Vera Inber

The Crime of Nor Bibi

Written: 1934;
Published: A New Life Begun: Prose, Poetry and Essays of the 1920s - 1930s, Progress Publishers, 1987.
Translated: George H. Hanna
Transcribed: for in February, 2002.


As Nor Bibi lies sleeping in her beshik, the hanging cradle, her mother sings softly to her.

Sleep, my sweetest!
You will grow up,
You'll have two sewing machines,
One worked by hand and one by foot,
O daughter mine.

Are you sleeping, sweetest?
Your many braids will glisten
And the sweetest of raisins
Will you eat from a tray,
O daughter mine.

Your tiny mites you'll feed
With the daintiest soup.
Not as I feed you,
I who Never have bread enough,
O daughter mine.

Let your well-fed children play,
Like lambs in the field,
And they shall not die
As my children die,
O daughter mine.

Nor Bibi's father sold little hollowed-out pumpkins in the Samarkand bazaar. They were fastened with horsehair tassels and were used to contain chewing tobacco ground to a powder.

When the pumpkins were small and still very soft, they had a string tied round them to give them the required shape as they grew.

"It's the same with us people," Nor Bibi's father liked to repeat, "poverty holds us tightly bound and shapes us as it will." Nor Bibi was growing. Soon she was eight, almost of marriageable age. She could not read and had seen nothing of life; except for the one occasion when her father had taken her to the bazaar, she had lived all the time with her family, some four kilometres from Samarkand not far from the Mosque of Hoja Ahrar (which she was forbidden to enter) on the road to Aghalyq.

The interior of the mosque was beautiful. The cells of the madrasah, the religious seminary attached to the mosque, opened on to a clean and quiet courtyard. In these cells lived the cold, pious youths who were to become imams. The interesting thing about the courtyard was that a word whispered at one end travelled as on wings to the listener at the other end. This was not a freak-the wise builders had deliberately planned it so that the holy man, the mullah, could preach the wisdom of Allah without straining his precious throat.

By the time Nor Bibi was ten years old, she was being taught all the feminine arts and crafts-to plait hair into tiny thin braids, to be meek and submissive, to paint her eyebrows, to grate onions for pancakes, to nurse children and to help her mother feed the silkworms.

In the spring, when the leaves of the mulberry were just beginning to move inside their buds, her mother did what her mother and her mother's mother had done before her-she hung a bag of silkworm eggs next to her bare body, so that its warmth would bring to life the tiny silkworm eggs. She carried the bag in her arm-pit and watched the eggs, which were no bigger than poppy seeds, with great care; when they became lighter in colour she knew that the tiny worms would soon appear.

How badly Nor Bibi's mother needed that "silkworm money"! What great hopes this poverty-stricken household placed in the cocoon harvest! It is true they got very little for them; the buyer-up bought the cocoons for next to nothing and sent them abroad, and from there they would come back to Russia bearing a foreign trade mark and called "raw silk". All that, however, was something that was going to happen in the distant future and in the meantime the parents' chief concern was to observe all the ancient customs that promised them good luck.

On market day the father took a pinch of silkworm eggs to a field of clover and threw it on the ground, so that there should be as many cocoons as there were people in the bazaar and clover in the field.

The worms grow quickly. They go to sleep four times and each time they sleep for twenty-four hours. In these periods they slough their skins and become bigger and bigger. In the last period of their life they are ten thousand times bigger than when they left their eggs.

They are kept on special shelves, one above the other, that occupy the whole room. The family now move into the yard where there is a summer fireplace with a roof over it. Out here in the bright sunlight poverty makes itself more keenly felt-dirty wadding is hanging out of torn quilts, the qumghan or copper cooking pots are battered and smoke-blackened and the earthenware pots are cracked.

The mother watched over the silk of the future in alarm. But the eggs, hatched in the oppressive dampness of an unwashed body that sweated from sheer exhaustion, produced weak, sickly silkworms.

"More bad luck," sighed the mother each time they shed their skins. "Again they go to sleep and do not wake up in time. And what a mixed lot they are, it makes you cry to look at them! There are going to be a lot of spotted ones among them and a lot of twins that won't unwind."

Not that any of this had much to do with Nor Bibi. Her job was to collect mulberry leaves. She clambered up the tree, caught hold of the thin end of a branch with one hand and tore the leaves off it with the other, putting them all in a wicker basket. When her arms grew tired, she simply sat in the tree like a bird and watched another bird, a stork, who lived in an ancient black beech-tree growing nearby. She watched that feathered family and discovered that it had much in common with her own. There were many children there, too, and they were always hungry. The mother bird sat at home all the time. The difference was in fathers. The father bird hardly ever came home without bringing a frog from the neighbouring pond. And Nor Bibi imagined her father with his thin, careworn face, flying through the air. His arms were propelling him, his striped gown was spread out in the air and under one arm he held a lump of mutton. With a loud shout of joy he flew down on to the earthen wall surrounding their courtyard and from there on to the ground. In the meantime she imagined her mother picking over the rice to make pilau. What a fairy-tale!

