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Worth a read... Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet none will bore the lover of literature. Reading them, one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong June 21, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. An Armenian Master of Jurisprudence Despite important reservations A. K. Soukiasian's monograph on Mkhitar Kosh is an exciting read. Born around 1130 Kosh was the foremost legal mind of his time and set out a canon of law that for many centuries was to serve Armenian communities the world over. Kosh comes to the fore during a short-lived period of relief from relentless Seljuk-Turkish assaults on Armenia and seeks to formulate political and civil laws and rights appropriate to this revival. Kosh's conceptions were of his times. He was a devout Christian and defender of the feudal order. But according to Soukiasian, in one respect he stands head and shoulders above his international contemporaries. Unlike so many others he was remarkably creative and critical of the orthodox and inherited legal canon. While basing himself on ancient religious and legal texts, he readily rejected that which did not suit the circumstances of the day. Bypassing many a religious canon he elaborated his system of laws from reigning custom and tradition. Kosh's thought clearly marks him out from the mere talented. One example reveals this brilliantly. Medieval Christian philosophy grappled with issues of freedom, rights and law and recognised that human beings are born free. However its explanation for the unfreedom obtained in feudal times never went beyond mystical assertions of original sin, inherent evil, selfishness and greed. Kosh leaps well ahead of these explanations. Reminding one of Rousseau, he claims the source of serfdom and unfreedom was the seizure of land and natural resources by the few. While many have dismissed Kosh as a disorganised and unsystematic thinker, Soukiasian in an exciting examination of Kosh's great text `The Book of Judgements' argues convincingly that he was on the contrary not only systematic, but a legal mind unparalleled in Armenian history. In his work Kosh codified, adjusted and elaborated an immense legal text covering all aspects of Armenian life at the time. So thoroughly did he do the job that, adjusted as time demanded, `The Book of Judgements' served Armenian communities wherever they had a degree of internal judicial independence. What has been obliterated from all official religious records about Armenian civil and domestic life can with imagination be gleaned from this book. Law and prohibition naturally comes into being only when the alleged infringement appears. Thus the more comprehensive a book of law the more fully will it incorporate and reveal the society of its time. It can be a treasury of knowledge about customs, tradition and social and domestic relations. So with `The book of Judgement' which contains extensive and immensely valuable information about property, the position of women, domestic violence, divorce, dowries, theft, murder, the position of the poor, sexuality and sexual deviation right up to bestiality. Given the appallingly bowdlerised official religious histories and records, it is certain fact that no serious or credible Armenian history or historical fiction can be produced without taking into account `The Book of Judgements'. Kosh was a perceptive political legislator too who considered a strong centralised monarchy necessary to reconstitute and reunite the devastated Armenian feudal order. Anticipating an emergent independent kingdom he argued that the monarch should have powers to enforce common, universal laws and taxes across the land. Anticipating the emergence of new and more individualist forces in Armenian society he upheld a conception of governance according to the rule of law. This would put a restraint on arbitrary, wilful and indiscriminate feudal authority so damaging to the national and international trade that was a foundation for the Armenian revival. Seeking sustainable conditions for an Armenian state he strove for measures that eased social and civil conflict. `The Book of Judgements is replete with recommendations that temper the harsh treatment meted out to women, to serfs and to the poor. His attitude to women marks him out as more humane than was the custom of his time. He insisted that husbands refrain from wilful and arbitrary domination, opposed marriage to child-brides and the practice of abandoning women on grounds of infertility. A significant reservation concerns the author's claim that Kosh was a humanist. This nonsense is evident from Kosh's attitude to Muslims. Kosh was a medieval Christian who like all Christian thinkers of the time considered himself part of god's chosen people. Non-Christians were infidels undeserving of equal treatment. Thus `The Book of Judgements' confers no rights on Muslims while recommending harsher penalties for the same crimes committed by Christians. Ending on one of a number of reservations should not diminish our appreciation of the grandeur of this thinker who still has a record more humane than many a barbarian Christian of his time and is the recorder of fables of universal import. * * * 2. A Witness to the Armenian Holocaust `Those Dark Days' (Kardashian Printers, Beirut, Lebanon, 1985) by Aram Antonian is a slim volume of six sketches. Each is