Son of the poet Samad Vurghun and brother of poet Vagif Samadoghlu
in Azeri is "Bayati Shiraz"
Written in 1967; published in 1987 in the magazine "Ulduz"
Azeri title, Bayati Shiraz, is the name of one of the seven basic
scales or modes of mughams (pronounced moo-GAHMS), a type of
traditional music. Each mode is believed to elicit certain emotions.
Bayati Shiraz is generally associated with melancholic and nostalgic
feelings of love.
The story's protagonist, Uncle Sabzali, is a down-on-his-luck
musician who drags himself to each evening's gig at a local restaurant.
Most of his time seems to be split between daydreaming about
his childhood and complaining about the fat clarinet player who
leads the orchestra. When two men pay Uncle Sabzali to play "Bayati
Shiraz" (trying to get him to make a fool out of himself),
his life becomes unexpectedly transformed.
Uncle Sabzali hurriedly washed the pan in the sink and broke
an egg into it. (He couldn't eat more than one egg. Doctors wouldn't
allow it.) Against the blackened bottom of the pan, the yolk
reminded Uncle Sabzali of the moon that he had just seen out
the window a moment earlier. Both the sight of the yolk as well
as the moon hugging the horizon depressed him.
Suddenly, Uncle Sabzali remembered that he should have put butter
in the pan first. He had completely forgotten about butter. "To
hell with it," he told himself angrily and went ahead and
added the butter and put the pan on the stove. Right away he
noticed that the white of the egg was cooked but the yellow wasn't
even warm yet. For the second time, he told himself, "To
hell with it."
hurriedly washed the pan in the sink and broke an egg into it.
(He couldn't eat more than one egg. Doctors wouldn't allow it.)
Against the blackened bottom of the pan, the yolk reminded Uncle
Sabzali of the moon that he had just seen out the window a moment
earlier. Both the sight of the yolk as well as the moon hugging
the horizon depressed him.
his way to the restaurant that night, he said "To hell with
it!" at least five more times. The door of the restaurant
was as heavy as a safe door. When he opened it, his heart began
to pound. He couldn't remember whether he had turned off the
gas at home or not. But this time he didn't even bother to say,
"To hell with it."
Photo: The late Yusif Samadoghlu,
distinguished writer and member of Parliament (shown here) 1990s.
Uncle Sabzali entered the restaurant, walked to the right side
of the cloakroom, which was reserved for the employees and hung
up his coat. Gazing approvingly at a lady brushing her hair in
the lobby, he sighed. Then, humming a tune, he went up to the
second floor. There he saw Aunt Fatma, the janitor, sitting in
the corner of the corridor with her fat hands on her knees. Uncle
Sabzali said hello to her and asked her what time it was. "Half-past
six," she told him. He still had half an hour, so he went
in search of Moses Sergeyevich.
Moses Sergeyevich was standing next to a wide table shoved right
up against the wall in a small, well-lit, mirrored washroom inside
the men's restroom. There was a pile of neatly folded white towels,
two bottles of "eau de cologne" and some cigarettes.
As soon as Uncle Sabzali appeared at the door, Moses Sergeyevich
raised his hands:
"Good evening, Uncle Sabzali,"
he said, taking hold of Uncle Sabzali's elbow. "How are
Right: Sculpture: The Blind
Men. Fragment in bronze. 150 X 13 X 59 sm. Fazil Najafov, 1979.
"So-so," Uncle Sabzali replied, lifting his shoulders
in a gesture that meant, "How do you think it should be?"
Then, taking a seat in the armchair next to the table, Uncle
Sabzali continued, "I ate a scrambled egg half an hour ago
which still makes me feel sick. I thought I would eat at home
before coming to work."
"Was it a duck egg or a turkey egg?"
"I don't know...Anyway."
"I'm not in a better situation myself. Look under my eyes."
Uncle Sabzali took a look at Moses Sergeyevich's face. There
were bags the size of peanuts under his eyes.
"I didn't sleep a wink last night," said the pitiful-looking
He walked and walked, and then suddenly he raised his head in
- just to look up and see what was in the sky.
Beyond the dark silhouettes of the tall buildings,
he saw the Milky Way amidst the bright stars.
It surprised him.
He had not seen the Milky Way for more than 50 years.
Uncle Sabzali in "Bayati Shiraz"
replied, "At least you know why you're suffering. You know
you have a kidney stone. What about me? Whatever I eat-meat or
eggs-it gives me heartburn. Even plain bread gives me heartburn.
Nothing but God can help me. Like they say, 'If you're not lucky,
you're not lucky.'"
Moses Sergeyevich picked up a filter cigarette from the middle
drawer of the table and handed it to Uncle Sabzali.
"Here. Take it. It's Bulgarian. Real Samsun tobacco. Have
a cigarette, instead of grief."
