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Published Book or Work by:

Samad Safarov

September 10

September 10
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Published by A Stranger Among Us, Other Voices

By Rashad Majid

Translated by Samed Aydin.

Leaving the hospital, Rza went toward his car. It was a Zhiguli 06 he’d acquired by entering his name in a queue during the Soviet period. He took the “TAXI” board from between front seats and fixed it on the roof of the car. He had come to the hospital to see the surgeon. His middle daughter needed an operation, and every doctor he had talked to told him that it would cost no less than $300. An old friend had recommended this military surgeon saying, “He is a professional, but he is not a greedy man.”

Their talk was not so bad, indeed. They agreed on a $100 fee, with $50 for the doctor’s assistants. Rza had $100 already. When the first doctors described to him the importance of the operation, he cut down on everything, even the children’s food, and saved dollar-by-dollar. Now he just needed to find fifty dollars more.

He reached the Narimanov underground station and thought maybe he should hurry on to share the news with his wife, that the operation seemed within reach. But there were no other taxis in sight at the car park. If he stopped there would be a fare.

The car park had been his best place for years now. The plant at the end of the street—the place he had worked for seventeen years, receiving awards for his service-- had reduced its production gradually then shut down. His neighbor, Islam, had worked at the Azerbajain Trade Center Base. A rich man then, he had helped his neighbors, sold goods for them without profit. When the base closed, he had to make his living driving a taxi. When the plant closed, Rza took Islam’s advice and did the same. At first, he was a bit shy. Sometimes his fares were friends or people he knew, and he did not like to take money from them. As time passed, he got used to it. He found new comrades and workmates in the car park. There were former workers from the district committee, engineers and doctors among them.

A tap on the windshield brought Rza back from deep thought, and he saw two Americans, a short, stout man and a medium-sized, thin woman, both holding full grocery bags. Rza reached back and opened the rear door.

“Please, please,” the woman said. She gave an address in the direction of the city, and he turned toward Moscow Avenue. In the rear-view mirror, he saw the man take a baklava out of the grocery bag. They are always eating, he thought. Americans barely chewed the pastry, but swallowed each piece nearly whole.

He drove into the city, stopped in front of high building, a new construction, on the woman’s order. She gave him a ten-thousand manat bill, the customary fare, thanked him, and hurried away. The man was still eating, and got out with difficulty, dragging the bags. Rza watched them walk toward the entrance, then drove toward home.

Two months after his marriage, Rza’s father had given him the money he collected from selling his cows and sheep, so he could buy the small shack where his family still lived. There were two rooms, a little kitchen, and a yard that could hold his car. Later he’d built the toilet in the entrance of his yard. Reaching the gate, he honked the horn and his wife came outside and opened it.

He told her about the military surgeon, feeling glad again, and after dinner, went into the back room to sleep. A window faced his neighbor’s yard, and often the rattle of dishes, the babble of water, and children’s noises kept him awake. But it was silent now. Maybe his wife told them he needed rest. They were aware of her talent from God and wanted to please her.

His wife had worked as a kindergarten teacher during the Soviet period. Then there were mainly books about Lenin in the schools, but when the state was about to collapse, somebody brought religious books from Iran, with large Cyrillic print, and presented them to the kindergarten. This was around the time the plant shut down. When the kindergarten also closed, his wife brought the books into their home. It seemed strange to him to see her reading them for hours at a time. She sometimes spoke about the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Often her comments—those about hellish fire waiting for non-believers—had frightened him.

Rza remembered the party card that his wife brought in her dowry trunk—and his own, too. When Russian troops entered Baku and killed unarmed people, he blamed Gorbachov, not the party. When Yeltsin stopped the party’s activity with a decree, he refused to throw away his card. He believed in the return of communism. Surely, such a huge state could not collapse so easily, he thought. In time, life would be as it had been before.

But things did not change and, little by little, the number of religious books increased. His wife began covering her head when she went out. Sometimes women from the neighborhood came to the house to pray; then unfamiliar women came too. One day his wife told him that, in a dream, a saintly man in a white turban gave her something in a gleaming gold basin to drink and, waking up in the morning, she knew extraordinary things.

