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The Critical Corner - 11/07/2005

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Worth a read...

    Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding.
    Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature.
    Reading them one will always find something of value.

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 7, 2005

By Eddie Arnavoudian



Some books are valuable for outlining a problem or exposing some
dangerous intellectual subterfuge even if they fail to give adequate
rebuttal to the arguments they seek to challenge. One such book is
`The Falsification of Armenian History in Modern Turkish
Historiography' (192pp, 1995, Yerevan) by Manuel Zulalian. Zulalian
reveals the shocking extent to which ultra-nationalist Turkish
historians will go in order to de-legitimise the presence of Armenians
in what was historical Armenia, now eastern Turkey, and deny them the
right to national self-determination and statehood in modern Armenia.

Historians, among them names such as Gunaltay, Togan, F. Kirizioglu,
Arin Engin, Es'at Uras, Cemal Oskaya, Kamuran Gurun, deploying highly
dubious historical methodology argue that Turks, not Armenians, are
native to historical Armenia. Armenians, they add, as a people, are in
fact little more than a minor, Christianised, sub-group of the Turkish
people. Such theories fit in well with grandiose claims by Pan-Turkish
ideologists that Turkish history harbours the origins of all history,
not just that of Armenia or Asia Minor. Another target for such
chauvinist historiography are the Indo-Aryan Kurdish people who are
also transformed into a Turkic sub-group. The intellectual vacuity of
such exercises is self-evident. If we are all Turks this says nothing
about history for it fails to account for the differences among us all
that in fact define people and groups in their particular history. And
if we are all Turks then why does the Turkish state, instead of
denying and destroying, preserve and cultivate the rich legacy of
Armenian culture and civilisation in the region?

The erasure of Armenian history is carried out by reference, among
other things, to the allegedly Turkish origins of Armenian names and
places. Classical Armenian provinces such as Sisakan, Kukark, Arax and
Ararat are given Turkish birthmarks by asserting dubious linguistic
and phonetic similarities. Mythical ancestors of the Armenian people,
Askanaz and Torkom, are given Turkish genes. Piling the absurd upon
the absurd, the Armenian Arshagouni dynasty and the 10th century
Bagratouni royal family are also granted Turkish ancestry. By such and
other laughable arguments dishonest historians attempt to stretch a
substantial Turkish presence in today's Turkey back to well before
their actual post-10th century settlements. The central purpose of
such falsification is of course to cover over the imperial, colonial
and repressive foundations of modern Turkey. In this effort all
evidence to the contrary is systematically eliminated or when this is
not possible, then falsified.

In the attempted excision of Armenia from the region well-known and
well-established relationships between the ancient kingdoms of Urartu
and the Armenians are denied. Armenia, these revisionist historians
claim, was never more than a geographic description of an area that
was in turn never in fact inhabited by a majority of Armenians.
Armenia furthermore, the claim goes, never had a genuine independent
national state. When Armenian states existed they were little more
than local or provincial vassals to greater neighbouring power. In
this account Armenians are transformed into a people without a land,
without a national culture and without a national history. At best
they are a rather undistinguished subsidiary of their greater Turkish

All this is only a small part of a vast fabric of falsification woven
for reactionary political purposes. These are given explicit
expression by F. Kirzioglu who unashamedly denies Armenians any roots
and thus also rights to be in Asia Minor. `What territorial rights
have they', he asks, `if all' their `feudal lords ruling in the past
in eastern Anatolia were of Turkish origin.'

This sort of national chauvinist charlatanism is not of course unique
to reactionary Turkish historians. Political Zionism's rewriting of
the history of Palestine to exclude Palestinians and Arabs is another
example. There are also Armenians who market a brand of Armeno-centred
world history thereby making their own contribution to aggravating
internecine conflicts between different peoples who have inhabited
Asia Minor for centuries and who now have every right to continue
doing so, on condition of course of mutuality.

History, even when not falsified, offers no rights to exclusive
possession of anything. Affirmations of exclusive ownership by one
nation of territory historically populated by different nations serves
only to provide justification for anything from denial of basic
democratic rights, to national oppression, ethnic cleansing and even
genocide. It is a form of argument that must be rejected wherever it
comes from. History is rich in the disputes it bequeaths to future
generations. But it is incumbent on each living generation to settle
these democratically and on the basis of the actual conditions and
actual needs of all people of the region whatever their nationality
and wherever their origin. In a region such as Turkey and Asia Minor
long standing animosities must be removed through a collaboration
among peoples that is free of the proto-fascist nationalism exposed by
Manuel Zulalian.

Shocking as its presentation of the falsification of Armenian history
is, Zulalian's volume is not satisfactory in its refutation. It
depends too much on dismissal that is often not accompanied by
rigorous argument and evidence. Still, introducing us to this world of
historical fantasy that is energetically sponsored by the Turkish
state, Zulalian alerts us to the determination with which the Turkish
elite seeks to undermine the rights of other people that it considers
as a threat to its already unstable foundations.