a harrowing account of life and death in the deportation camps for Armenians set up by the Young Turk regime in the Syrian deserts. They remind one of Primo Levi's recollections of survival in Nazi concentration camps. With Antonian we are witness to the fate of hundreds of thousands of Armenians who, during the genocide of 1915, were driven into these camps there to be starved, tortured, robbed, degraded, humiliated, dehumanised and forever maimed or murdered. Antonian (1879-1951) was one of the few Armenian intellectuals who experienced the deportations and survived them. He survived a terrible death and lice-ridden camp in Meskene, not far from Aleppo. Aleppo, of course, with its promise of escape, remained out of bounds. Death was usually the penalty for those who sought to reach it. Antonian's human sensibility and psychological insight combined with his linguistic fluency enables him to communicate physical and psychological suffering through vivid descriptions of bodily movements and contortions, through a glance or a grimace and by means of gruesome descriptions of dismal natural surroundings. Each sketch, as it reveals aspects of the destruction of human being, also reveals aspects of the structure and functioning of the apparatus of genocide. The recounting of the sadistic murder of a 14 year old boy can reduce one to tears, but this is not its most horrific aspect. Nor is it the fact that camp guards, for their own amusement, habitually kill young children. `Impotent hatred is the worst of all suffering' Antonian explains as he describes the mental and emotional anguish experienced by onlookers who watch as the young boy's head is severed from his body and can do absolutely nothing. Guilt and self-contempt are compounded when they see in the boy's eyes not just a silent scream of pain and a plea of help but an everlasting reproof against their own inaction. Everlasting, for the image of the boy's eyes will be imprinted in their memory till the day of their own deaths. The almost indescribable suffering of millions of Armenians is rendered real and tangible by focussing on individuals. A former matriarch of a well-off household witnesses the death of her three daughters and six grandchildren. Images of happier days flash into her consciousness as if to mock her present misfortune. Unable to comprehend her misfortune she looses the will to live. A young boy almost in despair as he searches for his mother, joyfully clings to her dead body deluded by a smile frozen on her lifeless face among a heap of other dead. Reading each sketch you grasp something of the frailty of being human in the face of overwhelming evil, something of that feeling of utter helplessness and hopelessness in the face of incomprehensible calamity. Extremes of want, deprivation, pain, hunger, thirst, torture, bereavement and hopelessness stripped these people of their humanity; a humanity that previously encompassed collective consciousness, social solidarity, altruism, nobility, tenderness and gentleness. All norms and rituals of social intercourse collapse. All remembrance of things beautiful, all dreams of better days are annihilated by the bitterness of the present. No tears are shed for the dead, even if they be child or grandchild. The demand for individual survival consumes all emotions, energies and passions. Camp society assumes the character of the jungle: the strongest and most ruthless survive at the expense of the weakest and frailest. The helpless unable to seek retribution from the perpetrators of their nightmare turn their hatred and venom upon each other. A mother bludgeons to death a hungry boy who dared steal bread from her. The book has additional merit for dealing with a darker side of the genocide. As with Nazi use of Jewish collaborators, little is known or said about the Young Turks use of Armenian collaborators. Yet Antonian shows that the apparatus of genocide was staffed by its complement of Armenian criminals and self-seekers. Some acted as night-watchmen and proved to be more brutal than any Young Turk soldier. Others for a profit supplied wealthy locals with abducted Armenian girls. Speculators bought up desperately needed foodstuffs leaving families to starve to death. These were particularly bitter experiences. As one woman put it ``You are worse than them. You are doing what even the Turk didn't do.'' . It would be bizarre, even obscene to attempt an `artistic' or `aesthetic' evaluation of a work which depicts human suffering at its extreme points. Genuine testimonies to human tragedy stand independent of art or aesthetics. However, one cannot but attempt an intellectual evaluation. We must seek for more than a mute witness. If we are not to betray our humanity, we must search for explanation, for historical, social, human context. We must reach out for some rational comprehension of human barbarism and by doing so indicate some possible path beyond. Here `Those Dark Days' can be considered lacking. Moving descriptions and insights are not accompanied by sustained philosophical investigation or explanation. This does not matter. For those seeking to understand genocide and its human consequences this book, alongside others, is vital. Hagop Oshagan rightly notes that Aram Antonian's testimony stands alongside the best of those that record tragic moments in the long history of the Armenian people. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.