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Short Story: "Pirizkhan Momay" by Zunun Qadiri

Updated: Apr 9

This autobiographical sketch was published as part of Zunun Qadiri’s 1984 memoir “Khatiriler.” In it, the author recounts his childhood memories of Pirizkhan Momay. This translation was written by Angela Feng as part of the Advanced Uyghur class taught by Dr. Akbar Amat at the University of Kansas.

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Pirizkhan Momay[1]

Zunun Qadiri

In the Qumluq[2] neighborhood of Khudiyar Yüzi village, we had a piece of land. Since we were young, we weren’t able to manage it, so only our uncle cultivated this land. When it was time to thresh the wheat, I would help steer the threshing wheel. One bygone day in late autumn, I scaled a sour-apple tree on the dyke at the edge of the field and, having stuffed the flaps of my shirt into my trousers, picked the unripe apples and crammed them through my collar into my shirt. In just a short time, my chest bulged with apples. I wanted to take more, but, since it had suddenly begun to rain and my clothing and footwear were damp, I slid down from the top of the tree.

Both because I had eaten the sour, unripe apples to sate my empty stomach and because I had stayed in the rain, my side began to constrict. When I coughed, it hurt like my soul was leaving my body. As I lay coiled up in a corner under a shed, Pirizkhan Momay in the neighboring yard heard my groaning and came to my side. After comprehending my situation, the good Momay supported me and brought me into the house and treated me—she stirred a handful of tertez[3] herb into lukewarm water, smeared it onto a scrap of cloth towel and stuck and bound it to my side, wrapped me up in a fur coat and laid me down. The towel clung more and more, squeezing the skin on my side. In this condition, I ended up falling asleep, and when I awoke at nightfall, the pain had steadily eased, and I was all better.

When times came that my throat hurt, Pirizkhan Momay, saying, “Your gullet has fallen out, my child,” would smear two fingers on the soot from a cooking pot, place them on my gullet and lift, and with this, my throat would somehow recover. Sometimes when I ran a hot fever, she would heal me up by soaking a willow branch in water and whipping my back. Other times, she would exorcise spirits with salt and breadcrumbs and intone as if yawning, “Go to those old mills, go to those who have two wives, begone, begone!”

Whenever I went up to the countryside, this benevolent Momay, pitying my orphanhood, would always take care of me and wash and mend my clothes for me. When I caught a cold, she would make a tart, bitter porridge of plums and salt and say, “If you pull a leather hat tightly around your head and drink this piping-hot until you sweat, you will get better.” Doing so, I would then recover.

Once, when I had become rather grown, I went up to the village and came to Pirizkhan Momay’s house for a visit. As I entered, she seemed to be lying down with a headache. Seeing me, she immediately got up and asked about my condition: “Your countenance has become so sallow. What’s happened to you, my child?”

“For the past two, three months, my chest has been hurting.”

“Okay, if that’s the case, I have this medicine.” Pirizkhan Momay opened a worn-out chest, took out from a small sack that pain medicine, that tertez herb, ground it up and mixed sugar crystals with it, and put it into a tiny bag. “If you eat this, as much as a joint of naswal[4], your chest pain will get better,” she said, and handed me the bag. I went on eating that medicine, and even my stomach healed.

Whenever Pirizkhan Momay suffered from a headache, if she drank milk tea and chewed on the dregs left on the bottom of the bowl, she would recover. Over the course of the long years, she became habituated to milk tea. If she ran out of tea at home, she would suffer from cravings. When I sensed this sort of situation, I would buy tea from the city and bring it up and receive her blessings.

One spring day, Pirizkhan Momay snapped off her melon flowers and turned the flowers on the other runners upside down. Seeing how they were tied up with string, I asked, “Moma, why have you done this?”

“If I do this, the melons will grow well,” said Momay. In those times, I didn’t understand the cause of this matter. From studying botany at middle school, I knew that the father flower pollinates the mother flower. Momay also, if the melon’s leaves grew bigger and numerous and covered up the runner flowers, would thrash the leaves with a willow twig as if thrashing wool. If the main stalk put out too many runners, she would snap them off with a pinch, and I saw how she would also go on doing this to her tomatoes too. To my question of “Why are you doing this?”—she would only remark, “It will bear much fruit.” But she would not explain the cause. Back then, it was a mystery to me what explanation there could be. However, I saw time and again those plentiful harvests. Momay’s method of treatment was simple and the medicines she used were inexpensive. Regardless of that, the end results surprise me to this day.