Uncle Sabzali took the cigarette, rolled it between his fingers,
broke off the larger half and threw it into the wastebasket.
Shaking his head, he explained, "It would have been too
much for me. My heart's not very good either. Beats fast."
He lit the cigarette and started smoking. There was a strange
expression on his face as if he were eating something tasty.
Suddenly, he asked Moses Sergeyevich, "What do you think?
Will they start a war this year?"
Perhaps Moses Sergeyevich was used to such sudden questions.
He answered calmly, patiently, as if they had been talking about
war for a long time.
"Inshallah [If God wills], it won't start-if the Japanese
don't make trouble."
"No, the Japanese won't poke their nose into this. If anybody's
going to start a war, it will be the Americans."
Moses Sergeyevich waved his hand in the air. "Come on, don't
be naive. This is Japan. Are you kidding? If they see a mess,
they'll be in the middle of it. Do you think the Japanese don't
have an atom bomb? They've had it for a long time. In 1945 Americans
dropped three bombs there. Two of them exploded. One didn't.
Their scientists dismantled it and unlocked its secrets. Does
that make sense? These are not my words. Someone there said it."
"How much do you think such a bomb costs-I mean an atom
"In the old currency? 1 Exactly 1,200,000."2
"Come on, you're kidding."
Moses Sergeyevich nodded.
"One million, two hundred thousand!" Uncle Sabzali's
heartburn stopped. He thought about what he would do if he had
that much money.
You could never finish spending that much money. No, why not?
You could sure spend it. Depends on how clever you were.
He thought about how he would first fix up his room. Cover the
walls with wallpaper-something in yellow. Then he would buy a
wooden bed-a big one-something imported. After that he would
buy a samovar 3
Then what? OK, then he would buy a suit with three buttons, two
pairs of shoes and two nylon shirts. What else? Well, an electric
iron, of course. What about a TV? Yes, absolutely. And a radio.
Also necessary. And that would be it. The rest of the money he
would put into a savings account. No, banks wouldn't take that
much money. He would just spend it little by little. Amen! Thanks
be to God!
Uncle Sabzali imagined a well-repaired, charming room. Then he
saw a wooden bed and imagined Moses Sergeyevich, who had stopped
by for a cup of tea. The water in the samovar was boiling, and
they were both sitting on the bed with their feet gathered up
underneath them. They were having a casual chat and watching
TV. Outside, the snow was up to one's knees. How wonderful!
This wasn't the first time. Every time there was talk about money,
not a small amount, but hundred of thousands or millions, Uncle
Sabzali's brain was stimulated. Other times when he was in a
good mood, he couldn't think of anything pleasant, however hard
he tried. It was as if the memories that made up half of his
life had set forth a condition: "Don't call us, we'll never
come for free."
And now Moses Sergeyevich was talking about something. He was
trying to explain something, waving his arms in the air. Uncle
Sabzali pretended to be listening, but his mind wandered to memories
of the past.
In the past, scrambled eggs had not given him heartburn. There
was fresh mutton, yogurt and milk. As there was no gas for cooking,
they would build a fire out beside the well where there was always
a small breeze. When it was very hot, smoke would rise high in
the sky twisting among the trees. Moses Sergeyevich's breathless
voice and his long talks about Japan and Karlsbad salt 4 were not part of those
He heard a voice saying, "Go to bed, sweetheart." Another
voice replied, "Hey, how stubborn can you get? Go to bed!"
And Uncle Sabzali's own voice would reply, "I don't want
to sleep." Then the first voice again: "Leave the child
alone. Let him stay up a little bit."
Uncle Sabzali was still feeling the sweetness of this voice.
That makes almost 300,000 from 1,200,000. There's only 900,000
left. When either the "Gilavar" or "Khazri"
were blowing, 5
the stars reflecting in the garden pond would get stirred up
and seem to disappear.
Uncle Sabzali [as a child] thought that it was goldfish that
two or three stars at once and that as soon as the wind stopped,
the goldfish would release them again. His mother used to arrange
grapes on a large tray near the edge of the pond. Uncle Sabzali
would take some of them and eat them, feeling the cool touch
of the evening dew on each grape.
Then that voice would come again, "Hey, Sabzali, damn kid,
come to bed right away!" The other voice would warn, "Hurry.
The 'Gulyabani' 6
will come and eat you up."
Uncle Sabzali would cup his two hands around his mouth and shout
back, "No, he won't." And, indeed, the Gulyabani never
ate up Uncle Sabzali-not that night nor any night that followed.
