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English  Albanian Literature in Translation

Robert Elsie

 

Oral Literature |  Legends

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Aga Ymeri of Ulqin

     Aga Ymeri is a well-known legendary figure of northern Albanian oral literature, known in southern Albania as Ymer Ago, among the Italo-Albanians as Konstandini i Vogëlith 'Little Constantine' and in Greek Akritic verse as Konstantinos o Mikros 'Little Constantine.' Aga Ymeri of the Muslim tradition and Little Constantine of the Byzantine-Greek tradition evince the motif of the reunification of husband and wife in Albanian folklore, as did Homer's Ulysses in the literature of ancient Greece. Aga is a Turkish title for a landowner. Ulqin (called Ulcinj in BCS and Dulcigno in Italian) is a town on the southern Montenegrin coast near the Albanian border and is largely inhabited by Albanians.

    Aga Ymeri of Ulqin was in the prime of his life when he married. The day after his wedding the young man received an order from the Sultan saying, "Aga Ymeri of Ulqin, you must depart immediately for war. The enemy has invaded..." The order was terrible, for it separated the young man from his young wife, but as Aga Ymeri was a true warrior, he lost no words. He rose, saddled his steed, gathered his weapons and bid farewell to his parents. Then he returned to his young bride and said, "My beloved wife, the Sultan has called me up. I must go to war immediately." "Take me with you, Aga Ymeri," she begged him. "No, I cannot take you with me," replied Aga Ymeri. "I am going to war and war is for men only. I want you to promise me not to marry again, but to wait until I return. Tell me how long you will wait for me, my love." "I will wait nine days." "Nine days is not very long. I have a great distance to travel and the war can last a long time. If you love me as I love you, you will wait nine years and nine days. When nine years and nine days have passed and I have not returned, you may marry and live happily, for that will mean that I am dead." The young wife sighed, "All right, Aga Ymeri, I will wait for you for nine years and nine days." They both gave their word of honour. Aga Ymeri bid farewell to his wife, mounted his steed and set off content for war. The steed galloped so swiftly that it left a cloud of dust behind them, for the rider was in great haste to do battle.
     Aga Ymeri of Ulqin was heroic but there were many enemies. In his first battle, a multitude of cavalrymen dressed in coats of armour attacked, encircling him and setting upon him with their swords. Aga Ymeri fought bravely, slew many an enemy and wounded others until they killed his steed. Aga Ymeri continued fighting on foot until his sword was shattered. The enemy took him prisoner and tossed him into the dungeon of a castle surrounded by high walls. They treated him with respect, for Aga Ymeri was a hero and heroes are always treated with respect.
     Days in the dungeon turned to weeks, weeks turned to months and months to years. But Aga Ymeri never lost hope, for his wife had promised to wait for nine years and nine days. He ate, drank, cheered his friends and played the lute. The daughter of the foreign king was quite astonished. "Who is that man," she wondered, "who doesn't seem to mind being prisoner in a foreign land?" "He is called Aga Ymeri of Ulqin," they told her. "He must be a strong man." "Yes, he is strong and merry and cheers the other prisoners with his words and songs."
     Aga Ymeri was indeed full of hope because he was waiting for the Sultan to pay the ransom for his release. "I have fought many years in his service," said Aga Ymeri to himself, "I have always obeyed his orders and gone whenever he summoned me." But Sultans have the habit of forgetting the people who have helped them, and Aga Ymeri had been forgotten by this Sultan, who had never even considered paying the ransom. And so nine years passed. The fatal day approached, the ninth day which his wife had promised to wait for before she remarried. Aga Ymeri fell into a state of profound dejection. His eyes lost their colour, he could no longer eat, drink or make merry. His friends were surprised and asked him what the matter was, but he gave no reply, crouched instead in silence with his head bowed. The king's daughter heard no more music and asked, "What is wrong with Aga Ymeri? His voice is no longer to be heard." "He has not eaten or drunk anything for days," they told her, "he no longer sleeps or plays his lute." "Call Aga Ymeri to me," said the king's daughter. On being brought to her and asked what the matter was, Aga Ymeri replied that he could no longer eat or drink because of a bad dream. "What kind of bad dream?" asked the king's daughter. He then told her his dream: "I dreamt I saw my home, blackened and in ruins. My father was dead and forgotten, my mother blind. I saw my wife, too. She was about to remarry. I have only spent one night with her. The next day I received orders to go to war. I fought and was taken prisoner. We had sworn to be faithful to one another and my wife promised to wait nine years and nine days for my return. The nine years have since passed and now the nine days are running their course. I beg of you, daughter of the king, ask you father's permission to release me for a few days. I will return home, talk to my wife and come back to the dungeon." "I can ask him, Aga Ymeri, but as you know, my father the king demands nine sacks of silver for your release." "But where, oh where, can I get the nine sacks, daughter of the king? I have been a prisoner for nine years now." "If I release you, Aga Ymeri, what will you give me as a pledge that you will return?" "I give you my word of honour, daughter of the king."
