The Old Baby
by Kamran Nazirli (born 1958)
A Short Story
Translated by Aynura
Huseinova and edited by Betty Blair.
It was nearly 7 o'clock in the
evening. The sun was about to set though the temperature was
still hot. The stuffy weather exhausted the men, who were sitting
on the rocks nearby the ditch a few steps away from the tents.
Now they were hoping that the dark and ash-colored clouds that
appeared in the sky would cool the oppressively hot summer day
- and give at least an hour's reprieve.
Everyone was expecting heavy rain. Every time the dark, ash-colored
clouds appeared in the sky, it would rain afterwards, and the
elderly people had observed that rain always followed. But this
time there was no sign of rain. Nor did the stubborn clouds let
the people watch the sunset. Nor did the wind blow. It was impossible
to predict such weather.
One of the old men finally unbuttoned the two top buttons of
his shirt. "It's impossible to breathe. We're just melting
here. What kind of weather is this?" he grumbled, looking
off into the distance at the ash-colored village at the foot
of the small, barren mountains about 30-35 kilometers away. "I
bet the weather over there in the village is wonderful. The wind
always reaches to the region of the plane trees," he continued.
Nobody heard what he was saying. Well, maybe they did, but they
didn't take him seriously because at that moment, it was not
their concern that their village had been forcefully occupied
by Armenians in 1992. For example, 60-year old Abbas, who was
sitting beside the man wearing the light summer shirt, was smoking
a "hookah" (water pipe). He focused all his attention
on the tent, straining to hear the birth cry of his first grandchild.
That was the only thing on his mind.
His daughter-in-law would soon be giving birth. But the young
woman's contractions were so strong and the pain so severe that
she had lost control1. Her screams were even causing the
other women "to climb the walls" - the tarpaulin walls
of the tent.
From time to time, the hookah-smoking man cringed, hearing the
mother - to be scream in pain. It was as if he had aged years
during those few minutes. "My steel waist is bent because
of the heat," he observed.
Ahmad, the bride's father, felt the same way - the only difference
being that he was cursing the weather as well. Squinting his
eyes, he fixed his sad gaze on the village in the far distance.
Kishilar2 had been born and lived in that Karabakh3
village: their fathers, grandfathers, forefathers had been born,
lived and died there. But in the end, Armenian troops with the
support of Russians had forced them to leave their village. They
had moved, not so far away, only about 30-35 kilometers down
on the vast plain. But, enough about these men. Let's move on.
Mammad, the bride's husband, elbowed his way onto the mat next
to a raspberry bush near the ditch. He chatted with another man,
unshaven like himself. For sure, at that moment, he wasn't thinking
about the village either.
Mammad had already gotten used to the features of these plains.
Though he was about 30 years old, he looked more like 60. This
young man, who looked so old, was about to become a father. He
would soon embrace his first child. The joy of becoming a father
would fill his heart, making him feel for that moment the happiest
man in the world.
Rafig, another young man sitting next to Mammad had snow-white
hair and was impulsively inhaling on a cigarette. He was looking
elsewhere; only God knew what he was looking at and why. If you
checked his passport, you would see that his birth date was either
1971 or 1972, but he seemed much older. Tragically, he had lost
one of his legs during the war in 1993. This one-legged man was
the brother of the young woman, who was giving birth.
After losing his leg, others no longer referred to him as "a
young person". His army mates at the war's front had nicknamed
him "Old Captain". In battles at Mughanli, Shikhbabali
and Chamanli, his mates said that he was exactly like their previous
commander Shirin. "From now on, we'll call you, 'Old Captain'.
Your hair is already white, isn't it?" And it was a true
comparison. His appearance matched his nickname. When he had
returned "home", well, actually when he returned to
the plains, everyone had started calling him "Old Captain".
Old Captain Rafig would soon become an uncle. He didn't fret
about the hot weather and heavy clouds hanging above their village.
Rafig was thinking about the sheer happiness of becoming an uncle.
