Azerbaijan International

Spring 2006 (14.1)
Pages 96-99

Mehdi Husein

First Novel About Exile to the Gulag in Azerbaijan
"Underground Rivers Flow Into the Sea"
by Mehdi Husein (1905-1965)

Mehdi Husein is the only Azerbaijani to have written about the Gulag prison system during the Soviet period. He dared to publish "Underground Rivers Flow Into the Sea" in installments in 1964 in "Azerbaijan" literary journal where he was editor-in-chief. In 1966, the novel appeared in book form, posthumously.

Mehdi Husein is the only Azerbaijani writer who succeeded in publishing about the Gulag prison system during the Soviet period. All others published after Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991. Mehdi dared to publish such material in his novel, "Underground Rivers Flow Into the Sea", in installments in 1964 in Azerbaijan literary journal where he was editor-in-chief. This was two years after Solzhenitsyn published, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1962) which won him the Nobel Literature Prize. (However, keep in mind that Khrushchev helped Solzhenitsyn because he was trying to discredit Stalin and elevate himself and even Solzhenitsyn was not able to publish other books about the Gulag until 1990.)

Sadly, in 1965, Mehdi died of a heart attack while at a Writers' Union assembly where a big argument broke out and other writers viciously criticized him. At that time, he served as its Chairman (1959-1965). Mehdi also had the distinct honor of being Secretary of the All-Soviet Writers' Union in Moscow in the early 1960s. The book format of "Underground Rivers" appeared posthumously in 1966.

Much of Medhi's novel is based on the true story of his wife's closest friend Samaya Hasanova.

For background, read the interview "Dissolution of the Family - "Don't Wait for Me", about Samaya, who is called Samira in the novel. (Page 95). We publish a portion of the first chapter here where Samaya realizes that her first husband - her true love - has survived the gruesome prison camps and has just appeared in Baku after 10 years.

In the meantime, she had married another man so that she would not be sent into exile and have to abandon their children. The dilemma and anguish of the situation brought so much stress to Samaya that her children are convinced that it precipitated her death when she was only 49 years old.

Samira Aydin was our old friend. She had studied and had been the seatmate at school with Gulnisa - the woman who became my wife - from the first day in grade school until they graduated from secondary school. Since that time, they have always shared secrets with each other.

I remember it all very well: Samira arrived at our wedding before anyone else did. That was when I first met her first love Mudhat [pronounced moud-HAT]. She had just turned 17. To tell you the truth, it would have been difficult to consider her beautiful but, then again, you wouldn't have said that she was unattractive either.

Samaya Hasanova (1913-1962), whose life story Mehdi Husein used as the basis for his novel "Underground Rivers Flow into the Sea". This was the first novel in Azerbaijan about the Gulag Camps. It was published in 1964.
Left: Samaya Hasanova (1913-1962), whose life story Mehdi Husein used as the basis for his novel "Underground Rivers Flow into the Sea". This was the first novel in Azerbaijan about the Gulag Camps. It was published in 1964.

She loved to dance and have fun. When she danced, she was fascinating to watch. She danced with so much charm at our wedding. Nor was there anyone there who could play the piano as well as she could. She added a spark to our wedding more than anyone else.

Mudhat, on the other hand, was a very tall and handsome guy. Naturally, his good looks - his big clever eyes, broad forehead, curly hair, and large shoulders - made the girls jealous of Samira. When he stood beside her, some of them would recall lines from Husein Javid's play Sayavush:

"A dove captured the eagle,
For the sake of beauty, for the sake of love!"

Sometimes, I would even overhear some of the girls whispering among themselves: "May your eyes burn, how could he fall in love with her?" This kind of comment could only refer to Mudhat. Samira looked so short and unassuming next to him. But I remember telling myself: "It's really true that what the heart loves is truly beautiful"

Thirty years have passed since our wedding day. Already, we are getting old, though we have never forgotten those happy days. How could we? When each of us goes deep into the whirlpool of the life's experiences and manages to survive them, living through the hard blows and shocks which make us lose our hopes sometimes, we draw strength and consolation from those days of our youth. That's when we remind ourselves: "Don't grieve so deeply. This, too, will pass".

These days Samira is our neighbor. At least once or twice a week, she comes over to our place or we go to hers.
I knew the incredible difficulties that Samira had lived through - both during the war years1 and later. I had even told her several times that I would write her story once I had time. She would turn it into a joke and reply:
"I've read your books. You aren't able to express the nuance and sensitivity of a woman's heart. I'm not convinced that it will turn out well."

