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Armenian News Network / Groong
December 9, 2002

	PREFACE: The following sketch of Raffi's life is based on the
	work of Khachik Samvelian in his literary biography, "Raffi -
	The Creative Path of His Life", published by "Arevik" press,
	Yerevan, 1987.

By Donald Abcarian

Khachik Samvelian is a distinguished philologist, leading expert on
nineteenth century Armenian literature, a specialist in Raffi's
writing and life, and former rector of the Roslin Institute of Applied
Arts in Yerevan.

				PART 1

EARLY LIFE - 1832 TO 1846

Raffi (1832-1888) was born Hagop Melik-Hagopian in the village of
Payajoug in the Salmast region of Persia's northwestern Aderbadagan
province.  Salmast is situated in the beautiful Zola River valley,
bordered on the east by the northwestern shores of Lake Urmia and
surrounded on the other three sides by the mountains from which the
waters of the Zola originate and flow through the valley into Lake
Urmia. This area, long settled by Armenians and Assyrians, is located
at the eastern edge of the mountainous land mass that lies between
Lake Urmia and Lake Van and had been part of the ancient Armenian
province of Zarehavan.  The landscape around Hagop's birthplace was
filled with the traces of many ancient civilizations.

"Zarehavan, bearing an ancient and historic name, is lovely to behold
in the spring -- a picture painted in the tones of melancholy and
mournful memories.  Here the sun rises each morning in resplendent
majesty from the midst of the lake and at twilight wondrously
illumines the snow capped peaks of the great Aravoul and Tushnamou
mountains in its ruby light. The powerful torrent of the Zola river,
gathering together the force of countless brooks of melted snow, rises
up higher and higher and divides itself into thousands of branches
that roar and gush and spread out to irrigate the entire surface of
the valley. And then as if by some kind of magic the dead earth comes
to life again and the vast expanse of the valley is covered with a
blanket of green embellished with myriad colors. . . ."  {from "Salpi"
by Raffi]

Hagop was the eldest son of Melik Mirzabeg and his wife Jeyranouhi
Khanoum.  His paternal lineage had for many generations been meliks
(hereditary Armenian lords) of the village of Payajoug and therefore
held aristocratic status under the Shah.  His mother came from the
nearby town of Kohna-Shahar where her family had for generations been
engaged in the manufacture of weapons.

The scene of Hagop's childhood was a vast agricultural estate which
included his father's textile factory and dye works, the basis of the
family wealth.  The red color used for dyeing the manufactured cloth
was made from "doron" [the madder plant] which Melik Mirzabeg raised
himself, and the finished product would then be shipped by camel
caravan to distant cities in the Caucasus, Western Armenia, and
Persia. The estate had many orchards, vineyards, fields of grain,
herds of horses and cattle, etc. Melik Mirzabeg handled the ploughing
and cultivation himself, and Hagop learned every aspect of the family
business and farming operation as he grew up. Hagop's mother was a
godfearing woman who worked all day long baking bread, cooking meals,
darning socks and taking care of all the other daily needs of her
family. The household functioned in an orderly and well disciplined
manner according to Melik Mirzabeg's strict demands, and everyone had
clearcut obligations. Yet young Hagop was exempted from any
obligations and was given free rein to do as he wished.

Hagop's home was the social center of village life, a place where
travelers from far and wide were always on hand as guests, regaling
their hosts with stories about their adventures in distant lands. This
was also where Melik Mirzabeg would arbitrate disputes among peasants
and entertain visiting pontiffs or dignitaries. It was in this setting
that his cherished son Hagop would romp and cavort with his playmates,
often creating serious disorder in the daily routine and driving his
mother, sisters, the help, and the neighbors crazy with his
rambunctious antics.  Showing an early passion for horse riding and
beginning with a stick as his steed he would ride roughshod through
the bulghur that the workers had spread out to dry in the sun, make a
mess of supplies stored on the grounds, and create disorder in the dye
house. Later he progressed to riding the family dog, which, by his own
confession, he would torment by using its ears for reins.  From the
family dog, he progressed to jumping bareback on calves as the herds
were returning from pasture in the evening, causing great consternation
among the peasants who knew him as "the melik's kid."  At night, his
head still swimming with the impressions of his daytime adventures,
his mother would prepare his bed for him on the flat rooftop of the
house, and, as the moon and stars emerged over the distant mountains,
his beloved paternal grandmother Sona would tell him bedtime tales
well into the night.

As he grew older he began riding a horse side by side with his father,
accompanying him around the estate to check on various aspects of its
operation.  He loved to visit the water mill where he would spend his
time casting stones into the churning waters of the stream or playing
in the mill.  At other times he would stand for hours in the doorway
of the dye house watching the work, fascinated by every detail.

Hagop would now begin to inject himself actively into conversations
with the guests, showing a particular interest in those who carried
weapons.  He often interrupted the storytelling with challenging
questions or comments, and his father was quite proud of his
intelligence. Guests whose conversation Hagop didn't care for would
often become the unwitting victims of his artistic talent and he would
boldly present them with caricatures he had sketched while they were

When Hagop was ten years old his mother decided it was time for him to
begin his education and delivered him to the local priest to enroll
him in school.  On presenting Hagop, she said to his teacher-to-be, "
I'm your humble servant, Father.  Take this boy and, whatever you do,
get some learning into his head. You take the flesh and leave me the
bone."  These terrifying words were immortalized in one of the early
chapters of Raffi's famous novel, "Gaidzer" (Sparks). There he
describes his school as follows:

	"Our school was one of the spare rooms in Father Todik's
	house, adjacent to the barn and practically a part of it. That
	cramped and stifling little cell would be filled with forty
	pupils or more. Though we had no fuel to burn, the room was
	tolerable during winter. We would simply open all the windows
	between the barn and the classroom to allow in the hot steamy
	air produced by the animals, and it flowed in like a fog,
	making our school as warm as a bath house. But summers were
	worse because of the filth that built up in the barn.  On the
	one hand, repulsive smells blew into the room, and, on the
	other, there was the invasion of a variety of reptiles in
	league with fleas, the latter so minute they were barely
	visible to the naked eye, yet only God knows how they could
	inflict such stinging bites.

