Reviewed by Rev. Barkev N. Darakjian
Years ago when my friend Murad Meneshian informed me that he planned to write Raffi’s biography, my immediate thought was not to encourage him, realizing his professional responsibilities and the financial requirements to publish a book. When I did not hear from him for a long time, I assumed that he had abandoned his project. I was pleasantly surprised when I received a copy of this great book about Raffi. It seems that the will of a researcher, and especially the intense curiosity and love for Raffi, had driven Meneshian to undertake this very difficult but grateful task. It appears that Meneshian has intended to familiarize the English-speaking generation with Raffi and his timeless messages. Undoubtedly Raffi’s soul rejoices now, realizing that the English-speaking generation will hear his prophetic messages.
Raffi was a true prophet. I don’t know whether Meneshian is aware that two other writers have called Raffi a prophet. Nigol Aghbalian in his Kragan/knnatadagan yerker (1950) wrote: “Raffi has a prophetic talent,” and referred to Kamar Katipa’s (Rafayel Batganian) letter to Raffi wherein Batganian had written: “You are a prophet.”
What and who is a prophet? I want to explain this word in a few lines because to most of us a prophet is someone who has the talent to predict the future. This is only partially true. In the Old Testament we come across prophets who were the people’s spiritual and political leaders. They received messages from God and transmitted them to the people, sometimes peacefully and at other times with holy and just fury. Inspired by God’s spirit, they resolved international issues concerning their people’s present and future. The prophets, in the name of God, scolded kings, religious leaders, and exploitative landlords. They were effective spokesmen for God’s justice, compassion, and love. Thus, it is unlikely for readers of Raffi’s works and biography not to realize that Raffi is a true prophet. After saying all this, I ask for forgiveness if I go further and call Raffi an apostle, in the sense that he was sent to his people with a special mission, someone who felt the weight of his mission and placed his life in danger for implementing his mission, the purpose of which was national enlightenment and liberation.
Meneshian’s book dedicated to Raffi’s life and work contains approximately 350 pages and is presented to us with 28 headings. It has a rich bibliography with nearly 80 works by Armenian and non-Armenian authors and the names of several newspapers, which have provided 500 reference notes. A biography is a genre that has its distinct style. Meneshian comes through as a successful writer in this field. Raffi is presented to us at first as Hakob Melik Hakobian, born in 1835 in Payajuk village of Salmast in Persia. Due to unfortunate financial reasons, Hakob was deprived of a higher education. His innate intelligence and hard work helped him to become an erudite author. Under difficult conditions, Raffi became the foremost Armenian historical novelist. At the same time, he became one of the developers of the Eastern Armenian ashkharhapar (modern) literary language, following Khachadur Abovian’s footsteps.
The reader soon becomes familiar with the political conditions in 19th-century Eastern Armenia, along with the dismal ignorance the wretchedness of the Armenian people and their uncertain future. Raffi became a true advocate for the necessity to embrace European liberation thoughts as also promoted by Grigor Artsruni, Mikayel Nalbandian, Stepanos Nazarian, Shirvanzade, Mesrop Taghiadian, and other contemporary intellectuals, who advocated national enlightenment and liberation. The clergy did not look favorably upon the intelligentsia’s drive for liberation and disparaged them with such epithets as prod (protestant).
Meneshian genuinely and realistically presents a vivid picture of Raffi’s tormented and restless emotional condition. Throughout the book, the reader learns about Raffi’s contentious and impassioned expressions during his encounter swith people. Grigor Artsruni, the publisher and editor of Mshak, invited Raffi to work with him and write new literary works for the paper. It was in this paper that Hakob Melik Hakobian adopted his penname Raffi. Although Raffi appreciated Ardzruni as an exceptionally intelligent and gifted writer, he was unable to work with him. For the next three years, Raffi taught in several schools in Tavriz and Agulis. Because of disagreements with a segment of the community, he was forced to leave his teaching positions. To be fair, Raffi was a kind-hearted and modest person. He did not hesitate to ask for forgiveness from those whom he had hurt unintentionally.
Raffi had more enemies than admirers. Surprisingly, these internal and external tempests and tribulations spurred him to write increasingly interesting and inspiring works, among which is Samvel, considered his masterpiece according to literary figures. Many of Raffi’s works have been translated into Russian and European languages. Raffi’s characters have been teachers through whom he revived the Armenian national, familial, and religious issues of his times.
Meneshian has assigned a chapter on nationality and religion, where Raffi cautions his readers not to confuse one with the other, and that to be Armenian does not necessitate being Christian. Raffi brings the example of pagan Armenia and Armenianism and points out that the people were Armenians despite being pagan. To transfer this issue to the present, Raffi cautions the parishioners of the Mother Church not to label as non-Armenian or lesser Armenians the Catholic and Evangelical Armenians. In Raffi’s words, one can be even a Muslim and still be Armenian. Whereas religion is a matter of conscience and conviction, ethnicity is a matter of national heritage and family background. A person becomes contemptible when he denies his national origin. After that, the individual must decide whether to be a Christian believer or a non-believer. Our nationality must be what unites us and not our religious beliefs. This is an example that shows Raffi’s liberalism and realism. Right or wrong, for him, foremost are the nation and nationality.
In Raffi’s works, we distinguish the true Armenian from the false, circumstantial, or opportunist Armenian. It is impossible to read Raffi’s works without developing stronger Armenian values. It is hard to follow Raffi’s life and works without admiring his talent, patriotism, and moral principles. This year is the 175th anniversary of the birth of this great man, great Armenian, and great writer. He is worthy of our admiration. It is worthwhile to commemorate nationally the anniversary of Raffi’s birth. Raffi passed away on April 25, 1888 at the age of 53 in Tiflis (Georgia) when, in his own words, he was tired, despite his relatively young age. His funeral was pompous and majestic; he was buried at the Armenian Khojivank cemetery.
In the last chapter, Meneshian has included excerpts from the laudatory articles written by many contemporary and most renowned Armenian writers and Raffi’s acquaintances. Besides listing all of Raffi’s works and their publication dates, Meneshian has included a list of all the translated works in Russian, Georgian, German, French, Polish, English, and Spanish. As mentioned above, a great effort has been made to show the appreciation of Raffi’s contemporary writers for this great man, great prophet, great apostle, and great novelist of our nation of all times. Without any doubt, readers of Raffi’s works will remember his name with admiration and gratitude.
Congratulations to Murad Meneshian for his conscientious efforts, which has given us this very interesting and rich biography that once more glorifies, in the pantheon of immortal writers, Raffi—Hakob Melik Hakobian.
Rev. Darakjian, in addition to his official Pastoral duties, has been a teacher of Armenian language and literature, the editor of Armenian Evangelical periodicals both in the Middle East and the U.S., a writer, and a translator for over half a century. Recently, he published his sixth book, Armenian Evangelical Movement: History, Faith, and Mission. He continues to contribute articles to Armenian papers and periodicals.