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Why we should read... `The Book of Lamentations' by Grigor Narekatzi (Editors - B Khatchatryan and A Ghazinian, 1124pp, Yerevan, 1985) For Asbed Bedrossian, tireless manager and editor of the invaluable and irreplaceable Groong/Armenian News/Network. Without Asbed's early stubborn invitations and his subsequent wise guidance and critical acumen I would not have had the immense pleasure of gazing upon some the treasures of Armenian literature and sharing my impressions with who so ever wishes to do so. Thank you Asbed. Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian August 28, 2007 'I am everyone and what is in everyone, is in me also.' -- Grigor of Narek Grigor of Narek's `The Book of Lamentation' `is like the horizon, the more you move away from it the greater it becomes.' So said 20th century poet Barouyr Sevak of this 10th century Christian text consisting of 92 poems each entitled `Speaking to God from the Depths of the Heart'.`From the very earliest' wrote Bishop Garegin of Trabzon, introducing the 1926 Istanbul edition of his modern Armenian translation, `a magical aura had already begun to envelop the poet's name.' By the 14th century writes Arshlouys Ghazinian in her 1998 `The Poetic Art of Grigor of Narek', the poet's `name was known in every Armenian community across the world, whether in Armenia, in Cilicia or the Diaspora.' `Everywhere' she adds `they lovingly copied `The Book of Lamentation'.' The standing of this triumph of intellect and imagination has never ceased to soar. I. An epic inspired by the conviction that a life `free of corruption' `can be fortified even here upon earth', `The Book of Lamentation' is offered to the whole of humanity as `cure to the ills of both the soul and the body'. It is addressed to all, to the serf as well as the lord. More extraordinary still it is addressed explicitly to woman as well as man. All are created in God's `glorious image' and share his `sublime likeness'. All are `adorned with reason', `radiant with speech', `enriched with intellect' and possess a `thoughtful soul.' As he bares his life and soul before his God Grigor of Narek lays bare the ills and the dreams of humanity. His prayers and his hopes are informed by a `deep knowledge of the sufferings of all'. He has `accepted into himself': In their inexhaustible abundance Beginning with that of the first man And ending with those of the latest born, The fruit of all their vain deeds, and all the newly-invented ones, Each one, more odious and displeasing...' The result is a `sacrificial offering', a universal gift animated by solidarity for humankind. The: Book of lamentations sung Unto the rational ones of all ages And of all races upon this earth, Revealing, in their very images The passions that befall men' The poet does not of course promise the serf the same station in life as the lord. Nor does he advocate social and political equality for women. He is not a revolutionary. But his vision is richly radical and more than just because of the insistence on the intellectual and moral equality of men and women.' The `Book of Lamentation' is the story of the triumph of the new man/woman, a vision of man/woman who, recovering from utter collapse, strives to fully realise him/herself, to become independent and self-active in a more civilised and rationally organised society. In its form and its conceptual categories the poem is uncompromisingly Christian. But its devout author invites all into his home with open arms, irrespective of faith. There he opens himself to us revealing the suffering, alienated human being, assailed by inner conflict, by melancholy, regret, guilt and a fear verging on the broken spirited. But we also meet someone who challenges himself, who disdaining all self-deceit and dishonesty takes responsibility for his own actions. We see him in such frank and passionate confession that we cannot fail to embrace him, whatever our own beliefs, to enter into communion and discourse with him and join him in a striving to overcome adversity. `It is not the Armenian tongue that speaks in `The Book of Lamentation', says poet Hovanness Toumanian. `It is not the mouth that narrates. It is the burning heart that flames through the land. It is the suffering soul that cries out to the heavens. 'Yet', adds Levon Shant these poems are `not laments but protests', not `self-abasement but revolt'. They are `not downward collapses into the abyss but upward flights of powerful human will.' Grigor of Narek, adds Bishop Garegin, `was a fantastic optimist' a `well-armed warrior' whose epic `is born not of the spirit of defeat but that of victory.' In our time when faith in man/woman and their future, let alone the `new person' has been shredded by endless wars, genocide, social disintegration and the decay of morality and collective solidarity, `The Book of Lamentation is a riposte to pessimism. It is a polemic against despair and a passion against surrender. Standing at the edge of the abyss, witness to all the corruption, the degradation and destruction we have brought