	And so within that little room was contained our school, where
	everything from the highest level of instruction to the most
	elementary was imparted, a room as bare as a Turkish mosque.
	The only objects that gave any sign that this gloomy, tomb-like
	hole was a school were the falaka [an infamous instrument used
	to beat the soles of the feet] and the box of freshly cut
	switches placed next to it. . .

	Ah, how many, many were the times we stole and threw away that
	accursed falaka, yet never could we get free of it!  It stayed
	and stayed. . .  It was always there. .  .

	Father Todik wasn't an evil man.  On the contrary, he was
	quite decent.  His punishments and cruelties stemmed from his
	understanding of what it meant to be a schoolmaster and his
	conviction that a child would learn nothing without coercion
	and corporal punishment. . . . "

Thus did Raffi depict and define the ultimate abuse of the educational
process by ignorant, authoritarian taskmasters, a perverse educational
approach known to this day in Armenian as "todikianism", a term
derived from the fictional name of the narrator's teacher, Father
Todik, in Gaidzer.

Even under these difficult conditions young Hagop was his teacher's
most advanced student. After five years of this type of schooling he
had learned all he could and left school. In this period he fell
deeply in love with a neighbor girl named Sara. The whole world seemed
a more beautiful place to him now, and he manifested a solicitous
sense of responsibility toward his family and people in general. He no
longer sought out the company of childhood friends, but often made
solitary excursions into the countryside to spend hours exploring the
mysterious ruins and inscriptions left by previous civilizations.

Melik Mirzabeg, though not a well educated man, had always harbored a
deep respect for education. As one of the leading Persian Armenian
merchants of his day he had close ties with Tiflis, the cultural hub
of Eastern Armenian culture. He was well aware of the many fine
Armenian schools that existed there and had long sought to establish
schools of similar quality for the Armenian children of Salmast. In
1847 Melik Mirzabeg suggested to his son that he had exhausted all
that Salmast offered in terms of education and that he should go to
Tiflis where he would have the opportunity of learning proper Armenian
and Russian and furthering his education.  Hagop happily accepted this
proposal and in the summer of 1847 was on his way to Tiflis.
Impressions that he gathered on this trip would later find their way
into his novel, "The Memoirs of A Cross-Stealer."

				PART 2

1847 TO 1856

On arriving in Tiflis Hagop wasn't able to enroll in the prestigious
Nersessian School as planned. It had been shut down due to a cholera
outbreak.  Instead he enrolled in a boarding school run by one of the
most celebrated Armenian teachers of his time in Tiflis, Garabed
Belakhian.  This school was administered under the aegis of the
Russian gymnasium of Tiflis, and its curriculum was adapted to the
requirements for entry into that institution. Belakhian took Hagop
under his wing and initiated him into a rigorous program of literary
and linguistic study. On arriving in Tiflis Hagop only spoke the
Armenian dialect of his native Salmast - plus a smattering of
Azerbaijani - so the first order of business was to learn proper
Armenian and Russian. Here he also received his first exposure to the
great works and authors of western literature. These included
Shakespeare, Milton, Schiller, Goethe, Hugo, Gogol, Turgenev, Jules
Vernes, Alessandro Manzoni, and others.  He was particularly
fascinated by Greco-Roman mythology and his absorption in it was to
leave a strong stamp on his creativity in later years. He would on
special occasions recite entire passages by heart from the Aeneids and
The Odyssey. Belakhian was grooming Hagop eventually to complete
gymnasium studies then go on to university in Moscow or St. Peterburgh
- at Imperial expense - to become a diplomat.  Commoners were not
admitted to universities in Russia at this time, therefore Belakhian
wrote a letter to Melik Mirzabeg asking him to send proof of Hagop's
aristocratic standing. Within a short time the document arrived in
Tiflis bearing Hagop's aristocratic name, Hagop Melik-Hagopian, based
on his grandfather Hagop's name.

Beyond the confines of formal education, Hagop's close relationship
with Belakhian brought him into contact with his teacher's entire
social circle, which included some of the leading figures in the
intellectual life of Tiflis and Eastern Armenian culture. Through
these contacts he became aware of the broad political issues of the
day in Russia,the chasm that separated the progressive intelligentsia
and the peasantry from the privileged, entrenched imperial
bureaucracy. Also at this time he first discovered Khrimian Hairig's
patriotic poetry, and this made a tremendous impression on him.  In
1855, reflecting on the plight of his fellow Armenians in Salmast, he
set pen to paper for the first time to write a novel. This story would
address their plight, mired as they were in superstition and
languishing under an oppressive feudal order sanctioned by sharia
law. The original form of this novel, called "Khlvlig" [Sprite], would
be written in classical Armenian but later transposed into the
vernacular to become the novel called "Salpi" (Cypress).