There was a large fig tree by the fence at the other end of the
yard. The Gulyabani was said to sleep in the top branches of
that tree at night. But Uncle Sabzali was not afraid. He would
even sit under the tree and burrow his feet in the sand-that
sand was hot like fire in the afternoons and cold as ice in the
evenings after sunset. Uncle Sabzali's young aunt would say that
at night the "fire director" turned off the cauldrons
in hell and that's why the sand got cold. He could not remember
her voice, though he loved her even more than his mother. That
voice was hidden so deep that it would take two million to discover
Uncle Sabzali was short of time. He could not sit by Moses Sergeyevich
and slowly spend 1,200,000 on memories. In eight minutes he would
have to walk onto the restaurant's round stage and tune his double
bass. At exactly 7:00 p.m. the "orchestra," consisting
of four musicians under the leadership of Adigozal, the clarinetist,
would begin performing.
Oh God! Was it really possible to step up on that stage, dragging
your feet every evening from 7 to 11 for 23 whole years? How
could you maintain your health and sanity? You complain of heartburn,
heart palpitations and other ailments. No wonder you have all
these problems. Why is everything so upside down? How is it that
God has mercy on some and shows no pity on others? Some people
have everything-job, position, car, money, family. They live
the best life. But luck for me is only a duck egg and heartburn
and going to sit with Moses Sergeyevich, smoking Samsun tobacco
and just withering away while in the process of dying...
Uncle Sabzali's father always said that he would support his
son's study to become a "narkom".7 His mother would say,
"Inshallah!" [If God wills] His grandma would just
shake her head. She never liked narkoms. But his father used
to insist that once you decided on something, you had to be very
serious about it. A man must work and eke money even "out
of a stone."
But neither the words of his father or his mother came true.
Uncle Sabzali was hardly eight when tragedy struck at home. His
grandma, his father and his mother died one right after the other.
As Uncle Sabzali himself later recalled, everything had happened
within five months. Then Uncle Sabzali moved to his aunt's. At
nights when she used to cry, he cried with her. As soon as she
calmed down, he calmed down as well.
Those first days, Uncle Sabzali could not bear to stay at his
aunt's; he wanted to go back home. He would cry and insist on
going back, but his aunt frightened him so that he never thought
about it again. She would say, "If you go there, the Angel
of Death will come and take you away just as he took your parents
and grandma." But Uncle Sabzali could not imagine how the
Angel of Death could have picked up his father and carried him
away-he was such a stout, heavy man.
Well, how is it that Uncle Sabzali started playing the double
bass? That's a long, rather unpleasant story. When asked about
it, he used to say, "Each of us has his own fate. There's
nothing you can do to change it. It was my lot to become a double
It seemed that those last words were spoken by Moses Sergeyevich.
When Uncle Sabzali opened his eyes wide with surprise and gazed
at him, Moses Sergeyevich nodded his head and continued: "Of
course, do you think we can change our fate?" And tapping
his finger on his forehead, he went on, "Whatever is written
here, on this damn forehead, will certainly happen. Don't ever
believe anything else. If there is to be a war this summer, there
will be a war."
"Yeah," said Uncle Sabzali.
Then he thought, "I hope there won't be a war! May God have
mercy on the youth!"
When the last war started [World War II], Uncle Sabzali had been
31. At the beginning of 1942, he was called to the military commissariat.
He packed his bag and headed there. On his way, he almost gave
up a few times. He had wanted to run away but then remembered
that they always found deserters within 24 hours, tied them to
trees and shot them, so he gave up this idea. Frightened, cursing
himself and the war, he continued on his way.
When he walked into the dim courtyard of the Commissariat where
there was a lot of wood piled, he stopped and looked at the young
people standing in groups of twos and threes in corners, their
hair shaved off. He felt something start to burn inside him.
Actually, that was his first heartburn.
They sent him to the doctor's office where the doctor made him
strip naked. He bent down and then stood up straight again. The
fat doctor listened to his heart, leaning his stomach against
Uncle Sabzali's. Then the doctor made him lie down on the table
and checked his liver and spleen. Then, screwing up his face,
he said, "You've got medical problems. You won't be of any
Uncle Sabzali rushed home with his bag on his back. There were
only eight eggs left. He took five of them to give a "nazir"
to Atagha [pronounced aht-ah-GHAH]. Atagha had lived from early
to mid-19th century in the Ichari Shahar.9 People had revered
him because they believed he could cure illnesses and foretell
the future. As he was very weak, he was always sitting in a chair.
He couldn't walk or stand. That's where he got his name-"At"
(meaning flesh) and "Agha" (man). A mausoleum had been
built for him in Shuvalan. It was a very large, expensive mausoleum.
People worshipped there.
Uncle Sabzali didn't leave home for three days as he was afraid
that the fat doctor would change his mind and send for him, and
then he really would have to go off to war. He didn't want to
go to the front. No way. He knew that he would get killed the
very first day.
There were two things that Uncle Sabzali was afraid of - the
Angel of Death and War. Neighbors said that whenever Soviet soldiers
were captured at the hands of fascists, they were bayoneted to
death. "God forbid!" thought Uncle Sabzali. "Spare
me this misfortune. Don't let the black soil swallow my youth."
