Translation Tuesday: “A Corpse” by Hamid Ismailov

"Looking from behind his son’s shoulder to the small pile in front of them, he saw a naked arm protruding from the snow."

Let him who gives me a shadow not hold me.
You know the breadth of a star
is not equal to the embrace of the ray.

Let me go, blue holy light,
my shadow is in torment on the black earth.
Am I drunk, or is my road drunk? 

The snow flows, the earth is white and black.
The word ‘I’ is a wanderer like I,
you are eternal as an icy, cracked puddle.

 Did we trip over our shadow
or did the mirage melt in the icy pupil—
a roof, holding up a lamp, when the house moved.

As the day approached noon, Zamzama awoke, and walked into his smaller bathroom to wash himself for the day. The light happened to be on in the narrow room, and he stretched his hands out towards the tap. At exactly the same point, his still-sleepy eyes happened to notice a naked adolescent lying in the bath. Maybe he realised that it was an adolescent due to the fact that the whole body could fit into the bath. Maybe also due to him lying in an empty bath naked, Zamzama purposefully didn’t look in that direction, rather washing his hands with soap and distracting himself with the trickling tap. ‘Perhaps I should have knocked, although he seems to be keeping silent,’ he thought for a moment, though this thought appeared and disappeared just as fast as the flowing water, circling down the drain.

The boy indeed kept silent. In order to avoid bad luck, he didn’t want to shake his hands dry. Therefore, trying to locate the towel in his mind, he unwillingly glanced at the figure in the bath. Was he one of the unmannered friends of his son? For some reason, his vision fell onto their fluffy crotch, jumping back up to the boy’s slanted, closed eyes. Whilst rushing out of the bathroom trying to make no sound, the fact that there was no water in the bath astounded him. Had the young man fallen asleep, and if so, how could he? Was he drunk? Only having just seen his fluffy groin, he thought, are his legs a little disproportionately short? Maybe they were just going into the dark bottom of the bath…

Zamzama carefully closed the door of the bathroom, hurriedly heading towards his wife’s bedroom. He wanted to ask about his son. His wife had already made the bed in the few minutes that he had been gone, clearing the smell and having moved on to attending to the dying and sullen plants in the same room. As he walked in, she was talking to them, pruning them of their dying petals and yellowed leaves. ‘Hulyo,’ whispered Zamzama, as if afraid to wake someone. His wife was occupied with her conversation, maybe not having heard him. ‘Hulyo,’ Zamzama repeated, approaching her. His voice miscalculated the distance, frightening his wife. ‘Was that you,’ she turned, clutching a pair of scissors in her hands. Zamzama was surprised initially—‘who else could it be?!’ But then, returning to his original intentions, he suppressed his jealous overtone and asked Hulyo, ‘who is the boy laying in the bathtub?’ ‘Which bathroom?’ Hulyo said, gathering herself. ‘Not in your one—in the little one,’ he reassured her, in a calming tone. ‘Oh, in the small one…’ started his wife, finally distracting herself from the flowers. ‘Oh, in the small one, it’s the corpse that we found in this spring, don’t you remember?’ Nope, he had completely forgotten about it. Only after a few moments did Zamzama remember that event that had occurred three or four weeks ago.

In the days of the last snow of the winter—on a Sunday—their son had gone to a school competition, later returning with a nosebleed. Fortunately, his mother was away at the bazaar, and when Zamzama asked what happened, he replied that he had ended up fighting with the older boys. When asked about the fact that they had made his nose bleed, he quipped, ‘it’s better to leave with a broken nose than a broken heart.’ ‘That’s my son!’ replied Zamzama, treating him by taking everyone sledging in the snowy fields once the mother had returned. They trod through the snow; they crossed the fields, and they dragged the sledge until, completely exhausted, they finally entered the poplar woods. Placing the sledge in the middle as a table, they brought out tea, sweets and snacks from their rucksacks, and started their picnic feast.

The sun started to descend, with the light poking through the trunks, rather than the branches of the poplar trees.

