Written by Raffi in 1878
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
The bloody canyon was worthy of its name because of all the bloodshed and massacres that had taken place there. No travelers or caravans ever dared to stop; only thugs spent time there after committing their crimes. This was where the Sheikh had set up camp, near the passage to Bayazit, after retreating from the battlefield.
One of the upper tributaries of the Tigris, which the locals called Nihel, flowed through this valley: it separated the province of Aghbak from Jolamerk. Near the riverbank on a green plain, one hundred little bonfires were burning, surrounded by seated Kurdish soldiers who were talking, smoking, laughing, singing and looking occasionally at the pots of food cooking on the fires, or turning over the giant chunks of meat that were roasting on the red coals. Everyone appeared to be happy. No lamps were burning in the tents; the entire camp was illuminated by the bonfires, except for Jalaleddin’s glorious tent.
Away from the army, in a narrow canyon separate from the bloody canyon, the sound of drums could be heard and the Kurdish zurna1 was playing the Janiman melody2. At the same time a group of horsemen was passing by.
“There’s something going on here,” one of them whispered.
“I think so, too,” another answered.
“Let’s go and see.”
The men turned their horses toward the noise. The narrow path leading there disappeared beneath shrubs and bushes in various places, which forced them to descend from their horses. Telling one of their friends to stay back and watch them, the men continued on their way. A few minutes later they were atop a small hill, and the following scene appeared before them: It was an awful dance festival that Dionysus himself could not have imagined. On one side, drums and zurnas were playing; on the other, naked women were dancing the Halay3. There were many of them, and they were holding hands in a long line that formed a large circle. In the middle of the circle, long stakes with torches had been placed that illuminated the women’s pallid faces. Young men were seated near the torches, looking on with hellish enthusiasm at the chain of naked women circling constantly around them.
It was apparent that these poor women had been unwittingly forced to partake in the dance, and the shame and dishonor filled them with fury. Their eyes were lit with flames of anger, their lips were shivering feverishly, and their pale faces were in shock. Many among them were so weak of heart that they could not withstand the unbearable pain and fell to the ground. Yet all of that, which should affect any man’s conscience, which should soften even the most hardened of hearts and fill it with natural feelings of pity and beautiful love, only served to provoke the captors’ brutish passions instead.
The dance continued. The chain of naked women kept moving to the beat of the drum. The young men, sitting between them, applauded, yelled and shouted. Each would put a handkerchief on the woman he admired, and suddenly a pair of opposing hearts—an angel and a devil—would disappear together behind some bushes.
The ignorance of man contains nothing more horrible than raping innocent, chaste women. Even beasts are more moral in their behavior toward their females.
As these shameless festivities took place in the light of the torches, a group of unknown men watched the scene unfold from the darkness of the peak of a hill. The reader already knows who they were.
“We must attack,” Sarhat said.
“There are many of them,” Deli-Baba replied.
“It is all the same,” Sarhat continued, “We all must die one day, it would be good if it were here.”
“But you will lose Aslı, for whom you came,” Deli-Baba countered.
“Each of these women is equally worthy of our sympathy,” Sarhat said. Seized by the women’s dishonor, the honest young man had forgotten his selfish love.
“We must ambush them before the torches break,” Deli-Baba said, “which will make our job more difficult.”
“With our good fortune the sky is cloudy, so the moon is no longer shining,” Kitap-Delisi pointed out.
“Fight only with your swords,” Sarhat advised. “Our guns will be too noisy. The army is not camped far from here and we don’t want the noise to reach them.”
The Kurds did not have their guns with them either. They were at home and had receded from the army with only their shields, swords, and victims.
Observing that Sarhat had completely forgotten Aslı and abandoned the objective for which he had come, Město was in a state of anguish. He saw that his dear master was now preparing to spearhead such a bold and dangerous mission that he may not survive. He did not know what to do. Should he remain near his master, to fight and die with him? Good Město wanted that very much. On the other hand, a girl, a graceful angel, whom Sarhat loved deeply and whom Město had known for a long time, was currently among the Sheikh’s captives, and she also needed to be saved. Which objective should preside? It was between his childhood friend and his childhood friend’s love. He chose the latter, and without telling Sarhat, headed covertly to the Sheikh’s camp.
After Město left, the ambush struck like lightning. The lights went out and darkness covered the whole valley. The massacre started.
Short-range combat is formidable, especially in tight spaces in the darkness of night. In a fatal fight, the iron sword has a terrible effect on a man’s body, and a man facing death fights to kill.
The battle persisted for several hours. In the utter darkness, allies unintentionally stabbed each other. Bitter cries of hopelessness mixed with the clamoring of guns. The killers and casualties were drenched in warm blood. The corpses sunk deep beneath their feet.
Suddenly the valley was illuminated again. The moon had come out from behind the gray clouds, as if wanting to witness a beautiful deed, and a moving scene unfolded. The women, still naked and now realizing that the fight was for their freedom, entered the fray. The rage of a woman is terrifying, especially when it rises out of revenge. In such moments, a woman forgets her femininity: she turns into an angel of death and thrusts her hand into the heart that steps on her honor. Those women, who just a few hours earlier had been forced by the brutal hand of their captors to take on a lowly role, now, having heard the sound of freedom, were taking the weapons from their fallen captors and killing the rest of the brutes. Honor was at war with animalistic passions. Angels against demons—
The illumination did not last long. The moon became concealed again behind the clouds and the darkness of night drew its black curtains. The scene was once again covered by darkness.
On the western shores of Lake Van, at the base of Mount Süphan near the verdant edge of a small stream, a few shepherds’ tents could be seen, but their poor outward appearance indicated that their owners did not belong to one of the more fortunate tribes of Kurds. They were the tents of Yezidis, who were even more persecuted than the Armenians and had withdrawn to the loneliness of that mountain during the chaos of the war to protect themselves and their few livestock.
A week after the massacre of the bloody canyon, in a tent indistinguishable from the rest, a young man lay on his bed with a deathly pale face and very dark eyes. He could barely breathe and moved with great difficulty, as though he was injured. It was Sarhat. A young lady sat next to his pillow with a sad, worn face and tears in her eyes; this was Aslı who, in the course of events at the bloody canyon, Město had been able to rescue. Sitting on each side of Sarhat, like angels of sorrow, were another two girls who also had tears in their eyes. These were Aslı’s sisters. On one side of the tent, with his hands pressed to his eyes, was her little brother. Outside, sitting near the entrance of the tent, Město wept. Another young lady with beautiful black eyes was moving about; this was Město’s wife.
Sarhat was in agony.
In the fight of the bloody canyon, only three of Sarhat’s injured friends had been rescued; the rest had died. So too did many of those brave women, who had erased from their blood the moral death of having been raped.
The wounded lion opened his eyes one last time, looked at Aslı and her siblings, and shut them. His last utterance was a cry of pain.
Město groaned, then embraced the dying man. “You die in my tent, oh brave one, and leave me to avenge your death. Město will deliver.”