upon ourselves, Grigor of Narek yet says `have hope, have faith and have confidence'. Yes, in God, but in yourselves too for you too are God-like. You possess qualities that are borne of the divine, that are indestructible and capable of recovery and of development towards undreamed perfections. Such a reading is not a secularist imposition upon a religious text. Bishop Garegin, whose introduction has become something of a minor classic, remarked that the endless confession of sin in the epic is but the `breaking of the clay container' `in order to rebuild' man/woman `anew and with greater beauty so as to transform' her/him into a `golden bowl'. The vision was later elaborated and enriched by foremost Soviet era admirer Mkrtich Mkryan, who wrote that Grigor of Narek displays `the decent and the positive' in humanity and expresses human `potential for transformation'. He `strives with his whole being for the creation of conditions in which the human and the humane will triumph'. Barouyr Sevak himself saw in its pages the `tragedy of the lone individual confronting an inhuman world, an individual however who does not despair.' While western poetry he continued `found a way out of this' conflict `through a self-centred individualism', Grigor of Narek `sought for parameters in which the individual could attain full development in harmony with the full development of the collective.' One cannot fail to note parallels between the Book of Lamentation and the work of some of the greatest thinkers in history. We involuntarily recall Jean Jacques Rousseau who 800 after this Armenian Christian priest began his own search for the authentic man/woman degraded and buried among the ruins of destructive civilisation. And dare one say we are reminded even of Che Guevara who in the 20th century and in the name of a more humane socialism described his own vision of the `New Man/Woman' freed of egoism and violence borne of unequal society. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries there has been almost unqualified acclaim for Grigor of Narek. Arshag Chobanian considered him one of those `whose dream was larger than life and who had the unique ability to express it in all its grandeur.' Lithuanian poet Eduards Miezelaitis (1919-1997) wrote that reading `The Book of Lamentation' one `felt in it a dramatic tension that can only be attained by someone striving to embrace and grasp all the secrets of Life, of Destiny and the Universe itself.' `Life and Death: here two heroes of the drama' announced Russian critic L Ozerov. `Occupying the space between the two' Narekatzi `touched humanity's wounds with the finger of genius.' Alexander Teytch, another Russian admirer, felt that the poet `glorified the enlightened will and conscience' of men and women who `refuse to bend to the force of unknown powers.' Giving this book an elemental and irresistible force is its art. `The heights and the depths' of its `wondrous artistry', writes Gabriel Avedikian, one of the earliest modern commentators, `are greater than the length of any measure ' we have. `Besides the richness of its content' writes Mkryan it has a `poetic quality that is almost too vast to articulate.' Its `means and forms are countless, inexhaustible', `unimaginably diverse and colourful, and the vocabulary is of the richest.' Arshag Chobanian felt some pages `attain the power of the prophets while others are `touched by Shakespearean breath.' In `the diversity of its skill and expressiveness' writes Sevak, it is `exceptional'. It has `not been surpassed in Armenian literature and with the exception of Yeghishe Charents' he adds `no one else has even been able to approach Grigor of Narek.' Exorbitant as they may seem such claims are sustained by the first 15 poems alone, and emphatically so. II. `The Book of Lamentation' is conceived of as a ship of salvation for spirits in crisis. The poet hopes that `if devastating storms of iniquity suddenly strike the bodily structure of man in the sea of this world', life can be made `calm again by the steerage of these sails'. He wishes that `through these words the reader will find `redemption and hope for life' if ever `the perils of death were to besiege' him or her `with pain'. As he conceived and produced his poetry he also prayed that God would: ...make this book of mournful psalms Begun in your name, Most High Into a life-giving salve for the sufferings of body and soul. May you perfect what I have started And may your spirit be mixed with it. May the breath of your great might Infuse these verses with grace So that you may brace the wilting heart' Constructed of an accumulation of comprehensively and acutely elaborated and developed contradictions, between life and death, ambition and despair, vice and virtue, collapse and recovery `The Book of Lamentation' is all embracing and elemental. As it moves forward the oppositions are concretised, expanded upon, expounded, detailed, refined and augmented until they attain a scope, breadth and depth that describe life in crisis and turmoil, alienated and oppressed. But there is throughout also an overriding