And I used to answer, half jokingly, "It's not my fault. Blame your friend Gulnisa. She's so jealous that I'm afraid to have any relationship with women. That's the reason why a woman's inner world is a mystery to me."

Whenever Samira would come to our place, if she would see me working at my desk, in order not to interrupt me from work, she would pass to the next room very carefully and sit with Gulnisa on the sofa.

She would speak in a very low voice and laugh gently. After awhile, she would leave as silently as she had come. But one day at lunch, she came and knocked on my door and asked if she could come in:"Gagha [dear brother], excuse me. I know that I'm interrupting your writing, so please forgive me."

I laughed.

"If everybody were as sensitive as you, I wouldn't have any problems," I answered jokingly

"One day they'll understand! Especially after you write about me." She took a thick notebook out of the big black bag that she was carrying.

"For you. As you have time. Take a look at it. Of course, you could write such things in a day or two, but it's taken me two years of hard work. Perhaps, the material will be useful for you to draw upon."

She ran her fingers through her graying hair. For some reason, her sad and tired eyes stared at the floor. I felt she had aged so much during these past years. I stood there silently for some time and tried to visualize what she had looked like in her youth.

 "Dear friend! We are approaching the Far North [Siberian labor camps]. You can't imagine how I'm suffering as I write these lines. Don't wait for me any more. It's very hard, my dear friend."

-Mudhat writing his wife Samir when he realizes that he is likely not to survive prison camp in exile. From Mehdi Husein's novel, "Underground Rivers Flow Into the Sea"

I took the manuscript and read it with great interest. Samira had penned her memoirs. I began to realize that if I made any changes to what she had already written or if I incorporated my own style, I would distort the main character of the story and the truth, as she had perceived it. I felt her story should be published as she had written it, without editing. So all I did was to write: Samira Aydin. Underground Rivers Flow into the Sea (Memoirs of a Construction Engineer) on the first page. And then I wrote titles for the chapters.

The next morning I called her and told her what I thought about the manuscript. Satisfied with my minor suggestions, she added: "Gagha, if they criticize and attack me, please don't withhold your support."

Incredible News
I was in the kitchen that day, preparing food. Suddenly, the doorbell rang. I wondered who it might be at that time of day. It was still quite some time before my husband Kamran would be returning from work, and my daughters were still at school.

I figured it must be my neighbor Gulnisa. She was the only one likely to stop by at that time. She had been bedridden for the past year and a half because of high blood pressure. Just recently the doctors had allowed her to get up and walk around. Sometimes, with my help, or that of a neighbor, she would go down to the seashore and sit in the open air for several hours. Whenever she learned that I didn't go to work on a certain day, she would stop over at my place.

I answered the door. "Gulu, is that you?" [Gulu is a short endearment for Gulnisa],
But instead, I heard the voice of my eldest daughter Kamala on the other side of the door.

"It's me, mom. Quick! Please open the door."

That was strange. I glanced at the clock. Two hours were still left before her lessons should have been finished that day. I opened the door and asked: "What happened? Why did you come home so early?"

Her face was flushed. It was clear that she had flown up the stairs. She entered the room short of breath, threw her bag on the sofa and took off her coat. I didn't take my eyes off of her, though she didn't look at me.
"Didn't you have class?" I asked.

She seemed out of breath - not only because she had run up the stairs - but there seemed to be something else that made her nervous. That made me anxious, too.

"Are you going to answer me, or not? Maybe the teacher scolded you? Didn't you prepare your lesson?"
She still didn't want to look at me. It made me impatient.

"Look me straight in the eyes!"

"I am," she said, and right away hugged and kissed me. "Mom, promise me this. You have to be calm; otherwise, you'll get shocked by the news I have for you."

"What do you mean, I'll be shocked?"

"It means you might faint. Let me bring some Zelenin to calm you."

"Is it good news, or bad?"

"For me, it's wonderful news. For you, I don't know."

"Don't talk nonsense. How can I be sad when you're happy?"

"Anyway, it would be good if you take your medicine."

Kamala ran to the kitchen. She brought an armudu glass-the pear-shaped glass that tea is served in. She counted out 10 drops in the glass and added a little water.

"Take it," she said. "You never know"

She was exuberant. She could hardly keep herself from laughing out loud from happiness.
I took the medicine.

"Now tell me what happened"

I had never known Kamala to be such a patient person.

"Are you calm now?" she asked.

"What are you going to do? Do you want me to have heart attack? If you don't want to tell me, then don't." I realized that the medicine was having no effect on me and I walked away towards the kitchen.

She immediately ran after me and hugged me again.

