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The Critical Corner - 07/14/2004

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Why we should read...                       
'The Burning Orchards' by Gourgen Mahari
(624pp, Yerevan, 1966)

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 14, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian


A rude fate has been fashioned for Gourgen Mahari's (1903-1969)
impressive 1966 novel of pre-1915 Armenian Van, capital of the
historic Armenian province of Vasbourakan, set by the lake of the same
name and now in Turkey. When it was first published, 'The Burning
Orchards' fired furious controversy as its depiction of Van's Armenian
revolutionary movement and its armed resistance to genocide offended
both patriots and nationalists. Almost the entire Armenian and
Diaspora intellectual and artistic elite rose up in vociferous
protest.

Mahari's last major work, one he regarded as his masterpiece and on
which he had laboured since the 1930s was treated as outrageous
blasphemy. Mahari was charged with grievously misrepresenting the
Armenian resistance, of dishonouring the revolutionary movement that
led it and of slandering its best representatives. So 'The Burning
Orchards' was burnt in public and its author subjected to death
threats. Intense hostility forced a dispirited and ill Mahari to
radically rewrite the novel for its second edition. His critics
however were not to be satisfied and long after his death they
continue to wreak revenge on one of Armenia's most talented poets and
novelists, a man of sturdy principle and enormous compassion who
survived both the Armenian Genocide and Stalin's labour camps. Today
Mahari's wife is abandoned, living isolated and in abject poverty in a
cold Yerevan apartment.

The case against Mahari is artistically and politically as groundless
as the campaign against him is beyond any moral, political or
intellectual justification. In a work of fiction, artistic integrity
cannot sit besides vulgar or wanton falsification of historical
truth. Had the charges levelled against Mahari's novel had any
substance, these would inevitably be reflected in fatal aesthetic
flaws. But the first edition of 'The Burning Orchards' withstands
uncompromising scrutiny, aesthetic and political. Beautifully written,
with an intensity of humour unusual even for the unrelentingly
humorous Mahari, this novel presents a moving and comprehensive
portrait of a community as it lives beneath the ominous shadows of an
approaching calamity and resists murderous assault by hostile powers,
in this instance the Young Turk government's army which, as part of
its genocide against the Armenian people, attempted to slaughter Van's
Armenian population.

The 1966 edition of 'The Burning Orchards' remains as one of the most
accomplished of Soviet era Armenian novels. Its reconstruction of
Van's historic Armenian social structure, its custom and tradition,
its artistic, educational, intellectual and political world is brought
to life through the varied relations of a host of defining and
authentically universal characters. Such merits put this novel
alongside Yeroukhan's 'The Amira's Daugher', a masterly evocation of
pre-1915 Armenian Istanbul and Charent's tragicomic remembrance of
once Armenian Kars in 'The Land of Nairi'. 'The Burning Orchards' is
not flawless but it is a work of art that reproduces real life in its
varied richness. (This genre of artistic prose has a significant
number of Armenian practitioners and is worthy of comment in and of
itself.)

An evaluation of this novel cannot bypass its political concerns.
Mahari has a view and advances it angrily, sometimes with intemperate
sarcasm. Yet his is not a slanderous but a critical examination of the
Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in Van and its relation to the
local population. In its politics it is a fictional attempt to go
beyond the triumphant and self-congratulatory histories of Van in 1915
that have come to cloak a historic defeat - after all, despite
escaping Genocide, the Armenian orchards of Van were burnt and its
population forever expelled. That this novel was hounded out of the
public arena is a reflection neither on its art or its politics but on
the one-sided and underdeveloped nationalist consciousness of most,
though not all, of Mahari's critics.


I. THE CITY, THE MERCHANTS AND THE PEOPLE

Mahari brings Armenian Van to sparkling life through the story of four
Muratkhanian brothers and through the relationships between Van's
leading merchants and the leadership of the Armenian Revolutionary
Federation (ARF). Merchants large and small, artisans, farmers,
Armenian revolutionaries, intellectuals, Turkish colonial officials
and police, Young Turk political activists, wives, mothers,
grandmothers, daughters, dissolute sons, adventurous young boys and
many more are brought together in dynamic coexistence. Through the
accumulation of telling descriptions and observations and through the
unfolding plot the novel becomes a sort of monument that reconstructs
a lost world and gives it durability and solidity by etching into it
those dreams, joys, fears and feelings of universal life itself.