In 1856, with another year left to complete his gymnasium studies, he
received a letter from his father telling him that he had to return
home to help with the family business.  His father's advancing years
were beginning to take their toll on his ability to manage affairs.
Despite the disappointment of not being able to complete his course of
study, Raffi left Tiflis in the summer of that year with considerable
excitement at the prospect of seeing his homeland and family and
beloved Sara again. On the way he stopped at Etchmiadzin and Khor
Virab for several days during which time he wrote his first known
poem, "The Mysterious Lantern".  His homeward journey, which he
memorialized in "A Journey To Persia", became one of the seminal
experiences of his literary life. He returned to his homeland in
European garb, a wide brimmed hat on his head and a brief case in
hand. He was quite a sensation to the country folk who saw him along
the way, and many took him for a European doctor, a role he took full
advantage of in order to gather privileged admittance to highly
revealing social settings.  These experiences provided the basis for
his novel "Harem" and contributed key ideas to his novel "Gaidzer"
(Sparks). More dramatically still, on nearing Salmast he and his
traveling companions encountered a pitiful group of Armenian pilgrims
who had just been attacked and robbed by bandits. Their helplessness
and distress left a lasting mark on Raffi's creativity, a theme he
would drive home again and again in his novels, particularly
"Jalaleddin" and "The Fool" - the fatal defenselessness and timidity
of the Armenians.

Hagop arrived home to a festive welcome for which the entire village
turned out, a celebration that lasted an entire week. Friends,
relatives, and neighbors came forth with offerings of fruit, poetry,
and song to honor his return.  He settled into his new life in
Bayajoug in accord with his new identity as a student and writer,
furnishing his living quarters in European fashion - with sofa, book
cases, writing stand, mirrors, and prisms on the window sills to make
beautiful effects, etc. But he still hadn't seen Sara.  Where could
she be? He waited and waited to hear some mention of her; he visited
every spot where he thought he might encounter some sign of her, but
in vain. She was nowhere to be found. He began to fear the worst and
finally heard the tragic story of her death: While he was away in
Tiflis pursuing his studies, Sara's parents had forced her into
marriage with a rich man whom she despised. Rather than marry the man,
she drank poison before the wedding ceremony began and died at the
altar with Hagop's name on her lips.  This profound trauma would leave
a lasting mark on Hagop's life and creativity. Sara would be a name
used more than once in his future novels, and his depiction of Sara
[Khacho's daughter-in-law] in "The Fool", stands out as one of his
most superbly articulated characters.
It would be a long time before Hagop could return to his beloved
writing.  His father's business required a great deal of attention and
in the decade to follow he would have to make many business trips to
Urmia, Tabriz, Maku, and other places.

During this period Father Hagop Satounian, prelate of Aderbadagan
province, happened to be Melik Mirzabeg's house guest for several
weeks, a welcome opportunity for Hagop to learn a great deal from the
elderly pontiff. Father Satounian wasn't in the best of health at this
point in his life, but over the course of his stay Hagop interviewed
him for many hours every day on an array of topics having to do with
the recent history of the Persian Armenians. Father Satounian had been
an eye witness to many of these events.  Very significantly, it was
through him that Hagop first heard of the "cross-stealers" who lived
in the nearby village of Sabra. The "cross-stealers" were a class of
wandering, gypsy-like Armenians who, due to socio-economic pressures
in Salmast, had ventured far and wide to make a living in neighboring
lands by perpetrating an array of ingenious but criminal ruses. The
research that Hagop subsequently carried out in the village of Sabra
led the way to one of the most prolific forms in his writing, the
fictional memoir which is the framework for "The Memoir of A
Cross-Stealer" and of "Gaidzer."

Hagop stayed in touch as best he could with Tiflis and the broader
developments in the cultural and political life of the nation. From
Istanbul newspapers he received the exciting news of Khrimian Hairig's
achievements at Varag monastery in Van, his starting a school for lay
students there as well as a printing press and other enterprises for
the benefit of the common people. Having long been concerned with
educational issues, Raffi sent a letter to Khrimian conveying his deep
admiration and appreciation for his projects.


Having successfully started a school in Salmast, Hagop decided it was
time to visit Western Armenia for the first time. Together with a
newfound friend and colleague, Isahak Der-Abrahamian, he joined the
Salmastsi pilgrims on their annual pilgrimage to Saint Garabed
monastery in Moush for the Blessing of The Grapes Festival to take
place on the second Sunday of August, 1857.  His true motivation was
not religious piety but the imperative of acquainting himself with the
actual conditions of life in Western Armenia.

It was on this trip that he saw Van for the first time, a deeply
moving experience for him since it was the original homeland of his
ancestors. The party of pilgrims stopped for a few days in the
Aykesdan of Van [the verdant agricultural suburb southeast of the
city] before proceeding on to Moush.  Hagop took advantage of this
time to explore Van and talk to all kinds of people. He wrote
feverishly into the night to set his countless thoughts and
observations to paper. Very significantly, it was on this trip that he
visited Varag monastery and there met Khrimian Hairig for the first
time, an experience immortalized in the chapter called "Varag" in his
longest novel "Gaidzer" .

The next day the caravan set out again for Moush and St. Garabed's
monastery. But Hagop left the city with a heavy heart. He had come all
the way from Salmast to Van to find the conditions of the Armenians
there at least as deplorable and hopeless as they were in Salmast and
learned of the high numbers of Vanetzis who were deserting their
homeland to go to Istanbul for lowly, backbreaking jobs.