But misfortune was not far away. By mid-1943, Uncle Sabzali was
arrested. A policeman came and took him to the regional militia
office. They did not keep him there very long. A soldier accompanied
him to the other end of town.
Clearing his throat, Uncle Sabzali could barely manage to ask
the soldier, "Where are you taking me?"
"Shut up, you puny ragamuffin," the soldier had replied.
And that's how Uncle Sabzali had been taken off-looking down
at the soldier's black boots as they splashed through the muddy
puddles left from the previous day's rain.
When the soldier brought Uncle Sabzali in, the examining magistrate
was on the telephone, laughing. Finally, he put down the receiver,
brought his two hands together, put them under his chin and then
stood up. Uncle Sabzali gazed at him without blinking an eye.
"So, he's coming, yes?"
"Who's coming?" asked Uncle Sabzali as if his voice
were coming from the grave.
The magistrate laughed, "What do you mean, 'who?' Your uncle..."
"I have no uncle."
The magistrate stared at him with bulging eyes. "Hey you,
you ashamed of telling a lie?" Then he picked up a crumpled
photo out of the table's drawer and showed it to Uncle Sabzali.
"Who is this then? Isn't he your uncle?"
When Uncle Sabzali saw the photo, he was startled. It was a photo
The magistrate replied, "You shouldn't try to lie. Don't
try to deceive the Soviet government. We know everything. So
you're waiting for him, aren't you? You are inciting panic here,
while people are sacrificing their lives at the front and defending
our sacred Motherland."
Uncle Sabzali understood. Suddenly, he started to talk. He understood
that he had to speak up and defend himself.
"For God's sake, I didn't say anything. I am not aware of
anything. The other day, guys in the neighborhood were saying
that Hitler was planning to send troops to Baku. I shut them
up right away and told them not to say such stupid things. As
far as Hitler is concerned, it was Gulyabani Hasan who said this.
Honestly! Do you think I'm stupid? Comrade Stalin himself gave
the order to kill anyone who surrenders Baku to Hitler. If you
want to know, I spat in Gulyabani Hasan's face because he said
those words. The whole neighborhood is my witness that I don't
know anything about this.
"What do you mean, 'uncle?' Damn him! He isn't my uncle.
I hate his face. I wanted to go to the front but the doctors
wouldn't let me. What do you mean, 'uncle'? I had only one relative,
an aunt, and she died recently. Honest. She passed away a year
ago. I have never had an uncle in my life. I swear on my father's
grave. Hitler is German. I am Muslim. We have nothing to do with
each other. Damn him! He doesn't even look like a human being.
The magistrate raised his hand and interrupted him just in time
as Uncle Sabzali had run out of things to say.
"Finish up! Damn both his father and your father."
"What do you mean, 'OK'?"
"Are you saying this about your own father?"
"Not me, you are saying this."
"If you were a man, you would have struck me when I said
"All right! Finish."
"As you like."
Uncle Sabzali lowered his head. When he looked up, he saw the
magistrate twisting his mustache. It was a big, thick mustache.
Uncle Sabzali's first thought when the soldier pushed him into
the prison cell was that he was being brought in front of Budyonni.
He was frightened. Only when he heard the magistrate speaking
Azeri did he calm down. Then he thought, "He must be a Muslim.
He won't cause me too much trouble."
Though the magistrate did not cause much trouble, Uncle Sabzali
was put in jail a week later. Four years. And that's where Uncle
Sabzali learned to play the double bass. In jail. With an amateur
Prior to this, Uncle Sabzali had been afraid of two things. Now
he had a third fear-Jail. The chill of the chamber, the dregs
among the prisoners that he bumped into all the time, the thick
porridge and bread that exuded dampness-all these things shortened
life. Because of this, Uncle Sabzali started losing weight. Like
a hungry hen dreaming of corn, 11 he dreamed of eating
rice pilaf and mutton and of drinking "ayran."12
Still, he was lucky. About six months later, he met another Muslim
in prison, just like himself. The man was from Baku and went
by the name of Jabrayil. From the first day, he told Uncle Sabzali,
"Call me Jabi." And then winking at him, he added,
"Don't worry. As long as I'm here, I won't let anyone hurt
you. I'm a devil. I can disembowel anybody within a second."
He was a heavy, slow man with gold teeth. After he appeared in
the jail, Uncle Sabzali slowly started gaining back some weight.
