On the eve of April 24, the Armenian National Day of Mourning

~~Perhaps no other American writer of Armenian descent has written with as much sensitivity and awe on the subject of the Catastrophe as Michael Arlen Jr, derivatively in “Exiles” and more deliberately in “Passage to Ararat.” One of the great American works of non-fiction narrative, “Passage to Ararat” is at once a travelogue, a rediscovery, a meditation, but above all, a mourning. Long before non-fiction narrative became an established genre, long before “writing about the Genocide” became a much used (and abused) term, Michael Arlen gave us a work which is as new as it was four decades ago–a work for the generations, and for many re-readings.~~

I thought, How strange to finally meet one’s past: to simply meet it, the way one might finally acknowledge a person who had been in one’s company a long while. So, it’s you!

I was standing by myself beneath the overhanging slabs of the Monument, looking into the fire. I remember thinking that if I had had a flower in my hand I would gladly have thrown it into the fire, but that I hadn’t remembered to pick one. My eyes went out to the open field beyond the fire, the field of yellow flowers. I thought that it didn’t matter about the flower; I thought suddenly that I was home. It was the flattest, simplest, lightest of feelings. I thought, So this is what it’s all about.

And then I felt my father’s hand in mine. It was so strong a feeling that today I can almost (but not quite) recover that imaginary touch. But what I responded to was not merely the “touch”–I had felt that before, at many moments in my life. One of the key memories of my childhood had been a nearly tactile recollection of being pulled by the hand (were we running? walking?) by my father down an unremembered street–an unremembered time except for the pull of the hand, even his face out of sight, his expression unknown, only his arm extending from a dark overcoat.

But I knew that this time it was different, and as I stood there I knew that it would always afterward be different (as it has been.) For the hand I felt was not pulling me; it was the hand of a man which I had briefly held in my own one afternoon in New York, the hand of my father dying….

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For the love of Boston, on her day…

~Boston, the eyes of the world have turned toward you again; the whole world as it were is weeping for you again and for your losses of a year ago.

It was—and still is—a bit uncanny, the outpouring of sorrow because you are not a big, snazzy, flamboyant city, sexy and alluring. Add to that your history of racial tension and organized crime, bad drivers and unmarked roads, you are far from perfect; I would even say a flawed city as all cities are.

Then there are those visitors who come to you from warmer climates and more hyped-up places. They say you're a bit unfriendly, snobbish, aloof; they complain about your animus toward cars and drivers, your unwillingness to don the default, tourist smile.
All that, yes—until they stumble on a moment, which reverses their initial impressions and throws them in mild confusion. It’s always like this with you. You reveal yourself, your hard-earned, gritty humanity in increments. It was like that for me, as well, my arrival on a late-May some twenty-five years ago, on one of those days when the sun, light, wind and water played their magic on Storrow Drive.

It is such a day today, Boston, that you have given us one year after your streets were torn, your runners felled and pulverized, your beauty soiled in blood and shrapnel and shred and muscle and broken bone; your innocence ambushed and your confidence shaken; after you too held your dead in your arms–like Madrid, and Baghdad, and Kabul, and London and New York City, and Ramallah and Tel Aviv and Sumgait and Gaza. You had become part of the brotherhood of mourning cities.

I came to you twenty-five years ago wounded, unsure, and full of trepidation. You gave me life anew, and deep friendships; you gave me the gift of accumulated knowledge and the excitement of words whose benefits I now return to you with this letter of love and lament. You restored me to myself but also to other, strangers even, in places far away from your shores. You opened the chambers of my heart and pathways of my mind, infused new energy in my veins, re-made me in your image, possessed me with your steadiness but also set my imagination free.

You gave me both a home-away-from-an-imagined-home and a world in equal measure. And I stayed as though I had, in fact, come home. For all that you have my love and gratitude, and because my love extends far beyond your city limits I mourn also all the other victims of mass violence, all those children and families in cities I do not know and have never visited the world over.

All this, all this you did in your quiet way, your restrained habits, your folded beauty. And now, on this day, one year after the bombing, in your moment of sorrow and need, I offer you my words, for that is all I really have to give. I offer them back to you and the families of those who were killed, in our mourning. Words– things of air and sound, these inadequate utterances–I offer them to you for the love of this broken world, the memory of homes lost and found, the lament of cities scarred by violence and re-made with hope.~

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Hagop Oshagan: Speaking the Aghéd

Oshagan's grave, Aleppo

Oshagan’s grave, Aleppo

 

The week of April 24 has particular relevance to the life and work of Hagop Oshagan. He survived the Aghéd while many of his literary contemporaries fell victim to the Ottoman genocidal machine. In fact, and as Vahé Oshagan says, his figure stands at the juncture between the loss of the historic homeland and the beginning of the dispersion. But more than that, it was his work that was shaped by the Aghéd (a term he used in 1932 to describe what happened to the Armenians of the Empire). In the words of Krikor Beledian, Oshagan’s legacy is not defined by the fact that he survived the Aghéd, but that he confronted it, “opened thinking to its stupendous emptiness.” From this confrontation emerged a body of literature which is part testimony, part fiction, part myth, part autobiography, part recovery.

In private life, as his daughter (and my mother) Anahid Oshagan Voskeritchian used to say, he never spoke about the Aghéd nor about his years as a fugitive in the Contantinople (1915-1918). He avoided public speaking in general, particularly about the Aghéd. Only on one occasion, did he succumb to the pleas of his students to speak on April 24. The story is told in Anahid Oshagan Voskeritchian’s moving tribute to her father, published originally in Pakine (Beirut) in Armenian and then in The Armenian Review (Volume 35, 1982).

Here is her telling, with some minor edits:
” The week preceding April 24, my father would become a changed man; he was moody, agitated, lost like a sleep-walker. He didn’t eat, had bad dreams, couldn’t write. “All my friends,all of them, I can see them, one after another–Varoujan, Zohrab, Zartarian, Shahrigian,” he used to say.

Once, in Jerusalem, on the commemoration of April 24, the young men begged him to say a few words. He accepted with great difficulty first because of his heart condition, and second, because he used to say that it was just impossible to describe April 24 in words. The patriarch, the priests and large audience attended this memorial service. There were some solo songs, some poems recited. Then, it was my father’s turn. He approached the stage with slow steps and when he turned toward the audience, the public was watching him magnetized, this survivor of a generation of martyrs. He just stood there, so silent, so sad, looking nowhere, but seeing something. A few minutes passed. Still my father was silent,his face as white as a sheet, his gaze lost in the past. After a long silence, he began to cry. The audience burst into tears. He sat down on the chair, his lips curled to try to make a word like “water.” Someone behind me was saying, “Be quick, the man is going to die.” Some young man went upstage, took him by the arm, and brought him back slowly, and turning round to the audience, he ended the event with these word: “Oshagan has spoken his speech. The commemoration is over.”

~~

Thank you, Asbed Kotchikian, for securing the 1982 issue of the Armenian Review at such short notice!

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5 Arabic Books to Read ‘Before You Die’

Taline Voskeritchian:

Two books, Season of Migration to the North and Cities of Salt reappear several times, the former a very slim, riveting tale, and the latter a corpulent novel–both unsettling, both beautifully rendered.

Originally posted on Arabic Literature (in English):

Well, perhaps this one was a bit morbid:

The “Five Before You Die” was a feature we ran back in the summer 2010; by now, there are now many more great Arabic books available in translation, but this remains a strong list from translators, authors, critics, and publishers.

Shakir Mustafa

Although he might not put it on his resume, Mustafa was perhaps the first supporter of this blog.  He teaches at Northeastern University, translates, and is the editor and translator of the excellent Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology. His picks:

Mahmoud Saeed

Saeed is the acclaimed and award-winning author of Saddam City, among many…

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First loves: Chekhov’s “Seagull” among us…

imagesThere’s a scene half-way through Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” where Boris Trigorin, the famous writer, implores Irina Arkadina, a famous actress and Trigorin’s  lover, “Let me go, let me go.” He claims to have fallen in love with the young and ethereal Nina, an aspiring actress, and asks his companion to release him so he can take a shot at this kind of pure love. At least, that’s what he says.  Irina plays on his vanity and his fears and ends up keeping him in his place, next to her.  It is a powerful scene, laced with pathos and sadness as Trigorin comes to admit that he is too weak to take a risk. But more than that, it is a scene of such authenticity and universal appeal as to embarrass us, moderns, with its familiarity.   In Irina and Boris, we recognize ourselves, the ways in which fear, vanity and sense of safety conspire to keep us in our place–and miserable.  In Chekhov such inaction, or avoidance of action, has huge consequences for many individuals and can lead to tragic results.  But even in our atomized, shrunken world, Chekhov manages to get close to the bone in ways which make us laugh, for sure, but also make us hold back our emotions.

