Abai Kunanbaev “Book of words”–(21-30)
WORD TWENTY-ONE It is hard to avoid at least a small degree of self-satisfaction and complacency. I have identified two kinds: pride and boastfulness. A proud man has a high estimation of his own worth. He will do his utmost to ensure that he is not regarded as an ignoramus and an unreliable person who doesn’t keep his promises, as ill-mannered, arrogant and a shameless liar, a spiteful critic and a crook. Aware of the baseness of these vices, he will aspire to be above them. This quality is peculiar to a man of conscience, reasonable and high-minded. He dislikes to hear people singing his praises but, on the other hand, will allow no one to sully his name. A braggart, on the other hand, does his best to be talked about as much as possible. Let everyone know that he is a batyr, rich and of noble of descent…! Yet what he overlooks is that people may also say things about him that he would not in the least like to hear. But, to the tell the truth, the other kind of fame-notoriety-doesn’t much bother him. Such braggarts are usually of three types. The first is eager to gain fame abroad, amongst strangers. This is an ignorant fellow, but he still retains some human virtues. The second wants to be famous in his own tribe. This type is a complete ignoramus and scarcely human. The third one shows off before his family or in his native village, for no outsider would ever approve of his boasting. This one is the most ignorant of all, no longer a man. He who strives for praise among strangers will seek to distinguish himself amongst his own tribe. He who desires acclaim from his tribe will strive for plaudits from his nearest and dearest. And he who is after the praise of his family is sure he will get it by extolling and praising him¬self to the skies.
WORD TWENTY-TWO I wonder whom amongst the Kazakhs of today I could possibly love or respect. I would have respected a bey, but there are no true beys any more; even if there is one, he is not the master of his will and his wealth. At bitter enmity with some, he will, as a precaution, give away his livestock to others and eventually finds himself beholden to a good hundred people. He believes, in his stupidity, that he has shown generosity by responding to their humble requests, but in fact he becomes dependent on them. You would call him neither generous nor merciful. In his native land he struggles against his own people, squandering his wealth and currying favour with unworthy men. When the beys are at loggerheads, rogues of every kind appear, and they intimidate the beys and live at their expense. I would have respected a myrza, but now you cannot find a truly generous one; as to those who give out their livestock right and left, they are as many of these as stray dogs. Some part with livestock of their own free will in a bid to gain some advantage, while others do it reluctantly - these often do so just to make a show to gain the reputation of a myrza, running around as if he had salt on his backside; yet, more often than not, they become the prey of wicked people. I would have respected a volost chief and a biy, but on our steppe there is neither divine nor human justice. Power bought by servility or with money is not worth much. I could have respected a strong man, but I see that everyone among us has the strength to do evil deeds one cannot find anybody prepared to do good. I wish I could find a clever man to honour. Yet there is none ready to use his intelligence to serve the cause of conscience and justice, while one and all will be quick to guile and perfidy. I might have respected a feeble beggar, but he is not without sin either. It does not matter that he can’t even climb on the back of a prostrate camel. If he had the strength, he would find the dexterity to pilfer a thing or two. Who is there left? The cunning and grasping! There is no stopping these until they ruin others completely… Whom, then, shall we love and pray for? The stinking volost chiefs and biys cannot be considered. There remains only the peaceable bey who, by virtue of his meekness, lives by the saying: “If you want to prosper, avoid discord!” Such a man incurs the displeasure of all and sundry, even though he may give away half of his wealth and tries, to no avail, to protect the other half from thieves and ruffians. There is nothing to be done: him shall we pity and pray for. As it is, I have found no one else.