However, he did not put on very much. He worked and slept only
a few hours. Plus he washed Jabi's feet after work. Sometimes
when Jabi was in a good mood, he would say, "Let me sacrifice
myself to you.13
May I go on your shoulders."14
There was an amateur music group in the jail. It was made up
of seven people. The other prisoners left very early each morning
to cut wood. When they returned, this group would play marches
in front of the barracks. One day, gold-toothed Jabi called up
the head of the orchestra and told him to give Uncle Sabzali
a job. He gave a blow to the orchestra leader's head so that
he would understand. Afterward, the orchestra leader became good
friends with Uncle Sabzali. From that day onward, Uncle Sabzali
started playing the double bass. There had been no other instrument
left-only the double bass. So Uncle Sabzali played the double
bass during the day, and in the evenings he washed the feet of
the gold-toothed Jabi so he could say his prayers.
At night, he would sit cross-legged and listen to Jabi's songs.
Jabi had a beautiful voice-so inspiring, especially when he sang
songs in a low quiet tones like "One thousand five hundred
prisoners from Bayil jail are being sent to Siberia. Oh, mother,
don't cry. I haven't died, I am alive. Oh sister, don't cry."
Their talks were even more stimulating than the songs. During
the evenings in the darkness of the cell, Uncle Sabzali would
listen attentively to Jabi, staring at his gold teeth. The stories
that Jabi told didn't seem to have happened on earth, at least
not in the world in which Uncle Sabzali lived.
Maybe they happened far away on other planets. His stories about
bank shootings, gold coins and 100-ruble coins from the Russian
czar Nikolai affected Uncle Sabzali like the appetite pills that
he used to take long before the war at his aunt's insistence.
These stories warmed his body and thawed his bones. Even pulling
his blanket over his head in bed, Uncle Sabzali could hear Jabrayil's
voice in his ears: Odessa, Batumi, Leningrad, Sochi...
That was the first time he learned how to "exchange"
millions, hundred of thousands of boxes of gold tens [ten-ruble
gold coins] into memories in jail. A hundred thousand in Odessa-his
aunt's voice, five hundred thousand in Batumi-his granny's voice,
one million in Baku-his mother's voice. Once he counted so much
money that he dreamed of his mother's breasts and caught a whiff
of the scent of her milk.
The next morning when he awakened, Uncle Sabzali prayed for the
Moses Sergeyevich interrupted, "It's time, Uncle Sabzali."
A man entered the toilet and passed without paying any attention
to them. After a while he came back humming the song "My
Daughter Arzu" and began washing his hands. Then he ordered,
"Hey, Mister, put some 'eau de cologne' on my hands."
Moses Sergeyevich sprayed some on his hands, took the 20-kopeck
coin and slipped it into the pocket of his white jacket. "May
God give abundance," he replied.
In the large, well-lit restaurant, things were bustling. It was
like a railway station.
Uncle Sabzali had been working there for several years. Wearing
his old black coat, he had been coming there every day, saying
to himself, "To hell with it!" over and over.
Throughout those long years, he walked to work through the quiet
streets since he was afraid of traffic. Despite this, he could
never get used to the dull drone, which seemed as inevitable
as influenza in autumn. He came to the restaurant against his
will. His head always hung down to his chest as we walked that
short distance between the restaurant door and the stage. It
was as if he were trying to hide himself from all the boring
noise and trivial laughter. It all seemed like such a hell to
It was Saturday. By 7 o'clock all the tables had been filled.
That evening, both the restaurant and Adigozal were expected
to do well. From about 8:30 p.m. onward, the waiters began bringing
requests to Adigozal such as: "Play 'Shalabiyya,' 15
'Reyhan,' 16 'Canyons,'
'My Daughter Arzu,' tango, mugham and more."
And each order brought three, five or ten rubles. Even if you
weren't worth a kopeck,17 you could be lucky. From 8:30 p.m. on, Adigozal
would start filling his pockets, and at the end of the evening,
he would give each of the musicians five or ten rubles. Uncle
Sabzali would get only two, because he wasn't a soloist; he only
accompanied the group.
Adigozal had no conscience. Every summer he sent his family to
But when Uncle Sabzali complained that he didn't have enough
money for false teeth, Adigozal would shrug his shoulders. Uncle
Sabzali would say to himself, "Never mind. These bitter
days will be short. Now it's your time. Enjoy it. Our day will
come. And then we will have our say..."
Adigozal had one daughter, 14 years old. She was very fat-92
kilos. "Never mind. I'll teach him a lesson. You'll see..."
But Uncle Sabzali knew that he would never teach anybody any
lesson. In order to teach someone a lesson, you needed either
health or an "uncle."19 "Never mind. God
The orchestra started playing the march, "Give us a way,
blue Khazar"20 The music drowned out
the buzz in the restaurant. It was as if the orchestra's sound
caught the buzz in the air and strangled it.
Looking at Adigozal's fat neck from behind and cursing him silently,
Uncle Sabzali plucked the strings of the double bass with his
forefinger. Natan Zelmanovich, the piano player, had put two
pieces of cake on his music stand-he was playing and eating at
the same time.