Though there was little warmth emanating from the lowly sunlight, the snow still glistened, shuffling and melting away. While these people drank their tea, the son felt a small urge, taking a stick and walking off behind a tree. After a short while, a scream of ‘DAD!’ came from behind the tree. Zamzama was enchanted with his tea, not paying the scream any attention. With this, Hulyo nudged him, half-asking, half-commanding him to go and check on his son. Gulping his hot tea in a hurry, Zamzama rushed off towards his son’s voice. He saw his son transfixed, having only just peed under a single poplar, with his stick dug firmly into the snow. Zamzama reached his son in four giant leaps, hugging him tightly from behind. His son shook with fear. Looking from behind his son’s shoulder to the small pile in front of them, he saw a naked arm protruding from the snow. Out of his fright, he swiftly pulled his son’s stick out of the mound. The line of powdery snow that came away with the stick plopped on to the floor, revealing a shoulder and one side of the body’s face. His son let out a frightful shriek. Hulyo, hearing the commotion, ran crazily in their direction without any clue of what had gone on, crying and shouting.

‘Is it a bear?! Is it a bear?’ Hulyo shouted worriedly, as if she could have fought off a bear in the instance that she was right. Reaching her stunned family, she also caught a glimpse of the greenish, naked arm and head, and screamed in unison with her shrieking son.

This panic and mayhem lasted a few moments. Help didn’t arrive, nor did they themselves run away. Hulyo, being the first to come to her senses, exclaimed, ‘we should call the police!’ Answering this, Zamzama replied, ‘HELP, SOS, POLICE,’ sarcastically mocking her suggestion. Indeed, they were surrounded by unbounded and endless fields—kilometres without roads, buildings, or civilisation. As luck would have it, Zamzama had also left all of their mobile phones at home, thinking that they would no doubt lose them otherwise. Even the sun, emphasising the vast, broad, emptiness of the terrain that they found themselves in, became a tiny red speck on the horizon. The powdery, soft snow still continued melting, making it clear that the corpse that was wrapped in a blackish tarpaulin shroud, belonged to an adolescent.

‘We should take the corpse to the police,’ whispered Zamzama. ‘Why?’ Hulyo enquired, unable to stop herself being horrified. ‘Well, it’s a child, isn’t it?’ Zamzama replied…

Here, we have to cut the storyline, and comment upon why Zamzama came to that conclusion. A week before that unexpected event, something had happened to him, that he kept secret from everybody. At a wintery 5PM, with dusk commencing, Zamzama was driving home a little early. On the road, the traffic was busy. Some sneaky people overtook him at junctions. Others lowered their windows and swore at those blighters, on behalf of themselves and Zamzama. He was awfully tired, with his nerves as tense as the strings of a guitar. More precisely, like the rubber of his son’s sling. Another drop of tension, and the stone from his snotty fingers would release, troubling the world like the exploding feathers of the unlucky bird target. In the middle of these thoughts, Zamzama moved towards the suburbs of the city, where the roads emptied slightly, allowing him to speed up. ‘There’s a right turn in front of me, which has a narrower street, but speeds the journey up.’ He thought. ‘That, or I could continue with the high street, which is slowly speeding up itself…’ In this hesitation, he approached the junction, quickly looked at his mirror and the traffic heading towards him, and saw that both were empty. At the very last second, he veered right sharply without any time for indication. With this quick motion, he heard a bang with a number of smaller sounds exploding behind him. Instantly he glanced at his rear-view mirror, seeing the shiny wheel of a motorbike rolling away from its tumbling rider, dressed in black. A thought told him to stop. Instead of putting his foot on the brake pedal however, his foot landed on the acceleration, speeding him away. His car revved its engine, bursting forwards. There was no way back. ‘It’s his fault! It’s his fault!’ his heart and mind told Zamzama’s shivering body. ‘That bastard wanted to overtake me at the junction, he deserved it!’ His car was disappearing in the little side roads, with Zamzama reassuring himself further that the biker was still alive: not only had the rolling black biker been wearing a helmet, but none of the cars behind him had signalled, he thought to himself in order to justify it all.

Having come home, the shivering Zamzama gulped down a glass of whiskey which he kept for his guests. Telling himself that he had work to do, he locked himself in his study. He didn’t sleep at all that night, breaking the peace of his wife’s sleep, too. ‘What if he’d died,’ he thought, ‘even though it was his fault, I should have stopped.’ ‘Was I afraid that he’d beat me up for not indicating?’ ‘What do I do if the police raid my house?’ Hundreds of thoughts paced through his mind, burning him with anguish, all night. He wished that he could turn time back like he did his car, so as to check if the biker was still alive. He wished that, as his eleven year old son would say, ‘it’s better to leave with a broken nose than a broken heart.’

