Once upon a time in the cosmopolitan east

New novel about 19th-century Armenian merchant is a metaphoric reminder of the cosmopolitan character of our cultures.

    A general view of the Julfa neighbourhood and the Vank cathedral in the historic city of Isfahan [AFP]
    A general view of the Julfa neighbourhood and the Vank cathedral in the historic city of Isfahan [AFP]

    In the city of my childhood Ahvaz, in Southern Iran, where I was born and raised, a modest Armenian church and its adjacent school and community were gently woven into our neighbourhood in the old part of the city. The church was on Ardeshir Street, between what was then called 24 Metri and 30 Metri Avenues, near Jundishapour Hospital. I would pass by this church when going to school and can still remember the aroma of Armenian cuisine on my way back home.

    I was recently reminded of this neighbourhood while reading Three Kisses of the Cobra, a delightful novel by ZT Balian about a fictional Armenian trader named Vartan who travels around the world before he eventually settles in Singapore.

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    Armenians in my hometown and elsewhere in Iran, among them some of my own childhood friends very similar to the central character of this novel, were known for their amazing cuisines, legendary small cafes where they would serve Russian vodka and local beer with exquisitely wrapped mortadella and sausage sandwiches.

    But their integration into our life, culture, and history was not limited to such delicacies.

    Global modernity

    Armenians were integral to ushering in global modernity into Iran and many other parts of the region, along with European drama, pioneering stages of Iranian cinema, and some leading Armenian revolutionary activists were in fact among the leaders of the Constitutional revolution of 1906-1911.

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    Our communities were at once distinct and yet curiously connected. My mother had close Armenian friends who would join her on women-only religious festivities such as Sofreh Abolfazl in honour of a beloved Shia saint.

    Set against the backdrop of the declining Ottoman and Qajar empires ... Three Kisses of the Cobra tells the story of Vartan Bantukhtian, an Armenian merchant who sails around the globe in search of his fortune.


    Although Armenian and Muslim boys and girls were prohibited by their parents from befriending the opposite sex in their adjacent communities, I know of a few passionate love stories that crossed these borders like those two star-crossed Montague and Capulet (one of them actually between a Juliet and a Farhad), though without the dramatic ending.

    Vartan: A sailor merchant

    Set against the backdrop of the declining Ottoman and Qajar empires, and right during the ascendency of the European imperial domination in their respective territories, Three Kisses of the Cobra tells the story of Vartan Bantukhtian, an Armenian merchant who sails around the globe in search of his fortune.

    The odyssey at the heart of this novel traces the adventures of Vartan very much on the model of a travel narrative, many historical samples and scholarly study of which ZT Balian has in fact studied to give her novel an air of authenticity and realism.

    Born in 1800, Vartan Bantukhtian's narrative begins in 1858, when as a globetrotter entrepreneur he very much personifies the Armenian trading communities in the diaspora and around the world, from Madras to Singapore.

    Balian is a gifted storyteller. She begins her novel by a fictive narrator receiving an email regarding a distant relative in Singapore who wishes to see her.

    The bulk of the novel is therefore a story within a story, framing the travel narrative of one Khoja Vartan Bantukhtian as written down in "a mixture of ecclesiastical Armenian and . . . local Erzurum, or an Anatolian Armenian dialect" that had come down from the author to a distant relative of the narrator who has to travel from Beirut, where she lives, to Macau Singapore to receive it and immediately decides to translate it into English.

    An Iranian Armenian man walks past Saint Nerses church at the Julfa neighbourhood in the historic city of Isfahan [AFP]

    In this historical fiction, the full global spectrum of the Armenian worldly lives are put on stage, specifically in the early 19th century but with obvious roots extending much deeper around the globe.

    The book thus navigates around the globe mapping out the life and adventures of this Vartan in the course of which we get to know about him and about a crucial period in mid-19th century navigational routes and commercial interactions.

    Armenians in the world

    Balian's wonderful and engaging novel could not be timelier, when the resurgence of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh is yet again a reminder of the horrors of ethnic nationalism wreaking havoc in the region.

    For millennia, Armenians have been integral to the vast spectrum of territories extended from the Mughal to Russian, Safavid and Ottoman empires.

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    The presence of these Armenian communities - proud, robust, self-conscious, industrious, cultured and worldly - reflected in many other parts of the world, is the most potent metaphoric reminder of the cosmopolitan character of our cultures.

    The roots of the Armenian communities in the region ranging from the Caucasus to North Africa are of course very ancient, but it was in major cosmopolitan cities such as Isfahan, Istanbul, and Cairo that they assumed increased transnational significance.

    Contradictory thoughts

    Reading Three Kisses of the Cobra, two contradictory thoughts come together to embrace the idea of being Armenian: a deep sense of belonging and a widening horizon of expansive geography.

    It seems the wider that horizon, the deeper that sense of belonging. It is as if Armenians had to be dispersed around the globe to discover who they are, and allow the rest of the world to discover itself in their company.

    In an enduring way, Armenians in their diaspora have discovered a new sense of belonging to the world that makes the world homely for everyone around them. They are the insider outsiders, the familiar foreigners, the friend who makes you feel at home in your - and their - habitat.

    I took a piece of my homeland in which I had Armenian neighbours with me away from Iran and anytime anywhere in the world I meet an Armenian (just as I met Vartan in this novel) I feel doubly at home - at home with the sense of Iran I took with me when I left my childhood neighbourhood, and a sense of home that the Armenian diasporic experience has invested in all of us, the sense and assurances that must be the Armenian dreaming in our soul.

    Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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