Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2010 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
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.