Lost Treasure

Chong Sheau Ching rediscovers an ancient lesson through food and legend.

Photo by Tzer Haw

“Kuo Whai fell deeply in love with a beautiful girl in his village. Unfortunately, she was taken into the Emperor’s Palace as one of his 3000 consorts. Once she entered the Palace, not even her own family could ever see her again. The only way Kuo Whai could see her was to become a Palace eunuch. He did, and he toiled for years from a low-level eunuch to one of high position.

he became the personal eunuch of the girl, who had become the Emperor’s First Consort. Even though he could not have her as his wife, he was content just serving her and watching her enjoying her life. For 20 years, he was her confidante. He lived for her and strove to fulfill her dream of becoming the Empress. He wove webs of deceit and eliminated all her enemies.

Justice Bao eventually found him guilty of murder. Before Kuo Whai was beheaded for his crime, he told the new Empress how long he had silently loved her, and he died with happiness knowing that she was happy.”

I gave a summary of a TV episode on Justice Bao, the famed Judge of ancient China, to my friend, Lena, from Azerbaijan -- a country in Central Asia by the Caspian Sea. Matronly Lena is in her mid-fifties and has been married for over 34 years.   

Lena is visiting her daughter in Kuala Lumpur. She finds our multi-cultural TV programs fascinating. She loves inviting me for Azerbaijani foods, and listening to my translations of local shows. Through our many discussions, I have learned things from her that I hadn’t thought of before. 

“In Mandarin, people with such undying love are considered to be "ji sin". They love totally and are willing to sacrifice everything for their loved ones. Their love is noble and chaste,” I explained. 

Lena was excited. “Kuo Whai’s self-sacrifice and unselfishness is so touching! I love this kind of ancient legend! We have Azerbaijan legends about such noble love too. We call such love “bouyik mehebet”. It means ‘great love.”  

 She handed me a plate of Azerbaijan dried injil (figs). “Please take as much as you want.”
“I’ll just take one, thanks. I just had my dinner.”

 “You must eat something here. We are talking about love and food means love!”

She went into the kitchen and brought out several kinds of food. She sliced a piece of pashted (A chilled bean loaf made of minced, cooked kidney beans, garlic, onions and hazel nuts rolled with butter into a loaf) and put it on my plate. 

Lena then told me, “In Baku, our capital, the symbol of “bouyik mehebet” is Gusgalasir (Maiden Towers) situated right next to the Caspian Sea. They were built in the 11th century. Attached together on one side, they look like an open book.

Legend has it that the Shah’s daughter, the Princess, fell in love with a shepherd. The Shah was so upset that he ordered the towers to be built to house the princess so she couldn’t go meet him. The Gusgalasir is very dark inside, as there are only small windows at the top. It was difficult for the Princess to escape, for the spiral staircase that connected the floors was steep.

One day, when the khazri (gale force wind) swept through Baku, the Princess leapt from Gusgalasir into the Caspian Sea. When the shepherd heard that the Princess died for him, he climbed up the Gusgalasir with a rope and jumped into the sea to meet the Princess.

Although the Gusgalasir is a museum now, its legend still moves us deeply.”

Lena placed a skewer of lamb kebab (roasted meat) on my plate and covered it with dark pargsimon (a kind of fruit) sauce. “You can’t leave here without tasting my kebab today.”

She continued, “Another famous “bouyik mehebet” story is that of Leili and Majonon. The story is actually based on a gazelle (a poem) written by a 16th century poet, Mohammed Fisuli.

You see, Leili, the young woman, was from a very rich family; but Majonan, the young man, was from an average family. They fell in love. Majonan’s love for Leili was so great that he behaved abnormally if he didn’t see Leili for a day. The people dubbed him “Mad Majonan”.

Leili’s parents refused to let her marry Majonan. They forced her to marry another rich man’s son. Majonan was so sad that he went to live in the forest. His friend, a local hero, came to see him. The hero told Majonan his plan to take Leili by force from her parents’ house so that Majonan could marry her.

But Majonon wouldn’t allow the hero to do it, “I love Leili very much. Although I want her more than anything else in the world, I don’t want to hurt her parents because they love her very much too.”

So he continued to live in the forest. Another friend came to tell Majonan that a nice girl was so touched by Majonan’s love for Leili that she offered to marry him. Majonan refused, “ I only love one woman. Her name is Leili.”

On Leili’s wedding night, she told her new husband that she was sick and she couldn’t bed him. He knew about her love for Majonon. So he said, “I don’t mind. We will live as brother and sister until the day you love me.”

Leili was so lovesick for Majonon that she died. When Majonon heard the news, he rushed to her grave and died there too. Her husband’s love for Leili was so great that he never married again.”

A tear rolled from Lena’s eye. “Leili and Majonan’s love was so great that Allah helped them to die together! Songs about their love are still widely sung in Azerbaijan.”

She wiped her tear and smiled. “It’s so touching!” She took a “too-shookhiyar” (cucumber pickled with parsley) from a big jar and sliced it on my plate. “You must eat some too-shookhiyar for health. We can’t talk so much about love and not take care of your health!”

When Lena sat down to watch me eat, another tear rolled down her cheek. “During every wedding anniversary, my husband and I think about Leili and Majonon’s story.

We are so grateful that our parents allowed us to marry, even though my husband is from a much richer family and we were of different religions. The story makes us appreciate and treasure our marriage.”
“I miss him so much even though I am just here for a short time.”

I was just about to finish the cucumber when Lena plopped my favorite dolmah (cabbage roll with rice and minced meat) on the plate. “Today’s dolmah is made from my grandmother’s recipe. She learned it from my great-grandmother.”  

She sat thoughtfully on her chair for several moments before she said, “I read a lot of translations of ancient literature written by writers in many cultures. I have the impression that the people in ancient times were simpler, more innocent and more sincere than we are.

They valued true and long lasting relationships.

They gave more than they took from others. We, the modern people, are more pragmatic and we think about ourselves more than our loved ones.

In my country, the older people are more committed to marriage than the younger people, who value their own personal needs. Divorce is increasing among them. It saddens old people like me who still recite Mohammed Fusili’s poems on “bouyik mehebet”. Younger people think such love is silly and self-sacrifice is nonsense.

But I still believe that the world can only be happy with “bouyik mehebet”. Don’t you think life would be so much more worthwhile if we loved like those in the ancient times? Don’t you think life would be so much more meaningful if we gave more and took less?”

By Chong Sheau Ching


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