They used a pair of children’s round-tip scissors to cut the plastic free. The jolt from the sudden release sent a wave of searing pain up my arms and through my stiff, unyielding shoulders. I clenched my teeth to stifle a gasp, but a weak groan still resonated in my throat. When I heard the door click shut behind me, I carefully raised my hands to see my wrists. The left was okay, but as I had assumed, my right was bleeding. With gentle pressure, I blotted the oozing welt with the cuff of my sleeve, then watched as the red stain spread to the buttonhole. The wound from the zip tie wasn’t deep, but the scar would be a reminder for years.
The weather app on my phone had predicted a scorching thirty-eight-degree high in Baku for the day, but the air in my cell carried a damp, antiseptic-tinged chill and I shivered in my thin cotton shirt. The stark white walls of the narrow room only intensified the cold. I turned in a circle to take in the rest of my confined surroundings, then sat on the low concrete bench, arms around my shoulders for warmth, and stared up at the high window where the metal bars gleamed in the afternoon sun. As if on show for the captive audience, three feathery, luminescent green puffs danced with the dust motes in the streaming light. At once, I recognized the color and plucked one from its sunlit stage. The tiny fibers rolled easily between my fingertips, and I felt the familiar, soft texture of finely spun wool. Before I could reach for another, the air flashed a bright, pale color. When my eyes adjusted, I saw tens of luminescent puffs swirl above my head, then fall to the floor by my feet.
Many years ago, in a high mountain meadow, a nightingale fell in love with a beautiful flower. Each day the tiny bird sang his woeful song. Each night he rested nearby. Then one day a bee came to the meadow, spied the beautiful flower, and decided to take a taste of its nectar. The nightingale, seeing the bee, swooped down to protect his beloved, but the bee stung him in the chest.
I cried the first time my mother got to this point of the story, this legend of my people, but she said not to worry, for the nightingale was strong and of good character, and he did not die. Instead, he, with the bee, was born again as a flower, the Khari Bulbul, to live forever in the meadows of our high mountains.
My mother told me there were other stories about how the beautiful flower came to be, but this was my father’s favorite and so it is the one I have loved since childhood. My father believed the flower held the spirit of our people and wove its image into the carpets he made from the soft, thick wool of our sheep. He, like his mother before him, and his grandmother before her, was a carpet master from the hills outside of Shusha in the southern Caucus Mountains. He was a man with a talent for weaving the wonders of nature into the patterns and designs formed from richly colored threads.
According to my mother, the winter of 1921 was one of the worst she had ever known, and it was the happiest she had ever seen my father. It was only when the cold bit into the soil so it cracked into hard, ice-rimmed slabs that the sheep grew their thickest coats. Their wool was strong and supple, and gave my father’s carpets a special sheen as if they had been woven with silk.
With the wool from that harsh winter, my father started my carpet—the orange and black and pink and yellow one I have kept near to me for over nine decades.
One by one I gathered the puffs and compressed them into a ball in the palm of my hand. Their sheer number confounded me. There were too many to be random lint caught in the folds of my clothes, but the luminescent green color was unmistakable. As impossible as it seemed, these tiny fibers of spun wool had come from my carpet.
My fascination with carpets began with a story. I read a book in my twenties about a fantasy world magically hidden in the knots and patterns of an oriental rug. The plot of the story centered on the unweaving of age-old threads, endangered kingdoms, and the evil of humankind. After that, every intricately woven carpet fed my imagination with possibilities of trapped heroes and demons waiting for release. Azerbaijan had a reputation for beautiful carpets, so ten days after I landed in Baku, I went to Ali Baba’s Carpet Shop with my Singaporean friend, Salima, and met an Azeri rug dealer named, Ramil.