"Mom, Mom," she said. "I know you won't believe me. You'll think this is just a dream"
"Tell me. What is it? Maybe I won't."

Father Returns
"We were playing volleyball in the school courtyard during break. I saw a man standing nearby watching us. His eyes were fixed on me. He came closer to me. A bit later, he asked, "My daughter, aren't you Kamala Aydin?" I didn't recognize him, though I studied his face carefully. But I felt something in my heart. I felt that it really might be him. I told myself that it wasn't possible. Maybe this man was just reminding me of someone else".

"Years of Repression" by Fazil Najafov, 1968
Right: "Years of Repression" by Fazil Najafov, 1968.

But I also felt that this man might be him. I almost shouted: "Kamala, are you going crazy. Don't talk nonsense."
"It's not nonsense, Mom It was him!"

"Who?" Now I was almost going crazy. "Who are you talking about?"


"What do you mean, 'Dad'?"

"It's very simple. Dad. Mudhat Aydin!"

"You're talking nonsense!"

"No, Mom. Dad has come back! Safe and sound!"

If I had heard that Mudhat - my first husband - had died, I would not have been more surprised. Kamala took her arms from around my neck and stood directly in front of me:

"Don't you believe me?" she said. "I swear that he's come back! He just walked me back home. When he heard that you had remarried, his eyes filled with tears. He asked me not to tell you that he had returned. And I promised not to tell. His hair has turned white as snow. But he's more handsome now than ever."

I don't remember what Kamala said next. When I opened my eyes, I found myself lying in bed. The doctor, nurse, my daughters and Kamran had all gathered around. No one was saying anything. It was as if they were attending a funeral. But nobody was crying. Someone was standing in front of me. I could have guessed who it was even if I hadn't seen her. Of course, it was Gulnisa!

"What's happened to me, Gulu?"

"You tell us. We've tried so hard, but Kamala hasn't told us anything. What happened to you-all of a sudden?"
Like Kamala, I also had to hide the reason why I had collapsed and passed out. I knew that Kamran was already feeling bad simply because of me, and if he learned what had caused all this, I was afraid that he might have a heart attack. He knew so well the history of my first love. Mudhat's return would kill him. I didn't want Kamran to die because it wasn't just an ordinary life that I had shared with him. We had lived through so many difficulties and dangers.

Kamran stood up and took Kamala to the other room. I knew that he would ask her what had happened to me.

A little later both of them came back in. I couldn't see any difference in their demeanor. Kamala had not let him in on the secret. "Clever girl. My clever girl. You're doing right by not telling. Kamran's nerves are more taut than mine," I thought to myself. Our eyes spoke. Kamala looked down as if she were embarrassed. I understood even though she didn't say anything.

"Go and have some lunch," I said. "I'm very hungry, too. Don't take the words of the doctor too close to your heart. There's nothing serious with me."

Seems everybody was consoled by my words. Gulnisa organized lunch for Kamran and my daughters. I also wanted to get up and join them, but I couldn't. I was too weak. Since the day I heard had the news, I had lain in bed for 15 days.

When Kamran and the children left home, I shared my grief with Gulnisa. She was crying all the while I was telling the story. The memories of youth swept over me. I told her that it had been a miracle that Mudhat and I had lived in the same city and had met. Maybe fate was bringing us back together again.

Back Flash
After I graduated from the university, I became a junior scientific worker at the Institute of Construction Materials. I wanted to choose a topic and work on a candidacy dissertation. Ever since the day I had decided to become a construction engineer, one very simple and important problem had always troubled me.

As you know, there are underground waters in most districts in Baku, especially in low - lying areas. Various hypotheses exist as to the source of these waters. I'm familiar with most of them. Some say that there used to be an underground stream flowing beneath the city and that water leaked from it and, thereby, created underground reservoirs. This water, in turn, gradually seeped down through the soil. Others think that since the city is so close to the sea, waters penetrate from the sea. I won't go into these analyses in depth here because it's not so clear to me yet.

But I was sure of one thing when I began my dissertation: the underground waters - by flowing into the basements of some of the taller buildings - not only caused problems for families living there, but the waters also destroyed the foundations of these buildings. I had decided to look for ways to lessen the damage caused by the underground waters! Prominent scientists at our research institute liked my topic. My scientific advisor had often told me: "If your conclusion is right, it will have enormous practical implications for our future."

I immersed myself in the project with a great enthusiasm though my family situation was an obstacle to being able to work on it productively. I had to educate my daughters, prepare food for them, wash their clothes and always be sure the house was clean and neat. In addition to all this work, I spent many sleepless nights in order to investigate my topic scientifically. I had to deal with so many difficulties and troubles.

