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The Critical Corner - 12/10/2007

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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
By Eddie Arnavoudian

December 10, 2007

(Selected  Works, Volume 5, 1985, Yerevan)

Shirvanzade's work constitutes an honest and uncompromising artistic
examination of the consequences of oppressive social, national and
individual relations. Despite his detractors, who cannot reconcile
themselves to his democratic and humanist nationalism, almost
everything that this fine novelist wrote retains both artistic and
intellectual value. They shed light on a host of social questions and
enable us to detect the unfortunate persistence today of ills that he
denounced so passionately in his own time. His best novels are, in art
form, social encyclopaedias of 19th century Armenian life in the
Caucasus that lay bare truths that were concealed and continue to be
so by deceptive posturing and fraudulent proclamations. These virtues
are evident also in Shirvanzade's autobiographical memoirs and his
numerous travelogues.

Reading this second volume of Shirvanzade's autobiography one can see
why he has been so awfully maltreated by large parts of the Diaspora
establishment and its intellectual class. Besides its value as insight
into the author's life, it is spiced with stinging criticism of
Diaspora politics that retains full force in the year 2007.

Setting the scene for his sojourn in Paris during the first decade of
the 1900s Shirvanzade does a thorough exposure job on the rotten core
of the romantic Parisian dream. He describes well the misery of that
class of impoverished, downtrodden, exploited and abused waiters,
servants, cooks, street sweepers, cleaners, grocers and miscellaneous
labourers who serviced the city's artistic life and its pleasure domes
frequented by the vulgar rich. But for all his evident detestation of
France's ruling elite Shirvanzade retained profound admiration of
French culture. Not however, one should add, for modernist painters
for whom he reserves acerbic and humorous treatment. A lover of the
good life and the arts Shirvanzade never tired of visiting and
revisiting museums, art galleries, theatres and restaurants. He also
avidly read the local press, attended political meetings and visited
members of the Armenian community.

With his habitual, crisp clarity, Shirvanzade displays something of
his personality, his literary and artistic views, his private passions
for the theatre, his love of painting and walking and his pain on
witnessing his son Armen succumbing to fatal mental illness. His
accounts of meetings with Arshag Chobanian, Krikor Zohrab, Siamanto
and Yervant Odian (for the latter he had immense respect) constitute
and invaluable source for reconstructing a cultural history of the
time. One gets besides an amusing account of encounters with the
hedonist and spendthrift Armenian wealthy in cosmopolitan Paris.

But this autobiography is perhaps most relevant to our times in its
treatment of Armenian Diaspora and the ARF that was, and remains, the
leading political force in exile. Shirvanzade lived his life across
Shamakh, Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan and developed as a result an
Armenian patriotism that was combined with a multinational Caucasian
identity. Here in accounts of meetings with Antranig, the poet
Siamanto, nationalist leader Minas Cheraz and others he defends his
patriotism and his multinational identity against what he regards as
the ARF's extreme nationalism. Throughout, ARF members feature as
sectarians and chauvinists as well as arrogant and witless to boot.
Shirvanzade holds the ARF, along with chauvinists within the
Azerbaijani nationalist movement, as partly responsible for the bloody
1905 warfare between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Baku and the
resulting hatreds.

Most damming and pertinent for us today is Shirvanzade's exposure of
the charlatanism of Diaspora 'national politics.' He diagnoses well
the practices that continue to ravage Diaspora politics today.

''Though he (Loris Melikian) had resigned from the ARF, he had not
ceased to be involved with the so-called Armenian question' and was
engaged in the same course of work, namely to bring the Red Sultan's
barbarism to the attention of public opinion through his parliamentary
friends and acquaintances.

The method was of the same kind (as the ARF's): they invited a few
'Armenophile' address a large (of course always largely
Armenian) crowd in a rather shabby (hall).  Then the speakers one
after the other described...the latest massacre. The audience was
moved and then dispersed at the end of the meeting. The following day
one or two newspapers printed a few lines in the smallest letters...
and that was the end... until the next massacre.

Frequently the most important speakers failed to attend these
meetings, perhaps they got bored of the same gathering, of the same
comedy. For their absence they always had some apology - "I am ill".
Jean Jauress was the one who most frequently "fell ill".'

This, Shirvanzade adds:
    `plus the business of hammering away at this or that minister's or
    senator's doors... is... the alpha and omega of nationalist
    politics not just of the ARF but the entire Diaspora

True alas for today too, the 'latest massacre' merely being replaced
by 'genocide recognition.'  Hardly surprising then that Shirvanzade is
not very popular. His accounts remain sharp enough to puncture the
pretensions and the charlatanism of today.


In 1888 Shirvanzade, then in his 20s, along with a group of friends
went on a tour of the famous monasteries of Haghbad and Sanahin in the
province of Lori. He was, as were his friends, inspired by their
reputation as outstanding centres of medieval learning. For young
socially and nationally committed intellectuals living in the ugly
world of late 19th century Tbilisi and Baku and a collapsing Armenian
rural village, the possible splendours of the past served as an
antidote to contemporary decay and as an inspiration to battle for a
better future. The glories of the past were seen, for good or bad, to
be a tonic of national self-esteem for a people that Shirvanzade shows
in these notes to be demoralised and humbled.

