Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 05/13/2019

Twelve Segments from Raffi’s novel ‘Sparks’

Forwarded to Groong by Eddie Arnavoudian, on behalf of Donald Abcarian

Armenian News Network / Groong

May 13, 2019


Raffi (1832-1888) was the preeminent Armenian novelist of the mid-nineteenth century national revival. Through a rich body of writing spanning numerous genres, his creative and analytic genius ignited the Armenian literary scene with the imagery of national self-recognition, cultural enlightenment, and political emancipation. In so doing he laid a broad foundation for the subsequent development of Armenian literature, intellectual life, and politics. His career embraced many fields of activity: radical educator, pioneer in the use of modern Armenian, historian, folklorist, cultural anthropologist, social critic, moral philosopher, and political strategist. He remains a literary figure of unparalleled stature in modern Armenian history (For a broader view of Raffi you can read my ‘Raffi – An Overview’ - 24 June 2002 and ‘ A Sketch of Raffi’s Life’ - 9 December 2002 on The Critical Corner pages on

‘Sparks' (Gaidzer/Կայծեր – Published in two volumes 1883 and 1884)) is Raffi’s longest novel, a sprawling narrative divided into two volumes and running over seven hundred pages.  These twelve selections represent only about one seventh of the whole, but will hopefully offer those without access to the original a glimpse into this important work.

Given the enormity of its scope, 'Sparks’ is a rich repository of many of the themes and source materials at the heart of Raffi’s creative imagination. Some have called it his most autobiographical work, while others credit it with containing actual plans for revolutionary action. There is no question that the heroes he brought to life in its pages were vivid enough to spark intense controversy in the Armenian press of the day and influence the subsequent struggle for national liberation.

Farhad is the narrator and the novel is cast as his memoir. The present twelve selections track the arc of his life from the end of childhood to the momentous adventures of early manhood. The first section describes the primitive village school which was the starting point for all the main characters of the novel, Farhad being a junior member of this group. All of them were his friends, and they all shared a deep resentment of their teacher's tyranny.

One day, all the leading personalities of this group suddenly fail to show up at school and seem to vanish from the face of the earth. After a lapse of many years, Farhad suddenly encounters them again under totally unexpected and mysterious circumstances. He is warmly welcomed by his old friends, among them Aslan who is about to set out on a trek to Van to explore key sites of ancient Armenian history. He asks Farhad to accompany him. Farhad accepts, and they set out for Van with Aslan leading the way in the guise of a European doctor and antiquarian.

Donald Abcarian, 2019.



Our school was a spare room in Father Todik's house, adjacent to the barn and practically a part of it. About forty of us students were crammed into that stifling little hole and, on top of that, had to share the space with three newborn calves that Father Todik kept tethered there. There wasn’t enough fuel to make fires in winter but we made do by simply opening the windows between us and the barn and letting the steamy warmth of the animals flow in. It rolled in like a fog, heating our room up as hot as a bathhouse. Ah, how comfortable we were!

But the summers were another matter. They were unbearable due to the build-up of animal waste in the barn. There we were, trapped between the obnoxious stench of the barn and the invasion of all kinds of microscopic vermin. Only God knew how the bites of such tiny creatures could cause such pain!

As bare as a Turkish mosque, without so much as a bench, a chair, or even a table, that little room was where all the subjects were taught, from the lowest to the highest, from the alphabet to that enormous tome that I could barely carry back to the chapter house. There was no flooring and most of us sat cross-legged on the damp earth with nothing beneath us but grass matting. Father Todik sat on a goat skin and some of the wealthier students sat on small rugs they brought from home.

The only sign that this deathly, dreary cell was a school was the falaka and the pile of freshly cut switches beside it. I don't know how many times we stole the infernal thing away and smashed it to bits. And yet it was always there, always. . . Our bare feet would be tied to it and hoisted up, then our soles would be whipped until we went limp and passed out. That was what the falaka was all about. And the worst part was that a friend did the whipping. If he balked at the job or went too easy on us, he himself would receive the same punishment.