 "I already felt so helpless and alone. I was overcome by a grief much more dreadful than any hunger or thirst could ever be."

-- Samira, upon learning that her husband who has been a soldier in the war has now been sent into exile in the Soviet Union because the Germans captured his unit. From the novel, "Underground Waters Run to the Sea" by Mehdi Husein

But always I felt my loneliness. Then my husband Mudhat went off to the war at the end of 1942. We didn't hear from him for two years. I had reached the conclusion that somehow, somewhere, he had died. I didn't get any replies to the letters that I wrote him. Even relatives had given up hope. But we tried to hide our sorrow deep within ourselves and wait patiently for his return.

What else could we do? In addition, there were financial difficulties. It had been a long time since we had drunk sweet tea. There was no sugar. Meat and rice were rare. Our troops were nearing the German border. We weren't the only ones suffering from lack of food; everybody had the same problem. Despite this, I used to get very angry when I heard anybody complain. By every means possible, we had to defeat the enemy, which had invaded our country and brought disaster to the whole country. After that, we would be able once again to breathe freely. For this, my family, as well as I, were ready to endure all kinds of difficulties.

One day we were called to the military commissariat. "Mudhat Aydin's certificate has been cancelled," they told me.

I asked the reason.

"He's gone missing in the war," they answered.

My head started to spin. When I returned home, neither the children, nor my mother-in-law could recognize me. They bombarded me with questions. As an excuse, I told them that I was sick and I lay down on the bed and didn't get up for two days. When I finally went back to work, disappointment and grief were written all over my face. I couldn't look into the faces of my children or my mother-in-law. I felt disgraced in front of all of them.

Now that Mudhat's pension was cut off from us, my salary was sufficient enough only to buy bread for the family. If my brother-in-law had not given us money from time to time, we would surely have died from hunger. Of course, as I said before, we weren't the only ones who suffered from the difficulties of the war. We would have agreed to bear even worse conditions, if only Mudhat if only Mudhat
Every morning, I would awaken early and prepare the children for school and console my mother-in-law, who would quietly sigh and try to hide her sorrow.

"Don't worry, Badirnisa khala [Aunt Badirnisa]," I would tell her. "A little while longer and we'll rid ourselves of Hitler. Soon we'll destroy him." And then I would leave for work. Often, I felt so dizzy from hunger or didn't feel well, but my enthusiasm for work and to create something did not diminish. Don't look at it as something paradoxical. In those times, the incidents that disturbed the quiet lives of people could not discourage me. Of course, I wasn't an exception. But it seemed that as I lived with this great hope, I was able to crush the petty feelings that used to rise up within me. This new perspective on life had become a habit for me.

At the end of 1944, I received a letter from Mudhat. They say that it's not possible to die from happiness. That's true, because when I looked at the envelope that Mudhat had sent, it was if I died and went to heaven. And after reading it, everything again started to appear black before my eyes. Mudhat wrote the following words in a pupil notebook. It seemed he had scrawled the note in haste:

"Dear friend! I'm alive. But I'm sorry for that. If I had died, it would have brought honor both to you and me. Seems my fate was destined to be this way. They have accused me of being a "traitor" after all the troubles I have gone through. But I have never been a traitor. I have fought with consciousness. They are sending us into exile. Good-bye!"

There was neither an address nor signature at the end of the letter. But I knew Mudhat had written it. I recognized his handwriting. Besides, he was the only person who ever addressed me: "Dear friend."

Several days later, I received another letter: "Dear friend! We are approaching the Far North [Siberian labor camps]. You can't imagine how I'm suffering as I write these lines. Don't wait for me any more. It's very hard, my dear friend. If you with somebody worthy of you No, it's very hard Does a husband have the right to insist that his wife destroy her own life just for him? I don't think so. Perhaps, you will be happy with someone else. Believe me, if you marry someone whom you think is worthy of you, it won't hurt my honor and pride. I'm not an old-fashioned Muslim"

This time he signed the letter: "Mudhat Aydin".

The days that followed seemed like a fog - a nightmare or crazy dream that didn't make any sense. Sometimes, I wondered if he might have heard something from someone that I had done something wrong. Maybe that's why he no longer loved me - no longer trusted me. Otherwise, how could he have written those words - "new life," "someone else"?

Finally, when I was able to rid myself of the gnawing pain that I had received from this shock and started to feel better, I thought a lot about his letter and reached the conclusion that it would have been alien to his character if he had asked me to stay with him until the end of my life, let alone if he had demanded it.

