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The Critical Corner - 07/20/2010

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HOVANNES TOUMANIAN - POET OF A PEOPLE

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 20, 2010

By Eddie Arnavoudian


PART TWO: THE DREAM OF FREEDOM


Hovanness Toumanian could not avoid engagement with the national and
social question. After all his beloved creations - Anoush, Maro, Saro,
Mossi and scores more - did not live lives bound only by the relations
and traditions of local family and community. They carried, in
addition, ugly scars and daily-inflicted wounds of Ottoman conquest,
Tsarist oppression as well the blight of Armenian feudal and Church
exploitation. No statement about the lives of the common people could
approach truth without consideration of these issues and to them
Toumanian turns in `David of Sassoon' and in undeservedly neglected
epics such as `The Old Fight', `Mehri', `The Sigh' as well as other
poems such as `The Song of the Plough'.

Though often flawed and incomplete the epics retain both artistic and
historical value each being marked by Toumanian's exceptional ability
to touch on fundamental human and social truths through dynamic
narrative and dramatic plot that is always ceaseless movement and
action. These epics besides reveal Toumanian's affirmation of and his
constant preoccupation with the centrality of community and collective
for all life that in `David of Sassoon' becomes a perfect expression
of his conception of the relation between the collective and the
individual.

Whatever faults distort character or plot, these epics reproduce,
with striking coherence, some of the most significant social and
political contours of Armenian life during the second half of the 19th
century. Particularly fluent is Toumanian's articulation of the
successive stages of the people's 19th century passage from
resignation to resistance, first as individual and local defiance and
then as organised social and political action.

These epics that serve well to reveal the rigorous social, political
and moral thought that framed all of Toumanian's practical engagement
with Armenian life are however socio-political history as art.
Toumanian offers history that is grasped as the experience of living
men and women, of fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers,
sisters, sons and daughters whose relations and actions are framed
within recurring but concretely reproduced social forms - the
generation gap, the weariness of age, the exuberance of youth, the
instincts of hope and revenge. So Toumanian's suffering, sometimes
resigned and sometimes rebellious characters also stand forth as
universal oppressed men and women.


I. A LIFE OF OPPRESSION, EXPLOITATION, IMPOVERISHMENT

With the minimum of words and the simplest language Toumanian
describes those economic, political and national relations that for
centuries impoverished Armenian lives and made the existence of the
vast majority nothing but bitter trial and unending tribulation. `The
Sigh', `The Old Fight' and `Mehri' lay bare more forcefully than any
clinical historical statement the reality of oppressed existence in
which men and women are never permitted to reap the rewards from their
own land fertilised with their own labour. Each one answers a question
posed in all oppressed nations: how to explain the contradiction
between a green and fertile land that produces plenty and the shocking
penury of its labouring people.

In `The Sigh' the question is put explicitly and without artifice, by
a student travelling through remote mountain villages in Tsarist
occupied Armenia:

    `Why is it, granddad, that in a land so sumptuous
    You live, as you say, a hard life
    Do you get no return from
    the land?
    Or do woes come from elsewhere?

Woes do indeed come from `elsewhere', from forces of foreign
occupation and from domestic elites who systematically fleece the
common folk. Reproducing beautifully the simplicity and the
undisguised straightforward quality of peasant speech Mhe, one of the
protagonists of a fine drama of forced emigration complains:

    `We work hard but sit at an empty table...
    The seed that we throw to the ground we never pick up.

To feed his family Mhe seeks to escape the `endless greed of' Turkish
and Kurdish lords (p36) who leave the common people no `bread that is
untouchable'.

Moussabeg who appears in `The Old Fight' is one among those Kurdish
chiefs who in exchange for loyalty to the central Ottoman government
were given license to pillage vast swathes of western Armenia. Set in
Ottoman occupied, Armenia Part Two of this epic opens with the tale of
`greedy monsters' that with a massive boulder blocked the source of
the nation's water so that:

    `Instead of the water of immortality,
    For centuries men and women drank tears.' (p141)

In Armenia, however, `there are no fables' (p141). Kurdish chief
Moussabeg is a living monster, more terrifying and more heartless than
any mythical beast. Boasting of their conquest of the very heart of
Armenia his pillaging soldiers sing of `the mountains of Taron that are
ours'. Rampaging through Armenian land their every utterance seeps the
poisonous, greedy and violent contempt of imperial powers anywhere:

    `Listen out you cowardly Armenians,
    In your miserable villages and homes
    Whoever has gold or beautiful women
    Bring them out spread them before me.

