Abai Kunanbaev “Book of words” – (1-10)
WORD ONE Whether for good or ill, I have lived my life, travelling a long road fraught with struggles and quarrels, disputes and arguments, suffering and anxiety, and reached these advanced years to find myself at the end of my tether, tired of everything. I have realized the vanity and futility of my labors and the meanness of my existence. What shall I occupy myself with now and how shall I live out the rest of my days? I am puzzled that I can find no answer to this question.
Rule the people? No, the people are ungovernable. Let this burden be shouldered by someone who is willing to contract an incurable malady, or else by an ardent youth with a burning heart. But may Allah spare me this load which is beyond my powers! Shall I multiply the herds? No, I cannot do that. Let the young folk raise livestock if they need them. But I shall not darken the evening of my days by tending livestock to give joy to rogues, thieves and spongers.
Occupy myself with learning? But how shall I engage in scholarship when I have no one to exchange an intelligent word with? And then to whom shall I pass on the knowledge I will have amassed? Whom shall I ask what I do not know myself? What’s the good of sitting on a desolate steppe with an arshin in hand trying to sell cloth? Too much knowledge becomes gall and wormwood that hastens old age if you have no one by your side to share your joys and sorrows. Choose the path of the Sufi and dedicate myself to the service of religion? No, I’m afraid that won’t do either. This vocation calls for serenity and complete peace of mind. But I have not known peace either in my soul or in my life-and what sort of piety can there be amongst these people, in this land!
Educate children, maybe? No, this, too, is beyond my powers. I could instruct children, true, but I don’t know what I should teach them and how.
For what occupation, for what purpose and for what kind of community am I to educate them? How can I instruct them and direct their paths if I don’t see where my pupils could usefully apply their learning? And so here, too, I have been unable to put myself to any good use.
Well, I have decided at length: henceforth, pen and paper shall be my only solace, and I shall set down mythoughts. Should anyone find something useful here, lethim copy it down or memorise it. And if no one has anyneed of my words, they will remain with me anyway. And now I have no other concern than that.
WORD TWO In my childhood I used to hear the Kazakhs jeering at the Uzbeks: “You Starts in wide skirts, you bring your rushes from afar to thatch your roofs! You bow and scrape when you meet someone, but you insult him behind his back. You are afraid of every bush; you rattle on without stopping, and that’s why they call you Sart-Surts.”
Encountering Nogais, the Kazakhs would ridicule and scold them, too: “The Nogai is afraid of the camel, he soon gets tired astride a horse and takes his rest walking. Runaways and soldiers and traders - all of them hail from the Nogais. Nokai is what you should be called, not Nogai!”
About the Russians they used to say: “The red-headed Urus, once he spies an aul, gallops fit to break his neck towards it, permits himself to do whatever comes into his head, demands to hear all the rumours and gossip, and believes everything he is told.”
“My God!” I thought then with pride. “It turns out that the whole wide world has no worthier and nobler people than the Kazakhs!” Such talk rejoiced and entertained me. But this is what I see now: there is no plant that the Sarts cannot grow, no land that their merchants have not visited, and no such thing that their nimble fingers cannot contrive. Their laymen live in peace and seek no enmity. Before there were any Russian merchants around, the Sarts provided the Kazakhs with clothes for the living and burial robes for the dead, and they would buy up from the Kazakhs droves of cattle that father and son could not agree to divide between themselves. Now, under the Russians, the Sarts have adopted the innovations more quickly than others. Exalted beys and learnt mullahs, craftsmanship and luxury and courtesy-the Sarts have all these.
I look at the Nogais and see that they can make fine soldiers and that they bear deprivation stoically. They face death with humility, protect schools and honour religion - they know how to work hard and grow rich, and to dress up and have fun. Not we Kazakhs, though: we labour for their beys for a crust of bread. They will not let our beys into their homes. “Hey, you Kazakhs,” they say, “our floor is not for your dirty boots to trample on.”
I will not speak of the Russians. We cannot hold a candle even to their servants. Where has all our erstwhile joyfulness gone? Where is our merry laughter?
WORD THREE Where lies the cause of the estrange¬ment amongst the Kazakhs, of their hostility and ill will towards one another? Why are they insincere in their speech, so lazy, and possessed by a lust for power?
The wise of this world long ago observed: a sluggard is, as a rule, cowardly and weak-willed; a weak-willed man is cowardly and boastful; a braggart is cowardly, stupid and ignorant; an ignoramus has no inkling of honour, while a dishonourable person sponges on the sluggard - he is insatiable, unbridled and good-for-nothing; he bears no good will towards the people around him.