WORD TWENTY-THREE There is but one joy and one consolation which, like a curse, hangs over the Kazakh. He rejoices when he meets a wicked man or sees some wicked deed, saying, “May Allah preserve us from that! Even he considers himself a worthy man, and compared to him, others are as pure as babes.” But did Allah say that it is enough for him to be better than such-and-such a person? Or perhaps clever people promised he would not be counted among the wicked if he should find someone more ignorant and vicious than himself? But can you become better by comparing yourself with a scoundrel? Good is learnt from good people. In a race it is understandable to ask yourself how many runners are still ahead of you, not how many fast horses are behind. Does it make to a loser any happier whether there were five or ten Arab steeds behind him? Now, in what does the Kazakh find consolation? Says he: “We are not the only ones like that, everybody does it. Better not to stand out from the crowd and to stick with the majority. A feast that you celebrate with everyone is the greatest feast.” But did Allah bid him to live only in the midst of a crowd? And has Allah no power over multitudes? Has the Most High not chains enough to fetter the throng? Can everyone attain the highest knowledge, or is it accessible to only a chosen few? Are all people equally endowed with genius, or just one in a thousand? Who says that the multitude cannot be humbled? If the people are stricken by disease, is it not good if half of them remain healthy? Don’t you need someone with a good knowledge of the lie of the land when thousands who lack it are wandering in the wilderness? Which is better for a traveller: if all his horses starve to death all at once, or only half of them? Which is better: if all of the people suffer from dzhut or at least half of them survive? What consolation is it to a fool if there are thousands of other dolts around him? Will a suitor win his intended bride if he tells her that all his family suffers from bad breath? Will his betrothed be comforted by the thought that he is not the only one?
WORD TWENTY-FOUR There are more than two thousand million people living on earth now, I they say. We, Kazakhs, number more than two million. The Kazakhs are unlike any other people in their desire for wealth and in their quest for knowledge, in their appreciation of art, in showing their friendliness and strength, and in boasting or enmity. We fight with each other, we ruin each other and spy on each other before our neighbour has time to blink. The world has cities with a population above three million. There are people who have travelled three times round the world. Shall we, indeed, continue to live like this, lying in wait for one another, remaining the meanest people on earth? Or shall we see happier days when people forget theft, deception, backbiting and enmity, and turn their minds to knowledge and crafts, when they learn to obtain their wealth in honest ways? I doubt if such days will ever come. Nowadays, two hundred people hanker after a hundred head of livestock. Will they live in peace before they have destroyed one another in this scramble?
WORD TWENTY-FIVE It would be good if Kazakh children could get an education. To begin with, it would be enough to teach them Turkic letters. Yet such is our irreligious land that before we send our children to school, we have to acquire wealth; besides, they ought to learn the Persian and the Arabic languages. But can those who are hungry keep a clear mind, care about honour and show diligence in learning? Poverty and quarrels within tribes and families breed thievery, violence and greed. If you have livestock, your belly will be full. A craving for knowledge and a craft will come next. Then people will start thinking about getting an education and teaching their children at least something. One should learn to read and write Russian. The Russian language is a key to spiritual riches and knowledge, the arts and many other treasures. If we wish to avoid the vices of the Russians while adopting their achievements, we should learn their language and study their scholarship and science, for it was by learning foreign tongues and assimilating world culture that the Russians have become what they are. Russian opens our eyes to the world. By studying the language and culture of other nations, a person becomes their equal and will not need to make humble requests. Enlightenment is useful for religion as well. He who lives his life fawning and cringing will be ready to sell his mother and father; he will sell his family, his faith and conscience for the sake of a condescending pat on the back from a superior. Some fellow will bow and scrape, not caring that he shows his bare behind, and all to win an approving smile from some official. Russian