He had been waiting for this joy for a long time. Now this pleasure
was blending with the cigarette smoke. The word "Amsterdam"
was written on the cigarette pack. After squishing the pack in
his hand, he exhaled the smoke through his nose and mouth. These
cigarettes had been brought in yesterday as part of the humanitarian
aid. But who knew what had been mixed in with the tobacco to
form such crooked small puffs in the air. Rafig really didn't
appear to be enjoying it.
Old Captain turned to his sister's husband: "It smells like
spoiled milk," he said, pointing to the cigarette. "The
first time I smoked one like this, even Astra4 seemed much better. You could feel
it immediately right after the first puff. With these, you have
to smoke a whole pack to feel anything."
The brother-in-law didn't reply. He sat down on the ground, listening
to the frogs in the ditch. No, he wanted to hear something else
in the water. There was something in there, very different. He
didn't even know himself what kind of sound he wanted to hear.
Of course, he had heard the croaking of these frogs night and
day. He was already so bored with it.
One of the women ran out of the tent and yelled at the little
boy, sitting on a rock on the side of a ditch who was dangling
his legs in water: "Hey, Vidi, fill this pail with water
and bring it back to me. Hurry up!"
It was as if the little boy was expecting his mother to charge
into him. He grabbed the pail and ran towards the ditch.
Hookah-smoking Abbas got up from the rock and turned to his wife:
"Hey Tarlan, how's it going?"
"So bad. I don't know why the "mamatcha"5
doesn't come? Her contractions are much stronger now. The poor
girl is so exhausted."
Mammad suddenly turned to his mother and stopped listening to
the sounds in the ditch.
"Mom, Rizvan will bring a midwife soon. Ask her to have
a little more patience."
Tarlan took the pail of water from the child and went into the
tent. She didn't even pay attention to her son's voice.
Vidadi, proud of being helpful to his grandmother, came back
and sat back down on the same rock.
One-legged Old Captain called the child: "Vidi, go buy a
pack of cigarettes for me - either Baku or Karabakh. Tell the
store owner to put it on the my list and I'll pay him later6."
The child ran up the grassy footpath along the ditch. That same
moment Tarlan rushed out of the tent again, looked around and
shouted at her son: "Where did you send the child?"
"I sent him for cigarettes", the one-legged man answered
for his brother-in law.
"Who's going to fill this then?" Tarlan asked, pointing
at the empty pail in her hands.
Mammad, the husband of the young woman giving birth, stood up
and took the pail from the woman and reluctantly crossed to the
other side of the ditch. Old Captain stood up as well and took
his cane. He approached the woman: "Aunt
Tarlan, so how's it going now?"
"God help us! Let's see what happens! Inshallah7
she'll deliver safely by the night." Tarlan answered in
a consoling tone to the one-legged man, whose skin had turned
dark like coal.
She got angry when she saw the one-legged man smoking a cigarette
so intently. "Hey, what do you find in that damn thing?
That poison almost killed you! Look at yourself to see what it
did to you! You're just skin and bones now!"
Old Captain smiled and said: "I'll quit right after the
child is born."
Suddenly, lightning struck in the distance over the village at
the foot of the small barren mountains. The thunder sounded like
the neigh of a horse. Ahmad kishi breathed, "Thank God,"
and looked around at the people as if he were congratulating
them with his eyes. Abbas, who was standing next to him, didn't
move. It was as if he wanted to say that this was a false sign
and not to believe it. Actually, he was right. There was only
one bolt of lightning: the sky neighed only once. Things turned
out to be the same again - same weather, same black heavy clouds,
same water moving calmly in the ditch accompanied by croaking
A scream was heard in the tent expressing such excruciating pain
that everybody's hair stood on end.
The young woman was not able to give birth. She was crying and
screaming. One of the women tried to calm her down.
