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Krikor Zohrab: Old Symbol of New Turkey

Krikor Zohrab: Old Symbol of New Turkey

A person, who had both mathematical thinking and humanitarian talent.  He was one of the most prominent representatives of Western Armenian intellectuals of late 19th and early 20th centuries. «A superior among the special» – said writer Andranik Sarukyan, describing Krikor Zohrab.  Fruitful activity that resulted in huge respect from the advanced society of Istanbul, close ties with the government officials; nothing could save him from the tragic fate...

In public memory Zohrab is remembered more as the author of poignant short novels, but remarkable fact is that writing was not his main occupation and not even his work but his inspiration.  The paper and the ink rescued him from the earthly concerns, public pressure, and the injustices of life.  The windows of his apartments facing the beautiful coast of Bosporus showed Istanbul with all its colorful variety: neighborhoods, markets, silhouettes of minarets that undoubtedly were source of inspiration for him.

Despite the inborn inclination to set forward his thoughts beautifully Zohrab’s career rounds into jurisprudence, which was taught at the only higher educational institution of the Ottoman Empire at the time: Galatasaray College.  But he was not fated to finish it as the government decided to close it down for not having sufficient amount of Muslim students; there were two Muslims for forty five Armenian students.  However, Zohrab continues to study and soon obtains barrister’s license.   

Alongside jurisprudence Zohrab develops his writing skills: starting 1878 he had his works published in “Lragir” weekly, wrote fictions, trying himself in various genres. In that same period 18-year-old Zohrab made a big stir with his article “What Have We Gained from Berlin Congress?”   

From 1880-1890 he became one of the most active participants of the literary movement of the empire. Through trial and error method Zohrab found his literature genre: small stories, novels that raise the acute social problems of the Ottoman Empire.   As such,owing to his exceptional writing talent he is famous primarily as a short-story writer – chronographer of lives of his fellow Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Through his novels written in Western Armenian one can learn more about the existing social inequality, city-province relations, about the regress of morality and even female psychology and love relationships.   The work of Zohrab is considered not only as a a contribution to the Armenian literature but to the world literature at large.

«With his novels Zohrab fascinated all his readers. Like a psychologist he carefully revealed those complicated aspects of life and human beings that for outher could be invisible. Zohrab could notice the hidden spiritual beauty in the maid walking in the streets of Polis (Istanbul – ed. note) or in the poor saleswoman. And behind the external sheet of purity he could see the hidden emptiness». (Editor and political writer Tigran Arpiaryan ).

Indeed Zohrab had a rare eye in head and mastery of word skills which may well be considered payoffs of his professional advocacy activity.  

Inevitably in Zohrab's biography we approach the disquiet dates for the Armenian people. In 1894 the bashing of the Armenian population began in Adana.  The fear hang upon the high Armenian society of Istanbul and many intellectuals rushed to leave the empire. Zohrab did not leave.  He continued his activities as a political writer and writer thus expressing his criticism towards the existing situation, but more so as a lawyer.   The sense of justice encourages him to defend his compatriots and others convicted of their views in the courts. However in 1906 the government of the Ottoman Empire forbade him to work as  a defence attorney in the Turkish courts due to political views.  The mentioned reason constrained Zohrab to continue to work abroad in Paris but it did not last long. Despite the big perpspectives in Europe the news from the motherland made him pack the suitcase: a constitutional revolution commenced in Turkey.  It seemed that the mass tyranny had come to an end.  Zohrab's heart filled with hope and the streets of Istanbul were filled with protesters. One could hear the slogans of equality, brotherhood and cooperation.  Zohrab returned to Constantinople and once again became involved in the social and political life.

The overthrow of the sultan regime meant democratization of the society and country for which Zohrab fought all his life. In 1908 two years after his return he was elected deputy of the Ottoman Empire parliament and Armenian National Assembly and after assuming the new role Zohrab began his activities of a more serious level.  Majlis (Turkish parliament) is filled with heartfelt speeches on the need for fundamental changes in the rights and freedom sphere, protection of national and religious minorities. «I am an advocate of constitution» – said Zohrab about himself.

In the Armenian society of Istanbul Zohrab was considered as important as the patriarch, as he communicated with high ranking officials, ministers, foreign ambassadors and so on.  As the cuminating date in the history of the Armenian people approaches Zohrab felt the upcoming danger however he decided to rely on the kindly relationship with the officials of the country.    He made every effort, pulled the strings to protect the Armenian people.  Hence in 1909 with the beginning of the next bashing he sent a telegram to the prime minister of Turkey asking to stop the persecution of Armenians.   However, it is worth mentioning that nobody then imagined the extent of the tragedy.

On the fateful day on April 24, 1915 the Turkish police arrested 235 representatives of the Armenian intellectuals: Komitas, Siamanto, Varushan, Ruben Sevak, Ruben Zardaryan and many others.  Zohrab was not included in the list, it was decided for the time being leave him at large. To outward seeming the arrest of the most prominent representative of the Armenian nation, who had numerous connections both in the country and abroad would make a splash and the Turkish government obviosuly did not all that. 

Meanwhile Zohrab approached to all the high-ranking officials with many of whom he had close relations including to the Minister of Interior Affairs Talaat pasha and vice president Said pasha making every effort to save his people.   

Sense of danger was becoming sharper and sharper and Zohrab knew perfectly that even the deputy's seat would not save him from the dreadful fate. However he is not in a hurry to leave the country although he had many ways and opprotunities to do it. The professional advocate remained committed to his conscience and until the last moment kept his hope up that he could somehow help his people.

«Where to run and how? Who to leave the neglected and beheaded people?  No, I do not want to run.  It is my duty to stay here till the end».

According to the words of Zohrab documented by P. Mazlamyan on the night of his arrest he was playing backgammon with Minister of Interior Affairs Talaat-pasha and colonel Khalil bey  till late night.  Western Armenian writer and political writer Yervand Otyan in his essay «To Death» published these memoirs:

«...Then he got up to leave.  Talaat got up too and approaching Zohrab, kissed his face. Such an unusual display of sympathy embarassed Zohrab:

– What is this kiss for? – he asked.

– My soul wanted to, – answered Talaat.

Zohrab left extremely feverish.  He presaged that the kiss was an ominous sign».

The night of May 22, 1915 was a tender, warm night conducive to having a walk.  The last night in the native city.  The police commissioner met him at the door of the house.

Krikor zohrab was arrested and sent to the station from where his long journey began to Diyarbekir where allegedly the trial was to be held.  Aware of his fate however Zohrab sometimes was self-deceitng himself, as if their goal was only exile.  On the road he wrote telegrams to the government officials, proving his innocence, reminding about his numerous services and  merits for the Ottoman Empire as through his activities he tried to make Turkey a country with values of freedom and equality, where all the nations would have a peaceful and fruitful life.

During this period many attempts have been made to help Zohrab to escape however he was rigidly stating that his escape could force the Turkish gendarmerie to  take it out on the other exiles...

On July 2, 1915 a few days before his deth he wrote a letter  addressed to Clara: «My treasure, my soul, my the only one. I have no more strength to write.  If I do not stay alive here is my last covenant to our children:always love each other, repsect you and never upset you. Do not forget me».

After his death in the markets of Aleppo on one of the counters one could find his wedding ring and watch.

Today, after 103 years, native Istanbul, like the whole of Turkey, is silent about Krikor Zohrab. Few people know where his apartment is, few people remember his significant contribution to the common good, but his spirit undoubtedly still dwells between the narrow streets of his native neighborhood and on the pages of his striking short stories.


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