"What's your problem?" Uncle Sabzali thought to himself.
All of America is behind you [referring to Zelmanovich as a Jew].
"You don't have to think of anything. Today, just like every
other day, you'll get a 'red ten' 21 from Adigozal and go
The piece ended. Adigozal stepped back slowly and announced,
"Waltz" and the orchestra began playing.
If a war were to break out, they would probably take Adigozal
to the front. He was only 45. If someone stabbed a bayonet into
his stomach, the bayonet would be sure to break off as he was
so fat. Only an atom bomb could deal with him. One dropped on
his skull would smash it like a dried-up, wrinkled fig. One million
two hundred thousand. Oh, my God. See what money gets wasted
Only two people were dancing. It seemed that the girl was the
one Uncle Sabzali had seen in the lobby. Her right hand was on
the boy's shoulder. The boy was smiling and whispering something
in her ear. "Probably he is trying to win her heart,"
Uncle Sabzali thought. The boy was in seventh heaven. Why not?
Holding such a beauty in his arms! Imagine what would happen
after they left the restaurant. In his imagination, Uncle Sabzali
took off her clothes and felt the warmth of her round breasts,
firm as a stone against his face. Then he imagined the girl squeezing
his long nose between her breasts. At that moment, it seemed
as if a horse neighed in his ears.
During the break, Adigozal and Natan Zelmanovich went to the
buffet. Natan Zelmanovich took some pieces of cake. Sitting opposite
each other, the guitar player and the drum player started talking
about soccer. The guitar player was young-barely 22 or 23. He
Girls and women coming to the restaurant would often take a peek
at him over the men's shoulders or from their places. Uncle Sabzali
had a name for such peeks-he called them "Come-and-take-me
peeks." Such open glances would make Adigozal furious. He
was afraid of a scandal involving the orchestra and sensitive
about the orchestra's reputation.
Uncle Sabzali enjoyed it all. Every time the girls looked at
the guitar player, Adigozal's small sly eyes would burn with
rage. He got angry. And when he got angry, his clarinet would
squeak. Once the damn clarinet made such an ugly sound that everybody
in the restaurant roared with laughter. For three days, Uncle
Sabzali didn't have heartburn.
Long before the performance, while he was sitting and chatting
with Moses Sergeyevich, Uncle Sabzali had decided to go to the
buffet during the first break for 50 grams of cognac. He needed
a drink after Moses Sergeyevich's discussion about the atom bomb
and after he had heard the voices of his mother, father and grandmother.
"Why does one's blood become black?"22
Because as one gets older, the magnetism of the cells weakens.
And when that happens, one begins to shuffle. Sometimes when
there's too much disappointment, only cognac can help. But not
too much. Only 50 grams. Even a cigarette lighter will not work
if you put too much oil in it.
Since Adigozal was at the buffet, Uncle Sabzali gave up the idea
of cognac. When he imagined Adigozal's thick mustache, red lips,
white teeth and his forever-sweaty neck, Uncle Sabzali's blood
thickened even more. The magnetism of the cells weakened. And
his wish for 50 grams of cognac became 150 grams.
He turned slowly and saw Valya serving clients on the right-hand
side of the stage. Valya was not in a good mood. She was frowning.
Ever since Uncle Sabzali had known Valya, he had never seen her
smile. She was always gloomy, always nervous and always silent.
The expression of her eyes was as cold as resin left in the rain.
She was always saying that as soon as she found some money, she
would leave for Voronezh 23 to her brother's. She
was planning to buy some cattle and poultry there to make her
Uncle Sabzali asked, "What's up, Valya?"
Valya lazily pointed at the table at the other end of the hall
and said, "They're calling you over there."
"I don't know. A customer."
"Perhaps they want Adigozal. You're mistaken."
Valya nodded her head and raised her reluctant voice a little,
"I'm not mistaken. They asked me to call the double bass
player," she said as she went out to the kitchen without
any further intention of listening to Uncle Sabzali, who was
going to ask something else.
Uncle Sabzali shrugged his shoulders. Who could be calling him?
There were two people sitting at the table. One was a middle-aged,
white-faced man in a black jacket and striped shirt. He had loosened
the knot of his tie. When the man saw Uncle Sabzali approaching,
he whispered something into the ear of his friend, who looked
vacantly in front of him while chewing on a green onion. Uncle
Sabzali sensed that there was something unpleasant about that
whisper. But he didn't show it. He approached the men and greeted
them respectfully. The man in the black jacket stretched out
his hand and offered Uncle Sabzali a seat.
"Sit down, please. Welcome." When he lowered his hand,
his fat face trembled. This face reminded Uncle Sabzali of cake.
He smiled. Then he sat down and looked around. Realizing that
Adigozal and the director of the restaurant were not there, he
asked, "What can I do for you?"
