On February 9, 2013, Akram Aylisli’s books were burned in his native village. For more than six decades, Azerbaijan’s most prominent writer has written fiction about the mountain village of Aylis, from which he took his pen name; Aylisli called the day of the burning “the most terrible day of my life.” Why were his books burned? Aylisli had published a novella, Stone Dreams, that challenged official propaganda erasing the role played by Armenians in the history of Azerbaijan, a country currently dominated by ethnic Azeris (Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia have engaged in military hostilities since before the collapse of the Soviet Union). Stone Dreams is among the first fictional works in the greater Turkic-speaking world to depict both historical and contemporary violence against ethnic Armenians, and it includes sympathetic portrayals of Armenian villagers residing in Azerbaijan. The novella also portrays the corruption and authoritarianism of modern-day Azerbaijan. In the uproar that greeted the novella’s publication, Aylisli was stripped of his presidential honors and pension. An empty coffin was paraded around the courtyard of his residence, and a bounty—later rescinded under international pressure—was offered to anyone who would cut off the writer’s ear. In 2014, international supporters nominated Aylisli for the Nobel Peace Prize for “his efforts to reconcile Azerbaijani and Armenian people.” In 2016, trumped-up legal charges were filed against Aylisli by the Azerbaijani government, a case that is still pending. Ten years after his books were burned, Akram Aylisli continues to live under de facto house arrest in Azerbaijan, unable to leave the city of Baku. He is 85.
Stone Dreams begins as Sadai Sadygly, the middle-aged protagonist, is wheeled into a hospital emergency room in Baku, Azerbaijan. It’s late December of 1989. An Azeri Muslim himself, Sadai was raised in an Azerbaijani mountain village alongside a few elderly Armenians who survived the anti-Armenian violence of the early twentieth century. Though he has long lived in Baku, Sadai remembers his former Armenian neighbors with affection and respect; he has been savagely beaten because he came to the aid of an elderly Armenian man being attacked by a gang of Azeri youth in the Azerbaijani capital. The second chapter of Stone Dreams, from which this excerpt is taken, is written mostly in flashback, as Sadai wanders in and out of consciousness.
—Katherine E. Young
Aikanush, an Excerpt
Aikanush, the former mistress of the lemon trees, was one of two Armenian women whom Sadai had often seen and known more or less well in childhood. In Aylis there were also a few more Armenian women. However, they didn’t differ at all from the Azerbaijani women and for that reason weren’t preserved in Sadai’s childhood memories.
The first summer when Sadai came home for summer break after studying in Baku, Aikanush was still living in Aylis. She was already stooped from old age and eternally working the earth, but she still had the ability to manage her household. With her own hands she hoed the earth in the little yard right by the river, growing her own beans, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and greens there. She herself tended her lemon trees, the fame of which spread throughout Aylis. She even sent pears, peaches, dried fruit, and sujug—fruit sausage stuffed with nuts—to her son Zhora in Yerevan. On Armenian holy days she walked around the Vang Church, prayed for hours, and made the sign of the cross over herself. Tired out from work, she sat by her gates and conversed with her closest neighbor and longtime friend, Zohra arvad.
Aikanush’s house stood a good distance from the Vang Church in a low-lying area on the bank of the river closer to the Muslim part of the village. In spite of that, the church became a second home for old Aikanush. Coming through the high, strong gates that no cannon had ever breached, each time she saw the church it was as if she’d lost her reason. Like a crazy person, she began making circles around the church. Then she kissed its stone walls almost stone by stone, making the sign of the cross over herself. Finally old Aikanush went up to the doors and stopped before them. There she crossed herself several times before the stone image of the woman holding a baby whom the Aylis Muslims nicknamed “Turbaned Woman with a Babe in Arms.” With that, she ended her pilgrimage, which looked like an amusing performance when seen from a distance.
As a child Sadai saw Aikanush’s son Zhora—who lived in Yerevan—several times in Aylis. And when Zhora’s daughter Lyusik came from Yerevan to Aylis, Sadai was already eleven or twelve and was one of three inseparable schoolmate-friends: Sary (Light-Haired) Sadai, Bomb Babash, and Jambul Jamal. They were always together when they went to collect stray spikelets of grain from the field after the grain harvest. Together they clambered over the mountains and cliffs in search of partridge eggs. And when there was no school, no work on the threshing floor, and they were tired of playing babki in the street, they started in on the churches. Using river stones heavy from moisture, they tried to break off a nose or ear of the marble statues in the yard of the Stone Church and smash the stone crosses carved on the Vang walls. They climbed onto the high Vuragyrd roof and loudly cat-called the village from above. They ran roughshod over the peas, beans, and corn planted by Mirali kishi in the yard of the Vang Church and the bright flowers planted by Anykh-Aniko. Or else they inscribed their names on the walls of the church with the sharp-edged stones found at the bottom of the river, which they always carried in their pockets: Sary Sadai! Bomb Babash! Jambul Jamal!
Light-colored hair had been passed to “Sary” Sadai as the legacy of his ancestors—their family members were all blonds. Babash had received the nickname “Bomb” because of his proud disposition, endless agility, and his iron health and strength. The nickname that Jamal bore, “Jambul,” had a special and sad history.
They belonged to the prewar generation, having been born a couple of years before the start of the war that took away their fathers. However, three or four years after the end of the war, news suddenly arrived that Jamal’s father Bony Safi was alive. His wife Dilruba received a letter from Safi in which he simply announced that he hadn’t perished in the war, that he was alive and healthy and lived now in a land called Kazakhstan in the city of Jambul. He wrote that he’d married again and that his new wife had given birth to a son. He announced that he’d never come back to Aylis, but if his son Jamal wanted, he could come join him in the city of Jambul.