It is not just Taron, the very core of the land, but the whole of
Western Armenia that bleeds from Ottoman `sword and terror':

    Van trembles, Van trembles and so does Erzerum,
    From the force of the sword and the terror (p142)

With such `bandits lording it over us', unrestrained by law or order,
life was not worth living. They not only rob the peasant of his
produce but also murder, abuse, rape and abduct with an impunity that
reduced the people to passive slaves. Through the land:

    `Everyone lives constantly trembling with fear
    That wherever they are, they will be here immediately
    They'll kidnap my wife
    They'll seize my son and me they'll kill.

Across the border in Tsarist occupied eastern Armenia, though not as
bloody, life was nevertheless also hard, harsh, impoverished and
bitter. Hovanness Toumanian never veered from the view that an
Armenian alliance with any Russian state was the best option for the
Armenian people under Ottoman occupation. But never once did he
acquiesce to the abuse and exploitation of Armenians under Tsarist
occupation. The grim demeanour, the angry and hostile expression and
the blighted appearance of the old vineyard keeper that so strikes the
travelling student in `The Sigh' are all products of life bludgeoned
by Tsarist protected local landlords, imperial government tax
gatherers, state officials and judges.

The ageing vineyard keeper's remarks again reveal an essential
relation of exploitation:

    `If ever we managed to get something into our hand
    We never are able to get it to our mouths. (p64)

Impotent before the landlord and state who snatch the fruit of his
labour the old man grumbles:

    `I have seen not a moment's joy in my days
    Neither have my eye's filled with joy for even an instant. (p67)

In remote villages where once every visitor was welcome now they are
eyed with suspicion, outsiders come only `to bring another fire upon
our heads', or to `assess how many functioning villages there are
here', `who has animals at their door' or `butter in their watts'
(p63), all this in order to squeeze yet more from the peasant. We
`have no say' `the powerful are god' complains the old man as he
remarks on the break up of the old traditions of communal solidarity
now being replaced by the predatory capitalism whose development in
the Caucuses was accelerated by the Russian conquest.

    `The world, brother, has become grab and run
    Love has become sword and water blood
    The powerful has neither shame nor fear
    Woe to weak. (p68)

The `elsewhere' that is the source of suffering for rural communities
includes the Armenian usurer and the Armenian priest who feature in
`The Song of the Ploughman'. The head of the family suffers a `hand
that does not function' and `strength that is diminished' but remains
possessed of `a thousand and one pains' the most terrible being:

    At home, where a pack of children gaze
    Hungry and naked

To escape:

    `The usurer (who) will come to beat us and
    The priest (who) remaining unpaid after his blessing
    Will rage and curse us...

The ploughman urges the ox to `pull, pull and pull again'. He hopes
that with just a little bit of extra effort the land will yield just
that little more and so enable him `to find some ease from the
darkness of our days'. In the ploughman's mind there is no notion of
questioning the status quo, no urge to challenge usurer or priest.
Weary and worn he has only the will to labour harder but within the
same set of relations.

Yet, however chained and clubbed, within the community and people
there is always a constant fermenting, a constant search for change
brought to the surface as each successive generation entering life
brings with it a measure of freshness, hope and a will to challenge
that is a characteristic of youth.


II. FROM PASSIVITY TO RESISTANCE

Before its development into a nationally organised force the Armenian
liberation movement, like many others, made its historical appearance
through inevitable acts of isolated individual or local defiance. For
Armenians as Toumanian shows, even this initial step required breaking
the mould of a humiliating submissiveness that had taken root during
centuries of foreign occupation and reinforced by Armenian priests
preaching Christian passivity. This passivity was at its most pathetic
under Ottoman occupation.

In `The Old Fight after a first foray, Kurdish chief Moussabeg
declares his intention to return to take away the local priest's
beautiful daughter. But pitifully incapable of deviating from his own
sermons, even when his own flesh and blood is endangered the priest
can only muster pathetic pleas and miserable appeals:

    `I have brought up a beautiful daughter
    Joy of my heart, light of my eyes
    The Kurd has come to snatch my daughter
    To snatch this aged man's life
    You are fathers, fathers of children
    Find some means for my pain. (p144)

Village elders all `dry and grey' echo this impotent `collective sigh'
that cannot reach beyond a resigned curse:

    `Pity Shoghig, pretty Shoghig
    Light also of our eyes, our flower too
    Woe to the parents, old priest
    May the Kurds path grow nettles (p144)

The pain, the suffering and the anguish is concentrated here,
underlined by the historic preacher of appeasement being the direct
target of foreign attack. But we cannot at the same time fail to note
the abysmal, dehumanising absence of all independent will and
initiative to resist.