Class began early in the morning with Father Todik sitting in the corner with a little bookstand near him and wrapped like a shaman in an aura of holiness. We would take turns presenting ourselves to him. We first kissed his hand, then knelt down, placed our books on his bookstand and recited our lesson for the day. If we completely failed the lesson, the dreaded falaka was waiting for us. For small mistakes the usual punishment was a blow to the palm of the hand with an oar-shaped paddle, a terrible and ungodly punishment. Engraved in the paddle were the complete directions for properly administering the punishment, taken from ancient scriptures. These paddles were specially made for each teacher. According to Father Todik, he had received his from his own teacher as a reward for being such a good student.

I remember each and every absurdly cruel punishment that was inflicted on us even to this day. As an example, we would be forced to stand and hold a brick or heavy church book over our heads for hours like Hindu fakirs. Our arms would tire and our nerves would weaken, but to no avail. The worst part of it was that we were forced to stand on one foot, usually the left, and never put the other one down. One of our classmates would stand next to us with a whip in his hand to monitor our terrible ordeal, ready to whip us if our other foot went down. I became so used to this particular punishment that I could stand like a goose for long periods of time.

There were other punishments, as well. For instance, we had to come to school on totally empty stomachs, without even having a bite of bread. Tea or coffee were unknown to us at that time, but we would be severely punished even if we had had a little tahn or madzoon before school.

“You can't learn a thing on a full stomach. As soon as you eat, your intelligence flies out the window,” Father Todik insisted, and, so saying, he cited great ascetics and vartabeds who had authored a host of books on empty stomachs.

We made sure to obey his rule because it was simply impossible to deceive him. He knew with devilish cunning if any of us had broken our fast. The first thing he did each morning was closely examine the tongue of anyone he suspected of breaking the fast. A person who has fasted will have a gleaming layer of white froth on his tongue, but it is washed away by eating and then the tongue will be pink. This is why we not only kept the fast but were even afraid to wash our faces for fear we might accidentally get some water in our mouth and flush away the white froth. So, until noon we had to make do on totally empty stomachs, our heads swimming and our eyes going dim--and we didn't learn a thing.

For a clock we had the shadow that crept up the wall. When it reached a certain point we knew it was noon. Then and only then were we allowed to have a bite to eat. But, oh, what an agony waiting for that moment! The sun seemed as heartless as our teacher, going slowly, ever so slowly, the shadow barely moving at all . . .

We ate our lunch in the classroom. Everyone brought their own lunches and shared the choicest parts of them with Father Todik. This gave him the biggest and most varied lunch of all. Not only that, he had enough left over to share with his wife and children in the evening.

Though we were allowed a couple of hours to relax after lunch, playing, as such, was strictly forbidden and was regarded as a form of mischief that violated the norms of modesty and composure. A pupil was supposed to remain quiet and meek. Anyone found playing--let alone playing with toys, which was even worse--would be severely punished. To this end there were spot inspections of our pockets. Sons of wealthy families were, however, spared these harsh measures and given a lot of slack. They always sat in the front row and enjoyed complete impunity, even if they beat up their poorer schoolmates in the yard. A boy named Alo was one of these, the son of our town's wealthiest man. His father financed the royal mint located in our town and was its director. In that era Persia had its money minted in several larger towns, and the financing of those enterprises was in the hands of certain rich families. This role was hereditary and passed down from generation to generation within certain families called ‘sarafs’. Alo was one of the worst students in our school and no one but Father Todik had any use for him. When someone had to be punished, he was always the first to volunteer for the privilege of administering it. He took special pleasure in beating his schoolmates and Father Todik never once deprived him of the opportunity . . . He would come to school every day with a different book that he brought from home and tell Father Todik, “My father said to use this book for today's lesson.”

“Fine, then this is the book we'll use,” Father Todik would answer.
One day I finally had my fill of this and said to Alo, “You still have to sound out each letter when you read the Psalms. How are you going to read that whole book?”

“Well, my father's a very important man,” he said proudly.

“I know, but you still have a long way to go before you can read a book like that.”

“What are you talking about? My father said to bring it to school so I can be the top student in my class.”

“Like he's the number one man in town?” I said with a laugh.

Suddenly I felt a slap on my face. I shot back with a powerful punch. The little coward immediately ran to Father Todik and tattled on me. You can imagine the terrible punishment in store for me for having the nerve to strike the son of the richest man in town. That was something that couldn't be allowed. It was from that day that I conceived a hatred for anything that smacked of royal privilege or those who profited from it. . .

