Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Komitas: A Genocide Survivor or Victim?

Special for the Armenian Weekly
(Soghomon Soghomonian)
Soghomon was born to Kevork and Takoohi Soghomonian, a young Armenian Turkish-speaking couple, in Kutahya, Ottoman Turkey. Takoohi composed music, which the couple sang. Soghomon was less than a year old when 17-year-old Takoohi died. His uncle’s wife nursed him with her daughter, Marig, while his grandmother and aunt cared for him until he graduated from the local elementary school. Soghomon spoke only Turkish, yet could sing Armenian hymns, having served on the altar with his father and uncle. Kevork sent him to Brussa to continue his education; however, a few months later, Kevork passed away, and Soghomon returned to Kutahya.
Komitas (1909 photo)
In 1881, his uncle and the Parish Council selected him from among other orphans to be sent to Holy Etchmiadzin to further his education. In 1895, Catholicos Khrimian Hayrig ordained Soghomon—now Komitas Vartabed—a celibate priest. Komitas pursued his passion of collecting and arranging folk music. The Catholicos, recognizing his musical talents, helped him receive a grant to study music in Germany. Upon his return, Komitas continued to teach at Holy Etchmiadzin, collecting and arranging folk music. Over the years, he collected and arranged nearly 4,000 folk songs, including the songs his mother had composed in Turkish, which the elders in Kutahya continued to sing years later.
In 1910, he moved to Constantinople and rented a townhouse with the painter Panos Terlemezian. That house became a cultural center. Komitas taught music, refined and composed church music, held concerts in Kutahya, Constantinople, Izmir, Alexandria, and Paris, and received rave reviews. He continued to visit Germany, Paris, and other European cities, where he lectured and attended conferences of the International Music Society, as a founding member of the Berlin branch. Toward the end of March 1915, he was invited to perform at the Turk Ojak concert hall in Constantinople, where he was showered with praise by leading Turkish intellectuals. Yet less than two weeks later, before dawn on April 23, 1915, he was awakened by Turkish police and taken to the police station, then to the central prison—Mehterhaneh Prison—in Constantinople. There, he saw the more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders who had also been rounded up and imprisoned.
The following day, on April 24, the prisoners were escorted by armed guards to the central train station without due process or conviction. At the Senjan Koey train station, the prisoners were ordered out of the wagons and separated; 72 were called out to be sent to Ayash Prison, and were executed in the following weeks. Komitas and the rest were escorted toward the Chankiri armory, which had been vacated after an epidemic and not disinfected. Along the way, at a watering hole, the gendarmes gave preference to their animals over the thirsty Armenian prisoners. In Chankiri, after a few weeks, Komitas and a few others received permission from Talaat Pasha to return to Constantinople.
The Master returned to a muted Armenian cultural atmosphere in Constantinople. It had become dangerous to be an Armenian in the city. Armenians there lived in terror, while Komitas suffered from acute stress and survival guilt: He had not been able to save his friends, his people. He had a keen awareness of the long-term cultural impact of this Turkish policy on the Armenian population. He wished to be left alone; he prayed in solitude, read the Bible, avoided policemen. He remarked to a young compatriot, “These people should not be trusted…” His behavior, so atypical of the formerly good-humored, joyous Master, was cause for concern for his friends. Komitas had episodes of anxiety. Although he believed they would pass, people were scared to see such drastic changes in the Master. They did not realize that the trauma of the unfolding genocide could affect a witness’s psyche to the point of preventing him from concentrating on work or writing.
Nevertheless, Komitas continued to compose when physically and mentally able. In 1916, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the date we now know as the start of the genocide, he composed the hymn “Antsink Neviryalk” (Devoted Individuals) and the music of “Moushi Bareh” (The Dance of Moush). Yet, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) prevented him from leading his formerly active life, and his symptoms were not properly understood or diagnosed at the time. He could not teach music, earn a living. When his landlord threatened eviction if he did not pay rent, Komitas’s friends wrongfully decided to place him in the La Paix Turkish military psychiatric hospital,1 emptied his house, and returned it to the landlord. His 4,000 musical notes and personal items were dispersed, lost; only a third have been retrieved.
At the La Paix Turkish hospital, he complained that he was being given inferior food, that he had found pieces of rope in his soup, and devoured the bread and chocolate his students brought him. The Turkish chief neurologist and psychiatrist received honors for his studies of eugenics and overseeing the castration of mental patients. Komitas remained suspicious and uncooperative. He seems to have been discharged briefly in 1917, but was re-hospitalized. In 1919, his friends, seeing no progress, transferred him to a psychiatric hospital in Paris where a caretaking committee continued to provide the funds for his hospitalization. Since his “mental illness” was not cured, in 1922 he was transferred to an asylum outside of Paris, to Ville Juif, where he would die years later from a foot infection. The French psychiatrist who knew Komitas for 13 years wrote that he was not sure what diagnosis had been given, to legally keep him in the hospital and asylum.
Komitas Vartabed’s attitude remained the same over the 19 years of psychiatric hospitalizations: He accepted visitors he did not know, but refused to see old friends or acquaintances. He conversed with patients, yet refused to speak with psychiatrists. He verbally expressed his anger, demanding the key to his apartment, his musical notes, his belongings, his right to self-determination.
Cover of Karakashian’s ‘Komitas: Victim of the Great Crime ‘
The newly published book Komitas: Victim of the Great Crime2 (M. Karakashian, Zangak, 2014) examines the visitor reports on Komitas’s behavior and his conversations, as well as his hospital records, and lets the reader understand the trauma that this great Master endured. He was in need of alternative treatment, such as talk therapy and medication, to alleviate symptoms of trauma—treatments he was deprived of, or that were not available at the time.
Komitas was a Master musicologist, a genius who saved Armenian folk music from extinction. He cleaned up church music from foreign influences, introduced Armenian folk music to European experts, and left a large legacy of musical compositions, church hymns, and liturgy that are sung all over the world today. He is cherished by Armenians.
Komitas Vartabed, a survivor of early orphanhood and poverty, and a sensitive artist, had a predisposition to psychological trauma. During his productive career, he channeled this early trauma and depression through his artistic and creative work. His imprisonment, exile, the degradation he felt, his inability to save his beloved Armenians from extermination, and his possible homelessness shook his sensitivity and caused a break-up of his defenses (i.e., sublimation through artistic work). He exhibited signs of Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD that lasted years before he succumbed to deep depression. Without the proper psychiatric treatment, he was held in institutions for 19 years, where, he said, only his body was being fed.
Komitas Vartabed’s story is of the Armenian who, to this day, is grappling with the devastating effects of psychological trauma passed on through generations of survivors. Since Komitas was a famous individual, a lot has been written about him, and a lot remains to be discovered; the archives that are available point to the severe psychological suffering of survivors.
Komitas’s story is but a symbol of the emotional wounds left behind by human malice and evil, wounds inherited by all Armenians.

1 A French-owned hospital that was taken over and converted into a military psychiatric hospital.
2 Komitas: Victim of the Great Crime is available through the Hairenik Bookstore by visiting https://hairenik.com/shop/komita

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