Since early youth when we had fallen in love with each other so passionately - like Leyli and Majnun ["Leyli and Majnun" is a famous legend rooted in Arabian culture but is memorialized in the poetry of poets such as Nizami from Azerbaijan of the 12th century. The story of unrequited love predates Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet several centuries. Search at]. Mudhat has never ceased to love and care for me. Our relationship grew deeper yet he never imposed moral freedom on me.

Neither of us had ever tired of the years of family life together. I could not comprehend the meaning of the expression: "The fight between a husband and wife is like rain in the springtime". Both of us had always felt that those who pretended to love each other but, in fact, were dishonest and insincere towards each other, were like primitive creatures of the ancient past. Our love was a natural need. We felt that those who didn't transform the difficulties of family life into joy were very unlucky people.

That day when I received the letter from Mudhat, I walked down to the seashore after work. I wanted to get away from the crowds. I sat alone on a bench for several hours, desperately trying to think of a way to get out of this hellish situation. It was as if the waves washing up on shore were whispering: "Keep trying. Keep trying. Everything is possible. Try, try to rid yourself of these dreadful thoughts."

At the same time, another voice inside myself edged me on: "Get up, search for a high place and jump off into the sea and escape this life!" I tried to concentrate: No, I didn't have any right to do that. How could a mother betray her children and leave them orphaned?

I immediately stood up. My head started to spin. I felt like I was going to black out. Of course, this was because I was so hungry. I had only had some bread and black tea early in the morning. My thoughts went immediately to my daughters. They probably had not had anything to eat yet.

It was already dark. Light streamed from our windows. Another thing was bothering me: how to keep my daughters and mother-in-law from understanding why I was so extremely sad?

Badirnisa khala opened the door for me. I immediately found an excuse for being so late: "We had a meeting. I'm very tired."

To deliberately tell a lie is even worse than being dishonest. I sensed that I had reddened after giving such an excuse. I immediately placed the books and notebook that I had been carrying on the table and went into the kitchen. I was so glad to see that the dishes were still unwashed. It meant that Badirnisa khala had cooked something for my daughters. Our elderly women are like that; they always have something to offer to eat.

To tell the truth, I had no intention of hiding my sadness from them. But I didn't dare break the news so abruptly. Of course, my daughters were still young and wouldn't understand very much about the tragedy that was happening to our family, but Badirnisa khala was an extremely sensitive woman. There was no reason to hide the truth from her.

I couldn't sleep at all that night. The girls had gone to bed after finishing their homework at 10 o'clock. They were already sleeping. They didn't know anything about it. But Badirnisa khala had always slept uneasily since Mudhat her son had been sent to the front. Most of the time she hardly slept at all.

Of course, she realized that I had been sitting at my desk for a long time. When I saw her shuffling along quietly in the hallway and secretly peeking into my room, I understood that she wanted to come in. I immediately stood up and went to her: "Why don't you go to bed, Badirnisa khala?"

Her eyes - full of questions - stayed fixed on my face. It was clear that she sensed something was wrong.
"Take pity on yourself, my daughter," she said. "What's done is done. We are not the only ones who have faced this tragedy. Everything is in the hands of God."

I stopped trying to console her. I couldn't just pretend and lie and thank God for all these troubles. She said nothing more and silently headed back to her room. I sat back down to my desk. It was so quiet in the house that I heard a sigh coming from my mother-in-law's room.

There was a book open in front of me but I didn't understand anything that I was reading. I was thinking again, but could not reach any final decision. In any case, I had to write our director and the Head of our Bureau's Party about Mudhat's letter to tell that he had been exiled as an "Enemy of the People". It wasn't that I was afraid of anybody or anything. I just wanted to stand pure before my own conscience and be able to look into the eyes of my friends and colleagues with pride. I was afraid that already I was a bit late and that some ill - willed person might already have gone and told them. [If the news spread that Samira's husband had been exiled and accused of being against the government, it would bring disgrace to Samira and jeopardize her job.]

Very tired and sleepy, I wrote a letter and then went and laid down on the bed even without changing out my clothes.

From "Underground Rivers Flow into the Sea" by Mehdi Husein. Azerbaijan State Publication House. Baku: 1966. Part of the first chapter. Translated from Azeri by Ulviyya Mammadova; edited by Betty Blair.

Back to Index AI 14.1 (Spring 2006)
AI Home
| Search | Magazine Choice | Topics | AI Store | Contact us

Other Web sites created by Azerbaijan International
| |