Ramil’s shop fulfilled my dream of the Orient. The old Orient. The one embroidered with swords and daggers, harems and turbans. Ten uneven, cobbled steps led to a room buried beneath a nineteenth-century building, a Gothic Revival, mere meters from the squat, twelfth-century Maiden Tower, the symbol of the old city of Baku. Inside the shop, carpets covered the floors, the walls, the low benches. Rolled treasures, stacked four deep, completely filled one corner and a tiny alcove, and the musty odor of washed wool hung heavy in the air. My skin had prickled with anticipation.
“May I show you some Azerbaijani carpets?” Ramil asked, after introductions. Ramil was a diminutive man with a round face and a small round mouth that moved only slightly when he spoke.
“Please, sit and I will show you.”
Salima was already seated and thumbing through one of Ramil’s carpet books, so I sat next to her on the cushioned bench. Salima, like me, had a love for oriental carpets and was often in Ramil’s shop looking for another Azeri design to add to her growing collection. In her life before Azerbaijan, she’d captained cargo ships in the South China Sea. Diminutive herself, Salima embodied will and direction, and I enjoyed sharing our common passion.
“First, I will show you one from the southern part of my country,” Ramil said.
And so it began. He unfurled a carpet, and I offered a reaction. Yes, no, too big, too small, maybe. After unrolling about twenty rugs of varying sizes and only mildly interesting designs, I pointed to one that caught my eye each time I scanned the rows of options stacked in the corner of the shop. “How about the one there?”
Ramil squinted at me in the odd way only a round face beneath a bald head can. A quizzical, emoticon kind of look. He hesitated, glanced briefly at Salima, then walked to the carpet and pulled it from the side. “Of course.” He turned to address Salima, “Your friend has good taste.”
Salima glanced at me, grinned, then spoke to Ramil. “I told you.” She shrugged and turned a page.
Ramil held the carpet in his arms for nearly thirty seconds before speaking. It was an uncomfortable, awkward moment. “I must tell you this is a very old carpet. You will see the date in the corner. 1921. It is from Nagorno-Karabakh.”
“That’s the disputed area,” Salima added without looking up from Ramil’s book.
I knew of the region. Nagorno-Karabakh, or simply, Karabakh, was known to anyone who worked or lived in Azerbaijan. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the area was riddled with ethnic strife between Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples. Both claimed the land as their own, and a bitter war ensued when the communist states called for independence in the early 1990s. At the time of the ceasefire in 1994, Armenia had control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azeris living in the region who survived the conflict became refugees, and the border was closed, and armed, by both sides. As an American, I could visit Nagorno-Karabakh, but reentry into Azerbaijan with a Karabakh stamp in my passport would, most likely, be forbidden. As I much as I loved a story, I considered this carpet might have too much history, even for me.
“It sounds interesting,” I told Ramil, noncommittally. But as I eyed the unusual pattern in the reverse threads I was unable to fight my curiosity, and motioned for him to open it.
Ramil stared at me again. Our eyes met, and in that moment I felt the air in the room shift, thicken, then curl around me in an odd caress. He unfurled the carpet to the floor and my mind went instantly blank, numb with shock. It was the most beautiful carpet I had ever seen.
Salima looked up from her book. “Odd, isn’t it? Very orange and very floral. I saw this last time I was here. It isn’t my taste.”
Bright floral wasn’t my taste either, but I couldn’t stop looking at the rug in front of me. It wasn’t large, only one by one-and-a-half meters, but the profusion of intricately woven oranges and blacks, pinks and yellows, held my gaze as if it were the most famous Monet masterpiece. A myriad of flowers lured my thoughts into the garden depicted in the fibers. In a second I could have stepped over the border of twisting rose vines and into a dream.
“Do you like it?” Ramil’s voice was clear and soft, and he studied me with a gentle intensity I had not seen in him earlier.
“It is unique,” Salima added. “I will give it that.” She stood and kicked her sandals to the floor. “Take off your shoes. It’s the only way to really tell the feel of a carpet.”