refrain of triumph, of hope despite catastrophe: I am human, but have become inhuman; I am virtuous but have become vice-ridden. I am saintly but have become satanic. I am rational but have become irrational; I am moral, but have become immoral. But...Though I have failed I can still succeed. Though I am degraded I can yet become noble. I have lost myself but I will recover myself. His elixir Grigor of Narek offers in a Christian chalice shaped by notions of Divine creation, human sin, confession, forgiveness and redemption. But the potion is mixed from the experience of life. Metaphors and images for the battle against spiritual desolation are culled from everyday natural and social world. They are drawn from the intellectual, psychological, emotional, social and political world that we readily recognise as human and in a detail and precision that it gives them independent existence. Frequently it is as if Grigor of Narek had to go amongst the most unfortunate of society, those ravaged by unending violence, deception, dishonesty, theft and poverty to find equivalents for his suffering soul. By the end all distinctions between metaphor and subject vanish, blending to express dimensions of a single human experience, of man/woman as a unity of the spiritual and physical, the mental, emotional and the material. Shaping the world in which Grigor of Narek begins his mediations are `the aristocrats and the peasants', the `lordly and the commoner', `the eminent and the lowly', the `horsemen and the footman', the `citizens and the rustics' . At the very bottom are the `poor' and the `slaves', as well as the universally hated tax collector. Within this structure the Church and the clergy, of which Narek was a member, appear as a spiritual, intellectual and cultural leadership of `sages, chaste and devoted to God', of `pious and chosen priests', of `bishops endowed with virtue' and `patriarchs dispensing sacred guidance.' But Grigor or Narek is not content with formal descriptions for these can be deceptive. Thou are enviable unto those afar But if the planter should approach thee To seek what he desireth He shall find thee loathsome Devoid of beauty and goodness An object of mockery unto those that see thee And an ignominious target for insults.' So there is a delving deeper that reveals a world in which man/woman has `forgotten the gift of life', a world that is a wasteland of `arrogant kings', of men and women `polluted' and `despoiled', a world of `drunkards' and ` hypocrites', of the `vile' and the `senseless'. In it we encounter `the usurer and his victim', `the plunderer with his accomplices', the `tyrant with his bandits', `the arrogant with his armed men'`the chief brigand with his mob', `the wild beast with its whelps', the `biter with the bitten and ` the corrupter with his like'. These corrupted social relations in turn contain the suffering individual. In the very first prayer we hear `the plaintive cry of sobbing sighs' from a `troubled mind', whose `soul is consumed by the fire of grief.' Man/woman is paralysed by `the multitude of counsels, both evil and good', that `clash together like sword and armour' and `lead to captivity and to death.' She/he is diminished, become `the forsaken tabernacle on the verge of collapse', ` the broken lock of a door', `the useless coin buried beneath the soil.' S/he has become `diligent in malignant acts', `ever active in satanic inventions' , `sluggish when it comes to good deeds', `lazy when it comes to virtue', ` slow in the observance of promises' and `a coward in the most necessary and useful acts.' The techniques of deception, cheating, dissembling, kow-towing, doubling-crossing, obsequious fawning and sycophancy that man/woman resorts to in life are exposed when she/he come to stand before the judgement of God where: `There is no rejoinder on the day of battle And no justification with words No approach with flatteries And never any deception with pretences, No lies with fabricated words No escape with fleet feet No turning of backs No application of faces unto the ground No hiding in the depths of the earth. The degeneration, the collapse and the ruination of man/woman, of humanity and society have reached indescribable proportions: `If I were to transform The waters of some sea into ink And were to stretch out a bread of parchment Unto the limits of expansive fields And if I were to cut into pens A grove full of reeds from some forest I should not be able to confine in writing But a number of mine accumulated iniquities. What sometimes appears as self-flagellation becomes with the power of the poetry a deep consciousness of terrible and threatening disorder, instability, chaos and crisis. The fountain of life runs dry', while `the tyrant's rust continues to corrode my soul.' (4.b) Once `a rational dwelling', woman/man `is now infected with leprosy'. He/she has become `a lowly evil-doer', `sold to corruption', `absorbed in infernal deeds' and`beset by incurable wounds. 