Time and place, feel and mood, atmosphere and tradition, local adages
and wisdom are conjured in beautifully poetic descriptions not just of
men and women but of places and nature, of domestic homes, shops,
cafes and casinos, eating houses, Churches, schools, libraries and
monasteries that together defined Armenian Van in the first 15 years
of the 20th century. Dominated by a group of wealthy merchants around
whom are clustered smaller traders, shop keepers, artisans, craftsmen
and labourers Van's provincialism is underlined by contrast with
cosmopolitan Istanbul where the ambitious Hampo Muratkhanian falls
victim to venereal disease. The town's rural hinterland features in
the story of another brother, the well to do farmer Mkho Muratkhanian.
The social mores of the age can be divined by descriptions of the
subordinate position of women expressed sharply by Ohanness Agha
Muratkhanian, the eldest of the clan, who remarks to himself - 'what
is a girl? A lamp for a stranger's home, a pillar for a foreign
abode.'

For all its expansive and sometimes sprawling plot 'The Burning
Orchards' has a unifying thread in the tensions and clashes between
Van's leading Armenian merchants and the revolutionary movement as the
Young Turks begin to lay siege to Armenian Van. Mahari's
characterisation of the merchant class is witty, withering and
perceptive. Simon Agha, a one time street trader:

    'with dexterous footwork skirted thorns in his path, with quick
    fingers seized whatever he could, with skilful tongue cheated as
    much as he could and with inconceivable dexterity overwhelmed
    those who commanded influence in the market. `He approached them
    with care, sycophantically at first. Getting closer he smiled,
    often assuming a pathetic, helpless appearance. Eventually he
    stood by their side and walked along with them. And when things
    went well for him he took a step back and struck his colleagues
    from the back.  Many were ruined unable to withstand the bold
    assaults of a will tempered by poverty and misery. As the years
    rolled on and slipped by, many who once enjoyed status and name in
    the market disappeared into the mist and dust, and from within
    this mist and dust smiled Simon Agha - bent forward, eyes always
    focused on his worry beads but still seeing everything.'

Most prominent among the merchants is the brilliantly portrayed
Ohannes Muratkhanian who measures everything, whether it is his
daughter's marriage, the revolutionary movement or patriotism, in
terms of its contribution to enhancing his own personal wealth. As the
Young Turks lay siege to Armenian Van, having looted and burnt the
town's commercial district they prepare to slaughter its Armenian
population. Responding Ohanness merely bemoans the loss of his
property asking 'what sort of motherland' he is in. To objections he
retorts 'keep it for yourself, this motherland of the impoverished and
the hungry `if only I had converted my wealth into gold and
left.'(p507-508).  After all 'was it not Simon Agha or Panos Agha who
said "what motherland! The motherland is where the bread is"
(p611-612).

Later when the Young Turk siege is lifted Ohanness Agha acquires a new
lease on life and begins cooking up new schemes for making money.
Strolling through his orchards 'looking there' at the pear tree where
he had buried his gold 'he felt himself to be healthier than ever and
even omnipotent.' (p574) But as Russian troops retreat from Van,
unable to further withstand the Young Turk offensive, the Armenians
prepare evacuate the city. Ohannes grieves but only in passing. He can
already see prospects of prosperous business in far away Tbilisi.
Needless to say Mahari while depicting Ohannes in his social role also
recognises in him a complex humanity, one 'however that he has no wish
to occupy' himself with being 'a poor swimmer in that deep and
bottomless, that clear, yet and at the same time murky sea whose name
is Ohannes Muratkhanian.' (p556-7)
 
The expert dissection of the merchant elite's attitude to life,
politics, nationalism and war runs together with a vibrant depiction
of ordinary life as it was lived before and during the siege of Van.
The reader is not insulted by tedious and unreal images of flawless
men and women who in the name of 'the motherland' or some bombastic
patriotic slogan applaud the blood, suffering, destruction and death
of war. Here there are no romantic heroes pressed from some
super-human and morally sanitized mould. All more or less
well-developed characters are recognisably human in their vices and
their virtues. Circumstance and people never spring out before us as
fully-fledged or as unchanging entities and the impending crisis
unfolds as a process, through the development of the relations and the
actions of the characters.