Fairy-tale time, however, was passing. Nor Bibi was twelve years old. Now we see her sitting in the courtyard with the other girls, painting her eyebrows. The girls take water from a ditch in a broken cup and mix the paint in it. They dip a little stick into the paint and draw it across the bridge of the nose to join the two brews into one. They incline their heads, first to the right, then to the left; blue streams run down their cheeks but no one wipes them away for fear of spoiling their future beauty. A tiny looking-glass with tin foil and shells glued on it passes from hand to hand. The girls are chattering.

"Sit over here in the sun, Sara-Khan, don't sit in the shade or it will all trickle away and be no use."

"Give me the glass, Galkhar. Of course, I'm going to be the prettiest. Tomorrow I'll do my plaits over again.

"I've heard that there are browless women with naked eyes, girls. Isn't that shameless of them, girls? I can't understand such women."

"D'you want a bit of bread, Nor Bibi? You're staring at it as though..."

"Give me the glass, Adalat."

"Hand the glass to me, Sharifa."

This was how Nor Bibi looked, with blue cheeks and a piece of bread in her hands, when their rich neighbour, Mir Shahid, saw her. And since she was beautiful, the most beautiful of them all, and her father was a poor man, Mir Shahid bought her as a wife.

So, for the first time in her life Nor Bibi has her face covered with a chachwan, a thick veil with only a horsehair net to look through. For a minute she likes it, she feels she is grown up. But when she looks through the horsehair net at the apricot tree in full bloom (it is spring) she does not recognise it. The blossoms on the boughs are all grey, as though they are made of ashes and dust. Nor Bibi throws back the chachwan and for an instant the tree bursts out in rosy flames and the blue sky shines above it. The mother stork, as white as cotton, with a bright red beak, is sitting among the green foliage of her tree. But the chachwan is lowered at once and all the colours fade.

And now Nor Bibi is married. As her mother prophesied she has two sewing machines, a hand machine and a treadle machine, and in addition to all this, she has a third machine, a singing machine, a gramophone. But what joy can they give her, when her husband is an old man and she does not love him? So, there it is, a woman's bad luck, as old as the world itself. As for Mir Shahid's first wife, she has already forgotten that she was ever twelve years old. She cannot forgive the young their youth. What is more, she has a wicked heart.

Mir Shahid is jealous. He once saw his young wife standing on tiptoes to look into the neighbouring courtyard and ordered his field hands to build the wall higher. And no matter how quickly Nor Bibi grows, the wall grows more quickly.

She has nimble legs and wants to run about. She runs about the yard after a donkey colt but the first wife shouts at her. "I can see you want to kill your husband's future son, the strong boy you are soon to give birth to! Don't look at the gate or the boy will have thick lips. Don't go out in the rain or the boy will be pockmarked. Didn't they teach you anything, my beautiful beggar-maid?"

Mir Shahid hoped for a son but a daughter was born.

"I knew it, I knew!" wailed the first wife. "I told you so! You'll see, Mir Shahid, my love, she'll give you only daughters. There are such shameless hussies! "

Nor Bibi's daughter lies asleep in her cradle, and her mother sings to her when no one is about.

Sleep, my sweetness!
You will grow and be strong,
And then when you marry,
Let The man be poor but young,
O daughter mine.

You'll be the first in his heart,
You'll not be second or third,
And bear you him son or daughter,
He'll receive it as a gift,
O daughter mine.

Are the quince and the pomegranate to blame
That they are not lovely peaches?
Tell me. O daughter mine,
Are you worse than a quince or a pomegranate?

Time passes, and it sometimes happens that the same girls who sat together painting their eyebrows a few years before again gather ill a courtyard. They have all long been married and some are beginning to look old. Their children are playing close by. The sun will soon be setting and the children's shadows grow longer with every minute. The women are sad; premature old age stretches its long shadow before them. They are chattering.

"Sit over here in the sun, Sara-Khan. You're so pale! You must be ill."

"D'you want to hold my little boy, Nor Bibi? You're staring at him so..."

"I've heard that there are women who go out into the street with their faces uncovered. I can't understand such women!"

"But I understand them," Nor Bibi said suddenly.

"Keep quiet, keep quiet, Nor Bibi, you've always been rebellious. You looked over the wall. You sometimes contradict your husband and you quarrel with the first wife. It's true, isn't it?"

Nor Bibi listens to her in silence. No, it isn't true. She is as obedient as the others. And just as helpless.

"Keep quiet, don't curse the chachwan," her neighbour repeats fearfully. "It covers your face and nobody knows what's written there. That's a good thing for a woman. It's worse without the chachwan. ," Remember what happened to Gul Jamal."

"And what happened to Gul Jamal?" asked a woman from Jizakh, who did not know the local lore.