learning and culture are a key to the world heritage. He who owns this key will acquire the rest without too much effort. Some of the Kazakhs who have their children taught in Russian schools will do so just so they can use their children’s literacy as a proof of their own superiority when quarrelling with their kinsfolk. This should not be your motivation. Seek to teach your children to earn their bread by honest and purposeful work, and let other people follow your example; then we shall not endure the arbitrary ways of Russian grandees, for they have no law that applies equally to all. We ought to educate ourselves, learn what other people know so as to become their equals and be a shield and a pillar for our people. As yet no outstanding individuals have appeared among the young people who have received a Russian education, but this is because their parents and kin spoil them and lead them astray. Even so, they are far better that those who have received no education at all. Yet it is a pity that all their learning goes no further than interpreting other people’s words. Well-to-do folks rarely send their children to school: they would rather send the children of paupers to be chastised and humiliated by Russian teachers. But what can these unfortunate ones learn there? Quarrelling with their kinsfolk, some will exclaim, ‘Rather than suffer your insults, I’d send my son off as a recruit and let my hair and beard grow!’ Such people have no fear of divine punishment or sense of shame. What will the offspring of such a person achieve even if he attends school? Will he derive much benefit from it? Will he go further than others? He doesn’t give a rap for learning: he goes to school, sits for a while and then he goes away. Not a sign of eagerness or diligence! His father hardly agrees to his son getting an education unless someone else foots the bill. Will such a man part with his wealth for his child’s schooling? Here’s a piece of advice for you: you don’t have to get a wife for your son or leave him ample wealth, but you must give him a Russian education without fail, even if you have to part with all have earned. This is worth any sacrifice. If you honour God and have any shame, if you want your son to be a real man, send him to school! Don’t begrudge the expense! For if he remains an unlettered scoundrel, who will benefit? Will he be a solace to you? Will he be happy himself? And will he be able to do any good for his own people?
WORD TWENTY-SIX The Kazakh is elated if his horse wins a race, if a wrestler on whom he has wagered wins a bout, or if his hound or falcon does well in the chase. I wonder if there is anything in life that gives him greater joy? I doubt it! But what great pleasure is there in seeing one creature excel another in agility 6v speed, or one wrestler flinging another to the ground? It is not the man himself, nor even his son for that matter, who has been successful! By going into raptures for the most trifling cause, he wants to annoy his neighbour and make him envious. Truly, the Kazakh has no worse enemy than another Kazakh! It is common knowledge that to provoke envy on purpose is contrary to the Shariah laws, one’s own interests and sound reason. What comfort has the Kazakh from stirring up other people’s animosity? Why does he enjoy it? And why are people so vexed at the success of the more fortunate, considering themselves humiliated? Fast racehorses are found now in this village, now in that; a good falcon or hunting dog comes into the hands of now one man, now another. And the strongest men don’t all hail from the same aul either. All these qualities are not man’s handiwork. Those who have once come first and once triumphed, will not remain the fastest and strongest forever. Why then, knowing that, are people as vexed as if some dark scheme or vile deed of theirs had come to light? Why do they suffer as though they had been brought low? The reason is not hard to find: ignorant people will rejoice over any trivial, foolish thing. Out of their minds and intoxicated with delight, they don’t what they are saying or doing. They feel ashamed of what is not in the least shameful, but behave in the most scandalous fashion without blushing. These are the marks of ignorance and recklessness. If you say that to a Kazakh, he will listen and assent: «Yes, that’s true!» But you should not be taken in by his words-he is just like the majority. Though he sees and understands all that, he is like a stubborn creature who cannot give up his wicked ways. And no one will be able to dissuade and check him, or bring him to his senses. Having made misdeeds his law, he will never renounce them. Only great fear or death can wean him from his bad habits. You will not encounter a man here who, admitting his errors, will try to curb himself.
