“Raffi’s works occupy the highest rank ever [in Armenian literature]… Foremost, Raffi was a novelist; and at once he was a prolific commentator on national, political and social issues; a literary critic; an indefatigable advocate for elevating the Armenian woman’s educational and social status; and a progressive educator.”
–Murad Menehsian, Raffi: The Prophet from Payajuk
Raffi was born in 1835 in Payajuk, a small village in northeast Iran, near the present-day borders of Armenia and Turkey, to a wealthy merchant family.
When Raffi was 12, his father sent him to Tiflis (at the time a major cultural center in the region) to receive a high quality education in Armenian and Russian. Grigor Artsruni said “he knew just enough Russian as was necessary to read books,” which according to Raffi’s biographer Murad Meneshian included not only Russian literature, including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but also the translated works of Goethe, Schiller, Hugo, Shakespeare, Verne and other European authors.
As Raffi neared the end of his secondary school education, his father was preparing to send him to Saint Petersburg to study medicine. However when Raffi’s father fell ill and the family business was threatened, he invited Raffi to return home and help out. Raffi left secondary school one year before graduating to fulfill his father’s request. As Artsruni describes, “that was his entire education,” and “all his knowledge and learning was due only to his autodidacticism.”
On his journey home from Tiflis, Raffi’s caravan encountered a group of about 100 Armenians who had just been plundered at the hands of 15 bandits, and not so much as attempted to defend themselves. This observation reminds us of some the descriptions in Jalaleddin of a small numbers of Kurdish bandits succeeding against large numbers of Armenians, where Raffi describes the cowardice of such behavior with great contempt.
Then, a couple of stops later, at a caravanserai in the Khoy district of Persia, Raffi was mistaken for a physician and invited to the local mayor’s harem to treat one of his wives who had fallen ill. The observations he made on this visit informed his descriptions of harem-life throughout the novella, Harem.
Finally, when he returned home, Raffi went looking for Sara, who, the story goes, he had been in love with as a young boy before leaving to Tiflis. She was nowhere to be seen. Word finally reached him that she had been waiting for him to return, but that when he did not return for years, her parents arranged for her to be married into a wealthy family. Just before the wedding ceremony, she drank poison, then collapsed on the altar. The clergy refused to give her a proper burial because that she had committed suicide, and so she was buried in a simple grave outside of the village by her family. This reminds us of the scene in The Fool describing the death of a girl named Sona:
According to the story of the Kurd, the unfortunate girl had been snatched from the field by a Kurdish chief, who although not prominent, had a reputation among his tribesmen as a notable criminal. Sona, finding no other way to escape from the hands of the monster, bribed an old Kurdish woman using some gold coins that had been sewn onto her headdress1 to find poison for her. The woman did her bidding. Sona died of poisoning. The Kurds would not allow the body to be buried in their burial ground, because she had affirmed till her last breath, “I am a Christian. I will not change my faith.” So her body remained unburied. One of the Kurds used the situation to his advantage; learning whose daughter she was, he delivered her body to her father’s home, in the hope of obtaining a reward.
Not without fanaticism, the Armenian clergy also would have nothing to do with the corpse. The reasons they gave were that she had committed suicide, driven to death by a villain, and she had not confessed nor received absolution; therefore, they could not allow her to be buried in the Armenian cemetery2. Having been driven away by the church, she had found acceptance by her family. This was why her grave was in her father’s garden.-Raffi, The Fool
Having taken care of business, Raffi then traveled through Ottoman Armenia (Western Armenia, or present-day Eastern Turkey), where he reportedly witnessed great poverty due to high taxation, the departure of many Armenian youth for better opportunities in Constantinople, as well as ruined and abandoned forts and monasteries. These first-hand observations made for his extremely detailed descriptions of life in Western Armenia in many of Raffi’s later works, from the dress of the people to their social and dietary patterns.
Indeed, judging from Raffi’s notes, in which he laments the lack of any detailed description of private Armenian life by historians before the Middle Ages, Raffi seems to have tried to document as faithfully as possible the way of life of his contemporary Armenians in different areas of the 19th century Near East (all of which he had visited). Upon Raffi’s passing, Artsruni commented that “the descriptive part of [Raffi’s] novels, about the lives of the people [and] the way in which they lived, are realistic to the highest degree.” In other words, the descriptive elements of Raffi’s novels can be treated as lively histories of the times and places about which he wrote.
In 1863, Raffi visited the American missionary school in Urmia, where he met a girl named Anna, the daughter of an Assyrian priest. Raffi went to visit her parents to ask for Anna’s hand, when several people of the Assyrian-Armenian village of Gug Tappeh informed him that she was engaged to the son of the local physician. He visited their home anyway, where he was received warmly by Anna’s family, but when he left he was attacked by the fiancé and his friends. He spent a few days in Anna’s home recovering, when he asked her father for her hand in marriage, and her father agreed.
Two years later, there was a cholera outbreak in and around Payajuk, around which time the death of the family patriarch and head of the family business caused a split in Raffi’s family, who turned on Raffi, took over the business for themselves, and stacked him with fraudulent debts.
That, we hear, was when Raffi had vowed to dedicate his life to writing. He went to Tiflis, and it was not long until, in Grigor Artsruni’s words, after several meetings, “Raffi’s fate became tied to “Mshak”; and as his fame and renown grew, so did the readership of “Mshak”. Someone with virtually no formal education, an autodidact, sensed the need of the time and [came] to express the issues of the time in the form of the literary novel.”
Raffi passed away at midnight on April 25, 1888.
- Raffi footnotes this saying “In the villages of Alashkert and Ottoman Armenia, women’s heads are covered with a type of hat that is completely decorated with coins.”
- Raffi footnotes this saying “I have happened to see such fanaticism [on the part of the Armenian clergy] in many places. What is surprising is that the masses agree on that point with the opinion of the clergy.”