Sunday, May 03, 2015

Live from Holy Cross: Arthur Nersesian reading Krikor Zohrab's Magdalene

Click to hear the audio segment.

by Krikor Zohrab

The heavy make-up on her face could not quite hide the natural beauty of a girl barely seventeen years of age. The flamboyance of her careless attire—the gaudy blues and reds of her dresses, the black loose stockings that had to be constantly hitched up—was, it seems to me, her own simple-minded way of avenging herself by offending the sensibilities of ladies. When she gazed at you with those large and luminous eyes of hers you almost felt a velvety touch on your skin. The tresses of her abundant and artificially blond hair which were nearly always in disarray, tumbled down about her shoulders giving her head a slight backward slant as if by their weight.

She ushered me into her tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement building and assuming the droll air of a barker drumming up customers, she showed me her bed—a big, wide, deep bed that occupied nearly half of the room—and the clean white sheets and pillowcases; after which she forced me down on it and laughing all the while like a street urchin, took hold of my head and said: “Won't you give us a kiss then?'”

She was an experienced girl and in her earnest efforts to dispel the timidity of a raw youth, she overwhelmed me with proofs of her affection. There was something inebriating in the aroma emanating from her body.

“I am the youngest tenant in the whole building," she said. "I'll be seventeen on Easter Day.”


She sat curled up beside me, making herself as small as a kitten, her head nestling against my chest. I had known her for only five minutes, yet she spoke as if we were old, intimate friends, wanted to know all about me, asked endless questions, but before I had a chance to answer any of them, she began telling me her own story—the usual sad story of her kind of unfortunate girl that may be summed up in a couple of sentences.

“My poor little mother died two years ago,” she began, investing that word ‘little’ with such tenderness that it pierced my heart. “I never got to know my father. I have a younger sister aged fifteen, and an even younger brother; also a grandmother. They are all I've got. My sister and brother go to school. I support them.”

She delivered the last phrase with evident pride, as if to say: I am the head of this family; I am responsible for them; they depend on me.

“Enough of this talk,” she suddenly burst out trying to dispel the gloom that her words may have created, and for an instant I felt the entire weight of her body on top of me, her lips pressing very hard against mine.


That was as far as things went that day however. She stubbornly refused to satisfy my youthful ardor. “Nothing doing,” she kept saying. “Today is Good Friday. What are you, an infidel?” It was indeed Good Friday. I must confess nonetheless that I was taken aback by her piety.

“Do you plan to take communion?” she wanted to know.

“I don’t know… I guess so," I mumbled. “And you?”

She gave me an astonished look as if I had asked an impertinent question.

“They don’t give communion to the likes of us!”

“Why don’t they?”

“Because we can't repent knowing that on the next day we will be committing the same sin. And if I don’t sin, who will look after my brother and sister, and my old grandmother?”

She seemed to be familiar with all the rules and regulations of the Church and spoke with the self-assurance of a priest and was even more unsparing on herself than a priest would be, I thought. I remember to have reflected then that if the Church’s regulations were applied consistently, businessmen, shopkeepers, journalists, and lawyers should not be allowed to take communion either because they too were compelled to sin every day by lying and deceiving for professional reasons.

“How old are you?” she said,


And as she went on hugging and kissing me, I kept raising all kinds of objections against the Church’s discriminatory practices. The Church was, after all, a human rather than a heavenly institution, I thought, and like all such institutions, it was bound to be riddled with all kinds of inconsistencies and injustices.

“I'm going to church now,” she said after giving me a last, dismissive kiss. “Come back after Easter. I’ll be waiting for you. We are still friends, aren’t we? Promise you won’t see another woman in the meantime.”

I promised—the promise of a twenty-year old.

After that we loved each other for about a year. She may have been unschooled and plebeian, her love may have been of the mercenary kind, but she was herself a thoroughly honest and decent person, which may explain why she enjoyed wide popularity among men of all ages, nationalities, and classes.

When I got to know her better, she would occasionally express embarrassment over her lack of education, but never her work. And all the while she took care of her little brother and sister from a distance and did so with such exemplary selflessness that I am sure it never occurred to her that she was sacrificing anything by selling her body to total strangers.


There was a mob at the entrance of her building and I recognized among them thieves, murderers, and similar riffraff jostling one another in their efforts to get in and satisfy their curiosity. A couple of policemen stepped out with pen and paper in their hands—probably having just registered the crime that had been committed earlier that day. When I asked the people nearest to me the reason behind this commotion, I was told: “They hit one of the girls in the building.”