There was plenty of reason for the privileges the rich pupils enjoyed: on feast days they brought offerings of wine, brandy, butter, cheese, and so on for Father Todik. Their fathers would send special tokens of appreciation to him when they had finished reading one book and were ready for the next.

But I was poor and my mother was barely able to pay the monthly tuition. In lieu of providing Father Todik with special gifts, I had to do various household chores for him and was never given a moment’s rest from morning to night. I hauled water from the spring. I went out into the fields to gather grass for the cows to eat and held them still while his wife milked them. After dinner, if there was nothing else to do, I had to sit next to Father Todik and whisk away the flies until he had fallen sweetly asleep . . .

On days when Father Todik had baptisms or weddings to perform he would make holidays of them. But for us they would be days of death. Some of our older schoolmates, who had been trained to assist him, would go with him to the ceremony and carry his mantle, the Mashdotz, the censer, and other liturgical items. Far from being able to breathe a little easier on those days, our lot was even worse. On the assumption that we would act up in his absence, Father Todik devised a devilishly clever method for keeping us in line. He made us sit far away from each other with the long fringes of our clothing spread out around us on the ground, then sprinkled sand over them. He then pressed a pattern into the sand with a special seal made for the purpose. Imagine our situation, forced to sit motionless on the bare floor for hours and hours to avoid disturbing the sand and being severely punished when our teacher returned.

And I had more than my share of such punishment. Good Lord, what was I to do? I couldn't just sit there as if I were dead! I'd sometimes get bitten by a flea, or bothered by a fly, or have some other need . . .

Father Todik would finally return in a very drunken state. Finding my seal broken, he would be all too ready to subject me to the accursed falaka -- or else have me kneel with bare knees on bits of broken brick. And once again, I had to remain perfectly frozen in place . . .

And then there were days of general punishment. We had a few holidays during the year, the biggest being one week each for Easter and Christmas. When we returned to school after these holidays, Father Todik would punish everyone the same with the falaka. Why? Because some of us must have done something naughty while we were away, and, because it was impossible to find out who had done so, it was necessary for the innocent to be punished along with the guilty . . . This barbarity served another purpose, as well: Like an experienced equestrian who gives his horse a whiplash when he mounts it to stimulate it and focus its attention, in the same way Father Todik sought by hitting us to arouse and prime our mental energies after a wild and carefree vacation, thus preparing us for the trying demands of school . . .

Father Todik wasn't a malevolent man. On the contrary, he was quite decent, but all his punishments stemmed from his understanding of what it meant to be a good teacher. He was convinced that without corporal punishment, without pressure a child could learn nothing. He had as much faith in the falaka as he had in the talismans and magical rites with which he achieved such wonderful results . . .

When I told my mother about my suffering at school, she thought the same way as Father Todik and would say, “Until you learn to take a whipping and put up with pressure, you won't learn a thing.” But if that were true, why was it that after all that torture I still hadn't learned anything?

I wasn't a dull-minded boy. On the contrary, I was very bright. For instance, whenever my grandmother told me a tale I would effortlessly remember it word for word. And when an ashough visited our town to sing and tell his stories, I learned it all right off. So why was I so dull in school? Why did all my intelligence vanish there? I understood my grandmother's tales and the songs of the ashough. I learned them well. But the lessons Father Todik gave us were unintelligible and didn't even seem to be in Armenian. Though I studied the lessons day and night, nothing stuck. As soon as Father Todik's eyes met mine, I became terrified and confused and forgot everything . . .

So abject was I of mind and spirit, so deadened in me were my youthful energies that I believed Father Todik when he said to me, “You devil's bastard, you'll never amount to anything!”

Father Todik started teaching me the alphabet. It's as if that primer is still in front of my eyes right now, printed in large letters, on its corner a picture of the Cross, and beneath it the words, “Help me, Oh Cross.”

For many months I crossed myself and repeated those words. Father Todik said that without crossing yourself you can't learn anything. But it even seemed that the Cross, too, had foiled my mind, powerless to instill in me any sense or intelligence . . .