Photo:theatremania

Photo:theatremania.com

Kate Burton, in the role of Irina , and Ted Koch, in the role of Trigorin, play the scene to near-perfection, infusing it with this modern sensibility, no doubt enhanced by Paul Schmitdt’s excellent translation which takes the stuffiness out of language and makes it buoyant and casual. In fact,  the premise of the Huntington Theatre’s production is that Chekhov is one of us; he is our contemporary, and every aspect of the production–the acting, the directing, the scene design–all cooperate to drive this point home.

Chekhov is, of course, our contemporary.  That’s why we return to him and find his characters and their troubles so instructive.  He is our contemporary because he refuses to pass judgment on his characters, and will not allow us to do so.  For example, as scene between Irina and Trigorin unravels, we do not know if he is sincere in his love for Nina.  We find that out later, but even then, can we condemn him for his original decision to stay with Irina?  Have we not been in similar situations where we have chosen the easy way out rather than the perilous road?  Trigorin turns out to be a cad, a man enslaved to his vanity and fickleness.  But even then, we are hesitant to condemn him, as we are hesitant to judge the overbearing Irina. We cannot uphold even Nina, whose life is soiled by Trigorin, because of the fractured equation Chekhov proposes between life and art, that the former is the sacrifice for the latter, at least in the case of established art.  The young Kostya tries to dislodge that equation, both in his larger views of art and in his relationship to Nina, but he fails.  In fact, no character in this play of half a dozen memorable characters is free of folly.

entertinmentmonthly.com

Photo: entertainmentmonthly.com

In making “The Seagull” such a lively production, director Maria Aitken does something else: With the help of a superb translation and an ensemble cast, she manages to English (as verb) Chekhov, which is no small feat!  What a treat!

 

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Do you know the way to Sacromonte?

~~This post originally appeared on this blog; then it migrated to the blog of the radio program “On Being;” and now it is back in its home.  This homecoming today is an occasion for celebration in an otherwise mostly dreary day.~~

Do You Know the Way to Sacromonte?

by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor, with photos by Tamar Salibian

Path in Andalusia

The road may be — and almost always is — made of our footsteps, as Antonio Machado said, but there are places in the world, sacred sites, where arrival is at least equal to the effort of getting there, where our beginnings and our ends do actually know each other. The Camino du Sacromonte, which we recently climbed all the way to the Abbaye du Sacromonte at the very top of the trail is such a place.

We had begun rather unambitiously, meandering up and down through the alleyways of Albaicin, until we suddenly found ourselves on the Sacromonte trail. On one side was the lush landscape atop which sat the Alhambra; on the other side, and at a sharp elevation, we could make out the Abbey. It was a grey afternoon. We walked slowly and quietly, for there was not much sound around us save for a few tourists and locals, and the dogs of which there are an unusually large number in Albaicin. We stopped here and there, the landscape taking our breath away — literally. And then on a little bit more, and then another stop.

Vista Alegre

To Sacromonte

View of the Alhambra from the Road to SacromonteView of the Alhambra from the road to the Abbey of Sacromonte.

Then, it began to rain — first softly for a while, the droplets of whispers. The rain stayed with us all the way to the top, sometimes a mere hint, at other times a downpour. We continued walking for a long, long time, and then the rain became more ferocious as we made our way up the arch of the abbey. The path became more treacherous, but we persisted, stopping to catch our breath and then start again. For more than ten minutes, we ascended, our feet muddied, our hearts beating fast, our ears alert to the tiniest movement. But most of all, we were sustained by the smell of the absorbent landscape — the earth saturated with that moist fragrance, the vegetation holding the water in its roots but also on its surface.

Abadia del SacromonteEntrance to the Abbey of Sacromonte

It was not fear that seized me for that instant, though I may have expressed it in those terms. We’re alone, there’s no one around, just these two little women from Boston, speaking a foreign language, huddling against each other. It was awe, and awe is always mixed with an undercurrent of terror as though at any moment invisible figures — the ghosts of the gypsies for whose “education” the abbey was originally constructed in the seventeenth century — would suddenly jump out in an ambush. But it passed, that terror, leaving in its trail an unfamiliar but sweet sense of being gathered together, of being held, by the invisible hands and secret thread of the gods and their shadows, propelled by something transcendent.