"Don't you know? All right, we'll tell you. Gul Jamal was our friend. One evening she went into the house from the courtyard. If she had known what was going to happen she wouldn't have gone in. But who does know? It was winter time, and cold outside, and there was a brazier burning in the room. There sat her husband's brother. Gul Jamal sat down beside the brazier to get warm and her face grew flushed with the heat. When her husband returned, she was as red as a cherry. And near to her sat the husband's brother. The husband looked at her and said, 'Come outside for a minute, I'll show you what I've brought.' So she went out into the courtyard and there he said to her, 'I'll show you how to carry on with my brother!' And with that he stabbed her four times in the side. And she fell and died."

The woman from Jizakh said nothing, nor did the other women speak. What was there to say?

Time passed, 1917 came. In Russia there were exciting events but in the Mosque of Hoja Ahrar on the road to Aghalyq the colours were bright on the painted ceiling, and, as before, youngsters from rich families studied the Koran and the wonderful courtyard of the madrasah carried the words of the white-bearded mullah clearly to them all.

The Museum of Struggle Against the Counterrevolution, that material chronicle of the Civil War in the East, would be opened in Tashkent many years later. The Museum's collection was not yet made up, the exhibits were still scattered over the whole territory--those modern British rifles and the ancient flint guns of the basmachi, the cartridge pouches, the sabres, the knuckledusters, home-made and from a factory in Liege, the saddles, the collapsible cups in leather cases, the amulets against the evil eye and against bullets, the daggers with turquoises in the hilts, the Kashgar knives, including the one used by a famous leader of the basmachi to cut up a woman, slowly, taking a whole hour, from the stomach to the throat-until he laid bare part of her pulsating heart. The woman's fellow-villagers begged the kurbashi, the bandit leader, to have mercy, to kill her outright. But the kurbashi would not let her die. He knew how to cut without killing immediately, he was an expert at the job. And as the knife moved slowly from the stomach towards the throat he spoke to her slowly.

"The woman who uncovers her face uncovers her heart. I am only continuing your work, my daughter."

"You're wrong, O wise one!" groaned her fellow-villagers, grovelling in the dust. "You're mistaken, O great one! It was not her. She has never forsaken the veil, we swear that! "

"If it was not her, it was another," answered the kurbashi, "It's all the same to me."


Time passes. Events, great and small, are occurring. Of the small events, one that is worthy of mention is the partial collapse of the wall around Mir Shahid's courtyard. The wall was washed away by the rain and Mir Shahid is afraid to have it repaired.

"They'll say Mir Shahid is rich," he told his first wife. "They'll say he must be very rich if he is in such a hurry to hide his property. I'm poor, I'm a beggar. What is one labourer, when once there were three? What is one sewing machine, when once there were three, two that sewed and one that sang? I'm not rich, comrades, come and see for yourselves. I'm a beggar."

By now Nor Bibi is twenty-five and considers herself the middle-aged mother of three children. Three others died despite their baby caps having a bunch of owl's feathers on them to keep off the evil eye. Even that powerful charm did not help. The children all died one summer of dysentery and Nor Bibi never knew what they died of and what should have been done to save them.

Yes, events, large and small, are occurring. Nor Bibi looks out into the street through the gap in the wall and every time sees something new. She sees the first motor car and the first lorry that have come to replace the donkey and the camel. An aeroplane, a flying horse, comes flying over the mountains and lands in the foothills where, it is rumoured, a big stable called an aerodrome has been built for it.

Among the women on the Aghalyq road there are some with their faces uncovered. The noble youths from the madrasah, who have been nurtured in the shade, emerge blinking from the carved gates of Hoja Ahrar and depart for ever. The waxed pages of the books they hold pressed to their hearts are covered with Arabic writing. Young Uzbeks sit in tea-rooms reading newspapers. An out-patients' clinic is opened in a little white house next to the former mosque. Children go to school. Kindergartens appear.

Nor Bibi sees all this, but she continues to live as before.

"That's all very fine for the young," she thinks, "but I... Where can I go? I have children. I have to feed them. I have no money."

And Nor Bibi goes on living as she lived before. Although his wall has been damaged Mir Shahid is still very strong. He grovels and trembles at the very feet of Soviet power, but he remains alive. He has no labourer working for him, no donkey, his two wives are his sole remaining property.

"I am the most humble individual peasant," he says, pressing his hand to his heart. "is it possible that I, a former spider and scorpion, should dare enter a collective farm, that gathering of the noble poor? Could I possibly dare look into the wise eyes of the chairman, my former labourer? No, do not ask me, please, do not beg me.

"I am not worthy of it. It even goes against my conscience to sell cocoons by contract. I wish it were not necessary for the despicable worms to work for our dear Soviet power. Let the nightingales and roses alone work for it, for they are as beautiful as Soviet power itself. But as for me--rahmat, thank you. How often I have seen Azim Jan, the scientist who breeds silkworms, in the chaikhana (tea-rooms). He was sent to our district from Samarkand to enlighten us, and we became great friends. I sat beside him and we drank green tea and talked about life. And it is such a pity that Comrade Urkabayev, the Deputy Secretary of the Samarkand City Committee, should shower reproaches on such a man. And should deprive him of his job.

