Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 04/24/2015


The way we lived then:
In remembrance of the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 24, 2015

By DONALD ABCARIAN and EDDIE ARNAVOUDIAN


It would be a fitting remembrance of the Genocide, were we to
appropriate into a vision of our future the best of the way we lived
before 1915.

Images of violent oppression and Young Turk Genocide have become
central to defining and thereby deeply distorting the historical truth
about the life of western Armenian communities under Ottoman occupation.
Caravans of nameless deportees doomed to die, piles of skulls and
bones sunk in desert sands, corpses strewn across river and rock,
bands of emaciated, skin and bone children, survivors with deadened
gaze huddled in refugee camps.

But they had lived other lives until 1915.

In his stories (Works, 544pp, 1986, Yerevan), Hagop Mntsouri
(1886-1978) resurrects these other lives. He returns Genocide victims
to their villages and homes. He gives us their names and their
biographies. He shows them in flesh and blood living the day before
the catastrophe.

Writing in post-Genocide Kemalist Turkey Mntsouri could not engage
with Ottoman oppression and Genocide. But this absence detracts not a
bit from the beautiful truths he reveals. Oppression and Genocide were
never the sole forms, the sum total of experience in historic western
Armenian homelands. As dreadful as oppression and exploitation were,
Armenian communities enjoyed still a richness that flourished in the
very endeavours of the everyday, in the hopes and dreams and the
dramas of everyday living. These communities Mnstouri reminds us
enjoyed in addition a richer proximity to nature and beast and so a
more balanced life, less alienated from its foundations, not greedily
destructive of it as we are today.

Revealing yet deeper truths Mntsouri shows that at an essential level
national and religious animosities between Armenian, Turk, Kurd,
Assyrian and others were extraneous, alien, impositions upon other
more organic, natural modes of existence. And it is these that
Mntsouri recovers in all their light and diversity and in their darker
shades too. We see Armenian communities sharing what was by then a
historically evolved, multinational homeland where the common people
whether Turk, Kurd, Armenian, Assyrian or other coexisted and
collaborated in profoundly promising harmony, a promise that was
utterly undone by Ottoman and Young Turk design.


I. The way we lived then: in the words of Hagop Mntsouri


Excerpts from Hagop Mntsouri's story, "A Romance" (Siraharutiun me)
translated by Donald Abcarian. The work was first published in the
"Blue Light" (Gabouyd Luys) collection by Varol Press, Istanbul
1958. Setting aside the other themes of the story, this translation
focuses on Mntsouri's detailed depiction of the harvest as it was in
his native village before 1915.

In those days I was a student pursuing my secondary education in G.,
the capital of our province. My native village was in a fertile
agricultural district on the left bank of the Euphrates in the far
south of the province, a six day journey away by mule train. The
district had two villages, one large, one small, but both with the
same name. I came from the smaller one.

I had been away for six whole years and didn't even go back during
vacations but stayed at the school along with a number of other
students who came from faraway villages. I always felt a powerful urge
to go back when summer arrived, but it was a long trip and my means
were limited. It was only natural for me to love my village and
cherish vivid memories of it. After all, I was just a village boy at
heart. I felt deep nostalgia.

There was also a literary factor. The literature we were reading at
the time focused entirely on village life and depicted it with all the
inspired lyricism and patriotic fervour its authors could muster. I
was completely carried away by it.

In addition to that, a small group of us were aspiring writers. We
published a newspaper once a month--handwritten to be sure--and filled
its pages up with prose and verse. We organized meetings, debates,
group outings, all with the enthusiasm typical of our age. We were all
believers in the movement that was just emerging in our literature at
the time and held that every branch of Armenian art should reflect the
soul of the people, should feature their unique forms of beauty,
should draw its nourishment and inspiration from the very sap of
nature, should throb with life, these being the only means of
achieving the deepest possible humanity. And for that one had to go to
the very source, to the village above all. One had to live there and
love it. I therefore kept thinking, what better place to further my
studies than in my own village?

