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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