Azerbaijan International

Spring 1999 (7.1)

Oil Boom Period in Azerbaijan
(1880s - 1918)

Abdulla Shaig

Undelivered Letter

A Short Story

In this story set during Azerbaijan's Oil Boom at the turn of the 20th century, Shaig reminds his readers that drilling oil wells was a risky business. Oil workers often lost their lives when a well gushed or when there was an explosion in the well. Poverty and a lack of any other options left them with no choice but to accept this risk. Here the oil barons are portrayed as being callous about the tragic loss of life.

It was a frosty winter's day. The sharpness of the cold burned your face. As though clad in mourning, the sky was swathed in a heavy veil, while the mountains and valleys were covered with a white shroud. Crows hopped warily about in the snowdrifts on the street. Warmly-dressed, well-shod people emerged from their cozy, well-heated homes and rode off in horse-drawn carriages or went by foot. The icy day and bitter frost did nothing, save please them.

Do all the sorrows and calamities of this world really only affect the indigent part of humanity?

Gurban was sitting at the edge of the Shaitan Bazaar beside his fellow-villager, Mullah Farzali, the street scribe who wrote letters and appeals for the illiterate. Gurban was frozen. With one hand he held the open collar of his threadbare shirt together, and with the other he tried to pull his tattered shoe off his foot, for it had frozen to his skin.

"Write a letter for me, Mullah. You know I always bring you a profit. I only left our village a year ago, but this is the fifth letter you'll be writing for me."

Mullah Farzali rubbed his stiff fingers, pulled out a scrap of paper and laid it on his lap. "What do you want me to write?" He stifled a yawn.

Above: Statue to oil workers in Baku.

Do all the sorrows and calamities of this world really only affect the indigent part of humanity?

-Abdulla Shaig (Early 20th Century)

Gurban moved closer and began to whisper, as if he were sharing a great secret: "First of all, greet the mother of my children. Tell her to take good care of them and to cherish t Abdulla Shaighem. Then write that, praise be to Allah, I am well. Tell her I'm sending 15 rubles with Gulam-Reza and will send more in time for the holiday. I want the children to have everything they need. Tell her I'll be home in late spring."

The Mullah dipped his pen into the inkwell. He was about to start the letter, but the ink had become so thick it was impossible to write. Mullah Farzali spat carefully into the inkwell, stirred its contents with his penpoint and settled down to the work at hand.

Abdulla Shaig, educator and author of the famous children's story, "
Fox Goes on a Pilgrimage."

Gurban drew his worn-out cloak tighter around his body, covering the bristly hair on his chest. Bending over double from the bitter cold, he complained, "My new master is evil. The well we're digging is more than 180 feet deep. We begged him to give us more pay, because it's so hard going down that far, and the gas fumes are killing us. But that bastard, the son of bitch, won't give in. He said if we don't go on digging as agreed, he won't pay us at all. It's hard to earn money here, Mullah. A man can envy your trade: you write five or 10 letters a day, say a few prayers for others and, praise be to Allah, you have enough to eat. May Allah always provide for you! What else could a man wish for?"

Mullah Farzali laid down his pen, pinched some sand from a hollow in the wall and sprinkled it over the paper [for the ink to dry].

"Ah, my friend, 'a fight always looks interesting from the sidelines.' My job isn't to be envied, no matter what you say. Summer and winter I sit at the crossroads, waiting for clients. Sometimes my head begins to swim. There are days when I have no work at all, so I sit here, rubbing my empty stomach." The Mullah hivered, drew his cloak more tightly around his shoulders and read the letter aloud.
Gurban listened intently. He gaped, as if he were about to swallow the words that issued from the Mullah's mouth.

He seemed pleased with the results, and at the close he said, his eyes lighting up: "Mullah, add my requests to Gulam-Husein and ask him to look after the children until I get back. Tell him to write me a letter and tell me what happened to our red cow and whether he sold the blind nag. And write that I'll bring Ana Khanum and Memish each a printed red kerchief when I come home."

After Mullah Farzali had finished writing he folded the paper carefully, slipped it into an envelope and said, "Whom should I address it to?"

Photo: The laborious and dangerous work of digging oil wells at the turn of last century. Azerbaijan National Archives.

Oil in BakuGurban scratched his head in confusion. "Just say that it should be given to the mother of Gurban's children."