Fatalism and passivity was of course fashioned and hardened by
overarching historical and political forces, by centuries of Armenian
statelessness together with the Armenian Church's accommodation with
foreign conquerors. But in Toumanian's acute grasp this fashioning and
hardening is shown to also develop within the cycles of natural human
life where time, age and habit make their contribution by sapping both
physical and spiritual energy to resist. In `Mehri' Mhe's father also
experiences the `sword and terror' of Ottoman oppression but he is too
old and weary, now beyond the age that experiments and fights. Mhe in
contrast is still young. He dreams of better days. He acts and
prepares to seek his fortune by emigration beyond the border. Mhe's
father looks on this ambition with deep misgiving:

    `Where is it you want to go my Mhe
    Why do you leave your father's homestead
    You leave your aged father...
    I have grown old, I am not what I was
    To fly after every pain
    I have arrived at death's door
    With you gone who will look after us. (p38)

For Mhe, as it was for thousands of others, emigration was in a
significant sense a road to escape oppression, an apolitical striving
for individual or family freedom and emancipation. Among an oppressed
and impoverished people possessing no means of organised national
resistance life at home, the other side of the wall always appears in
glorious colours. Today for millions, among them Armenians, the other
side of the wall is Europe or the USA. For Mhe's generation of
Armenians it was Tsarist Russia and beyond. There they believed lay a
mythical Eldorado of freedom where `money can be piled high with a
spade'.

    `My sweetheart Mehri, no, it is not in every land
    Than men have to bear such pains
    ...
    They say that far way, there is a land Mehri
    That is rich and well ordered
    There the beastly passions do not rule
    There hypocrisy's posture commands no respect
    And there men live together
    with love
    They leave easy, secure from the Turk.
    And money there is as
    plentiful as the soil. (p36)

It is in such an Eldorado that Mhe hopes to make his fortune and
triumphantly return home. As his drama unfolds it touches on the
debilitating social and demographic consequences of mass emigration
that with the flight of the energetic and ambitious young further
weakens and diminishes the community's and the nation's ability to
resist and endure.  Meanwhile life abroad is full of risk. It will
exhaust and waste the lives of vast numbers of young lives and cut
them off entirely from their communities and homeland. Of the damage
that emigration can do to the body of the native community Mhe's
father gives expression in his blessings for his departing son:

    `Do not ever let from your mind
    Your family home and your homeland
    Do not forget your aged father and young wife
    If they, Mhe, you forget
    Then, even if you become a king
    You will never live a day without bearing the burden of your sin.

Even if Mhe were to successfully return home, this would at best
represent only an individual, family solution. Mhe's venture however
has no romantic ending. He, his family and his village do not escape
the Ottoman hatchet. Murdered soon after he embarks on his journey his
village is subsequently attacked by Turkish bands, his father killed
and his wife abducted, ironically by the killer of her husband.
Though the epic falters, besides touching poignantly on some of the
forces that drove Armenians from their homes in their hundreds of
thousands it additionally contains one of literature's most dramatic,
tense and gripping depictions of a duel to the death here precipitated
by an urge for revenge that is at the same time an overflowing of hate
for the oppressor.

As dramatic as is the battle of hate and revenge so also moving is the
gem that concludes the epic with its note of the ultimate futility and
waste of unjust social arrangements for all entrapped by them.

    They still lie there side by side
    The criminal killer and the innocent dead
    And as each spring comes
    It decorates them equally with its green.(p48)

`The Sigh' on the other hand introduces us to Chadi's story, that
though set in Tsarist occupied Armenia, tells of the common social
origins of those famous Armenian bandits driven to defy the law not as
criminals but as rebels against social and national oppression. It was
rebels such as Chadi who in Ottoman occupied Armenia first formed
local armed self-defence units and later with the emergence of a
broader national political movement became the core of the armed
forces of the Armenian National Liberation Movement. (ANLM)

Chadi enters the stage late, only as the narrative nears its end. He
is however, within the whole, a major figure, most significantly as a
counterpoint to the entire preceding development that describes grim
and unhappy passivity. Unjustly accused of stealing a landlord's sheep
Chadi resists. He turns first to the Tsarist courts only to discover
that whilst the Tsarist state does not murder as readily as the
Ottoman state, its legal establishment remains a ruthless weapon
wielded against the poor. Despite the justice of his case he is
convicted and sentenced to exile in Siberia.

The remainder of the story is told by the old vineyard keeper with a
distinct tone of pride for the self-respect and courage of the young
generation. A few dozen lines suggest a vast drama and adventure.

    `He who has honour
    Knows well how to respond
    Last night by that pillar to your side
    There hung three rifles.

