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The Critical Corner - 03/08/2004

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Why we should read...

'Hadji Murad' by Hagop Oshagan
'101 Years' - a trilogy of Hadji Murad (pp7-95),
Hadji Abdullah and Suleyman Effendi
(471pp, Antelias, Lebanon, 1996)

Armenian News Network / Groong
March 8, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian


A FICTIONAL SOCIOLOGY OF THE ARMENIAN BANDIT AND FEDAYI

'Hadji Murad', a short novel written by Hagop Oshagan in 1933, is a
compelling tale of love and passion, rural banditry and nationalist
politics in the late 19th century Ottoman Empire. A work of many and
diverse themes it yields generously to examination, contemplation and
consideration. Oshagan's acute intelligence, his profound feel for
historical change and his alertness to psychological and social
dynamics that drive human actions gives artistic depth and
authenticity to Hadji Murad's fantastic odyssey that takes him from
rural bandit to Armenian freedom fighter and then to a tragic downfall
following an affair with the wife of the Turkish official assigned to
capture him. Vivid and imposing images of suffering and rebellion,
love and treachery are etched with subtle perception in prose serviced
by an extraordinarily original and inventive imagination.

The deft depiction of Murad's personal and political journey abounds
with startling insights into internal social relations that
characterised both the Armenian and many other national revolutionary
movements. Also expertly displayed are those mechanisms of Ottoman
power that sought to crush the Armenian movement. Oshagan brings to
life social processes common to many nations that drove rebellious
peasants first to banditry and then into the embrace of armed
political movements. Into the account of Murad's passionate affair
with the beautiful Sanam he also weaves observations on life,
sexuality, the social power of money, the customs and traditions
binding Armenians and Turks and much else.  Of notable force are
passages on the tragedy of women who, 'nothing but instruments for
man's pleasures', had 'no social existence' and before whom 'all
avenues in life, all horizons and visions' were blocked. (p59).


				  I

We first meet Hadji Murad when he is already in prison serving a
101-year sentence for a 'catalogue of murders and other offences -
that would fill a book.'  (p10 ) In his presence one can still 'feel
that flow personality that suggests greatness or even an affinity with
the gods'. (p9) But Hadji Murad, just twenty-five, is a broken man. He
recounts his adventures as if an old man 'beyond the profit and loss
account of events', as if 'a stranger to or a mere dull echo of events
that had in fact passed through the valley of his soul.' (p10) These
adventures nevertheless illuminate the history of the times tracing
the changing forms of banditry and its relation to the emergence of
armed Armenian nationalist movements in the Ottoman Empire.

Truly times maketh the man. Hadji Murad's own bandit career cannot be
what it was for those who went before him. Prior to the 1880s and
1890s banditry was primarily a social phenomenon, an expression of
social revolt by individuals and groups from the impoverished rural
population of every nationality. It then had a Robin Hood character
frequently uniting, in the same bands, Armenian and Turkish outlaws
whose exclusive 'target was the wealth of the rich' (p11).  This
'older generation of bandits' hit the boss, the lord and the chief,
but never touched a hair of the labouring peasant, Armenian or Turk.'
(p29). In these now vanished times Hadji Murad would have 'been
regarded as brave and honourable' (p15) by both Armenian and Turk.
Banditry 'had not yet assumed a national form. It was not regarded as
a national virtue or national vice to be trumpeted from minaret or
church steeple.' (p12)

Offering a lucid sociological portrait of ordinary peasants driven to
banditry by 'oppression and injustice'(p12) Oshagan describes the
rules and ethics that governed their relations with each other, the
population, the police and soldiers. Applauded by the population,
they were feared by the 'opportunist policeman' with 'his servant
mentality' and the 'impoverished soldier' who always sought to avoid a
direct confrontation. On his part the bandit recognising his opponent
as 'the possible mainstay' of his family often spared him. So
developed a 'hidden harmony' between bandit and soldier, all the more
so for the bandit's consciousness that 'the government is never as
fierce as when its soldiers' blood is drawn. (p26) Frequently unable
to capture bandits in open battle, the government resorted to
treachery, that 'foremost among vices' whose 'mother is poverty'
(p65).  Murad himself is captured only after that 'moment of great
danger' for the bandit - 'the intervention of the yellow metal', (p65).

