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Shamakhi

Updated: Apr 8

Almost 6 months ago, on a Saturday I was supposed to have a very late breakfast with a dear friend. He has been a great influence on me for the past few years, moreover, he inspired me for many great deeds, thoughts, personal decisions & business decisions. With all his insecurities, whimsical character, talents & intelligence I consider him a person I can learn a lot from. For his comfort and the comfort of all the people who were part of this story, I will be changing their names. 


This is by far the most personal & sincere article of mine. I will be taking you to places…


People, locations, experiences, decisions, concerns & feelings – Nothing in this article is fictional, although it felt like I am part of something fictional. 


While I am typing these words, I am thinking of renaming every real person in this article, but 2 names will be left unchanged, mine & my deceased grandfather’s name. Once, George RR Martin the author of Game of Thrones was asked about how he names his characters. The interviewer mentioned that people struggle with naming one child whilst George is naming thousands of characters in his books. What he said was quite interesting “ I need to know the name of the character before I start writing about him”. I think renaming real people is harder than coming up with fictional names like Aegon Targaryen or Tyrion Lannister. Primarily because the writer wishes to transcend what that name means represents or reminds of.


Now, if we go back to that same Saturday which I mentioned before – we will resume the starting point of the story. Allan was supposed to pick me up at one of our regular Saturday brunches. The interesting thing about Allan, when he meets up with someone he is present 100%. He doesn't check his phone, he shows off his music taste in the car, cracks some jokes & makes sure that you are enjoying the ride as much as he does. We arrive at one of the local “hotspots” for brunch & coincidentally we stumble on Fred. Freddie was quite happy to see us, although he was enjoying his solitude we insisted on sharing our meal with him.


During our conversation, I noticed that both Freddie & Allan have an appointment with a special woman. They laughed about how funny it was that they had their appointments with her on the same day back to back. While they were cheerful about the serendipitous fact, I was feeling left out. I did not know what they were up to. Freddie goes on to explain that, Mery whom they are going to meet later on the same day, does guide meditations in her workshop. I got hooked instantly, took her number, and texted Mery for an appointment. She squeezed me in for Wednesday & just because I interrupted Freddie when he was explaining what she does during the sessions – I had almost no expectations about what is about to happen. 


As you may already know, I am quite familiar with the realm of spirituality, meditations & etc. On Wednesday I arrive to meet Mery in person. We end up having a long chat about similar experiences of ours, about childhood, parents, traveling, living abroad & coming back to Baku. Later on, she starts explaining how the session is going to go. I was supposed to lie down on the sofa for roughly an hour, during which she would talk to me and guide me. Simple as that.


What she did not know about me is that I do get weird impulses during my meditations. Sometimes they are tiny thought patterns, something like “Text Allan to see how he is today”. Rarely though some big decisions or thoughts emerge during meditations. I tend to act on them almost always. Because I think that, during an altered state, our brain is much more capable. What does it mean to be in an altered state?

An altered state of consciousness is a change in one’s normal mental state as a result of trauma or accident induced through meditation.


Basically, I follow through on those mid-meditation impulses. I trust those impulses, subconsciously my brain is concerned for my wellbeing. I think those impulses are designed subconsciously to get me out of my shell, benefit my life in some way, or help me to aid someone in need. I discovered years ago that I have self-embedded utilitarianism within me. Let’s have a quick look at the definition of it. Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy. Though not fully articulated until the 19th century, proto-utilitarian positions can be discerned throughout the history of ethical theory.


Though there are many varieties of the view discussed, utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many ways to spell out this general claim. One thing to note is that the theory is a form of consequentialism: the right action is understood entirely in terms of the consequences produced. What distinguishes utilitarianism from egoism has to do with the scope of the relevant consequences. On the utilitarian view one ought to maximize the overall good — that is, consider the good of others as well as one’s own good.


Right before our session begins Mery tells me that, she will be recording her voice onto my phone. For two reasons, first just to show me how much time has elapsed. Second, to go back to the session whenever I want. How nice of her!


I believe that we as a species are far more capable than modern medicine frames us to be. “Medicine tells us as much about the meaningful performance of healing, suffering, and dying as chemical analysis tells us about the aesthetic value of pottery,” Ivan Ilyich wrote in Limits to Medicine. Therefore, we are far greater than just flesh and bone. That being the case, I keep exploring the boundaries of my mind in those meditative states or altered states.


