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THE KEEPERS OF OUR LETTERS Armenian News Network / Groong January 10, 2005 By Shushan Avagyan On the other side of the grand building of the National Art Gallery of Armenia, there is a small wooden door on Manukyan Street that leads me to the quiet halls of the Museum of Art and Literature named after Charents. It is hidden from the eyes of the random passer-by, unnoticed by the fast walking pedestrian who uses the street for a short cut to the metro station. Its location makes perfect sense - hidden behind the Gallery - it isn't supposed to be a tourist attraction, it's a center for research and studies. Inside, the dignified solitude of the hallway instills a totally different sensation from the loud mercantile street atmosphere. The sign on the side of the door reads: from Sayat-Nova to Charents. I come here with a letter of request to access the vast heritage left to us by the remarkable minds from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I hand the letter to Henrik Bakhchinyan, the head of the archives - as he recalls my name, just like he remembers each person who has walked into his office with the same ambition to see, touch and read the manuscripts of the great ones. He takes me down to the archives and introduces me to the keepers of our letters. The reading hall is a small room with a few desks, a piano, a wall-case with black and white photographs of Grikor Zohrab with wife Clara, and daughter Dolores Zohrab Liebmann among other figures, and an electric stove to keep the place warm. Here I meet Berj (her real name is Perchuhi Gazazyan). She directs me to the old wooden cabinet, which holds the neatly filed card catalogs. Each card is a hand-written bibliographic record. I browse through the card catalog as my fingers get dry and black from the years' old dust; then I write down the `call numbers' of selected materials on a special form provided by Berj. The next day at eleven in the morning my precious originals are waiting for me on the desk, in brown paper bundles with fragile contents that lure and frighten me at the same time. During an era when the Sultan was envisioning an empire of terror and intellectual repression, Toros Azadian, an ingenious man from Constantinople, was envisioning a literary revolution that would turn the politics of racism to a politics of tolerance and intellectual dialog. He collected the letters, diaries and memoirs of his contemporary writers, as he wrote, published and spoke about the importance of the cultural heritage and the histories of those who were silenced under the Sultan's rule. Saved from destruction, these historic treasures traveled from his private library to the archives of the Armenian Prelacy in Constantinople and finally to the safety of the Museum in Yerevan. And a century later as I hold the letters of Sibyl and Hrant Asatur in my hands, and read the epistolary novel of a clandestine love affair preserved on creased yellow pages torn from diaries, I think of Toros Azadian. I burn with Asatur's passion for a woman who was married to another man. `It's true, I envy all those who have shared your friendship before me; I wish, Zabel, to have been close with you since your girlhood, I wish I were your only one. I wish you shared your grief, thoughts and feelings with me only. I wish I were the blood flowing through your veins, your inspiration and breath that may cease by death only.' Her writing is as passionate as his, her signature at the bottom - rushed. `Hrant, my heart is afraid of too much happiness. You are so precious to me that I've become selfish wanting only your company.' I burn with Sibyl as she kisses her husband and caresses the letter from Asatur concealed in her pocket. Concealed, like the Museum of letters is concealed in the back pocket of the yellow tufa building, where I sit with my frozen fingers in the cold reading hall. I burn with Azadian who was able to preserve this passion between two remarkable writers and enabled me to witness it. But I am here for another reason: Shushanik Kurghinian's archive of notebooks and family photographs. The first day Berj is not in a good mood; she dismisses me with a few brusque words. There is a defiant note in her gaze - it emanates a certain sternness. But her blue pupils also reveal a temperament of great sensibility. I come back the next day, her bitterness is gone - she even tells me about her father's family from Van. She recalls her first day at the Museum twenty-some years ago, her excitement, the thrill. Then the December `days of anarchy' during the 90's, the leaking walls, the rooms with the damp boxes holding the manuscripts, the temperature below zero. Her bulging red hands tell me about those days when she ran frantically from one storage vault to the other, with towels brought from home to wrap around the soaking boxes. Her month's salary is the tip you pay for your dinner at the Italian restaurant. But at this moment, she is the one holding the box with Kurghinian's photographs. This one is my favorite: it's 1908 in Rostov, the writing in the back says it was taken during an expedition to River Don; they are seated around a huge table in a courtyard. Her husband, Arshak Kurghinian is dressed in a light peasant shirt with buttons on the side; the other men are dressed in European suits. The young women are wearing stylish one-piece dresses. The children are playing in the foreground. Kurghinian, in her simple Mushetsi vestment, is gazing straight into the camera with her smart piercing eyes. Her hair is long and braided in the traditional Armenian village style - a thick braid resting on each shoulder. The pensive poet is stretched on her chair, with her legs crossed and relaxed - she is the unpretentious hostess who will dismiss you if you are unwanted, just like Berj. And you will have to abide by her rules. But Berj is rather generous today. She has agreed to read from one of Kurghinian's notebooks, as her handwriting is illegible to me from this particular time-period: an epoch of the poet's awakening and the socialist movement. Berj is an expert when it comes to deciphering the script of the great ones. I close my eyes to her rhythm as she