In the morning, having woken limp and depressed, he drove his car to work. Approaching that very same junction with fear and guilt, there was no sign of broken glass, tyre marks, or traces of blood. In fact, there was no sign that an accident had taken place the day before at all. ‘God bless you, you’re a real tough biker you little prick! Your body’s made of steel…’ Zamzama thought to himself, praising the biker, who had seemingly gathered himself together and driven off.

Now you can probably understand why he felt obliged to take home the corpse of this adolescent. Hulyo was initially strongly against the idea, firmly keeping the belief that they would be framed for the murder, above all else. Zamzama didn’t argue or quarrel with her, rather using her own arguments against her. ‘If we leave him here, they could trace us back to our house and arrest us. Arrest us not only for murder, but also for attempting to conceal a crime.’ Hearing this, Hulyo shook him away, tightened her upper lip, and curtly replied, ‘do as you wish,’ before placing the thermos in her rucksack and heading home.

Zamzama prodded and brushed the powdery snow from the corpse, with his son’s stick. They saw that only a single arm and cheek were visible, with the rest of the body covered in the tarpaulin. Therefore, either from the disgust for the corpse itself, or due to his inability to lift the cadaver, Zamzama went into his rucksack to find the plastic cover for the sledge. Wrapping up the exposed parts of the body with the remaining tarpaulin, he pulled the sledge cover from head to toe before zipping it up, bringing the sledge next to the mound, and slowly rolling the body onto the sledge.

They came one after each other to their suburban home on the edge of the city, once night had already fallen. Pushing the sledge with its load into their empty garage, they left it as it stood, and Zamzama agreed with his son to call the police first thing in the morning.

This unexpected occurrence worried all of them, and none of them slept too comfortably that night. His son kicked up a fuss, claiming that he couldn’t sleep by himself. The poor mother—still cross with the earlier decision—shuttled between the two rooms, trying to get her son to sleep. Thus, both the peace and quiet of the family was broken that night. Only having fallen asleep at 3 or 4AM, a phone’s shrill sound pierced through their sleep at 7AM, with the orchestral conductor informing Zamzama that today’s concert had been moved to a neighbouring city, with the rehearsal starting within a few hours. As usual, he was annoyingly informative with his reasoning, going into depth while Zamzama stared with dull eyes at the clock, considering whether he could muster any more hours of sleep together.

Unfortunately, his sleep was irreparably broken. He woke up hastily, threw some water on his face, threw some food in his mouth as breakfast and leafed through his notes, before throwing them into his trombone’s case. Without waking anyone in his household, he decided he would message them later to inform them of his whereabouts, and he plodded out of his house to the car that was parked outside. His car brought up some sort of anguish within him, yet as he put the keys in the engine and the music quietly played out of the radio, he immediately forgot the cause of his stress.

What was an urgent task to be remembered overnight dragged on, turning into a three-day celebration of the neighbouring city’s anniversary. The fourth or fifth day, exhausted and on his way home, he crashed into the car of a forgetful old lady, who had veered right out of nowhere, not knowing any better. ‘What a silly old cow,’ Zamzama thought to himself. Weren’t they lucky that they both escaped without injury? You could say so, though both cars had to be completely written off. Somehow, he managed to get home by midnight.

Despite this weekend, he had come to a deal with the local garage, having to fork out a substantial sum in order to get his car fixed. Two more days were spent on this. Just as his car was fixed, the clarinet player in his orchestra—his colleague and friend—broke his hand and asked Zamzama to take him to the hospital. The next day: another concert, or another celebration, and to put it simply, the small day-to-day problems of a simple life.

Now here he is, standing and discussing the issue of the corpse with his wife. ‘Whether it’s the hot weather or something else, we had to take him to the bathroom to get the horrible stench out of the garage.’ Usually, his cross wife would place the things that Zamzama had forgotten either onto his music stand, or onto his desk, yet this time she sounded sincere. Nonetheless, the jealousy burning up in him, he quickly chipped, ‘we—who is we?’ ‘I meant myself and your son,’ she replied, looking away at the flowers and playing with her scissors. ‘We need to call the police right away,’ exclaimed Zamzama. ‘What are you going to say to them though?’ she enquired.