The source of these vices is our people’s preoccupation with one thing alone: to own as much livestock as possible and thus gain honour and respect. Had they taken up arable farming or commerce, had they been interested in learning and art, this would never have come to pass.
Parents, having increased their own herds, will do their best to ensure that their children’s herds grow ever fatter, so that the livestock can be left in the care of herdsmen and they can indulge in a life of idleness - gorge themselves on meat and koumiss, enjoy beautiful women, and feast their eyes on fast horses.
Eventually, their winter pastures and grassland become too small and, using their influence or position, they will by hook or by crook buy up, wheedle or seize pastureland from a neighbour. That person, fleeced as he is, will in turn put pressure on another neighbour, or else will have to leave his native region. Now, can these people possibly wish one another well?
The more poor there are, the cheaper their labour. The more numerous the destitute, the more abundant the free winter pasturage. My neighbour is eager for my ruin, and I am eager for him to fall into penury. Little by little, our concealed animosity grows into an open and bitter enmity. We bear malice, we litigate, we split into cliques and bribe influential people for support, so as to gain an advantage over our opponents, and we scramble for the emoluments of rank.
A loser will not toil and sweat - he will seek affluence in other, devious ways; he will show no interest in either commerce or tilling the land - he will side now with one, now with another party, selling himself and existing in misery and disgrace. There is no end to pillage on the steppe. If there were unity amongst our people, they would never condone a thief who, making adroit use of the support of one group or another, continues his brazen robbery.
Honest sons of the steppes are the victims of criminal charges based on false accusations, and are subjected to humiliating interrogations. Witnesses are produced ready to swear to what they have never seen or heard. And all this in order smear an honest person and bar him from high office. If the persecuted man, to save himself, turns for aid to these same rascals, he will sacrifice his honour; if he refuses to bow to them, he is certain to be unjustly charged; he will suffer hardships and privations, unable to find a place and occupation worthy of him.
Having gained power by deceit and trickery, the head of the volost avoids honest and modest folk like the plague and seeks allies amongst people of his own kind, crafty and crooked, whom he is fearful of antagonising.
A new saying has gained currency now: It’s the person, not the matter, that counts. In other words, success depends not on the Tightness of the matter in question, but on the cleverness of the person involved.
The volost chiefs are elected for a three-year term. They spend their first year in office listening to all kinds of grievances and complaints: «Don’t forget that we elected you!» Their second year is given over to fighting possible future rivals, and the third year to their campaign for reelection.
What then is left? Watching my people sink deeper and deeper into discord, I have come to the conclusion that the volost chiefsshould be elected from among men who have had at least some Russian education, however little. If there are none,or only persons whom people do not wish to nominate, then let the volost chiefs be appointed by the uyezd authorities and the military governor. This would be beneficial in several ways. First of all, ambitious Kazakhs wouldhave their children educated; secondly, the volost chiefswould no longer be dependent on the whims of local mag nates, but take their orders from the higher authorities. To avoid the inevitable objections and denunciations, an ap¬pointee should not be subjected to any local control and verification.
We have had occasion to see the futility of electing biys in each volost. Not everyone is capable of dispensing justice. In order to hold a council “on the top of Mount Kultobe,” as we say, it is essential to know all the laws passed down from our forefathers: Kasym-khan’s “Radiant Pathway “Esim-khan’s “Ancient Pathway” and Az Tauke-khan’s “Seven Canons.” But even these laws have become outdated with the passage of time and require amendment and infallible interpreters, of whom there are few, if any, amongst our people.
People who know Kazakh ways well say: “When two biys get together, there is sure to be four disputes.” The lack of a supreme judge and the even number of biys hearing a case only complicates the adjudication of disputes. Why increase the numbers of biys? Would it not be better to elect three educated and intelligent men in each volost for an unlimited term of office, only replacing those whose behaviour is unseemly?
Let legal disputes be settled by two arbiters, one chosen by each party, and an intermediary acceptable to both. Only if they failed to ascertain the truth and come to terms would the dispute be taken to one of the three permanent judges. Then lawsuits would not drag on so long.
WORD FOUR Observant people long ago noted that foolish laughter resembles drunkenness. Now, drunkenness leads to misbehaviour; a conversation with a soak gives one a headache. Anyone who constantly indulges in senseless merriment ignores his conscience, neglects his affairs and commits unforgivable blunders, for which he can expect to be punished, if not in this world, then in the next.
