Spring 2004 (12.1)
Ismayil Gahraman oghlu Shikhli was born
in March 22, 1922 in Ikinji Shikhli village of the Gazakh region
in northwestern Azerbaijan. [Other sources indicate that his
official birth date is 1919. However, Shikhli's son Elchin (Editor
of Zerkalo and Ayna newspapers) says that his father's birth
certificate was changed during his youth to enable him to be
admitted into a branch of Gory Seminary (secondary school) because
he was too young. The headmaster at Gory knew Shikhli's actual
age; but realizing his talent, he agreed to allow him to enroll.
Shikhli lived to see his country gain its independence from the
Soviet Union in late 1991-something that he worked very fervently
throughout his life. He died in Baku on July 26, 1995, and is
buried in Cemetery of the Honored Ones (Fakhri Khiyaban).
After graduating from the university, he served four years in
World War II. This experience set the direction for his life.
First of all, it armed him with immense courage. After fighting
on the front lines, nothing frightened him.
Secondly, during the war, he kept a journal in which he wrote
everyday. This cultivated his interest in writing and in approaching
literature from a realistic point of view, not via Socialist
Realism, which required that the Soviet system be glorified.
Because of severe censorship that was in place during the Soviet
period, Shikhli became very skillful in using symbolism to attack
the Soviet system from inside.
For about 30 years, he chaired the European and American (non-Russian)
Literature Department at Baku's Pedagogical Institute. He was
executive editor of Azerbaijan (Literary) magazine and head of
the Writers' Union in from 1981 to 1987.
Shikhli is author of the following books: "In the Waters
of Kerch" (Kerch Sularinda, 1950), "Echo of the Mountains"
(Daghlar Saslanir, 1951), "Separated Roads" (Ayrilan
Yollar, 1957), "and Stormy Kur" (Dali Kur, 1957-67).
Art: Vugar Muradov. Visit AZgallery.org for contacts.
His last novel, "My Dying World" (Olan Dunyam) was
written after he had already gone blind from diabetes. He polished
every sentence in his mind and then dictated it for his wife,
Umida and his children, to write down. The book was published
shortly before his death and has since been made into a movie.
He often employed the medium of historical novel to express his
criticism of the Soviet system.
Shikhli is deeply respected as a defender of freedom and independence.
Like a number of other intellectuals-both writers and artists,
Shikhli was a member of Azerbaijan's Parliament. When Soviet
troops attacked Baku on January 20, 1990 (Black January), Shikhli
was one of the first MPs to burn his Communist Party identification
card in protest.
Under his leadership, Parliament convened and drafted a statement
condemning the attack, which had resulted in the slaughter of
hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians. The statement read: "Gorbachev
is a criminal; the blood of our nation is on his hands and soul."
Shikhli could easily have been killed for such courage.
Shiklhli was honored as People's Writer in 1984 and awarded the
Laureate of Republican Komsomol Award in 1976.
"Aunt Maleyka" was
translated from Azeri by Aynura Huseinova and edited by Betty
At first, the dogs started barking
on the upper end of the village, then the purr of a car could
be heard. The sound grew louder in the silence of the night,
then faded to low, faint drone. Already uneasy, Aunt Maleyka,
who lay in bed staring at the ceiling, became startled. She was
trying to figure out where the car would turn according to the
scrunching sound it made on the rough village road, which was
covered with ice. It had been four years since she had been living
with such uneasy, tense nights. She had been waiting all these
four years-so alert to any sound or light tapping-longing for
one of those rare coming cars to stop in front of her house,
and for footsteps to come near her door. Even sometimes she would
wake up suddenly and run out to the road barefoot and bare headed.
She became startled again. Again, she was about to toss off the
blanket and run outside. But, suddenly, she stiffened and trembled
like an arrow, and her whole body ached from top to bottom. She
couldn't figure out whether the car had made a turn and stopped
outside her yard. She couldn't hear the footsteps coming toward
Art: Vugar Muradov. Visit AZgallery.org for contacts.
Her son was her guest for three days. He made his mother happy
for those three days. He warmed up to his mother's breath, but
only for three days. And his mother warmed up to his breath for
those three days. During those days, Aunt Maleyka forgot what
resting felt like. She served food to those who visited her son
during the daytime. At night, she would make a bed on the couch
for him and she would press herself up tightly against him, putting
her arm under his head and watch him all night long.
Her child had totally changed: black dots had appeared on his
face. There was a strong wheeze coming from his chest. As soon
as he fell asleep, he would start raving, wrapping himself in
the blanket as if he were trying to hide from somebody. At first,
he would scream from the high fever, then moan.