I smiled and shook my head. “No, it’s okay,” I replied. But it wasn’t okay. Something about the carpet was alive. The leaves and petals quivered as if touched by a summer breeze, and I thought I heard a whisper of my name. I held my breath and watched Salima walk back and forth, her toes flexing and grabbing at the wool, and thought in a moment she would disappear into the knots, never to be seen again. But nothing happened, and neither she nor Ramil said anything about fluttering petals or whispered names.
When I found my breath, I knelt to the floor and lightly ran my hand across the unusual flower in the lower right corner. My fingers tingled at the touch. The remaining garden seemed to face this flower as if waiting for it to speak, or perhaps, I suddenly thought—to sing. I shook my head to clear my mind of this crazy idea and refocused on the delicate pattern portrayed in the knots. The weaver had taken great care with this flower. It was the only one in which he used a different color. The anther, the part of the stamens that produces the pollen, was green. A pale, subtle, luminescent green.
Salima leaned over my shoulder. “That’s a nice touch. That’s the color of your eyes.”
I looked at her. “You think?”
“Exactly. You have weird eyes.” Salima had mentioned my strange green eyes the first day I met her, and at least once every day since. My unusual eyes had always drawn attention and I was accustomed to the comments.
I stood and took in all the flowers of the central design. Most were familiar, but not the one in the lower right corner. “Do you know what kind of flower this is?” I asked Ramil.
Ramil studied the flower for a minute, then shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I only know carpets.”
“I think it looks like an orchid,” Salima offered.
I nodded, agreeing. It did sort of look like an orchid, but two of the larger petals were crenulated and reminded me of something else. The image of a bird singing in a garden flitted through my thoughts. “Don’t you think those look like wings?” I asked Salima.
“A winged flower? Really? Then what is this?” Salima pointed to the rounded, mottled black third petal oddly positioned between what I thought were wings.
“A bumble bee?” I suggested, hesitantly. This thought, like the one of the bird, came from out of nowhere.
Salima rolled her eyes back in her head and sat to put her sandals on. “I think you’ve had too much sun.”
Ramil bent to trace the flower with his fingers. “Perhaps you are both right,” he said softly.
Just then, the petals fluttered under Ramil’s touch. I started to say something, then stopped to see if he would mention it first. But he said nothing. He didn’t even flinch as one of the petals curled around his little finger. Maybe I had taken too much sun. I blinked, and blinked again, but the petal still feathered against his palm. “Do you have many carpets like this one?” I managed, too stunned to ask the obvious.
“No, not many,” he answered, gently pulling his hand from the flower’s embrace. “I think French people like this design. They like the orange and the flowers. When I have French people, they buy these carpets.” He paused, and gave me a knowing, sideways glance over his shoulder. “But today you are here and I think this must be your destiny.” At the sound of the ‘ee’ in destiny, he broke into a broad smile and spread his arms wide across the width of the carpet, palms up. The universal sign of invitation.
I grinned, thinking he must give this speech to a lot of customers. My father’s father was French, but my attraction here was much more than hereditary. I stared down at the beautiful woven garden, my heart pounding with indecision, and closed my eyes to the shimmering swirl of color at my feet. Then I heard the winged flower’s luminescent green anther call my name again, not in a hushed tone, but in a low mournful melody.
“How much?” I asked in something just above a whisper, silently praying his answer would be a number I could afford.
A mist covered the hills around the house the day my father came home to tell my mother the news. She went to the window when she heard the gate open, but only saw his outline, a form shaded grey by air heavy with moisture. Fatima, my father’s favorite ewe, padded across the newly damp soil and tucked her head between the wooden slats of her pen to nuzzle his outstretched hand.
My mother said my father looked to her at the window, his eyes wide with unshed tears, and she knew without words.
The Revolution had come to our hills.
I went to Baku to research the story, Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said. A tale of true love with a poignant message. I stayed in Baku because a small independent news agency needed an English language editor.
