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Letters From Armenia To Israel Safarian

by Translated by Eugenie Shehirian
88 pages,
ISBN: 0973073101


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Letters to Bless the Eyes
by Keith Garebian

The Armenians will not be starved or murdered out of history, despite the efforts of Turkish and pro-Turkish propagandists to deny the genocide of 1915. Documentary evidence of it continues to accumulate, a little at a time and in mere fragments, but such now is the evidence of the Armenian fact in Ottoman Turkey that Hitler can finally be proved wrong for having asked rhetorically: "Who now remembers the Armenians?" Letters From Armenia To Israel Safarian, translated into English by Aleppo-born Eugenie Shehirian, is part of this evidence. The slender book is obviously a highly personal relic, a family's epistles, principally from the Armenian provinces in Turkey and from Ghazir in Lebanon, that make no claim for themselves as literature. Unlike the letters of European masters and mistresses of breeding, these letters in a now little-known Armenian dialect are not meant to codify sensibility. Nor are they, unlike the letters of early settlers in Canada, meant to touch on essential differences between the Old World and New. Instead, they are concrete expressions of Armenian misery under the Ottoman Turks. Through their meager words and emaciated narrative, written under duress, they tell about what is happening on the other side of history.
There are twenty-nine letters that originate from places such as Bashkugh, Kalan, Goynug, Ghazir, Kayli Ova, and Diyarbakir, San Francisco, Toronto, and Tehran. Israel Safarian (originally Garabedian after his father's name) is the recipient of most of them, but apart from one letter by him in 1958, there is no epistolary evidence of any of his replies. So, these are one-way letters. Israel is in Canada, after leaving his native village in Turkey in 1907, and where he will die in 1969. Israel's son Edward (former Dean of Graduate Studies, University of Toronto, and a leading economist) supplies the Foreword. The letters are published, he says, to "explain something" of his father's life to relatives and friends; they "may also have something to say to some who never knew [the father]" and provide an insight into just "how fortunate" these people have been to escape the fate of Israel's parents and much of the rest of his family who perished in what I call the Turkish version of Original Sin in 1915. The fact that only one letter by Israel is included makes for another anxiety in the book: his relatives wonder with some pain about the reasons for his silence over extended periods of time. We know from an addendum in Letter 11 (November 1909) that Israel has sent seven photographs to Armenia, but he is told that the photographs cannot speak. So, there are numerous appeals to Israel to write. "Let your letters be incessant," begs his brother-in-law (Hagop Kevorkian) in Letter 14. His long silences are construed as wrenching tests of the heart, for he would write, they believe, if he wanted to share kinship and express concern or compassion for others.
Letters can annihilate distance by bringing writer and recipient into close contact, but these letters do not annihilate distance. They are painful emissaries from cruelly demanding realms to a distant, foreign, and idealized society. Some of Israel's relatives pray for and dream of the chance to go to Canada. But Turkish Armenia keeps its distance from North America, and it remains under peril as events spiral into a death-trap for Armenians. These letters are not immediately or principally about the approaching Great War or the pornography of genocide. They are about everyday lives and hopes. The real drama in them is in the gaps, beginning, intriguingly, with the first document, which is not a letter but a partial account of Israel's escape to Canada. The narrative begins somewhere far from its beginning. It is obviously a fragment whose missing parts have not yet been found. But the fragment sets a level of expectation that is never met again. It starts with an unexpected reunion between Israel and his mother and relatives. He is treated as a hero, and sometimes he himself sounds like a poetic one¨as when he writes of yet another parting from his mother: "Finally I kissed my mother's hands. She covered my forehead with a shower of her loving kisses and cried a lot. Afterwards in a very soft voice she said 'Goodbye son. God be with you. Whatever you touch let the dry turn into green.' Oh, how hard was the last minute of our parting. Much harder than nightfall."
These sixteen pages of narrative are fraught with confusion and terror as Israel makes an odyssey into disguise, captivity, torture, starvation, extortion, exploitation, and freedom. Everywhere there is mortal danger in the form of Kurds, Cossacks, and Turks. During a Kurdish raid on an Armenian village, he is beaten and left for dead. Throughout his narrative, his nerves keep tingling with suspense, and so does the reader's. And there is so much danger, so much fear, thinks Israel, that even God keeps His distance from man. Israel's perspective, however, is different from that of his relatives who believe staunchly that "God helps the destitute."