WORD TWENTY-SEVEN Here are the words of the great Socrates about serving the omnipotent Creator, spoken in conversation with his pupil, the scholar Aristodemos, who frequently ridculed believers. “Well, Aristodemos, do you think there are people in the world whose creations are worthy of admiration?” “There are many of them, master,” replied Aristodemos. “Name at least one of them.” “I admire Homer and his epic poems, the tragedies of Sophocles, the ability of some people to be reincarnated in other forms; I also admire the paintings of Zeuxis.” (Here Aristodemos cited several other great names.) “Who, do you think, is more worthy of admiration: one who creates a lifeless image of man, or the Most High, who created man en¬dowed with reason and a living soul?” “The latter, certainly. But only if his creations are the product of reason, not pure chance.” “The world has many useful things. The purpose of some is obvious, while the purpose of others cannot be divined by their outward form. What do you think: which of them have been wrought by reason and which by chance?” “Certainly, the things of which the purpose is obvious are created by reason,” replied Aristodemos. “Good. Creating man, the Most High endowed him with five senses, knowing they would be necessary for man. He gave him eyes to see and enjoy the beauty of the world. He provided eyelids to open and close the eyes, lashes to protect the eyes from wind arid dust, and eyebrows to divert the sweat trickling down from the forehead. “Without ears,” Socrates went on, “we would have been unable to hear either harsh or sweet sounds, and we would have been unable to enjoy singing and music. Without a nose, we would have been incapable of distinguishing different smells, we would have never been attracted by sweet fragrances and repelled by foul odours. Lacking a tongue and the roof of the mouth, we would have never been able to tell what is sweet from what is bitter, what is soft from what is hard. “Is it not for a good purpose that all this has been granted us? “Our eyes and our nose lie close to the mouth to enable us to see and smell what we are eating. The other essential, but repugnant orifices lie far from the noble organs that are found on the head. “Does it not attest that God has created us with thought? Pondering for a while, Aristodemos acknowledged that the Creator was truly omnipotent, and He wrought His works with great love. “Then tell me,” said Socrates, “why does every living creature have a tender love for its progeny, why does it hate death and endeavour to live as long as possible, and why is it concerned to perpetuate its kind? All living beings are created for the purpose of life and its continuation. Was it not out of love that God has made them capable of loving life and giving life? “How can you believe, Aristodemos, that none save yourself, a man, can possess reason?” Socrates continued, “Does not the human body resemble the earth on which man treads? Is not the water of your body a drop of the earthly water? Where does your reason come from? What - ever its origin, it is thanks to the soul granted to you that you have become a vessel of such high intelligence. You perceive the perfection, wholeness and harmony of the law whereby nature is created, you see and wonder, but you cannot comprehend what you see. “Now, what do you think, is nature the purposeless outcome of chance or begotten by the possessor of infinite reason? The mystery lying beyond human ken can be explained if not by the will of reason, then by the force of immutable laws, which wisely coordinated the purpose of all creation.” “You have spoken truly, master,” replied the pupil. “It is clear that the Creator possesses sublime intelligence. I do not doubt His omnipotence. Yet I do not cease to wonder why the almighty Creator should need my prayers.” “You are mistaken, Aristodemos! If there is someone who cares for your well-being, you are beholden to him. Must such a simple truth be explained to you?” “But I do not know whether he cares about me or not,” said Aristodemos. Then look at the animals and look at yourself. Do we perceive reality in the same way? Man is capable of thinking about his past, present and future. An animal has but a vague idea of past and present, and it cannot think of the morrow. Compare the outward appearance of man and beast. Man stands upright on two legs, the better to see what surrounds him. He can subjugate any animal to his will. The animals, however, rely only on their limbs and wings, they are unable to subdue their own kind. Had God created man as helpless as animals, he would have been good for nothing. Man has been created the master of all living things upon earth. Even if animals possessed human intelligence, their outward form would have hardly matched the capacity to toil, or teach oratory and virtue. Think, can a bull build a town, make tools and become a skilled artisan? The fact that God has endowed man with high intelligence and has placed this intelligence in such a perfect body, combining both spiritual power and moral beauty, is proof that God made man with loving care. All that considered, is not humankind obliged to worship God?” Thus the master concluded his speech.
