‘Raffi: The Prophet From Payajuk’
By Murad A. Meneshian
Glenview, Ill., 2010: 360 pp.
Price: $29.95, hardcover
Murad Meneshian’s new biography, Raffi: The Prophet from Payajuk, introduces one of Armenia’s greatest writers to the English-speaking world. Meneshian’s diligent research is presented in a simple and accessible language. His discussions often branch out into interesting historical discursions. The information contained in this volume speaks to the extensive and commendable amount of research he has done.
Through this book one not only becomes familiar with the life of one of the greatest Armenian literary figures, Raffi, born Hagop Melik-Hagopian (1835-88), but also his contemporaries, and the cultural and political movements sweeping through the area at the time. Here we encounter Khachatur Abovian, Taghiadiants, Mikayel Nalbandian, Shirvanzade, and many others.
We come to know of Sara, the girl Raffi—or Hakob, as he is referred throughout the book—had loved in his youth, the girl who had been forced to marry the son of a rich man while Raffi was away pursuing his education, and who had taken poison and died just before her wedding ceremony. This, naturally, deeply affected Raffi, and he wrote the poem “Sara” in her memory.
“Years later when Raffi wrote Kaytser, he included in the novel many of the incidents and his ideas described in Sara. Hakob described the village life with its traditions and customs, prejudices and superstitions, persecutions and exploitations, wretchedness and servility, degradation of women, religious intolerance, fraudulent practices, love, illiteracy, ignorance, and backwardness… The poem is a metaphoric compilation of the ugliness that Hakob saw and abhorred, such as the oppressive social customs of forcing a young girl to marry someone she did not love, and the illogically cruel and ruthless religious practice of the Church’s refusal to bury a suicide victim in the cemetery. These themes of dehumanizing customs also appeared in the novel khente (The Fool),” writes Meneshian.
Soon after Kaytser, its sequel Khachagoghi Hishatakarane was released. These were of an entirely new genre of books in the Armenian literary tradition, ones that focused on corruption and injustice in society. “Raffi remains the first and the only person who undertook this new form,” writes Meneshian.
Following the publication of Khachagoghi Hishatakarane, Raffi received criticism from community and church leaders, and especially venomous attacks from “conservative and regressive groups.” One such “enemy,” Haykuni, wrote “a vitriolic critique of Kaytser…[which] compared the heroes of the novel to the three assassins of Tsar Alexander II. The malicious attack was nothing more than a vicious act to have Raffi arrested by the Russian authorities,” writes Meneshian.
Raffi was accused of destroying traditional family values and for presenting Armenians as corrupt. Similarly, his work was translated into Farsi and presented to local government and religious authorities. “They accused me of being a political criminal against the government and a blasphemer of the Muslim religion. The religious leader issued a decree to kill me… Atrpatakan Governor Sahab Divan examined the accusations and found them to be the plot of a few Armenians, nothing else,” wrote Raffi in an article. After hiding Raffi for a week in his own house, the governor provided him with bodyguards to leave Persia.
Attacks, arrests, and investigations didn’t seem to break Raffi’s spirit. Finding solace in knowing that a similar fate was suffered by literary figures before him, he wrote, “I am an insignificant writer of a small nation, but such persecutions have taken place among the largest nations and against great writers. France at one time exiled Victor Hugo, but now the French worship him. Prison, exile, and persecution were the fate of so many famous writers, and therein lay their glory.”
Raffi’s novels, aside from making a case for the need for social reform, also aimed to spark people’s desire to join the struggle for liberation. To achieve this, “Raffi considered it necessary to show the people that Armenians had a nation in not only the past but also just a few decades earlier,” writes Meneshian. “He said, ‘Search a nation’s antiquities and in a single night its dormant soul will awaken.’” And so his historical novels were written with this in mind.
Raffi encountered much opposition, hatred, and attacks. His financial situation was so pathetic that it was rumored he did not even possess a clean white shirt to be buried in. After his death, as news of his passing reached the ears of linguist, poet, and friend Rafayel Patkanian (Gamar Katipa) who was in Nakhitchevan, Patkanian wrote: “Oh, ungrateful Armenian community, sons of dogs! Eulogies? Oh, you suckers of dog’s milk! Hypocrites! You deprived him of a white shirt when he was alive, and now that he is dead, you prepare to bury him with fanfare and with the high clergy’s participation. Oh, you wise brother, this is the fate of Armenian writers and activists—a poor soul with a piece of dry bread and a dirty shirt.”
The volume includes annotations, an appendix, bibliography, and index. It is comprised of 22 chapters, moving chronologically from Raffi’s childhood to his death, with the last chapter, “Raffi Remembered,” being a compilation of writings, mentions, and praises of Raffi by such national giants as Hovhannes Toumanian, Simon Vratsian, and Daniel Varoujan.