But what a shock he has on arriving first at Haghbad and then Sanahin
and that after a most taxing and dangerous journey through enormous
and terrifying mountain ranges and massive gorges and passes that he
describes so vividly.  Along their journey they regularly come across
the remnants and ruins of a grander past, castles and battlements
perched on mighty cliffs and mountains, all now standing as accusation
against the present for its failure to tend to and maintain this
legacy. But the shock of these dilapidated and unkempt military posts
and fortifications is nothing compared to the shock on arriving at his

In both Haghbad and Sanahin majestic architectural monuments, palatial
constructs (that Shirvanzade compares to the best in medieval Europe),
libraries once rich in intellectual legacy, beautiful stone crosses
and etchings built into rocks and hills, all without exception, are
left to rot and decay, used as filthy putrid storerooms or dumping
grounds. Shirvanzade also, as Leo did in his record of his excursion
to Ani, shows the Armenian elite and establishment to be criminally
indifferent to these monuments. The picture is shocking, and say what
one will about the Soviet era, it at least, in a good part of its
existence helped preserve these monuments from further annihilation.

One cannot fail to observe Shirvanzade's deep disdain and contempt for
those members of the clergy he met on his journey. They are depicted
as corrupt and immoral, indifferent not just to the grandeur of the
past but also to the suffering of the people in the present, to the
misery of their own living flock. They have nothing to offer and are
shown in rural districts at least to be agents of cultural
destruction. The same, and here again Shirvanzade is echoed by Leo,
goes for the wealthy Armenian bourgeois who care not a fig for the
legacy of the past and who invest nothing in the education and welfare
of the rural communities whose hardships and poverty, ignorance and
illiteracy Shirvanzade describes movingly.

Throughout, Shirvanzade's account is touched by a moving sense of
national pride. We see this pride repeatedly injured during the course
of his journey, not just when he encounters artistic vandalism but
also when meeting local people marked by subservience and
obsequiousness, by cowardice, by begging and pleading, characteristics
so common among oppressed people. But we also see him swelling with
pride when listening to accounts of bravery and courage by Armenian
individuals and communities, and all this with no slight on Turkish,
Azeri or Georgian people among whom the Armenians he met lived as


 From a collection of four wonderful troubadour tales (Legends, Volume
1, pp25-109, Yerevan, 1992), `Ashough Gharib' is about the romance
between Troubadour Gharib and the beautiful Sanam. Circulating
originally in Turkish, the current version was rendered into Armenian
in 1911 by another famous troubadour Ashough Djivani.

`Ashough Gharib' is the story of an Armenian boy born in Tavriz, Iran,
to a wealthy family. He recklessly squanders his father's inheritance
and so casts his family down into the lower depths of society. But by
means of some miraculously fantastic good fortune he is promised
recovery and true love that he must however acquire (and here perhaps
for the moral instruction of those listening in) through hard work,
determination and dedication. So he sets out on a life's journey full
of hardship, adventure and eventual triumph.

Meanwhile the beautiful Sanam, trained to be humble, submissive and
without independent passions and desires, rebels and asserts her right
to love Gharib, the man of her own choice. Refusing the man her family
offers her for marriage she stubbornly waits for the return of her
beloved Ashough Gharib.

The tale is captivating, registering that eternal hope of humankind
for a fortunate turn to lift us out of the wearying rut of life's
routine. Our own personal trials and tribulations, our hopes and
desires all find some glowing reflection in the dramatic narrative of
Gharib's adventure. The songs that knit together the hero's progress
from his birthplace to Tiblisi, then on to Erzeroum, Aleppo and back
to Tbilisi record the triumph of hope through effort. The entire tale
affirms possibility in life, not just the possibility of recovery from
devastating tragedy but the possibility of freedom and
self-determination in fashioning our destiny.

To fully appreciate the story one has to imagine oneself among those
listening to the troubadour's tale in some isolated 19th century
village. Impatient of interruption they would excitedly await the
resolution to a drama that though it reflected life lived beyond their
own world, was made from the stuff of their own dreams. The listener
would, like most of those around him (and sometimes her too), be of
humble origin, too poor to have ventured much further than the village
or provincial borders. They would lead lives dictated by tradition,
inheriting land or craft from their families. Parents motivated
primarily by material interest would arrange their frequently loveless

The listener would have experienced little sense of freedom and no
opportunity to chase after a dream, no taste of adventure, danger,
challenge and victory. The tale told by the troubadour would release
dreams trapped in the burdens of their daily lives.

To such an audience Ashough Gharib's story would be a delight offering
as it does an alternative to an everyday devoid of that sense of
power, triumph and elation when one succeeds in sidestepping or
leaping over the predetermined. It would take the listener beyond the
village across to the vast unknown world heard about only in legends,
a distant world with riches and with promise where hardships and
disaster can be faced up to with hope and confidence.

Like many others of equal quality this epic was originally narrated
and sung in Turkish dialect that was the spoken language among wide
swathes of the Armenian people living under colonial Ottoman
occupation. But besides their status in Turkish literature their
translation into Armenian constitutes also an enrichment of Armenian
literature. For despite its original narrative tongue, the tale itself
is of Armenian substance, testified to by numerous Armenian Christian
references and by patriotic allusions to ancient Armenian saints and
warriors, among them General Vartan.

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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