The agency operated from a pre-revolutionary flat at the top of a flight of broken stairs, off a neglected courtyard in the teeming city center of Baku. Each afternoon I dodged rows of daily laundry strung between ancient windows to get to the entrance. On the other side of the front door, activity hummed a serious tune. The large room, once an aristocrat’s parlour, held no separate offices, no cubes, only beat-up desks from some long-forgotten business, and computers that worked reasonably well when the power was stable. It was a space filled with vibrant, multicultural, multilanguage people like myself dedicated to reporting the news that didn’t usually get reported. A place on the edge.
And, as with most things not officially sanctioned, a place that offered little money. I managed to buy the carpet from Nagorno-Karabakh, but my emergency cash had taken a hit and I would need to be more frugal in the coming months.
My desk, flush with the far wall of the main door-less room, was sandwiched between Aziz, the staff photographer/audio guy who never spoke, and Tarana, the Russian-to-Azeri translator with a fondness for Turkish sweets, who never stopped pelting me with questions, querying about my previous evening’s activities. The day after I bought the carpet was no different. She didn’t even wait for me to sit. In a room full of dark-eyed, dark-haired people, I was the resident anomaly with my shock of pale hair, and, as Salima so kindly put it, weird eyes. Everyone turned to hear my answer. I kept it simple and didn’t mention the winged flower with the luminescent green anther.
“I went to the old town for dinner with a friend.”
She nodded, and her questions went on from there—all in Russian, the language I’d studied at university. What restaurant? What did you eat? Were there any tourists? When I struggled to answer, she reminded me she was just trying to help me polish my rusty Russian vocabulary. Speaking at least one of the local languages was an advantage in our business, and I needed all the help I could get.
Inquisition and lesson over, Tarana and I settled down to our work. This was a busy time. The elections were only two months away and an opposition party was trying, once again, to gain a foothold in the government. They wanted action, not stalemate, around issues of corruption, education reform, refugee camps, and general quality of life. At three, I took a break and switched my screen to our search engine and queried carpets from Nagorno-Karabakh. The first site mentioned they were often quite large and created in sets of three or five to decorate walls as well as floors. That didn’t sound like my carpet. A second site talked about the area’s unique sheep, but gave no details other than the sheep had thick coats. A third site highlighted the use of bright colors and geometric flower designs. I agreed with the bright colors, but there was nothing geometric about the flowers in my carpet. Frustrated, I wanted to know more.
Of the journalists and translators at the agency, I knew Tarana best, but her language skills were limited to Russian and Azeri and I didn’t think I could muster the details of Russian to ask about carpets and the history of carpet making in the early twentieth century. Parvana, a young enthusiastic Azeri journalist who lived for politics and wanted government change, spoke Azeri, Russian, and some English. I went to her for advice. She thought for a minute, then led me down the hall past the kitchen and knocked on a partially closed door. A thin, grey-haired man I had never met sat at a desk peering at a book illuminated in the faint glow of an ancient metal lamp. Parvana spoke to him in Azeri, then turned to me.
“This is Shahim. He has been a journalist in our country for many years, and now works as our historian.” I understood. He made sure the facts were truth.
Shahim stood and shook my hand. “Salam,” he offered softly.
“Salam,” I responded. Then, in my best Russian, with a little help from Parvana, I told him who I was and what I was interested in. Shahim glanced at his chair, but did not sit. Parvana, understanding, darted back to the other room and returned with two small stools.
Shahim’s two languages, like Tarana’s, were Russian and Azeri. It was an odd transfer of words, but somehow amongst the three of us, we managed. What I learned was heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time. I learned the people from the mountains of Karabakh, the ones who made my carpet, had been revered as weavers. A piece from them was a gift. Sadly, in 1921, Bolshevik victory and subsequent boundary disputes forced a number of these people to start a new life in the lowlands, far from the high mountains that inspired them. Shahim believed the sheep fared no better. Without the harsh winters, their coats grew thin and the wool lost its magic luster. I asked if anyone had tried to bring the sheep and weavers back to the hills. He told me the Soviets opened carpet schools in Shusha and a few other cities in the region in the 1930s, and again in 1950s, but it was never the same. Shahim did not know what efforts had been made since the Armenians had taken control in 1994.