'Man/woman is `a tree with lofty boughs, of mighty trunkand thick with leaves but devoid of fruit.' S/he is a `living plant' that `gives no timely fruit'. Thus humanity is driven to despair. Conscious that the `wick of the candle once extinguished will never flame again' she/he still `did not emit a cry of supplication for he/she was without voice'. She/he `did not display his/her garments stained with blood from his shattered body... for he/she `was without hope.' `And now, verily would it not have been desirable As foretold of old in the Scriptures Never to be conceived in the womb Not to be moulded in the belly... ...Rather than to be seized thus By the most terrible and horrifying debts, That even the hardness of stones cannot bear Let alone the fluidity of the body. How then 'wilt thou survive?' How `wilt though comeout of the prison of sin?' It is in search of answers to these questions that `The book of Lamentation' is written. >From the very first, alongside and in opposition to despair the poet proclaims Hope with the Biblical David's freedom and return from captivity recalled as metaphor for the poet's `soul lost and then regained'. In his own journey to freedom he is animated by a fervent passion. `Let me not be unfruitful in this minor toil' he pleads. He does not wish his effort to be like the `vain labour of the sower of a barren land'. He beseeches his God and inspirer: Let me not conceive and not give birth Lament and not weep, Meditate and not sigh, Grow cloudy and not rain, Run and not reach.' III. The historical causes for the decline of man/woman are not indicated in the first 15 poems of `The Book of Lamentation'. But human responsibility for human destiny is. It is `with my own hand' that `I wreaked havoc...killing my living soul.' ` Abandoning wisdom and pursuing foolishness, thus did I foully dissipate the bounty of your favour with the ways of vanity.' Man/woman built her/his house `upon the sands of foolishness'. He/she was `misled by the broad gate' and so `missed the narrow gate to life.' Implied in this assertion of human responsibility for human failure is a statement both about the centrality of human activity, of human practice and of the possibility of acting correctly and wisely. The act of meditation itself is an affirmation of the self-active human being using his/her inherent abilities to seek a way forward. Grigor of Narek's insistence on positive action is in fact forthright. God `is not deceived by words and cares only for action.' Freedom then from the `prison of sin' is not a gift of Divine charity but a function of human readiness to act. Faith, prayer, confession and repentance are necessary to indicate available choice, but are quite useless if not accompanied by practice. In the passage to this freedom that will be charted in the 92 prayers, the first stage and foundation for all future action is the attainment of self-knowledge, knowledge of man/woman's essential nature, of his/her powers and potentials. Only through such knowledge can we obtain the self-confidence, hope, wisdom, will and determination to act correctly. If in this endeavour the ancient Greeks visited the Gods at the Temple of Adelphi, Grigor of Narek opts for a more radical path. He builds his temple within. He relies only on himself, upon his own capacity for thought and on his own conscience. There `in the mystery laden chamber of his soul' he will scrutinise his life and will test and judge himself and society. He will do so without `indulging in self-deception nor putting on a mask'. He will scrutinise and judge himself against the highest standards his intellect is capable of, against measures of perfection he conceives of as attributes of God. So begins a turbulent, tempestuous and painful confession that is at once self-examination and self-criticism, the `spreading' of `the accumulated burden' of `evil deeds' before the Lord, the `expulsion' with `the stigma of words' of all the `accumulated pus of mortal wounds'. `Thrusting fingers within', confession is acknowledgement of corrupted reality, the`vomiting forth with loathing' of all the `amassed sorrow and spiritual pain' that has accumulated deep in `the heaviness of the heart'. There is here an urgency and desperation of one who, though pressed to the edge of the precipice, struggles still to summon every available resource to resist and turn around. The effort is cathartic, a cleansing of the mind, a heightening of consciousness and a reinvigorating of the will. It is a process that reveals beneath collapsed confidence qualities that speak of inherent and imperishable human capacities for development and the attainment of excellence. We may not agree with the poet's explanation of cause but he reminds us and forcefully so of the truth that man/woman by his/her very existence owns immense, unbounded capacities. God has Adornedst me with reason Madest me radiant with breathing Enrichedest my mind Increasedest my wisdom Fortifiedst mine intellect Though selectedst me out of animate beings Though mingledest into me an intelligible soul; Bedeckedst me with a princely existence.' Men and women are `glorious images' of God'. They are `the likeness of thy majesty', `the gracious flower' of