Originally published in Armenian, "Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan" is (to believe its own jacket copy) a minor classic of Armenian diaspora only now available in English. It is being published in commemoration of the centenary of the events described, the 1915 genocide of Armenian people by the Ottoman government.
When he was 15, Aram Haigaz's village was raided, the men killed, and the women and children forced to march with little rest or food. Aram's mother persuades him to convert to Islam and swear fealty to a bey, the equivalent of a feudal lord in days of the Ottoman Empire. He does so, and becomes a favorite of the bey and his family, known for his thoughtfulness and a nice touch with animals; he trains dogs and herds sheep.
At times Haigaz makes bitter observations about being unpaid labor, but most of the time seems to accept his fate, even to be grateful for a secure life amid death and turmoil.
The book is interesting for its lack of broad historical analysis or hindsight: Haigaz records his memories of boyhood without the adult memoirist casting a shadow. The book also often lacks the kind of interior monologue you might expect in a memoir. In one crucial scene, Aram is asked if he would be loyal to the Muslim family that has harbored him or ally himself with the approaching Russian army. Aram gives his answer, but the reader is left guessing whether it reflects his true feelings or is merely strategic. A few pages later, he is an accomplice in a sudden and pointless murder, with no apparent guilt or second-guessing.
This is a complicated world to be dropped into: Armenians living (and hiding) among Kurds in a land where Turks are at war with Russia; where government bureaucracies grapple for power over provinces with feudal lords. The political intrigues are sometimes hard to follow, even after rereading, but the memoir shines in the more provincial scenes, many of which involve animals — everything from tending to a suffering buffalo to a horrifying bear hunt. There are also romantic interests (mostly unrealized) that have the same narrative power.
"Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan" will be most appealing to people interested in Armenian history, in World War I or in Christian-Muslim conflicts. It is unquestionably an important historical document. As a work of literature, it is an uneven experience, with some poignant and lovely passages among a swirling confusion of violence and oppression — which is to say, it must reflect Haigaz's experiences perfectly.
Kurtis Scaletta is a Minneapolis writer.