It is these rifles that Chadi takes and flees into the mountains to
begin the outlaw's career of defiance and resistance. Toumanian's
Chadi, Aghassi, the protagonist of Abovian's `Wounds of Armenia, Huno
the Robin Hood bandit in Berj Broshian's novel of the same name and
Hagop Oshagan's outstanding Hadji Murad, are veritable social
histories of bandits as rebels against national and social oppression
endorse Eric Hobsbaum's rigorously developed thesis in his little
volume `Bandits'.


III. FROM RESISTANCE TO ARMED STRUGGLE

In 1905 when the Tsarist police arrested Hovanness Toumanian along
with scores of other Armenian intellectuals, writers and activists, a
completed version of `The Old Fight' that he had with him was
confiscated and destroyed. Two parts that had already been published
in the contemporary press survive to register not only something of
the terror of life under Ottoman tyranny but perhaps more
significantly something of the history of the anti-Ottoman Armenian
armed struggle and in particular the contribution made to this by a
generation of young activists in Tsarist occupied Armenia. `The Old
Fight' in addition delineates the humanist essence of that 19th
century emerging pan-Armenian consciousness that sought to bridge the
gulf of stifling and enervating provincialism that dominated Armenian
life divided between Ottoman and Tsarist control.

Toumanian captures well the passion and the enthusiasm of the young of
any nation as they prepare go beyond their parent's passivity. Evoking
the hectic energy and boisterous enthusiasm of any first tentative
youthful steps he describes the endless stream of `strangers', of
`pale boys' who visit Vahan at his parental home. The narrative
permeated with youth `talking and talking' so much that:

    `Their meetings became noisy and boisterous
    Like the flock of autumn birds
    That made such a racket before their migration
    Towards the sunny side of spring (p138)

Those that Vahan befriends are not all locals. Some:

    `Are refugees mum, they are friends and comrades
    Driven and persecuted here and there.
    They have no home or base, they come to me. (p133)

Gathered among friends of his own generation Vahan's father explains
that his son has `taken upon himself all the woes of the world' and
underlining the gulf that separates them adds that the youth of the
day:

    `Have their minds and their concentration on faraway places
    I don't really understand what it is that they want
    They don't approve of the order of the world
    He says that `men beneath the tyranny...'
    I can't even remember what he said
    They speak in complex classical language
    ...
    When I ask them to be quiet
    They respond you are from older days, you don't understand.' (p138)

Following endless meetings and secretive discussions, Vahan
disappears, unexpectedly, without even a formal goodbye. Only later in
a moving letter from their son do his parents realise the drive and
purpose behind those rowdy meetings and noisy exchanges: the
preparation and organisation of patriotic armed contingents to cross
the borders and go to the aid of Ottoman occupied Armenian
communities.

Armenian literature is littered with trite depictions of patriotic
dedications that conceal the deeply human passion of solidarity and
generosity that often inspires the best of nationalist ambitions.
Toumanian's poetry does not suffer any such deformation. Patriotic
duty appears directly as a moral commitment to fellow human beings
inspired by the same order of love and generosity one has for one's
own kith and kin. Knowledge of the suffering of a kindred community
and a developing national consciousness makes Vahan aware of a `world
of woes' beyond his own provincial borders. This for him opens up for
`a new life' where he must now attend to `the call of other
mothers'. (p139)

    You gave me life, you brought me up
    But for as long as there is so much pain in the world
    My life is not mine, my heart is not mine
    I cannot rest comfortably in your bosom. (p138)

When we next meet him, Vahan is in Western Armenia where with two other
armed comrades he appears in the deep of the night at the home of the
priest and his family awaiting the fatal visit of Moussabeg. Hearing
knocking on the door those inside are terrorised. But to their delight
from the mouths of the three armed men hammering on their door they
hear not Kurdish or Turkish curses but `God bless you' `in the
Armenian tongue'.

    `The dark hovel was filled with light
    With unexpected delight (p147)

Being incomplete `The Old Fight' if read out of its historical context
generates a dangerously one-sided and false image of an utterly
helpless and submissive Ottoman occupied Armenian community saved from
barbaric tyranny only by outsiders.  This of course does not accord
with historical reality. The defining moment in the foundation and
development of the core of the ANLM was the almost spontaneous
emergence of locally rooted armed self-defence units within Ottoman
occupied Armenian communities many of whose fighters underwent
experiences not dissimilar to those of Chadi.