The population as a whole is at first largely untouched and even
indifferent to the approaching threat. News of deportations in other
parts of the country only gradually filters into Van, while the Young
Turk noose tightens almost imperceptibly. Two senior ARF leaders are
murdered, as is Ohanness Agha's friend Simon. Then comes the looting
of Armenian stores, shops and warehouses in the town's commercial
district and the quarantining of the Armenian residential quarters.
Mahari's detail and account, with deft expertise, shows why popular
perceptions of any cataclysmic event do not and cannot grasp its full
enormity at the outset. The tragedy is felt only through the
development of the process, only after the accumulation of initially
small and apparently accidental and transitory incidents of want,
thirst, destruction, suffering and death.  Initially people continue
to live in a 'normal' way, hoping for problems to pass.  Only slowly
will the realisation dawn that these will multiply into terrifying
tragedy.

Startling passages capture people's altering, war torn, perceptions of
Van's natural beauty, its fruit, its birds, its orchards, its
abandoned gardens and burnt out shops.

    'From the first day of the fighting, life and spring were thrown
    from their normal groove into the devil knows where. It was
    Spring, but it wasn't spring.  Men lived in a season that was not
    spring, but neither was it summer, autumn or winter. People lived
    now as if outside the four seasons.' (p519)

Profoundly authentic descriptions suggest the mood, dedication and
determination of fighters at the barricades (p494-499). Scenes of a
patriotic speaker being heckled about the whereabouts of Haik Nahabet,
the mythical founder of the Armenian nation are marvellously funny in
their realistic grasp of popular perceptions of the revolutionary
movement. On the lifting of the siege, the exuberance, the relief, the
sense of triumph, the joy of having escaped the extermination is
captured almost palpably in its social and psychological aspect.  As
Turkish troops retreat; 'There arose a wild Hittite, Khaltian and
Urartian rejoicing as Van celebrated victory late into the night.
Caskets of wine were opened, the wealthy got drunk on wine and ouzo
whilst even before daybreak those who had nothing began to move
towards the abandoned Turkish quarters.' (p562)

Yet celebrations were overlain by bitterness. Mahari's descriptions of
scenes of the slaughter of those trapped outside the city's Armenian
quarters are heartrending. These are followed by some of the most
moving passages of the volume that tell of the final evacuation of the
city, the termination of all hope, the extinguishing of a whole
community. Together with the story of Van's defence, its early victory
and final evacuation Mahari brings to a conclusion the individual
stories of the Muratkhanian family. Hampo has already died of VD in
Istanbul, Mkho is murdered before the siege. Ohaness, the sole
survivor, prepares to leave for other lands inspired with hope of
profitable trade, while his younger brother Kevork, the alcoholic
ex-teacher come revolutionary charlatan, dies a useless death at the
barricades. The entirety is moving, powerful and evocative, salvaging
the history of a time, the memory of men and women and something of
the experience of life.


II. THE POLITICS AND ITS CRITICS

For all its other qualities 'The Burning Orchards' is also an
intensely political novel about the relationship between population
and revolutionary political organisation. Mahari could not avoid
politics. Despite escaping genocide, the Armenians of Van were forced
from their historic homeland. The town they left behind, rich with
century upon century of Armenian culture and civilisation, with its
monuments and institutions, was in many instances literally buried and
annihilated. Van had been the heart of the modern Armenian liberation
movement and its annihilation represented not just this movement's
defeat but the final destruction of historical Armenia too. To tell
this story of Van with any artistic or historic depth, Mahari had to
go beyond ritualised celebrations of armed resistance. It is this that
Mahari's opponents cannot stomach, for it questions prevailing and
limited versions of modern Armenian history.

Rather than deal with the novel's art and politics Mahari's critics
suppressed these by spinning a web of malicious, fabricated and
untenable charges. A recent view by Stefan Topchian's quoted in Marc
Nshanian's essay on Mahari (Writers of Disaster, p104) can be
considered representative:

    'We can see here how the impossible had happened: the historical
    facts had been vulgarised, they had been distorted to the point of
    being unrecognisable.  The entire course of history, even the
    meaning of this history, was tarnished.  The road to freedom and
    the martyrs had been turned into a bloody road where the martyrs'
    blood was spilled in vain. The martyrs had been ridiculed. Only a
    Turk could pass judgement on our history this way, when in actual
    fact the one who was passing judgement was an Armenian writer.'

