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Why we should read... 'Hadji Murad' by Hagop Oshagan '101 Years' - a trilogy of Hadji Murad (pp7-95), Hadji Abdullah and Suleyman Effendi (471pp, Antelias, Lebanon, 1996) Armenian News Network / Groong March 8, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian A FICTIONAL SOCIOLOGY OF THE ARMENIAN BANDIT AND FEDAYI 'Hadji Murad', a short novel written by Hagop Oshagan in 1933, is a compelling tale of love and passion, rural banditry and nationalist politics in the late 19th century Ottoman Empire. A work of many and diverse themes it yields generously to examination, contemplation and consideration. Oshagan's acute intelligence, his profound feel for historical change and his alertness to psychological and social dynamics that drive human actions gives artistic depth and authenticity to Hadji Murad's fantastic odyssey that takes him from rural bandit to Armenian freedom fighter and then to a tragic downfall following an affair with the wife of the Turkish official assigned to capture him. Vivid and imposing images of suffering and rebellion, love and treachery are etched with subtle perception in prose serviced by an extraordinarily original and inventive imagination. The deft depiction of Murad's personal and political journey abounds with startling insights into internal social relations that characterised both the Armenian and many other national revolutionary movements. Also expertly displayed are those mechanisms of Ottoman power that sought to crush the Armenian movement. Oshagan brings to life social processes common to many nations that drove rebellious peasants first to banditry and then into the embrace of armed political movements. Into the account of Murad's passionate affair with the beautiful Sanam he also weaves observations on life, sexuality, the social power of money, the customs and traditions binding Armenians and Turks and much else. Of notable force are passages on the tragedy of women who, 'nothing but instruments for man's pleasures', had 'no social existence' and before whom 'all avenues in life, all horizons and visions' were blocked. (p59). I We first meet Hadji Murad when he is already in prison serving a 101-year sentence for a 'catalogue of murders and other offences - that would fill a book.' (p10 ) In his presence one can still 'feel that flow personality that suggests greatness or even an affinity with the gods'. (p9) But Hadji Murad, just twenty-five, is a broken man. He recounts his adventures as if an old man 'beyond the profit and loss account of events', as if 'a stranger to or a mere dull echo of events that had in fact passed through the valley of his soul.' (p10) These adventures nevertheless illuminate the history of the times tracing the changing forms of banditry and its relation to the emergence of armed Armenian nationalist movements in the Ottoman Empire. Truly times maketh the man. Hadji Murad's own bandit career cannot be what it was for those who went before him. Prior to the 1880s and 1890s banditry was primarily a social phenomenon, an expression of social revolt by individuals and groups from the impoverished rural population of every nationality. It then had a Robin Hood character frequently uniting, in the same bands, Armenian and Turkish outlaws whose exclusive 'target was the wealth of the rich' (p11). This 'older generation of bandits' hit the boss, the lord and the chief, but never touched a hair of the labouring peasant, Armenian or Turk.' (p29). In these now vanished times Hadji Murad would have 'been regarded as brave and honourable' (p15) by both Armenian and Turk. Banditry 'had not yet assumed a national form. It was not regarded as a national virtue or national vice to be trumpeted from minaret or church steeple.' (p12) Offering a lucid sociological portrait of ordinary peasants driven to banditry by 'oppression and injustice'(p12) Oshagan describes the rules and ethics that governed their relations with each other, the population, the police and soldiers. Applauded by the population, they were feared by the 'opportunist policeman' with 'his servant mentality' and the 'impoverished soldier' who always sought to avoid a direct confrontation. On his part the bandit recognising his opponent as 'the possible mainstay' of his family often spared him. So developed a 'hidden harmony' between bandit and soldier, all the more so for the bandit's consciousness that 'the government is never as fierce as when its soldiers' blood is drawn. (p26) Frequently unable to capture bandits in open battle, the government resorted to treachery, that 'foremost among vices' whose 'mother is poverty' (p65). Murad himself is captured only after that 'moment of great danger' for the bandit - 'the intervention of the yellow metal', (p65). The historical accuracy of Oshagan's portrayal is vouched for by others. Rouben in his famous 'Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary' (Volume 1, Beirut, 1972) and Levon Chormissian' in his monumental 'An Overview of One Hundred Years of Western Armenian History' refer to the existence of mixed Armenian-Turkish outlaw bands. The phenomenon of segments of downtrodden classes from the oppressor and oppressed nations uniting against a common enemy is attested to in a most unlikely form - American slaves and white sailors uniting against the slave masters. An instance of this is portrayed in 'Sacred Hunger' by novelist Barry Unsworth. Unsworth incidentally also wrote 'The Rage of the Vulture' based in Istanbul and featuring the Armenian massacres and an Armenian revolutionary among others. But times were a changing. With the emergence of nationalist movements 'relations between races, established for centuries, began to slowly but surely change'. (p28) Banditry also underwent a transformation as social protest was absorbed into the political struggle. The old unity of Armenian and Turkish outlaw was torn asunder. The Armenian bandit was drawn into the Armenian liberation movement. The Turkish nationalists, in control of the Ottoman state, recruited Turkish bandits 'into a powerful political movement' designed to 'terrorise' its opponents. (p11) They also initiated an unrelenting propaganda campaign associating all protest by non-Turks with 'treacherous' political movements to be suppressed at all costs. Thus the once admired Armenian bandits were transformed into 'amoral killers, traitors to the nation and damnable mutineers and insurgents'. (p16). Such were the times when Hadji Murad comes of age. To avenge a personal humiliation he sells family property, purchases revolver and ammunition and retreats to the hills first to practice and then to attack. He was gifted. His 'finger never wasted a bullet.' Aiming at any bird fleeing 'through the sky, he would fell it, hitting it precisely at the point intended.' (p30) In the early period Murad 'renewed the traditions of the now nearly forgotten' social bandits whether Christian or Muslim. (p29) He cleansed villages of 'intolerable men, of cowards whose influence and power rested solely on wealth or family connection.' (p30) A 'mere good day' from him 'was sufficient to force these heroes back into their shells.' (p30) So was built the reputation that was to draw Murad to the attention of the leadership of the Armenian revolutionary movement. Invited to join the ranks of the Armenian fedayee Murad's exploits secure him even greater acclaim. He becomes the subject for revolutionary song and legend. But his free spirit, his restless energy, his unquenchable thirst for adventure and his readiness to pull the trigger did not rest easy with a cautious leadership who, in a cynical ploy to remove him from the scene, assign him an impossible mission. Murad's easy success disappoints them. But conscious of 'the abyss that separated' him from a movement whose 'language, mentality, program and perspective' were 'so alien' (p36) he returns to his own mountains. II Taking the reader deep into this abyss Oshagan shows those fraught and tense relationships that mark many 19th and 20th century liberation movements that brought together an urban intelligentsia and the rural peasantry who appeared to have little in common. The Armenian case represented a very particular and unique expression of this. The privileged urban intelligentsia that led the movement was based not in the homeland but in the distant imperial capital Istanbul. On the other hand the peasantry and artisan class was dispersed through the Anatolian provinces and in historical Armenia. Contrary to the intelligentsia its hatred for oppression was fired by the harshest and most direct personal experience. Through the unfolding relationship between Hadji Murad's and his revolutionary mentors Oshagan dissects and examines the movement with the expertise of the scholarly historian and the flair and imagination of the artist. The urban leadership 'though possessing royal hearts were impoverished both in mind and in body.' (p34). Its vision was based not on direct experience but on worthless 'bookish knowledge'. Still these 'thin gentlemen' demonstrated 'a terrifying stubbornness in defending and enforcing' their 'unreal programme of action'. (p35) They readily claimed 'a superior knowledge of mountain topography' for nothing more than 'having studied their classical Greek names in school text books'. Planning sites for weapons dumps 'they placed copies of ancient classical' maps 'before a man who had studied every nook and cranny of his region.'