"Comrade Urkabayev came to us in a little green car. He got out at the co-operative and crept up to the chaikhana. If I were not afraid that I might be insulting him, I would even say that he hid behind a tree as children do, when they play that innocent game 'I'm here, but where are you?' Azim Jan, as usual, was drinking green tea. Comrade Urkabayev stood quietly behind his tree watching our peasants, bent with care, come to the chaikhana for advice. Then he came out of hiding and shouted in a loud voice, 'I'm here, but where are you? Is your place in the chaikhana?'

"It's a pity, a great pity that a worthy man should suffer, and in his place they've sent us-I'm ashamed to say it-a woman' She pokes her nose into the houses, peering into everything with her Russian eyes. So unpleasant!

"That same day Comrade Urkabayev visited many places in our unworthy village, and many more respected people suffered. Oh, oh, all this unpleasantness! And so Comrade Urkabayev comes to the kindergarten. There happy Soviet children play and run about. Not mine, oh no! I am unworthy. They run about and sing songs about flowers and are like flowers themselves. What more does anyone need? There's a girl living with them, a girl I've known for a long time. But Comrade Urkabayev ordered her to leave that place. And what for, dear people? Such misfortunes! "

Everything was exactly as Mir Shahid said.

But let us listen to Urkabayev as well.

One spring day--it was a day off--he went with a friend and two visitors from Moscow to look at the ancient city of Samarkand with its magnificent ancient buildings.

Urkabayev and his friends went to the Registan. There they read an inscription in a niche in the western portal of the Shir-dar mosque--self-praise on the part of the builder of the mosque:

"He built a madrasah that was such that it brought the earth up to the zenith of the heavens. The might and zeal of the practised wings of that eagle called Mind will not reach the summit of the portal in years. That skilled acrobat, Thought, on the tight rope called Fantasy will not reach the pinnacle of its prohibited minarets in centuries. When the architect erected the arch of the portal with absolute precision, the heavens, mistaking it for a new moon, bit a finger in amazement."

"Complete absence of self-criticism," sighed Urkabayev.

When they had read the inscription they went up inside a tower by a brickwork spiral staircase with such big steps that the muscles of their legs would ache for a long time afterwards. At last they emerged from the stony gloom on to a wide platform open to the winds. A polyphonic chorus of workmen's noise and knocking subdued by distance but nevertheless quite clear, floated up to the tower. There was the heavy hammering of the blacksmiths, the lighter blows of the tinsmiths, the faint tapping of the tinkers, the braying of the donkeys, the sound of camel bells, the twanging of a stringed instrument and monotonous singing--all these sounds that belonged to the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Suddenly somewhere to one side a new sound was born and grew rapidly, a sound of a completely different sort--a motor lorry was coming. And Urkabayev, a man of the Second Five-Year Plan, smiled with tenderness in his eyes.

His guests from Moscow were looking eagerly into the distance, where the spurs of the Tien Shan stood out like cut-glass against the sky. The flat yellow city stretched from the foot of the minaret all the way to the mountains, intersected in many places by flowering gardens. Now and again a high bluish wave burst out of that sea of clay. There were several of these waves--Gur Amir, BibiXhanum, Shah-Zindeh and, far away in the distance, the observatory of Ulug Bek, Tamerlane's famous grandson. And farther away to the south there was the Hoja Ahrar.

"What silence, what peace!" exclaimed the admiring Muscovites.

Urkabayev's only answer was a deep sigh.

"A fine peace! You don't know a thing. You look down and see nothing but a wonderful view, antiquities and so on. But underneath it is seething like a cauldron. Look over there... That's the Hoja Ahrar Mosque with a village all round it... I'Il tell you a story." He seemed to brighten up, but it was a sad brightness. "Only don't lean on those bricks, they're not too strong... Well, I went to visit that place. I'd been told, incidentally, that all the silkworm breeders had become deformed, they all leant over to one side. What strange disease is this, I wondered, and why do only silkworm breeders suffer from it?

"I walked towards the chaikhana and saw that the peasants were going there and that they really were all crippled--everyone held his left elbow with his right hand and limped as he walked. Boils under their arms, or what, I wondered. That would be a fine thing! And what d' you think it was? They had an incubist, as they call the instructor sent to teach them to hatch the silkworm eggs in an incubator, a certain Azim Jan, a suspicious character. He was sent because there was no one else. The Uzbek Silk Trust, of course, supplied him with thermometers to hang in the hatcheries. You may not know that everything here depends on temperature--the worms can't stand the cold. If it drops below twenty-three degrees Centigrade, they grow inert and stop feeding. We've been doing everything we can to improve silkworm breeding, and this incubist was supposed to visit all the breeding rooms twice a day and check up--that's obvious. But instead of making the rounds himself, he ordered the peasants to come to him in the chaikhana and bring the thermometers under their arms so that the temperature came to him instead of him going to the temperature. That Azim Jan looks at the thermometers and sees the temperature is thirty-seven or so--the normal temperature of the body. 'Too much,' he says. 'Too hot, make a draught.' And, of course, the silkworms died."