My premonition, which never fails me in such moments, sent a cold current down my spine. Breaching the wall of humanity that stood between me and the entrance, I rushed up the staircase and into her tiny flat which was now jammed by tenants. I saw a doctor leaning over her bed. And there, lying in her bed, I saw her for the last time.

Contrary to her habit, she was now dressed in white—a white as pure and as dazzling as snow. Only on her left breast I noticed a red stain, like a rose in an immaculate field.

As soon as she caught sight of me she tried to smile. I heard the doctor stating that her condition was hopeless. She expressed a final plea to take communion, at which some people ran to the nearest church, but returned soon after saying the priest had refused to come. A little later she breathed her last and except for her little brother and sister, no one shed a single tear for her.


Years later, when I recounted this incident to a church dignitary, a theologian, he explained in some detail the doctrinal reasons why she had been refused the sacrament, pointing out the difference between adultery and promiscuity on the one hand, and prostitution on the other, adding that in the first instance the Church was prepared to make certain allowances, but in the second, it must take a more uncompromising stance.

Though I could not refute them, his explanations seemed to me specious as well as cruel and unconvincing.

And never, I shall never forget her lying there in that wide and deep bed of hers, with a red rose on her breast.

Krikor Zohrab, “Magdalene,” in Ara Baliozian, trans. and ed., Zohrab: An Introduction, Cambridge, Mass.: National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, 1985, pp. 61-66.

Live from Holy Cross Church of Armenia - an audio series recorded on April 21, 2015

This week we launch a series of audio clips recorded live on April 21, 2015, at Holy Cross Church of Armenia, New York, NY. On that evening, we commemorated the lives of Armenian writers who were deported, killed or survived the Armenian Genocide, by reading a selection of their work.

Our heartfelt thanks to our readersThe Parish Council and the Board of Trustees, Holy Cross Church of Armenia, New York;; The International Literature Festival Berlin (ilb), and, the Lepsiushaus Potsdam. Special thanks to Sig Rosen for the audio recording. 

Short biographies of the readers: 
Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak and Me as her again:True Stories of an Armenian Daughter. Cellist David Bakamjian has a multifaceted career as a recitalist, chamber player, recording artist, orchestral musician, teacher & workshop director. Peter Bricklebank teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the Hudson Valley Writers Workshop; he is published in literary magazines and book reviews. Catherine Fletcher is a poet and an editor for Rattapallax magazine who recently served as Director of Poetry Programs at City Lore. Alina Gregorian is the author of Flying Bark and the chapbooks Navigational Clouds and Flags for Adjectives. Pierre Joris is a Luxembourg-American poet, translator, essayist & anthologist; his latest book is Barzakh (Poems 2000-2012). Lola Koundakjian is a poet who curates the Armenian Poetry Project. Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, essayist, and translator. Norman Manea is a Romanian writer, professor & writer in residence at Bard College, MacArthur & Guggenheim Fellow, translated in more than 20 languages. Marianela Medrano is a Dominican writer and psychotherapist living in Connecticut. Ralph Nazareth is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. Arthur Nersesian has published eleven books and runs a weekly writing workshop in the East Village that is open to all serious writers. Nicole Peyrafitte is a Pyrenean-born multidisciplinary artist whose videos, paintings, writings, singing & cooking are often integrated into multimedia stagings. Aaron Poochigian, a poet and translator, won the New England Poetry Club's Daniel Varoujan Prize in 2012. Alan Semerdjian is a writer, a musician, and an educator who lives in the East Village. Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a three times Pushcart Prize nominee, novelist, poet, essayist, and columnist. Sarah Van Arsdale's fourth book of fiction, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, will be published in spring, 2016 by Queen's Ferry Press; she teaches at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and NYU. George Wallace, author of 28 chapbooks of poetry, is writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace. Aida Zilelian is the writer of The Legacy of Lost Things, her debut novel which was awarded the 2014 Tololyan Literary Prize.

