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The Critical Corner - 08/10/2005

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Why we should read...                        
`Jalaleddin' by Raffi
(Collected Works, Volume 4, pp7-63, Yerevan, 1984)

Armenian News Network / Groong
August 10, 2005

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Raffi's literary talent is evident in this his, very first short
novel, an excellent English translation of which by Donald Abcarian
will hopefully be available soon. In Jalaleddin Raffi already proves
himself a master of the exciting adventure story that is at the same
time a serious piece of political agitprop delivered to high
intellectual and artistic standards. Full of dramatic action the work
entertains and thrills but with the primary aim of educating its
audience on the necessity and legitimacy of resistance to oppression,
by any means necessary - as Malcolm X put it.

Jalaleddin opens with shocking scenes of Kurdish clan leader
Jalaleddin whipping up his men into a frenzied mob as he prepares for
a campaign of pillage and plunder against local Armenian villages in
the Ottoman occupied province of Albag. To his expedition Jalaleddin
recruits not just military might but the authority and blessing of the
religious establishment of which he is also the head. Here Raffi does
not however tar all Kurds with one brush. Though at certain points
open to misinterpretation, the novel is free of anti-Kurdish
chauvinism. Indeed, throughout it, Kurds as a people are referred to
in admiring terms. But Raffi does not conceal the fact that Jalaleddin
and other Kurdish leaders acted as agents of Ottoman tyranny in
Armenia. The population over which they exercised lawless authority
are the Armenians, reduced to a passive, humble, pleading mass, inert,
inactive and fearful of any independent initiative.

Into this equation of ruthless oppression and meek resignation leaps
the young rebel Sarhad and his band of twelve comrades, recalling
Jesus and his twelve disciples, but for that Sarhad and his men are
representatives of a new, secular and democratic principle of life.
They have grasped that the oppressed must resist or die, fight or be
slaughtered. They understand that begging and pleading cannot tame and
calm the beast of oppression. They know that meek appeals are read as
signs of helplessness and impotence and serve only to whet the
monster's appetite. Against an Armenian Christian tradition of silent
submission they are the self-conscious nucleus that by example and by
education will help generate a new tradition of defiance.

In formulating these principles Raffi transforms Sarhad and his
companions into spokesmen for a radical popular movement. From the
outset they are hostile to the Armenian elites and all they represent.
Sarhad has bitter experience of their cowardice. When once urging them
to emulate successful examples of armed Assyrian resistance to
Jalaleddin, he is dismissed as a dangerous crank. The critique of the
local dignitaries and the Church leadership acquires brilliantly
articulated expression in stirring speeches by an ex-priest and an
ex-teacher who in the name of a new spirit of freedom demand the
casting away of the entire Christian tradition that instilled
passivity and humility. No lone, isolated individuals, Sarhad and his
comrades represent a new generation recruited from across the land and
ready to lay down their lives for the freedom of the people.

Raffi's thrilling adventure story is not impoverished of realism. As
always Raffi shows a fine grasp of the social and economic relations
of oppression and resistance. Around the simple story of a rebellious
youth turned political bandit now in search of his abducted lover, he
reconstructs Armenia's ravaged political and social landscape and
indicates the obstacles to, and the requirements for, popular
emancipation. Simultaneously he reveals himself a profound thinker and
a social and political theorist of note. His argument for popular
armed resistance is well constructed. Among many acute observations is
one that perceptively defines political banditry as `a terrible,
terrifying protest against a society that is not organised according
to the rule of law.' Raffi also has a superb ability to communicate
clearly and simply but at the same time with a contagious passion and
enthusiasm. Posing issues of oppression with depth, with a sharp grasp
of the common man and woman's hopes, their strengths and their
weaknesses, his depiction of the oppressed Armenian people captures
something of the experience of all the oppressed.

Jalaleddin is a political novel that is written with artistic
finesse. It has none of the bombastic rhetoric so common in Armenian
historical novels. Sarhad as a patriotic protagonist is no abstract
icon. Unlike cardboard caricatures, he becomes a nationalist and
revolutionary not through some inner, divinely generated ideological
wisdom but through personal experience. A recalcitrant boy by nature,
his experience of life drives him to rebel against the humbling
authority of his community. He is a real human being with his own
private pains that he cannot readily forget, even in the midst of life
and death battle against social injustice. But deeply anguished as he
his by the abduction of his own beloved, he has the strength of
character to remain conscious of the pain of his community and the
abuse of all Armenian women.

A full and proper artistic appreciation of this novel and of Raffi's
fictional work as a whole is possible only if one avoids fruitless
attempts to press his novels into ready-made and ill-fitting
categories of European romantic or realist fiction. Raffi developed
his own style of popular epic narrative that suited his particular
ambition. He was an artist, but one who wrote with a message for the
masses. He wrote for them, not for the light entertainment of the
European educated Armenian elite. His chosen novelistic form therefore
reflected this ambition. To secure success, to ensure he was
understood, he employed a story-telling style developed from a popular
tradition that was already in existence among the people. So Raffi
adjusted the European novel form to this tradition. Readers will gain
valuable insight into Raffi's novelistic technique from an excellent
essay by novelist Terenig Temirjian on Khatchatour Abovian's
combination of popular folklore, realist novel, song and poetry in his
famous `The Wound of Armenia' (Terenig Temirjian, Collected Works
Volume 8).


--
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.

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