He who is inclined to meditation is always prudent and reasonable in his actions in this world and in the face of death. Prudence in thought and deed is the keystone of well-being. But does this mean that we should always be downcast? Should our souls know only melancholy, no joy and mirth? Not at all. I am not saying that we should be sorrowful without cause, but that we should stop and think about our heedless, carefree ways and repent, forsaking them for some useful occupation. It is not senseless merriment that heals the soul, but beneficial and rational work.
Only the weak in spirit will withdraw into themselves, abandon themselves to bitter thoughts, without finding the least consolation.
If you laugh at the stupidities of a fool, do so not rejoicing in his foolishness, but with a feeling of righteous anger. Such laughter should not be indulged in too often, for it is bitter. When you see someone who leads a good life, whose kind deeds are worthy of emulation, laugh with a glad heart, with sincere joy. A good example teaches humility and restraint, keeping one from wrong-doing and drunkenness.
Not all laughter deserves approbation. There is also a kind of laughter that does not come from the heart, that God-given vessel, but bursts out in hollow peals just for the sake of forced jollity. Man comes crying into this world and departs it in sorrow. Between these two events, without fully comprehending the value and uniqueness of the life bestowed upon him, he will burn it up thoughtlessly, squander it in petty quarrels and miserable wrangles, and never know true happiness. He will pause to think only when the sands of life are running out. Only then will he realise that no treasure on earth can prolong his life even for a single day.
To live by lies, deceit and begging is the lot of good-for-nothing rogues. Put your faith in the Lord, and trust in your own powers and abilities. Even the hardest earth will yield good crops to honest and selfless toil.
WORD FIVE Sorrow darkens the soul, chills the body, numbs the will, and then bursts forth in words or tears. I have seen people praying; “Oh, Allah, make me as carefree as a babe!” They imagine themselves to be sufferers, oppressed by cares and misfortunes, as though they had more sense than infants. As to their cares and concern, these can be judged from the proverbs: “If you will live no longer than noon, make provision for the whole day”; “Even his father becomes a stranger to a beggar”; “Cattle for the Kazakh is flesh of his flesh”; “A rich man has a countenance full of light, a poor man - as hard as stone”; “The dzighit and the wolf will find their food along the way”;
“The herds of exalted men are left to the care of others, except when such men have nothing better to do”; “The hand that takes also gives”; “He who has managed to get rich is always in the right”; “If you can’t rely on the bey, don’t count on God either”; “If you are famished, gallop to the place of a funeral feast”; “Beware of a lake with no shallows and of a people that knows no mercy.” Such proverbs are legion.
Now, what do they tell us? It is not learning and knowledge, nor peace and justice, that the Kazakh holds dear - his sole concern is how to get rich. So he will twist and turn to cajole some of their riches from other people, and if he does not succeed, he will see the whole world as his enemy. He will have no scruples about fleecing even his own father. It is not customary among us to censure those who gain possession of livestock by trickery, lies, pillage or other crimes.
So, in what way does their mind differ from that of a child? Children are afraid of the blazing hearth, while adults have no fear even of the fires of hell. When they feel ashamed, children would like the earth to swallow them up, but adults know no shame at all. Is it this that makes them superior to children? If we will not give them what we own, if we refuse to let them ruin us and do not descend to their level, they will turn their back on us. Is this the people whom we should love with all our heart?
WORD SIX According to a Kazakh proverb: “The source of success is unity, and of well-being - life.”
Yet what kind of people are they who live in unity and how do they achieve such accord? The Kazakhs are quite ignorant on this score. They think that unity resides in the common ownership of livestock, chattels and food. If this were so, then what use wealth and what harm in poverty? Would it be worthwhile working hard to grow rich without first getting rid of one’s kith and kin? No, unity ought to be in people’s minds and not in communal wealtm. It is possible to unite people of different origin, religion and views simply by giving them an abundance of livestock. But achieving unity at the price of cattle - that’s the beginning of moral decay. Brothers ought to live in amity not because one is dependent on another, but by each relying on his own skills and powers, and his own destiny. Otherwise they will forget God and find no worthy occupation, but will scheme and plot against each other. They will sink to recrimination and slander, they will cheat and deceive. Then what kind of unity could there be?
“Life is the source of well-being…” What kind of life is meant here? Just existing in order to keep body and soul together? But even a dog is endowed with such an existence. He who treasures such a life, who is plagued by the fear of death, becomes an enemy to life everlasting. Fleeing for his life from the foe, he will be known as a coward; shirking work, he will pass for a ne’er-do-well, he will become an enemy of the good.
No, what the proverb refers to is another kind of life. One that keeps the soul alive and the mind clear. If your body is alive but your soul is dead, words of reason will not reach you, and you will be incapable of earning your living by honest work.
A loafer and a sycophant, A hanger-on and an impudent fellow, Valiant in his looks but craven in his heart, Has no sense of shame…
If you are like that, do not imagine yourself to be alive. A righteous death will then be better than such an existence.
WORD SEVEN Born into this world, an infant inherits two essential needs. The first is for meat, drink and sleep. These are the requirements of the flesh, without which the body cannot be the house of the soul and will not grow in height and strength. The other is a craving for knowledge. A baby will grasp at brightly coloured objects, it will put them in its mouth, taste them and press them against its cheek. It will start at the sound of a pipe. Later, when a child hears the barking of a dog, the noises of animals, the laughter or weeping of people, it gets excited and asks about all that it sees and hears: «What’s that? What’s that for? Why is he doing that?» This is but the natural desire of the soul, the wish to see everything, hear everything and learn everything.
Without trying to fathom the mysteries of the universe, visible and invisible, without seeking an explanation for everything, one can never be what one should be - a human being. Otherwise, the spiritual life of a person will not differ from the existence of any other living creature.
From the very beginning God separated man from beast by breathing the soul into him. Why then, on growing up and gaining in wisdom, do we not seek to gratify our curiosity, which in childhood made us forget about food and sleep? Why do we not tread in the path of those vho seek knowledge?
It behoves us to strive to broaden our interests and Increase the wisdom that nourishes our souls. We should come to realise that spiritual virtues are far superior to bodily endowments, and so learn to subordinate our carnal desires to the dictates of our soul. But no, we have been loath to do that! Raving and croaking, we have not moved farther than the dunghill next to our village. Only in our childhood are we ruled by the soul. When we grew up and gained in strength, we rejected its dictates, we subjugated our soul to the body, and contemplated the things around us with our eyes, but not our minds; we do not trust the impulses of the soul. Satisfied with outward appearances, we make no attempt to uncover inner mysteries, in the vain belief that we shall lose nothing by such ignorance. To the counsel and advice of wise people, we reply: “You live by your own wits, mine are good enough for me.” Or: “We’d rather be poor in our own wits than rich in yours.” We are incapable of recognising their superiority and grasping the meaning of their words.
There is not a flicker of fire in our bosom nor any faith in our soul. In what way, then, do we differ from animals if we perceive things only with our eyes? It seems that we were better in our childhood. We were human then, for we sought to learn as much as possible. But today we are worse than the beasts. An animal knows nothing and has no aim in life. We know nothing, but will argue until we are hoarse; defending our obtusity, we try to pass off our ignorance as knowledge.
WORD EIGHT Will anyone heed our advice and listen to our counsels? One man may be a volost chief, another - a biy. If they had had the least desire to become wise and learn sense, would they have sought such posts? These people consider themselves quite clever enough and seek power so as to teach and give guidance to others, as if they themselves had attained the heights of perfection and had nothing further to do but instruct others. Are they the kind who would have the inclination or spare the time to listen to us? Their minds are filled with other concerns: not to offend their superiors inadvertently; not to provoke the anger of a thief, not to cause trouble and confusion among the people, and not to land on the losing end, but to gain some personal advantage. Besides, they must be always helping somebody, getting someone out of trouble. They are always too busy…
The rich? They want for nothing. Be it only for a day, they have wealth and they think they possess the treasures of well-nigh half the world, and they can pay in livestock for whatever they lack. They set their sights high and their ambitions even higher. Honour, conscience and sincerity are no dearer to them than their herds. They are certain that if they own livestock they will be able to bribe even the Most High. Their herds take the place of everything else to them - their native land, people, religion, family and learning. Why then should they listen to other people’s advice? Some fellow might be inclined to lend an ear, but he has no time for that. He must feed and water his livestock, sell it at a premium, protect it from thieves and wolves, shelter it from the cold, and find someone to do these chores. No, this man is too busy to heed good counsel. When he has seen to all this, he will be boasting and bragging, so he has no time left for anything else. As for thieves and scoundrels, they obviously would not listen anyway.
The poor, meek as sheep, are only concerned about getting their daily bread. What good is advice, wisdom and learning to them when even the rich do not want it? «Leave us alone, speak to those who are cleverer than we are», they say, as though knowledge were of no use to poor folk. They don’t care about anybody, the poor. If they had what other people have, they would know no worries.