For example, if in autumn a child’s eyes or ears hurt, to the mother Momay would say: “Squeeze your milk into your child’s eye,” and if they did that, truly as expected, the child’s eyes and ears would recover. Even if an infant’s face grew sores or became coarse: “Drip and daub your milk onto the face,” she would say. After the mother did this, her child’s face would smoothen and gleam. If a small child suddenly fell over or struck their head, Momay would rub egg yolk onto old rags and wrap up the head; with this, the child’s condition would improve. This kind of treatment Momay would call “leveling out”—if an infant had severe diarrhea, she would treat them by making them porridge from sheep fat.

In my recollection, Momay treated my foot twice without any cost:

On one of the days that I ran around barefoot, the middle toe of my right foot struck a rock and was badly hurt. Momay placed earth-cattail wool (a seed-like thing that has black cattail inside and occurs all around run-down walls and among vegetables) and cured it. This was the first occasion. On the second occasion, my foot was sprained and my ankle swelled up. Seeing this, Momay said, “The muscle is strained,” and cured it by dipping camel fur into saltwater, making shopuq, and wrapping it and smearing on yolk of two eggs. … After my uncle made more or less an income from farming, sometime in autumn he had new clothes sewn for me. I was especially taken with my boots stitched from meskap[5] and beside myself with joy.

When I went up to the village, after I scrubbed the soles of my boots and smeared qaragül[6] until they gleamed, I went to show Pirizkhan Momay. She saw and said, “Pah, pah, my dear child, you’ve donned new clothes and become a beautiful man. The boots especially suit you; now it seems that your feet won’t get beat up,” and took my new hat in her hands and looked at the adornments—then caressed my head and placed the cap back.  I took out my handkerchief sewn from so-called Satan’s-skin cloth from the pocket of my beshmet and boasted, “Look here, Moma, I even have a handkerchief to wipe my nose.”

“Your uncle has done well to give you this. Don’t just go on shining your boots, but also, it would be even better if you keep wiping and shining your face and eyes frequently, and then even fair maidens will take notice of you. You’ve dressed up and come up at exactly the right time. Today is harpa[7], tomorrow is heyt[8], I’ve made a great deal of sangza[9]. Moreover, my daughter Chimengül has come round for her festival visit and brought a stack of sangza, and my granddaughter Modengül has also come. Our neighbor Noruz will also arrive in a moment herding the ewes with their lambs. You, too, make your festival visit, be our guest and stay the night at our house. Move, enter,”—so saying, she took hold of my hand and guided me into the house. Aunt Chimengül seemed to be making qiyiqcha[10], placing them into the oil in the pan.

“Wai-wui, my son has become a young man,” she teased, welcoming me. The girl Moden, wearing a red satin dress, had also blossomed, truly as beautifully as a peony[11]. Sure enough, Neighbor Noruz arrived, herding the sheep and lambs. On this night in Pirizkhan Momay’s house, I was immersed in joy. Momay invited us in as her guests, burning oil to drive away spirits, frying zhit[12] and omelettes, and preparing tea with cream. She heaped sangza into the large platter before me, disregarding my protests, and when I had eaten and drunk until the contents of my bowl finally halved, she said, “A tiny bit of cream,” and added still more to my bowl while also forcing me to eat pancakes.

Being Momay’s guest put me in a very difficult situation. Both because of my difficulty finishing my tea and because of Modengül, I began to blush from a sense of shame. But my awkwardness gradually disappeared and I lightened up following Momay’s interesting conversation—“Eat sangza, I say, you all don’t know, if Hapizkam saw how sangza was heaped upon the table in this way, he would lose his mind.”

“Mother, who is the so-called Hapizkam?” asked Chimenkhan.