The historical accuracy of Oshagan's portrayal is vouched for by
others.  Rouben in his famous 'Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary'
(Volume 1, Beirut, 1972) and Levon Chormissian' in his monumental 'An
Overview of One Hundred Years of Western Armenian History' refer to
the existence of mixed Armenian-Turkish outlaw bands.  The phenomenon
of segments of downtrodden classes from the oppressor and oppressed
nations uniting against a common enemy is attested to in a most
unlikely form - American slaves and white sailors uniting against the
slave masters. An instance of this is portrayed in 'Sacred Hunger' by
novelist Barry Unsworth. Unsworth incidentally also wrote 'The Rage of
the Vulture' based in Istanbul and featuring the Armenian massacres
and an Armenian revolutionary among others.

But times were a changing. With the emergence of nationalist movements
'relations between races, established for centuries, began to slowly
but surely change'. (p28) Banditry also underwent a transformation as
social protest was absorbed into the political struggle. The old unity
of Armenian and Turkish outlaw was torn asunder. The Armenian bandit
was drawn into the Armenian liberation movement. The Turkish
nationalists, in control of the Ottoman state, recruited Turkish
bandits 'into a powerful political movement' designed to 'terrorise'
its opponents. (p11) They also initiated an unrelenting propaganda
campaign associating all protest by non-Turks with 'treacherous'
political movements to be suppressed at all costs. Thus the once
admired Armenian bandits were transformed into 'amoral killers,
traitors to the nation and damnable mutineers and insurgents'. (p16).

Such were the times when Hadji Murad comes of age. To avenge a
personal humiliation he sells family property, purchases revolver and
ammunition and retreats to the hills first to practice and then to
attack. He was gifted. His 'finger never wasted a bullet.' Aiming at
any bird fleeing 'through the sky, he would fell it, hitting it
precisely at the point intended.' (p30) In the early period Murad
'renewed the traditions of the now nearly forgotten' social bandits
whether Christian or Muslim. (p29) He cleansed villages of
'intolerable men, of cowards whose influence and power rested solely
on wealth or family connection.' (p30) A 'mere good day' from him 'was
sufficient to force these heroes back into their shells.' (p30) So was
built the reputation that was to draw Murad to the attention of the
leadership of the Armenian revolutionary movement.

Invited to join the ranks of the Armenian fedayee Murad's exploits
secure him even greater acclaim. He becomes the subject for
revolutionary song and legend. But his free spirit, his restless
energy, his unquenchable thirst for adventure and his readiness to
pull the trigger did not rest easy with a cautious leadership who, in
a cynical ploy to remove him from the scene, assign him an impossible
mission. Murad's easy success disappoints them. But conscious of 'the
abyss that separated' him from a movement whose 'language, mentality,
program and perspective' were 'so alien' (p36) he returns to his own
mountains.


				  II

Taking the reader deep into this abyss Oshagan shows those fraught and
tense relationships that mark many 19th and 20th century liberation
movements that brought together an urban intelligentsia and the rural
peasantry who appeared to have little in common. The Armenian case
represented a very particular and unique expression of this. The
privileged urban intelligentsia that led the movement was based not in
the homeland but in the distant imperial capital Istanbul. On the
other hand the peasantry and artisan class was dispersed through the
Anatolian provinces and in historical Armenia. Contrary to the
intelligentsia its hatred for oppression was fired by the harshest and
most direct personal experience.

Through the unfolding relationship between Hadji Murad's and his
revolutionary mentors Oshagan dissects and examines the movement with
the expertise of the scholarly historian and the flair and imagination
of the artist. The urban leadership 'though possessing royal hearts
were impoverished both in mind and in body.' (p34). Its vision was
based not on direct experience but on worthless 'bookish knowledge'.
Still these 'thin gentlemen' demonstrated 'a terrifying stubbornness
in defending and enforcing' their 'unreal programme of action'.  (p35)
They readily claimed 'a superior knowledge of mountain topography' for
nothing more than 'having studied their classical Greek names in
school text books'. Planning sites for weapons dumps 'they placed
copies of ancient classical' maps 'before a man who had studied every
nook and cranny of his region.'(p34). Most devastatingly this
leadership gleamed with the 'stupidity of a profound incomprehension'
of its enemy. Gullible in the extreme it gave credence to European
claims that the Ottoman state 'was a sick man verging on death' (p34)
and so it fatally underestimated its power and viciousness.