Unemployment and poverty had caused these changes in his wife, he believed. Still, he was angry with her. He demanded she stop interfering with the lives of their neighbors and inviting strange women to their home.

Then Islam invited him to a teahouse. Totally changed from the fun-loving person he had been, Islam had given up drinking and spent time at the mosque. He wore the short beard favored by religious men. When Rza described his wife’s dream, Islam said that God granted such gifts only to righteous, honest people.

“Let her help her neighbors,” he said. “It will be pleasing to God.”

He gave him Rza advice as well. “Give up drinking, my friend, throw away your party card. Remove anything bad from your house.”

He suggested Rza go on a Hadj pilgrimage to cleanse his soul.

Rza did not go on the pilgrimage, but in time believed in his wife’s extraordinary ability. In a dream, she had seen their middle daughter sick and, in two week’s time, the girl wasn’t eating, was getting thin. The first doctor said one of her kidneys must be removed. Two more told him the same thing. He recognized power in his wife then and felt a bit afraid.

When he woke from his nap it was nearly five. He washed his hands and face and returned the kitchen for News at Five on Space TV. The program began with a report on the return of the Karabakh Armenians to Baku for an international conference the next day, 11 September. Rza watched bitterly, remembering the Karabakh Liberation Organization’s protest, their refusal to meet with opposition parties. The West should not interfere with our problems, he thought. They do not know us. He turned away from the television to drink tea his wife had prepared for him, and noticed a yellow handbag on the table.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Our girls found it in your car.”

“Did they open it?”

“I closed it and put it there.”

Raz opened the handbag and put its contents on the table. A comb, a credit card, a few thousand and ten-thousand manat bills, and seventeen one-hundred-dollar bills.

His wife watched him; his daughters stood by door. He looked at his middle daughter and smiled. “It belongs to the American couple I picked up earlier,” he told them. “I must return it.”

His daughters stepped inside. His wife picked up the tea and said, “It has gone cold. Let me change it.”

He drank the hot tea, then left the house with the handbag. In his heart, he believed that the couple would be so glad to see him that they would give one of the hundred-dollar bills. He would have the money for his daughter’s operation to present the doctor tomorrow.

On his way to their apartment, he stopped at the car park by the Underground. The taxi drivers made a habit of leaving their doors open while they talked in the shade of the nearby trees, so that the inside of their cars would not get hot as they waited for clients. Akif and the man they called “Doctor” stood up as soon as they saw him.

Akif spoke first, “Two Americans came looking for you and left their visiting card. They had a translator, too. He said they got into a red Zhiguli and left a woman’s handbag there, that the driver was black-moustached and short. Is there anything in the handbag?”

Rza was about to answer when Doctor interrupted him.

“They would not have come without good reason. An American will not trouble himself for every trifle. I’m guessing there is a thousand dollars in that handbag. They should give you at least a hundred when you take it back,” he smiled. “You must give a little banquet for this reason.”

“I am on my way to give it back to them”

Akif held out the visiting card. “I remember the address,” Rza said, but took it anyway. The card was in English, of course. He read the name “Jim” easily, but could not read the surname. There was a map on the back of the card, with an arrow indicating floor eleven of their building.

“Do not forget the banquet!” Doctor said.

“Be sure I will give you the banquet, if they give me a hundred dollars!” Rza said.

He got into his car and drove towards Baksoviet, to the building where the Americans lived. It was surrounded with an iron fence, so he approached the guardhouse on foot. He showed the visiting card to the tall security man dressed in black, and explained why he was there. The man looked at the card, went into the guardhouse, and talked to someone on the phone. “Enter the lift and go to the eleventh floor,” he said when he came out. “They are waiting for you.”

Rza squeezed the handbag as he went upstairs. One of the two doors on the corridor was half-open, sound coming from inside. He pushed the door open a bit farther. The stout man was there, holding a small dog in his arms, smoothing its curly fur. “Please wait,” he said.

He disappeared and returned with the woman. Rza held out the handbag to her. She took it quickly, opened it, checked everything. She counted the dollars and said, “Right.” She replaced the money in her purse and held out her hand to him. “Thank you,” she said. “I am grateful.”