WORD NINE I, too, am a Kazakh. But do I love the Kazakhs or not? If I did, I would have approved of their ways and would have found something, however slight, in their conduct to rejoice or console me, a reason to admire at least some of their qualities, I and keep alive a glimmer of hope. I But this is not so. Had I not loved them, I would not have spoken to them from the heart or taken counsel with them; I would have not mixed with them and taken an interest in their affairs, asking, “What are people doing there? What`s going on?” I would just have sat back quietly - or wandered off. I have no hope that they will mend their ways or that I may bring them to reason or reform them. So I feel neither of these emotions. But how come? I ought to have opted for one or the other.
Even though I live, I do not consider myself to be alive. I don’t know why: maybe because I’m vexed with the people or dissatisfied with myself, or for some other reason. Outwardly alive but completely dead within, that’s what I am. Outwardly irate, I feel no anger. Laughing, I am unable to rejoice. The words that I speak and the laughter that I utter seem not to be mine. Everything is alien.
In my younger days it never occurred to me that anyone could forsake his own people. I loved the Kazakhs with all my heart and believed in them. But as I came to know my people better and my hopes began to fade, I found that I lacked the strength to leave my native region and form kinship with strangers. This is why there is a void in my heart now. But then I think, perhaps it’s for the better. When dying, I will not lament: “Alas, I have not tasted this or that joy!..”
Not torturing myself with regrets about earthly things, I shall find solace in the life to come.
WORD TEN People pray to God to send them a child. What does a man need a child for? They say that one ought to leave an heir, a son to provide for his parents in their old age and to pray for them after their death. Is that all?
Leaving an heir - what does it mean? Are you afraid there will be no one to look after your property? But why should you care about things you will leave behind? What, are you sorry to leave them to other people? What kind of treasures have you gained to regret them so much?
A good child is a joy, but a bad one is a burden. Who knows what kind of a child God will bestow on you? Or haven’t you had enough of the humiliation you have had to swallow all your life? Or have you committed too few misdeeds? Why are you so eager to have a child, to rear yet another scoundrel and doom him to the selfsame humiliations?
You want your son to pray for you after your death. But if you have done good in your lifetime, who will not utter prayers for the repose of your soul? And if you have done only evil, what will be the use of your son’s prayers? Will he perform good deeds in your stead - those you have failed to accomplish?
If you beg for a child who will experience the joys of the next world, it means that you wish him an early death. But if you want him to secure for yourself the joys of this world, then can a Kazakh beget a son who, on growing to manhood, will show care and concern for his parents and protect them from suffering? Can such a people and a father like you raise a worthy son of this kind? You want him to feed and clothe you in your decrepit old age? A vain hope, too! First of all, will you live to reach your dotage? Second, will your son grow up so merciful as to care for you in your old age? If you happen to own livestock - there will always be someone ready to look after you. If you have none, who knows who will provide for you and how. And who knows whether your son will increase your wealth or squander what you have gained by your labour?
Well, supposing God has heard your prayers and given you a son. Will you manage to educate him well? No, you will not! Your own sins will be compounded by those of your son.
From the very outset of his life you will be telling him lies, promising him now this, now that. And you will be glad when you manage to deceive him. Then whom can you blame when your son grows up a liar? You will teach him bad language and terevile other people, you will condone his misdeeds: «Now, don’t touch this obstinate lad!» and encourage his cheekiness. For his schooling, you choose a mullah whom you pay little, just to teach him to read and write; you teaching him to be cunning and underhand, you make him suspicious of his peers and graft on bad inclinations. Is that your upbringing? And you expect kindness from a son like that? In the same way, people pray to God for wealth. What does man need wealth for? You have prayed to God? Yes, you have, and God has given, but you won’t take! He has endowed you with strength to work and prosper. But do you use this for honest labour? No! God granted you the power to learn, a mind capable of assimilating knowledge, but who knows what you used it for. Who will fail to prosper if he works hard, perseveres without tiring and makes good use ofhis mind? But you don’t need that! You pray to get rich by intimidating, cheating and begging from other people. What kind of prayer is that? It is simply plunder and beggary on the part of a person who has lost his conscience and honour.
Supposing you have chosen this path and gained possession of livestock. Well, use it to get an education! If not for yourself, then for your son. There can be neither faith nor well-being without an education. Without learning, no prayers or fasts or pilgrimages will achieve their purpose. I have yet to see a person who, having acquired wealth by dishonest means, has put it to good use. Ill-gotten gains are likewise ill spent. And nothing remains of such wealth save the bitterness of disappointment, anger and anguish of the soul.
While he has wealth, he will boast and swagger. Having frittered it away, he will brag about his former affluence. Impoverished, he will stoop to begging.