But Hadji Murad is nevertheless irresistibly drawn to these 'military
experts dressed in European trousers' even as he 'instinctively
rejected their impractical' strategy and tactics. (p36) For, despite
all its terrible shortcomings, the urban intelligentsia played an
indispensable and positive role. The rebellious peasant represented a
fragmented class scattered and isolated across the Ottoman Empire and
in historical Armenia. The urban intelligentsia's work helped unify
them, cultivating and nurturing in them a sense of national identity
and pride. Through the organization created by the 'thin gentlemen'
Hadji Murad met 'people just like himself.' He 'came to know his
brothers from Mush, Van, Bitlis, Svaz, Garin and elsewhere.' At first
he felt them 'to be the sons of another people' but soon realized 'how
elementally the same they were!' (p46) Among these men 'there was none
who had not suffered a crucifiction in his heart.' (p48) All were
driven by a common unendurable suffering - the murder of a father or
mother, the rape of a sister, the abduction of a child, a home reduced
to ashes, the plunder of a village. So at meetings in some dark
tenement in an Istanbul ghetto they would 'fill the lantern of their
hope and then disappear into the dark' (p36) on some revolutionary
mission.

In his evaluation Oshagan falters only at two points.  He correctly
argues that the Armenian movement's reliance on Europe 'constituted
the starting point' for the 'greatest tragedy' in modern Armenian
life. He couples this however with an ambiguous and unelaborated
charge that it gave undue 'weight to gold-plated ideas' from Europe.
(p29) But 'Hadji Murad' himself testifies to the value of some of
these ideas in helping instill a sense of pride and dignity. The
failure was not in appropriating, but in not developing these ideas to
suit the actual conditions of the Armenian people. Oshagan also takes
to task the Armenian leadership for its attempts to link up with
Turkish political forces. Whilst tenable when referring to the Turkish
elite it is otherwise questionable. The demographic weight of the
Armenians and their dispersal across the Ottoman Empire left them no
choice but to seek allies among other nations however difficult the
task.

Unsparing in his criticism of the Armenian liberation movement Oshagan
nevertheless has no truck with dismissive Diaspora intellectuals. Such
people for whom a 'subscription to some national newspaper' has become
a 'synonym for patriotism' are incapable of grasping the experience of
'those who witnessed something even worse than the slaughter of their
loved ones - the slaughter of their dreams.' (p52). They know nothing
of life under Ottoman tyranny yet readily 'hurl judgmental rockets'
and even 'cleanse the reputation of our enemies'.  Sinking lower some
'even lower blame us for our own murder.' (p53) Insulting their
fathers, mothers and their grandparents as cowardly 'rabbits' they
know nothing of 'the boys' of whom Murad 'was a representative'. (p52)
Oshagan's artistry does much to recover the living reality of these
men as they engaged in uneven battle against imperial Ottoman power.


				 III

Oshagan once famously remarked that people would first have to read
his novels in order to 'properly understand the Turk'. In the context
of Armenian-Turkish relations there is here a large measure of truth.
In 'Hadji Murad' the representation of the Turk is realistically
complex and diverse and is free of the vulgar caricature that so
troubles the cruder Armenian imagination. Even as he uncovers moral
collapse and savagery Oshagan does not tar all Turks with the same
brush. The Turk does not appear as a uniform, undifferentiated type,
possessed of a set of unchanging barbaric traits. The Turkish society
we encounter in Hadji Murad is primarily that of the higher,
privileged echelons now in transition to a ruthless chauvinism intent
on annihilating all other national movements. Those responsible for
violence against Armenians are agents of the Ottoman state: its
policemen, its soldiers and political or religious officials.  When
Oshagan refers to the common Turkish peasant or villager the terms are
entirely different. Here there is no inevitable or pre-ordained abyss
that divides Armenian and Turk.

Oshagan offers descriptions of many threads of common custom and
tradition, prejudice and superstition that served to bring Armenian
and Turk, as well as other nationalities together. Their common
reverence for the Robin Hood type bandits is one example. There are
many more. An interesting one is Sanaam's efforts to arrange a meeting
with Murad.  Hoping to garner information of Murad's whereabouts
without drawing undue attention to herself, she visits the local
Armenian priest. Such a step would indeed then have gone unremarked.
It was common practice for Muslim and Christian to approach the
Armenian priest for advice and counsel.