I haven't been able to rid myself, even to this day, of the unpleasant feeling that studying the alphabet left me with . . . It seemed that every letter was a dragon threatening to swallow me . . . and my sleep was troubled at night . . . I was as tormented in my dreams as I was at school.

My teacher had a wife and two children, Stepan and little Sona. Stepan, the oldest, was always still and mute. With a colorless face and lifeless eyes, he was a dull-witted child. You could hardly look at him without feeling sorry for him.

Despite the fact that Father Todik was the senior cleric for a parish of seven hundred homes; despite the fact that he was also official functionary for the prelate of the diocese, all of which brought him considerable earnings (not to mention his job as a teacher); despite all of this, his life was marked by poverty. A few gloomy rooms with white plaster walls, a cramped yard surrounded by low walls, this constituted his inglorious residence; a place where deep sadness reigned, along with everlasting dust and filth. The neighbors saw his destitution as the sign of someone who was by nature averse to selfish ambition and worldly pleasure. This might have been so, were it not that misers are similar and live in the same kind of mortifying desolation. And there are dervishes who similarly cast an aura of poverty over the superstitious populace, though beneath many a dervish's tattered cloak there lies a greedy and grasping heart. . .

During the last several years, my mother had been unable to pay Father Todik my tuition, and I had to take on the burden of countless domestic tasks around his house instead. This left me no time to do my lessons. From morning to night, I had to knock myself out meeting the various demands Father Todik and his wife placed on me. That left me only evenings free, but by that time I couldn't study because there wasn't enough oil for the lamps and everyone went to bed early.

But I did have one consolation in all this hell, Father Todik's daughter, Sona, an angel who relieved the bitterness of my lot. As for what it was that bound my heart to that delightful being, I couldn't understand -- and to this day, I still don't understand.
Sona helped me a great deal, especially with my chores. When I went out into the fields to reap hay for the cows, she went with me and would say:

“Sit down somewhere and study your lesson, Farhad, I'll reap the hay for you.”

“You can't do it all by yourself, Sona, you'll get too tired,” I would say.

She would smile at me and say with angelic kindness, “No, I can. Sit down and study so my father doesn't punish you.”

Though she wanted to do whatever she could to allow me time for my studies, she couldn't, because she was forbidden to be with me. So I had to go sadly into the field all by myself and reap the hay.

Thus passed seven whole years, a mystical number that spanned my childhood and earliest sufferings. . . In the course of those seven years I passed through all the levels of learning, that is, through everything an advanced pupil was expected to master in those days: the Psalms, the breviary, the Gospel, the Old Testament, the Nareg, and even that enormous book that from early childhood was very hard for me to lift up. I was able to write and read what I had written and learned many of the grammatical rules of classical Armenian. The only subjects that remained inaccessible to me were science and magic. These my teacher kept to himself as specialties. I could only study those after serving him for ten or twenty years

I was ten years old when I started school. That was twelve years earlier. By now I was a young man, but Father Todik  still treated me like a child and meted out the same punishments: the same falaka, the same paddle blow to the hand, the same kneeling on bits of brick. . . In a word, nothing had changed as far as punishment was concerned. But what was truly remarkable was how used to it I was. So inwardly dead was I to my own honor and self-respect that I put up with it all like a beast of burden that mutely receives the cruel blows of its master. But there was one memorable exception to this pattern.

It was the time of the Easter holiday, and none of the pupils in Father Todik's school was up to memorizing the entire Book of Daniel to recite in church on Easter Sunday. This book was usually recited by pupils from rich families, and for this privilege their parents would make a sizable donation to the church. The teacher in charge of this recitation would have the chosen pupil recite the book by heart to prove how advanced his pupils were in their studies. But who among the pupils from rich homes would be able to memorize the entire Book of Daniel?

They had all been studying and studying since the beginning of Lent, but, with Easter rapidly approaching, no matter whom my teacher asked to recite it, none could, and he had no choice but to ask me. This was on Maundy Thursday, the day of Christ's passion and crucifixion. . . It would take an equal level of suffering to memorize the entire Book of Daniel in just one day's time! At midday on Holy Saturday Father Todik asked me how I was doing, but at that point I had only memorized three quarters of the book. I thought I'd have the chance to memorize the rest by the beginning of evening Mass, but Father Todik completely lost his patience with me and flew into a rage, assaulting me with a string of the vilest curses I had ever heard. At that point I couldn't take any more and gave vent to some rude words of my own.