For a time we sat in silence, then I pulled out my phone and showed Shahim a photo of the winged flower in my carpet. Shahim studied the photo for several minutes before pulling a book from an upper shelf. He thumbed the pages to a black-and-white photograph of a mountain meadow coated in spring blossoms. In the foreground, enlarged by the angle of the lens, a lone flower with its wing-like petals turned to the sun grew from a rocky outcrop. Slowly I moved my lips to form the sounds written in Cyrillic beneath the picture—The Khari Bulbul of Karabakh.
The day we were to move, my mother woke with pain. She was in her seventh month and worried I might come early just to bring more trouble into our house. Later she would tell me I was a good child, a blessing, but on that day she did not think this.
My father told her to stay in bed and began to unpack our things. My mother rested, and by noon felt better, but by then it was too late. The soldiers already stood at the garden wall. They shouted at my father, and my father pleaded back. He said we could not go just yet. We had to wait for the baby. The soldiers did not like his answer and shot Fatima in the head.
We carried Fatima in the wagon down the steep mountain road until we reached the edge of our valley and were away from the soldiers. There, my father carefully sheared her coat and buried her body at the top of a hill where a vibrant patch of Khari Bulbul reveled in the warm afternoon sun. My mother said my father stood on the hill for a long time, staring out across the land to the high mountains, not moving. Then, when the sun dipped below the horizon, he knelt before the most beautiful of the Khari Bulbul and gently touched its petals. A fine, brilliant-green powder fell from the flower’s center and into the palm of his hand.
When I was old enough to understand, my mother told me there was another legend our people had of the Khari Bulbul, one told in a folk song about the Khan of Karabakh and his princess daughter who married an Iranian king. In time, the princess became sad, for she missed her home in the hills outside of Shusha. The Iranian king, who loved his beautiful wife and wanted to see her smile again, built her a vast garden at his palace in Iran planted with all the flowers of her homeland. The garden turned green and flourished—all but the Khari Bulbul, which refused to grow anywhere but in the mountain meadows of Karabakh.
My mother said my father would place his hands on her rounded belly and whisper to me. She said he called me his princess, his precious daughter who was taken from her home to live in a far away land. She said he never wanted me to be sad or melancholy like the Khan’s princess daughter in the legend.
My father died the week before I was born. With Fatima’s wool dyed the brilliant green of the luminous spores of the flower of Karabakh, he finished my carpet.
Two weeks after I talked to Shahim, the agency asked me to cover the opposition rally being held in Azadlyq Square next to the Government House. Tarana told me not to take a camera or a cellphone, to just go and listen, then later write what I saw and what I heard. She also cautioned me to stand at the back and to cover my abnormally white hair.
The morning of the rally I awoke on my living room floor. The soft threads of my carpet’s warp yarn quivered in the exhale of my breath. This was not the first time I’d fallen asleep in this manner. Since I had brought the carpet home, I had not slept anywhere but inches from the delicate, bird-winged flower, the one the Azerbaijani people named the Khari Bulbul, the bee-nightingale. Even though the flower’s anther called to me each night in a whispered melody, I still had not found the courage to step across the carpet’s braided-rose border and surrender myself to its fluttering, expectant, garden.
I dressed in what I wore every day. A plain collared shirt over a loose-fitting pair of slacks. Comfortable shoes. To please Tarana, I draped a dark-grey scarf over and around my hair.
I took the Boulevard to get to Azadlyq Square. In the last five years, the Azeri government had spent millions—billions–of dollars to reclaim the waterfront area along the Caspian Sea to provide an attractive open park lined with fountains, restaurants, and promenades. The changes were a great improvement to a city with a history of tar-stained beaches littered with the flotsam from centuries of sea trade and oil production. Just to the west of the Boulevard, across the five-lane Neftchilar Prospekt, stood the bold, but attractive, concrete mass of Dom Soviet, the Government House, and Azadlyq Square where thousands waited behind a barricade.
