to time, the hookah-smoking man cringed, hearing the mother - to be scream in pain. It was as if he had aged years during those few minutes. "My steel waist is bent because of the heat," he observed.

Ahmad, the bride's father, felt the same way - the only difference being that he was cursing the weather as well. Squinting his eyes, he fixed his sad gaze on the village in the far distance.

2 had been born and lived in that Karabakh3 village: their fathers, grandfathers, forefathers had been born, lived and died there. But in the end, Armenian troops with the support of Russians had forced them to leave their village. They had moved, not so far away, only about 30-35 kilometers down on the vast plain. But, enough about these men. Let's move on.

Art: Toghrul Narimanbeyov. Visit for contacts.

Mammad, the bride's husband, elbowed his way onto the mat next to a raspberry bush near the ditch. He chatted with another man, unshaven like himself. For sure, at that moment, he wasn't thinking about the village either.

Mammad had already gotten used to the features of these plains. Though he was about 30 years old, he looked more like 60. This young man, who looked so old, was about to become a father. He would soon embrace his first child. The joy of becoming a father would fill his heart, making him feel for that moment the happiest man in the world.

Rafig, another young man sitting next to Mammad had snow-white hair and was impulsively inhaling on a cigarette. He was looking elsewhere; only God knew what he was looking at and why. If you checked his passport, you would see that his birth date was either 1971 or 1972, but he seemed much older.

Tragically, he had lost one of his legs during the war in 1993. This one-legged man was the brother of the young woman, who was giving birth.

After losing his leg, others no longer referred to him as "a young person". His army mates at the war's front had nicknamed him "Old Captain". In battles at Mughanli, Shikhbabali and Chamanli, his mates said that he was exactly like their previous commander Shirin. "From now on, we'll call you, 'Old Captain'.

Your hair is already white, isn't it?" And it was a true comparison. His appearance matched his nickname. When he had returned "home", well, actually when he returned to the plains, everyone had started calling him "Old Captain".

Old Captain Rafig would soon become an uncle. He didn't fret about the hot weather and heavy clouds hanging above their village. Rafig was thinking about the sheer happiness of becoming an uncle. He had been waiting for this joy for a long time. Now this pleasure was blending with the cigarette smoke. The word "Amsterdam" was written on the cigarette pack. After squishing the pack in his hand, he exhaled the smoke through his nose and mouth. These cigarettes had been brought in yesterday as part of the humanitarian aid. But who knew what had been mixed in with the tobacco to form such crooked small puffs in the air. Rafig really didn't appear to be enjoying it.

Old Captain turned to his sister's husband: "It smells like spoiled milk," he said, pointing to the cigarette. "The first time I smoked one like this, even Astra
4 seemed much better. You could feel it immediately right after the first puff. With these, you have to smoke a whole pack to feel anything."

The brother-in-law didn't reply. He sat down on the ground, listening to the frogs in the ditch. No, he wanted to hear something else in the water. There was something in there, very different. He didn't even know himself what kind of sound he wanted to hear. Of course, he had heard the croaking of these frogs night and day. He was already so bored with it.

One of the women ran out of the tent and yelled at the little boy, sitting on a rock on the side of a ditch who was dangling his legs in water: "Hey, Vidi, fill this pail with water and bring it back to me. Hurry up!"

It was as if the little boy was expecting his mother to charge into him. He grabbed the pail and ran towards the ditch.
Hookah-smoking Abbas got up from the rock and turned to his wife: "Hey Tarlan, how's it going?"

"So bad. I don't know why the "mamatcha"
5 doesn't come? Her contractions are much stronger now. The poor girl is so exhausted."

Mammad suddenly turned to his mother and stopped listening to the sounds in the ditch.

"Mom, Rizvan will bring a midwife soon. Ask her to have a little more patience."

Tarlan took the pail of water from the child and went into the tent. She didn't even pay attention to her son's voice.
Vidadi, proud of being helpful to his grandmother, came back and sat back down on the same rock.

One-legged Old Captain called the child: "Vidi, go buy a pack of cigarettes for me - either Baku or Karabakh. Tell the store owner to put it on the my list and I'll pay him later

The child ran up the grassy footpath along the ditch. That same moment Tarlan rushed out of the tent again, looked around and shouted at her son: "Where did you send the child?"