After 56 minutes our session ended. It felt like a long nap, during which I was in a conscious state, but not quite. The difference between meditation and guided meditation is in the name. It feels like you are going back to your childhood and a grownup whom you can trust takes you by your hand & takes you down the hallway filled with doors. When you are alone in that hallway you pick and select which door to open. However, with the grownup, you become more vigilant & brave. You turn the knob of each door you approach, like that curious kid you are.


One of the knobs that I turned, opened a door to the memory of my grandfather Ali. I never went down that memory lane that deep, out of all the doors and rooms in the hallway we spent most of our 56 minutes in that room, filled with his limited memories. Ali had wide shoulders & was tall, all physical attributes mine resemble Ali, even the way he walked. Beyond that, judging by stories about him, I always felt like we are alike beyond our physical attributes. Sadly he passed away when I was 3. I did not have a chance to spend a lot of time with him. 


After the session, I had a strong feeling of the need to be close to him. I thanked Mery, hugged her, and went back to my apartment. Astonished by the experience I just had. I thanked Allan and Freddie for the introduction because it was truly rewarding. I was very fond of my experience with Mery.

The next day, started just like any other. I went to work, attended my meetings, replied to emails, answered phone calls & when all was over, I drove to the gym. When I parked I had this strong urge not to work out, but instead drive to Shamakhi and visit Ali. Which was quite an unexpected urge. 


Since childhood, I have never been comfortable with graveyards, cemeteries, funerals and etc. Whenever I was taken to one, I always stood at the side, did not come close & was mentally detached from what was going on around me. There always was some sort of discomfort in that realm. This is why it was paradoxical. In fact I haven’t visited him on my own, ever. I did not know even where the remote village in Shamakhi was. I set the car to drive mode and drove off to Shamakhi. It was such an interesting sensation & sequence of events which led me there, but I was sure that I had to go. On the way to Shamakhi, I had to figure out how to locate the cemetery Ali was in. My cousin gave me directions while I was already exiting the city.


It was November 17th and the weather was getting chilly by the hour. My cousin Anna told me that the village I was going to, was right after a village called “Göylər” (skies). We do have weird names of villages, rivers, or towns in Azerbaijan. Moreover, each of them has its history with that name. For example: there is a river called “ax-ox” (akh-okh) which’s history is related to Malaria & a little Molokan village that was on the outskirts of that river. The inhabitants were infected by Malaria at one point. During the epidemic everyone who passed by the bridge over the river overheard screams and moans resonating the sound aaakh-oookh. Although Wikipedia will tell you otherwise about the name's origin of the river. There is also a village called “Red Village” because of all the red rooftops. It is also famous for being the largest Jewish settlement in the Soviet Union.


Now back to the story, as soon as I arrived at the cemetery I understood why that village was called Göylər. As I was walking to the highest point of the cemetery to somehow locate the tombstone of my grandfather, I was starting to feel how the wind took the cold right to my bones. It was one of those cutting feelings that you get from an instant cold shower. Once, I stood at the peak, I looked around and saw that I was at the highest point of the horizon, everything was beneath me, and all I saw was the skies. After a brief moment of aesthetic acknowledgment, I started gazing around. I walked by probably 90% of the tombstones out there, trying to find a familiar name or face, but nothing…


I did not wish to speak to my cousin again to locate the exact spot, because I did not want anyone to know I was there. For two reasons. Firstly, I wanted it to be a moment of only Ali & Rashad could share, didn’t want to give out the knowledge that I was there with anyone. Secondly, I was battling with depression. Several weeks before that I started to feel that mental ache, that confusion, that absence of positive feelings & that intention. I did not want anyone to know what I was experiencing. Wanted to protect my self created illusion of invincibility. Quite frankly, there is no such thing as invincibility. We all have a breaking point.


Therefore, amidst all of these thoughts, I was still looking. Wondering around the cemetery in the cold, with fear of the sudden appearance of stray dogs. Which was a reasonable fear, because I have been attacked twice in the last 2 years, right in the center of Baku. After multiple circles of patches of scattered tombstones, I finally locate him. There he was, Alishiraz Shirin Oglu. I was devastated by the fact that I did not even know that his full name was Alishiraz. 


People who know me well, know that I use the name Ali frequently, at restaurants, and at random one-time meetups or reservations. I have used it so much that, it has become my second name. As a wordsmith, I even named one of my creations “Ali’s Pyramid”. 