We made it to the top and into the abbey, which was completely devoid of sound and sight. We sat in the foyer, looking out at the landscape ahead of us through the small iron gate. In the distance the Alhambra of the Muslims extended across the entire top of the mountains, and here, in this spot, the Christian abbey built on the grottos of the gypsies: a quintessential moment of faiths in violent embrace.

The Foyer of the Abbey of Sacromonte

We sat for quite a while, looking ahead and inward, waiting for the rain to subside, which it did not. No sense of triumph, no sense of victory, but something else, pure and of this place, at this moment. Perhaps this is what faith feels like, we said. This sense of being on top of the world, held — contained is a better description — by something invisible, something beyond this religious edifice. But ask the question and you’ve subverted the sentiment, you’ve sullied the faith. But if not faith, then what?

Sacromonte in the rain

There are places in the world where you can go down on your knees — even if you are a card-carrying secularist — and rail and curse and bless and thank your gods. Such places are removed from the push and pull of everyday life, from the noise and verbiage of human chatter. You can go down on your knees and when you come up again, you are less vulnerable, more resilient, at least for a little while — and a bit less wet. Camino du Sacromonte is such a place.

~~~

After some time, we decided to go down to the main road and find a way to get home. We did not have the foggiest idea, except that we had heard that bus #35 passed from the main trail.

Leaving the Abbey of Sacromonte

We made it back to the main trail, and within five minutes, bus #35 came speeding through the narrow street. It was going in the opposite direction, up to the Abbey, but the driver motioned to us to jump in. Inside the bus was a rowdy, laughing bunch of passengers whose noise turned wilder with each jolt and turn of the bus. They all seemed to know each other, or acted that way, which is more likely. Before we made it to the top, the self-appointed “leader” of the gang asked if anyone was going to the abbey. No one was, and so with a rather wild turn of the steering wheel our driver took a right downhill turn, which I thought would land the little bus at the base of the ravine on its side and throw us into an accident from which we would be delivered to the community of ghosts that inhabit these mountains. But nothing of the sort happened though the swerve was pretty precipitous.

We made it back to the main trail and to the Albaicin. No doubt the gods and the ghosts were on our side, all of them that roam these lands — Christians, Muslims, Jews, the gypsies, the heathens, the believers, the kings, the commoners. Those who were burned at the stake, those who were occupied, those who were expelled, and those who built their monuments on top of the destruction, the mayhem.

The ashes. All in the name of faith. But if not faith, then what?


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Re-reading Darwish on March 13

~~Mahmoud Darwish was born on this day–March 13–1941.  For all that he has given to us, his readers, for the monumental body of his work and its staying power, and for his enduring images and ideas, these lines.  The first is an excerpt from “Under Siege” and the second is “I Remember al-Sayyab.”  The later was published in the London Review of Books. Translations by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis.~~

If you were not the rain, my love, then be the tree
Saturated and bountiful, be the tree.
And if you were not the tree, my love, then be the stone
Saturated and moist,  be the stone.
And if you were not the stone, my love, then be the moon
In the dream of the loved one, be the moon.
This is what a woman said to her son at his funeral.

~

I Remember al-Sayyab*

I remember al-Sayyab, his futile cries across the Gulf:
‘Iraq, Iraq, nothing but Iraq,’
And nothing answers but an echo.
I remember al-Sayyab under these same Sumerian skies
Where a woman surmounted the void
To make us heirs to earth and exile.
I remember al-Sayyab . . .  Poetry is born in Iraq,
So belong to Iraq—become a poet, my friend!

I remember al-Sayyab did not find the life
He’d imagined between the Tigris and Euphrates,
And did not think like Gilgamesh of the leaves of immortality,
And did not think of resurrection and beyond . . .

I remember al-Sayyab lifted from Hamurabi
A legal code to hold against his shame.
I remember al-Sayyab when I’m feverish
Or worse: My brothers are making dinner
For General Hulagu’s army—no other servants but my brothers!

I remember al-Sayyab, how either of us ever imagined
Nectar the bees might not merit,
Or that it would take more than two small hands
To reach our absence.

I remember al-Sayyab. Dead ironsmiths rise up
From the ground to fashion us shackles.
I remember al-Sayyab. Poetry is desire and exile,
Twins.  We wanted no more
Than a life and death to call our own.

‘Iraq, Iraq,
Nothing but Iraq . . .

*The Iraqi poet Bad Shaker al-Sayyab, who died in Kuweit in 1964, was a pioneer of the free verse movement in modern Arabic literature.

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