Short bios of the authors:  
Diran Chrakian, pen name Indra (1875 – 1921) poet, writer, painter and teacher escaped slaughter but died after deportation. Ardashes Haroutounian (1873 – 1915) poet, translator and literary critic. Komitas (1969 – 1935) an ordained priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster studied in Berlin. Although he survived the Genocide, he suffered a mental breakdown and died in a psychiatric hospital in Paris. Shushanik Kurghinian (1876 – 1927) a socialist and feminist poet fled the tsarist regime returning to Soviet Armenia where she lived until her death. Donabed Lulejian (1875 – 1917) studied at Yale and Cornell and became a professor at Euphrates College. He survived the Genocide then died of typhus after saving hundreds of lives. Rouben Sevak (1885 – 1915) a Lausanne educated M.D. and poet. Atom Yarjanian, pen name Siamanto (1878 – 1915) a Sorbonne educated editor and poet. Daniel Varoujan (1884 – 1915) teacher and poet studied in Venice and Ghent. Nigoghos Sarafian (1905 – 1973) prolific author and publisher lived in Paris and wrote extensively about the post-Genocide Armenians. William Saroyan (1908 – 1981) Pulitzer prize winning dramatist and author whose family fled the Lake Van region.  Baruyr Sevak (1924 – 1971) prolific poet and literary critic killed in a car crash after criticizing the Soviet corruption in Armenian SSR. His poem The Unsilenceable Belfry was dedicated to Komitas and to the remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. Vahan Tekeyan (1878 -– 1945) writer and editor was travelling in Jerusalem thus escaped the deportation. Zabel Yessayan (1878 – 1943) studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne; she fled before her arrest in 1915 and died under mysterious circumstances in Siberia. Krikor Zohrab (1861 – 1915) lawyer and writer served as a member of the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Դանիէլ Վարուժան։ Մենաւոր

Դեկտեմբերի պայծառափայլ իրիկուն.
Երկընքին տակ, ադամանդի նըման ցուրտ,
Ուղեկորոյս հովը կանցնի մայելով:
Վըճիտ լոյսերն աստղերուն
Արիւն կու լան սառոյցին վրայ լճակին:
Հոգիս կառչած մըտածուﬕ մը յամառ`
Կը սպասէ գոց պատուհանին ետև լուռ
Չեկա՜ւ. – «Եւ ա՛լ պիտի չըգամ», – ըսաւ ան.
Որբ շեﬕս վրայ մըխիթարիչ քայլն անոր
Պիտի բընաւ չըծաղկի.
Եւ դեռ հոգիս կը սպասէ՜:
Ի՜նչ մենաւոր սենեակ, ի՜նչ կեանք մոռցըւած.
Յիշատակի մը մէջ յանկարծ կը փըղձկի
Սիրտըս տըրտում… Կը փըղձկի՜…
Ըզգացուﬓերն այսպէս կու լան մութին մէջ,
Քաղցըր, տըրտում, անյագո՜ւրթ.
Եւ կը խըﬔն շրթունքներս
Արտասուքներս հոսանուտ:
Ո՜հ, ի՛նչ ցուրտ է հոս, Տէ՛ր իմ.
Հանգեր է կայծը վերջին
Կրակարանիս մէջը քաﬕ՜ն կ’ողբերգէ:
Կը զգամ եղեամն այս թողլըքուած խուցին մէջ,
Որ մազերուս վըրայ սեւ
Ձիւնասպիտակ ծաղիկներն իր կը բանայ.
Բոլոր աստղերն, երկինքէն վար սառնաշիթ,
Օրհասական իւղն օծման
Ճակատիս վրայ կը հեղուն:
Կահերուն տակ թաքթաքուր
Ամէն վայրկեան մութն աւելի կը բարդի,
Կը տարածէ անկողինիս վրայ արդէն
Դամբանական ծածկոյթը իր սեւաշղարշ:
Ո՛հ, չեմ ուզեր, ես չեմ ուզեր այս ժամուն
Լամբարիս լոյսը մատնիչ.
Վարագոյրիս ժանեակներեն կաթկըթող
Լուսընկան բա՛ւ է ինծի:
Մարդիկներուն շըռայլօրէն տալէ վերջ
Աւիւն և սէր, ծաղիկներն իմ էութեան,
Գըտնել զանոնք ﬕշտ ծանծաղ,
Գըտնել Աստուած ﬕշտ ըսփինքս
Ոչնչութիւնը պըճնող,
Եւ հեռացուիլ այն սիրելի էակէն`
Որուն թարթափը կոպերուն կը բաւեր
Արծարծելու համար կրակներն արիւնիս,
Միսիս ճենճերն, սըրտիս բուրվառն հոտեւան,
Հիմա, աւա՜ղ, ի՞նչ կը մընայ ալ ինծի.
Մոխի՜ր, մոխի՜ր, և աւերա՜կ. և նոյն իսկ
Խորունկ սոսկում մ’իմ իսկ անձիս նայելու:
Ո՜հ, չեմ ուզեր, ես չեմ ուզեր այս ժամուն
Լամբարիս լոյսը մատնիչ:
Երբ ա՛լ դատարկ է հոգին
Ահաւոր է տեսնել յատակը անոր:
Փլատակներուս կանգուն մնացած կատարին
Լուսնին ոսկի ծեփող մէկ շողը բա՛ւ է:
Ես չե՜մ ուզեր լամբարիս լոյսը մատնիչ.
բայց լուսինն ալ, աւա՜ղ, լուսինն ալ ահա
Հո՛ն, դըրացի երդին ետև ծածկուեցաւ:
Հովը կու լայ, կը կաղկանձէ, կը թըռչի:
Կրակարանիս մէջ պաղեր է մոխիրն իսկ:
Հովը կ’ոռնայ… հովը բացաւ ﬔղմորէն
Պատուհանիս փեղկը հին:
Օ՜հ, ո՜վ Տէր իմ, ո՜վ Տէր իմ,
Չայցելված այս սենեակը ո՜րքան ցուրտ է.
Արցունք մ’ահա մարգարտի պէս սառեցաւ
Ծայրին վըրայ թարթիչիս,
Եւ սիրտըս դեռ տըրտո՜ւմ տրտո՜ւմ կը փըղձկի:

Friday, May 01, 2015

Another quiet anniversary

On April 30, 2015, The Armenian Poetry Project turned 9

This one was another quiet celebration because the centennial of the Armenian Genocide was commemorated all over the world during the same month. 

I believe APP helped me achieve several goals: bringing Armenian poetry to an international audience; access to the masses, including those who don't have Armenian books in their homes and public libraries; translations of some poems into English, Spanish and French; encouraging readers to discover new writers, while providing forgotten poems and their authors a new readership.

In the last two months, APP organized two readings commemorating the authors who died or survived the Genocide, one on April 21st with a repeat program coming up on May 26, both in New York City. 

Ongoing projects and resources include: 

1 - Information and events around the DEAD ARMENIAN POETS SOCIETY. This was the core of what eventually became APP. I am happy to share guidelines on how to run evenings dedicated to reading works by late Armenian authors.

2. As a way of archiving, I have uploaded audio files to SoundCloud. This will help APP reach a larger audience as the blog format restricts us for posting them all in the same page, and iTunes cannot archive old episodes.
The APP group on SoundCloud is here.

3. We continue to provide support for cultural events and help in finding authors for reading series in the United States and Canada.

4. This was our fifth year with the poetry competition, sponsored by the ASA.

5. Regular postings -- albeit not daily -- of poems, translations and announcements. 

I invite all readers to stay in touch, add comments and share your thoughts.

All best, and thank you for being a reader and supporter of the APP.

Lola Koundakjian
Curator and Director, The Armenian Poetry Project

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Armenian Genocide began on this day one hundred years ago

Zareh's prose poems— some composed as letters to various public officials during the 75th anniversary debate over recognition of the Armenian Genocide were widely published in the Armenian-Armerican and American press. They provoked many rhapsodizing responses which often included speculation about the nature of "Zareh's" real identity. One week after the publication of this letter, for example, the Armenian Reporter published an "Open Letter to Zareh" by noted author and newspaper contributor Hagop Touryantz. It began:

"Dear Zareh: Your Open Letter to Senator Robert Byrd—I read it once, I read it twice, I read it thrice and in admiration I saved it in my files side by side with the best of the best I have seldom come across in our papers. In the space of an open letter, its content is a lecture in history. In substance it is a course of logic, in spirit it is a lesson in morality, in style it is a beautiful literary piece..."

There was some speculation that Zareh was a secondary school student of the great martyred poet Daniel Varoujan in Sivas. Zareh would have been been ninety or near ninety. His real identity was never uncovered. 

This piece first appeared in the Armenian Reporter on March 8, 1990.

An Open Letter To Sen. Robert Byrd
By Zareh 

Dear Senator Byrd,

I stood at Musa Dagh and read the destiny of my people in the stars. I learned to wrestle through the night with the dark angel of despair and to wrest a blessing at the break of dawn. Unshod, I wondered with my people: I saw the lightnings and the clouds and heard the thunder roll around Ararat. I learned how to suffer and hunger; I was with my people fighting in Erzerum and by the waters of the Euphrates. I stood with my blinded people in their agony, and heard their wild cries of desperate courage. I was awed by the way they remained free, even in death, refusing to reject God by enslaving themselves to a Sultan. I learned of a God Whom Heaven, Heaven of Heavens, cannot contain, and Whose compassion extendeth to all, even to the stranger who cometh out of a far country.

