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The Critical Corner - 03/09/2010

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Worth a read:

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

Armenian News Network / Groong
Marg 9, 2010

By Eddie Arnavoudian



`Vartan of Khannassor' was written as a memoir by an 19th/20th century
Armenian guerilla fighter whose real name was Sarkis Mehrabian. Edited
and polished by Garo Sassooni it makes exciting reading and is of
tremendous value as supplement to any history of the Armenian national
liberation movement and in particular of the role of the Church in this

Vartan who in his early career was part of a gun running squadron gives
a dramatic account of his adventures as he and his comrades struggled
to deliver arms transported from Persia for the defense of Van's
Armenian districts subject to vicious attack from Turkish and Kurdish
state sponsored forces. The detail of their preparation and their
equipment could well be used by Armenian novelists. Passing through
awesome snow gripped mountain ranges the narrative tells of dedication,
self-sacrifice and endurance. Sometimes ambushed by Ottoman troops the
guerillas already terribly weary and hungry could not fire their rifles
in battle so frozen were their fingers with cold.

Told with some wit and humour the account focuses illuminatingly on the
laudable role of some Armenian Church monasteries and priests that
serves to balance an otherwise terrible Church role in the national
liberation movement. On the trails from Persia to Van, and one presumes
elsewhere too, many a monastery and its inhabitants were critical
staging posts in the liberation movement's supply lines and logistical
network, providing safe refuge, resting place and acting as arms depots
as well as sanctuary for activists being hunted by the Ottoman state
(whose intelligence on the Armenian revolutionaries, enhanced by
Armenian traitors, was unfortunately formidable). The Church however,
by no means homogenously progressive, in the wake of 1896 slaughter
its reactionary wing reared its head with a criminal refusal to aid the
guerrillas and with a failure to take up the defense of the population,
a refusal that reached almost collaborationist proportions.

Equally illuminating for a proper grasp of the dynamics of the Armenian
national liberation movement are the insights offered into the
consciousness and psychology of the Armenian peasant. Strangers from
the Caucuses Vartan and his comrades attempt to recruit and organize
among Armenians whose dialect was utterly incomprehensible to the
revolutionaries and whose concerns did not go beyond their own
immediate horizons. This provincialism revealed something of the deep
fragmentation of Armenian society, a fracturing that the national
movement worked assiduously to overcome.

Shockingly eye-opening are Vartan's descriptions of peasant fatalism,
backwardness, humble submission and cowardly passivity, at least in the
villages outside Van. Armenians frequently abandoned their villages
with no resistance when confronted by a few unarmed Kurds. (Even as
Vartan records the Kurdish assault on Armenian villages he reveals a
trend of the Kurdish society sympathetic to Armenians pointing to
particular Kurdish villages and communities that not only did not
participate in the attack, but protected Armenians saving many from
certain death.) The panicked evacuation of one village led to a flood
of others. Efforts to organize resistance were frequently condemned and
revolutionaries held responsible for Kurdish torching of Armenian

The relationship between revolutionaries and the mass of the population
was not however always remote or indifferent. In the city of Van
political cadre and armed fighter were well received, honoured and even
invited to arbitrate in domestic and local disputes. United, the three
main Armenian parties - the Armenakan's, the Social Democrat Hnchaks
and the ARF - succeeded in securing mass support. Popular resistance in
Van, in its courage and energy, in its unity and determination could
not be more different from the sheepish behaviour that so shocks Vartan
in the surrounding villages.

The power of this revolutionary unity proved great enough to save the
city from mass slaughter during the 1896 generalised massacres of
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed it proved dangerous enough to
force the pro-Ottoman local British embassy to intervene in aid of the
Ottoman State. After failing to persuade the Armenians to surrender the
British ambassador in their traditional and unalterable treacherous and
savage manner it then advised the Ottomans to turn their artillery on
Van's Armenian districts.

Though Armenian Van proved successful in avoiding destruction almost
the entire army of freedom fighters who had secured the population's
safety were themselves killed after being ambushed on retreat from the
city. Recounting the story, Vartan in a claim that demands further
investigation suggests that responsibility must be put at the door of
Armenakan's decision to move all Armenian fighter out of Armenia and
into Persia. The ARF and the Hnchaks argued, more wisely, for their
dispersal in surrounding villages. Despite opposition the Armenakans
prevailed and more that 600 men were trapped and slaughtered in
mountains gorges. The nationwide massacres and the killing of some of
the most dedicated and experienced fighters caused a terrible
demoralization in the ranks of the movement and the population. But
admirably the revolutionaries resisted and almost immediately resumed
efforts to reorganize and recover.