It takes a heavy load of prejudiced preconception and a brazen
disregard for the text to arrive at these conclusions!  Even a casual
perusal of the text shows that Gourgen Mahari was far more
sophisticated than his opponents.


A. The Criticism of The ARF and The Armenian Liberation Movement

Mahari does not target the Armenian revolutionary movement or the ARF
as a whole. He offers rather a critical evaluation of a precise period
of the ARF's history in Van, a period that stretches from 1908 to
1915. The critique of this very particular period unfolds through its
systematic contrast with what is presented as a healthier pre-1896 era
of the revolutionary movement which, although dominated by the
Armenakan party, included its ARF and Social Democratic Hnchak Party
(Hnchak) wings. Before 1896 'men like Avetissian (the Armenakan - EA),
Bedo (the ARF member- EA) and Mardik (the Hnchak leader - EA) were
shining lights' who 'never raised a hand against other Armenians' and
who did not try and 'arm the people by force.' Though this glorious
age of '96 has gone 'a new 96 will return'. But it cannot be brought
about artificially, it must be an organic process developing from
within. One must not force the pace, the 'people must arm themselves'
and for this it is 'first necessary to win time'(p103).

Throughout the novel the virtues the pre-'96' movement stand as
criticisms of the post-1896 ARF that is charged with failing to
develop local roots and with resorting to sectarianism, corruption and
political assassination. Depicted as high-handed and frequently
ignorant of and offensive to local tradition and need, the ARF are
seen as outsiders. They 'speak Armenian' but it is 'another kind of
Armenian' (p141). The ARF are regarded as 'interlopers' who usurp the
position of the indigenous Armenakans by means of a bitter and
sometimes bloody internecine conflict. During the Battle of Van the
appointment of veteran Armenakan, Armenag Yegarian, as military leader
receives popular acclaim for unlike ARF leader Aram Manoukian,
Yegarian is a local man, familiar with its people and its needs.

'The Burning Orchards' also takes the ARF to task for its overall
political vision. Diaspora-based, it is shown to have little or no
understanding of the conditions of the people in historic Armenia
(p175-176). In place of a serious strategy it offered cheap romantic
poetry and vacuous sloganeering (p290, 311).  At one point ARF leader
Aram, who, though the butt of much sarcasm, is also depicted with some
subtlety, considers the possibility that:

    'these songs show that our strategy is hopeless. People who speak
    endlessly of the need to die for victory generally die but do not
    win.'(p289)

Referring to the alliance with the Young Turks in 1908 the ARF is
charged with playing 'at constitutional politics'. In 1908 'priest and
mullah kissed, the Armenian and the Turk swore eternal friendship'. But
the promise of friendship was 'all a lie, all a lie. Sheep remained
sheep and the wolf remained a wolf.' (p198) Deluded by 1908 the ARF
was in 1915 ill-prepared. Once the siege of Van has begun, Hagop Agha
remarks ironically:

    'The Turkish government accuses us of importing arms from Russia
    for use in a generalised uprising'. Now having collected together
    all our weapons it appears that we have more fighters than old
    fashioned firearms. What was all the fuss and bother from the ARF
    leaders about? (p523)

In setting out this critique Mahari may sometimes stray beyond the
bounds of propriety. But it remains within the terms of a legitimate
and continuing debate. The Ottoman massacres of 1896 did destroy a
whole swathe of the Armenian population of historic Armenia that
together with the killing of 600 fighters retreating from Van
devastated an emerging and indigenous revolutionary movement in the
heart of Armenia. The ARF's emergence thereafter as the dominant force
in the movement was accompanied by sectarian and fratricidal clashes.
Its subsequent negotiations and alliance with the Young Turks in 1908
did lead to the disarmament of the revolutionary movement seriously
diminishing the Armenian capacity to resist genocide. Among historians
considering such issues are Garo Sassouni, a leading member of the
ARF, Antranig Chelebian as well as prominent soviet and post-Soviet
era historians such a Hratchig Simonian, Raffik Hovanissian, A. S.
Vartanian and many others.

