Autumn 2002 (10.3)

Poet Mikayil Mushfig (1908-1939)
by Farid Alakbarov

One of the most interesting memoirs related to Azerbaijan's history during the Stalinist period is "My Days with Mushfig", written by Dilbar Akhundzade, the wife of Azerbaijani poet Mikayil Mushfig. Mushfig was arrested and executed at age 31, at the height of the Stalinist repression. At that time, tens of thousands of intellectuals and other individuals deemed dangerous to the State were arrested, exiled to Kazakhstan and Siberia or killed.

Dilbar's memoirs were written in the 1970s, during the Soviet era, so still she was not able to mention certain details about the political repression that had victimized her husband. She did not even write about how or when he was arrested. Nevertheless, her book gives us valuable firsthand information about the life of this gifted poet.

Dilbar writes that Mushfig was very courageous and honest, even as a child. After Mushfig lost his parents at an early age, his elderly grandmother took care of him. She sent him to a Muslim religious primary school, known as the Mollakhana. This school, which was meant for educating the poor, was located in a dark, dirty basement. The molla made the children learn the Koran by heart in Arabic. When the students failed to spell the Arabic words correctly, they were beaten with a stick. Young Mushfig hated the Mollakhana, so he wrote an angry verse about the school:

I see children sitting on the damp ground,
Who can hardly breathe here.
The ragged mat is filled with fleas,
May this Molla die on the spot!
Is he really a Molla? I can hardly believe it!

When Mushfig's grandmother found out about the verse, she warned him about his outspokenness: "If you keep this up, we'll all be lost. You're an orphan. Who will protect you?" Time ultimately proved that she was right.

During the Soviet period, Mushfig entered a secular secondary school and completed his higher education. He became attracted to the Socialist slogans of "Freedom, Equality and Fraternity" and the regime's promises that it would build a Socialist paradise for all people on earth. Mushfig along with many other Azerbaijani intellectuals embraced these Socialist ideals.

Left: Mikayil Mushfig with his wife, Dilbar Akhundzade.

In his poetry, Mushfig glorified the work of industrial workers and peasants and lauded the construction of industrial enterprises in Baku and other cities. Even though he was only in his twenties, he became famous for his poetry. He wrote numerous verses about love and beauty.

Mushfig's wife writes that he welcomed the transition from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin alphabet in Azerbaijan in the 1920s. Mushfig hoped that replacing the complicated Arabic script with the simple Latin alphabet would eliminate illiteracy in Azerbaijan and other Eastern countries. He even wrote a verse to celebrate this important event:

And at parting,
My soul wants to tell you:
"Goodbye! Your last day has come,
Wretched old alphabet!"

Mushfig was not afraid to raise his voice on other controversial matters. One of these was the Stalinists' belief that traditional Azerbaijani musical instruments should be banned, especially the tar, a 11-stringed instrument. When Stalin and the Communist leader of Azerbaijan, Mir Jafar Baghirov, decided to forbid anyone from playing the tar, Azerbaijani intellectuals were horrified.

Mushfig's wife writes: "The famous tar player Gurban Primov visited us, expressing his grave concern. 'Yes, yes, I've heard about it,' Mushfig told him. 'I can't believe it...To deprive the nation of its favorite national instrument means to deprive it of joy and condemn it to eternal sorrow.'"

Mushfig took his own tar off the wall where it was hanging and asked Gurban to play it. While Gurban was playing "Rast" [a type of mugham, or modal music], Mushfig looked pensive. Then suddenly his voice blended with the melody of the mugham:

Sing tar, sing tar!
Who can forget you?
Sing tar, sing tar!

Mushfig went on to compose a long poem about the importance of the tar, entitling it "Sing Tar, Sing!" This tribute was published and received wide acclaim from the public. The debate was won; the tar was not banned. And works were written that included tar as part of the orchestra in operatic works like Uzeyir Hajibeyov's "Koroghlu" (1937). Composer Haji Khanmammadov went on to write three concertos specifically for the tar.

Targeted for His Poems
However, the regime did not forget Mushfig's resistance and the way he had freely expressed his opinion about social issues. In meetings of the Azerbaijan Writers' Union and numerous Communist meetings, he was branded as a "chauvinist" and a "petit-bourgeois poet". Some of the literary figures who were trying to please the Stalinist regime mounted an attack on Mushfig and his poems. The consequence? His verses were scrutinized and found to reflect "anti-Soviet ideas".

Soon Mushfig's old friends and relatives started avoiding him. They knew it was politically dangerous for them to maintain close ties with someone who had been branded as an "anti-Soviet poet". Nobody dared to protect him.

His wife writes: "Only Hokuma Sultanova [a distinguished governmental official] made a weak attempt to defend him in a meeting by saying: 'We should not separate Mushfig from us by calling him a petit-bourgeois poet...He always was, and always will be, with us.' But the other participants of the meeting did not support her and kept silent out of fear."

Mushfig was puzzled by this abusive treatment. Everyone knew that he believed in Socialist ideals and faithfully served the Communist Party. But the Stalinist system did not want courageous and freethinking individuals, even those who were devoted Communists. Stalinists thought: "Today, Mushfig has dared to defend the tar-who knows what he may think of and write about tomorrow?"