The completed text of `The Old Fight' would of course have reflected
many of different forces from which the ANLM emerged and would most
probably have accorded a central position to the development of armed
resistance within Ottoman occupied Armenian communities.  Nevertheless
read in its historical context the two surviving parts of `The Old
Fight' remain as an enduring artistic formulation of an important
phase in the development of the Armenian movement, its armed struggle
as well as the irrepressible dedication of its eastern youth and the
emerging pan-Armenian national consciousness.

Toumanian's stature as a narrative poet who was also a social and
political thinker of substance is cemented in his ever-popular
retelling of the Armenian national epic `David of Sassoon'.  A
gripping drama that pits superhuman David representing the Armenian
people against the imperial Arab invader `David of Sassoon'
synthesises those democratic and moral principles that shape the best
progressive trends within all popular national liberation movements.
Describing David's preparation for battle against imperial invaders
coming to seize `forty caravans filled with Armenian gold and forty
caravans filled with beautiful Armenian women' Toumanian also defines
the main characteristics of the two dominant trends within national
liberation movements across the globe.

A unique individual gifted with superhuman strength David of Sassoon
is devoid of selfish egoism that would pit him against community and
collective. A `crazy brave born to the Armenian nation', he is
fearless, recognising `neither lord nor master'. Though a king he
lives like and within the common people. His every action, his every
emotion and feeling, his very being expresses his dedication to the
community and the people. David does not of course represent a
particular or typical individual. An epic figure with mythical
dimensions that are developed with brilliant wit and drama he is the
artistic representation of the collective, of the community and
nation, its interests, its ambitions and moral vision. The dedication
to the nation and its common people is at the same time an affirmation
of the primacy of the collective and community whose independence and
health are always a necessary foundation for individual life and
development.

David has no time for debate or negotiation about the absolute right
of nations to self-determination. National independence is an
inalienable right and anyone seeking to subvert it must be resisted
with uncompromising determination and all the force necessary. This he
takes for granted and cannot understand why others worry when he
prepares to take on the Arab invaders.

    `What will the king of Syria do me anyway
    What am I asking from the king
    Let the king remain in Syria
    What business does he have in my father's mountains


David's uncle, Dzenov Ohan is his absolute opposite. Dzenov Ohan,
albeit Armenian, represents only the narrow, selfish elite that so
often prevailed in national liberation movements. He refuses to resist
or to fight. He hides away the famous family sword and locks away the
epically powerful stallion inherited from his forefathers. In his
explanation of his compromising ways we hear the refrain of all
opportunist politicians. Pretending to care for the nation and its
people Dzenov Ohan will happily surrender caravans of Armenian gold
and Armenian women claiming that such concessions will `ensure' that
imperial power `looks upon us with gentle eye'. No doubt if Dzenov
Ohan were to have had his way, he and his family may have been safe.
But the common people whose mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are
surrendered along with their national wealth, it is they who would pay
the price of Dzenov Ohan's security. This David will not tolerate.

    `I shall not hand over, he said, my father's gold
    I shall not hand over the women of my people.
    In the land of Sassoon there is no place for you.'


The personification of ruthless and uncompromising resistance David is
however also a democrat and humanist. He has no contempt or animosity
for other peoples and other nations. His enemy is not the common Arab
man and woman, not even the rank and file Arab solider who has invaded
Armenia under the command of the Arab emperor.

    You order common people, shepherds he said
    Penniless, in darkness, hungry and pained
    A thousand fires and woes
    A thousand worries you have
    What have you lifted arrow and bow
    And come to foreign fields.
    Do we not also have home and hearth
    We too have children and our old.

The end of this address to the defeated Arab soldiers whom he has
spared speaks of a patriotism that is at once a profound humanism and
internationalism, a patriotism the revival of which is so urgently
necessary today:

    `Return along the road you came
    To your homeland of Msr
    But if once again you come upon us
    with sword and soldier
    You'll find before you like today
    David of Sasson and Tour-Gayzag.

Hovanness Toumanian's nationalists, his patriots and his social rebels
do not go about with boastful swagger or superior airs mouthing
bombastic phrases and slogans that all too frequently muddy the fields
of Armenian literature. His poetry of national and social engagement,
like his poetry of love and life is driven exclusively by a
preoccupation with and concern for the actual character and quality of
the everyday life of ordinary men and women. All his protagonists are
cut from the same human cloth and. They oppose oppression and
exploitation because these are negations of life, because these
obstruct and destroy the flowering of love and solidarity. In this
quality Toumanian's poetry of national and social engagement stands as
an edifying correction to the intolerant, anti-democratic nationalism
that, with its chauvinist, exclusivist and irrational assertions of
national superiority today causes terrible suffering that would have
appalled David of Sassoon.


--
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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