After more than 2 decades Ali and I meet again. It was weird to see what I might potentially look like after 35 years. I looked around again, I got used to the cold, used to the wind, I ignored the fear of the dogs & I admired the fact that I was completely alone at the cemetery at 7 pm. I told him everything I wanted to say. Did not hold anything back. Was honest and vocal. A few minutes later, It started to feel good. I was pleased with myself & Mery for leading me here. I felt lighter & I felt gratitude. With a modest smile, I said goodbye & started walking towards my vehicle. The most freezing walk ever was practically running towards the exit. 


I sit down, warm up & start my drive back. Surprisingly, Mery checked in on me via WhatsApp asking me how am I doing. I replied with a photo and short story of how our experience together led me here to Göylər. She was caught off-guard and surprised, nonetheless, she was glad for me. I arrived back at my apartment later that night, quite fulfilled with my experience.


A few months later, on a calm and warm mid-March night, I am in Shamakhi again for a completely different reason. Me, Junia, Ethan & Levi are in Ethan's house in one of Shamakhi’s villages. It was March the 19th and the weather was perfect. We were having a lot of fun, eating, snacking, watching an amazing movie, and sleeping on those sheets & duvets like the ones our grandmothers had. 


The next morning is the day to which this article was leading all along. March the 20th. We woke up, not to the rooster's voice, no! The rooster actually did not sleep that night, he went full rogue on us, and he crowed nonstop. Since yesterday, Ethan was suggesting we have breakfast at a nearby village called “Damirchi”. Right after, our individual morning routines were over, we got the car and drove off towards Damirchi. As soon as we arrived at the village, we saw how empty and asleep it looked. With a slight disappointing feeling, we agreed on a new plan. We decided on having breakfast at the restaurant we had dinner at last night after which, we would go to the mountains for sightseeing & to sum that all up we would pick up our stuff for the departure to Baku. Almost nothing went according to that plan.


Those who have been to regions of Azerbaijan know that the breakfast “feast” at those rural areas is the best! We had an amazing breakfast & took off towards the mountains. I was sitting at the back and gazing out the window towards the valley beneath me. All of a sudden, while the car is in motion, in my eyesight I start seeing a white Lada, its trunk, back window, a woman in distress standing next to it, an unconscious male driver as soon as we just passed the parked Lada, it was followed up by Ethans shocked voice “ I am stopping the car” to which I snap “ yes yes, pull over!”. As soon as the car stops I start pacing towards the car and the woman, she is in shock & while I am speed-walking towards her, she is roaring about what happened to him. “His leg went numb, his arm went numb, he parked the car and dozed off, can't wake him up!” 


There was a blink of an eye moment when we all understood what happened to him, which she had yet to accept. I was the first one reaching up to him & instinctively put my hand on his wrist and then his neck. He had no pulse. If you remember from the earlier paragraphs you would know how hesitant I always been with corpses, cemeteries & death in general. At that moment, all of that discomfort was gone. The worst part of the day was the moment, when I had to call it, when I had to say “Xala, rəhmətə gedib” meaning “He passed away”.


As soon as I said it, it hit me, the thing I just said. The shock kicked in, I looked over towards Junia, Ethan & Levi. They stood in that order and all of them stood still with huge dilated pupils. There were 4-5 seconds of dead silence, everything stood still. After which, me and Ethan understood that we had to call people up. I asked him to call both an ambulance and the police to make sure that someone would arrive sooner. I have to remind you that we are basically on the hill overlooking a valley, it is a remote road in between villages.


For the next few minutes, we were standing around awkwardly, just waiting. Until the deceased’s friends show up. The man who passed away was a local taxi driver. Driving off his last passenger. The woman called his friends as soon as he fainted & upon their arrival we understood that we had to be on our way, we had to leave them to grief. Ethan could not just drive off, he helped them out financially with the expenses of funeral arrangements they were about to be planning.


20 minutes have passed, and we arrive at the top of the hill, we park the car, roll down the windows & stay in silence for a few moments. While watching the horizon we can not ignore what just happened, we can not talk about it. We went over every detail of what just happened, we made sure that everyone knew each other’s angle on the situation, we all shared how it felt & we all listened to each other. We all felt sorry for the man who just passed away & for the woman who had to go through that. May he rest in peace! May she gain strength!