Again, the man in the black jacket spoke as if his friend were
not there and were unaware of Uncle Sabzali's being there.
"Thank you. But just take this first," he said and
clearing his throat, he extended a glass of red wine to Uncle
Uncle Sabzali leaned back.
"Oh, no. I don't drink."
It seemed as if the man's friend had been waiting for this word.
He broke the green onion in his hand into two, put it on the
table and said in surprise, "Why?"
"What do you mean, 'Why?'"
"I mean, 'Why don't you drink?'"
"I can't drink."
"What do you mean, 'Why'?"
"I mean, 'Why can't you drink?'"
"I have a stomach problem."
"Well, just a problem."
The man in the black jacket replied, "It won't work."
Scratching his chin, his friend replied, "You're of no use."
Uncle Sabzali smiled and looked at the table. There were cold
pieces of kabob (shashlik) 24 on big plates of rice
pilaf in the middle of the table. But both of them had empty
plates in front of them. They had drunk a lot but eaten very
At this time Valya came up to them.
"Do you need anything?"
Leaning back against his chair, the man in the black jacket asked
Valya, "Maybe you know why our guest doesn't drink?"
Valya replied, "He has gastritis."
Uncle Sabzali nodded his head quickly.
"She's right. When I drink wine, I get heartburn."
The man in the black jacket burst into laughter with his bass
voice. His little eyes disappeared like a pair of black beads
sinking into fermenting dough. Uncle Sabzali looked at him rather
pitifully as if he had committed a great sin. Then he said to
Valya, "Bring me 50 grams of cognac."
He turned to the man in the black jacket, "Doctors don't
allow me to drink wine, but I can drink cognac."
At last the man in the black jacket stopped laughing. Breathless,
he took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the sweat
off his face.
"We would like to hear mugham [pronounced moo-GAHM]. What
do you think?"
Adigozal's plate-like face and long clarinet filled Uncle Sabzali's
imagination right away.
The man in the black jacket said, "We came to this restaurant
to enjoy normal music. Can't you guys play some mugham, for God's
Uncle Sabzali hesitated.
"Talk to our clarinetist Adigozal about it."
He deliberately said "our clarinetist," not "the
orchestra leader." But he said it in such a low voice that
he himself could barely hear it.
The man in the black jacket asked, "Do you mean the man
that played something like Segah? 25 Come on."
Uncle Sabzali livened up. He pulled his chair up, leaned his
elbows on the table and started speaking with an arrogant voice.
"Of course, you're right. Where mugham and where Adigozal?
Do you know where he used to work before?" Uncle Sabzali
leaned forward. "In a funeral orchestra." He laughed.
"Now he works here. You wouldn't even imagine." Then
he waved his hand and sighed. Mugham is like 'sharbat'. You should
enjoy it as you play it. You should play so that everybody listens
to you with all their attention.
"I remember as a child, a kamanche 27
player came to our village from Iran. Oh, my God! His playing
set your heart on fire. After he left, everybody in the village
acted as if they were drunk for a week. You could go on and on
talking about it. But there is hardly anyone who truly knows
and values mugham."
"Seems there is some hostility between you two."
"Hostility, conflict, disagreement, antagonism."
"Oh, no. I have nothing against him. I'm an old man. I don't
have anything to do with anyone. What have I to do with Adigozal?"
After having drunk the cognac that Valya brought, Uncle Sabzali
felt even heavier. He felt like he should not have talked about
that kamanche player from Iran. He had reverted to the past again-to
the past where he had left his mother's and grandmother's voice.
He had spent 1,200,000 down to the last kopeck...Thank God, a
became upset. He wished he were with his friend Moses Sergeyevich
talking about the past and smoking a filter cigarette. It seemed
to Uncle Sabzali that he was not even in the company of these
two, but rather together with Moses Sergeyevich and that the
conversation they had just had, had happened yesterday, or even
five days before, but not this evening.
The man in the black jacket observed, "I imagine Adigozal
does quite well, right?"
Again this was a sensitive topic for Uncle Sabzali. "Of
course. Every evening he gets at least one 'red ten' in addition
to his regular salary. He has a TV set, furniture, his family-everything."
"What about you? Don't you want to make money?" This
time the friend of the man wearing the black jacket spoke up.
He was a thin man with thick eyebrows. When he saw Uncle Sabzali
looking at him in surprise, he repeated his words: "Yes,
everybody makes money. What about you?"
"What can I do? I can't make money."
"Come on. What do you mean you can't? Others squeeze money
out of a stone. Don't say you can't."
The man in the black jacket replied, "Why don't you play
'Bayati-Shiraz' for us? We'll pay you for it."
"On what would I play Bayati-Shiraz?"
"What do you mean 'On what?' What instrument do you play?"
"OK, play it on the double bass."
