Text 23

Abai Kunanbaev was the great poet and thinker of the Kazakh nation, the founder of the Kazakh literary language. His poetry, translations of works of Russian and West European authors, and philosophical reflections (words of edification) in their spirit, form and content marked a new stage in the history of Kazakh literature. Abai's name was included by the UNESCO Council in the list of outstanding people whose anniversary was celebrated by the world community in 1995.

Before crossing

He passed a sleepless night. It was only at dawn that Abai lay down, but feel­ing wide awake he soon returned to his desk, which was heaped with open books. Volumes in old Uzbek, a language he could freely read, jostled with others in Persian and Arabic, more difficult, and still others in Russian—even harder.

These polyglot friends had not got together on his table fortuitously. Life itself demanded of him the knowl­edge secreted in these folios. For several days Abai had been poring over them by day and night like an obsessed scholar or a devout recluse. Glancing up from the pages from time to time, he would look about, momentarily awaking to reality.

The Uzbek works carried Abai back to the flowering gardens of Shiraz; he saw the ancient tombs of Samar­kand, strolled through the orchards fringing the limpid waters of Merv and Mash-had, wandered through the fairy palaces, the madrasahs and the libraries of Herat, Ghazni and Baghdad, the land of the immortal poets. The books in Arabic and Persian conjured up scenes of the flashing scimitars with which the Arabs, Persians, Turks and Mongols settled scores in turn throughout the centuries. The Russian books disclosed the mysteries of the seas and sandy wastes of Central Asia, Persia, Arabia and the life of the great cities of barter and trade.

Abai wanted to know how these countries lived today. He made careful notes of the caravan routes and water­ways, of great cities and rich bazaars.

All such data was indispensable to a traveller about to set off on a long voyage. "What a pity it's not I who am going," Abai exclaimed again and again as he thought of all those distant lands that had filled his imagination since childhood.

The high table stood by the window. A breath of cool air came through, billowing out the weightless white of the curtain, which played with the books like a mischie­vous child, now concealing the pages from Abai's view, now wiping them as though to eradicate the written word. Abai looked up—the door was opening for the first time that morning.

It was Ulzhan shuffling in, heavy with years and short of breath. She was supported by two women. Abai sprang up and quickly spread a soft corpeh* on the floor. An ele­gant, fair-faced young woman who had entered with Ulzhan arranged the cushions. Her resemblance to Abai was striking—this was his sister Makish, who lived in Semipalatinsk. She was the daughter-in-law of Tinibai, the wealthy owner of the house in which Abai was stay­ing. Ulzhan's other companion, her life-long friend Kalikha, who had accompanied her all the way from the aul, now set a shining brass basin before her and proceeded to pour water over her hands from a long-necked Kashgar pitcher covered with delicate chasing.

Makish unfolded a low table in the middle of the spa­cious room.

“You may set the table! Bring in the food,” she called through the door.

Another of Tinibai's daughters-in-law entered. She was about the same age as Makish, a tall, fine looking woman with shining ebony hair brushed back from the temples, wearing a black velvet jacket with an embroi­dered border. She spread the cloth and arranged the table for the morning tea.

Abai removed his beshmet and began to wash. It was only now that he realized how heavy his head was. Ma­kish poured the water over his hands as attentively as for a guest.

“The water feels so good today. Pour some over my head,” he begged, bending his neck. “I must freshen up”.

Having dried her face and hands, Ulzhan looked at her son's desk and then at her son, at his pale face and red rimmed eyes.

“You've been up all night again, Abai-zhan?” she reproached him.

“No, I had a nap”.

“Don't you get your thoughts addled, sitting there with­out sleep? I remember asking Kodiga one day, “What sort of a night watchman are you? Couldn’t keep the wolf away? You must have been sleeping!” And what did he reply, 'Oh no! I couldn't have been. True, towards morning it seemed to me that the camels had twice as many humps and the wolf slipped by me with his tail be­tween his legs so that I took him for a cur. “What good will all that reading does, my dear, if the camels' humps are doubled by the morning?” Their mother's joke set brother and sister laughing.

"Right you are, Apa, but time is pressing. Father will be leaving today.

Ulzhan asked whether one could really learn the routes from the books.

*** A Brook In The City