His mother wanted to shake him gently to awaken him up so that
he would calm down. But then the opposite happened. As soon as
she touched him, he would become startled and he would jump up,
dumbstruck, and then the wheezing would again come from his chest.
Poor son could hardly breath. It was as if he had grown older:
his face was wrinkled, his head terribly hot from fever.
When he had left for military service, he had only been 17. Having
graduated from Teachers' Training, he had just started to teach
at the village school. He had been able to buy clothes for himself
and his mother on his first salary. He had just started to earn
money and to feel the joy of it. His heart had just started to
experience some joy as well. His mother liked one of the girls
in the neighborhood (one which she was considering as a potential
bride for her son). That girl always wore a white silk kerchief
with a green border and every time she passed by their house
to draw water, she would take a quick glance inside.
Many times, her eyes had followed the new teacher all the way
to the school. Aunt Maleyka watched. She noticed that when her
son would come across that girl, he would lose himself and and
not be able to walk straight. She sensed that they liked each
other. All they would have to do would be to get the girl's permission
and send their people to visit the girl's family.
There's an expression: it's true. It goes: "What man proposes,
God disposes." One day, they received a letter. Her son
had been drafted into the military. Actually, his mother couldn't
believe that they would take such a fellow to war who had not
even started to shave his face, or who had never cut off the
head of a chicken, and never hurt anyone. His mind and soul were
so pure. He had never held the hand of a girl, his breath had
never felt the breath of a female. Was it not unfair for someone
like him to have to hold a gun against his cheek, instead of
the cheek of a pure girl. His hands would stroke a gun, instead
of the breast of a girl. Was it not unfair for him to have to
spend the young years of his life at war? Did he not rather deserve
to live these years in deep love and passion?
Aunt Maleyka could not accept the fact that they would take her
only son away. But they did. Moreover, she herself had made a
bag for him, and had put food and warm clothes, wool socks and
gloves in it. She didn't leave him alone to go to the city. When
she saw that people had gathered in front of Voenkom [Military
Commissariat], it somehow consoled her. She calmed herself by
saying, "The trouble which happens to all the people is
She joined the others who had been called up and went to the
train station, stayed overnight there together with the others
who had come to see their sons off. Towards dawn, she headed
home. But she didn't succeed in getting back home for two days.
Her home was covered with ice, the windows were covered with
a thick frost. The sun in the sky, the fire-everything was covered
in ice. When she entered, she became icy cold. It seemed to Aunt
Maleyka that there was some big emptiness at home. This emptiness
was constantly raging in her heart and mind. She could not find
any warmth or any consolation in her heart in her own home.
Art: Vugar Muradov. Visit AZgallery.org for contacts.
Time passed. Letters started to come. Her son's voice was heard
in this lonely house. Once this voice came from Dagistan; another
time from Topazes. Sometimes the voice was heard from Krosnodar,
sometimes from Taman. Once the voice came all the way from Kerch.
But then, the voice suddenly got cut off after Kerch.
The woman kept waiting anxiously with her hand on her heart,
always glancing towards the road, waiting for her son. She would
go out to check the road, and go to the post office three times
a day. Every time she would see the postman, her body would tremble,
her eyes fixed on his hands, as he would take the three-cornered
out of his old briefcase. She didn't dare to move.
Every time the postman would hang his head, and she understood
that there was no news from her son. She waited and waited. Still
there was no news. Nobody knew whether he was dead or alive.
Some of the soldiers who had been drafted along with him had
already returned, but she didn't dare to go see them. "May
God strike me speechless if something happenswhat if May all
these pessimistic thoughts turn out to be wrong. Mighty God,
bless my son."
When she was alone at home, she would lock the door and burst
into tears. She would stare at the ceiling all night long and
not get a moment of sleep. She would pray: "You are my only
hope, Mighty God, save my only son, the "apple of my eye",
give him back to me. Let him be an invalid-never mind, I can
accept that. Just save him and give him back to me. Bless him."
Months and years passed this way. The ones, who had survived,
returned. Their families held wedding parties. But there was
no news from Aunt Maleyka's only son. The number of returning
soldiers diminished. Although the woman didn't say so, she had
totally lost all hope.
One night again she prepared her bed. She did not light the oil
lamp, she did not make a fire, She wrapped herself in a blanket
and laid down on the bed. The wind was howling outside. The bare
branches of the trees were bending and creating strange shadows
on the window. Tiles fell off the roof, crashing to the ground
and breaking into pieces.