I marched with my stronger brothers before they were massacred and shuddered at the wrath of their spirit as they lashed out against oppression and injustice, against false gods and gilded idols, against blind leaders and lying prophets. I marveled at their infinite compassion for the weak, the denied, and the wronged. From them I learned about our spirit and what a raging fire within one's heart an unfulfilled mandate of God may become.

I wondered with my more thoughtful brothers, my poets and writers, before the night of April 24. (Senator, this was the first night of genocide, the night hundreds of religious, political, and intellectual leaders were gathered up and shot. It was systematic, you see, not random, not incidental, as you have been claiming in the halls of Congress.) I wandered with them by the slow moving waters of Van and I heard their oaths of deathless loyalty. I entered their humble and improvised churches, and I discovered that prayer and devout study are beautiful, and as acceptable to God as the sacrifices of gold.

I, too, was captured, but was one of the few who did not die. I returned from captivity and stood with those who tried to rebuild our country. I learned how people can build upon ruins. I moved among the mountains of the Caucasus pulling down the heathen altars with the lionhearted sons of Armenia. But we were too few.

Into the long dark exile I wandered with my people, into many lands I walked with them the weary highways of the world. I was with them when they drank deep out of the bitter chalice of pain, humiliation and hate. But never did I fail to sense the stress of their imperious vision, their pride of a great past, their superb courage, their unflinching faith.

And then I saw the night lift and the dawn break and into a reborn world, drenched with a new light of freedom and justice I marched with them exultingly. We arrived in the harbors of New York and I heard the shackles fall from their limbs. I saw the radiance of their emancipated minds and hearts. I beheld them, mounting on an eagle's wing, rising to bless the world with matchless gifts of heart and mind in every field of human creation.

And into freedom our one and one half million dead followed us. We could not let them go. Could we ever part company with this immortal band? They had become too dear and precious to us. But now the night descends again on them, and into the dark and storm they are wandering forth once more. Shall I leave them now? Can I leave them now? The records of their very existence burn for 75 years and Senator you not only do nothing to rescue them, you consciously fan the flames. I cannot understand this. The urgency of their pilgrimage is now coursing through my blood. Their beckoning shrine is now also the shrine of my quest.
Washington, DC.

An Open Letter To Zareh
The Open Letter that Armenian Reporter contributor Hagop J. Touryantz has addressed to 'Zareh' was prompted by an Open Letter that Washington, DC resident had written to Senator Robert Byrd. As readers recall, Senator Byrd led the fight against Senate's endorsement of the Armenian Genocide resolution that was subsequently defeated. For personal reasons, the author of the original letter chooses to write under the assumed name of "Zareh," rather than his real name. His Open Letter to Sen. Byrd appeared in the March 8, 1990 issue of this paper.

Dear Zareh:

Your "Open Letter to Senator Robert Byrd," I read it once, I read it twice, I read it thrice, and in admiration I saved it in my files side by side with the best of the best (articles and open letters) I seldom come across in our papers. In the space of an open letter, its content is a lecture in history. In substance it is a course of logic. In spirit is a lesson in morality. In style it is a beautiful literary piece.

Senator Byrd, devoid of convincing arguments, came up with a filibuster. Referring to the dictionaries, a filibusterer is: "a freebooter or soldier of fortune who engages in unauthorized warfare against a foreign country with which his own country is at peace, in order to enrich himself." Or in parliamentary parlance: "a member of a minority group of a legislative body especially the Senate, who obstructs the passage of a bill, making long speeches, introducing irrelevant issues."

America with Armenia and the Armenian people is at peace. It has always been so. We have a name for such soldiers of fortune. We call them mercenaries. I can't tell how Senator Byrd and the rest of the Senators and Congressmen who have voted against the passage of Resolution SJ Res. 212, with the blessing of the Administration, which would have designated April 24th the anniversary of the Armenian Martyrs' Day, are enriching themselves in the service of Turkey?

If it is out of conviction that a genocide has never occurred, then theirs will be a blatant demonstration of ignorance. In both of these instances not worthy of their position in the U.S. Congress where the human rights issue is declared to be a sacrosanct question never to be ignored.

Senator Robert Byrd had a podium in the U.S. Congress to disrupt justice. Zareh, like the rest of us, reached out with his pen. Not much ammunition in terms of competitive power. Perhaps with our perseverance we shall overcome. Perhaps Sophocles was right when he said that: "The truth is always the strongest argument."

In conclusion may I suggest having Zareh's letter sent to all the Senators and Congressmen who voted against the passage of the Resolution; for the ignorant to be enlightened, for the deceitful to be shamed.

Hagop J. Touryantz 
Flushing, NY