Momay was rich in a variety of legends and myths, folktales and fables. Per Chimenkhan’s question, she narrated for us this folk anecdote:

Before, in this area, there was a deaf man called Hapizkam. His wife, as well as their daughter who had become of age, were also deaf. One summer day, when water came to the village and farmers were galloping around on horses to irrigate the fields, Hapizkam asked of one of them: “Hai, hai, why are you all galloping around?”

“Don’t you know yet? Water came, and we’re putting up a dyke,” said that farmer.

“Hee, hee, how strange”—so saying, Hapizkam hurried home and said, “Hey, wife, heyt came, heyt, won’t we make sangza?”

His wife was overjoyed and said, “Wiyey, whatever you want to get for me, get for me,” and hurried off in order to relay this happiness to her daughter. The mother said, “Hey, my daughter, did you know, your father has suddenly shown great humanity, look, he said, ‘What kind of dress will you wear, satin or durdun silk?’”

“Wiyei, give me to whomever you like,” said the daughter.

Upon listening to this anecdote, we all laughed ourselves silly.

“Look at that, in every head there’s a different thought,” said Momay. Modengül’s face blushed crimson like a pomegranate.  I wasn’t able to understand if this redness came from from the effect of laugher or from her thoughts being influenced by the deaf girl’s words, but she cast a fluttering glance at me and then looked at the ground. Momay, who had surmised that the two of us were feeling shy, wanted to create an opportunity for us to open up by telling us interesting stories.  

“See, you all, it’s been much time since Hapizkam, who loved to eat sangza on heyt, departed from this life. Yet heyt has come round again. People’s lifespan is thusly short, but only Prophet Hizir[13] does not die,” said Momay. And then she went on to tell us this legend:

Once upon a time, my Prophet Hizir saw how people were cutting firewood in a vast, infinite forest, and then passed through, and after some ages, when he came to this place and looked, that forestland had disappeared and in its place had appeared a river. On the bank of the river, a man sat fishing. Prophet Hizir came to the fisherman’s side and asked, “Where did the forest on this land go?”

The fisherman answered, “There was never a forest on this land. For generations and generations, we have fished from this river.”

Hizir passed through and roamed around the world, and after some ages had passed, again he came to the side of this river. Lo and behold, in the river’s place stood a tremendous marsh, and on the marsh, a person seemed to be watching over a flock. Hizir asked of the shepherd, “Where is the river on this land?”

The shepherd said, “What would you do with a river here? This place has been a marsh since long ago.”

Once again, after some epochs, Hizir passed by this place. He looked, and in the marsh’s place had arisen a tremendous city. Hizir asked of a shopkeeper on a bustling shopping street, “Where is the marsh on this land?”

“There has never been a marsh on this land. For generations and generations, we have been living in this city,” said the shopkeeper.

After several epochs, when Hizir came to this land, in the city’s place had emerged a sandy wilderness. Hizir asked of the caravans that were having their camels kneel by the sand dunes, “Where is the city on this land?”

“How would a city be in the desert? For generations and generations, this place has been a desolate desert island,” said the caravans.

Hizir was surprised, and went off on his way.

“See, you all, man’s life is short. Compared to a person’s life, the experiences of a place are long; this, only the undying Hizir knows. And yet, the experiences in humans’ short lives occur accordingly.”

“Moma, in that case, tell us about humans’ experiences,” I asked.

Momay spoke of the following incident:

Long ago, there transpired a man named Thistoo. One springtime, when the snow went and the fields hardened, Thistoo intended to cultivate a field; he had a child of about thirteen or fourteen years hold the plough handle, then he put the yoke over his own neck and ploughed the earth himself. He strained and sweated until his tongue hung down. A passerby merchant who saw Thistoo’s difficult circumstances asked, “Hai, hai, brother, have you really fallen into the tough situation of hitching yourself to a plough in place of a cow?”

Thistoo lifted his head and gave the response, “Hem ein guthar ast,” and continued to pull the plough, and the merchant also continued on his own way.

After several years had passed, that passerby merchant came to a storefront in a city which was packed full of first-rate goods and was able to buy a garment’s worth of cloth from the storekeeper. When he looked closely, the rich brocade-selling storekeeper seemed be that man who once upon a time had ploughed the earth in place of a cow.