A door was squeaking. It was as if a hungry wolf had crept right
into the middle of the village, and was being hunted by everyone
and had started to howl bitterly in front of this lonely house.
Aunt Maleyka, who had lived alone for years, had never been afraid.
But that night she was seized with fear-deep in her bones. She
was trembling as if she had high fever, hallucinations appeared
right in front of her eyes in the dark corners of her home, under
the bed, inside the fireplace. Suddenly, a knock came at the
door. She nearly screamed out of fear and almost jumped out of
She wondered whether she was having illusions. She said "kalmeyi
shahadat"3. When the voice came again, she pulled
the blanket down from over her head and listened. She could hear
clearly: somebody was calling her.
No sooner had she thrown off the blanket that she appeared at
the door. She didn't ask anything. She turned the lock and stood
face to face with a man dressed in military uniform.
When she came to her senses, she found herself in bed. Someone
had lit the lamp and started the fire. Someone was sitting beside
her, massaging her hands. She gave him a blank look. The soldier
realized that his mother had not yet recognized him.
"It's me, Mom. I'm back."
This deep voice took Aunt Maleyka far away. But she couldn't
recall it. She didn't know who this voice belonged to or where
she had heard it before. It didn't sound familiar. It was the
first time she was hearing this deep voice.
"Mother, this is me. Why you are looking that way? Don't
you recognize your own son?
Aunt Maleyka rose. She got out of the bed and with her hand felt
his face, then she moved her hand down over his shoulders and
body. She took his hands in hers and stroked his fingers, one
by one, and suddenly she pressed his head against her chest and
burst into tears...
Somehow they passed two days. On the third day, the son had gone
to bed very early.
"Mother, I'm afraid, I've caught cold. I'm cold."
Aunt Maleyka replied, "My dear, stay in bed. Rest. Do you
want me to put cupping glasses on your back?"
Her son mumbled, "Cupping glasses won't help."
He covered his head with the blanket. The woman winced, but didn't
ask anything. She covered him with another blanket and brought
in all the firewood that they had, and put it in the fireplace.
She sat beside her son until morning. Sometimes, she served him
tea; sometimes, water. She would place her cold handkerchief
on his forehead, which was burning with fever. She would massage
his feet. His back. Sometimes she would pull the blanket away
and hug her son and stroke his thick hair.
"What happened to your curly hair, my dear?" she whispered.
"Why do you have such a high fever, dear "apple of
my eye". May all your troubles come to me, I beseech you,
don't frighten me so. What is your illness that you are mourning
so bad? May my dead body be carried to the cemetery on your shoulders4.
May God sacrifice me for you, why don't you open your eyes? Tell
me, just talk to me, what does your heart desire? May God strike
me dead at your feet, don't make me anxious.
The more the woman mourned, the less the son talked. He tossed
and turned all night long in his bed. After midnight, his fever
went up even higher. It nearly burned his mother's hands. Towards
morning, he broke out in a heavy sweat and somehow became more
comfortable. His mother also took a deep breath and became more
The next morning she found her son's cold body. There were blood
stains here and there on the pillow. "May you become subject
to the worst troubles, devil," she screamed, pulling out
her hair. She scratched her face with in her fingernails, hair
hung from her fingers...
The door shook, the lock jiggled, the door frame almost came
off its hinges. Aunt Maleyka had heard this shaking for quite
a while, but couldn't figure out whether it was real or imaginary.
She listened again. It was as if the wall shook along with the
door this time. This time she clearly heard footsteps and people
talking. She asked in an anxious, trembling voice:
"Open the door!" came the reply.
Aunt Maleyka pulled off the blanket. She slipped into her clothes.
Intuitively, she found her shoes that she had put at the lower
end of her bed. She tried to light the lamp with a match that
she always carried-days and nights. Again, she heard the knock
at the door.
"Are you ignoring us? Don't you hear us?!"
"Just a second, I beg you. Let me light the lamp."
"No need for that!"
She went close the door. No sooner had she unlocked the door
that it was flung wide open. Those who rushed in turned on their
flashlights. The beams of light searched in the corners, danced
on the walls, crossed each other like swords and cut off each
other, and slipped towards the bed, moving over the blanket.
Shocked, Aunt Maleyka froze in front of the door. She couldn't
figure out who it was who had come, and she didn't dare ask.
When the lights crossed one more time and dug into the corners,
she could hold back no longer.
"My son, let me turn on the light."
"We told you there's no need for that."
"Let her do it."
Aunt Maleyka lifted the globe off the lamp and lit the wick.