Despite my instructions, I didn’t want to be at the back. Instead, I stood right in front near the guy with the megaphone. I watched and listened while the engaged, young faces of the country chanted for reform. When the crowd surged right, I flowed right. When it went left, I followed. Perhaps it was the anger, the sadness I still felt when I thought about the injustices suffered by the people from Nagorno-Karabakh, the taking of freedoms, the unfair edicts assigned by governments–I didn’t know. I just knew I belonged in that crowd, that swirling mass of humanity, and that was why when the police arrived, I did not leave. When the crowd surged left again, I fell, literally, into the arms of a very surprised young officer. He grabbed my shoulders, spun me around, and fastened a zip tie to bind my wrists.
My mother lived to see the birth of my third grandson, the sweet round-faced treasure who still dotes on me in these twilight years. She, like my father, rests in eternity under the old tree by the stream that watered our lowland village. My husband, a hard-working farmer, survived the Soviet collectives only to die from a fever in the Karabakh relocation camp in 1994. We were a nation of displaced people living in tents and makeshift shelters. I had hoped to carry his body home, but returning to our land was not to be.
Now, I am near to my time. The hills of my people are still closed and I have accepted that I, too, will be buried in strange soil for there is no way back for me. But my father’s Khari Bulbul that lived at the edge of our valley, the flower that has warmed my heart for over nine decades, need not suffer my fate. My grandson agrees with me, and I know he has been thinking. He, of all my family, understands the mastery of his great-grandfather.
The fading sunlight warned me hours had passed since my arrest. The agency had probably tried to locate me, but I was not officially part of their staff and I doubted what they could do for me. I was just an American on a tourist visa. An arrested American tourist. The officers had been respectful, but my crime was of a political nature, and one not easily forgiven.
I heard the murmur of voices from the outside hall, but all the others in my ward, in the cells I could not see, had gone quiet. I shifted on the hard bench and leaned my head against the wall. The pieces of green fuzz I’d gathered earlier I kept cradled in my hand. This color in my carpet, this pale, soft, luminescent green wool, was used only in the anther of the one flower, but I had gathered enough for ten anthers for ten flowers. I tightened my fist and the tiny fibers warmed my fingertips against the damp cold of my cell like a mother’s breath on a child’s hand. I stared at the locked metal door, then let my gaze wander over the stark walls. I’d heard rumors of abuse in the prisons, but the only fear I felt was that I would never see my carpet again.
The groan of a sliding bolt broke my thoughts and I quickly tucked the anther’s green puffs into my pocket. A pleasant-faced guard with silver temples opened the door to my cell and waved me out. I walked slowly down the hall to where a man in a white shirt and blue slacks stood and handed me a crumpled plastic grocery bag. Inside were my scarf, watch, and lip balm.
The guard with the silver temples then motioned me toward a door at the end of the hall where another officer, this one in a dark military uniform, waited until I was less than a meter from him before pressing the buzzer that released the lock. I hesitated, then stepped across the threshold into a room that screamed freedom. The prison door closed quietly behind me. There were no words spoken, no papers signed. I stood awkwardly erect and scanned the room for Tarana, but she was not there.
A movement to the right caught my eye. An elderly stooped woman with a bright blue patterned scarf tied over her hair struggled to her feet. She was tiny and wrinkled. The man sitting beside her rose and offered her his arm. I wondered whom they had come to see, then realized I had met him before. He was Ramil, the carpet dealer.
I froze, rigid, as my pocket suddenly burned against my skin.
“Please,” Ramil said to me in his soft gentle voice, “I’d like you to meet my grandmother.”
But I already knew who she was. Her eyes were a pale, luminescent green.
The next day I flew to Tbilisi, then took the overnight train to Shusha. In my bag I carried the carpet from Nagorno-Karabakh—the orange and black and pink and yellow one a loving father wove for his beautiful daughter who had to grow up in a faraway land.
The one that chose me to bring it home.