The caravan proceeded from Van to Ardamed, where it halted for the
night, then through Hayots Tsor ("The Canyon of The Armenians"), to
Mt. Ardos, where it rested once more, then on to Bitlis and Moush. On
its approach to Moush the caravan passed through the ancient village
of Hatsegats where Mesrop Mashdots, the originator of the Armenian
alphabet, was born. This setting would later be evoked in several
chapters of "Gaidzer".  On reaching St.  Garabed monastery Raffi
attended the Blessing Of The Grapes ceremony with all the other
pilgrims on the second Sunday of August.

Before leaving the area of Moush, Raffi first paid his respects at the
grave of the great medieval historian Movses Khorenatsi in Arakelots
monastery, then joined the caravan to return home. The caravan crossed
Hayots Tsor once again then took the even road north toward Lake Van
and the island of Aghtamar with its famous monastery. While Aghtamar
was of tremendous historical interest to Hagop, his experience there
was far from pleasant, for he ran headlong into the stubborn ignorance
and corruptness of monastic life there. The monks took an immediate
disliking to this stranger who openly professed his liberal notions on
education and cultural advancement.  Word got around that he was
either a Catholic or a Protestant -- or both!  One evening as he was
sitting alone on a high rock contemplating the beauty of Lake Van and
the surrounding landscape, a group of hostile monks approached with
angry shouts and were about to throw him into the lake, but he
narrowly escaped their wrath. The rock on which he had been sitting
would afterwards become known as "Raffi's Rock."


On returning home from his journey to Western Armenia Hagop continued
developing the school he had started before his departure but
eventually ran into fierce opposition from powerful conservatives in
the community. He had engaged in a running battle with them concerning
educational principles ever since his return from Tiflis, and he
stated his opinions without a great deal of tact. He insisted that
schooling be taken out of the hands of half educated priests and choir
masters - the traditional village teachers - and turned over to
genuinely educated young intellectuals. This earned him the deep
enmity of those very priests and choir masters who saw a threat to
their substantial supplementary incomes in his preachments. He
constantly put the local "aghas" (rich notables) and prominent church
officials on the spot for their selfish disregard of communal needs
and even made some of his own relatives uncomfortable. He had stirred
up such a row that there was bound to be a reaction. His enemies
eventually used every means at their disposal to oppose the school,
finally betraying him to government authorities as a dangerous
radical. The school was shut down at last, this "flower that had grown
in the midst strangling thorns" as he entitled the chapter in "Salpi"
drawn from this bitter conflict. Hagop would leave home and return to
Tiflis for several months following these events.

				PART 3

1858 TO 1871

In Tiflis Hagop reestablished ties with cherished comrades from his
earlier years and renewed his status as a gymnasium student in good
standing.  Particularly significant during this stay in Tiflis was his
discovery of the avant-garde newspaper "Northern Lights" [Hysusisapayl]
published in Moscow by Stepan Nazarian and Mikayel Nalbandian. This
paper contained the latest philosophical and literary explorations of
the European educated Armenian intelligentsia of the time and was a
source of tremendous inspiration to Hagop. Even more important, it was
during this period that he was able to read Khachadour Abovian's "Verk
Hayastani" [The Wounds of Armenia] , the first modern Armenian novel
which had been published the same year. When it was time for him to
return home once more in the latter part of 1858, this book was one of
the most precious possessions he took back with him from Tiflis.

On the way home he stopped in Tabriz for a time, and this is where one
of the most significant friendships of his life was to begin. Here he
met the man who would become his closest friend and most authoritative
biographer, Avak Avtantilian, son of Kevork Avtantilian, an old friend
of Raffi's father.

Raffi arrived home once more to a joyous welcome and the good news
that two of his letters to Khrimian Hairig had been published in
"Artsvi Vasburagan" [The Eagle of Vaspuragan]. This would be Hagop's
first appearance as a published writer. His letters in "Artsvi" were
followed up by Khrimian Hairig's own strong endorsement of the young
writer's ideas and cogency, a commentary in which Khrimian went on to
say that the new generation of students wouldn't tolerate being held
back by the clergy any longer but would press on to usher in a new age
of enlightenment wherein the banner of the Golden Age of The
Translators, hidden since the fifth century, would be unfurled once
more on the summit of Ararat to lead the nation forward.

Inspired by this success, Hagop set to work in earnest to write an
article detailing all his experiences and perceptions in Western
Armenia for publication in "Northern Lights". The focus of this
article would be his unhappy experience at Aghtamar, and to it he
appended a poetic epilogue expressing the powerful emotions he had
felt while there. The poem was entitled "Speak Up Oh Lake".  Two key
stanzas from this long poem run as follows:

          Speak up, oh Lake! Why are you still?
          Are you loathe to share in my misfortune?
          Let the winds blow and stir up wave upon wave,
          that my tears may be mixed with your waters.

          Oh, Witness to what has passed in Armenia
          from the beginning of time 'til now, tell me,
          Must it always be like this in Armenia --
          a thorny wasteland that was once a flower garden?

In 1860 Avtantilian spent many weeks as Hagop's guest in Bayajoug, and
he came to know Hagop and his family very intimately. In the spring of
that year the two of them decided to make an excursion together into
the mountains, and there they had many experiences and met many
country folk, including the "Kurdified" Armenian Omar Agha, that would
make their way into Hagop's future works, particularly "Gaidzer".