"Pull yourself together, my dear, please, push with all
your might! Once more, darlingYes, yes. Don't be afraid, "light
of my eyes". Don't be scared! God will help you! Make one
more push and you'll be free! Be patient, darling. God will pave
Everyone was waiting - relatives, neighbors and friends. Why
were they waiting so anxiously? What would change when the child
was born? They had been wanting this baby for seven years8.
For seven long years, the young woman Manzar had not been able
to conceive. She had lived with her husband on the - sometimes
wet, sometimes frozen, and sometimes smelly - ground in a tent,
taking care of her father-in-law and mother-in-law, sister, brother
and mother living in the same tent. All the while, inside, she
was screaming and crying.
Last winter she had said that she felt somewhat different. She
was having headaches and vomiting. Mammad, her husband, didn't
take her seriously, but Sughra khala9, Manzar's mother, understood right
away. She didn't tell anyone and commented only that it was probably
because of the Sana10 butter or the corn oil brought in as
part of the humanitarian aid a couple of days ago11. Neighbor Sakina's family had also
felt bad after eating that corn oil. The children had vomited
and drunk water until morning. Nobody knew what that corn oil
really had in it.
Day by day, Manzar began to feel the changes taking place in
her body. It became more and more evident that after waiting
for seven years, she was finally pregnant. She felt really pleased
as her belly grew larger. Sometimes she cried or looked sadly
towards the village that lay snuggled in the foothills of those
Armenian soldiers were occupying their mountain village. Azerbaijani
soldiers were positioned about 10 kilometers from it down on
the slopes. It wasn't difficult for the Armenians to view the
entire plains from that height and to target the people, and
officially now they couldn't shoot because of the ceasefire.
However, shooting would break out, and our soldiers returned
the fire. Thus after one or two hours of shelling, both sides
would stop fighting and smoke would rise from the village. After
someone's building or haystacks burned, the smoke still floated
in the sky. Eventually it would disappear.
The people living in tents said the Armenians didn't care about
these houses because it wasn't their village. They didn't have
to work so hard to build them, so why should they feel bad when
the houses burned down. Everyone knew if there were a fire in
any of the houses where the owner no longer lived, it would slowly
burn all the way to the ground.
Old Captain said the Armenians were doing it on purpose, like
"Hey Turks, look and see how your homes are burning to ashes
right in front of your eyes!"
Sometimes when the weather was hellish, Old Captain would suddenly
become infuriated. He would head off to the trench and reprimand
the soldiers, accusing them of not being "kishi" (courageous
men): "Why are you waiting? Fight back!
You're not brave! Give me that gun, I'll go to the front myself!"
Life here was like that.
When Manzar's family fled the village, they weren't able to take
anything along with them. They barely managed to flee. And what
places hadn't they lived in during those first months - a train
boxcar, a tent, a cowshed, a half-dilapidated school building.
Finally, the elders of the village had made up their mind and
settled on the plains. Representatives from the State Refugee
Committee came and said they couldn't live there, as there was
no communication facility in the area: it didn't matter that
there was an irrigation ditch nearby. Furthermore, they said
this place was dangerous because it was only 30 kilometers from
the frontline. But Mammad's father, the hookah-smoking man, took
a stand and said that they could kill him and his family, because
they wanted to settle close to their old village. It was his
hope that they would soon drive out the Armenians and take back
their native land. But all the "todays and tomorrows"
had stretched into nine long years.
Manzar, who was writhing in pain under the dim light of an oil
lamp, could never have imagined that she would give birth in
a tent, with no medical aid or anesthesia, and not even a midwife.
Although she had waited seven years for this baby, and had had
to absorb all the pain, suffering, cold weather and painful expectations
of these seven years, she always held on to hope inside her that
something would happen. Life couldn't continue like this forever.
It was because of this hope that she was able to bear all these
pains. Sometimes, they couldn't even find anything to eat. At
those moments, she still said it was God's will and that whatever
He advised would be acceptable to them.
From time to time, Manzar's mother, her mother-in-law, and her
husband's brother and Vidadi had also joined them in this small
tent. There was a curtain down the middle of the single space:
men slept on one side, women on the other.
