Review: Bedros Keljik’s Armenian-American Sketches

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The publication of this English translation of Armenian-American Sketches by Bedros Keljik is a landmark in the literary life of our community. When the Armenian-American community transitioned to being predominantly English-speaking in the 1950s and thereafter, our literary life also went through a transition. We have been fortunate in developing an English-language Armenian-American literature, starting with the works of William Saroyan — such as The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) and My Name Is Aram (1940) — as well as Leon Surmelian’s brilliant memoir (recently back in print), I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen (1945). These were followed by the establishment of the sadly now-defunct literary quarterly Ararat, published by the AGBU for some 50 years, and the appearance of well-known names like Diana Der-Hovanessian and Peter Balakian.

Unfortunately, the Armenian-language literary scene which existed in the US in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, in periodicals such as Baikar’s special annual issues, Hayrenik Monthly, and Nor Kir (an independent quarterly), did not survive the transition. And while many people have worked hard for many years so that we would have at our disposal English translations of famous Armenian authors like Naregatsi, Raffi, Siamanto, and Krikor Zohrab, very few translations have been made of the early Armenian-American immigrant authors who wrote in Armenian. This has created a rather strange situation. The second and third generation Armenian-Americans, most of whom only speak English, have access to the Armenian poets of old Constantinople but not to the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of the immigrant writers who were the contemporaries of their own grandparents. On the other hand, some of these writers did gain enough renown in the Armenian community to be taught in Diaspora Armenian schools. The outcome is that someone who grew up attending Armenian schools in 1960s Beirut is more likely to be familiar with the works of Hamasdegh, who immigrated to Boston in 1913 and published stories about his childhood in Kharpert, than are the very grandchildren of the Kharpertsis who immigrated to America at the time that Hamasdegh did — regardless of how involved they are in the community and how many translations of authors like Toumanian, Isahakian, or Tekeyan they have on their shelves.

Keljik the Man

The present volume is a wonderful first step in remedying this lack. Author Bedros Keljik led a remarkable life. Born in Kharpert in 1874, he attended the famous Getronagan School of Kharpert, founded by its principal and teacher of Armenian language and literature, Hovhannes Haroutunian, who, under the pen-name Tlgadintsi, became the founder of the Western Armenian school of provincial literature.

A part of the first graduating class of the school in 1890 along with legendary writer Roupen Zartarian, Keljik promptly left for America after completing his studies. After living in Worcester, Boston, New York and Chicago, Keljik settled in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1899 where he started an oriental rug business still run by his grandson, Mark Keljik.

Bedros Keljik was part of the large Kharpertsi clan originally named Geoljukian which originated in the Kharpert district’s village of Dzovk on the shores of the lake of the same name, which was called in Turkish “Geoljuk.” Many members of this family came to America, including successful businessmen and professionals, writers and musicians, and active leaders in the Armenian church and community. To just mention immediate relatives of Bedros Keljik, his brother Krikor was a writer who used the pen-name Devrish and worked with Bedros in the rug business, and his nephew, Vahan Totovents, who had already been published as a teenager in Turkey, came to America and worked in the rug store when he wasn’t attending classes at the University of Wisconsin. Totovents left the Midwest for the Caucasus to fight as a volunteer when the Genocide began, and became the personal secretary of General Antranig. Settling in Soviet Armenia after the Genocide, his stories of his Kharpert childhood, written in Eastern Armenian, made him one of the foremost prose writers of the Soviet period until he was killed in the Stalinist purges.

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All of this is to say that Bedros Keljik, though he settled in Minnesota, was deeply immersed in Armenian life in Anatolia as a young man and in America as an adult, on the educational, literary, political and other fronts. The volume Amerigahye Badgerner (Armenian-American Sketches) was published in New York in 1944 by Charles Garabed Aramian’s “Yeprad” Press. It was the first in a series of volumes by different authors whose topic was the experience of the Armenian immigrants in America.

Although the interest in publishing entire books about the Armenian-American experience in Armenian seems to have been spurred by the success of William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram in 1940 (which was, of course, in English) and a subsequent meeting and resulting manifesto by the Nor Kir literary group, of whom author Vahe Haig of Fresno published Hayreni Dzkhan, Volume 2 in 1941 largely devoted to short stories set in America, Keljik stated that his stories had been written over the previous twenty years. In addition to the translation of the original contents of Amerigahye Badgerner (21 stories), the current translation includes eight stories by Bedros Keljik originally published in Baikar’s special annual literary magazine throughout the 1940s, as well as an English translation made by Keljik of a Roupen Zartarian story and thorough documentation of Bedros Keljik’s life, put together by his grandsons, Tom and Mark Keljik. The fact that the Keljik brothers didn’t know that their grandfather wrote this book until they found out from a computer search at the Library of Congress (as they willingly admit) is not a mark against them, but only further testament to the almost total lack of awareness on the part of the community, and the lack of translations, up until now, of this early literature.

The Translation

The worthy translators of the stories are Aris Sevag, who translated all but one of the stories from the original Armenian-American Sketches before his untimely passing, Lou Ann Matossian, who translated the remaining story, and Vartan Matiossian, who translated the eight “Baikar Stories.” All of them are known scholars and are to applauded for translating a very difficult piece of literature, though their names, perplexingly, do not appear on the front cover, aside from Matossian’s in her capacity as co-editor of the volume. Matossian, a resident of Minnesota and the original expert on and promoter of Keljik’s work, along with Christopher Atamian (formerly of Ararat magazine and currently of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator), and Barlow Der Mugrdechian of Fresno State University are the editors of the volume and are to be highly commended for bringing this book to press.

Keljik’s original writing, already verging on classicism due to the fact that he left Anatolia as early as 1890, is purposely spiced up with dialect words, Turkish, English, and comical combinations of all of the above, such as when Magar Agha in the original explains that he is an “elevator-jee” because he is the elevator operator in the wire mill. While the elevator example would be funny and understandable to many Armenian-Americans today, many of the expressions are difficult and in fact Keljik included a small dictionary in the back of his original book, mostly to explain Turkish and English words that perhaps some Armenian readers were not familiar with. With the difficulty of translating such a text there were inevitably mistakes, at least in this writer’s opinion; the name rendered “Keo” seems like it should have been “Kevo”; the blind musician Gabriel’s “harmonica” was probably an accordion, which many Anatolian Armenians called harmonika. But this is nitpicking when we consider how difficult it must have been to translate these stories. For that, all three translators must be applauded.

I do want to make one substantive criticism: the difference between bantoukht and kaghtagan. Sevag translates the first as “émigré” and the second as “refugee.” It is true that bantoukhd is used in Armenian to mean émigré and that kaghtagan is used colloquially in the Armenian-American community to mean a refugee or a “DP,” and of course Keljik does use a lot of colloquial Armenian-American slang. But in the story “Worcester and Magar Agha” he is, I believe, using these two words to mean something like “migrant worker” and “immigrant.” The bantoukhd is one who comes just to work, and not really to settle down; it is equivalent to the Turkish-Arabic gharib. The kaghtagan is an immigrant who comes as part of a kaghout (colony), a community formed from mass immigration. In a later story, our astute translator Sevag seems to capture the gist of this difference more clearly, and had he lived and been able to edit his own work, maybe he would have made this more clear. I only bring this up to help those who might read the beginning of the Worcester story with confusion as to the line, “the Armenians weren’t refugees but émigrés.”

Chronicler of Early Armenian Immigrant Life

Keljik’s stories offer us a sharp, incisive wit; satire worthy of Hagop Baronian (as noted by Matossian’s introduction and in a thinly veiled self-portrait of Keljik himself); plenty of good humor; and a true-to-life picture of Armenian immigrant life in the very early years (more than half of the stories take place in the 1890s). The stories show us the joys, sorrows, vices, and virtues of the early Armenian immigrants. They also show us their patriotism to an Armenia that they could still hope would be liberated from Turkish oppression, even after the Genocide, as they dream of returning to their native Kharpert until these dreams are dashed by the international treaties that followed the end of the First World War. We sometimes forget that the earliest group of immigrants came to America in a time when returning to Western Armenia was still an option and an aspiration for many.