It was Hagop's wont in this period to spend a few months out of the
year in Tabriz where he had many friends, could relax a little, and at
the same time catch up with his many writing projects. While there he
had a very dramatic confrontation with the local prelate, Bishop Abel
Mkhitarian whom he and his friend Avtantilian went to visit on one
occasion. Arriving at the prelacy they entered to find the bishop's
desk strewn with various Armenian newspapers from Istanbul as well as
many copies of "Northern Lights".  In his memoirs Avtantilian says
that the bishop appeared in a talking mood as they entered and
addressed himself to Raffi as follows:

"I've read through all your works from beginning to end and commend
you for your literary fervor, but I don't agree with your ideas. I
don't find your literary style to be truly Armenian, and it has a
rather haphazard quality.  I see that you've adopted the language [the
form of Armenian] of `Northern Lights' and its line of thinking. I'll
admit that Nazarian, Nalbandian, and their followers are busy at work
in our literature, but they've been thrown off by all their foreign
education. . . Therefore my advice to you is to forget about your
"Sprite" and such writings with all those low class characters. You'd
do better to draw on the inexhaustible store of our national histories
and manuscripts. They offer an abundance of fine examples for you to
base your writing on. . .

After listening patiently for a while to the bishop's words, Raffi
finally lost his patience:

Reverend Father, I've also read your work "Anoushavan" from beginning
to end. That work is neither in classical Armenian nor in the
vernacular. It's not in the Bolsetzi dialect, nor in that of Ararat
province. It's an odd and imaginary language, the kind that our monks
think in. Instead of writing in the language the people speak so that
they can readily identify with it, you demand of them that they come
to terms with your language. . . That's not the way of "Northern
Lights". They write the way the people talk, a language which in time
will become the public as well as the literary language -- something
that has already happened. Whereas your language, Reverend Father,
could never become the public language, because it runs counter to the
needs of the present age. . . "


On one of Raffi's visits to Urmia he was invited to a graduation
celebration at a school for girls run by the American Missionary
Board. It was here that one of the graduates caught his attention, a
girl named Anna Hourmouz who was the daughter of an Assyrian
protestant family. Within a short time, he went to her home and asked
her father for her hand. Permission was granted, and they were married
in 1863.  Anna would become an intimate partner in Raffi's literary
career and the invaluable custodian and publisher of many of his most
important works left unpublished at the time of his death. They had
two sons, Aram and Arshag, and a daughter named Esther. A. Avtantilian
reports that at this point in his life Raffi became much more
thoughtful and serious.  He envisioned establishing a printing press
either in Istanbul or Russia to publish the numerous works he had
already written over the years.


But in 1865 tragedy struck. His father died in the great cholera
outbreak of that year, and the entire family fell onto hard times.
Dishonest creditors were waiting at every turn, in every city in which
Melik Mirzabeg had commercial establishments, to devour the assets of
his business.  No longer able to entertain the idea of establishing a
publishing house for his works, Raffi was forced to go from town to
town to fight, as best he could, to save the family inheritance, but
to no avail, and he had to worry about the welfare of his family day
and night. At this point in his life he had his mother, two brothers,
and six sisters to care for, in addition to his own family. By 1868 he
was reduced to working as a sales clerk for an Armenian haberdasher in
Tiflis, then going on to become the accountant for another similar
businessman, an inglorious way of life that would continue for the
next few years. But, writing to his good friend Avtantilian, he
confessed that it was a good thing that he had tumbled down from the
heights of privilege, for now he was at last free to devote himself to
what was the most important thing in his life, writing. He channeled
all his grief, anger, and resentment into transforming his fledgling
novel "Sprite" [Khlvlig] from an anomalous work in classical Armenian,
begun twelve years earlier, to a mature novel in the vernacular, one
which reflected all the accumulated suffering and wisdom of the
intervening years.

At one point, when in Tabriz to deal with the heartless creditors who
were taking over the family assets, Hagop was so poor he had to place
"Sprite" in a pawn shop! Luckily, he was able to buy it back a short
time later. His exposure to the venality of Armenian merchants in this
period also gave him abundant material for a set of three novels based
on their life and values: "Zahroumar ("Noxious Brew" - an expletive),
Voski Akaghagh (The Golden Rooster), and "Meena Aysbess Myussa
Aynbess" (One's Like This The Other's Like That). These novels are
remarkable for their completely photographic, realistic style of
writing, so different from the later more dramatic, apocalyptic style
of his famous historical novels.

				PART 4

1872 TO 1888


In 1872 Krikor Ardzrouni, the son of the wealthy and well-known
General Yeremya Ardzrouni, returned to Tiflis with a degree in
philosophy from Heidelberg University and the intention of launching a
new newspaper, "Mshag" [The Cultivator} in his home town. This was a
heady period in Tiflis, a time in which it was felt that great and
exciting things were about to happen. The mission of his paper would
be to follow the exhortation that Nalbandian had issued before his
untimely death, namely, relentlessly to challenge Armenians to
recognize and break free from the contamination of their own
shortcomings. The Armenian élite of Tiflis dismissed young Ardzrouni's
project as laughable and believed it would never amount to anything.
To prepare the groundwork for the new paper, Ardzrouni held a number
meetings attended by a mix of privileged and working class young
Armenians, including a quiet, somewhat retiring young man named Hagop
Melik-Hagopian. He didn't have much to say but did a great deal of
listening at the meetings. The first issue of the paper was published
on January 1, 1872 and was sold out within a few hours.