With examinations behind me in my fifth year at school and summer
vacation already in its second or third week, I finally made the
decision to return. I would receive my diploma the following year and,
with the school's help, hoped to go abroad to complete my
education. It was clear that if I hesitated it would be a long time
before I had another chance to realize my dream.

This, then, was my plan. I would live in my village and make the
rounds of all the neighbouring districts. I would try to conduct
studies and gather material. Then I would participate in all the
village work. Not only would that be good exercise; in the thinking of
our circle at school, the only way to fully understand every aspect of
the Armenian village was to join in with the people and identify with
them. Ah, the fervent idealism of student days!

The harvest began in the middle of July that year. Following the
pattern established by our ancestors, we had divided the land into two
halves, alternately planting one half and leaving the other fallow. A
poor harvest was rare. Even if the rains didn't come and there was a
drought, the northern winds kept on blowing and ensured that the crop
didn't dry out but continued to grow and fill out. That year, once
again, it turned out a rich and beautiful harvest thanks to our
fertile, well-cultivated soil The ripened harvest now covered the
whole plain, the steep mountain slopes, and the banks of the
Euphrates. It was something to behold. It waved and swayed and
capered.

The shafts of wheat bent down with the weight of the harvest, lined on
four sides by dense rows of kernels ready to burst with the starch
they contained. Dusted with a delicate layer of pollen, the wheat
fields extended into the distance with a reddish glow. If you tried to
enter them you'd be swallowed up and over your head. Even a snake
couldn't find its way through. A horse rider would have to stop at
their edge, unable to find an opening. If you tried to swing a sickle,
you couldn't bring it down; it would be stopped at the surface. To use
the pictorial language of our villagers, it was a sea of harvest, and
we were exceedingly glad to call it our own.

I had my role to play, too. After all, wasn't that just what I had in
mind at school? I loved the harvest. I loved sleeping under the stars
on the mountainsides and sharing all the joys of the harvesters.
Besides that, the houses were left empty when the harvest began and I
would have been bored to death all by myself in the deserted village.

I was chosen to be a sheaf bearer, as we called it in the village. It
was my job to gather up the rows of sheaves the reapers left behind,
load them up on the mules and transport them to the threshing
floor--not a light job, either. Ahead of me I had a caravan of seven
mules, steep and rugged mountain roads, and sheaves as long as a
man. The sheaves had to be loaded high on the mules' backs so that
they didn't touch the ground and become damaged on the way. The trip
to the village took one and a half or two hours, this under a
scorching July sun, from dawn to dusk, four trips a day. But I had
been used to this kind of work from an early age. I still took a deep
tan on my face, my neck, my hands. I knew how to deal with it.

Those images from the past are fresh in my mind to this day--the mules
with their loads moving single file in front of me, the continuous
murmur of the sheaves rubbing against each other. I followed with
sweat running down my face and a forked stick in my hand, ready to
prop up the loads if they started to slip. The mules were completely
hidden under their loads, making it seem that there were only piles of
sheaves moving steadily up the road on their own.

As I went, I passed by the fields full of men and women continuously
reaping. Caravans of mules and donkeys piled high with sheaves
appeared on every road. They would approach, we would join into one
long caravan and, with song and the polytonal clamour of the bells
hanging from our animals' necks, we would descend triumphantly on the
village and the threshing floor. . . .

I returned to the fields to find the harvesters had started to
sing. Songs rose up from near and far. The moon had just come out over
the mountain and lit up the whole landscape. Everyone was on the move,
advancing in lines, reaping away in the moonlight, hurrying to finish
the harvest. They were singing harvest songs like, "Come darling,
together let us go", and "The moon slipped out from the deep." The men
would always start and the women would repeat. With their hands
protected by wooden gloves, they all bent over their work and, singing
at the top of their lungs, moved forward with their sickles going up
and down and ringing against the stalks. Then began a reaping contest
between the men and the women. Choosing an equal row of wheat to
finish before the other, both sides moved swiftly forward, steadily
swinging their sickles and leaving handful after handful of harvested
shafts behind them. Suddenly and amidst loud laughter, the women
reached the end of their row first and declared victory.