For these seven years of marriage, Manzar had not been able to
spend enough nights with her husband. Sometimes the situation
upset both of them so much that they couldn't calm their nerves.
Manzar didn't speak up because she couldn't, as she couldn't
get pregnant. Somehow, they felt that if they had had a child,
the days would pass easier. They had consulted nearly all the
fortunetellers from Aghjabadi to Ganja and had spent so much
money, but nothing had helped. One had said the wife's kidneys
were sick; another, that it was the husband's kidneys. In the
end, each fortuneteller had found different reasons for the infertility.
Meanwhile, the young couple had grown much older at such an early
Manzar's face had become wrinkled; her fingers, rough and her
hair, white. How old was she? Only 25! Her husband had aged as
well. Mammad looked like an old man, carrying the heaviest burden
of the world on his shoulders. He always went around unshaven.
Just as Manzar and her husband appeared older than their age,
close relatives and others around them had also aged as well.
Nearly everyone appeared much older than they were. These old
men and old grannies didn't care about their homeland on this
strange summer night; nor were they concerned about the humid
weather. They were waiting for the birth of this child. This
birth was much more important to them than anything else.
Manzar's mother, Sughra khala left the tent. She didn't scream
at anybody this time. Carrying a big round pan, she headed to
the ditch. Having seen his mother-in-law soaked in sweat, Mammad
quickly jumped up. Suddenly, he didn't comprehend if she was
his mother-in-law or not. Oh God, at that moment, Manzar's 50-year
old mother, whose daughter was writhing in pain lying alone there
in that tent, looked like a 90-year-old granny. How she had aged
during those few hours! Mammad thought for a minute that she
always looked like this; maybe he had not paid special attention
to her; but no, she was not! She was an active woman who still
could wash clothes by hand and skillfully build a fire and bake
bread in the tandir oven12.
Again screams and sobs were coming from inside the tent: "God,
I'm dying! Ayy! Mother, help me, I'm dying! Off! God! God Ayy!
Momma, help me! I'm really dying!"
"Don't be afraid, darling. Have more patience! May God pass
your pain to me! May God sacrifice me for you."
"Manzar, may all your troubles come to me, your sister,
push once more, and you'll be free!"
Manzar's mother hurriedly entered the tent again. The hookah-smoking
man turned to the man with the worn shirt: "I need some
fresh air, Ahmad. Let's take a walk."
Both of them moved away from the tent. Dim light from oil lamps
could be seen from other tents in the distance. Night, looking
like a black curtain hanging in the sky, had arrived earlier
than usual. Only a strong downpour could have torn down this
curtain, but that was not likely to happen - for the rain to
pour down and save these people from this hellish heat. As the
two men got further away, light appeared like a cigarette glow,
but it was only the weak lamplight coming from inside the tents.
Abbas asked his son's father-in-law: "So you were saying
Rizvan just came back from the city, right?"
"Yesthey say it's damn hot over there, too. The heat is
just melting people," said Ahmad.
"It can't be anything like the weather we have here!"
"I'm saying we'll never be able to return to our village
"Don't say that, Ahmad, Don't say negative things. It isn't
good. That OSCE13 or whatever it's called - that damned
organization has come again. They've even come down here. Do
you know what that Mushtaba's newspaper14 wrote again? They are right here, close
to us in Khankandi15...let's see what these dighas16
will say now," said Abbas.
"Hey, I'm telling you, if "The Man"17
doesn't take back the territories,18 nobody else will ever be able to do
it! Neither the OSCE, Russia nor America! All of them are nothing
in comparison to The Man. I know he's able to solve this problem
in a minute. I bet he can wipe out these Armenian dighas anyway.
But why hasn't it happened yet. I don't understand."
"It's not so easy to solve, Ahmad. There's stuff we don't
know. God help us. I'm saying we both will be grandfathers soon.
Maybe our grandson's arrival will be a good sign. Inshallah!"