(p34). Most devastatingly this leadership gleamed with the 'stupidity of a profound incomprehension' of its enemy. Gullible in the extreme it gave credence to European claims that the Ottoman state 'was a sick man verging on death' (p34) and so it fatally underestimated its power and viciousness. But Hadji Murad is nevertheless irresistibly drawn to these 'military experts dressed in European trousers' even as he 'instinctively rejected their impractical' strategy and tactics. (p36) For, despite all its terrible shortcomings, the urban intelligentsia played an indispensable and positive role. The rebellious peasant represented a fragmented class scattered and isolated across the Ottoman Empire and in historical Armenia. The urban intelligentsia's work helped unify them, cultivating and nurturing in them a sense of national identity and pride. Through the organization created by the 'thin gentlemen' Hadji Murad met 'people just like himself.' He 'came to know his brothers from Mush, Van, Bitlis, Svaz, Garin and elsewhere.' At first he felt them 'to be the sons of another people' but soon realized 'how elementally the same they were!' (p46) Among these men 'there was none who had not suffered a crucifiction in his heart.' (p48) All were driven by a common unendurable suffering - the murder of a father or mother, the rape of a sister, the abduction of a child, a home reduced to ashes, the plunder of a village. So at meetings in some dark tenement in an Istanbul ghetto they would 'fill the lantern of their hope and then disappear into the dark' (p36) on some revolutionary mission. In his evaluation Oshagan falters only at two points. He correctly argues that the Armenian movement's reliance on Europe 'constituted the starting point' for the 'greatest tragedy' in modern Armenian life. He couples this however with an ambiguous and unelaborated charge that it gave undue 'weight to gold-plated ideas' from Europe. (p29) But 'Hadji Murad' himself testifies to the value of some of these ideas in helping instill a sense of pride and dignity. The failure was not in appropriating, but in not developing these ideas to suit the actual conditions of the Armenian people. Oshagan also takes to task the Armenian leadership for its attempts to link up with Turkish political forces. Whilst tenable when referring to the Turkish elite it is otherwise questionable. The demographic weight of the Armenians and their dispersal across the Ottoman Empire left them no choice but to seek allies among other nations however difficult the task. Unsparing in his criticism of the Armenian liberation movement Oshagan nevertheless has no truck with dismissive Diaspora intellectuals. Such people for whom a 'subscription to some national newspaper' has become a 'synonym for patriotism' are incapable of grasping the experience of 'those who witnessed something even worse than the slaughter of their loved ones - the slaughter of their dreams.' (p52). They know nothing of life under Ottoman tyranny yet readily 'hurl judgmental rockets' and even 'cleanse the reputation of our enemies'. Sinking lower some 'even lower blame us for our own murder.' (p53) Insulting their fathers, mothers and their grandparents as cowardly 'rabbits' they know nothing of 'the boys' of whom Murad 'was a representative'. (p52) Oshagan's artistry does much to recover the living reality of these men as they engaged in uneven battle against imperial Ottoman power. III Oshagan once famously remarked that people would first have to read his novels in order to 'properly understand the Turk'. In the context of Armenian-Turkish relations there is here a large measure of truth. In 'Hadji Murad' the representation of the Turk is realistically complex and diverse and is free of the vulgar caricature that so troubles the cruder Armenian imagination. Even as he uncovers moral collapse and savagery Oshagan does not tar all Turks with the same brush. The Turk does not appear as a uniform, undifferentiated type, possessed of a set of unchanging barbaric traits. The Turkish society we encounter in Hadji Murad is primarily that of the higher, privileged echelons now in transition to a ruthless chauvinism intent on annihilating all other national movements. Those responsible for violence against Armenians are agents of the Ottoman state: its policemen, its soldiers and political or religious officials. When Oshagan refers to the common Turkish peasant or villager the terms are entirely different. Here there is no inevitable or pre-ordained abyss that divides Armenian and Turk. Oshagan offers descriptions of many threads of common custom and tradition, prejudice and superstition that served to bring Armenian and Turk, as well as other nationalities together. Their common reverence for the Robin Hood type bandits is one example. There are many more. An interesting one is Sanaam's efforts to arrange a meeting with Murad. Hoping to garner information of Murad's whereabouts without drawing undue attention to herself, she visits the local Armenian priest. Such a step would indeed then have gone unremarked. It was common practice for Muslim and Christian to approach the Armenian priest