Within this critical context Mahari's evaluation of the 1915 armed
resistance to genocide is nevertheless unquestionably positive.


B. The Resistance in 1915

Those critics are wrong or simply wilfully deceiving who chastise
Mahari for neglecting or slandering the armed resistance in Van.
Whatever his critique. it does no dishonour to the men and women of
all parties including the ARF, who braved an empire fighting for their
lives, their community and their city.  Mahari's art takes us beyond
customary hackneyed and one-sided perceptions. Not artificially
sealing off fighters and their military engagements from the everyday
life of the community 'The Burning Orchards' presents a deeply
authentic depiction of war and resistance as one and not an exclusive
moment, however traumatic, in the overall flow of life. Though not
about armed resistance, armed resistance does in fact occupy a
prominent place in the last third of the novel and particularly in
chapters 20, 21 and 22.

Here, once battle commences there is an immediately discernable easing
of Mahari's vitriolic sarcasm and vengeful satire even against Kevork
Muratkhanian, that errant alcoholic who, strutting round the city,
does nothing but bring disgrace on all revolutionaries. Suddenly there
is a degree of generosity for the movement, one that nevertheless
makes no concessions to the earlier critique.  Mahari has no time for
the ARF leadership. But he takes no comfort whatsoever in the
treacherous murder of two of its leaders - Ishkhan and Vramyan.
Similarly, despite cutting barbs against the Hnchak party leadership
(p337-338) 'the news of (their) 'arrest penetrated every home and
heart like a bitterly cold wind. People were overawed with fear.'
(p430)

As fighting engulfs the city, passionate and sometimes lyrical
passages (p491 et al) record courage and bravery in what is described
by the author himself as a 'harsh' but 'heroic battle' (p494) that
marks a new:

   'era - where there was no Tashnak, no Hnchak, no Armenakan. There
   was only the fighting and battling citizen of Van and one Armenag
   Yegarian, and that without his Armenakanness.' P532)

Thus united into a single solid mass, irrespective of party label or
passed misdeed, the army of the Empire:

    'could not breach the circle of Armenian defence, there was no
    weak link - the denizen of Van was fighting one against ten,
    yesterday's peaceful civilians were today engaged in combat
    against regular government forces.' (p532)


III. MORALS, LOVE, POLITICS AND ARMENIAN-TURKISH RELATIONS

To discredit Mahari's politics by other means some critics pretended
moral outrage at his treatment of the ARF cadre and particularly of
Aram, who besides being depicted as an ineffectual personality, is
shown to have an affair with his landlord's wife. But it is to
Mahari's artistic credit that he treats revolutionaries as human
beings with their proportionate share of human passions and their
share too of poseurs, decadents and philistines.  Are revolutionary
leaders really beyond affairs outside the bounds of marriage? 'The
Burning Orchards' also remains within the frame of historic truth in
showing revolutionaries living lives relatively isolated from the
community and propelled by different needs and interests. Given that
even the leadership did not anticipate catastrophe it is hardly
surprising that they would to some extent devote a great deal of time
to non-political activities. Here 'The Burning Orchards' demonstrates
an unrivalled grasp of the real relationship between a revolutionary
movement and the people on whose behalf it claims to work. Only in
moments of extreme political tension such as an uprising does the
population and the organised movement come together as a single force,
as it did in Van in 1915. Outside of such times the relationship is
more distant, complicated and fraught with difficulties. This truth is
proved also by the experience of Asian, African and Latin American
movements.

There is nevertheless an unquestionably major weakness that scars this
otherwise outstanding novel. Mahari's satire is frequently vengeful,
vitriolic and one-sided. The dominant personalities defining the ARF
are the buffoon-like Kevork, the venal Mihran and its three leaders
Aram, Ishkhan and Vramyan who together suggest the post-1908 ARF was
absolutely nothing more than a grouping of unsavoury opportunists and
fortune hunters. The forgiving features of Vramyan, the complexity of
Aram or the virtue of some marginal characters cannot compensate for
this unlicensed exaggeration. For, after all the indubitable
disasters, the ARF leadership was responsible for the overwhelming
majority of revolutionary activists who joined the movement, and who
were dedicated and honest people.  Furthermore, elements of this
leadership, despite its catastrophic errors, did in certain
circumstances and at certain times play a vital and valuable role even
after the fatal alliance with the Young Turks. A rounded picture would
contain this truth too. By denuding all post-1896 revolutionaries of
any and all honesty or principle Mahari seriously diminishes the power
of his critique.