“Hai, hai, brother, aren’t you that person who once put a yoke over your neck and ploughed the earth?” he asked.

“Yes, right, that’s me,” said he.

“What did you do to become so rich?”

“Hem ein guthar ast,” said the storekeeper again.

As for the passerby, he was surprised, and left on his own way.

After a very long time, this passerby merchant came again to a city. In this city, he encountered the calumny of a scandalmonger and brought a lawsuit before the city hakim. The hakim justly adjudicated the lawsuit and rescued the merchant from the scandalmonger. When the merchant, in happiness, looked closely, this seemed to be that storekeeper who had sold the brocade.

He asked, “Hai, hai, your lordship, thou wast a storekeeper before, and how is it that thou hast wondrously became a hakim?”

“Hem ein guthar ast,” said the hakim. Once again, the storekeeper continued on his own way.

After a time, again that merchant was passing through a market, and when he entered a restaurant, a man in tattered clothes, whose face had been all blackened by smoke, was burning wood in the stove and burning off the head and lower leg of a sheep. When the merchant looked closely at him, he was that hakim who had adjudicated his lawsuit in the past.

He asked, “Hai, hai, brother, weren’t you that city’s hakim? Amazing, you’ve fallen into the situation of tending the fire[14] in a sheep head-chef’s stove.”

The fire-tender, without any amount of shame, gave the haughty response, “Hem ein guthar ast.”

“Hai brother, you seem to be an unusual man. I’ve encountered you in all kinds of circumstances, and whenever I ask you say `Hem ein güziret’[15]—what do you mean by this?” asked the passerby. 

“‘Hem ein guthar ast,’ I say, this all will pass, I say. You ask without understanding what this means. The meaning of my words is simply the continuous changing of my circumstances. I am not an unusual man as you said; maybe it is this era itself that is strange. Do you know, my name is Thistoo, the meaning—the expression being 'this too will pass,’” he said.

“It seems that Thistoo wanders through the cities since his legs are in good shape. It is difficult for our neighborhood’s crippled Hapiz to pass through. However would he pass through on foot?” said Noruz.

“What happened to him?” asked Momay.

“The poor wretch, being unable to pay the state grain tax from the harvest taken from his little land, he feared getting locked up by the yamul and sold his donkey, and now he can’t even go from the neighborbood to the city,” said Noruz.

“That, children, is as the saying goes!—'If the law is severe, even a cloth peg enters the ground,’” said Momay.

This proverb explained how the pitiful farmers of that time, lacking all options, had no choice but to pay the tax of corvee.

I took great interest in those sorts of wise words and the legends and tales of Pirizkhan Momay. These became the buds of interest in literature that were fixed into the spiritual mind of my youth.

Until the end of my life, I will remember fondly the the kindness shown in my time of innocence and the shaking hands of Pirizkhan Momay that, in my orphanhood, caressed my worried head.

When this folk storyteller, experienced medicinalist and agriculturalist Momay passed away, my young mind descended into the sorrow and grief from when I had separated from my parents. Because of this, I walked crying as a mourner in front of her bier with her grandson Noruz.[16]


[1] momay/moma refers to a grandmotherly figure; this title might roughly translate to “Wise Matron Pirizkhan” or “Old Dame Pirizkhan”

[2] sandy or desert-like

[3] garden cress, from Persian تره تیزک

[4] a mild narcotic, made of tobacco, birch ash and lime

[5] a kind of grain leather

[6] some kind of flower, probably black hollyhock

[7] the eve of a festival day

[8] festival or holiday; it’s unclear which holiday this refers to

[9] a popular snack made of thin noodles of wheat flour that are twisted together and deep-fried

[10] a kind of sangza made by cutting the dough with serrated edges, rolling into a flower-like wheel shape, and then deep-frying

[11] the name Modengül means “peony” 

[12] thin fried oil cake

[13] Hizir the prophet, a legendary figure bringing blessing to those who are poor and oppressed

[14] the literal translation of this phrase would be “to burn fire”

[15] borrowed into Uyghur from Persian هم این گذار است, meaning “this too will pass” or “this is but momentary”

[16] In Uyghur culture, when parents die, the children walk in front of the bier crying

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