Hey Ismayil, Make Him Understand

by Mir Jalal

From the book "Dried Up In Meetings"
Published by Azerbaijan International, USA,1998

They say that campaign against bribery is underway. That's quite true. But what I want to know is, how do you define bribery? Bribery is receiving a request from an official, which isn't legal. I give him some money and he ignores the law and does what I want. That's bribery!

Another example is one in which I might have a special relationship with a minister or a chief, such that whenever we are having a special dish with rice pilaf, I can't eat without inviting him. I ask him to join us and then I prepare a feast. Some scholars believe that this is a different sort of impropriety. But in this case no cash is involved; instead, goods are exchanged as bribes.

There are other situations, which can't be considered either as bribe-taking or as showing respect. I don't know what they should be called. When you ask, they say, "No, this is different". But what I'd like to know is, just how is it different?

About 15 years ago, I was a teacher in the town of Khachmaz [in the northern part of Azerbaijan near the Caspian coast and not far from the Russian border]. I used to teach math right in the middle of town, in middle school that faced the central square.

Now there was a certain woman in that town, or I should say, a certain lady with short hair who used to wear riding boots. Whatever this lady wanted, no one ever refused. Her name was Rutubat Khanim [Mrs. Rutubat]. You would see her point her finger toward a big piece of choice meat, and say to the butcher, "Cousin, what is that chunk of meat?"

"It's a prime piece of lamb!" he'd reply.
"Put it on the scale!"
"OK, as you wish!"
"Give me a hand!"

When the butcher wanted to weigh half of the piece, the lady would say, "There is no need to weigh it. Just wrap it up and I'll take it as it is."

"Yes, ma'am!" the butcher would reply. Then he'd take the meat, marbled with fat, wrap it nicely and give it to her. Rutubat Khanim would take the meat and leave.

I was shocked. Why didn't she pay? I'd think to myself, "Perhaps they know each other and she'll pay later." But I'd see this same lady in a restaurant, and after eating and wiping her mouth, she'd leave the restaurant without paying. Or, I'd see her entering the grocery shop, and after filling her basket with sugar, tea, rice and butter, she'd leave without paying, leaving the grocer bewildered.

It was amazing! Perhaps we had entered the era of true communism and money was no longer necessary. But if that were true than I was the only one who wasn't benefiting!

I should add that the lady with the short haircut, Rutubat Khanim, never went alone on these shopping excursions. She was always accompanied by a tall military man, who would carry her basket or her suitcase. As she made her rounds in the bazaar, the basket would get heavier, but never did she pay a penny. This was most amazing. Even the chief of the market couldn't do this. At least the tax collector gives a receipt. Even the food inspector doesn't behave in this way!

Once, I saw Rutubat Khanim in a newly opened fabric shop. She had ordered several rolls of fabric, and from each roll she took enough fabric to cut a dress. But this time, when she started to leave the shop, the shopkeeper called out, "Wait!"

"What is it?" she asked.
"But, my sister, you forgot the money," he replied.
"What money?"
"The money for the fabric!"
The woman turned to her tall companion and said, "Comrade Ismayil, please make him understand!"

Ismayil approached the shopkeeper and said, "Forget about it!"

"I said, 'forget about it!'"
"So, what am I to do?"
"She is the sister of 'the man.' Put it on a special account!"
"On what?"
"On a special account!"

The fabric salesman was bewildered. The lady, as if trying to blind him, pointed her finger toward him. "Where has this stupid person come from? Don't you know who I am?"

"No, my sister. I don't know."
"You will know. Go and sit down."
"But, how?"

Again, she turned to her companion and said, "Hey Ismayil, make him understand! From what god-forsaken place have they brought this man? Couldn't they find anyone else in Guba, is that why they brought this guy?"

Ismayil called the store manager, who turned to the fabric salesman and shouted, "Forget about it! Put it on a special account!"

I witnessed this entire scene. I didn't understand. This was neither bribery nor respect for some minister. This was said out of fear. Out of fear, one gives his goods and his money to a robber, a thief or a highwayman, but this type of thing happens in the mountains or in other places ­ not in the center of town in broad daylight in front of everyone! In the heyday of the Soviet government, why should a man give away his goods? This is unheard of!

I thought to myself, "I'll bet that this is a different type of fear. I'll bet that Rutubat Khanim is a different type of lady." It turned out that she was the sister of the most powerful man in the country. Nobody dared stand up to her. As soon as she appeared in the market, everyone tried to hide and stash their goods away from sight. But she was too quick and took keen for these people. Like an eagle, she would descend upon them, open their bags and fly away taking whatever she wanted. For many years, this lady rode her horse unchallenged in that town.

But in the summer of 1953, Rutubat Khanim stopped coming. No one knew what had happened to her. One said that she had died, but her military man, Ismayil, was still in the bazaar. Standing as though he had just retired, Ismayil would put his two hands behind his back and stand and watch the everyday affairs of the world.

"Hey, Ismayil, where is Rutubat Khanim?"

Ismayil would shift his weight from one foot to the other, look around, but not say a single word. Ismayil, who used to be the one who made everyone "understand," was now silent. He didn't want to speak.

"Ismayil, what happened to that woman?"
"What woman?"
"Rutubat Khanim."
Ismayil was silent. He scratched his neck.
"Where is Rutubat Khanim?"
"Let's talk about something else," he would reply.

Rutubat Khanim had disappeared without a trace. At one time, you could have seen her march through town in her riding boots, followed like a shadow by Ismayil who carried her basket and answered, "Yes, ma'am" to her orders. You might have thought that she was the town goddess. It's hard to imagine that someone with roots as deep as Rutubat Khanim's could vanish from this town so easily. But 1953 was a terrible year for her. Whatever happened in the summer of that year, the result was that the wield of Rutubat Khanim's power was broken. Then, she simply vanished. No one saw her; no one heard her ordering Ismayil around again. The townspeople laughed and were delighted to be free of the chief and his sister, the bully.

The only person still associated with Rutubat Khanim was Ismayil. Like an autumn leaf, he became yellow and dried-up. He even shrank in size. He didn't have anyone he could make "understand." He had no patience. Whenever anyone asked about Rutubat Khanim, he'd get embarrassed. His face would turn red and he'd say, "Let's talk about something else."

"Ismayil, may those days be gone and never return!" And he would just say, "Let's talk about something else."
On March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin died. He had been the head of Communist Party and the State Leader of Soviet Union since Lenin's death in 1924. This story may refer to the powerful and dictatorial communist leader of Azerbaijan Mir Jafar Baghirov whose sister abused his power. Most leaders and their relatives did the same thing. Baghirov was a native of the town of Guba and a protégé of Stalin.

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