The others all laughed.

"It's not funny," Urkabayev said thoughtfully. "It's very, very sad. Listen to the rest. On the way I called in at the district kindergarten. There I was met by the principal, such a sugary-mannered girl, a Russian. 'We have everything,' she said, 'it's wonderful and we're so happy. Come on, children, stand in line..." Well, the children came out... Thin little things they were, you could nearly see through them. And they stood there and sang in Uzbekin soft, weak voices:

We're the flowering lilies of a wondrous field,
We feed on sun and air... "

As he recalled that song Urkabayev swung round so savagely on the minaret that he raised a cloud of brick-dust with his elbow.

"That was all true, you know, they weren't lying. They really did feed on sun and air because their food rations were being systematically stolen. I checked up myself. You can't imagine how much harm a woman like that can do! I don't mean to the children alone, we fed them up, of course, but the grown-ups don't forget such things in a hurry. Kindergartens and nurseries are the best propaganda for Soviet power among the women! The women here have garlands of children round their necks..."

"That was well said," remarked one of the Muscovites. "You're a poet! "

Urkabayev sighed.

The new incubator instructor, the girl with the "Russian eyes was Shura Potapova. She was the daughter of a farming specialist from the Volga region, where the people know all about mushrooms and wild berries but have never even heard of silkworms.

Potapov's wife was consumptive and had begun to look like the wax apple that lay on the woolen cloth that covered the little corner table in the dining-room. When Potapov looked at the flushed yellow cheeks of his wife, he could only blink and cough in polite doubt, when the doctor said the process was taking its normal course.

And then one wet spring day the doctor looked doubtful too.

"She should go to the south, to the Crimea or the Caucasus."

"What would we eat?" Potapov asked him sternly. Neither had an answer to that. Shura was a year old at the time and was crawling on the floor on a newspaper that said that the ferryman's house on the River Marne had at last fallen to the Allies after prolonged fighting.

"If Turkestan were any good," said Potapov, "I could manage that, I think. A friend wrote and told me they need farming specialists in Tashkent."

"Why, that's wonderful! " The doctor was pleased with the idea. "That's in the south, sunshine--just what's needed. You absolutely must go! In three or four months you won't know your wife!"

This turned out to be quite true. Six months later, standing beside his wife's coffin in Tashkent, Potapov could scarcely recognise her, so cruelly had the subtropical sun and loess dust eaten away her flesh.

The poplar-tree planted on Liza's grave grew at such an unheard-of rate that it seemed to be trying to catch up with the famous Tashkent poplars that General Kaufmann had planted when he conquered the region. At first it was only that one poplar-tree that kept Potapov in Tashkent. Then he came to like the region and even did not recall his dead wife so often. On one occasion, however, after he had spent some time in the mountain sanatorium at Chimghan,he talked to Shura about her.

"The doctor was right. The climate up there in the hills is wonderful. But before the Revolution we would never have been allowed anywhere near there, and by then Mother was no longer with us."

Every spring Potapov measured his daughter's height. By the time her fair head had reached her father's shoulder she had become a silkworm-breeding instructor. Potapov himself was working at the Institute of Sericulture on the hybridisation of cocoons.

When it was proposed to send Shura urgently to Samarkand Potapov grew depressed.

She was all he had. They had never yet lived apart. They went together to the mulberry nursery at the Institute of Sericulture. It was early spring and all the varieties of mulberry tree-ordinary, dwarf, shrubs, pyramidal, spherical and serpentine-all of them stood with swollen buds. The big-leafed variety, a beauty that had been brought from Japan, stood out among them.

Father and daughter began walking up and down the path but did not go as far as the little white house where the experimental silkworms were kept in isolation; these had been infected with the disease known as pebrine, and were looked after by a special staff.

"Do you remember when I had diphtheria, Dad, and was kept away from everyone?" Shura laughed.

Potapov nodded pensively.

"You're sorry I'm going, aren't you?" she asked. "But I have to go. What sort of Komsomol member would I be, if I didn't? Anyway, I want to go, it'll be my first independent job and there are two hundred and forty-five trays of silkworm eggs to be brought back to life."

"I realise that you must go and want to go. But why must you be off to another district straight away? Don't you think it would be better to start here?"

"And don't you think it's the opportunist in you that's talking?"

Potapov looked keenly at his daughter.

"It probably is."

"Excellent. Since you admit it you must be repenting."

"I am. Only write to me as often as you can, Shura. Please. And write about everything. Promise?"

Shura looked hard at her father for a moment.

"I promise."


When it became known in Samarkand that there would be a commission set up in each mahalla, or quarter, of the city to decide who was worthy to receive an identification card there were many people who did not like the idea; one of them was Mir Shahid.