“Why, you devil's offspring, I'll curse the hair on your head!” he bellowed in rage. But he didn't have any more time to spend on me and, instead, locked me up in the barn. He told me that's where I'd stay until he was finished with the evening services and that he would then come back and ring my neck.

The worst thing about it was that I had strictly kept the Lenten fast for the whole forty day period. I had gone to church morning, noon, and night and repeated all the prayers. That was the night I was supposed to go to church, attend Mass, and when “Holy Holy Holy” was sung, hold up the red Easter egg my mother had dyed for me and show the whole congregation that I had completed my fast. All of these pious intentions were blocked now and taken away from me even though I was alive with religious feeling and my heart was brimming with the ardor of faith. Each ceremony and every form of worship in the church held sacred meaning to me. It hurt me deeply to be barred from church. And, beyond that, I was tormented by another terrible resentment: I was the leading pupil in the school, yet pupils who were a hundred times inferior to me could freely go to church, take part in the ceremonies, give the responses, recite the verses , chant the prayers and thereby make their parents proud, while my poor mother would be denied the chance of even hearing the sound of my voice. So engrossed was I in all these thoughts that I entirely forgot about the punishment my teacher had threatened to give me when he returned. And what a stupendous contradiction! He was going to punish me and subject me to a barbarous beating after having stood as a priest before God's holy altar and announced, “Christ is risen from the dead, with His death he trampled death, with his resurrection he granted us life.”

And my prison? I hadn't even paid it any attention in all my anxiety. Though it was only April, the heat was already setting in. The barn in which I was imprisoned was full of insects that bored into my body with their searing bites. On the one hand I was overwhelmed with the gaseous smell of manure, and on the other weak from hunger. Merciful God, what was I to do! The door was firmly locked and escape was impossible, yet putting up with that hell might be the death of me.

The sun had already set, and little by little the darkness was spreading in the barn. I felt like I was losing my mind and became panic stricken. Like an animal that has just fallen into an iron trap, I dashed from one side of my prison to the other, trying to scratch through the walls, pull down the posts, poke holes in the roof, break the door down, pry open the narrow window slots, all in an attempt to free myself. This struggle went on for several hours until, exhausted and weak, I collapsed on the floor and in that state was overtaken by all sorts of confused fantasies. The creatures that I had heard about in my grandmother's tales now came to life in my imagination: seven-headed dragons, demons with horns, devils with tails. They all crowded before my eyes and, I thought, the darkness will envelope everything, then they will come and strangle me. . .

As for how many hours I lay there in that state, I don't know, but all of a sudden I heard the door burst open. My whole body shivered with fear, but this didn't last long, for I saw that it was Sona who had come in like a visiting angel, a lantern in her hand. She helped me up, and her tender voice totally brought me to my senses again.

“Run away, Farhad! Run away while my father's gone. . .”

I wanted to kiss her for saving me, but she was gone like a wraith. . .
And I fled my prison,  leaving behind once and for all my school, the hell of my torments, and my youth . . .



Having escaped from my prison I decided then and there never to return home again. I knew that if I went back my mother would just deliver me back to school and turn me over to my teacher again, uttering those same dreadful words: “His flesh is yours, his bone is mine.” Now I knew what those words really meant.

It was dark when I escaped, and I was in such a desperate state I had no idea where to go or what to do. “Maybe I should just go and throw myself in the river and be done with my troubles,” I thought.

I started wandering through the empty streets of the town in this distraught state. Everyone was inside now, having returned home from Easter services. They were gathering around their tables to enjoy their holiday meal together. The sacred smell of incense wafted from their houses and I could hear them singing hymns and exchanging the traditional Easter greeting, “Christ is risen from the dead.” Yes, the God of love and peace was risen. . . But where were love and peace to be found? Where was the brotherhood I had heard so much about my entire life but had never seen? I went on wandering through the streets, a condemned fugitive with nowhere to go.

