Rasul Gamzatov was born on September 8, 1923, in the Avar village of Tsada in the north-east Caucasus. His father, Gamzat Tsadasa, was a well-known bard, heir to the ancient tradition of minstrelsy still thriving in the mountains.
The young Rasul would listen for hours on end to the Avar stories, legends and fables his father would relate. “When I was quite small,” he recalls, “he would wrap me in his sheepskin cloak and recite his poems to me, so I knew them all by heart before I ever rode a horse or wore a belt."
In 1945 with a few books of his own in Avar tucked under his arm and with a meagre sum of money in his pocket, he arrived in Moscow to enter the Gorky Institute of Literature. There in the stimulating company of younger poets and under the guidance of veteran writers he studied Russian and world literature and the craft of poetry. By turns he fell in love with Blok, Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Bagritsky, the Avar Makhmud and the German Heine. But Pushkin and Lermontov remained his constant love.
Over the past fifty years Rasul Gamzatov has been one of the most prolific of Soviet poets. From his pen have come short love lyrics, long narrative poems, ballads, epigrams and philosophical octaves, which have won him millions of devoted readers.
Today he lives with his three charming daughters Zarema, Patimat and Salikhat in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan on the shores of the Caspian. His home is open to all. Of the land of his birth, of its people and its poets he has drawn a fascinating, intimate and human portrait in his recent prose volume of musings and reminiscences "My Daghestan".
Winner of a Lenin Prize for poetry and honoured with the title of People’s Poet of Daghestan, Rasul Gamzatov is a well-known public figure, chairman of the Union of Daghestan Writers. Rasul Gamzatov writes in his native Avar tongue, a language spoken by no more than 500,000 people. Yet even so the Avars along with the Darghins, Lezghins and Kumyks are among the largest ethnic groups in the two-million population of Daghestan, where 36 different languages are spoken. According to old legend the horseman who rode across the world distributing languages threw a whole sackful into the mountain gorges and told the people, “sort them out your-selves!”
So the problem of translation is a familiar hurdle to the people of Daghestan, where books are written and published in nine different languages.
For more information on the Avar people and a map showing the ethnic makeup of the Caucuses region go here: http://geo.ya.com/travelimages/az-avar.html
Stars of night, stars of night,
at my verses peer
like the eyes, like the eyes
of men no longer here.
In the hour of night repose
I can hear them say:
”Be the conscience bright of those
the war years took away!”
A hillman, true to Daghestan,
no easy path is mine.
Who knows, perhaps, who knows, perhaps
I’ll be a star sometime?
Then at another’s verse I’ll peer,
an earth-committed star,
The conscience bright of those who my
MY NATIVE TONGUE
Such follies trouble us in sleep—
last night I dreamt I died:
in a deep ravine I lie unseen,
a bullet in my side.
A stream is thundering nearby,
in vain I wait for help.
Upon the dusty earth I lie,
soon to be dust myself,
For no one knows that here I die,
and nothing conies in view,
but eagles wheeling in the sky,
a shy young deer or two.
To mourn my most untimely death
and weep in solemn chorus
come neither mother, wife, nor friend,
none of the village mourners.
Yet just as I prepare to die
unnoticed and unsung,
I hear two men go passing by
who speak my native tongue.
In a deep ravine I lie unseen,
I pine, but they with glee
relate the wiles of one Hasan,
the intrigues of Ali.
And, as I hear the Avar speech,
my strength comes flowing back—
this is a cure no scholars teach,
a balm the doctors lack.
May other tongues cure other men
in their particular way,
but if tomorrow Avar die,
I’d rather die today!
No matter if it’s hardly used
for high affairs of state,
it is the language that I choose—
to me Avar is great!
Shall my successors only read
translations of Makhmud?
Am I the last Avar to write
and still be understood?
I love this life, the whole wide world
I view with loving gaze.
But best I love the Soviet land,
which I—in Avar—praise.
I’d die for this free land of toil
what ranges East and West.
But let it be on Avar soil
that in my grave I rest,
And let it be in Avar words
that Avars meeting there
speak of Rasul, their kinsman, poet.
A poet’s son and heir!
1. In “Stars” what do the stars represent?
2. What are they saying to Rasul?
3. What is Rasul’s native language?
4. What happens when he hears two men speak his native language?
Between the lines:
5. What are the stars a constant reminder of?
6. In “Stars”, what question does Rasul have about his own future?
7. How does language help Rasul move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs?
8. Would Rasul be in favor of the independence of Dakhastan from Russia?
Beyond the lines:
9. How would knowledge of Russia and the Eurasian Republics history, combined with a sense that their ancestors are watching them, help the region revive?
10. Does a diversity of languages help or hurt a region’s chances for success? Using evidence from the poem "My Native Tongue", explain how language can be used to unite a region, yet work to divide them from a larger region also. Do the other elements of culture, such as religion and ehnicity have the same effect? Which of the elements can be most divisive?