Uncle Sabzali understood that the two only intended to make fun
of him. 28
He got very upset, and his heartburn increased. He wanted to
stand up and pound his fist on the table. But he held off. He
was afraid that the two would complain about him to the manager,
and the manager would say, "I would not be my father's son
if I didn't fire you." Moreover, he was afraid that they
could get angry and break his arms and ribs.
Before Uncle Sabzali got up, the man in the black jacket put
his hand into his pocket, took out two brand-new "fifties"
[fifty rubles] and put them on the table-right in front of Uncle
"As our grandfathers used to say, 'It's the English who
have money and us' 29 Play Bayati-Shiraz
and the money will be yours. What kind of toast is that?"
Uncle Sabzali said nothing. Only then did he feel the rush from
the 50 grams of cognac that he had drunk. He calmly extended
his hand, took the money and put it into the top pocket inside
Surprised at his own boldness, Uncle Sabzali stepped up on the
What happened next he does not remember very well. He only recalls
the ugly melody he was producing on the double bass. At first
there was not a sound in the hall. Then everybody started laughing-in
turn, one by one. Uncle Sabzali did not see anyone. He was looking
down at his feet as he played 'Bayati-Shiraz'. Only once did
he raise his head to see Adigozal's eyes wide with surprise and
Moses Sergeyevich's thin, small body as he stood in the restaurant,
like a hound staring at a hare.
Uncle Sabzali played for a long time. It wouldn't have been right
to play for just a short time for 100 rubles. One had to be honest.
The people in the restaurant were laughing so loudly that only
Uncle Sabzali himself could clearly hear the strange sound of
his double bass.
* * *
With a hundred rubles-two brand-new fifties in his pocket-he
thought about getting his own cheap TV. And with such an idea,
Uncle Sabzali slowly made his way home.
He walked and walked, and then suddenly he raised his head in
happiness-just to look up and see what was in the sky. Beyond
the dark silhouettes of the tall buildings, he saw the Milky
Way amidst the bright stars. It surprised him. He had not seen
the Milky Way for more than 50 years.
He stopped and looked at it as long as he could. Suddenly Uncle
Sabzali wanted to cry. And he cried and cried....
currency - During the Soviet period, currency underwent several
- referring to the earlier figure of how much an atom bomb costs.Up
Samovar - a metal urn used in the preparation of tea.Up
Karlsbad salt - the German name for a curative salt from Czechoslovakia.Up
"Gilavar" and "Khazri" are names of winds
that blow across the Absheron peninsula where Baku is situated.
They identify the direction of the wind.Up
is equivalent to what children in Western countries call the
"boogie man," an adult threat that some bad creature
would eat up bad children.Up
a high position during the early Soviet period, Chief of People's
Nazir - In Islam whenever your wish comes true, you donate something
to the mosque, to the poor, the sick or orphans.Up
Ichari Shahar [pronounced ee-chah-RI sha-HAR] means "Inner
City" and is the oldest section of town in Baku having been
established during the Middle Ages.Up
Budyonni - a feared Soviet Marshal.Up
"Like a hungry hen dreaming of corn" [Azeri proverb].Up
Ayran [pronounced eye-RAHN] - a refreshing nutritious drink made
of yogurt, salt and water.Up
Let me sacrifice - A common expression in this region of the
world, meaning I'm deeply indebted to you and will do anything
An Azeri expression, meaning "May my coffin be carried on
your shoulders," wishing the other person to live longer
"Shalabiyya" - an Arabic song that was popular at the
"Reyhan" - an Azeri song that was popular at the time.Up
kopeck - 100 kopecks make one ruble.Up
Kislovodsk - a therapeutic spa and resort in the Northern Caucasus.
Its name means "water source."Up
An uncle - implies support.Up
Khazar - Caspian Sea.Up
The ten-ruble note was printed on red paper.Up
"Why does one's blood become black?" meaning, "Why
does one get upset?" "Black blood" in the Azerbaijani
language means "the state of being upset."Up
Voronezh - a city in Russia.Up
Shashlik - cubes of lamb roasted over a spit.Up
Segah - another one of the major mughams. This one is very popular
and always associated with love.Up
Where mugham and where Adigozal? - implies that mugham and Adigozal
are two completely different things that couldn't even be compared.Up
Kamanche - traditional stringed instrument played with a bow,
common throughout the region.Up
Mugham is played on the traditional instruments such as kamanche
or tar which have a very broad range of notes especially in the
higher range. It would be impossible to successfully perform
mugham on the double bass, a plucked instrument which accompanies
and supports solo instruments.Up
"It's the English who have money and us" refers to
an Azeri saying. The English were considered to be so wealthy
that few could compare to them.Up
"Bacheshm" - a Persian word that means "On my
eyes," indicating a readiness to do something.Up
by Jala Garibova.
(7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.
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AI 7.1 (Spring 99)
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