"I sent him for cigarettes", the one-legged man answered for his brother-in law.

"Who's going to fill this then?" Tarlan asked, pointing at the empty pail in her hands.

Mammad, the husband of the young woman giving birth, stood up and took the pail from the woman and reluctantly crossed to the other side of the ditch. Old Captain stood up as well and took his cane. He approached the woman: "Aunt
Tarlan, so how's it going now?"

"God help us! Let's see what happens! Inshallah
7 she'll deliver safely by the night." Tarlan answered in a consoling tone to the one-legged man, whose skin had turned dark like coal.

She got angry when she saw the one-legged man smoking a cigarette so intently. "Hey, what do you find in that damn thing? That poison almost killed you! Look at yourself to see what it did to you! You're just skin and bones now!"
Old Captain smiled and said: "I'll quit right after the child is born."

Suddenly, lightning struck in the distance over the village at the foot of the small barren mountains. The thunder sounded like the neigh of a horse. Ahmad kishi breathed, "Thank God," and looked around at the people as if he were congratulating them with his eyes. Abbas, who was standing next to him, didn't move. It was as if he wanted to say that this was a false sign and not to believe it. Actually, he was right. There was only one bolt of lightning: the sky neighed only once. Things turned out to be the same again - same weather, same black heavy clouds, same water moving calmly in the ditch accompanied by croaking frogs.

A scream was heard in the tent expressing such excruciating pain that everybody's hair stood on end.

The young woman was not able to give birth. She was crying and screaming. One of the women tried to calm her down.
"Pull yourself together, my dear, please, push with all your might! Once more, darlingYes, yes. Don't be afraid, "light of my eyes". Don't be scared! God will help you! Make one more push and you'll be free! Be patient, darling. God will pave your way!"

Everyone was waiting - relatives, neighbors and friends. Why were they waiting so anxiously? What would change when the child was born? They had been wanting this baby for seven years
8. For seven long years, the young woman Manzar had not been able to conceive. She had lived with her husband on the - sometimes wet, sometimes frozen, and sometimes smelly - ground in a tent, taking care of her father-in-law and mother-in-law, sister, brother and mother living in the same tent. All the while, inside, she was screaming and crying.

Last winter she had said that she felt somewhat different. She was having headaches and vomiting. Mammad, her husband, didn't take her seriously, but Sughra khala
9, Manzar's mother, understood right away. She didn't tell anyone and commented only that it was probably because of the Sana10 butter or the corn oil brought in as part of the humanitarian aid a couple of days ago11. Neighbor Sakina's family had also felt bad after eating that corn oil. The children had vomited and drunk water until morning. Nobody knew what that corn oil really had in it.

Day by day, Manzar began to feel the changes taking place in her body. It became more and more evident that after waiting for seven years, she was finally pregnant. She felt really pleased as her belly grew larger. Sometimes she cried or looked sadly towards the village that lay snuggled in the foothills of those distant mountains.

Armenian soldiers were occupying their mountain village. Azerbaijani soldiers were positioned about 10 kilometers from it down on the slopes. It wasn't difficult for the Armenians to view the entire plains from that height and to target the people, and officially now they couldn't shoot because of the ceasefire. However, shooting would break out, and our soldiers returned the fire. Thus after one or two hours of shelling, both sides would stop fighting and smoke would rise from the village. After someone's building or haystacks burned, the smoke still floated in the sky. Eventually it would disappear.

The people living in tents said the Armenians didn't care about these houses because it wasn't their village. They didn't have to work so hard to build them, so why should they feel bad when the houses burned down. Everyone knew if there were a fire in any of the houses where the owner no longer lived, it would slowly burn all the way to the ground.
Old Captain said the Armenians were doing it on purpose, like "Hey Turks, look and see how your homes are burning to ashes right in front of your eyes!"

Sometimes when the weather was hellish, Old Captain would suddenly become infuriated. He would head off to the trench and reprimand the soldiers, accusing them of not being "kishi" (courageous men): "Why are you waiting? Fight back!

You're not brave! Give me that gun, I'll go to the front myself!" Life here was like that.

When Manzar's family fled the village, they weren't able to take anything along with them. They barely managed to flee. And what places hadn't they lived in during those first months - a train boxcar, a tent, a cowshed, a half-dilapidated school building. Finally, the elders of the village had made up their mind and settled on the plains.

