Written by Raffi in 1878
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
The month of May, 1877 was approaching its end. On one of the Liana plains of Aghbak1, a few black tents, barely visible in the morning fog, were arranged beside one another, with a sizable space in the middle. At first glance, the observer would think that they belonged to shepherds who had settled in that lush valley for their animals to graze. But as the sun rose, the fog covering the mountains began to dissipate and a distribution of tents all across the valley was revealed. This unusual formation gave the impression of a military camp.
Indeed, long spears had been placed in front of the tents, the ends of which were decorated with black feathers. In between the tents, young armed soldiers moved about restlessly in inexplicable discord, their faces expressing an impatient ferocity. Far from the army, horses that had been prepared and saddled were grazing in fresh pastures, with hobbles attached to their front and hind legs to prevent them from fleeing.
In front of one of the tents, distinguishable from the others by its size and superiority, a red flag was displayed with Arabic2 letters representing the four names Ali, Uthman, Umar and Abu Bakr imprinted on each of its corners. In between the names of these former and venerable Caliphs of Islam3 was the image of a white hand that, like an invisible eye4, would lead the troops to the battlefield.
A troop of men was gathered around this tent, and they entered and exited it one by one.
Inside the tent, a short man with fiery eyes and a gray beard sat cross-legged upon a thick wool carpet. He was dressed from head to toe in white, which in the East is a sign of piety and self-sacrifice, and made him appear as though he was already among the dead. A long prayer rope with huge beads hung off the right side of the old man’s belt, and a hooked dagger and pair of pistols hung off the left. The barrels of the pistols were concealed in an Aleppine coat that was draped loosely over his shoulders. He was wearing a white head wrap embroidered with Arabic writing in yellow silk thread, and a Damascus scimitar sword rested on his knees.
This venerable old man looked like a zealot: highly spiritual, courageous, and a mighty soldier. He was a Sheikh5, and he was powerful.
A bowl containing small pieces of paper folded into triangles of equal size sat beside the Sheikh. These little notes resembled the talismans sorcerers give people with mysterious objectives, but there was no sorcery about these papers. They contained verses of inspiration from the Quran, the powers of which protect men from all evils and tribulations.
The entrance of the tent was open. The soldiers outside entered one after the other in a continuous stream. Before reaching the entryway, the visitor first kneeled and offered praise. He then moved into the tent on his knees, removed his sword, placed it before the Sheikh’s feet and kissed his hand. Following this, the old man selected a piece of paper and handed it to his visitor. The visitor then turned around, still on his knees, and left the tent without standing. Upon leaving the tent, each soldier sewed the prayer into the right sleeve of his garment.
After all the papers were distributed, drums sounded, and the soldiers quickly gathered around the tent of the blessed general. The Sheikh then came out. The soldiers saluted him with their right hands and silently recited a Salat6.
A platform was then formed before the entrance to the tent using saddled horses, and the Sheikh stood on it. He did not have the cane he typically held during his sermons; instead, the red flag waved behind his head, with its white eye and the names of the four caliphs.
“This position reminds me of that miraculous sight, when the prophet of Arabia ascended the pulpit formed by the saddles of camels in the desert and soulfully delivered his address.”
The Sheikh’s sermon began with blessings, and fervent praises to Allah, Muhammad and his principal successors Umar, Uthman, and Abu Bakr. Then he began to deliver his motivational words.
“Sons of Islam, the Great Prophet—in all his glorious power—is calling on you for a Holy job. He is calling on you to go to war against the enemies of his religion, who have started to shed the blood of God’s servants. (And let them be cursed.)
“Dejection, cowardice and doubt—may these things remain far from you, because cowardice is not becoming of God’s soldiers. God will add strength to your limbs, and the necks of the enemy will break before your swords, like dry grain before a scythe. You will catch bullets with your hands and send them back to your enemy. Your paths will be protected by iron gates, which your eyes cannot see. The Prophet will send his angels down to help you. The God of Islam is great, and there is no other God but him.
“The giaours7 are vile before God. God will take the possessions, lives, families and everything else belonging to the disbelievers, and put them in your hands. Steal, seize, burn and massacre to the satisfaction of your hearts. God has made the loot and the enemy’s blood Halal8 for the soldiers of the Holy war.