"May God hear you. Hey, Abbas, I wish the radio would say
that our army had liberated Karabakh right after our grandson's
birth. You know what I would do? I swear, I would grab my grandson
and walk to the village on foot, even barefoot. Thirty kilometers
is nothing. Then I would slaughter a ram in my yard."
"I would sacrifice a ram, too, I swear. You talked with
so much confidence that I started to feel good. Let's get back
and see why this stubborn baby doesn't want to come to the hearth.
My throat is really dried up; I swear I'll drink till morning
They walked back along the same path without saying a word. Again
the same sounds were coming from the tent.
"I beg you, my dear. A little more patience!" said
Manzar's sister, Mahizar.
"God will help you! It's right on the edge. One more push.
Good, good. I see its head."
"Azz,19 stand back a bit. Azz, bring the pan.
Yes, God will help you."
"Azz, change the cloth. It's right there. Give me a clean
one," ordered Sughra khala.
"Here it is finally, Mashallahjust like his grandpa!"
The grandpas listened attentively. Both were pleased; though
both were confused. Which of them did Tarlan mean? At the same
time, they both understood it was a boy. Actually, after that
no other sound came from the tent. Nobody wanted to break the
silence. The wife didn't scream any more, the women suddenly
stopped talking. The baby wasn't crying. What was happening?
Abbas lost his patience and called his son: "Hey son, where's
"He hasn't returned from Latif's shop yet," answered
"But where did Rafig go?" said Ahmad.
"He went to find Vidi."
"Hey son, Mammad, what's happening over there? Why don't
they come out of the tent?" asked Abbas kishi, wiping the
sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.
Aunt Tarlan rushed out of the tent and hurried to the ditch with
the empty pail. Mammad didn't let her. He grabbed the pail himself,
understanding that something serious was happening inside. He
ran towards the ditch. The woman was so frantic; she couldn't
talk and almost stumbled.
"Hey woman, what's happening, why don't you speak?"
"God help us. What was that?"
"Congratulations! We'll keep our word now. We'll have to
drink till the morning, right?" happily Abbas interrupted
"Just wait, the girl's health is in danger. What happened
The grandparents became anxious again. Sughra khala came out
of the tent now.
"Azz, Tarlan come herewhat kind of child is this?"
Both grandmothers ran towards the tent. Again some sounds started
to come from inside the tent.
"Azz, how are you now? You're finished with the help of
The grandparents smiled.
"Azz, Tarlan, what kind of child is this? It doesn't even
cry! Azz, bring that lamp little closer! Azz, get out, ask Mammad
to call Sakina and bring their lamp as well," Aunt Sughra
told her younger daughter Mahizar.
Mammad immediately ran towards the tent of neighbor Sakina who
soon came with a lamp in her hands.
"Azz, thank God.azz, why isn't this child crying?"
The grandparents again got worried.
The baby didn't ever cry. But he was alive, his eyes were closed,
they were wiping him clean. It didn't cry. Suddenly one of the
women cried out: "Azz! Bismillah!20 What kind of child is this, really?"
"By God, what is it?"
The grandparents and the young father couldn't stand by quietly
any more. This conversation of the women inside the tent really
"Azz, Tarlan, Why is his forehead so strange?"
"Allah, Allah, Why are his fingers so unusual, azz?"
"Bismillah, azz, the hair on his head is white. Azz, what
is this? Hey, Abbas, hey Mammad!"
The men immediately rushed into the tent. Everyone was stunned
by the women's words. They had wrapped the baby in a white cloth.
His hair looked white in the light of the lamp. He had deep wrinkles
on his face and forehead, just like an old man.
Abbas kishi remained calm: "Azz, what's up with this child?
He's just marvelous!" he said, as if he wanted to console
his daughter-in-law, who was lying down on the other side of
the tent, that things were fine and that she had no need to worry.
But the women didn't seem to understand what the man was trying
to do. They were gazing at the baby in astonishment.