     Since the king's daughter knew that Aga Ymeri was an Albanian and would rather die than break his word of honour, she said to him, "Rise, Aga Ymeri, saddle the bay horse and you'll be in Ulqin in three days." Aga Ymeri's companions lamented, "How unfortunate we are! Aga Ymeri is being released and leaving us behind." But he replied, "What is wrong with you, my friends? As long as I survive, I will return and we will wait out the time together. Farewell!" They wished him luck on his journey. Aga Ymeri saddled and mounted the bay horse and set off towards Ulqin.
     The horse sped like an arrow over mountains and valleys. "Swiftly, horse, swiftly so that we may reach my beauty before she remarries." The horse galloped day and night until it was exhausted. Aga Ymeri, too, was fatigued, but they continued their course. In three days and three nights they arrived, catching sight of the fair town of Ulqin shimmering before them on the water. "Oh, Ulqin, Ulqin, I have carried your image in my heart my whole life long!" sighted Aga Ymeri. "Night after night for nine years I dreamt of you! For nine years now I have been longing to kiss your earth." The waves were breaking on the beach, a fresh breeze was blowing, the sea gulls circled in the sky above.
     And there glimmered the house of Aga Ymeri, too, as if in a dream. "Am I really here?" he asked himself. As he was dying of thirst, he stopped as a fountain to drink. There he saw his aged mother who did not recognize him. "Greetings, old woman." "Good day, prisoner!" "How do you know I am a prisoner?" inquired Aga Ymeri. His mother replied, "By your long shoulder length hair. Where have you come from, prisoner?" "I have just arrived from Spain." The mother then asked, "Have you ever seen my Aga Ymeri or heard anything about him?" "Yes, I saw him three weeks ago," he replied, "Aga Ymeri was killed. I myself washed his corpse, mourned him and paid my last respects." The aged woman began to weep and, although it caused him great pain, he did not reveal the truth to her. Instead he inquired, "Who are those people over there passing in such a hurry, old woman? What are the volleys of fire echoing in the hills?" "They are the companions of Pasha Veli, that son of a dog, who have come to collect the bride and take her back to his home. The cannon fire is for the wedding." "Which bride are they collecting?" "It is the wife of my son Aga Ymeri."
     Aga Ymeri sprang to his horse and rode off towards the wedding party. "Greetings, wedding attendants." "Greetings prisoner. Which land have you come from?" "From Spain." "Have you ever seen Aga Ymeri or heard anything of him?" they asked. Aga Ymeri told them, as he had his mother, that Aga Ymeri had been killed three weeks before. The wedding attendants were relieved to hear this, but the bride began to weep under her veil.
     Aga Ymeri became angry and said, "Aga Ymeri gave me a message. May I speak to the bride for a moment?" "Yes, as long as you wish, prisoner." Aga Ymeri approached the bridal coach and asked the bride, "Would you recognize Aga Ymeri?" She replied, "How could I possibly recognize him? I only slept with him one night and then waited nine years for him. His poor mother, however, told me that he has a scar on his right arm where a horse bit him." Aga Ymeri rolled up his sleeve and showed her the scar. The bride recognized him instantly, rejoiced, got out of the coach, threw off her veil and said to the attendants, "Have a pleasant journey, companions of mine. I am accompanying my true husband. This is Aga Ymeri whom I married and who will be my husband forever and ever." Aga Ymeri made room for his bride on the horse and they went home.
     The next morning he mounted his bay horse again to set off for Spain as he had promised. "Swiftly, horse, swiftly, for I gave the king's daughter my word of honour!" They left fair Ulqin behind them and the horse galloped day and night.
     But what was going on in Spain in the meanwhile? The king had not seen or heard of Aga Ymeri for some time. He asked for news of him and was told that his daughter had released him, but that he would return. The king summoned his daughter immediately and asked right away, "What happened to the prisoner Aga Ymeri?" "I let him go, father," she replied, "he had to see his wife because she was going to marry someone else. He gave me his word of honour that he would return in three days. Today is the last day and he will return."
     The king was furious, crying, "No, he has deceived you. He won't return!" and ordered his daughter to be beheaded. "Wait until dark, father," the daughter implored him, "Aga Ymeri will return. He won't break his word." "He'll never come back," countered the king. "Once they escape from prison, they never return. They are like birds in a cage. Once you open the door, they're gone." "He will return. He gave me his word of honour," insisted the king's daughter. "A word of honour is but a word, my daughter, and words are soon gone with the wind. Even kings break their word."
     At that moment, a horseman appeared on the horizon, approaching swiftly. Soon he was at the gates of the fortress, dismounted from his sweating horse and greeted the king's daughter! "I gave you my word and have returned. I was your prisoner and now I am your prisoner again." The king looked down at him in amazement and said, "Aga Ymeri, you are indeed an honest man and have kept your word. You shall be released!" He then turned to his guards and gave orders, "Release Aga Ymeri and his nine companions and let them go wherever they wish."

[from Mitrush Kuteli (ed.) Tregime të moçme shqiptare (Tirana: Naim Frashëri, 1965, reprint 1987, 1998). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]

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