Sari Gelin

You don’t braid the end of your hair,
You don’t pick a dewy flower.
What is this love?
They will not let me marry you.
Oh, what can I do?
Oh, what can I do?
Fair Bride 

This verse is from the Azerbaijani folk song Sari Gelin, which is said to have mesmerized all who have ever heard it. The song is a symbol of national pride for many Azerbaijanis.

Sari Gelin is written in the literary genre known as bayati, which is one of the most popular forms of poetry in Azerbaijan and Turkey. Bayati poetry is known for its reflective and introspective prose. Generally, Bayati poetry consists of lines of seven syllables written in a simple rhythm.

The poem Sari Gelin is a love story involving two young people separated by social, religious, and political conflicts. In the Azerbaijani language the title of Sari Gelin conveys the theme of the poem. In the Azerbaijani Language, the word “Sari” refers to a person’s soul or to the color yellow, which is associated with positive qualities. The word “gelin” means someone who joins a family, like a bride, with its root in the Azerbaijani verb “gel,” which means “to come.”

The origin of the Azerbaijani masterpiece Sari Gelin is disputed. Abbasgulu Najafzadeh, who is the head of the Research Laboratory of the National Conservatory of the Azerbaijan Republic, argues that Sari Gelin was composed by Shakh Ismail Khatai. Khatai was the ruler of the Sefevi state during the 15th Century. According to this theory, Khatai’s inspiration for the poem came from a beautiful girl he saw dancing in a yellow dress while he was hunting. Khatai enjoyed the girl’s dancing so much he dedicated a poem to her. Because he did not know the girls name, Khati called the poem Sari Gelin or maiden in yellow. The music for the poem was added at a later date.

A second theory was proposed by the Azerbaijani artist Akif Islamzade. Islamzade believes that the song originated amongst the Oguhz people in the pre-Islamic period. The Oguhz were a Turkic tribe with historic ties to present day Azerbaijan. Islamzade argues that Sari Gelin’s stucture and intonation reflect the musical traditions of the 7th Century Oghuz-Turks.

Also, Islamzade asserts that the way in which marriage is described in the poem is typical of Oghuz-Turkic society. The matchmaker, in Oghuz Turk society, addressed the bride’s grandmother instead of her mother. This is evident in the line that states “They will not let me marry you. May your grandmother die.”

A third theory was developed by Hikmat Babaoglu, an Azerbaijani writer and researcher. He bases his theory on the Ottoman writer Ahmet Refik Altunay. Altunay wrote a book called “In the way of the Caucasus,” about a trip he took in 1918. In the book Altunay describes a meeting with a man named Ali who sung a song called “Sari Gelin”. Ali spoke what Altunay descibed as ‘fluent Turkish’ which is very similar to modern Azerbaijani. Based on this account, it seems that Sari Gelin originated amongst Azerbaijani peoples around 1918.

The Sari Gellin story has been retold by the prominent early 20th Century Azerbaijani poet and playwright Huseyn Javid in his play Sheikh Sanan (1914). Javid’s version features a Muslim boy and a Christian girl. The story has also been adapted into a film directed by Yaver Rzayev called Sari Gelin (1999).

The song Sari Gelin has become an important part of Azerbaijan’s cultural legacy throughout the world. For example Sari Gelin was performed by a combination of the Azerbaijani singer Brilliant Dadashova and the Norwegian choir SKRUK as part of an Azerbaijani-Norwegian cultural project. A more recent performance of Sari Gelin took place in Harlem, New York in 2009. Sari Gelin continues to play an integral role in the musical development of Azerbaijan and contributes to the international dialogue concerning poetry and music.

Post written by Ilqar Dadashov, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador