Jalaleddin is a fictional historical novella, and much of the history is accurate when we compare it to sources from other authors from the time. Armenia and the Campaign of 1877 by Charles B. Norman, a British correspondent based in the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War, is one such source. Jalaleddin was serialized in eight issues of the Tiflis-based Armenian newspaper, Mshak, and Armenia and the Campaign of 1877 was published by a British publishing company called Cassell & Co, which exists today as an imprint of Octopus Publishing.
The two books were written at the same time, and portrayed in a similar way the same set of events that were taking place in the broader context of the Russo-Turkish War. Although it’s not unexpected for an Armenian author to have focused on a set of events that concerned his own people, it is surprising to have a whole book about the topic written by a Briton who, incidentally, did not think too highly of the Ottoman Armenians (e.g., in Chapter 4, Norman writes “…after centuries of such misrule the Armenian has become as bad as, if not worse in many points than the Turk.”).
The book starts by outlining the organization of the Ottoman army, which had seven subdivisions:
- Constantinople (now Istanbul)
- Shumen (now in Bulgaria)
- Monastir (now Bitola, Macedonia) Note: thanks to Nicholas Al-Jeloo for helping me solve this puzzle.
- Erzurum (now in Eastern Turkey, near the Armenian border)
- Damascus (now in Syria)
- Baghdad (now in Iraq)
- Yemen (now the Republic of Yemen)
The 4th corps (Erzurum), which was proximal to the events that unfolded, was known as the Armenian corps, although it did not contain any Armenians, or even any Greeks, Christians, or Jews. Their exemption from the army was compensated by an annual tax, in addition to the cizye that was levied on non-Muslim residents of the Ottoman Empire. So the Armenian corps, composed entirely of non-Armenians, was based primarily in Erzurum, with other bases distributed across Eastern Turkey, including in the cities of Bayazit and Van, which are prominent locations in Jalaleddin.
It was in and around these locations that the Kurds massacred the Armenians, according to both books. Whereas these massacres serve as the background and context of the story in Jalaleddin, their description is a focus of Armenia and the Campaign of 1877. However, Raffi and Norman both apparently leave out some details, which we only realized by reading Norman’s account:
“Scarcely an Armenian village in the country has escaped their [the Kurds’] heavy hands. They do not content themselves with stealing, plundering and murdering their weaker and unarmed fellow subjects, but they outrage and violate every girl on whom they can lay their hands. The stories that reach us—stories from too authentic a source to admit of doubt—are perfectly unfit for publication.”
Although both authors depict violence, Raffi never seems to describe anything that is “perfectly unfit for publication,” at least with respect to descriptions of other massacres and as compared to the following excerpt by Norman, which indicates the occurrence of child rape:
“The news from Van daily becomes more revolting. Faik Pasha seems quite unable to restrain the Kurds, who commit every description of atrocity unopposed and unchecked. The American missionaries have been forced, for fear of their lives, to take refuge in a boat on the lake, where they enjoy comparative immunity, although they have to be careful, when in need of provisions, to land at night and move off again before dawn. Their Christian charges have been subjected to the grossest treatment—crops cut and carried away, cattle killed, villages burnt, men murdered, and worst of all, women and even children violated. Churches afford no refuge for these wretched mortals. Ten who fled for safety into the church at Üç Kilise1 were there foully murdered, and at Tsitavank, near Erzurum, the Armenian superior of the monastery has been threatened with death if he ventures to preach again. Hundreds of Christian villages in Armenia, having been gutted and fired by these miscreants, are completely abandoned, and their inhabitants have fled for refuge into the Russian camps.”
Readers of Jalaleddin will already see the similarities, for example, as compared to this excerpt from Chapter 4:
“Passing by one of the villages, he saw that the homes had turned to ash, and bloodied and burned corpses were scattered here and there. Once again, he felt all of the distress that had been inexplicable to him the night before. The fires that had horrified him in the darkness had been the cause of the destruction of all the Armenian villages.”
If not for Norman’s account, we would not know whether Raffi had spared any details, or how much he may have spared. After all, Jalaleddin is intense, and one gets the impression that Raffi was pulling no punches (indeed, this was our initial impression when translating the work). It was only when reading Norman’s account that we realized that Raffi was calculated in what he chose to depict, and that he was not writing blindly out of some sort of a Freudian id.
Now, why were the Kurds killing Armenians in a war between Russia and Turkey? Armenians claim they were unjustly massacred, whereas many Kurds and Turks claim that such events cannot be called massacres inasmuch as they occurred during war.
The fact is that the Armenians and the Kurds involved in these events were located right in the battleground of the Russo-Turkish War. And religious likeness would have aligned the Kurds more closely to the Ottoman Empire, while aligning the Armenians more closely to Russia. From this perspective, the Turks and Kurds had reason to be distrustful of the Armenians: the Armenians in Anatolia did have a history of fighting back (for example, in the First Zeitun Resistance), and the Lieutenant-General of the Russian army was an Armenian from Tiflis (Tbilisi) named Arshak Ter-Gukasov.
Even so, Norman outright opposes the notion that the Armenians of Anatolia played any major part in the war:
“Hordes of fanatics, led by Mullahs, have joined the Turkish army; their fury, daily fed by the exhortations and addresses of the priests, who have denounced the war as a menace to the Ottoman religion, leads them to commit every conceivable excess against the defenseless Christians, whom they accuse of furnishing information to the enemy. Facts prove the reverse, for as yet not a single Armenian spy has been discovered by the authorities, while several Kurds and Circassians, preferring money to faith, have paid for their treachery with their lives; in short, every spy hanged during this war has been a Mohammedan.”
Raffi’s own work(s) perhaps serve as a stronger indication that the Armenians played no major part in the Russo-Turkish War. For all his anger toward the Kurds for their perpetration and toward the Turks for not intervening, Sarhat—the protagonist of Jalaleddin—puts the blame back onto the Armenians for being too passive in the face of Destruction, for fear of upsetting the Ottoman government and risking retaliation, for putting the fate of the nation in God’s hands as an excuse for not doing the courageous thing and fighting, and for hoping that their docility may spare them their lives. Sarhat also explicitly respects the Kurds for their bravery and willingness to fight, and wishes that his own people would be so brave, as to defend their own nation against attacks.
Jalaleddin is about self-defense: it repeatedly asks its reader to consider how one ought to behave when danger confronts one’s interests—selfish and communal—and when there is a conflict between the courses of action required to defend against selfish and communal interests. And it delivers answers, powerfully. More importantly, it shows that despite many acceptable answers, infinitely many perhaps, there is always one unacceptable answer—cowardice.
But what about Sheikh Jalaleddin? Norman’s account confirms not only that the man was Real, but also that he was Bad:
“After deliberately murdering the Cossacks, the Kurds—under their fanatical leaders—Sheikh Jelaludeen, Obeidullah of Nari, Sheikh Pekar of Yastan, Fahim Effendi, Mahomed Bey of Julamerk, Sheikh Tell, and his nephew Osman, both of Sert, and Takhir Bey of Van, entered Beyazit. The scene that ensued was one of unparalleled horror. The town contained 165 Christian families, and all of the men, women, and children were ruthlessly put to the sword. A Turkish officer who visited the town a few days subsequently states that there was not a single inhabitant left… In every house he entered small groups of dead were lying shockingly mutilated and in the most revolting and indecent positions.”
According to Nicholas Al-Jeloo, Sheikh Obeidullah was from the present-day village of Baglar, Sheikh Pekar was from Vastan (present-day Gevas on the southern border of Lake Van), and Sheikh Jalaleddin was from Arvas (present-day Doganyayla). He also adds that who Norman refers to as Sheikh Tell would have been the Sheikh of Tillo, near present-day Siirt.
Norman concludes on the subject of Sheikh Jalaleddin:
“In spite of Mukhtar Pasha’s stringent and oft-repeated orders for the summary execution of the instigators of the Beyazit massacre, the blame of this foul act of treachery has been laid at the door of the Muslim inhabitants of the town, while Sheikh Jelaludeen has been allowed to go scatheless… As long as the Turkish Government… allow Sheikh Jelaludeen to go free, so long does it connive at the atrocities committed by the Kurds, and is itself responsible for the lives of those who have been thus cruelly murdered.”
From the perspective of a modern observer, an obvious thing to do is to question the Evil actions of the Kurdish perpetrators, or, as Norman did, to question the failure of the Ottoman government to serve Justice. In many countries, we now rely on strong legal systems to deal with such matters, and therefore forget that this was not the norm at the time. Even the United States Constitution—which 100 years before these events had emphasized the human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—was not yet delivering on its promises from the perspective of today’s standards. And let’s not forget that the year 1877, which was a about a decade after the Civil War had ended, was still 80 years shy of the signing of the Civil Rights Act that addressed the problem of segregation for the first time in the U.S. And even that did not yield immediate results.
In writing Jalaleddin, Raffi concerned himself with neither the actions of the Kurds nor the Turkish Government; he concerned himself instead with the Armenians, and what it was in their power to do in their circumstances: While the Armenians could not control how they were being treated, they could control how to respond to such treatment. The fact that such a choice exists is a premise of Jalaleddin, and the question of what one ought (not) to do with that choice is something that the reader must be prepared to face.