Vladimir Giragossian's literary biography of poet Rouben Sevak (226pp,
1972, Yerevan) is decidedly worthwhile reading despite the author's
annoying eagerness to construct a Rouben Sevak as if he was moving
towards Bolshevik-style Marxism. For some Soviet era critics it
clearly was not enough that the fellow had socialist convictions.
Still Giragossian writes with a genuine humanist vision and an
enthusiasm for his subject. He sifts Sevak's work and reveals him as a
substantial thinker, a radical nationalist and revolutionary, whose
fine poetry and prose has a strong purchase on our own day.

Sevak is not however immediately brought to life and Giragossian is
ineptly silent on much of his personal history. But he is generous
with observations on the poet's irrepressible optimism, his early
literary training and the influence of Enlightenment thought on his
poetry, in particular that of Voltaire and Rousseau. He also sets out
the poet's philosophical, natural scientific and medical background
that was to inform his poetry and that contributed to his creation of
a new genre of Armenian literary prose. Adding to his merit is
Giragossian's readiness to draw on evaluations from a range of
commentators and his willingness to even rest arguments on critics who
had not been acceptable to Soviet authority, Oshagan being a prime

Despite the fact that we are also not spared the tedium of template
analysis, another evident essential of Soviet era Armenian criticism,
we encounter many an astute observation on Sevak's poetic art. With
some weight, Giragossian argues that in modern Armenian literature
Sevak's love poetry contains some of the finest expressions of a
genuine and vital sensuality. Marked by a harmony between the sensual
and spiritual, this poetry represents a striving for untainted and
wholesome human relations that is universal and available to all. Even
Medzarents and Tekeyan, brilliant as they are, Giragossian continues,
failed to touch that core of poetic sensuality evident in Sevak.
Neither did Varoujean, he adds, whose love poetry for all its
splendour was more a `symbolic meditation' rather than a `recreation
of lived passion'.

Giragossian also accords Sevak a pre-eminent position in the catalogue
of Armenian poets of social protest. Though captivated by European
progressive thought Sevak was a severe critic of its capitalism, of
its decadent mores and of the social suffering it generated, against
all of which he wrote some stirring poetry. A defining feature of this
poetry is the blending of the social and the national. Agreeing with
Oshagan, Giragossian notes the simplicity and directness of Sevak's
national poetry that, he believes, makes it more powerful than
Varoujean's and Siamanto's. Debatable as such evaluations may be
Giragossian offers sparkling examinations of individual poems studding
them with insights that bring these and other arguments to considered
and even credible conclusions. Sevak's poetry was not without its
weaknesses and sometimes the logic of the ideas he sought to
communicate dictated and deadened the flow of poetic creativity.

In his discussion Giragossian also presents an interesting overview of
the evolution of Armenian literature across the 19th and 20th
centuries. Using Sevak as an example he underlines the very close
connection between political and social development and their
expression in Armenian literature.  Here Giragossian brings to our
attention a striking characteristic of the modern Armenian
intelligentsia: it frequently regarded art and culture as superior and
more effective than politics and mass struggle in the struggle for
national revival. The overstating of the power of art and culture by
men like Chobanyan from whose work Giragossian quotes significantly,
blinded the intelligentsia to the critical role of political force in
the process of modern national formation.

This disregard and even disdain for power politics was remarked on
earlier, and astutely so, in another context by a relatively
conservative 19th century Armenian enlightenment thinker, Stepanos
Nazaryan. Criticising the Armenian Church's insistence on defining
nationality in exclusive religious terms Nazaryan insisted that `faith
without political power, the cross without the sword, is weak and
cannot be the basis of nationhood.' This observation went unheeded by
later generations, conservative or revolutionary. The exaltation of
art and culture in Rouben Sevak's own time occurred at the very moment
the Armenian National Liberation Movement dismantled its armed forces
to enter into alliance with the Young Turks. Many believed then that
cultural battalions could replace armed resistance in the struggle for
national revival.

Giragossian's enjoyable biography closes with a stimulating overview
of Sevak's prose collected under the title `Pages from a Doctor's
Notebooks.' Written as a series of popular medical articles and
medical short stories, some have artistic depth and are marked by
prose passages of poetic vigour. As with his poetry, Sevak here is a
social observer and critic of an unjust order that generates the
illnesses described or that prevents their treatment. In these pieces
as with his poetry, albeit of uneven quality, he also touches on the
conditions of women, arranged marriages, the vice of financial power
and the plight of emigrant life.

For all its flaws, and many of its ill arguments that we bypass
silently, this is a worthy volume by a name that one does not
frequently come across.

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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