We went to a commemoration in Lake Forest’s Market Square hosted by the local American Legion Post. Afterwards we went to visit the graves of our family members. We went to the two cemeteries where the Armenians who migrated to Waukegan from 1900 to 1920 are buried. There I saw grave markers from people that I knew and never knew that stated that they were from Harput, Khapert, Kharpert – Tadem, Tadem, or Khoulakiugh (also in the Harput or Kharpert region). They were both proud of where they were from. They were making a statement of preserving where they were from and why they were buried half-way around the world in a corner of Northeast Illinois.
It made me think of places, I have heard about and read about in memoirs and histories but never actually seen. It made me think about being Armenian in the Diaspora and, in my case, the United States. In his famous quote, William Saroyan’s stated“whose literature is unread” in reference to Armenia and the Armenians. Indeed, for the most part, our literature is unread. Very few in my circle of Armenian family and friends have ever talked about reading this novelist or that poet.
I have actually read some of our poetry. I have three books of Armenian poetry with translations in English either on the facing page or in an appendix. I have enjoyed reading selections of the poems of Kouchag, Charents, Toumanian, Varoujan, Siamanto, Isahakian, Gaboudikian, Sevag and others. I especially like Sarmen. He is not a major poet but at least two of his poems have been put to music and are songs I actually perform. The language he uses is closer to the Armenian I grew up with. I read all these poems in Armenian and then in English. I repeat the process over and over again. I understand a bit more or a bit differently in each reading. That is the beauty of poetry.
When I was graduating from Armenian school, I wanted to read and learn more Armenian. I wanted to study further. I would have benefitted from studying Armenian at the university level. Sadly, I was in school before either Wayne State University or the University of Michigan was offering Armenian courses. I did ask our Der Hayr, our parish priest, about what I might do. He suggested I read Malkas nee Ardashes Hovsepian (1877
The classic book that probably every Armenian should read is a novel, Kentuh or The Fool, from the late 1800s by Raffi. Raffi (nee Hakob Melik Hakobian) is so notable in Armenian history that his nom de plume is a popular Armenian name to this day. I know several Raffi’s. They were all named for the famous writer… that most of us have not read. There is a decent biography of Raffi on Wikipedia.
While most Armenian’s know of Raffi, some lesser number can name any of his books, and even less have read any of them. Raffi is best known for his classic novel: Khentuh (The Fool). It is important in our history. This book came at the time when, as a subjugated people of the Ottoman Empire, we were waking to the idea of wanting and need more self-determination and freedom. Thus, reading The Fool is important for any Armenian who takes his or her culture and heritage seriously. I had never read it. So, while in Detroit the last two weeks, I took Donald Abcarian’s translation from my parent’s bookcase and read it.
I immediately saw why Raffi was so important. He highlighted the plight of the Armenian peasants in the eastern millets. They were subjected to over-taxation and pillaging from Turks and Kurds. He highlighted the complicity of some self-serving Armenians working with the Turks. He, to me at least, was surprisingly critical of the clergy who seemed to preach that the peasants’ lot was God’s will while trying to maintain their status in the community and scratching out a living. As for the church hierarchy, he seemed to note that they were more interested with their career tracks than their flock.
His heroes were the few Armenians that were educated and abhorred by the status
quo. They dedicated their lives to educating, awakening, and arming the peasants. This was important because how the Turks would squeeze and crush the Armenians in wartime when the enemy was a Christian nation. Raffi wrote about this in 1880. This was well before the Hamidian massacres, the Adana massacres, and well before the 1915 Genocide. He foretold this by relating the events of the 1877 – 1878 Russo-Turkish War.
I know of a small group of Armenian fellows, all retired, in Chicago. A few years ago, they would meet for coffee and breakfast as retired Armenians around the US are prone to do. These fellows had a mission beyond the normal catching-up and solving the world’s problems conversation. They were reading The Fool in Armenian. I was impressed and made a mental note to do the same myself someday.
The Fool is available online in Armenianand English(translation by Jane Wingate). It seems that someday is here thanks to the internet.