Compounding this is the fact that a great deal of Mahari's criticism
is reflected through the perceptions of merchants who were not
representative of the mass of population about whose attitudes he has
little to say. These errors are somewhat redeemed by the honourable,
or at least honest or well-intentioned role assigned even to the likes
of Kevork during the armed uprising. But such redemption leads into a
deeper artistic morass. For in terms of the novel's characterisation
of the ARF cadre prior to the uprising, it is inconceivable how they
then participated in it honourably. Unquestionably this weakness
leaves a sour impression on imagination, intellect and emotion, even
of those who have no sympathy for the ARF. It is one thing to
ruthlessly criticise the ARF and its leadership. It is another to
express unreasoned contempt for the individuals within the movement
who joined for the best and most honourable of motives and even gave
their lives.

As a historical novel 'The Burning Orchards' is also marred by its
inadequate treatment of Armenian-Turkish relations. There is a
provincialism and parochialism in the suggestion that Armenian-Turkish
hostilities in Van had no real local roots and were determined rather
by forces external to the community - the Young Turks from Istanbul
and the ARF from Tbilisi or Geneva. Van and nearby Mush and Sassoon
formed the heartland of historic Armenia and was the bedrock of the
19th and early 20th century national liberation movement. It stood as
a threat not just to the Ottoman state in Istanbul but to its local
representatives in historic Armenia who were a component part of the
Turkish nationalist elite enviously eying Armenian land, property and
wealth in Van too. On the other hand the so-called 'interloping'
Armenian political leaders were in fact part of a nationwide Armenian
movement of which Van was but a component, albeit one of the most
important. Here their perception as interlopers in part reflects
dangerous provincialism of Armenian life at the time. This aspect is
alas not evident in 'The Burning Orchards'.

Parallel with this however is a sure grasp of the essentially
reactionary character Young Turk movement shown to be eliminating an
older generation of Turkish political leaders and replacing them with
younger, extreme chauvinist and xenophobic nationalists. Mahari is
alert to the irony that these murderous nationalists who planned the
genocide were European educated and generous in flaunting liberal
poses and pretensions. He is also conscious however that they did not
represent the Turkish people as a whole. Differentiating between them
he writes that:

    'It crossed Mihran's mind that the Turks have beautiful and
    heartrending songs.  It is simple, indeed more than simple that
    Sultan Abdul Hamid was not the author of the Turkish peoples'
    songs, neither was Khdrig, or Djevtet pasha. It is humble and
    nameless men who turn the tone of their heart into song. They sigh
    with the sigh of their heart and that sigh is transformed into
    wonderous song.' (p279)

None of these or other strengths and weaknesses however lay behind the
campaign against Mahari and his book.  'The Burning Orchards' were
burnt once again because it challenged received wisdom and received
opinion, it challenged a prevalent mythological history of Van and
Armenian nationalism that failed to account for the destruction of
historic Van and that blocked any critical examination of the
weaknesses and failures of the Armenian revolutionary movement.  Why
such an uncritical history came to predominate is the subject for
another comment. But light is cast on the issue by novelist Mushegh
Kalshoyan, who in a Soviet era essay defending the need for open
discussion of the 1915 Genocide and the Armenian liberation movement
asked rhetorically:

    'Is it not the case that national narrow mindedness and
    nationalist pomposity begins exactly at the point when people are
    ignorant of their history, when they suffer a loss of memory.

The prohibition of discussion of the Armenian liberation movement and
the 1915 genocide for a whole period of Soviet Armenia's existence
played its role in sustaining ignorance and fashioning a one-sided and
distorted national consciousness. In the Diaspora, sectarian
hostilities between Armenian political formations had the same
effect. Gourgen Mahari's 'The Burning Orchards' contributes not only
to recovering the lost world of Armenian Van and its people but serves
also to jolt our historical memories.


--
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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