Zohrab: The Poturlı

This story by Krikor Zohrab was originally published in Massis on May 20th 1900 and later compiled in Krikor Zohrab’s collection of short stories, Կեանքը ինչպէս որ է [Life as it is] in 1911. It is translated to English by Jennifer Manoukian.

I

Returning from the end of the year award ceremony, Zarouhi—in good spirits, but exhausted from the excitement of the festivities—passed through the steep, winding streets of the village with a bundle of gilded books under her arm. As she passed women knitting socks in front of their houses and boys running barefoot in the dusty road, she cast a proud, almost contemptuous, look on the villagers watching her.

Krikor Zohrab

For Zarouhi it was a triumphant return, back to her family and to her small house perched on a hill on the far edge of the village. It was a house that was so old and decrepit that it seemed to stay upright only by leaning against the other houses around it.

In that dark, dirty shack, Zarouhi—a budding sixteen year-old bursting with all the magnificence and energy of youth—was like a single rose blooming amid heaps of garbage.

And here, in this poverty, the joyful madness of her graduation seemed out of place.

The moment she stepped into the house, nothing remained from the speeches delivered a few hours earlier, from the praise lavished on her by the principal and the school board, from the audience’s applause repeated again and again to congratulate each prize winner or from the colorful, imaginary bouquet of compliments and promises.

Her weak, sickly mother was in bed and the shrieks and screeches of her brother—a four year-old dressed in rags—could be heard from the other end of the street. For Zarouhi, it was as if this endless cry of discontent was the real voice of this poor home.

She went to her mother’s bedside to show her the magnificent prizes that she was given, but they made more of an impression on child playing on the floor than on the sick woman in bed. She went up to her small room to carefully arrange her prizes next to her schoolbooks, an act that symbolized the long-awaited end of school and her hope for the beginning of a better life.

 

II

She imagined that life. She saw it and almost reveled in it in her mind. Zarouhi’s intellect and maturity quickly separated her from the village life around her. She was an educated girl who had exceeded all of her mother’s hopes for her. Her mother had worked as a wet nurse and maid in Constantinople where, for many long years, she had raised other girls. Seeing these girls who she had nursed become educated young women aroused longing and determination to see her own daughter become like them. In Constantinople and especially upon returning to the village, she made sacrifices, not sparing any expense to give her daughter the kind of education that a child from wealthy family would receive. She told her daughter so many marvelous things about the lives of Armenian women in Constantinople that Zarouhi’s mind filled with romanticized images of the city’s opulence and grandeur. Zarouhi’s classmates treated her as the most knowledgeable among them because behind every statement laid the authority of her mother—a worldly woman who had lived in Constantinople.

At school, Zarouhi had met all of the goals set for her. Every year, just like this past year, she was the first in her class and the object of more praise than any of the girls from more affluent families.

Both mother and daughter—in a secret, tacit agreement—fed the same hope that they would one day pull themselves out of village life.

Her teacher at school—a woman from Constantinople and epitome of perfection in Zarouhi’s eyes—complemented this ambition. This woman must have fallen from heaven to choose to live so far from the capital and teach village girls with such devotion. She never missed the opportunity to talk about Constantinople—her Constantinople—to which every village, villager and village school was compared and ultimately failed to measure up.

In her last year of school, Zarouhi became close friends with her teacher, so close that the same unspoken dissatisfaction began growing in both of them.

Her readings about life in Constantinople also did their part in stirring her young soul. The last year of school was a beautiful, memorable year full of dreams in which city life was sketched out in all of its minute details and variations. The freedom of its way of life was like a rainbow drawn over her gloomy village existence.

 

III

Early in the morning, the neighborhood women and girls gathered around the fountain—each with a bucket and water jug in hand—to begin their monotonous routine of housework and gossip.

All the rumors about scandals in the village originated from around the fountain. It was like a telephone receiver that spread news through the village with the help of a thousand and one different people.

After greetings were exchanged and petty disputes around the fountain were resolved, Isgouhi—the most curious and well-informed woman in the village—announced the news of the day:

—“Girls, did you know that Ohandjan asked for Zarouhi’s hand in marriage?”

