More than Fiction: A History of Private Armenian Life

Grigor Artsruni wrote in Raffi’s obituary 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.” By this, Artsruni was referring to Raffi’s portrayal of private Armenian life, which in The Fool includes descriptions of the clothing, food, music, proverbs, and religious and social customs of the Armenians of Alashkert (and Ottoman Armenians more generally), including the reception and hosting of guests, the role of women in society, the running of households, and education. In this post we provide only some examples of Raffi’s meticulous preservation of Armenian culture, which is one of the most underappreciated aspects of his novels.

Clothing: The novel contains various descriptions of Armenian fashion, including tunics made of Aleppo linen, girdles made of fine Kerman wool, red leather shoes from Erzurum and red fezzes topped with black silk tassels and lined with colorful silk. In Chapter 13, we are told the story of the Armenian girl Sona, who had been kidnapped by a Kurd, and finding no way to escape, “us[ed] some of the gold coins sewn onto her headdress to obtain poison…” Raffi footnotes this saying that “in the villages of Alashkert and Ottoman Armenia, women’s heads are covered with a type of hat that is completely decorated with coins,” which the following two images faithfully depict:

Landmarks: A number of landmarks, past and present, are referenced in the book. These include the now half-ruined fortress of Bayazit and destroyed monastery of Saint John the Baptist in the monastic complex of Üç Kilise (“three churches”) in Bagrevand (modern Ağri), and the still-standing Cathedral of Saint James (of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem), Etchmiadzin and the nearby Church of Saint Gayane in modern Armenia, as well as the former Hagia Sophia Cathedral (in Constantinople) that was recently converted to a mosque.

Agriculture, Husbandry, and Trade: Chapter 5 of the novel describes how the highlands of the Bagrevand (Ağri) province produced wheat, barley, flax, grains, and legumes, and that the region contained abundant cattle, buffaloes, oxen, horses, and sheep. In Chapter 14, we learn that sheep, oxen, wool, butter, and cheese were traded and sold as far as Yerevan in exchange for manufactured clothing articles, calico, cotton, sugar, tea, coffee, and other goods.

Cuisine and hospitality: Chapter 7 describes how an honored guest visiting a wealthy Armenian household would be served a special feast of pilaf, made with freshly slaughtered lamb (recipe below). Food was cooked in copper cauldrons and large, clay pots, and dinner would be served upon a large, expensive Persian rug. In the same chapter, we learn that the ladies regularly made homemade yogurt, prepared the culture for cheese, and churned butter with their own dairy which was heated using brass kettles. Wealthy households had their own beehives for supplying honey, and had cellars full of olives, oil, wine, and tallow. In later chapters, the ladies prepare food in the tonir (a traditional Armenian subterranean oven, similar to the Indian tandoor) and fry chicken. Chapter 27 describes lokums (“Turkish delight”) and figs from Smyrna (İzmir), and Chapter 31 describes desserts of dried fruit served to special guests.

Professions: In addition to describing various professions that exist today, including soldiers, farmers, shepherds, police officers, tax-collectors, repairmen and the like, The Fool also provides detailed descriptions of now extinct professions, including contrabandists who smuggled weapons across borders. One of the contrabandists is the we meet in Chapter 24. To see how faithfully Raffi describes the fellow, compare the image below of a 19th century Ottoman peddler to the excerpt from the book:

“The peddler was a huge fellow, dressed in rags from head to foot. The large crate of goods, which he carried on his shoulder, compared to the size of his body, gave the same impression as a sieve would on a camel’s back. The peddler was limping heavily on his left leg, and every time he swayed to the left, one would think that Goliath was going to fall to the ground, but the big staff in his hand, giving support, helped him keep his balance.”

Music: Last but not least, Raffi captures a taste of the popular music of the time. In Chapter 20, Dudukjian gets drunk starts singing “Taghiadian’s famous song, God, save us Armenians” («Տեր, կեցո՛ Դու զՀայս»). 

Raffi seamlessly integrates this and more about the private lives of Armenians into the gripping plot of the book.