for advice and counsel. Elsewhere the ordinary Turkish peasant or villager is depicted as an unwitting victim of manipulation and propaganda. It is the Turkish elite who orchestrated a campaign that sought to 'cultivate and inculcate hatred for Armenians in every single Turk'. It worked assiduously to then transform this hatred 'into an active poison' (p31, 32) that 'enraged decent Muslims' against the Armenians. As a result of such frenzied preaching in the press and the mosque that 'the Turkish peasant learned to regard his Armenian neighbour's land as if it was property stolen from himself.' (p13) Oshagan indicates the fertile ground for such propaganda among the tens of thousands of impoverished Turks who, fleeing the liberated Balkans, roamed and ravaged Anatolia and the historic Armenian provinces. But he offers no explanation for the absence of a significant democratic Turkish nationalism to counter its dominant fascist trend. 'Hadji Murad' also touches on the potential for human solidarity between Armenian and Turk at a deeper and more elemental level. While in society at large the Turkish elite was desperate to destroy such solidarity, in prison removed from the direct pull of nationalist rivalries (p94), Turkish prisoners, 'despite instructions from the prison governor' refuse to kill' Hadji Murad. They sense they have more in common with him than with their Turkish jailers 'who steal their food rations and force them to eat putrid broad beans instead of meat.' (p92). Murad in turn does 'not now hate the Turk'. He sees them as 'brothers in misery' suffering 'the heavy hand of powers stronger than themselves.' (p93). Underpinning this affirmation is a typical Oshagan comment on the terrible sexual frustration experienced by all prisoners irrespective of nationality. This is no place to elaborate on Oshagan's conception of sexuality. But it is necessary to note that for him it is not a narrow instinctual phenomenon. It incorporates a broad, all embracing network of the instinctual and the conscious, the emotional and the carnal, the social and the individual that together play a crucial role in defining the individual in society. 'Hadji Murad' is not however free of dangerously ambiguous generalisations. Describing Murad's torture after his capture Oshagan writes that 'the Turks are never so terrible and ugly as when they abuse a chained man. This returns them to their nomadic instincts making one forget the contact they had with the civilised world.' Yet the context for such statements clearly refers them not to Turks in general but to those in positions of political or social power. It is worth noting again, in parenthesis, that Oshagan's accurate depiction of the complex reality of Armenian-Turkish relations, shunned by many today, is endorsed, again by Rouben in volume one of his 'Memoirs of An Armenian Revolutionary'. IV In the opening pages of the 'Hadji Murad' Oshagan remarks that space did not 'allow for a comprehensive picture' of bandits such as Murad 'who, one day mere common criminals, were so suddenly transformed to become severe and saintly when they first felt the homeland within the curve of their dagger's blade.' Reading professional historian Eric Hobsbawm's comprehensive 'Bandits' written some 30 years later one is struck by the numerous historical and social conceptions it has in common with Oshagan's 'Hadji Murad'. This affinity reflecting the sociological and historical value of 'Hadji Murad' also prompts a thought about its literary form. Fitting into no particular category but regarded by its author as a novel, 'Hadji Murad' combines fiction and history, sociological commentary and psychological observation in prose that is touched sometimes by poetic flight. This combination of diverse literary form has a long tradition in Armenian culture stretching back to the 5th century Golden Age of Armenian literature. It is reasonable to suggest that Hagop Oshagan's 'Hadji Murad' is a sort of excellent modern variant of a much older tradition. Oshagan, whilst not a modest man made no such claims. But he does draw a suggestive and provocative parallel between Hadji Murad and the 5th century Vahan Mamikonian, a heroic rebel figure of Armenian resistance to Persian domination. Noting 'the ease' with which guerrilla battles 'are weighted with the feathers of legend' and 'transformed, when conditions permit, into historical battles' Oshagan asks whether Ghazar Barpetzi, the 'most authentic of our classical historians' did anything different 'when he devoted some two hundred pages to Vahan Mamikonian's guerrilla wars?' (p40) There is here no intent to demean either Vahan Mamikonian or Hadji Murad. Rather, the parallel serves as a fitting honour to the 19th and early 20th century bandits and their resistance to oppression whose story Oshagan tells so well. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.