—“Ohandjan?”

A whisper of surprise and disbelief swept through the envious crowd like a gust of wind rippling the surface of a calm ocean.

Ohandjan—a robust, strong-willed and brave young man —drew the attention of every village mother who had a daughter to marry. He was a genuinely handsome boy: the potour that hugged his shapely calves—the envy of all the women in the village—and peeked out from under his aba[2], the tightly cinched belt that made his waist bulge below his cropped vest, the special saunter normally reserved for tall men, the long tassels of his cloth-covered fez—off center on his head—that grazed his shoulders as he walked all added an allure to his virile charm. The delicate curls of his newly grown mustache inadvertently seared the hearts of many village girls.

On top of his physical appeal, he owned a pair of oxen and a large field, which he bought with what he earned as a simple farmhand. He had the clean, fresh smell of hard work, simplicity and rusticity. He took pride in his rusticity and it suited him well.

Yet, after much deliberation, he finally decided to take an educated girl as a wife. A marriage of this kind was an unusual idea. It reluctantly entered his mind, but slowly took hold of him. And, in the words of Dumas, the longer he considered the idea, the more convincing it became.

Reflecting on the situation a bit more, he realized that his choice was motivated not by the glory that he—an uneducated, unsophisticated man—would experience by marrying the most learned girl in the village, but by a genuine fondness for her. Added to this fondness was the inner satisfaction he derived from the idea of saving a poor girl from hardship and offering her a modest, but comfortable life. Guided by all of these thoughts, Ohandjan—ignoring his mother’s unspoken objections—went to ask for Zarouhi’s hand in marriage, barely six months after her graduation.

Unlike the women gathered around the fountain who considered her lucky, Zarouhi did not see the marriage as an opportunity. It was an ordinary, banal marriage better suited for a wash girl or a well girl, but it was far from her dreams—the dreams of an educated girl. To be married to a farmer was to be forever tied to an endless cycle of tilling, sowing and harvesting. It was a youth limited by wheat, hay and manure. This was all that the marriage promised her. The young man standing in front of her asking for her hand lost all of his youthful charms the moment she laid eyes on his unsightly village clothing.

Zarouhi preferred to continue living in poverty than marry that man. Relatives and clergymen tried to intervene, but it was no use. The girl was steadfast in her decision. The stream of visitors who had come to convince her to accept Ohandjan’s proposal left one after the other until only an elderly aunt remained. She stubbornly tried to persuade Zarouhi to explain her reasoning:

—“Why don’t you want to marry Ohandjan, my dear?”

—“I will never marry a potourlın,” Zarouhi replied.

 

IV

In fact, the man who Zarouhi married a year later was not a poturlı. He had arrived in the village from Constantinople—I don’t know how—and took a position at the local high school where he worked both as a principal and as a teacher.

 

This thin, frail young man represented knowledge, civility and good taste in Zarouhi’s eyes and acted like a proud rooster whenever he spoke to villagers.

He earned five hundred ghouroush a month, which was certainly a significant amount in a village and much more than he actually deserved.

But despite an incomplete education filled with significant gaps, he was an educated man compared to the ignorant teachers in the village.

Add to this an implacable haughtiness and scorn for everything and that would be the husband that Zarouhi had chosen—a newcomer from the capital who assured her that he would take her there one day.

In fact, it was a frequent refrain in their conversations:

—“When we go to Constantinople…”

The man was sincere in his plans to return to the capital with Zarouhi. He had described Constantinople a thousand times, dazzling his wife each and every time.

A few years after settling in the village, the teacher’s yearning for the city grew stronger. He realized that he would prefer to go hungry in the capital than live a monotonous, soporific existence in the village.

Sometimes, he would describe the Bosphorus for his young wife. He boasted about its serpentine meanderings and the splendor of the palaces rising up from its banks as if it all belonged to him. Longing for that life, the couple agreed to leave for the city—forgetting the hardship that they would face living on such a meager salary and believing with naïve certainty that, as soon as they set foot in Constantinople, the teacher would be such high demand that money would pour in from every direction and bring them the comfort that they had wished for all along.

