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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 I CHURCH MONASTERY AND PRIEST IN THE ARMENIAN NATIONAL LIBERATION MOVEMENT `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 movement. 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 homes. 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. II AN EARLY 20TH CENTURY ARMENIAN DENUNCIATION OF THE CORPORATE CHARITY INDUSTRY 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 stories. -- 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.