In the field just below another sight presented itself. I stood up to
look. Two young men, bent over and reaping side by side with matching
strokes, were carrying a child standing on their backs. With one of
his feet planted on each of them, they bore him steadily forward
without once causing him to lose his balance. At the same time, they
merrily engaged each other in a songful call and response dialogue
often punctuated by jokes and loud laughter and brought the harvesters
in all the other fields to a stop in celebration.

>From below, far down below, came the sound of bells ringing
harmoniously on a caravan of animals loaded with the harvest and
making its way through the midst of the fields. How beautiful this all
was of a clear, moonlit night! Enchanted, I looked and listened with
endless delight. These were scenes familiar to me from childhood. I
was happy to be there, sharing in the joys of my fellow villagers. It
didn't seem like work to me but rather a holiday, a celebration in the
fields under the light of the moon.

END

- - - - 

This beautiful evocation of the way we lived then, this recreation of
communities when the season was ripe for reaping, when all collectively
celebrated the bounties of their labour has something of the poetic
power of Taniel Varoujean's 'The Song of Bread'. It is truth of
everyday life captured as it was experienced and felt in those actual
moments of ease, of freedom, from all despotism. It was an immense
beauty shattered by the genocide. Capturing it Mntsouri's work
measures the scale of the atrocity.
Into this picture, of nature fecund, of community harmonious, there is
woven a tragic tale that alerts us against any romanticising of our
past. A reciprocated love is torn asunder; a love in harmony with the
surround is trampled. Naro is separated from the youngster she loves
and married instead to a man of greater wealth. The crying cruelty of
it all! What bitter opposition between the beauty of the natural order
and that of a love shipwrecked at its first port of call by social and
economic calculation! It is a love nevertheless that, despite its
forced end, remains a moving sculpture of lives lived the day before
1915.


II. The day before


In narrative as captivating as the best Turner, Constable or
Gainsborough canvas of rural England Mntsouri recreates western
Armenian rural communities in their vigour and energy. Here an
ordinary people, managing lives and loves, through thick and thin,
planting and reaping, caring for their livestock, hunting, praying and
playing, making love, causing scandal, laughing and crying, giving and
cheating, hating, dreaming, marrying, giving birth and burying, much
as we do today.

The volume's first story appropriately titled 'Entrance' is a
wonderful introductory. Albeit with almost no movement it brims with
life - a field guard, a watering man, the local mill, young boys at
play killing a snake, housewives baking, elderly men sat beside a
stream further along which women wash their family clothes. Here also
the local priest, a child bride, hungry children, young women
preparing yoghurt. On a hot-midday as birds sing, a goat, a lamb and a
mule unsupervised trespass into wheat fields and graze at their
leisure until chased away by the guardian of the fields. A later
story, `Dursun Effendi', with just a page of dense detail supplies
social and economic context with tax collectors and usurers backed by
police and officials serving a landholding order dominated by large
landlords of different nationalities, among whom Armenians are only a
minor segment.

Mntsouri's stories encompass vastly more than the number of their
pages suggests. Prolific detail held in fine balance meshes into a
single artistic whole the geography of the village, its natural
environment, its men, women and children, its political economy, its
domestic and social mores. So also its foods and diets, its customs,
religious and social festivals, its traditions, superstitions and
prejudices, its sexual habits and inhibitions, the gender segregation
at prayer, its sartorial fashions, its livestock and entertainment.
Stories tell of the privileges of an often corrupt clergy, reveal the
class structure of the community and critically the relations with
non-Armenian neighbours (Note 1). Unusual in Armenian literature that
even at its best offers mostly a sexless community, Mntsouri is
uninhibited in dealing with sexual mores and with male lust
particularly.

Displayed throughout in polished simplicity and accomplished with
emotional and psychological acuteness are elemental moments of
universal life - of labour, love, greed, deception, sex and death,
moments that are communicated in their passion, their pleasure and
their pain. Thus the misery of a young woman forced to marry an old
man, the suffering of a mother for her vanished son, the grief of a
man who has lost his beloved donkey, the wonder and delight in spring
and its flowers, the seething rage against humiliation by the
privileged. The urgency of a distraught brother desperately searching
for a priest to minister last rites to his dying sister affirms that
deep human need for ritual in coping with death. Other passages
capture well the sexual awakening of young boys at play, the
frustrations of a young man not yet married, the young widow's
determination to remarry, against the wishes of her in-laws, the
anxieties and insecurities of young love and much, much, much more.