reads the stanzas in iambic tetrameter. The unfinished paper, which I have been writing for the past three years, surfaces into my memory: `Her language is simple, but very effective for the time, considering the little formal education that she had. As Rowe emphasizes, unlike [Mariam] Khatisian's scholastic language, Kurghinian's poetics incorporates many dialectical terms that mimic the speech patterns of the working class and peasantry to whom her poetry was directed. Furthermore, even though Kurghinian lived in a Russophone environment and widely read in Russian, she continued to persistently write in her native Armenian. She consciously chose verse over the novel as a genre, which was highly in vogue at the turn of the century, because she wanted to draw the attention of the illiterate masses, who had no access to literature and no time for lengthy readings. Kurghinian `sang songs' of rebellion, scrupulously working on perfecting her rhyming, so the stanzas could be easily remembered and learnt by heart.' As the last refrain trails in my mind, Berj's voice trails into the hallways of the empty Museum. It then stops abruptly and the Museum is quiet again. It's almost four and I need to leave, Berj reminds me, - the work must be paused until tomorrow. I exit the building that solemnly stands in the shade of other museums that had the privilege to undergo restorative works in the past years. For a reason I cannot understand, the Museum of Art and Literature was not included in these restorative works that were funded by Lincy Foundation. Perhaps the keepers of our letters weren't loud enough to outcry the importance of their house. Perhaps the ones who were making the decisions - writing up the list of museums that needed renovations - misplaced or forgot to include the institution that houses over one million original manuscripts from various spheres including the visual arts, literature, film, theatre and music. But how loud does one have to scream about the significance of preserving this wealth? The next morning I am sitting in Gurgen Gasparyan's office, talking about his translations of Rimbaud, Mallarme and Verlaine into Armenian. Gasparyan is the associate director of the Museum, but primarily he is a translator. He draws out a thick book from the shelf, Jean-Pierre Mahe's translation of Narekatsi's `Tragedie,' and begins reading from Mahe's introduction to the book and simultaneously translating it for me. His eyes glow as he leafs through the French publication that was released in 2000 as part of a scholarly series. We are sitting in our coats and scarves tightly around our necks - he has no heating in his office. Not even a small electric stove, like the one downstairs, in the reading hall. He is helping me scan Kurghinian's photographs onto a compact disk, which will travel with me overseas. He is curious to know why I am so intrigued by Kurghinian and her works. To reciprocate his reading on Narekatsi, I offer him excerpts from Kurghinian's autobiographical writings: `They are surprised at how I became a poet . . . and enraged at my ability to write good songs. Perhaps it's because I look like someone who has dared to enter the theatre without a ticket.' And: `Women's liberation comes with human progress; hence, the modern woman's rights, like a flag, flies high above the shameful gallows of ignorance.' And: `I disagree with you; belletristic, better yet call it aesthetic literature has been and will remain a powerful source, a supportive platform for the reading public. In order to have such power it must interpret life - the time period, its desires, searchings, emotions - in a most intimate and truthful way. Without literature, trust me, our ears will wilt away.' Gasparyan lights a cigarette and expresses his regret for the Armenian public's lack of interest in literature. It's a shame, he says, nobody really knows or remembers Kurghinian anymore. He is concerned with the general ignorance, and indifference toward the archives and the heritage. Whitman's words come to mind - `To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.' Gasparyan is also the Museum's publisher. He came here from Nairi Press, where he worked for many years, publishing modern and contemporary Armenian fiction. Since his arrival in 1995, the Museum has managed to publish over eighty books, including the unique correspondence between Sibyl and Hrant Asatur. One of the outstanding projects has been the publication of Zohrab's well known and, also, previously unpublished works - articles, memoirs and letters, in four volumes. These are of vital import to the literary scholar and critic in their ongoing discourse on Zohrab. The list of publications is endless. But as Gasparyan mentions, the Museum budget can allow only one or two publications a year, and many books get published through individual subsidiary grants. Like Gasparyan notes in his introduction to the newest release of Abovian's `Verk Hayastani, voghb hayrenaseri,' the publication of this particular book was enabled and supported by Vahe Baladouni, professor of philosophy from University of New Orleans. The cornerstone of modern Armenian literature, this groundbreaking historic novel written in the vernacular Yerevan dialect, was penned in 1841 and first published in 1858. This publication is the unedited version containing the author's original syntax, and includes detailed endnotes, a glossary, and a translation of the author's preface into English. Gasparyan hands me `Verk Hayastani' as a keepsake, and I place it alongside the compact disk with Kurghinian's photographs. I press his hand in gesture of appreciation and also goodbye; it is the last day - everything will be closed tomorrow for the holidays. As I walk out of his office and down the stairs to the exit, I muse over our conversation on the significance and necessity of the Museum's preservation and the preservation of its contents thereof. Closing the doors behind me, I step outside into the crisp wintry air and stroll away to the quiet humming of the Museum. -- Shushan Avagyan is currently working on her master's degree in English Literature, and is a recipient of the Dalkey Archive Press fellowship at the Illinois State University.