9 Haziran 2012 Cumartesi

The Last Armenian in Bitlis

William Saroyan (1908-1981)
Radikal/May 14, 2012
Yusuf Nazım

The endings are always dreadful. One feels sad every time. Each extinction means saying farewell to someone/something that will not be coming back. The last inhabited house of an evacuated village resembles the last residues of a fire and  its remaining flames blowing in the wind. The last fish which struggles for its life, in a river which has dried out because of a hydroelectric dam constructed onto its watercourse.... The mournings of an indigenious language which has been sunk into oblivion on a random place on earth... The last member of a species which is about to go into extinction after millions' of years of struggle in the evolutionary process of nature... Each ending carries on its particular sadness. Each sadness echoes with another ending.

Saroyan's Will

“My grandmother used to say, 'Kurdish is the language of the heart'. Turkish sounds like music; it flows like a river of wine, sweet and shiny. But ours is the language of pain and suffering. We always tasted death; our tongues carry the load of hatred and pain.”

These are the words of William Saroyan from his short story 'Resurrection of a Life' dating back to 1938. Saroyan is one of the powerful writers of American Literature in the 20th century.

Saroyan was born in 31th August 1908, Fresno, California as a new member of an immigrant Armenian family. Upon the death of his father when Saroyan was three years old, he and his three siblings were given away to an orphanage. After five years of his time in orphanage, he goes to public school until his fifteenth birthday. He always dreams to be a writer. He works as a mortician, as a railroad worker and many others. Meanwhile he starts to write short stories. At first, magazines he got in contact with do not publish them. After his first story to be published in 1933 – titled as 'Story' – he hits the jackpot. He gets his first book to be published in 1934. 'The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze' becomes a bestseller at the same year. This happens to be his first achievement on his dream to be a great writer. Following his first story book, 'Inhale and Exhale' (1936) and his first theatre play 'My Heart is in the Highlands' (1939) gets published. Another theatre play of him 'Time of Your Life' (1940) wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but he refuses to take it. He states that the said play 'does not deserve to be a winner' comparing to his previous works. In his 73 years of lifetime, he produces more than 60 pieces of literature. His stories, plays and novels get translated into various languages. He writes with a sincere and plain language. His fluent, recitative and enthusiastic style of language is called after as 'Saroyanesque' in the American literature. Saroyan, who is refered as the 'genius of plainness', passes away in 18th May 1981 in the town where he was born, Fresno. UNESCO declares 2008 to be the 'William Saroyan Year' due to his contributions to the world literature.

According to his will, Saroyan demands to be buried in Bitlis. A writer who was born in a small town of the US and who diead at the same place had a significant reason for such a request. His family roots go back to this Anatolian city, Bitlis. The uneasiness of a coming catastrophe coming upon them swings Saroyan family to Fresno, California in 1905 and enforces them to leave their ancestors' and their homeland for centuries.
After leaving the orphanage at the age 8, the stories he had listened from the elderlies introduced him a world of imagination which brought a Pulitzer Prize in the end. Even though his works were nurtured by the English language and American soil, his words had always carried the soul of Anatolia. It is known that the way he talks about the notion of 'immigration' in his stories gets their influence from the hardships encountered by the Armenian migrant children he had grew up with. His extraordinary longing to be a part of his family's roots emphasized in his works makes its reader to adore the Anatolian land. Contrary to what is expected, he does not feel any prejudices against the Turkish people and Turkey. 'Cowards are Brave' is especially a monumental piece for its themes of tolerance, forgiveness and love of humanity.

Going back home

In 1964, Willliam Saroyan sets off on a journey in order to soothen his longing and love for Bitlis. He travels with his friends Yasar Kemal, Ara Güler, Fikret Otyam and others. When they arrive Bitlis, he kneels down and kisses the ground. He runs around the city as if he was amazed and surprised like a child. He calls everything he comes across with as 'My Townsman'. He hugs, kisses and smells the trees, the stones, the soil and the animals. He drinks the water of Van Lake, the sea of his dreams. He freshens up with and drink the water of Sapkor Fountain near Bitlis which had become legendary after his grandmothers' sayings...
They cannot see the old houses made of stone, the churches with their bells on top of them and the cemeteries with their famous gravestones, when they arrive the city. Nothing was left behind the four Armenian cemeteries of the city. One church was demolished and turned into a prison, others were turned into stables and other things. Starting from the 1910's, the presence of the imperialist games played on Anatolia made different peoples to be set off against each other. In the end, the cruelty of the sovereign had acted upon the weak and extinguished it.
Photo : Ara Güler

They find the house of Saroyan's father which they believe to be. Saroyan kneels down between the walls of the ruined house and quietly cries. He does not resent and he does not bear any grudge. He just cries. He cries slowly and secretly. He bonds the language of music - which flows like a soft, slow and bright river of wine – with the language of the heart. He tries to ease away the hatred and pain and to transmit the language of suffering through his own ache.

Mugsi Agha's Last Wish

The last Armenian that he could find in his ancestors' land is Muhsin Agha. He waits for his own death with his weariful heart which did not give up on its Armenian identiy after all what has happened. He is the last Armenian of Bitlis, the last member of an Armenian family who had migrated from this land long time ago, a guy who gets teased by the boys playing in the streets of Bitlis. Saroyan and Mugsi Aga chat to each other and Saroyan makes Mugsi Aga's last wish 'to spend his last days among Armenian people' come true.
Saroyan changes his will of death as he understands that to be buried in Bitlis is impossible under the cout d'etat circumstances of the September 12th 1980 junta regime. With his final will, part of his ashes gets buried in a cemetery in Erivan, Armenia. The endings are always melancholic. People who live in the steps of Kars and Ardahan whose numbers are near to extinction... People who are exhausted little by little as they give away their innocences towards life; last member of the Malakans... The last and slight movements of my heart which is a place of fire.. The last breath that I inhale through my lungs while I have a sigh of relief... The nearly extinct natives of the American continent who take their wisdom from the bonds they had formed with the soil, the air and the water... The last American Indian who escaped from the continental lootings of the 'civilized' Europe... The sorrow due to the one who is gone and who will not be coming back... The last Armenian in Bitlis...  Each ending carries on its particular sadness, as I mentioned before. Each sadness echoes with another ending.

Yusuf Nazım
Twitter : @yusufnazim

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