“Only those among you whose hearts the devil misleads and whose soul he weakens will fall. Cowards are worthy of God’s hatred, and especially those who flee from the field of battle. The enemy is not to see your backs. Those among you who are warring for God must die with your sword in your hands.
“If you abandon the battlefield, God will fill your wife’s heart with fury. She will stand before your tent, and greet you: ‘Leave, get away, you are not my husband. Why are your wounds not visible? Why did you come back alone? Where are your friends? Leave! A man who dishonored his guns cannot be my husband.’ There is nothing in this world more bitter than a woman’s rebuke, but the abomination of God is terrifying.
“The blood of the enemies of the Holy religion is pleasing to God. He breathes the smoke from the ruins of the heathens, your sacrificial offering, as it rises to his eternal seat in heaven. Massacre them, as much as the strength in your limbs allows, and burn as much of their land as you can. In proportion to every drop of your victims’ blood that you shed, you will receive a Houri in Jannah9.
“The God of orthodox believers is great, and there is no other God but him.
“If it pleases you, take the women among your captives as concubines. God does not prevent you from taking children or adolescents as your slaves and servants either, provided you have them convert to Islam; if they persist in their ways, he gives you the right to kill them. Sex with heathens is forbidden by God. And older people, female or male, are not to be spared, for heathenism is already in their bones.
“Divide the loot fairly amongst yourselves and do not deprive your friends of their share. Do not forget to account for God’s share either, because his angels will be fighting with you. Take care of those who fall ill or become injured because you are all brethren under that sacred flag.”
The Sheikh had been talking for a long time, standing on his pulpit, like the embodiment of the spirit of fanatical Islam, and an example of persecution and brutality. He was a sharp and effective orator, and his speech was not devoid of inspiration and eloquence. A student of the Quran, in which the praises of jihad are sung with poetic ecstasy, the Sheikh used his savage interpretation of that Holy book to galvanize his followers to slaughter the giaours.
At the conclusion of his speech, he turned again to the crowd and delivered these final words: “God requires you to make a pledge, and may each and every one of you fulfill his oath.”
Everyone in the crowd then picked up a piece of rock and ascended a large nearby hill. The air rumbled with thousands of mixed voices from which only the following chorus was discernible: “And let our talaq10 fall like this rock, if we do not fulfill our Holy duty.”
After the ceremony ended, the Sheikh repeated his blessings, descended from the pulpit, and returned to his tent.
Drums sounded. Everyone hurried to their horses and gathered around the tents. Within a few hours, the army was ready. They began to move when the Sheikh, seated on his horse with his red flag in hand, led the way forward.
The Sheikh’s Holy face was covered with a white scarf, so that the heathens would not see it. The fearsome old man led more than ten thousand Kurdish troops, followed by a row of camels carrying artillery.
- Aghbak is an old Armenian province, currently in the district of Başkale, Turkey.
- In the time since Jalaleddin was written, the Kurdish language has employed two alphabets: the Sorani alphabet (now used in Iraq and Iran) was developed in the 1920s and uses a modified Arabic script, whereas the Bedirkhan (Hawar) alphabet (now used in Turkey, Syria and Armenia) was developed in the 1930s and uses Latin script.
- The Rashidun Caliphs named here—Ali, Uthman, Umar and Abu Bakr—were the first four successors to the prophet Muhammad.
- The hand with the invisible eye is a probable reference to a hamsa, a protective symbol in the shape of an open hand that typically features an eye on the palm.
- Sheikh is an honorific title bestowed on tribal leaders, religious leaders, and learned men.
- A Salat is a prayer, which has the same significance among Muslims as making the sign of the cross has for Christians.
- A giaour is a heathen to a Muslim.
- Anything considered Halal is permissible according to Islamic law.
- A Houri in Jannah means a virgin in heaven.
- Under Islamic law, a talaq is a repudiation of marriage (i.e., divorce) that is reprehensible unless motivated by a compelling cause.
- Jalaleddin, pronounced Juhl-all-ed-deen, is a masculine Arabic given name, meaning “majesty of the religion”.
- During the Russo-Turkish war, Sheikh Jalaleddin was one of several Kurdish religious leaders who preached a Jihad against Christians in the Ottoman Empire. This led to the large-scale massacre of Armenians described by Raffi here in Jalaleddin; also see Armenia and the Campaign of 1877 for a historical account by British correspondent Charles Boswell Norman.