Keljik lived in Worcester, Boston, Manhattan, Chicago, Waukegan (briefly), and St. Paul, and all of these cities are depicted in his stories — mostly in the 1890s. While Keljik is in Minnesota, he even encounters a small group of Armenians working on a remote railroad line, undoubtedly the same group of Armenians who were depicted in the Genocide film, The Cut, as, somewhat unbelievably to most viewers, working on the railroad and living in Ruso, North Dakota. But the men that Keljik depicts in most of his stories (and as we know, the earliest immigrants were almost all men) live in the well-known early Armenian settlements, like Worcester. They work in factories and live in boarding houses in a manner known as khoumana or communal living. One person rents the house and collects money from the others to pay rent and buy groceries to provide a daily meal. The men eat from a common table. Many of these men work for years saving their money to return to the old country — like Magar Agha, who sadly dies two days after setting foot back in his home in Kharpert.

Keljik stays away (mostly) from criticizing particular political factions, religious denominations, or social classes as such, but his biting satire (admittedly much funnier and more biting in the original Armenian) is unleashed on unscrupulous political agitators, preachers, moneylenders, rug merchants (of which Keljik was himself one) and other businessmen who make it their job to fleece the Armenian people in the name of God, homeland, or just through plain trickery. Though most of these charlatans are Armenians, the figure of the phony American preacher does not escape Keljik’s pen either.

Perhaps the harshest criticism is reserved for the native born Anglo-Americans, and even more so, the Irish immigrants, depicted as xenophobes who “persecuted the weak and cringed before the powerful” and who think themselves to be more American than the rest of the immigrants since they already speak English. One normally gentle-natured Armenian immigrant lobs an iron bar at the head of an Irish factory foreman upon being called a “damned Armenian” because he could take insults if directed at himself, but not at his people. As for Anglo-American culture, in the same story Keljik states with deadpan sarcasm that “Helping one’s family was a sacred and somewhat religious obligation for the Armenians, who were still ignorant of Western Civilization.” But the Irish are victims too, not only of an “unjust ruler” in their homeland (the British, of course) but of the slick Armenian pickpocket Danny (Dono) of New York’s Bowery, who boasts of not having to work as long as the Irish (“long live the Bowery residents, the Irish!”) have money in their pockets.

Some Armenian characters aren’t particularly unscrupulous, but merely eccentric — like Chicago’s Garo the Mule, who is fond of telling tall tales about his life in the old country, like his ability to lift a horse or the “fact” that he was with the famous Archbishop Narbey of Constantinople at his death and is the only one who knows where the Bishop’s invaluable unpublished manuscripts are buried. “Know-it-all-Keo” (it should probably be “Kevo”) is another eccentric character, who was born and raised in Kharpert with Keljik but had the stubborn personality of a Guruntsi, which comprises the primary punch line of the story. Little details like this shed light on an Anatolian Armenian world that is long gone, and almost forgotten.

While individual Armenians are criticized for their behavior, the Armenian community in general is depicted as good-hearted. Keljik describes the founding of the Worcester church, the first in America, in 1890-91: “There was so much enthusiasm and religious fervor in those days…It took them less than a year for the church to completed, with its primate’s office, auditorium, and library. This was a project accomplished by Armenian immigrants with monies earned through their hard work…I used to observe the zealous religious devotion of those hard-working laborers with amazement and great joy.”

In the political arena, too, the people are selfless, as they support the Hunchag Party, the only Armenian political organization in existence in the US in that time. We read in regard to the Armenians of Boston in the 1890s: “The patriotism of the Diasporan Armenians was pure and unmitigated. Having newly left their fatherland in turmoil, the youths made unparalleled sacrifices for its liberation. At every meeting, six to seven hundred dollars – all in cold cash – were collected from these poor working-class Armenians, who were few in number.” Keljik notes that the money was converted into checks that were made payable to Hunchag leader Avetis Nazarbekian in Europe, and makes an oblique reference to the famous meeting in London where the Reformed Hunchags (who eventually merged/transformed into the ADL) split from the Old Hunchags, stating that “later on, when the delegates went to London to receive an accounting, we found out why those checks were sent, made payable to an individual.” Finally, the Party loses the respect of the Armenians of Boston and even its most ardent American-Armenian activist, the main character of the story, when a party leader from abroad (the same one who sent the money directly to Nazarbekian) refuses to attend a meeting in honor of the election of Khrimian Hayrig to the Catholicate, because he is only “an ignorant clergyman.” The people turn on their political leader and Keljik has to help him escape from an angry mob after a meeting in Providence. The loyalty of the immigrants to their nation, homeland, and church, with all the nuances and possible conflicts involved, is realistically depicted in this story.