The time came when those of the discussion circle who were from
privileged homes returned to their university studies, while the
working class members, including Melik-Hagopian, remained to form the
core of the "Mshag" staff. At this point, Melik-Hagopian emerged from
the woodwork and began taking a more active role in the affairs of the
new publication. In time he proposed his novel "Sprite" [Khlvlig] to
Ardzrouni for serial publication in the paper.  Ardzrouni read the
novel, and while he found it very striking in certain ways he didn't
care for its overall composition. Instead, he proposed that it would
be well for Melik-Hagopian to write a piece based on his ample
knowledge of the life of Armenians both in his native Persia, as well
as in Turkish Armenia. Melik-Hagopian readily accepted this proposal,
and thus on January 20, 1872 began the publication of "On Mr. Alexander
Raffi's Travels In Persia". This would be Hagop-Melikian's first use
of the pen name "Raffi".  In the ensuing four years at "Mshag" Raffi
published an entire array of significant writings -- short stories,
essays, articles -- which would establish him firmly as one of the
most important writers of his time. Of these works the most
significant was his first published novel, "Harem" (1874).

By 1875 the cultural atmosphere for the Persian Armenian community in
Tabriz had improved sufficiently for a school to be started, and Raffi
was invited to take a teaching post there as teacher of Armenian
language and history.  He gladly accepted. Here he would be able to
put into practice his educational values: the importance of positive
reinforcement, student motivation, the strict avoidance of coercion or
physical punishment, the elimination of "simple-simonism" and rote
memorization, and the crucial importance of educating girls as well as

He left Tiflis in early June to travel to Tabriz. He arrived there
quite haggard, but full of determination. His teaching duties began in
August. One of his pupils, in his memoirs, describes Raffi as a very
relaxed person, but very demanding as a teacher. He never sat down in
class and was constantly walking through the rows as he taught. Besides
Armenian language and history, he and his colleagues taught Russian,
Persian, French, geography, botany, biology, etc. Following a day of
teaching at the Tabriz school, Raffi would spend the evening hours
writing, focusing particularly on "Memoir of A Cross-Stealer" in this

At an early social gathering of the school sponsors Raffi raised his
glass in a toast to call for a girls school to also be founded in
Tabriz. Soon a committee was formed to gather financial support for
the school.  Preparations went along smoothly for several months, but
ultimately the plan ran into serious trouble. The senior Armenian
priest of Tabriz began sowing the seeds of discord concerning the
project, going from home to home to warn his flock about the evils of
sending their daughters to a school in which they would be taught by
young men, etc. By the summer of 1877 this conflict had reached a
crisis stage. The conservative élite was now acutely aware of Raffi's
liberal, anti-establishment ideas, for these had been well disseminated
in the pages of "Mshag" as well as in his bold and controversial novel
"Harem". The latter story, from their viewpoint, imprudently betrayed
the inner workings of harem life. In time an irate crowd of enemies
stormed his classroom led by the son of one of the richest men in town
and demanded that he leave the school. Raffi told them to get out of
his classroom. The mob withdrew reluctantly, but went away in a very
vengeful mood.  His enemies ultimately betrayed him to the authorities
as someone who slandered Islam and was a political troublemaker. The
executive committee of the school had a meeting and advised Raffi to
suspend his teaching duties until the situation had calmed down. At
this juncture the first signs of lung disease began to manifest
themselves. Chronically burdened with weak eyes which already made
writing difficult, he would from this point on also have to struggle
with the deterioration of his lungs.

Raffi's life was now in imminent danger. The head Mullah of Tabriz had
pronounced a death sentence on him as an enemy of Islam, and any
Muslim who encountered him in the street could murder him on the spot
with complete impunity. Enraged mobs gathered in front of his house,
throwing stones and firing guns at it, and, as if this were not
enough, his twelve year old daughter Esther died in the midst of this
chaos. The Armenian prelate interceded to protect Raffi's life. He was
given one week's asylum in the home of a high Persian official who
understood that the plot against him had been hatched by a few
vindictive individuals. Persian and Russian diplomats met to discuss
the case and produced the necessary documents for Raffi to return to
Russia. In the summer of 1877 he was led out of Persia under armed
escort and the cover of night.

During Raffi's brief tenure in Tabriz the Balkan Wars had erupted, and
despite its perpetration of the infamous "Bulgarian Horrors" Turkey
began to lose its European territory to the freedom struggles of the
Slavic peoples.  Russia was acting increasingly bellicose toward the
Ottomans, ostensibly out of concern for the fate of Christian subjects
still under their control. On May 12, 1877 Russia declared war on
Turkey. In the area southeast of Van Kurdish hordes led by Sheikh
Jalaleddin were unleashed by the Ottoman government to murder and
pillage all the Armenians and Assyrians living in peaceful villages in
the region of Aghbag, twenty-four in all. This was a horrifying,
unprecedented event for the Christian population of Turkey.

Raffi's comrades in Tiflis had heard all about his dangerous
circumstances and given up hope of ever seeing him again when he
miraculously surfaced in Tiflis toward the end of August, 1877. There
he found refuge in the "Mshag" offices together with Istanbul native
M. Portugalian. Portugalian had come east to Turkish Armenia to
investigate the aftermath of Jalaleddin's bloody rampage through
Aghbag and was an eye witness to the suffering it had caused among
survivors who had fled to Van. In a short time he himself had to flee
Van and now, like Raffi, had found safe haven in the "Mshag" offices.
The two men spent many days at "Mshag" talking intensively about
events, and within a short time Raffi would start writing his first
historical novel, "Jalaleddin", based on the Aghbag atrocities.