By this point however, he had already picked up the telephone, and quickly pressed through the number for the local police. ‘We’ve been living with a corpse for ages, who would have thought it!’ he muttered to himself. ‘Hello?’ a voice spoke, snapping him out of his thoughts. ‘Hello, is this the police?’ Zamzama asked. ‘Yeah,’ the deep, male voice replied. ‘I-I’m calling… calling you because we erm… went to the fields outside the edges of the city, and found a boy’s corpse under the snow, and brought him b-back, but maybe someone buried him legally, but just in case..’ he started, though his wife interrupted him as usual, and started hinting at what to say. ‘If you’re interested…’ she mouthed, and as annoyed as Zamzama was, he still added, ‘… if you’re interested,’ sheepishly. ‘Yes, well we’ll see,’ said the voice, before abruptly hanging up. Zamzama froze for a moment. What did the officer say? Did he say that they would see, and if so, what did that mean? He hadn’t even taken his name, address, or did they know everything already?

Another thought came to his mind: ‘Maybe I should take the naked body out of the waterless bath, wrap it back into the tarpaulin, and throw it away?’ ‘Or maybe cut it in-’ he frightened himself with that thought, and it was quickly dispelled. Why had he brought this corpse back to his home in the first place? Hadn’t his wife warned him that it would cause nothing but trouble? Why hadn’t he listened to his wife, then? What’s he going to do now?



The conductor raised his baton, mouthed the words ‘one, two…’ and the requiem began. The bassoons and basset horns sitting on Zamzama’s right, slowly started the mournful and solemn music along with the violins and violas. Automatically counting the bars of rests, Zamzama heard the deep low tones of the choir’s bass singing ‘Requiem aeternam dono eis…’ He continued counting, silently placing his tuned trombone beside him. Either because of the shape of the trombone, or because of the thickness of the vocal sound, he remembered the poplar woods—the very same poplar woods that had been covered in white snow. As long as he counted in his head, the poplar trees swayed in his mind, rocking back and forth in the wind like the pendulum of a metronome. His eyes fell upon the music stand, in particular onto the notes that were placed before him. ‘Requiem. Trombone alto. Adagio’. The notes stood before him like the very same poplar trees. At a certain time, he effortlessly joined the forest of notes and voices.

The voices of the men were joined next by those of the women. The wife of the vocal bass soloist strayed slightly from the rest of the choir, almost like a shrill wife reprimanding her husband. Noticing this, Zamzama began to reflect upon why he hadn’t listened to his own wife then. Now, remorsefully, he eagerly listened to the voice of the soprano soloist. ‘Et tibi reddetur votum…’—‘they’re praying to you…’ That had been the voice of Ruya… Ruya, oh Ruya… One day, she came to Zamzama after the rehearsal, playfully asking, ‘what’s your instrument called—a sexaphone? I really do love it…’ she trailed off charmingly. He knew that singers were meant to be stupid, but not to that extent. ‘I love how firm it is, and especially how it extends,’ she added. Ruya, oh Ruya…

While the choir was approaching the middle of the first section, Zamzama started to prepare himself for his third entrance. Taking the trombone in his hands, he tried it on his lips. ‘Requiem aeternam…’—‘eternal peace and quiet…’ Oh wasn’t it all, before that happened?

The melody ascended with the voices grappling with each other, and in turn, all grappling against the orchestra. In this subtle battle, Zamzama had no idea whose side to take. Finally, when the voices combined, to sing ‘Kyrie eleison…’—‘forgive us, God…’—he joined them in the last, long sigh, producing a long, endless sound…

The orchestra stopped playing. Somebody coughed, whilst someone else rearranged to sit more comfortably. Zamzama used these few seconds to clear his mouthpiece, shaking it softly. At this point however, the conductor—whose enthusiasm hadn’t died down from earlier—raised his hands to his chest with vigour. The whole orchestra suddenly took a quick breath, and within a second they had started the Dies Irae (‘day of wrath’). Zamzama joined the choir with a rich and deep addition of majesty to their wrath. Why had he decided to take that corpse then? Had he wanted to bring it back to life? Did he want to play these piercing sounds? Who was the one drowning into the whirlpool of anger—was it not him himself? ‘What a tremor there shall be, once the judge shall arrive… – Quantus tremor est futurus, quando judux est venturus…’

The orchestra was in full motion. The conductor’s hands flung around like rakes, shredding through the lands. The first violinist imitated his eccentric movements—there was clearly something between them, and everybody must surely know it, Zamzama thought. Both of them were completely outdone under the magnitude of the choir, however.

