Underground Rivers Flow Into the Sea
by Mehdi Husein (1909-1969 )
Mehdi Husein's novel "Underground Rivers Flow Into the Sea" deals with repression and exile - an experience all too common for Azerbaijanis as well as millions of others residing throughout the entire Soviet Union, especially during the Stalinist era [1924-1953]. At that time, someone could be identified as an "enemy of the people" not just for criticizing the government, but also for being a prisoner of war or for having relatives living abroad or innumerable pretenses. If a friend or relative were singled out, you also could be in jeopardy of losing your job, your apartment, your Party membership. Worse yet, you could be imprisoned, exiled or executed.
The narrator in the novel is Samira Aydin, a young engineer. Her husband Modhad has been exiled because he had been captured and taken prisoner by the Germans during World War II. Simply being married to him causes her to lose her job, her apartment and her membership in the Communist Party. In this passage, Samira has been hospitalized for heart problems and doesn't understand why the doctors won't let her go home. They simply are trying to "beat the cruel KGB system." Unfortunately, they don't succeed.
Mehdi Husein shows how many of those who were obliged to "do their job" also had a conscience and a human side to their personalities. They themselves also mourn their own imprisonment within the system.
Excerpt from the novel
I followed the doctor into the room. "Saida Khanim," I said, "I think I should leave the hospital right away."
It was so difficult to persuade her to change her mind.
"I told you already, and that's that! I don't think that you should leave now. Otherwise, you'll be sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
"For leaving the hospital. Don't you understand?"
"No, I don't. Why do you hide the reason from me as if it were a military secret?"
The doctor sighed deeply: "Samira Khanim, why do you cause us both trouble? You're asking something from me that's impossible. I don't have permission to release you."
The doctor's eyes were full of tears.
"They're hiding something from me," I thought.
I headed off to the office of the Head Physician, but he told me the same thing, "Don't insist, Samira Khanim. I am the worst person in the world if you cross me..."
Later, I understood that these people were aware of some sort of foreboding disaster and wanted to shield me and my children from it.
On the day I finally left the hospital, Saida Khanim was standing at the door of the ward. She wanted to keep me in the ward as long as possible.
I remember her words when she shook my hand goodbye: "My friends and I tried so hard. But it was impossible." So they were forced to release me from the hospital.
When I arrived home and met my children who had come home from school, something weighed heavily on my heart. My mother-in-law was not home. My daughters did not welcome my return. It seemed to me that they were afraid even to look at me. No matter how many questions I asked, they didn't answer.
In the evening Badirnisa, my mother-in-law, returned. As soon as she saw me, she scowled. "Why did they release you? I went to Saida Khanim the other day and asked her to keep you there as long as possible. Maybe it could be forgotten."
"What could be forgotten?"
"It's not unknown to God so why shouldn't you know as well? The other day two agents from the KGB came and asked for you. I told them you were in the hospital. They said, 'OK. We'll come back again another day. But don't let her leave Baku.'"
The old woman started to weep. "What do they mean by this? They have arrested the children's father. Somehow we tolerate this. But what do they want from their mother? They sent him into exile because he was captured by Germans. OK. We understand this. He was guilty and they have punished him. What does his wife have to do with this? Why is she to blame?"
She wanted to continue but was interrupted. A knock at the door startled us. I asked rather hesitatingly, "Who is it?"
Someone I didn't know came in. It seemed as if the muscles of his skinny cheeks were made of clay and his eyes, of glass. If he had not moved his lips, it would have been difficult to believe that he was a living being. With a trembling voice, he asked, "Are you Samira Aydin?"
"You must come with me."
He took a folded piece of paper out of his coat pocket. I knew it was about me.
He said, "Please, an order is an order, citizen Aydin.1 You must come alone. Leave your children with relatives."
"What if I want to take them with me?"
"There is nothing written in the order about them."
"But what if I want to take them? Are you recommending that I not take them or is this an order?"
"There is nothing written about them in the order, nor was there any verbal instruction concerning them. It is best if you don't take them."
He suddenly realized the softness of his tone and turned back. Being sure that nobody could hear him, he turned his face to me: "I don't have the right to say this, but I will. I, too, am a human being, I, too, have children. It will be great trouble both for you and your daughters."
Everybody's eyes were full of tears except mine. Rahila, the younger of my two daughters, was already crying. Kamala hugged my neck. I tried to calm them. "Come on, girls. I know it will be very difficult for you. But remember: your father and I are not guilty. Show respect to your grandmother. Study hard. We all owe our government very much. We have to pay this debt throughout life. Whether or not you are hungry and thirsty, it is not because of us."
The man was looking aside. I asked him, "What can I take with me?"
"Clothes, I mean, a dress, a jacket, a coat-something warm. Take some food. If you have money, take some money."
My mother-in-law started rummaging in the corner. She made a bundle and put it on the bed. Wrapping the rest of her money in her handkerchief, she gave it to me. I took the bundle and put my old coat over my arm. I felt like I had to tell her something. "Until now I had hoped that they would release Modhad [my husband]. But I was mistaken. Take care."
My neighbors were waiting for me in the corridor. All of them were old women. Each one was holding something. Some were offering money, some, food, and some, warm clothes.
"Take it, Samira!"
"Take it, daughter!"
"This is all I can give."
"I can only put my hope in this ring. Take it, maybe it will be of some use in a strange land..."
I was taken to the seashore, to the pier where all of the passenger ships were moored. The place was congested with people. I turned my face to the man who had brought me. "Please tell my family where I have been taken."
"OK, I will, citizen Aydin!"
"Please do, so that my mother-in-law and children won't get into trouble when searching for me."
"All right, I'll tell them."
"Where are they taking us?"
"To Central Asia." 2
"If you tell them the place I'm being sent to, I'll be deeply indebted all my life."
At that moment a man passed by and greeted the agent who had brought me to the ship. Suddenly the agent's face took on a stern, cruel look that was opposite his kind expression earlier. He waved his hand in the air and shouted: "Who do you think I am, citizen Aydin?" And then he stepped aside and whispered his last words, "OK, I will."
The ship gave a long mournful blast. They untied the thick rope from its iron moorings. The man who had delivered me looked around trying to appear casual though he was actually very attentive to every detail. With a slight gesture of his hand that only I could perceive, he wished me a safe trip, then went back across the pier and disappeared into the crowd.
1 A person who was considered an "enemy of the people" was addressed as "citizen" rather than "comrade", the esteemed form of address during the Soviet period. UP
2 During this period, many people were exiled to lesser populated regions of the Soviet Union, especially to Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes entire ethnic communities, such as Meskhetis, were relocated there by railroad box cars against their will. UP