Raffi had been in Tiflis for only a month when he received an
invitation from the Armenian community of Agoulis (northwest Persia)
to teach Armenian language and history in their school. Once again, he
readily accepted the invitation and by September 1877 was on his way
to Agoulis. On this journey he had a momentous encounter with one of
the survivors of the siege of Bayazid which had occurred one year
earlier during the Russo-Turkish War.  This encounter took place in a
forest near Dilijan where wounded veterans of the war were living in
tents they had pitched there. The man in question had withdrawn to a
spot of his own in the forest and caught Raffi's interest. The seeds
of his future novel, "The Fool" [Khent@} would be planted in Raffi's
mind during this encounter.

In Agoulis Raffi's teaching day was short, and he could devote himself
wholeheartedly to his writing in the evenings. He would spend a good
part of that time working over "Gaidzer", starting "Jalaleddin", and
sending in a series of articles to "Mshag". Having settled in to his
teaching post, it was time for his family to join him, and he went to
meet them in Jugha where they had come from Bayajoug. As fate would
have it, Jugha fell under a cholera outbreak just at that time, and he
was obliged to remain there with his family for two weeks before they
could leave. He took advantage of this time to record the eye witness
accounts of the numerous refugees from Jalaleddin's bloody campaign
who had come to Jugha, gathering them around each day and listening to
their stories for hours.

The family returned to Agoulis and settled into their new home. At the
beginning 1878 the Russo-Turkish War came to an end, and the Treaty of
San Stefano called for the protection of Armenian rights in Turkey. But
the atrocities continued, and Raffi worked furiously to complete
"Jalalledin" as a way of showing the Armenian people what was required
of them if they were to survive, namely to overcome their Christian
pacifism and fight for their life.

Since the beginning of his tenure in Agoulis there had been differences
between Raffi and the wealthy benefactors of the school. Eventually, a
very pointed power struggle developed between him and them, with control
of the budget, curriculum, and teaching staff at the center. Raffi
disbanded the business meetings as they had been set up, which he
thought had devolved into sessions of vulgar carping among individuals,
and organized them according to new rules. He wished to set higher
standards for teacher performance and implement fines against teachers
who fell short, the fines to go into the school treasury for
improvements. In July of 1878, Raffi traveled to Tiflis to recruit
first rate teachers to come to Agoulis to teach. He placed an
advertisement for that purpose in "Mshag". But this was too much for
the wealthy aghas in Agoulis. On May 15, 1879 a major confrontation
erupted at a school meeting. Before the meeting was formally in
session, a mob confronted Raffi, led by the son of one of the town
notables. He declared to Raffi that the meeting would not begin until
he left the premises.

Within short order Raffi tendered his resignation to the directors of
the school, despite his great populariy among the common folk of
Agoulis. By the end of 1879 he was back in Tiflis. There he returned
to great acclaim for "Jalaleddin", which had been published in May of
the previous year on the one year anniversary of the Aghbag
atrocities. Even here in Tiflis, however, he wasn't out of reach of
his enemies in Agoulis, for they continued their attacks on him
through the pages of the conservative "Meghu Hayastani" newspaper.

In June of 1878 The Treaty of Berlin further weakened the minimal
protections for the Armenians offered by the Treaty of San Stefano,
and the abuses against them continued unabated. What should be done?
This was the consuming issue of the moment. It was in this grim
atmosphere that Raffi began writing "The Fool" [Khent@] in the summer
of 1878. Serial publication in "Mshag" began on February 26, 1880, but
authorities viewed it with such suspicion that censors stopped its
printing several times before it was finally completed on June 4th. In
a letter to a friend Raffi complained bitterly that the censors had
struck out the most splendid parts of "The Fool". [Censorship in
Tiflis was even more stringent than in Moscow at the time.]

During the next nine years Raffi would bring "Davit Beg", "Gaidzer",
and "Samvel" to fruition while continuing to engage in perpetual
debate in the press with his enemies in "Meghu Hayastani" and
involving himself intimately with the network of self-defense
committees which had been formed to protect the Armenians in Turkey in
the wake of the Russo-Turkish War. He was also feverishly engaged in
trying to publish "Gaidzer" and "Davit Beg" at the same time,
ultimately taking up residence in the print shop to keep the work
going. These harried circumstances would compromise the quality of his
work in this period and lead to the inevitable deterioration of his

Moved by the patriotic and revolutionary imagery of "The Fool" and
"Jalaleddin" many young Armenians voluntarily went into Turkish
Armenia to help defend the people there. The tremendous popularity of
"The Fool" had brought many new subscribers to "Mshag", and for that
reason alone "Meghu Hayastani" had reason to be disturbed. Meanwhile,
Alexander The III had ascended the throne in Russia and instituted
policies very unfriendly to the Armenians, shutting down schools,
placing Armenian churches under the aegis of the Russian Orthodox
church, etc.  All of this brought Raffi under even more intense
government scrutiny and emboldened his enemies at "Meghu Hayastani" to
intensify their attacks on him, disguising their virulence in the form
of superficial literary criticism.

On May 1, 1883 state police invaded, searched and shut down "Mshag"
for a period of ten days. Everyone connected with it was in a state of
high anxiety. Raffi waited in his home for the imminent arrival of the
police. On May 13 they came and searched his home, taking away all the
manuscripts he was working on. The publication of "The Memoir of A
Cross-Stealer" was stopped, and Raffi who had been charged with being
a "nihilist" revolutionary suspended his work at "Mshag". "The Memoir
of A Cross-Stealer" and "Gaidzer" had appeared in quick succession,
and this was enough to provoke another attack by "Meghou Hayastani" in
the person of a certain "Haigouni" who was in fact an Armenian cleric
who, among other things, accused Raffi of reducing all Armenians to
"cross-stealers" in his novel.  Raffi responded to these accusations
in the columns of "Mshag" under the pen name "Pavstos", making an
elegant case for his writing and its role in the Armenian national
struggle. By July 19 his manuscripts had been returned to him, but he
was placed under house arrest with two guards posted at his doors. He
was under total quarantine and could see none of his friends. This
robbed him of the ability to write. After ten days of this unbearable
situation he was liberated from house arrest through the good offices
of the Persian ambassador.