"I'm afraid, friends," he said, "that the little book on which, I've been told, the word 'passport' is printed in six languages, is going to give us cause to sigh six times for the good old days when we didn't have it. Take me, for instance. Why write about me on paper when it has long been written in my heart that I am an honest and kind-hearted Uzbek? It's true I was once rich, but that was in the past. And since it has passed, why think about what is no more? But that's not all. Suppose our wives want to have a separate passport? What will happen then? Will a wife want to obey her husband if our solicitous Soviet government hands her a book with her name, age and special marks of identification all put down in it--just as if she were a sheep so that everyone will know the state of her udder and which of her legs is lame?"

As he argued in this way, Mir Shahid was thinking of his second wife, Nor Bibi. Recently there had been a gleam in her eyes that gave him food for thought. A few days passed and Mir Shahid again addressed the company that was well disposed towards him.

"Yes, my friends! I discovered by chance that my wife, Nor Bibi, had gone to the mahalla committee and asked about a passport. Of course, I was upset at her taking such a decision without consulting me. When she came home I talked to her a little and I hope she has now changed her mind. I don't think she needs a passport. If she--may her days be prolonged--were to die, Allah would know her without a passport because she now has all her special marks of identification with her. For I, like an industrious scribe, have written everything that needs to be written on her own skin and it will be quite impossible to mistake her for another woman, my friends."

It was about this time that Potapov received his first long letter from Shura.

Dear Daddy,
That Azim Jan, the man who was sacked before I came, was an outright saboteur. He froze almost all the worms to death because he ordered them not to heat the premises in spring when, as you know, it is cold, and even had the windows opened. The worst of it is that now, even when the windows ought to be opened, nobody will want to-they won't believe me. That's what always happens--a bad worker not only does harm to himself but gets in the way of others. I've been told what the people here have been saying--when there were no incubators, they say, the silkworms bred wonderfully. You must realise what that means and the responsibility it puts upon me! And you didn't want me to come here!

Now I want to tell you where I'm living--in a mosque! That's something I'd never dreamed of. The former students' cells have been adapted to take incubators and I'm living in one of the cells. There is a smoke-blackened place where the fire used to be and a shelf for books. I sleep in the little niche a local student once slept in. My breeding centre gives service to collective farmers and also to individual peasants. I give eggs to some of them, but, of course, I prefer giving out hatched worms. The trouble is that they usually all come for the worms at the same time, after work. They all stand in line with their little baskets and my assistants and I are run off our feet. I have three girls to help me-two sent by the collective farm and one from the village Soviet. I manage to speak to them in quite decent Uzbek.

The mulberry bees are not far away, but they are not the shrub kind, they me very tall bees that are difficult to climb. The local kids gather leaves for me. Everyone who brings me a good armful gets an empty box that has contained silkworm eggs And they try very hard.

There's one bad thing--almost all the bees grow along the road and they are covered with dust. The leaves are useless in that state and I'm afraid that if I wash them and give them to the worms wet I may give them diarrhoea. Please write and tell me what to do.

I'm worried about ventilation. There are no windows here, only doors leading to the inner courtyard, and that, incidentally, is so wonderfully designed that if you whisper a word at one end it can be heard at the other.

By the way, in one of the cells I found a whole packet of posters issued by the Uzbek Silk Trust--you know, the yellow and green ones, with a huge silkworm in the middle and all round it instructions in Uzbek. I discovered that Azim Jan had never given those posters to anyone but had simply stuffed them away in a comer.

The district instructor has been to see me, but I would rather ask you what to do. You may not belong to the Party, but you are an old specialist and, what is more, you are my father.

Well, Daddy, good-bye. I have a sleepless night ahead of me. The worms will probably be hatched out by sunrise--the "single spies" have already appeared. Oh yes--and have you noticed that the newly-hatched worms, when they crawl through the netting, push and shove like people in a tram, and that a whole crowd of them will by to get through the same hole? That, of course, is by the way.

All the best,

Second letter.

Dear Daddy,
It is so long since I last wrote to you--I've been terribly busy but now things are easier. The main batch of silkworms has already been distributed. I got a healthy lot, very few spotted ones. Yesterday I began my tour of the places that had been provided with worms. I went with one of my assistants from the collective farm, Muhabbat is her name. She is an excellent woman, a Party member! She is not young, she even has grandchildren, but she's never down-hearted. When she tells me about her past she smiles, although she has had a pretty hard life. Take her married life, for instance. She was born into a poor family, the seventh child. She was sixteen years old, an "old maid': when she married, because no one would have her on account of her poverty. At last they found her a husband, quite a well-to-do fellow apparently, who had carpets, and quilts, and clothes, and even a samovar. Muhabbat married him and for three days enjoyed the wealth, especially the samovar. Then it turned out that none of it was his own, he had borrowed them all. First came one of her husband's friends and took away the carpets, a second took the quilts and a third something else. Nothing was left but the samovar. Then they came for that, too.

"And I sat down beside the samovar, " said Muhabbat, "and hugged it, and pressed my cheek to it. It was cold, and I was hot. I cried but it remained silent. Still, they took it away. It all seems so funny to me now. I was a silly girl, poor and ignorant! I laughed and cried and never knew why. "

That is what she told me.