With the belief that their time in the village was coming to an end, they started sending letters of inquiry to Constantinople with hope of finding work in the city. No one responded. There was no need for his pedagogical expertise. In the beginning, these difficulties were not enough to crush the optimistic zeal of their youth. They wrote new letters and continued to send inquiries to acquaintances in the city.

Barely a year had passed before Zarouhi had her first child, followed soon after by a second. And now, though still a graceful woman, she was slowly surrounded by the burdens of domestic work. Her golden dreams—like fleeting shadows—always stayed close, but out of reach.

They had been married for five years when a dispute between the local church leader, the parish council and the board of trustees ended in her husband’s dismissal from his position at the school.

The teacher was out of work. The rivals of the trustees who had hired him led the campaign against him. As a proud man with confidence in his abilities, he could not beg for his position. Stripped of his job and unjustly fired, the wronged teacher wanted to work towards the betterment of the nation—a thankless role that would stroke his ego, but would not offer him anything tangible in return.

Now he wandered the streets, shooting a small, derisive smile at the villagers he passed all while harboring in the depths of his soul the concern that he would not find work or be able to afford bread for his family.

No one in the village extended a helping hand to the man from Constantinople. The new principal—a man from Van—joined the fight against him and, with the help of other villagers, planned to completely annihilate the defeated, retreating enemy in case he decided to launch a counterattack. The new principal made it seem like Zarouhi’s husband had not taught anything to the students entrusted to him.

—“He did not cultivate the boys’ minds or souls,” he would say to anyone who would listen.

The man pretended to be a pedagogue. He expounded on psychology and would weave names like Fröbel or Pestalozzi into conversation to try to impress the bewildered board of trustees.[3]

—“Your bolsetsi teacher wasted so much of those poor boys’ time. We have to speak to children’s souls not have them drily recite names by rote,” he would say to the trustees.

These attacks caused the teacher to feel entirely lost. He had no allies—a rare situation in the village. He was in debt up to his neck and the struggle to buy bread—even stale bread—began, subjecting the poor family to all of the horrors that that struggle brought.

He sold his dictionaries first, then a few volumes of his wife’s collection—her golden prizes that, only in these days of need, had been taken from their place of honor and used for a real, tangible purpose.

 

V

When I came to the village a year ago for a trial, the family was living off of the charity of its neighbors.

The teacher was gravely ill and I went to visit him at his bedside. The poor man was not even thirty years old, but his hair had already turned white. His glassy, feverish eyes had sunk into their sockets and a corpse-like pallor had spread across his cheeks. Just outside the door, two boys dressed in little shalvars[4]two little potorlıs—played with the wonderful insouciance of youth.

Their mother wore a pale, printed cotton dress and an old black kerchief that made her look like a widow. From her kerchief spilled a thick mane of hair that fell onto her forehead and all the way down her back.

I could feel her innocent attempt to impress me with her flawless Armenian. She explained her husband’s condition and confessed that she had not had a moment of peace since her wedding day.

The consuming illness, caused by malnutrition and anxiety, drained him of more energy with each passing day and left others to predict that the end was near.

He died eight days after my visit—a death that was a kind of salvation from almost intolerable misery. His burial was modest and simple, just like his life. One or two men from Constantinople who happened to be in the village and I followed the casket to the cemetery, which was not too far from their house. There were barely five people from the village at the funeral, but among them was one of the most well-to-do—a young man who was introduced to me as Ohandjan agha.

He seemed humble, almost shy, as if he were asking my forgiveness for daring to stand near me and speak to me.

—“We are common people,” he told me. “Don’t pay attention to what we do or say. We are not educated. We dress in potur and wear yemeni[5] on our feet.”

Rather than confessing a flaw, there was a kind of unspoken protest or objection in his words that troubled me. We quickly became friends and on our way back to the village, he invited me to his workshop—a lucrative silk workshop surrounded by a grove of mulberry trees.

One by one, he counted the fields around us and explained the production process and revenue, boasting about his properties with frank, well-deserved pride.