Elsewhere the ordinary Turkish peasant or villager is depicted as an
unwitting victim of manipulation and propaganda.  It is the Turkish
elite who orchestrated a campaign that sought to 'cultivate and
inculcate hatred for Armenians in every single Turk'. It worked
assiduously to then transform this hatred 'into an active poison'
(p31, 32) that 'enraged decent Muslims' against the Armenians. As a
result of such frenzied preaching in the press and the mosque that
'the Turkish peasant learned to regard his Armenian neighbour's land
as if it was property stolen from himself.' (p13) Oshagan indicates
the fertile ground for such propaganda among the tens of thousands of
impoverished Turks who, fleeing the liberated Balkans, roamed and
ravaged Anatolia and the historic Armenian provinces.  But he offers
no explanation for the absence of a significant democratic Turkish
nationalism to counter its dominant fascist trend.

'Hadji Murad' also touches on the potential for human solidarity
between Armenian and Turk at a deeper and more elemental level. While
in society at large the Turkish elite was desperate to destroy such
solidarity, in prison removed from the direct pull of nationalist
rivalries (p94), Turkish prisoners, 'despite instructions from the
prison governor' refuse to kill' Hadji Murad. They sense they have
more in common with him than with their Turkish jailers 'who steal
their food rations and force them to eat putrid broad beans instead of
meat.' (p92). Murad in turn does 'not now hate the Turk'. He sees them
as 'brothers in misery' suffering 'the heavy hand of powers stronger
than themselves.' (p93). Underpinning this affirmation is a typical
Oshagan comment on the terrible sexual frustration experienced by all
prisoners irrespective of nationality. This is no place to elaborate
on Oshagan's conception of sexuality. But it is necessary to note that
for him it is not a narrow instinctual phenomenon.  It incorporates a
broad, all embracing network of the instinctual and the conscious, the
emotional and the carnal, the social and the individual that together
play a crucial role in defining the individual in society.

'Hadji Murad' is not however free of dangerously ambiguous
generalisations.  Describing Murad's torture after his capture Oshagan
writes that 'the Turks are never so terrible and ugly as when they
abuse a chained man. This returns them to their nomadic instincts
making one forget the contact they had with the civilised world.' Yet
the context for such statements clearly refers them not to Turks in
general but to those in positions of political or social power. It is
worth noting again, in parenthesis, that Oshagan's accurate depiction
of the complex reality of Armenian-Turkish relations, shunned by many
today, is endorsed, again by Rouben in volume one of his 'Memoirs of
An Armenian Revolutionary'.


				  IV

In the opening pages of the 'Hadji Murad' Oshagan remarks that space
did not 'allow for a comprehensive picture' of bandits such as Murad
'who, one day mere common criminals, were so suddenly transformed to
become severe and saintly when they first felt the homeland within the
curve of their dagger's blade.'  Reading professional historian Eric
Hobsbawm's comprehensive 'Bandits' written some 30 years later one is
struck by the numerous historical and social conceptions it has in
common with Oshagan's 'Hadji Murad'. This affinity reflecting the
sociological and historical value of 'Hadji Murad' also prompts a
thought about its literary form.

Fitting into no particular category but regarded by its author as a
novel, 'Hadji Murad' combines fiction and history, sociological
commentary and psychological observation in prose that is touched
sometimes by poetic flight. This combination of diverse literary form
has a long tradition in Armenian culture stretching back to the 5th
century Golden Age of Armenian literature. It is reasonable to suggest
that Hagop Oshagan's 'Hadji Murad' is a sort of excellent modern
variant of a much older tradition. Oshagan, whilst not a modest man
made no such claims. But he does draw a suggestive and provocative
parallel between Hadji Murad and the 5th century Vahan Mamikonian, a
heroic rebel figure of Armenian resistance to Persian domination.

Noting 'the ease' with which guerrilla battles 'are weighted with the
feathers of legend' and 'transformed, when conditions permit, into
historical battles' Oshagan asks whether Ghazar Barpetzi, the 'most
authentic of our classical historians' did anything different 'when he
devoted some two hundred pages to Vahan Mamikonian's guerrilla wars?'
(p40) There is here no intent to demean either Vahan Mamikonian or
Hadji Murad. Rather, the parallel serves as a fitting honour to the
19th and early 20th century bandits and their resistance to oppression
whose story Oshagan tells so well.


--
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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