Why Asan Was Called "Mourner"

While I won't say I am proficient enough in the Kazakh language to do translations of my own, I do love myths and folk tales. During my time in Western Mongolia as a Kazakh language student, I found a large volume of old Turkish and Kazakh folk tales in the book shop and made it a regular part of my lessons to read through these stories. The process of reading through these tales was grueling (my tutor Amangul has a particularly patient spirit and helped me immensely through the process) and at the end I came away with several unique folk tales which I'd never read in English before.

I tried, with varying degrees of success, to preserve the idiosyncrasies of the language as it appeared in the original volume (In a future post, I will try to give an overview of the book itself and my process of translating it). The Kazakh language is full of its own quirks. While I don't think the following is a perfect translation of the original story, I hope it preserves some of the original's spirit and flavor. This particular piece was my favorite of all of them.

I'll also add: Kazakhs do not use the word "Effendi" or "Shangri-La", but I have used these terms for greater familiarity to Western readers.

Originally, Asan was simply Asan Effendi. He was very rich. One day, all the good and wealthy people met to discuss the latest gossip. "I heard one fisherman caught an obscenely large fish from the river," said one. After hearing the story of the exceptional fish, Asan went to the river to see this strange catch himself. At the river, he found several fishermen manning two nets. The famous and wise poet Atakti, also a seer, directed their movements. As Asan approached, the fishermen pulled the net ashore, brimming with fish.

In those days, there was a famous sage who had seven sons and one daughter. After the girl grew older, she grew lonely and told her brothers, "I need to get married. Please help me!" And so, following the natural logic of young and spirited men, the seven brothers made her a box of metal. Its outside was a fine silver design of suns and dragons, while the inside was furnished with lavish cushions, on which their sister might sit. After they had seated their proud sister inside comfortably, they sealed the box and sent it floating down the river.

As Asan Effendi watched, the second fisherman's net pulled out this singularly beautiful silver box from the river's flow. Spectators gathered round, and Asan, sensing an opportunity, declared his entitlement. "Oh! Good fisherpeople! Which do you want: the outside of the box or the inside?" he asked the fishermen. Although it never occurred to them that Asan hadn't so much as lifted a finger to recover the box, the fishermen racked their brains. "We will take the outside!" one of them said. "If this is so, then I will take whatever is inside!" exclaimed Asan.

The box was opened and an indescribably beautiful girl came out. Asan took her home before the fishermen could protest.

 "Tamarlane." The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe Illustrated by Edmund Dulac. 1919.

"Tamarlane." The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe Illustrated by Edmund Dulac. 1919.

All the way home, Asan babbled endlessly about how excited he was to have found a suitable wife. When they reached his home, the girl told Asan there needed to be three rules if she was to be his wife. "First: when we sleep at night, do not ask me any favors, or try to kiss me," she said. Somewhat bewildered, Asan agreed. "Second," said the Sage's daughter, "When you come home, please announce yourself--don't play peeping tom through the jabuktan above the door! It is rude!" Feeling somewhat cheated (for what husband doesn't enjoy spying on his wife occasionally?), Asan agreed. The Sage's daughter nodded her perfectly-formed head. "Third: I will not speak for the next three years. Do not explain my muteness to anyone; do not complain, and do not force me to speak. In three years' time, I will speak again, but you must trust me implicitly for the first three years of our marriage."

Still dazzled by his future wife's beauty, and feeling over-confident in his fortitude, Asan agreed with these three difficult rules. The two of them were married in the next week, and word quickly spread of Asan's exotic wife who could not speak.

"Asan Effendi is so wealthy, yet he married a broken woman!" they whispered. "Of all the beautiful girls in our tribe, none of them was good enough to meet his rich taste! So like the rich: so selfish!" they said.

Word reached Asan of the rumors, and this grieved him greatly, for he could say nothing to allay their doubts. "Perhaps my new wife simply needs some encouragement to speak. Perhaps she is just afraid," he thought. And so he designed a number of stratagems to entice her to speak. So he sent her to the Fabled Bazaars of Xanadu, famous for its multitude of shopkeepers who hawked their wares. He gave her a vague list of impossible trinkets to buy and then hired thieves to snatch them away just as she reached for the goods. "Surely she is moral and just enough to cry out against crime!" he thought. Yet his wife returned as mute as she had been.

Many months passed, and Asan grew more impatient. "She is silent because she secretly hates me," he thought. So he sent her out into the desert on a lonely caravan with no water. To his servants, he gave a number of skins brimming with khummuz (mare's milk) and gave them special instructions. After several days traveling into the wastes, his servants swigged the milk and then poured the rest onto the sand right in front of Asan's wife. "Surely her desire to survive will compel her to say something," thought Asan. But, weeks later, the caravan returned and his wife was as silent as she had ever been.

Asan Effendi had one very close friend. One day, he went to see him across the steppe. His friend said to him, "Listen to me, Asan. I'm your only friend, and yes, you are indeed very wealthy. But gold does not care for your well-being as I do. However, why did you marry a mute? Truly, you could have found a decent wife, yes? You've gone over the edge: in the middle of a village full of gorgeous women, you chose the broken one! If you needed help paying for a dowry, you could have asked me."

Asan heard his friend's words, but did not say anything. Yet his friend continued: "People say my friend, the foolish and rich Asan, couldn't pick a healthy donkey from a lame one if he's gotten this broken woman. They are beginning to doubt your business sense, my friend. This woman will ruin you. Please marry someone else!"

The opinions of others mattered most to Asan Effendi, and this news was very upsetting. He could stand the gossip of the washerwomen and the traders, but this was his best friend! So he said to his friend, "My wife will not speak for three years. It is her code of conduct, though it makes no sense to me. But, compared to the rest of my life, what is three years? Nothing! So please do not tell anyone I spoke of this. I only have to wait a little longer." He opened his heart and told the secret. However, he had also broken his sacred agreement with his wife.

When he returned home that evening, he found his wife naked, standing under the open tundikten (ger ring), basked in moonlight. Feathers covered her body, and her arms had metamorphosed into wings.

 "Damayanti". Artwork by Warwick Goble (1862-1943)

"Damayanti". Artwork by Warwick Goble (1862-1943)

As her body changed, she spoke to Asan in a cold voice: "Ah, Asan, my darling: you have failed my test. I asked three things of you. Don't reach for me in the night, I asked, yet you sought favors. Don't spy on me in the evening, I said, and yet you arrive unannounced in the long evening. But it was the final rule--the most sacred trust--that you have broken, telling our secret to the world! Do you not think your friend will tell his wife, his friends, his servants? Speak once, and a secret is lost forever. Moreover, you sought to break our trust, sending me to Xanadu, to the desert! What sort of husband are you?

"Now I am not yours, and you are not mine. I have your child growing within my belly: I will now fly to Egypt and give birth to him there. Perhaps you will find him again one day. Now I shall leave you forever, my darling. Goodbye!"

She transformed into a pure-white crane and flew out of the ger, and within moments she was gone.

Asan Effendi sank into a depressed stupor. He traveled the world for seven years on a horse that ran faster than the wind, which he had purchased in Xanadu. Yet for all the lands he saw, he never saw his gorgeous wife. He looked for Shangri-La, and found Shangri-La, but she was not there. He rode the path to hell, but she was not there. Eventually, he returned home and old man and sat in mourning for his lost wife and son. And so he was called Asan the Mourner, for although he found Shangri-La, he would never let himself experience joy again. May we learn from his folly!