A dim light spread throughout the room.
The visitors wore long coats and high boots. Two of them stood
in front of the door holding guns. The others entered the room.
It was as if they had come to arrest someone. It had been the
same way before, too. They had knocked on the door in the middle
of night, pulled him out of bed and taken him away. He didn't
even have a chance to say goodbye to his family.
They didn't let him say a word to his wife. Maybe he had something
to tell her, or some message to tell someone else.
He only had time to say: "Don't worry, I'll come back tomorrow.
I've done nothing wrong. It must be a mistake". But it turned
to be the last time he would ever be at home. Nobody ever heard
of the poor man again. Aunt Maleyka had been left alone in that
lonely home, together with his son.
Suddenly, the woman's body filled with fear. She wondered: "Who
have they come for this time?" She collapsed beside the
One of those who had come, pulled up a chair and sat down. He
took out a cigarette. He softened and lit it and lost himself
in deep thought. He inhaled the smoke then released it through
his nose. The smoke rose in the dim light of the house. His thoughtful
eyes, with their tired looks, glanced through the house, searching
for something. Then he fixed his eyes on the woman.
"Where is your son?"
It was as if a heavy mist had come over the house which was already
so dark. Aunt Maleyka trembled. She was sobbing inside.
"Why don't you answer?"
"What should I say?"
"Tell us where he is."
"Didn't he come back?"
"He did. But he left again."
The intruders turned and looked at each other. They couldn't
figure out whether she was telling them the truth or lying. One
of the young officers raised his voice. "Hey woman, don't
fool us. Tell us, where is you son?"
He wanted to approach Aunt Maleyka and insult her. But the old
man, sitting on the chair, yelled and stopped him.
"My sister, we didn't come here on our own will. Someone
ordered us to come here. We're just doing our job. We need to
know where he is. If he is hiding here at home, we'll find him
anyway, there's no use of hiding."
"Search and find. I have no objection."
Aunt Maleyka rose. She folded her arms on her chest and stood
still. It was as if she was paralyzed. Her tears stopped. Her
heart turned to ice.
The old man, sitting on the chair, continued to smoke, nonstop.
Nobody broke the silence for a long time. The old man suddenly
felt that the woman had became numb, like a stranger. Her eyes
glassed over. If it were up to him, he wouldn't have asked anything,
he would have left long ago. But they couldn't return with nothing
Again the young officer broke the silence:
"Do you know where you son came from?"
"Of course, I do. From military service."
"No. From prison."
Aunt Maleyka's patience drove this young officer mad. He hissed
at the woman like a snake. The woman became startled as if a
snake had poisoned her. It was if this poison had become thin
and moved through her veins and its pain was penetrating her
"Now I understand why the "apple of my eye" had
changed so much. Why he wasn't in his right senses at all. Now
I understand why he didn't say a single word to his mother after
coming back, Why he had not raised his head and looked into his
mother's face. My poor son, the only thing was left of his health
was his breath. He came here to die. The Motherland attracted
him all the way back here!" She wanted to cry. But the tears
didn't come. She wanted to scream, but her voice didn't come.
Her body became cold.
"I sent him to military service."
"But he was captured. He's an "Enemy of the People."5
It was as if the woman had awakened. She moved nearer to the
"Watch your mouth. You're 'The Enemy of the People.'"
"Hey woman, don't bother us. Tell us, where your son is."
They almost started fighting. Again that old man came to the
"Don't get angry, sister, I told you, we have to know where
"You asked and I told you. Why don't you believe me?"
The old man rose. He walked back and forth in the room for awhile.
Again, he lit a cigarette, again layers of bluish smoke grew
thick in the room. Again silence fell. "When did he pass
The calmness in the man's voice eased the woman.
"It's been a month and a half, today."
Again silence. The cigarette smoke became thicker. The old man
seemed to struggling with himself inside. He wanted to say something,
but didn't dare to ask. He was afraid to bring up such a painful
subject and hurt the woman again.
They prepared to leave. At the doorway, the young officer stopped
and turned. No sooner had he reached for his gun, than he rushed
to pull off the blanket. His voice filled the room.
"Comrade Colonel, just look here!"
The soldiers reached for their guns. The Colonel calmly approached
the bed. He couldn't believe his eyes. It was as if a person
in soldier's uniform had gone to sleep without taking off his
shoes, his coat or hat. The old man became dazed. If the young
officer's voice hadn't interrupted him, he would have been afraid
and reached for his gun.
"See? Everything turned out exactly as I said. The woman
is lying. Her son is here. Here are his clothes."