Well, we went together and came to the house of one of the farmers. We knocked at the door but got no answer. Bright sunshine. Silence. And what silence. Only the poppies nodding on the earthen roof and the bees humming in the air. At last the door was opened and we went in. A goitred centenarian met us, all brown; she was wearing a tattered veil and looked more dead than alive. Another old woman came from the neighbours' yard, and then a third. Then came an old man of about the same age. And finally, a lot of kids came running into the courtyard. And so we had a plenary meeting!

''Where are the others? Working?" Muhabbat asked.

"Working, " they said. "In the orchards and vegetable gardens. " (Our collective farm grows fruit and vegetables.)

Suddenly one of the girls, who looked older than the others, spoke in Russian.

'Our people are in the vineyard. They've brought nitrogen there, for fertiliser. "

And all those ancient men and women nodded their heads, and smiled and repeated, "Azot", "Azot" (nitrogen), the only Russian word they had understood. When we left I shouted back to them:

"Khair, Good-bye! Azot!"

And they answered me, "Azot! "

Before that, however, we looked at the silkworms. They were kept in a tightly closed room, in a basket hanging from the ceiling and covered with a wadded quilt. They were cold and stifled. I took the quilt off them and opened the window. And this is what Muhabbat told me.

"You have no idea what silk means to our women. This is where their independence begins. The 'silk money' is the woman's money. Only you have to make sure the women bring in the cocoons themselves, so that they do get the money. It can happen that they do all the work and the money goes to the men. "

Good-bye, Daddy,

Third letter.

Daddy, listen, if you only knew!... This is what happened here. Muhabbat and I went round again.

"We ought to go in here, " she said as we were passing one house. "There's a bad man lives here, Mir Shahid. His second wife is still very unhappy. The new life has come to this street but it does not enter her courtyard. She has three children; the third is still a baby and is very ill. Where can she go with it? If she leaves the baby at home the first wife will put an end to it in no time. "

We went in. A fine, big room, the walls papered with financial inspector's report sheets. Plenty of everything-drinking bowls, trays, glass jars and a whole pile of quilts. The man of the house was all honey, bowing to us and fawning. He had a sash bound round his loins, which meant that he still hoped to find favour with the ladies. And the cap, worn on the back of his head, was a sign of self-satisfaction. The children were there, too. The smallest of them was bow-legged.

"You should take her to a doctor. She has rickets," I said.

He simply placed his hand on his heart and thanked me, punning on the Russian word "rakhit" (rickets) and the Uzbek word "rakhmat" (thanks). He was obviously trying to make fun of me. A woman was standing by his side.

"Can that be Nor Bibi?" I whispered to Muhabbat.

"That's not her. That's the first wife. Wait a moment, I'll ask where she is."

She did nor have time to ask, however. This is what happened then.

I went to look at the silkworms, they hatch out their own eggs and the worms there had just been hatched. That woman, the first wife, was gathering them up in a sheet of ordinary paper.

"You mustn't do that, apa (sister), you'll crush them. You must do it with a chicken's feather. I'll bring you one, quickly."

I ran out into the courtyard, thinking that they must have some chickens. I saw a magpie feather lying on the ground near a tree stump. That will do, I thought, and bent down to pick it up, and then I heard a groan from under the stump. I went nearer and saw that the stump was leaning against the door of a low building. I don 't know why, but it suddenly occurred to me that Nor Bibi was ill and that they had hidden her there. I had no time to think about it (it all happened so quickly, in less than a minute), for Mir Shahid had followed me into the courtyard.

"How kind you are, instructor-apa to take so much trouble over our despicable silkworms "he said in the sweetest tones. "But we haven 't had any chickens for a long time. "

"Never mind, Mir Shahid-aka (brother), "I answered in tones just as sweet, "a despicable magpie feather will do just as well. "

I gave no sign that I had heard anything...

Daddy, I can't go on with this now, I think I can hear wasps flying about. That worries me even more than spiders or mice, although they, too, me fond of silkworms. The wasps are the worst of all. I'll go and see what they are making so much noise about. Then I'll come back and write the rest. What we found after that!...

What they discovered was the following.

Kurkmas Nizamov, secretary of the Komsomol organisation of the collective farm, was ploughing between the rows of grape-vines with a tractor plough, so as to plant clover and peas between the vines. This was, at that time, a new method of using the land between the rows of grape-vines. It was a method that had many opponents, who asserted that anything planted between the rows would exhaust the earth and leave no juices for the grapes; on account of this it had been decided to try it in one place only.

Kurkmas drove his tractor very carefully. He saw that his Fordson was too wide for the job and might damage the vines. What he needed was the narrower International, but there was no "Inter" available, and he was worried. His cap was wet with perspiration and the tulip behind his ear had quickly faded in the heat of his burning cheek.

Shura came running after the tractor in a cloud of dust.

"Kurkmas, stop!" she shouted.

Kurkmas, however, continued to the end of the furrow and only then turned to speak to her. "What's the matter? I can see a dust cloud screaming at me but I don't know who's in the cloud. What do you want? Here every minute counts, and you stand there screaming."