The grandfathers left the tent. Mammad didn't know what to do.
He had never seen any baby who had just been born. He thought
that all babies in the world looked like that. He thought of
a name for the baby. Well, probably not its real name, but at
least, an appropriate nickname: "Old Baby!"
Mammad came out of the tent as well and saw that people from
the neighboring tents had gathered. Those who entered the tent
came out with a look of shock on their faces.
"It's a miracle of God!" they said.
"The child looks like an old man!"
"God help us. This child doesn't even cry!"
But on that summer day, Ahmad's nephew Rizvan came without a
midwife. He said that "Mamatcha" Susan had gone to
another refugee tent in Saatli. Someone else was giving birth
there as well!
Old Captain and Vidadi also came. The relatives had all gathered
in the tent. They didn't know whether to congratulate or console
one another. It could be seen from their faces that this was
the first time that they had even seen or heard of a baby being
born, looking like an old person.
It didn't rain that morning. There was no relief from the hot,
stuffy air. It was even worse inside the tent. Manzar woke up.
She held the baby to her breast, swollen with milk. But the child
made no effort to suckle.
When the child woke up, he would probably suck and so vigorously
that the wrinkles on his forehead would disappear. Last night
Manzar herself had heard neighbor Sakina talk about it. Sakina,
who had some medical knowledge, said that the only remedy for
the baby would be its mother's milk.
Often in such situations, women have no choice but to give birth
without access to pain killers and anaesthesia.It's a very common
situation in the refugee camps.
Kishilar means "men" in Azeri, but implies brave men
who have dignity and who always keep their promises.
Karabakh is a mountainous region located in Western Azerbaijan,
which has been occupied by Armenian military forces since 1992.
Astra cigarettes were the cheapest and lowest grade of cigarettes
available during Soviet times.
«Mamatcha" means "midwife". As it is difficult
to find a professional doctor in rural areas or refugee camps,
often rely on midwives when they give birth.
Storeowner's list. It's a usual practice in refugee camps for
customers and the countryside for people who only get a small
stipend from the government and who don't have work to charge
their accounts and pay them off gradually as they can.
Inshallah means «If God permits» or «If God
They waited for seven years. Traditionally, Azerbaijani couples
have a baby the first year of marriage.
«Khala» means aunt - mother's sister.
Sana Butter is really margarine, which is widely used in Azerbaijan
and, in this case was sent as part of the meager rations that
refugees receive as humanitarian aid.
This story, written in 2003, is one of the first to admit that
refugees were often disgruntled about the poor quality of humanitarian
aid that they received.
A tandir is a round clay oven built into the ground. These ovens
are open at the top. A fire is built inside from twigs or branches.
When the clay walls become hot, the flattened dough is slapped
up against the inside walls and bakes in a few minutes.
The OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe)
is comprised of 52 member states. The OSCE Minsk Group has been
charged with the responsibility of finding a peaceful and permanent
resolution to Nagorno-Karabakh problem between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This international committee began its work in 1992. Russia,
France and the U.S. co-chair this committee. Eleven years later
when this story was written, no significant progress had been
made to bring an end to the Karabakh war.
Mushtaba is the name of the owner of a newspaper.
Khankandi is the main governmental center in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenians, who presently hold this town under occupation, refer
to it as Stepanakert. The Azeri name «Khankandi»
dates back centuries.
In Armenian, «digha» simply means «man or fellow».
But in Azeri, the term is used negatively to refer to an Armenian.
"The Man" refers to the late President Heydar Aliyev,
who worked hard to try to bring a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict. Since this story was written, he has since passed away
Territories refers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven regions
surrounding Karabakh which are currently held militarily by Armenians.
This area comprises about 15 percent of all of Azerbaijan's territory.
Azz means "Hey girl!" is a term used only among women
who are close to each other. It is very informal. It would not
be considered polite to call a girl by this term if did not know
"Bismillah" is an expression of surprise, it literraly
means «In the name of God."
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