Author: Maharram Zeynalov Baku
For many years it was impossible to write or speak about him. Only those who knew him well remembered about him in a whisper. Yet, he was a man who had done a lot for the Azerbaijani culture of the 20th century. Abbas-Mirza Abdul-Rasul oglu Sarifzada, an outstanding stage and screen actor, was one of the originators of Azerbaijani national cinema.
Abbas-Mirza was born to the family of a teacher on 12 December 1893. Two years later his father Mirza Abdul-Rasul opened a school in Samaxi together with Said Azim Sirvani, where he also worked as a teacher. After the horrific earthquake in Samaxi the family moved to Baku. It was here that Abbas Mirza, 9, first appeared on stage. The performance was staged by his uncle Mirza Mammad Tagi.
Hamlet of the Turkic stage
Sarifzada's career was greatly influenced by Huseyn Arablinski. He earned a renown for playing the parts of Iblis ("Iblis" by Huseyn Cavid), Aydin, Oqtay, Elxan, Eyvaz ("Aydin", "Oqtay El-oglu", "Bride of Fire", "In 1905" by C. Cabbarli), etc. The lack of professional education did not prevent Sarifzada from win the love of the public, directors and colleagues. He also famously played the parts of Shakespeare's Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth, of Charles Moore in Schiller's "The Robbers" and many others.
This is how his Hamlet was described by the "Soviet theater" magazine in 1930: "Hamlet has assumed an interesting Oriental appearance on the Turkic stage. The action has been moved to an eastern province. This is where the eternal philosophical tragedy of Sir William Shakespeare is played in an unusual entourage of Eastern sheiks and courtiers. And look at how expansively and warmly the viewers have reacted to the rapidly unfolding action perfectly played by Sarifzada and his understudy Ulvi, as well as strong, cultured and thoughtful Turkic actors."
The meticulous enunciation, the powerful voice multiplied by the excellent acoustics of the drama theater which was built by the Baku millionaire and philanthropist Haci Zeynalabdin Tagiyev before the revolution made every phrase even uttered in a whisper and every breath of the actor reach every spectator, including the balcony seats usually occupied by students. People who knew Sarifzada always admired his scenic charm and ability to captivate various audiences. But outside theater nothing suggested that Abbas-Mirza was a great actor. He was an ordinary man of medium height, always kept humble and simple, and maintained companionship with everyone. But he transformed amazingly well on stage, as if becoming somewhat taller! He was so plastic, some great inner force made him inimitable.
Senior fans of Azerbaijani theater will remember how Abbas-Mirza and his Shakespearean characters won over the Moscow theater elite during a tour in Moscow in 1930.
Sarifzada was also a director of plays and films. In essence, he was one of the first Azerbaijani filmmakers. He also staged operas and vaudevilles.
His film career began with the Russian film "Prince Temir-Bulat" in 1916. In 1924, Sarifzada played the part of a khan in film "Owl". In 1929, the film "An eye for an eye" was shot. Sarifzada staged both feature and documentary films. The former include the anticlerical "Bismillah!" ("In the name of God", 1925), "Haci-Qara" (1929) and "The Game of Love" (1935). Documentaries include "Travel to Azerbaijan" (1924) and "Saxsey-Vaxsey" (1929).
In 1921, at the peak of his fame and vibrant creative life, Abbas-Mirza married Xanifa Akchurina. He was 28, she was 19. This was a romantic relationship. He often waited for the bride at the gates of her high school and sang serenades under her balcony with his friend Bulbul. And then, when they got married, their house was always full of guests. It was visited by many famous figures of culture and art, including Muslum Magomayev, Huseyn Cavid, Uzeyir Hacibayov, Afrasiyab Badalbayli, Ismayil Hidayatzada, Cafar Cabbarli, etc.
In 1936, Abbas-Mirza Sarifzada was awarded the title of a People's Artist of the Azerbaijan SSR. It would seem that the actor was in good standing even in a severe state. But suddenly, on 4 December 1937, in the midst of Stalin repressions, Sarifzada was arrested in his apartment on charges of spying for Iran. His frequent visits to the Persian consulate in Ganca in 1932 were cited as evidence.
There were no public trials or lawyers during repression. And no-one paid attention to the fact that in reality those were friendly meetings organized by the consul, a big fan of Azerbaijani theater who loved to spend evenings in the company of actors. Another major reason for the arrest was the political activity of Sarifzada's brother, an official of the independent Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan of 1918-1920 who was living in exile at the time. Sarifzada was also accused of promoting the works of repressed poets Mikail Musfiq and Huseyn Cavid. The latter, incidentally, was his friend. On 19 October 1938, Sarifzada was found guilty on all counts and executed a month later.
This is what the late Azad Sarif, a prominent Azerbaijani journalist, wrote about Sarifzada in his article "The tragedy of a great tragedian": "That fateful night ... Shakespeare and home theater again. When the play ended, the audience applauded for a long time, while Abbas-Mirza reappeared on the stage many times. According to witnesses, he was unusually sad, he would come close to the ramp and spread his arms wide in a deep bow, as if trying to hug everyone goodbye. That was really the last meeting with the actor. It was December 1937...
… After Abbas-Mirza's last show the actors did not leave the theater for a long time. They gathered in a small cozy courtyard of the theater. Abbas-Mirza sat down for a game or two of backgammon. No-one noticed two very similarly dissimilar persons enter the courtyard. One of them stood behind Abbas-Mirza, as if watching the game. The other stood right opposite. The actor felt their heavy gaze. Lifting his head, he looked at the strangers and somewhat faded immediately. Then he suddenly stood up and said loudly without looking at anyone: "I am gone." And he headed for the exit. The "guests" followed him in silence. According to the wardrobe mistress of the theater, there were two more people waiting outside. Abbas-Mirza was pushed into the car, as it rushed in the direction of the infamous building on the waterfront in Baku. "Abbas has been taken off," she cried in horror bursting into the courtyard. "I am gone!"... For many decades, actors have been repeating the three words that have become a farewell of the great tragedian.
Those who were in the courtyard of the theater on that terrible night bitterly regretted not paying proper attention to the words afterwards. From the minute the words were spoken no-one saw Abbas-Mirza again: his wife, his daughter Firangiz, now also a people's actress of Azerbaijan, or his friends. He seemed to be sunk in the water. He was gone into nowhere, in order to return to us as a legend decades later."
Like millions of others, he was only rehabilitated after Stalin's death. Only in the late 1950s did newspapers begin to recall Sarifzada. Here is an excerpt of one of the first articles about him: "Recently, the staff of the "Azerbaijanfilm" studio have discovered feature films in the archives of the USSR "Gosfilmofond" that were shot at the dawn of Soviet Azerbaijani cinema. For example, a negative of the first Soviet Azerbaijani film "Legend of the Maiden Tower" filmed in 1923 was found. Of great interest is the anti-religious film "In the Name of God" ("Bismillah!") by outstanding actor and director Abbas-Mirza Sarifzada" ("Baku Worker", 1959).
A period of "thaw" set in and surviving people of culture remembered Sarifzada. "I am very honored to have been a friend of this remarkable actor of our time, to have witnessed his brilliant performances on the stages of various theaters of the country, to have seen his creative search and discoveries," his colleague Mustafa Mardanov remembered in 1963. "The days I spent together with Abbas-Mirza Sarifzada will never be erased from my memory."
Even today Sarifzada's descendants are bringing glory to Azerbaijan. The actor's great grandson Eldar Qasimov won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011.