In addition to their political and religious donations, the Armenian workers are also helpful to their fellow compatriots, not just by forming the khoumana boarding-houses, but by paying off the moneylenders in the old country from whom the newly arrived had gotten the money for the steamship fare (this was before the days when there were enough Armenians in America that one would be “sponsored” by a relative already in the country). Considering the setting of these stories among the single, all-male, boarding-house-dwelling immigrant factory workers of the early days, this writer was surprised by the almost complete lack of references to the surjarans or Armenian coffeehouses that were so prevalent in that generation. One would surmise that the setting is too early for that, as if there aren’t enough Armenians around yet to have opened surjarans. More than one story involves frequenting American bars, but more particularly, a certain Italian restaurant on Hanover Street in Boston, where the local Armenians hang out due to the “similarity of their menu.”

Memories of Kharpert

Though the Armenian-American Sketches properly speaking are all set in the US, the eight “Baikar Stories” are more varied. Among these, Keljik’s memoirs of Kharpert and the Getronagan School stands out as an invaluable historical record of life in Kharpert and the personality of famed writer Tlgadintsi, who was Keljik’s teacher. His somewhat unconventional and unkept appearance (Keljik says he dressed and lived “like a dervish”), his flexible and innate ability as a teacher, and his personality that was tied to the native soil and atmosphere stands out. Keljik’s story “Our Garden and My Grandmother” is a poignant portrait of simple village life in the “city” of Kharpert and a window to the past for many Armenians with roots in Anatolia. Keljik’s grandmother spends her life tending her garden and doesn’t even go to church, yet faces the sun every morning (just as an Armenian church must face East), saying her prayers. Reading this story in the current atmosphere of war in Artsakh, in 2020, one cannot help but reflect on what the loss of Kharpert meant to Keljik and his generation, and what the loss of Artsakh would mean to the native Armenians living there now.

In fact, Keljik does touch on this loss in his story “The Blind Musician” (from the original “Sketches”) where a travelling blind musician, a fellow Kharpertsi, visits St. Paul with his “harmonica” [probably meaning accordion] upon which he plays everything from patriotic songs to Harput Havasi [Turkish: Melody of Kharpert]. Just after the Armistice of World War I, the men are “drunk over the imminent prospects of a free fatherland. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t believe in our liberation in those heady days, since the great, civilized and Christian states of Europe had promised and signed declarations to that effect….Clemenceau had grabbed the Turkish delegates by the neck and tossed them out….after those bloodthirsty acts of barbarism committed by them.” When the men discuss how they will return to a free Kharpert and rebuild, they question the blind musician, Gabriel, how he will know that he has returned, considering his inability to see. Gabriel exclaims “Hey [in the original, “dzo”], you just take me to Kharpert. I’ll know from the sweet fragrance of its almond and licorice trees that I’ve reached my homeland; I’ll enjoy my city’s air, the vivifying winds blowing from Masdar; I’d give anything for its air….I shall play for the last time by the waters of Yotnag and sing, before dying.” [Masdar is the large mountain that separates Kharpert from Palu; Yotnag, the famous spring of water that served the population of Kharpert’s village of Hussenig.] But Gabriel dies before he can return to Kharpert, and “all our hopes of those heady days became transformed into one night’s evaporating dream.”

This writer heartily encourages all Armenian-Americans to secure a copy of this book. For those whose roots are in the early generations of immigration, it is a window onto the lives of one’s grandparents or great-grandparents. It is an honest depiction of the origins of this community and shines a light onto why things developed as they did as well as a reflection of life in Western Armenia. I cannot more heartily recommend this hilarious, witty, insightful, sometimes sad, and culturally invaluable book, and I commend those who translated it and those who brought it to press.

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