We were driving back with long pauses of silence. We were all processing the event, however, no one vocally admitted the following; We all took a lesson that day! We all witnessed something tragic and yet so natural. We all took something from that experience. None of us admitted it in detail, but we all knew.


A couple of hours later we are back at the house. Packing & cleaning up. The music is playing in the background. We are having a fun trip regardless of the perspective-changing experience. The weirdo in me is cooking up another urge. I need to see my grandfather again. The situation earlier & the thought pattern afterward led me toward this desire. I wanted to visit Alishiraz again. I ignored the fact that I would cause a slight delay in our departure, plus a detour & we were coming back in two cars which was another discomfort. I ignored all of that and asked our group to go on a 30-minute deviation from our original direction. I have amazing friends, not only do they respect my wishes but also persuaded to do this visit more frequently. We started driving towards the cemetery, this time I was not alone.


We drove down to Shamakhi Center and took another road to the other side of the mountains. This side of Shamakhi had fewer trees. It was all clover, grass, and farmlands. It reminded me of the Windows XP wallpaper. 


Yet another unexpected scene was about to present itself. The villages in this part of Shamakhi were very small, they all had 20-50 houses, the boundaries of which were even visible. The tragic side of these multiple village sightings was the fact that they all had 5-10 posters in front of them. They were all installed on metallic frames and pipes. Each of them had a memory, a photo of a soldier, of a martyr. It was devastating how many sacrifices these villagers had to endure. So many young faces were wiped away because of War, which was happening the second time. May they all rest in peace! They have sacrificed their lives for our rights, land, history, fallen soldiers and so that we wouldn’t have to anymore. My stance on war was always negative, however, once it began 300 km away from me I supported it in any way I could. We are all in their debt.


The acknowledgement of how many sacrifices we gave during the war, hit a completely different note. Soon we passed Göylər and later we arrived at the next village, to that same cemetery. The tombstone search didn’t take long this time, the weather was just a pinch chilly but the sun was warming our backs. I introduced Alishiraz to my friends, and they all made comments about the resemblance and asked a few questions after which, they gave me a brief moment on one with him. During this, Ethan paced towards me stood by my right-hand side, put his hands facing up, and started praying.


I am not religious, but I know how much Ethan is. That moment when he did that was very fulfilling, I felt gratitude towards him. I had this even juvenile feeling of “Look Grandpa I have good friends”. I was having a brief moment alone after that, during which I felt relief again! Just like the first time. It just felt good, however this time I was walking off calmly. With no cold rush, not alone, no fear, and no agitation. We were walking off with smiles and one-liner conversations. It felt right.


We took ourselves to the road again, thinking that our trip had just ended. All that is left is to arrive in Baku. As soon as we passed Göyler, Ethan called my phone saying “Rashad, my car’s stereo is glitching, can you pass us the portable speaker?” 


I was riding with Levi, and he parked the car to pass the speaker. While the handover was in progress me and Junia got out to stretch our legs. While we were having a conversation, we suddenly saw that Levi was walking towards us, but he was not alone. He is being followed by a puppy. I kid you not, no one had any idea where the puppy came from. One thing we knew for sure, his back leg and front paw were broken. He was hobbling.


One thing you do not know about me, Junia, Ethan & Levi is that almost all of us own a pet & all of us love animals. The puppy walked right in the middle of us three, while Ethan was in the car looking at us. As soon as the puppy stopped he parked himself on the ground and gave us a look. That look meant that “If you guys leave me here, you are the biggest pieces of shit I have ever seen, save me!”. One thing for sure, although I was a bit unsure about what to do with the puppy, we all knew that the puppy would come with us. We were all standing there trying to figure out what to do with the dog once we arrived. Apparently, the discussion took some time and Ethan cracked a very dark joke “You guys didn’t wait that long for the dead man, come on let's go!”


Levi put the dog in his trunk and we drove off. Within the next 20 minutes, Junia & Levi were looking for a vet and a dog shelter. Finally, Levi found one and he committed to dropping the dog off there later that day. We all had our final sigh of the day. It felt amazing. Me, Levi, and the puppy in the back were following the car Ethan and Junia were in. Levi & I were stunned by the turn of events that occurred. Once we arrived at the drop-off location we all were shocked by the fact that none of this would have happened if we did not go to Damirchi.


The end.

Pura Vida!

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