Representatives from the State Refugee Committee came and said they couldn't live there, as there was no communication facility in the area: it didn't matter that there was an irrigation ditch nearby. Furthermore, they said this place was dangerous because it was only 30 kilometers from the frontline. But Mammad's father, the hookah-smoking man, took a stand and said that they could kill him and his family, because they wanted to settle close to their old village. It was his hope that they would soon drive out the Armenians and take back their native land. But all the "todays and tomorrows" had stretched into nine long years.

Manzar, who was writhing in pain under the dim light of an oil lamp, could never have imagined that she would give birth in a tent, with no medical aid or anesthesia, and not even a midwife. Although she had waited seven years for this baby, and had had to absorb all the pain, suffering, cold weather and painful expectations of these seven years, she always held on to hope inside her that something would happen. Life couldn't continue like this forever. It was because of this hope that she was able to bear all these pains. Sometimes, they couldn't even find anything to eat. At those moments, she still said it was God's will and that whatever He advised would be acceptable to them.

From time to time, Manzar's mother, her mother-in-law, and her husband's brother and Vidadi had also joined them in this small tent. There was a curtain down the middle of the single space: men slept on one side, women on the other.

For these seven years of marriage, Manzar had not been able to spend enough nights with her husband. Sometimes the situation upset both of them so much that they couldn't calm their nerves. Manzar didn't speak up because she couldn't, as she couldn't get pregnant. Somehow, they felt that if they had had a child, the days would pass easier.

They had consulted nearly all the fortunetellers from Aghjabadi to Ganja and had spent so much money, but nothing had helped. One had said the wife's kidneys were sick; another, that it was the husband's kidneys. In the end, each fortuneteller had found different reasons for the infertility. Meanwhile, the young couple had grown much older at such an early age.

Manzar's face had become wrinkled; her fingers, rough and her hair, white. How old was she? Only 25! Her husband had aged as well. Mammad looked like an old man, carrying the heaviest burden of the world on his shoulders. He always went around unshaven. Just as Manzar and her husband appeared older than their age, close relatives and others around them had also aged as well. Nearly everyone appeared much older than they were.

These old men and old grannies didn't care about their homeland on this strange summer night; nor were they concerned about the humid weather. They were waiting for the birth of this child. This birth was much more important to them than anything else.

Manzar's mother, Sughra khala left the tent. She didn't scream at anybody this time. Carrying a big round pan, she headed to the ditch. Having seen his mother-in-law soaked in sweat, Mammad quickly jumped up. Suddenly, he didn't comprehend if she was his mother-in-law or not. Oh God, at that moment, Manzar's 50-year old mother, whose daughter was writhing in pain lying alone there in that tent, looked like a 90-year-old granny. How she had aged during those few hours! Mammad thought for a minute that she always looked like this; maybe he had not paid special attention to her; but no, she was not! She was an active woman who still could wash clothes by hand and skillfully build a fire and bake bread in the tandir oven

Again screams and sobs were coming from inside the tent: "God, I'm dying! Ayy! Mother, help me, I'm dying! Off! God! God Ayy! Momma, help me! I'm really dying!"

"Don't be afraid, darling. Have more patience! May God pass your pain to me! May God sacrifice me for you."

"Manzar, may all your troubles come to me, your sister, push once more, and you'll be free!"

Manzar's mother hurriedly entered the tent again. The hookah-smoking man turned to the man with the worn shirt: "I need some fresh air, Ahmad. Let's take a walk."

Both of them moved away from the tent. Dim light from oil lamps could be seen from other tents in the distance. Night, looking like a black curtain hanging in the sky, had arrived earlier than usual. Only a strong downpour could have torn down this curtain, but that was not likely to happen - for the rain to pour down and save these people from this hellish heat. As the two men got further away, light appeared like a cigarette glow, but it was only the weak lamplight coming from inside the tents.

Abbas asked his son's father-in-law: "So you were saying Rizvan just came back from the city, right?"

"Yesthey say it's damn hot over there, too. The heat is just melting people," said Ahmad.

"It can't be anything like the weather we have here!"