In 1883 with these unfortunate events behind him, a groundswell
movement took form thoughout the Armenian communities of Russia to
honor Raffi in the next year with a jubilee celebrating the
twenty-fifth anniversary of his writing career (1859-1884).
Congratulations poured in from every quarter, but Raffi with his
characteristic modesty demurred, feeling that the time wasn't right.
Enthusiastic preparations went forward anyway. Jubilee committees were
formed in countless towns and villages to raise the resources needed
for the celebration. Just at that moment - at the very height of his
popularity - a shocking event occurred: Intruders forcibly entered his
home on the night of December 11, 1883 in an attempt on his life. He
fired on them with his gun, and they fled. But it was never clear who
had sent them. Some said it was the government, some said it was his
rivals. Preparations for the jubilee only intensified and by the
spring of 1884 they were nearly complete, but then came the next blow:
the authorities prohibited the jubilee from taking place.

By the time "Samvel" was published Raffi's health began to decline
seriously. The novel was received with great enthusiasm by the reading
public. Raffi had said that his purpose in writing historical novels
was not to focus on the past, but through the past to show the
necessary means of dealing with the present. "Samvel", in dealing with
the clash between paganism and Christianity in ancient Armenia, was a
coded representation of the clash that was taking place in the early
1880's between the national aspirations of the Armenians and the all
engulfing power of imperial Russia.  His readership understood this
very well.

Plans were made to present a play based on scenes from the novel, but
because the government censors wouldn't permit a straightforward
theatrical performance the organizers arrived at a very unconventional
solution: The entire story would be represented by some form of mime
supplemented by pictorial sets based on the novel. Raffi's friend, the
artist Kevork Bashinjaghian, created the paintings and directed the
play, and the successive scenes of the story flowed before the eyes of
the audience in what were called "living pictures" [gentani badgerner]
the exact nature of which remains a mystery to this day. Raffi was of
course invited to the premiere but couldn't attend because he was too
ill. This performance took place on Sunday, April 10, 1888 and was a
resounding success. At its conclusion the audience broke into
thunderous applause and stomping of feet and shouting Raffi's name. On
hearing of the play's success, Raffi was deeply gratified and felt
this was the crowning reward of his career as a writer.

The following is the final passage from Khachik Samvelian's magnificent
account of Raffi's life:

One week after the performance of "Samvel", Shirvanzadeh and another
friend of Raffi's came by to visit him. Raffi, who seemed to have
rebounded from his illness, was out on the balcony watering his
cherished flowers.  Shirvanzadeh asked him:

           "What are you doing? You're going to catch cold"

           "Never mind, I've still got a few years to live.
            Let my enemies blow up!" said Raffi quite calmly
            while continuing to water his flowers.

But on April 23 he was back in bed and April 25, 1888 was the last day
of Raffi's life.

"Raffi's was the first great public funeral. Never before had there
been anything like it," observed Shirvanzadeh.

"Who was that man?" people in the street asked each other in amazement.
Indeed, it was a phenomenon. A small, modest man who lived in one of
the older, rundown districts of town had died, a man who came out of
his house each morning with his walking stick in hand, his head cocked
forward, chin to his breast, and returned in the evening with a packet
of papers under his arm. There was nothing about him that intimated
greatness or uniqueness except for an extreme of modesty. Suddenly he
had died and an entire city came to its feet. Under a deluge of rain,
all the trade guilds of Tiflis turned out before his house with their
colorful silk flags; all the Armenian pupils of the city and their
teachers; the ranks of the clergy and the staffs of all the newspapers,
Armenian and non-Armenian, and anyone connected in one way or another
with the world of literature and publishing.  The Armenian workers
were there and refugees from Turkish Armenia, and thousands of women
and girls.

Raffi's funeral took place on April 29, 1888. All the shops and
Armenian schools were closed in mourning. All of Tiflis turned out in
black. Beneath the downpour, the people conveyed their beloved writer
to the cemetery at Khojivank. First, it was the representatives of the
literary and publishing world who carried his remains out of his
house, then in the street a group of Armenian workers took their
place, and then in turns delegations from the provincial towns, the
teachers, the guild members, the print setters. . .

			    *  *  *  *  *

Raffi's remains were committed to the earth beneath an unrelenting
rain. The Armenian people came to their knees before his grave, before
the loss of an irreplaceable greatness.

"He lives... He lives! " people cried out in the midst of the funeral.

Floral wreaths from far and wide were sent and heaped upon his grave.

And as the mourners left to return home through streets decked in
black, the zourna played a doleful melody while the people, in keeping
with their beloved tradition, drank the "Cup of Mercy" to this great
writer who had departed from their midst.

Donald Abcarian was born in Fresno, California. He graduated from the
University of California Berkeley with a degree in philosophy and has
pursued a lifelong interest in languages and world literature. He has
been translating from Raffi's works for the past seven years. In 2000
the Gomidas Institute published his translation of The Fool {Khent@].
Mr. Abcarian currently lives in Berkeley.

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