He let go of the woman’s thin, wrinkled hand, and she closed the door. He stood dazed for a long time before turning away. He pushed the elevator button. Waiting, he imagined his wife’s face, the face of his middle daughter when he told them the news. He thought of the banquet he had promised his friends waiting underneath a tree. He should have denied finding the handbag, he thought. Who could have proven that it had been left in his car? He felt sick at the thought of it—and foolish for having so many times argued against his friends, who believed Americans came to Azerbajain only for their own benefit, only interested in oil.

His friends were still there, under the tree.

They stood, glad to see him.

Akif asked, “How was it? Did they give anything?”

“Yes,” he lied. “They gave me one-hundred dollars.”

“Ah, now we are going to celebrate?” Doctor said.

“Let me put away the car first.”

“You want to drink I see,” said Akif, smiling.

Rza did not answer.

He drove home and left the car at the gate, unwilling to take the trouble to drive it into the yard. When he entered the house, his wife asked, “How was it?”

“They gave me nothing,” he said, and turned away from her.

He took off his shoes and entered the bedroom. He opened the built-in cupboard,

and from the top drawer counted out ten thousand-manat bills and put them into his

pocket. As he put his shoes back on, his wife asked, “Are you going somewhere?”

“I must give a little banquet to the friends,” he said.

It was written on his wife’s face that she was angry, but Rza walked out the door and got into Akif’s car.

They went to their usual café, ordered kebab, waited for Doctor. Vagif was his real name, Rza remembered. A graduate of the Medical University, a children’s doctor, who found no profit in it. For a time, he imported foreign goods, but went bankrupt like Islam. Akif had earned a degree in history at the University and worked at the Historical Institute. When the Soviet Union collapsed he was about to defend his thesis. History forgotten, he’d been driving his taxi for fifteen years.

Akif and Doctor drank the first three toasts to Rza, his family, and his middle daughter. The bottle was nearly empty when Rza raised his glass. “I want to drink to our nation,” he said. “Anybody would have rewarded me with one-hundred dollars. I returned seventeen-hundred to them. But the Americans did not give even ten-thousand manat. They looked at me as if I were indebted to them. A Russian would give, a German would give.” Rza stopped, scratched his head. “An Armenian would give, as well. But the Americans ...”

Doctor and Akif looked at each other in astonishment, then at the fatty tail and Lule kebab getting cold. Rza went on. “Don’t reproach me! I gave this banquet because I never break a promise. I will find money for my daughter’s operation. I used to say, you have never known an American so you cannot know what they are like. Why do you speak against them?

Today I learned it is not so simple. They collapsed the Soviet Union—such a good state—and made us slaves to their benefits. Now they come to take away our oil, and do this as they look down on us. They won’t even help to get back Karabakh.”

Rza raised his hand. “Malay, bring one more bottle of vodka.”

Akif fidgeted in his place. Doctor started to say something.

“No,” Rza said. “Let’s just drink today.”

It was after midnight when they left the cafe. Akif stopped at the gate. Rza continued his words against America until Akif managed to talk him out of the car.

“What if I put your car into the yard for you?” he asked.

Rza refused. He searched for the key in his pocket so that he could do it himself. His wife came to the door. She said nothing, though he knew she had intended to remind him about the stealing in their neighborhood.

“Let it remain there,” he said.

He went inside, threw himself onto the bed.

“Don’t take it to heart. Everything will be all right,” said his wife.

At first Rza only pretended to sleep.

In the morning, he felt a dull pain in his head. His wife was sitting opposite him on the bed. “I had a terrible dream,” she said, shaking, “of huge buildings on fire.”

“Have you checked the car?” Rza asked.

“The car is okay.”

“What about the girls?”

“They are fine. But something terrible is coming. I beg you …”

“I will give up the drinking,” he said.

“I am very afraid …” she continued.

Rza looked into her eyes. He realized he wanted to know more about her fears, to share them, to see the fire in his wife’s dreams. “We will get up and go to the mosque,” he said.

He noticed her hands still trembling.

Short Story
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