Monday, January 15, 2018

The Poet and The Freedom Fighter

The Poet and The Freedom Fighter
Vahe H. Apelian

There is a French saying that rhymes well. It reads, “qui se ressemble, s'assemble”, which literally means those who resemble, assemble. In English we have come to know the saying as “birds of a feather, flock together”. For all appearances, the eminent poet Taniel Varoujan and the legendary freedom fighter Sepastatsi Murad were not “birds of a feather” but surely their love of their Armenian nation must have coalesced into their mutual admiration if not also friendship. They stood by each other at one of the most auspicious events of their short young lives. Each officiated and enabled the other’s marriage.
Both hailed from Sepastia. Murad (ne' Khrimian) was born in the village Govdoon in 1874. Taniel Varoujan (ne' Tchboukkiarian) was born in 1884 in the village Pekernik, often spelled as Prknig (Բրքնիկ).
Both are iconic figures although each had a different upbringing and pursued a different calling. Taniel Varoujan came from a middle-class family. His father worked in Constantinople. After attending the local schools Varujan was sent to Constantinople where he attended Mkhitarian School after which he attended the Mourad-Rafaelian School in Venice and then Ghent University in Belgium. Murad, on the other hand, was born to a poor rural family. His biographers do not mention him attending school with any regularity. After working as a shepherd and a farm laborer, he moved to Constantinople to eke out a living when still in his teens, much like many other Armenian teens, some as young as fourteen years old, did. There he worked as a porter but was also drawn by a fervor for social justice. He first joined the ranks the Hnchagian Party and subsequently, the A.R.F. Taniel Varoujan was also driven by social justice and was a humanist. By the time of the Ottoman Constitution was enacted in 1909 both had made a name for themselves. Murad had also become a legend among the other luminaries as a freedom fighter. Taniel Varoujan had emerged as a promising poet having authored two books, Shivers (Սարսուռներ, 1906, Venice) and The Heart of the Race (Ցեղին սիրտը, 1909, Constantinople)
The promise of liberty, equality, and justice promised by the Young Turks had engulfed both. Murad returned to Sebastia in 1909. An amnesty that accompanied the said reforms enabled him to do so. In Sepastia he became active in organizing Armenian schools and participating in charitable and civic organizations where he met a girl named Agapi. Both remained attracted to each other.
Apparently, Murad was hesitant to commit himself having a family of his own. Remaining non-committal was a tacit code of honor among the freedom fighters. When Kevork Chavush broke that code and married in secrecy, he caused so much havoc among the ranks that the A.R.F. Bureau intervened to restore order.  Others, such as Serop Pasha married in plain view and his wife, endearingly known as Sose Mayrig, became a legendary figure. In 1910 Murad was already 36 years old, way past the marital age at the times. However, at the urging of his friends, he relented and married Agapi in the St. Nshan Monastery. Taniel Varoujan became their matrimonial godfather, although in some other accounts Taniel Varoujan is listed as being in attendance or witness to their marriage. At his wedding, Murad is quoted having said: “By getting married, I am not resigning from my struggle. Anytime, my fatherland calls on me, it is the voice that I will follow, always loyal to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s glorious banner”. By 1915 they had a son whom they named Kevork, presumably after Murad’s comrade-in-arms Kevork Chavush, who was martyred on May 26, 1907.
The euphoria of the Ottoman Constitution had captivated Taniel Varoujan as well. In 1909 Varoujan also returned to his village and started teaching for a career. To supplement his teacher’s meager salary Varoujan gave private lessons to a young girl named Araxie, the daughter of a wealthy family. As was the local customs at the time, Araxie had been promised in betrothal to the son of another wealthy family when she was still in her crib. That’s why Araxie’s mother always chaperoned her daughter and attended her classes. Yet, the improbable happened. The teacher and the student fell madly in love with each other.
Rumors started flying in greater Sepastia. The classes ended abruptly and Araxie’s parents and the prospective in-laws began hasty plans for an earlier-than-planned wedding, but Araxie remained adamant refusing to comply with her parent’s wishes. Instead of a wealthy husband, she preferred the country teacher of meager means.
The event became the talk of the town among the Armenians in Sepastia. Many regarded the incident scandalous. Some supported Varoujan and wanted the lovers to marry. Others blamed Varoujan for having seduced his young student. The animosity toward him became so great that Varoujan began carrying a stick for defending himself should he be attacked.
Finally, the prominent Armenian freedom fighter, Sepastatsi Murad intervened on behalf of Varoujan, his matrimonial godfather. Murad's stature was such that his intervention quelled all gossip. Araxi’s parents relented and the prospective groom’s parents gave up pursuing the understanding they had with Araxie’s parents. Varoujan and Araxie’s were wed in 1912, after which they moved to Istanbul where Varoujan became the principal of St. Gregory The Illuminator School. By 1915, this young couple had three children: Veronica, Haig, and Armen.
Unbeknownst to these two families as well as to countless other Armenian families across their ancestral lands, a sinister plan was being put in place for their annihilation. Taniel Varoujan in Constantinople was apprehended on April 24, 1915, and put to the death a few months later. He was 31 years old. His last legacy, the unpublished collection of his poems was somehow salvaged from his captors and published as The Song of the Bread (Հացին երգը, 1921, Constantinople). His wife and children survived and immigrated to the United States of America.
All along, Murad had remained mistrustful of the promises the Young Turks made. In March 1915 with a group of Sepastatsi compatriots he escaped the deportation order and after a horrific odyssey, they arrived in Tbilisi. In the ensuing mayhem, Murad lost his family and his relatives but he never wavered from his calling in the defense of his people. He participated in the ensuing battles that laid the foundation of the present day Armenia.  He was killed during the Battle of Baku on August 4, 1918.
Literary critics hail Taniel Varoujan as one of the most eminent poets who graced our literature. In the last book he had published, “Pagan Songs” (Pagan Songs (Հեթանոս երգեր, 1912, Constantinople), Varoujan had a poem titled “Pegasus” (Pegas). It is claimed that he dedicated that poem to his compatriot Murad of Sepastia likening Murad’s famous horse Asdghig to the mythical winged horse Pegasus. The diary Murad kept and the inscriptions he jotted down showed that Murad harbored a poet’s tender heart. Apparently, the poet harbored a rifle in his heart while the freedom fighter harbored poetry, attracting one to the other as two other immortals in our tumultuous history.