Vartan captures something of the tense history of relations between the
forces within the liberation movement. Though without the presentation
of context, detail or evaluation, the narrative depicts the Armenakans
to be locally based and in competition with an ARF working to expand
its influence and relying on youngsters from the Caucuses to do so.
Yet, these alleged outsiders are in Vartan's own account welcomed by
the locals, some of whom switch from the Armenakans to the new and
evidently more energetic force. There are additional suggestions of
ARF-Social Democratic clashes over territorial rights and control of
arms and much of what Vartan has to say here and elsewhere suggests
that relations were not only sectarian but sordid too.

Full of stirring tales, this account written in 1901 ends just before
the notorious raid on the Kurdish village of Khannassor in which scores
of innocent men women and children fell victim. This raid of which
Vartan was a leader adds a dishonourable page to the history of the
Armenian national liberation struggle that demands its own separate
examination and evaluation.



There can be no worse fate for a writer than to have his or her books
stacked on shelves marked `secondary' or `minor'; an invitation to
be taken to literature's shredding bin. The critical neglect that
follows such a designation can be damaging both from a literary and a
social and historical angle. This is especially so for a number of
Armenian writers among them Souren Bartevian whose legacy is certainly
worthy of recovery and of artistic and historical consideration.

Born in 1876, Bartevian was a prominent figure in Armenian public life,
especially in the Armenian community in Istanbul. An editor and a
journalist, he was also a short story writer with two slim volumes to
his name - `Disintegration' (1910) and `The Armenian Woman' (1911) and
the author also of the `Cilician Tragedy' (1909). Bartevian's fiction
registers and reacts to aspects of the 1895-96 Ottoman massacres of
some 300,000 Armenians that delivered a devastating blow to the
Armenian national revival. The best of his stories feature characters
from the Armenian Diaspora set in the grime, poverty and decay of late
19th century London whose garish reality are excellently summoned.

Though the artistic qualities of Bartevian's two volumes are open to
debate the best can be read with genuine pleasure even today. His
stories are in addition a storehouse of invaluable social and
historical truths that also retain resonance. He was a warrior author
consciously battling backward and reactionary social phenomena. His
most powerful writing targets European charities and primarily the
British Salvation Army for whom Armenian suffering was as he put it
`capital' for `exploitation and profitable operation' and  `oh what
capital, what an inexhaustible gold-mine this vast Armenian
Suffering...' As for the caring Christian missionary proclamations:

`Do not be deceived by their heavenly forms. They are profit-seeking
and selfish, the lot of them. And you shall see that the Salvation Army
behind its false spiritual and humanist mask is the vast and ruthless
exploitation of human suffering.'

With a ruthless but healthy passion Bartevian denounces foreign
missionaries seeking to profit from the catastrophe of 1895-96:

`It was the autumn of 1896, the period of noisy meetings and assemblies
prompted by the Armenian martyrdom when/where representatives of the
innumerable English sects with unconditional enthusiasm dashed to have
pity on our and put our suffering out to auction in their shops of
Christian Mercy.'

And with an equally healthy humanist vision he also noted and denounced
the global reach of the mercenary merchants of Mercy:

`Armenian misery, like human misery throughout the world became a
subject for exploitation by the official and titled representatives of
Mercy. Many, many of our daring foreign defenders made their fortunes
on the backs of our misfortunes.'

The contempt these European Christians had for the Armenian people, for
Armenian Christianity and Armenian culture emerges in all its imperial
arrogance. These agents of imperial power dressed in religious garb
treated their mission or `soul hunting' as he more accurately describes
it, as if it was a project to save Armenians from their own
barbarianism. In a telling incident Armenians appear as helpless and
miserable lost sheep, as ignorant, without culture, terrible specimens
awaiting salvation from cultured Europeans:

`Lord, Lord, Lord... This evening we have with us a lost one, an
Armenian... Lord, he is a brother to those who You have struck with
your terror... Appear to him Lord, save him Lord...Return all his
people to Your pen, so that the blows they are dealt come to an end,
so that they can begin like your saved sons to enjoy both your
heavenly and earthly goods.'

Even as he focussed on the profit mongering the European charity
business that has so many common features with the
charity-become-big-business of our own day, a shocked Bartevian
targeted the Diaspora Armenian secular-merchant and religious elites.

`I did not want to, I could not believe that the Armenian vultures, the
Armenian clergy would have the horrible capacity to compete with their
foreign brothers in the ghastly business of exploiting our martyrdom.'

Armenian profit mongers too, he shows, benefited from the suffering of
the common people often in alliance with European charities and
displayed the same cruel indifference.

Bartevian's words are sharp enough to open up the can of worms that is
the global corporate Charity Business of our own day, both inside and
beyond the Armenian sphere. Child smuggling by `Christian' charity
workers in Haiti! Like the modern European, the modern Armenian
Diaspora elites have clearly inherited the ugliest features of their
forefathers who now live in Souren Bartevian's two volumes of short

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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