The rest of the book is banal in an aesthetic sense, but reveals certain forces in unfolding history. And so, we read of family sadness at Israel's absence; a shortage of wheat, bread, and money; difficulties in receiving mail, gifts, and money; family debt and problems with Temo, the long-nosed son of the Kurdish village administrator, who delights in appropriating Armenian land and property; a blind cousin who needs shelter and care; and a sister who takes court action to claim her dead father's property.
The tone of the letters is frequently one of mournful complaint and supplication. "We are in great need," "We are in debt and in need of food," "We don't have a single grain and no bread at all," "Our only hope is you," "send us money." In Letter 18, Israel's father writes: "We are alive till the time of writing this letter"¨which is dated September 10, 1913, just about a year and a half before the genocide. The first eighteen letters predate the Armenian genocide, yet despite Armenian support for the Young Turks, the letters foreshadow the genocide. They open briefly small windows on a worsening situation for Armenians who strive to remain united by family and clan feelings.
The Armenians are unable to prove that they have paid off their debts; they are shut off from using money-lenders; and they cannot stop the escalating costs of food or the land-grabs by their persecutors. There is a brief glimmer of hope when Garabed Safarian reports in Letter 8 in 1909 that the Armenians in his village have driven out all the Kurds with the exception of one family who attempt futile provocations. However, the Kurds do return later, and the Armenian tribulations continue. But the most serious problem is a devastating fission of Armenian families with consequent waning of intimacy and clan identity. In Letter 25 to Israel, from his sister's son, Mahmoud Chifchi, by a Turkish husband, we are told that Israel is the only one of four brothers who writes back home. Indeed, because Israel is in North America and gives no indication of a return to his homeland, he is repeatedly reminded of the names of relatives he has never seen. The letters, even in the eleven after the genocide (one from 1936, three during World War II, six during the 50s, and the final one from 1963), indulge in various forms and circumstances of naming: "Ankin's family-name is the same as Hovagim Soukasian'sÓMy aunt Anna was married a second time to a man called Chutluktzy Boghos Hagopian"; "Your brother Ali married Jemile, the daughter of Kijo Oghle Halal of Ova village"; "Our relative Hayganoush (her present name is Siliri) is the wife of Hamza"; "Rayim has two boys and three girls. Their names are Mehmed and Ahmed, and the girls are Emine, Ayishe, Sidika"; and so on.
A general problem is that the names and locations of many relatives are unknown¨in some cases because the survivors have adopted Turkish names and Muslim ways of life. When in 1958 Israel himself writes to a friend in Letter 27 (which is the only one by him in the book), he is compelled to inquire: "Are you living there as an Armenian or as a Moslem? Do you have a family?ÓYou had written that there are still some Armenians living in Oghnout? Can you find out their names and family names?ÓMy best regards to you, your children and the clan, and to Uncle Hovannes. He is my uncle. It is possible he doesn't know thisÓ" Interestingly, it is Israel and not his uncle who knows their blood-relationship, but even more interestingly, even thirteen years after World War II, the Armenians are not safe.
It is not only Armenian names that are evaporating or vanishing; it is also the Armenian language that is gradually dying out after the destruction of the body-politic. Hagop Basmajian informs Israel in Letter 26 that his son can't read or write Armenian, and so it is the younger generation that requires a translator for its own heritage language. This apparently small detail has large implications, for ignorance of one's own language is possibly a deathblow to one's culture.
The letters have baffling gaps and enigmas, and they do not grab attention dramatically, except when their tone becomes intense. They allow their writers to live out their tormented humanity in very banal ways. Yet, beneath their ordinariness is an inevitable sequence of the extraordinarily dangerous or of hope against hope. The letters' sparsity virtually compels us to become sensitive, at every moment, to their every moment. They make us alert to even the minutiae of everyday life because in these little, seemingly trivial and banal details, we may suddenly discover the importance of being a witness, with them, of an unfolding destiny. This is a destiny, the letters suggest, that is being largely ignored by the rest of the world and which will be the Armenians' curse, a blight on the future, and yet a moral challenge to the world's conscience. Armenian parents lovingly kiss their children's eyes; by their facts¨what official Turkish history tries to deny¨the letters are a blessing to Armenian eyes. ˛
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