"I'm saying we'll never be able to return to our village again"

"Don't say that, Ahmad, Don't say negative things. It isn't good. That OSCE
13 or whatever it's called - that damned organization has come again. They've even come down here. Do you know what that Mushtaba's newspaper14 wrote again? They are right here, close to us in Khankandi15...let's see what these dighas16 will say now," said Abbas.

"Hey, I'm telling you, if "The Man"
17 doesn't take back the territories,18 nobody else will ever be able to do it! Neither the OSCE, Russia nor America! All of them are nothing in comparison to The Man. I know he's able to solve this problem in a minute. I bet he can wipe out these Armenian dighas anyway. But why hasn't it happened yet. I don't understand."

"It's not so easy to solve, Ahmad. There's stuff we don't know. God help us. I'm saying we both will be grandfathers soon. Maybe our grandson's arrival will be a good sign. Inshallah!"

"May God hear you. Hey, Abbas, I wish the radio would say that our army had liberated Karabakh right after our grandson's birth. You know what I would do? I swear, I would grab my grandson and walk to the village on foot, even barefoot. Thirty kilometers is nothing. Then I would slaughter a ram in my yard."

"I would sacrifice a ram, too, I swear. You talked with so much confidence that I started to feel good. Let's get back and see why this stubborn baby doesn't want to come to the hearth. My throat is really dried up; I swear I'll drink till morning with you."

They walked back along the same path without saying a word. Again the same sounds were coming from the tent.

"I beg you, my dear. A little more patience!" said Manzar's sister, Mahizar.

"God will help you! It's right on the edge. One more push. Good, good. I see its head."

19 stand back a bit. Azz, bring the pan. Yes, God will help you."

"Azz, change the cloth. It's right there. Give me a clean one," ordered Sughra khala.

"Here it is finally, Mashallahjust like his grandpa!" said Tarlan.

The grandpas listened attentively. Both were pleased; though both were confused. Which of them did Tarlan mean? At the same time, they both understood it was a boy. Actually, after that no other sound came from the tent. Nobody wanted to break the silence. The wife didn't scream any more, the women suddenly stopped talking. The baby wasn't crying. What was happening?

Abbas lost his patience and called his son: "Hey son, where's Vidi?"

"He hasn't returned from Latif's shop yet," answered Mammad.

"But where did Rafig go?" said Ahmad.

"He went to find Vidi."

"Hey son, Mammad, what's happening over there? Why don't they come out of the tent?" asked Abbas kishi, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

Aunt Tarlan rushed out of the tent and hurried to the ditch with the empty pail. Mammad didn't let her. He grabbed the pail himself, understanding that something serious was happening inside. He ran towards the ditch. The woman was so frantic; she couldn't talk and almost stumbled.

"Hey woman, what's happening, why don't you speak?"

"God help us. What was that?"

"Congratulations! We'll keep our word now. We'll have to drink till the morning, right?" happily Abbas interrupted the woman.

"Just wait, the girl's health is in danger. What happened to Rizvan?"

The grandparents became anxious again. Sughra khala came out of the tent now.

"Azz, Tarlan come herewhat kind of child is this?" she shouted.

Both grandmothers ran towards the tent. Again some sounds started to come from inside the tent.

"Azz, how are you now? You're finished with the help of God!"

The grandparents smiled.

"Azz, Tarlan, what kind of child is this? It doesn't even cry! Azz, bring that lamp little closer! Azz, get out, ask Mammad to call Sakina and bring their lamp as well," Aunt Sughra told her younger daughter Mahizar.

Mammad immediately ran towards the tent of neighbor Sakina who soon came with a lamp in her hands.

"Azz, thank God.azz, why isn't this child crying?"

The grandparents again got worried.

The baby didn't ever cry. But he was alive, his eyes were closed, they were wiping him clean. It didn't cry. Suddenly one of the women cried out: "Azz! Bismillah!
20 What kind of child is this, really?"

"By God, what is it?"

The grandparents and the young father couldn't stand by quietly any more. This conversation of the women inside the tent really shocked them.

"Azz, Tarlan, Why is his forehead so strange?"

"Allah, Allah, Why are his fingers so unusual, azz?"

"Bismillah, azz, the hair on his head is white. Azz, what is this? Hey, Abbas, hey Mammad!"

The men immediately rushed into the tent. Everyone was stunned by the women's words. They had wrapped the baby in a white cloth. His hair looked white in the light of the lamp. He had deep wrinkles on his face and forehead, just like an old man.