The fourth part was opened by Zamzama alone. He—the trombonist who would usually put his instrument to the side on other evenings, correcting the screeching and shrieking of the other musicians—had a different role this night. Like the great angel Israfil, he was tasked to put to one side his usual laziness, and play the nafiha fis sur; the instrument named in the Holy Quran that would wake the dead on the day of judgement.

Tuba mirum, spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnis ante thronum…

Zamzama’s teacher used to say, ‘Never force this piece, let it flow,’ before adding, ‘the dead aren’t woken by a donkey’s eee-orr, nor by an alarm clock…’ ‘The dead are only woken by music.’ Zamzama recalled the face of the adolescent corpse. He hadn’t really taken a good look when catching a glimpse of the corpse in the bath, and all he remembered was the fluffy moustache on his upper lip, as well as his pubic frizz. The male bass chorist joined Zamzama, and he sang those words. Zamzama decoratively contributed melody between the words, before the tenor with a low adolescent voice. Was it his son shouting in the poplar woods, or was it the adolescent corpse; having suddenly come to life in song? ‘Liber scriptus preferetur…’—‘Bring the written scripture…’ So had everything been written down, like these notes? Had the words of those policemen not hinted at that? Why did the conductor look at him with a certain doubt—had he made a mistake?

The voice of the female alto—as if having taken the burden of the trombones—joined the conversation, saying: ‘All secrets shall at some point come to discovery.’ Zamzama however, escaped the meaning of these words, sitting enchanted by the beautiful and tender voice of Ruya. One day during their orchestral tour, after the concert had finished, she ran the tap in his bathroom at full strength and burst into similar song. ‘Shhh, the old twat will hear you!’ Zamzama had whispered, trying to quieten her to avoid getting caught by their conductor. Even this old stern-faced twat—who thought that he ruled the world with a flick of his baton—suddenly went limp in the tides and waves of Ruya’s voice, as if he were swimming through them.

Israfil’s work had been done. The rest was mainly the work of the choir, and the strings. While playing the ‘Rex tremendae’—‘the Tremendous King,’ Zamzama understood that everything was out of his control now. He had brought the corpse to his garage and had forgotten about it due to petty tasks, though as the cocky yet effeminate first violin used to jibe, ‘now that the music’s over, you can shove the rosin up your arse[1].’ Distracted by this thought, Zamzama played his note in the twelfth bar a split second before he was meant to come in, and gave himself a fright once he realised. He had never been so absent-minded during a performance, and luckily in the melange of the orchestra nobody noticed his mistake, aside from the conductor. Hearing the slight error, the conductor turned to Zamzama with a draconian stare, leading Zamzama to believe that the conductor could probably hear everything—even a fly taking a shit. Noticing the stare upon him, Zamzama swung his shoulders whilst playing his last three bars flawlessly, returning to the embrace of the music.

Though the next part, the ‘Recordare…’—‘Remember…’ was started by Zamzama’s comrades in the brass section who played with uniformly pious expressions, there were no notes for Zamzama himself to play—idleness. He placed his trombone beside him, listening to the four voices weaving into a great wall of memories. Once more, he softly shook his mouthpiece, ridding it of the saliva that it had accumulated. Wasn’t it just his luck that slowly but surely, the droplet of saliva landed perfectly dead-centre on his black, polished shoe? ‘For fuck’s sake,’ he swore, either at his saliva, his trombone or at himself. ‘Should I wipe it?’ he thought, remembering his mother that had died many years ago. She, you see, had a particularly strange habit. Whilst other children played football—raising the dust in the street—she used to hand him a little horn when leaving the house for any occasion, spitting a large glob of phlegm onto the threshold of the door, turning to him and stating, ‘I’ll be back home before it dries up.’ Zamzama used to blow endlessly into the horn, releasing either his sadness, longing or bitterness, whilst watering the drying saliva with his own clouded tears. Was his inner music born then and there, he wondered.

Et ab haedis me sequestra,    and separate me from the goats,

Statuens in parte dextra.                    guiding me to Your right hand.