Any charge of idealising village life is refuted in stories that
register the servitude of women. In the whole of modern Armenian
literature there is nothing more powerful than 'Hayan's Moushen' that
in just five pages records the enormity of women's dehumanisation, of
their lives as mules, as workhorses, as servants to men's lust and
slave to the home. A scheme to marry off an underage boy reveals a
common practice used to draw female labour into the patriarchal
home. It is undertaken with the same rigour and exactness of
calculation when they went about purchasing beast of burden. The
terrible truth is underlined by the clarity with which this structure
of relations is shown woven into the deepest consciousness of
community and individual as a phenomenon immutable and natural.

Possessed of their distinctive national culture, language, tradition
and religion these Armenian communities lived in and enjoyed a common
homeland with Turk, Kurd, Assyrian and other peoples. Mntsouri shows
them sharing, celebrating, borrowing fashions, offering each other
hospitality, joining the others' weddings, depending on reciprocal
labours, living indeed an entire web of united and mutually enhancing
relations. It was an intertwining and intermingling that today in the
wake of a century poisoned by the Ottoman/Young Turk legacy is almost
inconceivable (Note 2).

A fine artist Mntsouri is also a fine and honest social historian in
the tradition of 15th century Tomas Medzopetsi and 17th century Arakel
Tavrishetsi who had earlier registered the demographic redefining of
historic Armenia. National diversity may indeed have been born of
wars, conquests and settlement. But co-existence among ordinary people
of all nationalities became, inevitably, a condition for the
production and reproduction of all their lives. Read Mntsouri and
realise that no high or external state authority was necessary to
bring about co-existence and collaboration. No constitution or law, no
police or army was necessary to leaven the widespread, common, mutual
sharing of music, tradition, language and custom. On the contrary it
was external political intervention, orchestrated by the Ottoman State
and Young Turks that destroyed the promising harmony built by the
common people of different nationalities and religions.

In our age of rising nationalist and sectarian hatreds across the
globe Mntsouri's multinational land is a universal exemplar of
realisable, nobler forms. So is his picture of a life not so remote,
not so disjointed from its roots, a society and community that living
in a diverse national and social world also lived in a manner that
enabled the organic reproduction of the world of nature and of beast
too. Our ancestors lived hard lives, often poverty stricken, always
subject to tyranny. But they lived more conscious of their dependence
on nature and beast, more at ease with its rhythms, in fresh relation
with field, mountain and flower, in a more sustainable and so more
human form.

In 1915, one hundred years ago, this life was terminated overnight,
categorically and irrevocably.

* * * * * 

Hagop Mntsouri was not alone in the artistic recreation of Armenian
life in historic western homelands before 1915. Associated with a
misnamed genre of `Provincial Literature', in fact an emerging genuine
western Armenian national literature, Mnstouri was one among a growing
number of writers who chose to focus not on the Diaspora - Istanbul,
Tbilisi or Baku - but on Armenian homelands, the centre of national
life. Many fell victim to Genocide among them the outstanding
Tlgadintsi (1860-1915), Rouben Zartarian (1874-1915), Hrant
(1859-1915), Gegham Barseghian (1883-1915). With others such
Srvandziants, Hamasdegh, Gegham Garabetian and Vahe Haig they all
together reproduced and so salvaged for us a broad and deep memory of
those who perished in 1915.



NOTE 1

For a detailed sociological presentation see `The western Armenian
village in Mntsouri's short stories' by S Papikyan (in `Lraber', 2012,
No 1)

NOTE 2

For a refreshing discussion of Mntsouri's multi-national world see
`Hagop Mntsouri and the Cosmopolitan Memory of Istanbul' by Florian
Riedler, 2009.


--
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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