—“I started as a farmhand.”

I congratulated him on his success even more earnestly after discovering that he rose to prominence from very humble beginnings.

In the evening, he invited me to his home for dinner. I refused, but he insisted and pleaded with me to come. I could not resist his hospitality, especially because he seemed to have such a simple, yet noble heart.

His house was one of the loveliest in the village. It overlooked the road leading to the beach and was built in the middle of a beautiful garden. Only he and his mother lived in this spacious house. She was the model of a hardworking, frugal Armenian woman.

—“Welcome,” she said. “My Ohandjan loves guests. He considers it an honor to have them.”

Once we got to know each other better, I asked her why Ohandjan had never married.

—“Ask Ohandjan,” she replied.

I did not understand what she meant. The conversation drifted to other topics and they told me all kinds of stories. After dinner, neighbors arrived and enjoyed each other’s company until midnight. That night I returned to the house where I had stayed the last time I passed through the village.

The following morning, they told me Ohandjan’s story of unrequited love—the secret of his bachelorhood.

 

VI

Recently, a maid came to us from that village. It had been two years since my visit and I inquired about the village: What have the villagers been up to? Is business as good at the silk factory as it was before? Are the village aghas still the same ones I knew? Hadji Garabed? Ohandjan agha? The others?

The maid smiled after I had said that last name.

—“Ohandjan agha is married now,” she replied. “A month ago, he married a widow with a few children.”

—“Which widow?” I asked.

—“The teacher’s wife, Zarouhi. He married the woman he had always loved. See, effendi, see how fate works? It was meant to be.”

In a few words, I understood everything—everything that the villagers already knew.

—“Before she didn’t want to marry Ohandjan agha because he was a potourlı. Sure, he was a handsome, adventurous young man, but, to tell you the truth, he wasn’t as rich as he is now. The girl knew how to read. She went to school. She was educated. She just didn’t like him. Her first husband was a teacher, but he didn’t give a good life for her. Now she married Ohandjan. Zarouhi was always pretty. She never let her poverty show. And now if you see her, she looks like an angel—tall and thin with hair flowing like the sea and a face as bright as the moon.”

Finding a moral in the story—the moral of a simple but clever villager—she added:

—“You see, effendi, our village is not Constantinople. There we wear shalvar and our men will always wear potour.”

 


[1] A poturlı is a man who wears potour, a pair of pleated pants that are baggy in the thigh and tapered from the knee to the ankle. In late Ottoman times, these pants were worn by village men. In the story, Zohrab implicitly contrasts potour with the European-style trousers worn in the cities.

[2] An aba is an ankle-length, loose-fitting cloak that was made of coarse wool and worn by men throughout the Ottoman Empire in Krikor Zohrab’s time. The aba is open in the front and was worn over clothing.

[3] Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) was a Swiss pedagogue who believed in child-centered educational methods. His student, Freidrich Fröbel (1782-1852) was a German pedagogue best known for laying the foundation for modern education and developing the concept of the kindergarten.

[4] Shalvar are baggy, loose-fitting pants worn by men, women and children across throughout the Ottoman Empire at the time, especially in rural areas.

[5] Yemeni are traditional flat leather shoes worn most often in the villages.

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Jennifer Manoukian

Jennifer Manoukian is a translator of Western Armenian literature. She earned an MA in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies from Columbia University and a BA in French Literature and Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University. Her first book length translation,The Gardens of Silihdar by Zabel Yessayan, was released by AIWA Press in 2014.
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4 Comments

  1. Good job Jennifer. I love Krikor Zohrab and read all his works that had been published.
    He is one of my favorite Armenian authors. If you translate more please send them or publish them.

    Wish you all the success in your graduate work in Columbia.

    Lydia

  2. Congrats Jennifer Manoukian…
    You have special Capability…

    Translation:
    The literacy will not advance without translation…
    I like to add, “Translation has another soul like poetry and more…”
    Sylva

    I read once… Why the Egyptian author Najeeb Mahfood won the Nobel prize because his stories were translated…although among Arabs are many good authors…!

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