I was by now practically out of my mind with despair. I hardly heard or saw anything and felt totally cut off from the world. Without even knowing how I had got there I suddenly found myself at the river's edge and was about to throw myself in when I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of someone's voice:

“Hey, what are you doing there?”

The voice was very familiar, but due to the darkness and my distraught mental state I had trouble realizing who it was.

“Don't you recognize me Farhad?”

“Oh, Garo! Dear friend. No. It couldn't be. . . Where did you come from? They said you. . ."

“But yes, it's me, Garo.”

I was so happy I could hardly believe it. I clung to him and kissed his neck, his face, his eyes and hands, then told him everything I had been through.

“Have you completely lost your mind?” he said noticing the Book of Daniel that I was still unconsciously carrying under my arm.

“What can I say?” I answered.

“Well, throw that damned bundle in the river and be done with it,” he said.

I did as he told me without another thought and as the book was swallowed up in the icy torrent of the river it seemed that all my troubles were carried off with it . . .

“Great! That's over with; now let's go.” said Garo.

Garo had disappeared from our school twelve years earlier, but in those twelve years how he had changed! I had known him as a frail boy, but now he was a robust, imposing man. Though he was only four years older than I, he was much taller and already had a thick black moustache and a bold, self-confident air.

“Where are we going?” I finally asked when we had left town a good distance behind us.

“I'm taking you someplace where you'll get to see your old friends, Aslan and Sako again. Surely you haven't forgotten them?”

“Aslan and Sako!” I cried joyously, barely able to contain myself.

“Yes, you'll be seeing them soon enough. But listen, Farhad, there's something I have to tell you. I didn't want anyone ever to see me again, but it so happened that we ran into each other. So I'm counting on you to keep it a secret. Can I?”

“But why?”

“I can't explain it to you now, but you'll find out soon enough.”

“My lips are sealed,” I answered.

“Good, that's the way it has to be.”

Having gone more than half a mile through the wilderness we reached the site of some ancient ruins that my grandmother had told me all sorts of fabulous stories about. All that remained intact was a minaret that now, with the magical gleam of its bluish mosaics in the night, stood more beautiful than I ever remembered when I had seen it during daytime. But because of the superstitious fears my grandmother's stories had filled me with, I was afraid to get too near them even in broad daylight, let alone now in the dead of night.

As we approached the minaret Garo let out a piercing whistle and was answered by a similar whistle from inside. At his urging I stepped inside. The interior was lit up with a bonfire burning in the middle of the floor and casting its purplish light up into the dome. A couple of men were grilling meat over it, with bread and wine set nearby. Some other men were stretched out on the bare floor off to one side.

Noticing Garo come in, the two men at the fire joined him, then all three withdrew into the shadows and fell into hushed conversation. Their conversation lasted quite a while and my pride was hurt that no one seemed to notice me. I couldn't hear what they were saying but, whatever it was, they didn't seemed very pleased and I thought they might be talking about me.

When they finished talking, one of them--a plump, vivacious fellow --came up to me.
“Oh-ho! Where did you come from?” he asked.

I was really put off by his brusqueness and Garo answered for me:

“Don't you recognize him, Sako?” Then turning to the rest of the group: “You see what a fine guest I've brought for you?” Only then did it become clear it wasn't me they had been talking about a few minutes earlier.

“But I won't tell you who he is, you have to guess for yourselves,”said Garo.

“Oh, I'd recognize him anywhere,” said Sako, drawing close to me. “It's Farhad, sure enough. Ah, you've turned into such a fine fellow after all these years, haven't you?”

“My goodness, so it is Farhad after all,” said Aslan, coming up and giving me a big hug.

And so, there I was, reunited with my two best friends from school, Aslan and Sako, who had disappeared from Der-Todik's school along with Garo many years earlier. The reason they were hard to recognize at first was that they weren't dressed in Persian Armenian garb, as I had last seen them, but in the almost Kurdish style worn by the Armenians of Bitlis.

Donald Abcarian was born in Fresno, California. He graduated from the
University of California Berkeley with a degree in philosophy and has
pursued a lifelong interest in languages and world literature. He has
been translating from Raffi's works for the past seven years. In 2000
the Gomidas Institute published his translation of The Fool {Khent@].
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