After that ill-starred letter, the wailing of Jamal’s grandmother Azra brought the whole village to their feet in the dead of night: her daughter Dilruba had poured a can of kerosene over her head and tried to burn herself to death.
After that, Jamal’s mother simply couldn’t right herself. She didn’t eat or drink, didn’t sleep at night, stopped doing the simplest tasks, and completely abandoned the house. Finally losing possession of her wits, she tramped around the mountains at night like a wild animal; she was searching for her husband to punish him, but she didn’t know the road to Jambul. They found the body of Jamal’s mother at the edge of the highway some twenty to twenty-five miles from Aylis. That’s how that idiotic nickname stuck to Jamal—“Jambul.”
Living in Baku, Sadai remembered Jamal almost every day. And each time he remembered Jamal, he also remembered the Vang Church: its yard, the tall and shapely cherry tree, and old Aikanush with a shawl invariably hanging down her back. Sleeves rolled up above her elbows, almost crying from stupefaction, she was diligently washing Jamal’s lice-ridden head.
That morning the three of them had climbed the tall cherry tree in the churchyard. That year the weather had already been very hot for a long time, but all the same Jamal hadn’t taken off the dirty cloth cap for which he’d been made to sit all winter at the last desk in class. Right up until the summer holidays, their faculty advisor Myleila muallima had dedicated the majority of the lessons to discussing that cap. As if she didn’t know that after Grandmother Azra had gone blind during the winter, no one had washed Jamal’s hair once, and Jamal himself, depressed by the sudden death of his mother, hadn’t found the strength to wash even once.
It turns out that old Aikanush knew this better than any of the others. Moreover, somehow old Aikanush found out that on that morning Jambul Jamal was going to be there in the churchyard. While the boys sat in the tree, she started a fire right under the cherry tree; heated water in a large copper pot; and brought soap, a towel, a pitcher, and some sort of mud-like mass—black, like tar, with which she planned to grease Jamal’s head afterwards—in a pint-sized jar from home.
Hardly had old Aikanush removed the cap from Jamal’s head than Babash vomited up the cherries they’d been stuffing into their stomachs. Sadai simply closed his eyes and turned away. Aikanush shrieked “Vai!” as if she’d been stung and grabbed her head with both hands. There were as many lice on Jamal’s head as ants in an anthill.
Old Aikanush sat Jamal by the fire on a flat river rock. Sadai filled the pitcher with warm water and poured it on Jamal’s head, and Aikanush rubbed that lice-ridden head with soap, combing with her fingernails until it bled. Then she again soaped and washed it, saying in a quiet, mournful voice, “My child. Poor boy. Poor orphan!”
And lying unconscious now on a bed in the Baku hospital, Sadai Sadygly heard that voice so clearly, so close by, that even if old Aikanush had turned out to be right next to him in the room, that mournful voice wouldn’t have sounded so distinctly.
And Sadai Sadygly heard equally clearly the shouts of the women hurrying from their homes to the churchyard when old Aikanush, having already washed and smeared Jamal’s head with medicine, bandaged his head with gauze.
“We call ourselves Muslims and yet didn’t have enough sense to wash the boy’s head.”
“Look, she washed it, so what if she’s not Muslim. You know Aikanush didn’t fall from the sky! She’s also from our village.”
“May God be with you in times of trouble, Aikanush baji! You’ve always been known by your kindness towards us Muslims.”
“Who wouldn’t wash the head of an orphan? How were we to know that the poor boy had lice?”
“What, you didn’t see that he never took the cap off his head? If he didn’t have lice, would he have gone around in a cap in this heat?”
“May Allah protect your only son in Yerevan, Aikanush. You’re the most merciful of our Aylis women.”
“You, Aikanush, love Allah, so what if you’re Armenian!”
After washing her hands thoroughly with soap and rubbing the small of her back draped with the shawl, Aikanush could barely manage to straighten up. One by one the women dispersed. And as soon as their voices ceased, Aikanush stretched out her hands and moved towards the church with such fervor that it seemed that small, frail woman would now clasp that whole, huge stone thing to her breast like a baby.
When old Aikanush made the sign of the cross before the “Turbaned Woman,” Jamal, white gauze on his head, sat silently by the wall in front of the entrance to the church. And Lyusik, who up until now had squeezed herself into a corner of the gate, observing with fear and horror how her grandmother washed Jamal’s head, now stood up, leaning against the trunk of the cherry tree and, it seemed, crying quietly. And tears also shone in Jamal’s eyes. He gazed with amazement on the world, as if he were seeing it for the first time. Babash stood next to him, hanging his head low; he was embarrassed that he hadn’t been able to control himself just now and thrown up so shamefully.
And Aikanush, as usual, stood by the church entrance and prayed furiously…
This is an excerpt from Stone Dreams by Akram Aylisli, translated by Katherine E. Young. The book is available for purchase from Academic Studies Press.
Katherine E. Young is the author of the poetry collections Woman Drinking Absinthe and Day of the Border Guards (2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist). She has translated Russophone prose by Anna Starobinets and Akram Aylisli and poetry from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. Awards include the 2022 Granum Foundation Translation Prize, the 2022 Pushkin House Translation Residency, and a National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship. From 2016-2018 she served as the inaugural Poet Laureate for Arlington, VA.