Mushfig was very courageous and did not fear the repressive government machine that went on to kill and exile many Azerbaijani intellectuals. In 1931, he wrote a letter to his university friend Gahraman Suleymanzade. This letter is kept in the archives at Baku's Institute of Manuscripts. It reads:

"My dear Gahraman! You asked me to pen my memories in your album. My friend, no one is eternal in this world. Human life is shorter than the life of a flower. The flower fades and drops off just like a human who is exuberant with life, but who, perhaps, tomorrow is condemned to close his eyes forever and part with all his dreams and aspirations.

"Who knows whether he will be buried in a grave upon which grass will grow? But that's not the most terrible thingImmortality is in the hands of every human...History is a vivid witness of many immortal lives. It is possible to love all people, and every person may build up memorials of love and gratitude in the hearts of human beings. I wish you such a fate, my friend. M. Mushfig. November 27, 1931."

Courtship and Marriage
In her memoir, Dilbar recalls how she first met this sensitive poet: "The first time I saw Mushfig was at the graduation evening festivities at the Azerbaijan Pedagogical University. We chatted together. And then a long time passed.

"One day my friend Piraya approached me, smiling rather mysteriously: 'Dilbar, do you know what I've brought for you?' I looked at her in surprise.

"'Can you imagine?' She added: 'I was walking along the street one day and suddenly I saw Mushfig, an old friend of our family! He approached me and started asking me about my studies at the Pedagogical College. When he discovered that you also studied sciences there, he became very glad. He pulled a letter out of his pocket and asked me to give it to you."

"'Have you known each other for a long time?' Piraya asked me.

"I didn't answer. I opened the letter and saw that he had written me a poem. The poet remembered me from that evening when we had casually met each other for the first time.

Beloved, remember, how once suddenly,
Your eyes sparkled with the light of passion.
The scent of your hair, like the sun,
Gifted me with such great inspiration,
That I saw neither Earth, nor Sky.

"That first letter of poetry from Mushfig became a bridge that later brought us together. I intentionally do not mention the other insignificant details about how little by little we became closer to each other. Suffice it to say that we gradually developed a sense of mutual empathy for each other, which later became love."

Mushfig devoted many poems to Dilbar, and the two were married in 1931. They had no children. In 1937, Mushfig was arrested as an "Enemy of the People". He was killed shortly thereafter, in 1939. His wife was left alone. She dared not write her memoirs about their life together until many years later, long after Mushfig became "rehabilitated" following Stalin's death (1953). It seems that some of the more important aspects of his life are still left unrevealed. Dilbar writes in the beginning of her memoirs: "Mushfig was such a rare person that neither during my seven years living with him [1931-1937], nor the long years of contemplating the meaning of his life after he was arrested and killed, could I fully understand who this man truly was. My recollections of those times are those that remain from the springtime of my life."

What My Heartbeats Said
My heartbeats said:
"There's luck ahead.
Great, glorious days
That brace and daze
Are yet to come!"

There's more ahead
My heartbeats said:
"Noble work, no fret,
Toil's pearly sweat-
Are yet to come!"

My desires define:
Past times were fine"
These words I hate,
My heart says: "Wait!
The sun's hot rays,
Cool springs, bright days
Are yet to come!"

Love of Life
O how to part with this great world around,
That grows more beautiful as time goes by?
O how to part with friends, forever bound
To struggle with the earth and with the sky?

Do not become the dew at break of day,
Shine like the sun, O heart, on mornings new!
How from this world to tear myself away
That revels at the hem of skies deep blue?

Look over there-the sky seems growing light,
And friends have met beneath the morning star
O how to part with dawns that shimmer bright
Like nuggets of pure silver, shining far?

How rich is Nature, how mysterious, too,
When you disclose her secrets, engineer!
How to discard the sense, the feeling new
Attached to stones in quarries, rising sheer?

Here hawks soar high where lofty mountains loom,
There pheasants breed, and springs like mirrors gleam
The nightingales, the gardens fair, in bloom,
O how to leave this sight, this lovely dream?

With life that is an endless, lasting fight,
With kindling flames that rage in blood and heart,
With sun and moon, with morning and with night,
And with the sky's vast cupola, how to part?

O stars-the candles of each cherished thought,
O clouds-dream caravans that stir my heart,
Celestial sphere-my feelings' airy port,
With these vast azure heavens, how to part?

My cherished love appears before my eyes,
I feel the flame of my poetic art,
My burning chest must ease itself with sighs:
With her sweet raven tresses, how to part?

The nightingale is sorrowing near the rose,
Though autumn comes-it lingers to depart,
Life, life! This cry of longing ever grows:
With love, with burning passion how to part?

With feelings new, you string your singing lute
My youthful pen, now just about to start!
O friends, give answer to my pain acute:
With this great seething fire flame, how to part?

Poems translated by Olga Moisseyenk.

Azerbaijan International (10.3) Autumn 2002.
© Azerbaijan International 2003. All rights reserved.