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01 December 2007

2222) Representing The Turk in Armenian Literature: An Introduction to Ottoman-Armenian Writer Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948)

by Nanor Kenderian
St Antony's College, University Oxford

Despite the extensive historical relationship between the Turks and Armenians since the founding of the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century, the image of the Turk in Western Armenian literature has remained scarce. This scarcity is coupled with . . the absence of a critical discourse precisely about the lack of the Turk's image. There are two reasons for this crisis of representation. The first is the Ottoman system of censorship, which began in the mid 19th century and reached the height of its severity during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. At almost the same historical instant,

Western Armenian was finding its final form as a standardized literary language and inspiring a new kind of Armenian literature. In this unfortunate coincidence of historical timing, censorship would overpower Armenian literature and would ensure the absence of the Turk's image. But in 1908, the advent of the Ittihadist (Young Turk) revolution alleviated the Hamidian system of censorship, allotting the Armenian literati an opportunity to finally incorporate the image of the Turk into Armenian narratives. However, as Ottoman-Armenian author Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948) explains in a 1932 interview, "During that short period (1908-1914), when a similar effort could have been successfully launched, we became occupied with revolutionary enthusiasm and political anxieties. Our literature put itself to the service of inflaming and defending that spirit. Our writers abandoned art and stepped into the circus of battle. So that a horrible period, like that which is qualified as the Hamidian tyranny, provided our writers abroad only with rhetoric and reproach. [...] Our black fortune wanted the human being to lack from our literature, as he had lacked in our political fate." Oshagan is the only author and critic to make such an observation, citing Armenian nationalism as the second agent that prevented the representation of the Turk's image in Western Armenian literature. He recognizes the nationalization, thus the politicization of Armenian literature, which ensured the politicization of Armenianness in writing and in every demonstrable diaspora institution and activity.

Oshagan's observation inherently implies the necessity of representing the Turk's image in Armenian literature, in great part to address and redress the politicization of the Armenian. He summarizes the basis for that necessity in the following statement: "In 1900, we did not have the advantage to organize a life of the mind, when there were the masters of our body, in the form of the Turk and the Armenian-Turk. And our novel had in its grasp the knowledge of our national anguish [...]. But censorship prohibited us from transmitting these issues into our art. The Armenian novel, with these very constraints, would remain unable to become the recipient, the medium of the most extreme experiences, which agitated our people's soul [...]." Here is why Oshagan's novel would have at its base the Armenian-Turk issue [...]. "Do not say that this is a social issue above a psychological one. From 1880 until 1910 our people has nothing but a question of survival, which has descended into its unconscious. And this question is contingent on the Turk." Therefore, the comprehensive analysis of the Turk is an essential feature exactly as it had descended into Oshagan's unconscious and operated there. [...] The Turk was a terrible influence and a destiny. Thus, the stuff of novels." According to Oshagan, it is necessary to represent the image of the Turk in order to constitute the Armenian. This is what he attempts to do retrospectively. He writes his novels in the 1920s and 1930s about events that take place between 1880 and 1915. And he dedicates a significant portion of those novels - an entire section from Mnats'ordats' [The Remnants] and the two books, Haji Abdullah and Suleiman Effendi from the tripartite novel 101 Tarvan [101 Years' Imprisonment] - to representing the Turk. This is an effort that directly confronts the Armenian nationalist movement. After all, the Armenian nationalist movement homogenizes Armenianness, insisting that there is but one way to be Armenian and that is via the struggle against the Turk. Consequently, in most Armenian literature, there is no Turk without the Armenian, because there is no Armenianness without the struggle against the Turk. Oshagan in contrast attempts to constitute the Turk as separate from the Armenian. He portrays the Turk not as the perpetuated cliche of the perpetrator, but rather as a woman abandoned by her husband, as a devout farmer grappling with his faith, or as an adolescent challenging his father's authority. These representations allow the Turk to stand alone, salvaged from nationalist drives and unlatched from the master/slave, perpetrator/victim paradigm, created by the nationalist movement to legitimize its agenda. Oshagan writes of a Turk that is no longer the master, and he does it expressly to retrieve Armenianness from nationalist dogma. After the Catastrophe of 1915, this is truly a monumental feat, since the Catastrophe ensured that the Turk would remain condemned to an exclusively political conceptualization in Armenian letters. Oshagan's work perhaps offers the only passage to a conceptualization that transcends nationalist ideology and facilitates a non-politicized Armenian self-conception.

TAS Review,Autumn 2007


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