"Wait a bit, I have a minute that counts more! "

Hanging on to the wheel of the tractor as though she wanted to hold it back, and burning her hands on the sun-heated metal, Shura told Kurkmas the whole story.

Mir Shahid had told the truth. It would have been impossible to mistake Nor Bibi for any other woman. Her "marks of identification" were caked with blood. The deepest wound was one that went upwards from her eyes into her tangled hair.

Nor Bibi was sitting in a tiny shed on a torn blanket, her arms round her knees, staring at the ground.

"She has fever, comrades," the trembling Mir Shahid declared. "She has the sort of fever that makes you shiver, loose consciousness and bang your head until the blood comes... Nor Bibi, my dear wife, you have fever, haven't you?"

Nor Bibi did not speak. Nor did Kurkmas, Shura, Muhabbat and the district militiaman speak until, at last, the woman doctor from the clinic broke the silence.

"It's a good thing we brought the stretcher along. Only be careful with her, comrades."

When Nor Bibi had been carried away, Urunbai, the district militiaman (also with a tulip behind his ear for spring in Central Asia is tulip time), turned to Mir Shahid.

"Your wife will live, that doctor will cure her, and that is good. The only pity is that thanks to her, you will stay alive, too. Get a move on, though, don't keep them waiting in the place that has been expecting you for years."


The old madrasah at the Hoja Ahrar Mosque, the school that had brought up so many noble youths, was filled with women. The meeting was a spontaneous one, nobody had foreseen it and nobody had made any special preparations for it. It just happened that at a certain moment it had become widely known that Nor Bibi had completely recovered and been discharged from hospital and was sitting under the apricot tree drinking tea with the instructor from Tashkent, to whom she had gone straight from hospital. When it became known, all the women in the village, collective farm women and wives of individual peasants, all who had no work on hand at the time, made their way to the mosque. Soon the whole courtyard was full. Shura, taken by surprise, had time only to hang up those of Azim Jan's posters that she had not yet distributed. The square stone courtyard was bright with green and yellow. The greatly magnified silkworms crawled along the walls between the carved wooden doors. The most important poster (and the only one of its kind left) was the one with the picture of a young Uzbek woman in orange, who somewhat resembled Nor Bibi but was wearing a Communist Youth international badge; this poster was hung at the entrance to the courtyard by way of a welcome.

Muhabbat opened the meeting by clapping her hands three times. The courtyard with its wonderful acoustics repeated the sounds. There was a rustle of women's clothing and a slight movement of their shawls and scarves. Then there was silence. It was spring, and the hour of sunset. Above the madrasah of Hoja Ahrar hung a blue square of sky, ornamented, as was proper and fitting at the time, with a clear crescent moon.

Nor Bibi sat on a bench under the apricot tree in the middle of the courtyard.

"Sisters! " Muhabbat exclaimed. "Here you see in front of you Nor Bibi, a woman we all know. Let us consider what sort of life this woman has had."

Again the rustle of clothing, followed by silence.

"In the past our women had five masters. Isn't that too many? That's how it was. The first master was God. The second was the Emir, the third the one who gave her work, the one who owned the land and the water and distributed them as he saw fit, the fourth was the mullah, and the fifth was the woman's husband. Sisters, we are bringing Nor Bibi to trial for having got rid of four of her masters and retained the fifth. Before the revolution we were sold for money or rice or were exchanged for goods of any kind. As children we were given in marriage to old men (What are you crying for, Nor Bibi?), to old men who had other wives besides us. They robbed us of our childhood and we kept quiet. Nor Bibi, you are guilty of having kept silent so long! Is she guilty, sisters?" asked Muhabbat.

"Guilty!" answered the sisters, their eyes filling with tears.

"Stand up, Nor Bibi, and look us in the eyes. You are guilty of not having believed in your own strength. You were afraid to leave your husband, afraid that Soviet power would abandon you at the crossroads, afraid that the government is too big and too far away to see your little troubles. But Soviet power has seen them. For Soviet power is me, is all of us; it is you yourself. You're young, Nor Bibi, remember that. You're healthy, you can work."

"There's very little I can do, Muhabbat," answered Nor Bibi in a soft voice, but the amazing courtyard repeated her words so clearly that everyone heard them.

"Not much you can do?" Muhabbat let her eyes wander over the whole courtyard, as though seeking an answer...

And here is what Shura wrote later to her father.

Nor Bibi spoke very softly, but everyone heard her. 'There 's not much I can do," she said.

Beautiful and clever Muhabbat--that woman is worth her weight in gold--glanced all round the courtyard, as though seeking as answer. And the answer was there on all sides, Azim Jan s posters simply jumped at her. Especially the Uzbek girl with the cocoons. And Muhabbat pointed her stumpy brown finger at that poster.

"You can do that, can 't you? All roads are open to you--that's what you've forgotten."

It's a pity, a great pity you couldn't hear how they judged Nor Bibi and sentenced her to...freedom and happiness.