Azerbaijani Fairy Tales

by Murad Jalilov

Growing up Goychay, Azerbaijan, I would always hear my grandmother telling tales of old, some more interesting than others. She always told them at night in her loud-yet-soothing voice. The ones that stuck out the most were the fairy tales that were meant to frighten, such as “Adamcil” (Man-Eater), a tale of a humanoid with long horns and claws, covered in fur, eating human corpses, and “Isah and Musah,” the tale of a bird that mimics the cries of two brothers lost in a forest. These tales had a certain eerie charm to them and always blended with the mysterious nature and sounds of the night.

One of the better ways of introducing the public to a new culture is through folklore, more specifically fairy tales. As an immigrant from Azerbaijan, I’ve seen the current trends in American society where diversity is being somewhat celebrated, despite the current political rhetoric. It made me realize that I have something of my own to bring into this country and to its culture.

Azerbaijan’s geographical position as a country between the Middle East and Europe, surrounded by countries such as Russia, Iran and Turkey, made it an ancient hub for cultural exchange, creating a relatively unique folklore. The story that reflects this the most is “The Tale of Malikmammad,” about a young prince who journeys into the Dark World and has to face creatures from European folklore, like ogres and dragons, and a creature from Turkic folklore called the Emerald Bird (Zumrud/Konrul). There are also Azerbaijani versions of western tales such as “Cinderella” (“Göyçək Fatma”) and “The Three Goats” (“Şəngülüm, Şüngülüm, Məngülüm”). There are also plenty of tales about animals, usually with human traits, such as “Trickster Goat,” which tells the story of a goat that outsmarted a bear, a wolf, and a fox.

Unfortunately, a very limited number of Azerbaijani fairy tales have been translated into English, one of them being “Jirtan: The Little Boy Who Fought Monsters,” published in Azerbaijan International Magazine in 1996. Beyond this example, it is almost impossible to find English translations for fairy tales in the language, even for those that are known well among the Azerbaijani people, and it’s a shame that so much folklore is lost behind the language barrier. Fortunately, the age of information has connected people from around the world, making it much easier for cultures to share their heritage online for all to read and translate. Other than websites dedicated to collecting fairy tales and folklore, for me personally the web makes it easier to stay in touch with my relatives in Azerbaijan on a much more frequent basis, which allows me to ask them for fairytales that have never been recorded online or in print.

It is essential that these fairy tales are translated into English and introduced to the wider public to add the voice of a culture that has been silent for years. Unfortunately, there is little interest in literarily translating Azerbaijani literature into English among those who speak both languages, and there are even fewer people versed in creative writing in English on a college level. Azerbaijani fairy tales will bring new ideas and enrich the literature that is available in English. For this reason, I have been inspired to add the cultural artifacts I brought with me, in the form of fairy tales, to the ever-growing melting pot that is the US, through literary translation.

Read Murad Jalilov and N.K. Valek’s translation of “The Trickster Goat” below.

The Trickster Goat

Translated by Murad Jalilov and N.K Valek

Once there was and once there wasn’t a group of people moving from the mountains to the plains. A Goat, a Calf, and a Sheep from the herds were in a hidden place eating grass and were not aware that their people were leaving them. When they raised their heads, however, their people were already gone.

The Calf went to the Goat. “Brother Goat,” he cried, “the wolf is going to eat us! Please find us a way!”

The Goat replied, “Let us find a hut and start living in it.”

All three of them agreed and started searching for a hut. Along the way, they found the pelt of a bear for the Calf, and pelt of wolf for the Goat and a pelt of fox for the Sheep to cover themselves with. After some more wandering, they finally found a hut and happily entered it, only to find a Bear, a Wolf, and a Fox having a chat.  

The Bear spoke happily to the fox, “Grandfather Fox, please bring me a piece of wood.”

The Fox brought a piece of wood from the corner.

The Bear put the wood on his chest and started singing, “Ring, my lute, ring: Today I ate a calf, and another fell down the chimney.”

The Wolf took the wood from the Bear and sang, “Ring, my lute, ring: today I ate a goat, and another one came to me willingly.”

Then the Fox took the wood. “Ring, my lute, ring: today I ate a sheep and shall have another one!”

After hearing all this, the Goat told the Sheep, “Bring me a piece of wood.”

The Sheep gave the Goat the piece of wood. The Goat put the wood on his chest and started singing, “Ring, my lute, ring: today I ate a wolf, covered myself with its pelt, and I shall eat another one.”

Then he gave the wood to the Calf.

The Calf took the wood and sang, “Ring, my lute, ring: today I ate a bear, covered myself with its pelt, and I shall eat another one.”

The Calf gave the wood to the Sheep, who also sang, “Ring, my lute, ring: today I ate a fox, covered myself with its pelt, and I shall eat another one.”

When the Fox heard this, it ran out the hut, followed by the Wolf and the Bear. The Goat told his comrades, “This trick saved our lives. They will have time to think while they run and they will return to eat us. Let’s run somewhere else.”

The three of them agreed to leave. They wandered for a little, and they stumbled upon a rock. They decided to climb the rock and lie down there. Meanwhile the Bear, the Wolf and the Fox were still running. Suddenly the Wolf spoke up, “Hey, a goat, a calf and a sheep won’t be able to eat us. They tricked us. Let’s go back and eat them.”

Once they returned to the hut, they found it to be abandoned. They followed the track of the three animals and stumbled upon a rock. They saw the Goat, the Calf and the Sheep on top of the rock. Once the Calf noticed the Bear’s scary gaze, he got frightened, slipped and fell from the rock. The Goat seeing this yelled as loud as he could:

“Brother Calf, go get the bear, and we’ll take care of the wolf and the fox!”

After hearing this, the Fox ran off, and the Wolf and the Bear followed. The three herd friends laughed for a while together. Later all three of them found a way to the plains and rejoined the herds of their people.

Murad Jalilov is a graduate student in the MA program in Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Oregon. His literary translations have been published in OCCULUM, Three Drops from A Cauldron and Origins Journal, and have been accepted for publication in Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation, WritersResist, and The Charleston Anvil. He is fluent in Russian, Azerbaijani, English and Turkish. He teamed up with N.K Valek (a local writer from Emporia, Kansas) to produce high-quality translations of Azerbaijani fairy tales. He also works with Kevin Rabas (Kansas Poet Laureate) in translating Azerbaijani and Russian poetry into English.