Abbas kishi remained calm: "Azz, what's up with this child? He's just marvelous!" he said, as if he wanted to console his daughter-in-law, who was lying down on the other side of the tent, that things were fine and that she had no need to worry.

But the women didn't seem to understand what the man was trying to do. They were gazing at the baby in astonishment.
The grandfathers left the tent. Mammad didn't know what to do. He had never seen any baby who had just been born. He thought that all babies in the world looked like that. He thought of a name for the baby. Well, probably not its real name, but at least, an appropriate nickname: "Old Baby!"

Mammad came out of the tent as well and saw that people from the neighboring tents had gathered. Those who entered the tent came out with a look of shock on their faces.

"It's a miracle of God!" they said.

"The child looks like an old man!"

"God help us. This child doesn't even cry!"

But on that summer day, Ahmad's nephew Rizvan came without a midwife. He said that "Mamatcha" Susan had gone to another refugee tent in Saatli. Someone else was giving birth there as well!

Old Captain and Vidadi also came. The relatives had all gathered in the tent. They didn't know whether to congratulate or console one another. It could be seen from their faces that this was the first time that they had even seen or heard of a baby being born, looking like an old person.

It didn't rain that morning. There was no relief from the hot, stuffy air. It was even worse inside the tent. Manzar woke up. She held the baby to her breast, swollen with milk. But the child made no effort to suckle.

When the child woke up, he would probably suck and so vigorously that the wrinkles on his forehead would disappear. Last night Manzar herself had heard neighbor Sakina talk about it. Sakina, who had some medical knowledge, said that the only remedy for the baby would be its mother's milk.

End Notes:

1 Often in such situations, women have no choice but to give birth without access to pain killers and anaesthesia.It's a very common situation in the refugee camps.

2 Kishilar means "men" in Azeri, but implies brave men who have dignity and who always keep their promises.

3 Karabakh is a mountainous region located in Western Azerbaijan, which has been occupied by Armenian military forces since 1992.

4 Astra cigarettes were the cheapest and lowest grade of cigarettes available during Soviet times.

5 «Mamatcha" means "midwife". As it is difficult to find a professional doctor in rural areas or refugee camps, women
often rely on midwives when they give birth.

6 Storeowner's list. It's a usual practice in refugee camps for customers and the countryside for people who only get a small stipend from the government and who don't have work to charge their accounts and pay them off gradually as they can.

7 Inshallah means «If God permits» or «If God wills».

8 They waited for seven years. Traditionally, Azerbaijani couples have a baby the first year of marriage.

9 «Khala» means aunt - mother's sister.

10 Sana Butter is really margarine, which is widely used in Azerbaijan and, in this case was sent as part of the meager rations that refugees receive as humanitarian aid.

11 This story, written in 2003, is one of the first to admit that refugees were often disgruntled about the poor quality of humanitarian aid that they received.

12 A tandir is a round clay oven built into the ground. These ovens are open at the top. A fire is built inside from twigs or branches. When the clay walls become hot, the flattened dough is slapped up against the inside walls and bakes in a few minutes.

13 The OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) is comprised of 52 member states. The OSCE Minsk Group has been charged with the responsibility of finding a peaceful and permanent resolution to Nagorno-Karabakh problem between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This international committee began its work in 1992. Russia, France and the U.S. co-chair this committee. Eleven years later when this story was written, no significant progress had been made to bring an end to the Karabakh war.

14 Mushtaba is the name of the owner of a newspaper.

15 Khankandi is the main governmental center in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians, who presently hold this town under occupation, refer to it as Stepanakert. The Azeri name «Khankandi» dates back centuries.

16 In Armenian, «digha» simply means «man or fellow». But in Azeri, the term is used negatively to refer to an Armenian.

17 "The Man" refers to the late President Heydar Aliyev, who worked hard to try to bring a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Since this story was written, he has since passed away (December 2003).

18 Territories refers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven regions surrounding Karabakh which are currently held militarily by Armenians. This area comprises about 15 percent of all of Azerbaijan's territory.

19 Azz means "Hey girl!" is a term used only among women who are close to each other. It is very informal. It would not be considered polite to call a girl by this term if did not know her well.

20 "Bismillah" is an expression of surprise, it literraly means «In the name of God."

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