I am a translator from Azerbaijani and Russian into English and an editor and journalist on Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and former Soviet Union. I came to Baku in 1997 to open BBC Monitoring’s Caucasus Unit. After eight years running the bureau, I chose to leave the BBC rather than Azerbaijan. Since then I have been working as an editor, translator and media consultant in Baku.
I love the music scene in Azerbaijan, especially jazz and mugham. Football is a strong tie to my hometown in North Wales – as a member of the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust, I am one of the many proud owners of the club.
Three extracts from The Valley of the Sorcerers
by Kamal Abdulla,
translated from Azerbaijani by Anne Thompson
One day in this small, vainglorious city, Mammadqulu had his first glimpse of the young widow who was to befuddle his brain and muddle his thoughts. The young widow lived with her old grandmother in one of the crooked streets in the upper quarter of the city. The city had not been able to withstand the Shah’s forces for more than two days, when it shamefully had to beg for mercy, though it could not say itself why it had revolted in the first place. The widow’s husband departed this world in that two-day, mismatched fight.
The single window on the second floor of the house in the crooked street, which Mammadqulu had made his home, looked directly over the young widow’s courtyard. By God, how much light flooded in through that window in the early hours of the morning! This is the window that opened like the eye of a crane onto the small yard of the beautiful Parnisa’s house.
Since the magnificently moustachioed executioner could not tear himself away from this window, he gradually attracted the attention of the neighbours. Even without this, the headsman that had defeated an army was an endless topic of conversation, not just in his own neighbourhood, but throughout the city. ‘He came.’ ‘No…’‘You saw it as well as I did.’ ‘He’s got so many swords in his house, so many axes…’‘Well, he is a headsman.’‘Look carefully into his eyes and you won’t see an ounce of pity.’ ‘His face could be a thousand-year-old glacier.’ ‘He can’t take his eyes off the lovely Parnisa’s courtyard.’ ‘Is he stuck to that window or what?’‘Are his sort allowed to take a wife?’‘Yes.’ ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’‘Didn’t you see that day…’
This was the kind of tittle-tattle that had already begun to walk and limp and stagger through the crooked streets.
The door of the hut was slowly pushed open, the sound muffled by the snow piled up outside. One by one the White Dervish’s disciples emerged. They were dressed in pure white garments down to their knees. There was a precipice behind the hut and they went and stood in a row along the top. They could not see the bottom of the valley down below. They stood motionless, waiting. Only now did he understand their intentions, did he grasp the essence of their revenge. Standing soundless like statues, in their hearts they were summoning their spirits. Their aim was for their spirits to leave their bodies just before the last moment. In his youth the White Dervish had invented this technique. Death came very slightly before death.
Sayyah was motionless, almost frozen solid, in the near darkness, but continued to follow their every move. Unknown to himself, a half-smile settled on his lips, deepening the wrinkles on his face. ‘So this is it. I’m the only one left. I was already alone. There will be no-one but me.’ These were the thoughts passing through his head as twenty-three bosom friends held hands and plunged down the precipice into the darkness of the void. Twenty-three sails opened inside the darkness. At first they fell like stones, no, at first they began to fly in circles like orderly cranes. After flying hand in hand for some time, like hawks that have seen their prey they suddenly swooped down towards the bottom of the gorge. Not a word, not a sound, came from any of the twenty-three people as they hit the ground. They did not die when they hit the ground, but as they flew in the air. This was how his twenty-three disciples avenged the White Dervish. There should really have been twenty-four of them.
The Caravanbashi sat in his place and Khaja Ibrahim Agha made himself comfortable a little behind him. Sayyah the Sorcerer moved to the far side of the room and turned to face them. A candle in a candlestick stood on a small table in the middle of the room. Sayyah the Sorcerer struck a flint and lit the candle, then returned to his place. The candle’s light shone like a red line. The flame did not flicker but stood upright. For a long time Sayyah the Sorcerer studied the vertical flame in silence. The two people in the opposite corner of the room disappeared in the gloom. They forgot themselves as they tensely followed every movement of Sayyah’s, not only with their eyes, but with every muscle in their bodies, hardly daring to draw breath. Total silence swept the room.
Standing in one corner, Sayyah the Sorcerer untied the bundle he had brought with him. He took out a prayer mat, unrolled it on the floor and sat on it cross-legged, crossing his hands so that they rested on opposite knees.
‘What’s he about to do? Now if he gets up and starts to spin like the others – nothing’s going to happen. He won’t come. I can feel it in my heart. He won’t come. If he was going to come, he would have come that time when the sky was clear, full of stars above our heads, and that astrologer danced and spun and whirled. He would have brought out the tongue of a snake. It won’t work this time either. Dancing and spinning won’t make it work. If it doesn’t work this time, then that means it’s God’s will. It’s a sign. It’s impossible to try any more. This is the end of the affair. What’s done is done. The arrow once shot does not return to the bow. Whatever will be will be. This is the counsel. But I will exact my vengeance.’
With these thoughts running through his head, the Caravanbashi watched Sayyah the Sorcerer put his head in his hands and rock to and fro as he sat, chanting something under his breath. His voice was very low, barely audible. You had to concentrate very hard to make out even one word. Just as you thought you had a word, it would slip through your fingers and disappear into the air. Sayyah the Sorcerer seemed first to ask himself a question, then to answer it.
‘Which road shall we take?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘There are many roads that we could take.’
He rocked to and fro again and fell silent. Then he asked himself another question.
‘What colour shall we wear?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘All the colours have merged. You can’t distinguish them.’
Again he fell silent. Again he rocked to and fro. Again he asked and answered his own question.
‘Whose tears have you wiped away in this world?’
‘So no tears have flowed into this world.’
This time he did not fall silent, but raised his voice so that not only he himself but the Caravanbashi and Khaja Ibrahim Agha could hear and he sounded as though he had set out on a rocky road. The whisper became silence, the silence became a sob, the sob suddenly became a decorous shout: ‘Stop, drop your hands. Come out of your shadow. If you are thinking of the moment to come and the one after that, then pin your hopes on the good of this evening, not the harm. But if you fly away, whirling over your tomorrow, with the bitter foretaste of the return of your yesterday, your head to one side and your body to the other, then remember this and don’t forget. Don’t come before my eyes!’
Sayyah the Sorcerer said the last words in a different way, singing them in a rich voice, then continued as before.
‘Come and free us of thoughts of this body, trembling from excitement. You will not be able to keep the seaweed company at the bottom of the sea. What are you grieving for? Whatever will be will be. At last we must know, no, we must understand, no, we must perceive for ourselves that dry bodies do not hold the spirit.’
Here Sayyah the Sorcerer paused for breath again. Then almost sobbing, but in a fine voice he said: ‘I have been weeping, don’t be stubborn, come.’
As he said these words, Sayyah the Sorcerer really did shed some tears. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, spreading the tears all over his face. This time a deep entreaty could be heard in his voice. ‘For your own death’s sake, don’t be lazy, come.’
Sayyah the Sorcerer’s body, which had been rocking back and forth all the time he had been speaking, suddenly shot bolt upright and he drew breath. He did not know where the enchanting voice came from, from his heart or whether it entered his body from afar. Enraptured, he chanted these words in a sonorous voice:
‘Come that my eyes may not see you. Come, I have been weeping, don’t resist. Come, for your own death’s sake, don’t be lazy. Come… come… come… come…’
The Caravanbashi and Khaja Ibrahim Agha held their tongues and sat motionless. Suddenly from Sayyah the Sorcerer’s side two words flew across the room, spinning round and round, and dived into the Caravanbashi’s ears.