God's`charm', the `stately substance of His wealth', `the ornament of splendour' in His `crown'. They are extensions of Divine omnipotence, outflows of God's perfection, fruit from the tree of light. Woman and man are almost god-like possessing divine-like powers and potentials that though finite in contrast to the Divine, are still indestructible however deeply they may be submerged in vice and misdemeanour. Whatever the given, historically defined human condition, however deep the individual and social collapse, we remain human and so possess these qualities as an inalienable core. Man/woman is battered and beaten, dazed and numbed but never defeated. `Though from the supreme heights of the loftiest sites It be weightily plunged down the abysmal chasm Into the bottomless pit of perdition Yet hath it still glimmering relics Close unto the life of salvation As a spark of light preserved in the mind and the soul...' It is this unquenchable spark that provides a solid and sure foundation for recovery. Possibility is testified to by history itself when: `In times past the wayward changed their ways by their own efforts turning earthen vessels into gold and etching a princely image of our heavenly model in majestic, imperishable and irreplaceable relief.' Today even though `wholly grieved', `bereft of expectation of goodness' and `forsaken by the assurance of grace' man/woman, through rational thought, can acquire knowledge of themselves and thus still `hope for and attain yet anew' the `ornaments of glory once granted unto him.' `Purged of the darkness of the shadows of doubt' and `sheltering' in `unshadowed confidence' man/woman is spurred to action. `...now even as if thoroughly cudgelled with a club And arrived at the door of death, Receiving a slight return of breathing And coming unto life, I shall be recovered, I shall be strengthened, I shall be risen As he recovers himself, as he endlessly elaborates his vision of human qualities we see the poet in full flight of man/woman's ambition to develop his/her potentials to their fullest, to become rational, self-active and independent. He/she even aspires to `become God's joint heir', to `consort with him' and `touch his Word of life'. The poet does not: `Pray only for God's rewards but for God himself, The essence of life, guarantor of giving and taking of breath Without whom there is no progress or movement I long not so much for the gifts as for the giver. I yearn not so much for the glory as the glorified. Defying all claims of impotence and fatal disaster through self-knowledge and on the wings of unleashed ambition man/woman is enabled to recover and rise: `I, who was ruined, now stand erect I was wretched, and am victorious I had erred, and have reverted to life I was a lowly-evil doer, and am in hope I was betrayed to death, and am living.' IV. A secular or non-Christian appreciation of `The Book of Lamentation' requires, if not justification then certainly some explanation. `The Book of Lamentation' is after all a profoundly Christian text offering redemption and recovery through unconditional acceptance of Christian faith in Divine Omnipotence. The conceptions and categories that structure and organize the entire work are Christian. To remove the Christian God, to discount Christian faith, prayer, sin, forgiveness and redemption would disfigure `The Book of Lamentation' beyond recognition. But it is not this specific aspect that determines the universal quality of the `The Book of Lamentation'. As with the best classics of literature, secular or religious, `The Book of Lamentation' is borne of and expresses a gigantic effort to grapple with the human condition, to engage with the suffering and the ambitions of man/woman. It is this that marks it, and all enduring literature, as universal and available to all. With Grigor of Narek it is not just that the images and metaphors of his epic are fixed in and reproduce the real world of man/woman and nature. His very starting point, his central preoccupation, is the recovery of the human being from spiritual and secular alienation, crisis and collapse. The Bible that is the word of God, that glorifies the Almighty and buttresses faith, occupies a hugely prominent position in the drama. Besides being a spiritual text that aids self-examination, it is a volume of human history, source material confirming the possibility of man and woman recovering in the future. It is the Holy Book itself that provides `most powerful witnesses' to the truth that even after sin `there can still be `grace unlimited.' There are the examples of Enoch, of Aaron, and after them of David and others still. There are also the stories of the prodigal son, of the prostitute who was praised by god, of the publican mentioned by the benefactor and `the tax collector who was remembered for his good deed'. Grigor of Narek shapes and even reshapes his conceptions of God and of faith in the service of his solidarity with humankind. God is first and foremost a humanist. He shows `loving kindness, forbearance and redemption' for human kind. He did `not create death, but rather `desires life and light' and so `the perdition of man cannot cause' him `happiness'. God's greatest glory is in fact manifest in his generosity to man/woman: And though thine are the rewards And thine, too, the mercies, Yet not so framed art thou for they rewards As thou art for thy mercies For the latter augment thy glory Whereas the former manifest the deeds of the virtuous, Since rewards are remuneration for toil Whilst mercies are benevolence Towards the sinful like unto me.' God's humanist passion finds historic and unprecedented expression in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to life to sacrifice himself in solidarity with man/woman. Critics such as G. Khrlobian and H. Tamrazian have rightly underlined those profoundly realistic descriptions of Jesus Christ as a living human being, of Christ in his altruistic and noble human form. For Tamrazian, Christ is the protagonist in a drama in which Khrlobian shows he appears as a role model for man/woman. Even as he depicts God as the `sole creator of all from naught', `without beginning, without time' and beyond the grasp of human reason, Grigor of Narek shows him also as almost recognisably human, as human dream and ambition realised. God is: `Unshadowed dawn, dazzling beam, avowed light ... undoubted confidence, unwavering repose, ... The taste of charm, the cup of enchantment; ... Enviable veil, inviolable garment, covetable mantle Ornament of glory; ... helpful in thy greatness ...lauded refuge, interminable grace, inexhaustible treasure; Unpolluted rain; dew sprinkled at break of day; Ubiquitous remedy; gratuitous cure; redoubled health; ... king who honourest the slaves protector who lovest the poor.' Grigor of Narek's conception of faith also unfolds within the terms of his humanist preoccupation. God, he affirms `will give life' to the sinner only if she/he has faith and `calls out the name of the Lord.' But faith is neither irrational belief nor passive expectation. It is a quality of human consciousness and rationality. It is `familiarity with God' and an `acquaintance with the Most High'. By definition faith requires familiarity with God's humanism. Faith is in addition `clear vision and perfect wisdom'. To love God, to have faith and confidence in God is to also love and have faith and confidence in human beings. It is such faith that is rewarded by `unseen, invisible gifts': by consciousness of the positive powers of man and woman and the resulting energy to think and to act. Such faith even when `as small as that of a humble mustard see' will produce the will, confidence and determination that `remove big mountains unto the heart of the sea.' Here it is perhaps also worth repeating the obvious: meditation and introspection as forms of considered thought and contemplation that can lead to greater knowledge of social and individual reality and to an awareness of human powers and potentials that can alter this are not uniquely Christian. One is reminded of this in a recent biography of the atheist and revolutionary English poet Shelly by Anne Wroe. Though she without warrant digs an abyss between Shelley's politics and his spiritual sensibilities, she writes that Shelley `advised his readers 'that in action` self-knowledge should come first'. To this end Shelly `voyaged inwards', to get to his own `source'...'It was a voyage that Mary Shelley was to describe as `intense meditations on his own nature' that very much like Grigor of Narek `thrilled him with pain.' For all his humanist vision Grigor of Narek was not in any sense the political poet or a revolutionary in the manner of Shelley, Rousseau or Guevara. Far from it. He would have opposed revolutionary struggle, condemning as sinful attempts to subvert what he regarded as an eternally unchangeable social order. But, perhaps in the manner of the Utopian socialists, he would unceasingly demand the humanization of that social order. The insistence on altering the unalterable could of course be read as an invitation to uncompromising effort for perfection even against impossible odds. Here Grigor of Narek is certainly an intransigent. But for all this we do not read his `The Book of Lamentation' in search of political salvation. We do so because it helps refresh and replenish tattered and wounded faith in our human potential. How this potential is to be realized and deployed is a function of the age in which the reader lives, and that is another question. Note English language extracts are mainly from two translated editions with some from myself. Most are from `Lamentations of Narek - Mystic Soliloquies with God' Edited and translated by Misha Kudian (96pp, 1977, London) Other extracts are from the bi-lingual classical Armenian and English `St. Grigor Narekatzi - Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart', English Translation and Introduction by Thomas J. Samuelian (763pp, 2001, Yerevan) I refrain from comment on the reasons for particular choices but they take into account combinations of sense and meaning, poetic style and language. -- 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.