As soon as he had finished talking, he bent and checked under
the bed with the flashlight in his hand. A pair of light sparkled
in the depth of the darkness. The young officer held back. A
black cat jumped and flattened itself in a corner.
"What should we do now?"
"Nothing," the colonel inhaled on his cigarette till
the end and then threw the butt on the ground. Let's go."
"Then, let's take his clothes with us."
The colonel's face hardened.
"Why do you need them?"
He didn't answer. He took a deep breath and looked at the mother,
who stood motionless in the center of the room. He knew that
the mother had intentionally put the clothes belonging to her
son under the blanket. She didn't consider him dead. She hugged
that overcoat at nights, pressed her cheek against his hat that
she had laid on the bed. She touched the buttons of his clothes.
She smelled his overcoat, his trousers and clothes. In this way,
she consoled herself that her son had not gone anywhere, that
he was at home, lying in the bed next to his mother.
Son and mother embraced each other and slept. These clothes were
her only consolation. If they took them away from her, she might
have a heart attack. He turned back, headed towards the door
with deliberate steps. He took his colleagues out. He gave a
harsh look at the young man that was still standing next to the
bed and ordered him to leave the room. Only after that did he
stretch out his hand to the door handle. Turning to the woman,
he asked: "Where did you bury him?"
"Is there any other place? In the cemetery."
Suddenly, the woman startled. "Why do you ask?"
"Nothing, I didn't mean anything."
The young man's ears perked up and he heard. Two days later,
it snowed in the village. The water in the channel was covered
with ice. The roads and paths were covered with snow. The branches
of the trees were heavily laden with snow. The smoke from the
chimneys lay thick over the village. Sparrows and starlings began
to rummage on the threshing floor and haystacks.
Aunt Maleyka appeared in the middle of the village with a large
bundle under her arm. She didn't pay any attention to the children,
who were rushing off to school, warming their hands by blowing
their breath on them. There were young fellows watering the horses
in the channel, girls going for water, carrying water jars on
their shoulders and leaving their footprints in the snow.
She happily greeted those she passed. When they asked, she said,
"I'm taking clothes for my son. It snowed early, probably
my dear son is cold".
The people were surprised and shrugged their shoulders. They
didn't understand what was wrong with her. But they couldn't
stop her. She headed directly to the cemetery at the edge of
the village. Everywhere was covered with snow. Old, tall gravestones
were lined up straight as soldiers. The graves, which had sunk
or which didn't yet have a gravestone, were covered over, sleeping
under a white blanket of snow.
Aunt Maleyka stopped by a new gravestone, which was lying at
the very end of the cemetery. She noticed that the stones had
been moved, and some cast aside. The soil had been pushed around.
There were footprints resembling those of an animal on the fresh
snow. The woman bent forward in horror. She gathered the soil
with her hands, put the stones back in their places, and smoothed
the snow over the grave. She laid the large overcoat on the grave.
She put the pair of shoes together at the foot of the grave.
She hung the hat on a stick at the head of the grave. She wrapped
herself in shawl, took a stick in her hand and sat down right
Someone called her. She didn't hear. That person came close and
took her by her arm. She didn't respond. When the person asked,
"What are you doing here?" she didn't look at her neighbor.
She answered in a low voice, "I'm watching over my son.
I can't leave him alone here. It seems some hyena has appeared
in the cemetery. If I go, it will eat my son". The neighbor
took her by her arm and stood up, urging her to return home.
But she wouldn't leave.
Some days later they said that Aunt Maleyka had gone mad.
"The trouble which happens to all people is a holiday."
is an Azeri expression "Ella galan bala toy-bayramdir."
It means that everybody is suffering in the same way. You're
not an exception.
During World War II, it was customary for letters to be sent
from the military in triangular-shaped envelopes.
"Kalmeyi shahadat" refers to the Muslim expression,
"There is one God and Mohammad is His prophet." Traditionally,
if Muslims sense that death is near, they are supposed to repeat
May my body be carried to the cemetery. It is a traditional practice
for the sons in the family to carry the coffin to the grave.
In other words, that the children outlive their parents and not
the parents preceding their children in death.
During World War II, when Soviet soldiers were captured, they
were viewed as "enemies of the people", implying that
they should rather have died for their country, than allowed
themselves to be captured. Upon return to the Soviet Union, many
of these soldiers were either killed or exiled.
See an excerpt from "My
Dying World" (Chapter 3) in English by Ismayil Shikhli
in Azerbaijan International's Literature issue in AI 4.1 (Spring
1996), pp 66-67.
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