When the female voices finished singing these words, Zamzama caught the angry glance of the conductor, took the trombone in his hand, and started with the next ‘Confutatis…’—‘Confounded…’ part. This time, he didn’t allow any distractions to sweep him away. Without taking his eyes off of the score, he accompanied the choir with immense zeal. Despite the begging female voices, ‘voca me… voca me…’ he carried on with his chord sequence: A minor → A flat minor → G minor → G flat Minor → F Major. Slowly he plodded through the chords as if dragging and dragging his sledge through the snowy fields, all those days ago.

Now the violins brought in the weeping of the ‘Lacrimosa deis illa…’—‘That day of tears and mourning…’ The choir had started its own apocalyptic wails, with the time signature changing to 12/8—the rhythm of a waltz. The whole world was blanketed in thick, heavy snow. Zamzama, with the sledge and the corpse within it; with his trombone and the sounds made by it; with his wife and his son; everything was buried in this snow of oblivion. Was it because of his burning heart that the snowflakes melted in his eyes, slowly turning to tears? He wanted to wipe the tears from his eyes, but the droplet fell onto his shoe—where the saliva was still yet to dry. It seemed that in the silence, a voice had joined the sound.

Next, the ‘Domine Jesu…’ part kept Zamzama quite busy. Now he was no longer Israfil, rather more like Asrael: the archangel of death. This was especially true when the choir stumbled again and again upon a phrase: ‘Quam olim Abrahae promisisti…’—‘Which was promised to Abraham…’ leading Zamzama’s eyes to fixate upon the word olim (death). Over and over he played the same bar, hearing them repeat the word; ‘olim… ‘olim… ‘olim…’ Why did he keep stumbling upon death? Why couldn’t he escape this whirlpool? Is something ominously waiting for him, or was it confirmation that he is still alive? He was covered in sweat. In his ears, the never-resolving culmination of the choir sounded like the persistent ring of a telephone, that nobody seemed to answer.

Who had promised what, to whom: the dead to the living, or the living to the dead? That part was suddenly over, too. The conductor, almost as though he had started to pity his orchestra, spread his spiderlike arms wide, as if releasing everyone from their endless headache.

Do conductors consider themselves as the shadows of God upon Earth, when they revive the sounds and whispers of the dead, as if to say ‘try to get out of my control,’ directing things that are as complex as the world itself? Once again raising his baton to the heavens, the conductor’s arm ascends, in a final attempt to gain all of the musicians’ submission. Without knowing why, Zamzama felt a rebellion brewing within him. Although he agreed to play the next section—‘Hostias…’—properly, the next section would see him resting for a while, and he decided that he would entertain the thought of rebelling further, then.

Zamzama knew that this part also contained the stumbling ‘Quam olim Abrahae promisisti…’, and he thought to himself that those who spread death, then gather sacrifices. Yet somehow in his conflicted opposition, he looked at the other words: ‘Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam,’—‘And let them, Lord, pass from death to life…’ he read. Upon glancing at this line, the music took him back to the bathroom where the naked adolescent lay. What if that had been somebody’s child, buried under a poplar? What if they had taken him, not even allowing him peace inside his own grave, disturbed by the melting snow? It was as if somebody had stolen an imprisoned and bound Isaac, whilst Abraham prepared him for his sacrifice. Is it because of that, that the choir kept stumbling upon the ‘Quam olim Abrahae promisisti…’?



‘Sanctus, sanctus…’—‘Saint, saint…’ Does the life of conductors also go astray? Or is everything already written in the notes, which stand before him like guidance for a scripture?

Did the drummer just drum for the first time? Zamzama had no part to play here, but he gently placed the trombone between his legs, and understood why he had been thinking about the conductor’s orders. He remembered that he used to have a certain recurring dream about lifts, that he had dreamt of last night.

Zamzama was sitting outside on a bench. A suspicious looking character came and sat next to him. Initially, he sat calmly, yet afterwards he started to complain in a slow and quiet voice. ‘I used to be in the frontline,’ he said, ‘but something happened…’ he trailed off, starting to tell the story of his mishaps. Zamzama couldn’t understand him very well however; ‘there are some crazy people around,’ he thought, ‘that enter your personal space with no regard.’ With this worry, he looked at his watch, which happened to be missing, and said, ‘sorry, I have to go in five minutes, as I have a rehearsal.’ The stranger accepted this, although he carried on telling the story whilst clutching onto Zamzama’s sleeve.