WORD TWENTY-EIGHT Muslims! The world is peopled by the rich and by the poor, the healthy and the sickly, the wise and the stupid, the good and the wicked. If someone asks why this is so, you will reply: «Such is the will of Allah.» It sometimes happens, however, that Allah bestows riches upon a despised loafer, while some person who worships God and toils honestly lives from hand to mouth and can barely feed his wife and children. A quiet, harmless man is often sick and feeble, while some scoundrel or thief enjoys excellent health. The same parents may have one clever and one stupid son. Allah exhorts everybody to be virtuous and live righteously. He directs the righteous along the right path, and sinners long the crooked path, rewarding the righteous with the bliss of paradise and sinners with the torments of Hell. Does this not contradict divine mercy and justice? Both people and their goods belong to Allah. And He disposes of His property as He wishes. How to understand His actions? To grant that the Creator is infallible, while ascribing imperfections and errors to Him, means that we keep silent from fear of Him. If this were the case, what would a mortal gain by all his labours and efforts? If everything comes by the will of the Creator, then people bear no blame. Whether doing good or evil, are they not fulfilling the Lord’s will? A reasonable man should know that it is the duty of a believer to do good. A just cause need not fear the test of reason. If freedom is not bestowed upon reason, then what about the truth: “Let him who possesses reason know me”? If our religion has a flaw, why then forbid a reasonable creature to think about it? What would religion have rested upon if there had been no reason? Good wrought without faith-what is it worth? You should understand and believe that good and evil were created by God, but it is not He who performs them. God has created wealth and poverty, but it is not He who makes human beings rich or poor. God has created diseases, but it is not He who makes people suffer from them. For otherwise everything would be dust and ashes.
WORD TWENTY-NINE Some Kazakh sayings merit attention and some do not, for they do not carry anything divine or human in them. The Kazakhs say: “If you live in need, forget your shame.” Cursed be the life that knows no shame! But if the proverb counsels one not to shun any hard work, however lowly, there is nothing shameful in such work. An upright man should earn his bread honestly, not live on alms or sit back in indolence. “A clever fellow can set even the snow on fire,” “You can get anything, if you know how to ask.” These are words condemned by God! Is it not better to get riches from the earth by the sweat of your brow rather than rely on cunning and beg for crumbs from another man’s table? “If your name is unknown, set the field on fire.” But what need do you have of notoriety? “Better one day as a stallion than a hundred days as a gelding.” But what’s the good of one day spent in wild dissipation that leaves only ravages in its wake? “Even an angel will stray from the path at the sight of gold.” What does an angel need gold for? By this saying people merely try to justify their avarice. “A treasure chest is dearer than father and mother, but your own life is dearer than a palace of gold.” Now, what price can be placed on the life of the scoundrel who values a treasure chest more than his parents? Only a person without reason and honour can exchange father and mother for gold. Parents work to get rich for the good of their children, and he who equates his parents with treasure commits an ungodly deed. One should be cautious about repeating proverbs born of bigotry and thoughtlessness.
WORD THIRTY What we call “boastful windbags” are found amongst our people, even if you put forty of them to the test, you won’t find one who can be of help. What are they good for? They lack good sense and self-esteem, they are narrow-minded and shallow, without valour, humanity or conscience. Some fellow will fling over his shoulder: “Don’t bother me! Am I not better than others? Is my head strung to another man’s saddle? Does he put meat into my pot or give me livestock for milk?” Or he may speak out sharply with reckless resolve, “Why should I spare myself life? Is my life really worth much? I’m ready to brave bullets or exile for a noble cause! We die but one death!” Have you ever encountered a Kazakh whose deeds are in keeping with such words? For myself, I have never seen anyone who was resigned to death, but no one will admit their fear of it. At times, true, any of them will make as if slitting his throat with the palm of his hand in a gesture of sacrificial readiness: “Let me be slain on this very spot!” Had these words been sincere, their speaker could have felled us if not by his intelligence, then by his incredible courage. Yet what shall we call one whose threats are directed only at cowards all set to creep into the nearest hole if trouble is brewing? This is nothing more than bogus bravery to scare the faint-hearted into admitting: “His wrath is terrible indeed!” My God! If he were good at heart, generous and unselfish, if he were brave and true to his word, could his good points be not seen in his face? This fellow is one of those dishonorable types of whom it is said: “A brazen face has tireless jaws.”