Mullah Farzali addressed it and handed it to his client. Gurban accepted it with trembling hands, examined it closely and was about to put it inside his cloak when it slipped out of his stiff cold fingers. He bent down quickly, snatched it up, brushed off the frozen clumps of dirt and gently placed it against his chest.

Then he took a 10-kopeck piece from his pouch and put it into the Mullah's hand. "Here. This is for you. I'll be back before the holidays to order another letter. You'll be getting a bit of business from me, just wait." He walked off, pressing one hand firmly against the envelope.

Gurban was in a hurry to reach Gulam-Reza's house and give him the letter and to add a few words of his own. He was thinking that Gulam-Reza was a lucky man. He had been able to save up a bit and was now going to return to their native village and visit his own children. How beautiful everything would be there in another month!

 Abdulla Shaig and Samad VurgunThe forests, mountains and hills would be covered with an emerald carpet. The flowers would be in blossom. The trees would be decked in green and the swallows, those first heralds of spring, would have returned from warmer lands. Then the starlings and cranes would return to their old nests. Work would be in full swing in the fields and gardens. The fishermen would set out on the rivers and lakes.

Ah, bitter poverty, what have you done to Gurban? You tossed him into an alien place, tearing him away from his wife and children.

Writers Abdulla Shaig and Samad
Vurgun. Azerbaijan National Archives.

A lump rose in his throat. Then his heart froze, his knees buckled and he collapsed on the powdery snow. When he regained consciousness a few moments later he raised his head, feeling wretched and terribly weak. Grand carriages, lively crowds and the happy faces of self-satisfied, warmly-dressed people floated by. He glanced at all those well-fed people with hatred and bitterness. A great sigh escaped his pale lips.

Mustering his strength, he rose slowly, then quickly put his hand inside his cloak to make sure the letter was still there. Pressing it ever more firmly under his arm, he headed out for his friend's place again.

The door was locked. This was an unexpected disappointment. Gurban turned away sadly. As he wandered dazed through the crowds of workers, he suddenly spotted Safar, another fellow-villager. Gurban waved to him and learned that Gulam-Reza had gone off to the city. "As soon as he gets back, tell him that I have to see him before he leaves for the village. I want to give him a letter and some money for my family, and tell him a few words myself."


The master, Haji-Guli started yelling at them: "You scoundrels! Loafers! When the well was shallow, I was the head and you were the tail, and wherever I turned, you crawled after me. But now, when it's deep, you want to become the head. Every day you make a new ultimatum. Every day you come with new demands. You say the well's too deep and it smells like death down there, and other such nonsense. Imagine! You've lost all sense of decency. What you need is a good beating!"

Safar and Tariverdi tipped over the tub of sand they had raised from the bottom of the well and sent the tub back down again.

"We still are the tail, Agha," Tariverdi said. "You know how dangerous it is working down there on the bottom now. Look at its maw. Like a dragon lying in wait. A good conscience is a good thing, you know."

"Look over there," Safar added, pointing to the oil derricks in the distance. "Every inch of the ground there, no matter where you sink a pick, you'll hit a worker's bones. You can hear their moaning everywhere. And those who live in these fine, tall houses"

"Go on and die if you want to," Haji-Guli shouted and stamped his feet. "You think money comes easily? You risk your lives, but we risk our fortunes."

"Safar! Hey, Safar! Gurban's yanking the rope down there."

The two workers ran back to the well. As they lay down on the ground to look over the edge, a terrible roar of exploding gas threw them back.

"God, be merciful," they whispered fearfully. "Now Gurban's dead, too."

Haji-Guli seemed not to have heard. He walked over to the well and bent over cautiously. His eyes lit up and his lips parted in a happy smile. "There's an opening for the oil now! It'll come up in a fountain!"

"What about Gurban's body, Haji? You mean it's going to remain down there?" Tariverdi said with seeming indifference.

His words had a sobering effect on their master, whose eyes now grew wide. Then he took two 25-ruble bills from his purse and muttered, "HereThis'll be for whoever brings up the body."

Tariverdi looked over the side of the well and saw the bubbling oil rising to the surface. "Poor Gurban. You dug your own grave."
"Here," Haji said. "Take the money and divide it between you, but not a word to anybody, hear?"

"What about his clothes, Agha?"

Haji placed his hand gently on Safar's shoulder and said, "Bury them someplace here."

When they picked up Gurban's clothes, an envelope fell to the ground.

"Poor Gurban. It was his letter that never got delivered."

From "Azerbaijanian Prose - an Anthology," edited by Mirza Ibrahimov, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977.

Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.