This time, a beautiful girl who was standing behind them stopped the stranger, cutting him short. ‘Don’t tell him everything,’ she said firmly, trying to stop the stranger from telling Zamzama too much. A silky, flawless face, large beautiful eyes, and luscious red lips all made Zamzama realise that it was Ruya. He stood to walk into the building within which he thought that he had a rehearsal, and she followed him soon after. ‘Where do you know Von Karajan from?’ she asked. Zamzama looked furtively at her face. Now that she seemed far more intelligible, the colours and beauty slowly drained from her face, until what was left was the ugly features of a witch. He shook in fright, ‘you can’t come in here, and I don’t know a Von Karajan!’ Ruya tried to enter, yet his words seemed to influence her movements, and she turned away, returning to the madman.

‘They’ll now be waiting for me…’ thought a worried Zamzama. ‘But they’ll most likely be waiting at the rear door, where they’re sitting now. They can’t possibly know about the central exit from the building, on the opposite side,’ he thought, deciding to leave by that door to avoid stirring their attention. ‘Yet if they’re looking through the window, I’d better get my things from the fifth floor, to avoid them seeing me. Then, I can carry on and leave through the central exit…’ he carried on wondering.

He waited for a lift, and entered it with an adolescent boy. ‘Oh hurry up, I’d rather leave soon,’ Zamzama muttered at the lift, yet the lift doors refused to close. A former officer from the philharmonic personnel entered the lift. ‘Which floor?’ asked Zamzama, ‘the eighth, please,’ answered the former officer. The button pad only had numbers going up till five however, with no buttons for floors above that. They started to look around, and on the ceiling of the lift there’s a handle. Around the handle, the small figures of seven and eight were painted onto the ceiling, and Zamzama wondered about whether to pull it. Seeing him trying to figure it out, the adolescent boy added, ‘’

The lift ascends, yet the doors of the lift somehow remain open. ‘Is it so difficult to get up to the fifth floor?’ Zamzama thinks to himself, as the lift carries on going up and up. The officer jumps out on one of the floors, through open doors. ‘He just jumped out of an open lift! He could have killed himself,’ Zamzama complains to the boy. Finally, the lift starts to decelerate, slowing in order to align with the floor at which it is about to stop. The doors start to move. They want to leave the lift, yet instead of being the fifth floor, it’s clearly marked ‘7’, and the philharmonic orchestra’s gym is spread out proudly before them. From this floor, the conductor and the first violinist walk into the lift. ‘That’s why the lift was going for so long,’ he thinks to himself, and as soon as they decide to descend to the fifth floor, the lift drops half a metre, with the doors suddenly slamming shut. The lift starts to move horizontally, with the doors warping sideways. ‘It’s fine, we can still leave the lift like this, as long as we stop on the fifth floor this time,’ he thinks to himself.

An old woman appears inside the lift. ‘Which floor had she come in?’ Zamzama ponders. By this point, the lift is moving sideways, and occasionally downwards. The doors are also freely traversing around the interior of the lift, appearing on the ceiling, or at the sides, or in front. ‘We have to prepare ourselves for one thing,’ he tells the boy, ‘when the doors move to the floor, we need to find something to hold on to.’ Somehow, the lift goes beneath the ground floor, stopping at the garage on the lower-ground floor.

At the lower-ground floor, they find the building producing black, rubber tyres. The conveyor belt, along with all the things hanging from it, moves towards them. ‘We need to protect our heads from these falling tyres,’ Zamzama thinks, while the old lady leaves the lift at this floor. ‘Wherever the lift stops now, we should probably just get out. We can always take the stairs to the fifth floor…’ he decides, and the lift goes sharply diagonally, before stopping deadly still. Zamzama tries to comprehend whether they’re moving at such a constant pace that they cannot feel the motion, or whether they aren’t moving at all. With this, Zamzama woke up.



The dream seems incredibly heavy on paper. In actual fact, it is weightless, airy and instantaneous. Something came to Zamzama at this point. What we are trying to revive actually falls to its death. What about the opposite? Is it also true? Remembering his dream as his rebellion against the conductor, he didn’t notice when he took the trombone to his hand, when he joined the floating four voices, or when he even finished playing the ‘Benedictus…’ part. Due to the voices’ clarity and purity, and due to the calm and flowing movements of the conductor, he presumed that he had played his own part flawlessly. He wished that everything in reality was as beautiful as it is in dream. Is there anything heavier in reality, than in these weightless, airy and instantaneous dreams?

The four voices of the soloists, intertwined with the four people in his dream: the beautiful girl, the forgetful old lady, the madman and the former officer. In between these characters, it seemed that his trombone was imitating the abrasive movements of the lift, controlled by the gliding hands of the conductor. Upwards, downwards, sideways and diagonally, the trombone perfectly ebbed and flowed with the changing interplay of the choral soloists. Or had these four voices represented the dispute between him, Hulyo, the adolescent and the police officer?

In the last part of the Requiem, the conductor raised his pointed baton, as if in an attempt to pierce the ‘Agnus Dei…’—‘God’s Lamb…’ up in the heavens. Zamzama once again felt rebellion coursing through his blood. The conductor, dressed all in black, seemed like a spectre at this moment. It’s widely known however, that the last parts of the requiem are written not by Mozart, but rather his pupil Süssmayr! Before starting this mass, the conductor mentioned bits and bobs about the piece to the orchestra’s disinterested ears, as per usual. According to him, a ghostly man had once come to see Mozart, asking him to compose a requiem for mourning. A ghost man… ghost man… who was that? Which one should Zamzama choose for himself? ‘However much money you ask for, I shall pay,’ the ghost man said. Was he a conductor, or a spying officer, or an owner of the corpse? Once Mozart and the ghost man had agreed upon a sum, the black-clad ghost man failed to mention a name or any identification, and simply disappeared. Mozart however started to work. While he was composing this solemn music, he was said to have realised that he was composing it for his own death—‘not having yet reached forty, my life has been cut short.’ Maybe all of this was about Zamzama himself? Maybe he wasn’t confused about what to do with the corpse so much as not knowing what to do with himself? Could the corpse itself be a ghost: non-existent, a spectre? Mozart died without finishing his work. ‘Therefore, you have to play the mirage of this ghost man,’ the conductor said, concluding his explanation of the Requiem’s context. What is Zamzama playing now? That non-existence, that shadow, that spectre?

The black-clad choir moved row by row, like cars… The black-clad violins played ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi…’—‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,’ as if weeping from their instruments. Then, in his car, hadn’t he listened to these words? The black-clad Ruya joined in, ‘Lux aeterna…’—‘Eternal light…’, as suddenly, a light hits Zamzama from behind. Not wanting to be distracted from the music, he sharply swings his trombone to the right. The wheel of the black-clad saxophonist’s motorbike shines as he plays it, ‘Requiem aeternum dona eis…’—‘Grant them eternal rest…’—the black biker, falling onto white snow.

‘So finally, I’ve been caught,’ thought Zamzama, ‘by the God’s lamb that lay in the waterless white bath, after lying under a blanket of white snow.’ In this confusion and panic, Zamzama blew with all the force that he had. Not into his trombone, but into his sur—his apocalyptic trumpet, or even into his childhood horn; blowing hollow empty notes that turned white from within the black.

It seemed that his mother spoke from the empty nothingness that came from within him; ‘What does the trumpeter even do? Pfff…

[1] This alludes to a famous Uzbek proverb that says, ‘once the Eid festivities are over, you might put the henna up your arse.’ Women usually rub henna into their palms and face for the festival, and therefore the saying is referring to how useless henna is, after Eid.

Translated from Uzbek by Dani Ismailov


Hamid Ismailov was born into a deeply religious Uzbek family of Mullahs and Khodjas living in Kyrgyzstan, many of whom had lost their lives during the Stalin era persecution. Yet he had received an exemplary Soviet education, graduating with distinction from both his secondary school and military college, as well as attaining university degrees in a number of disciplines. Though he could have become a high-flying Soviet or post-Soviet apparatchik, instead his fate led him to become a dissident writer and poet residing in the West. He was the BBC World Service first Writer in Residence. Critics have compared his books to the best of Russian classics, Sufi parables and works of Western post-modernism. While his writing reflects all of these and many other strands, it is his unique intercultural experience that excites and draws the reader into his world.

Daniyar Ismailov studies Anthropology, Sociology and Politics at Cambridge University and translates from Uzbek and Russian.


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