This guest post is published as part of our blog series related to the Middle Eastern Studies Association annual meeting November 14-17 in New Orleans. #MESA2019
By Houri Berberian, author of Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds
When I first came across the illustration that adorns the cover of the book, I immediately recognized its singular significance for the story I was telling about how revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman worlds in the early part of the twentieth century were connected through the circulation of not only revolutionaries and arms but also print and ideas.
The illustration, which appeared only a few months after the Young Turk revolution, takes up the last page of the Armenian-language satirical weekly, Khatabala (Trouble), published in Tiflis/Tbilisi. It features a simplified depiction of the Ottoman Empire arched by a rainbow that reads “CONSTITUTION” against a dark stormy backdrop. A man identified as a Turk takes center stage; he holds a banner that proclaims “Unity, Equal[ity].” On his right, with expressions and postures that vary from attentiveness to ennui, stand several men identified as Kurd, Armenian, Bedouin, Arab, and Jew. They hold banners that promote “Autonomy.” While the Armenian’s banner is upright, those of the others touch the ground. All except the armed Arab and Bedouin kneel in submission. The Armenian’s posture is marked by outstretched arms and a respectful or sympathetic gaze directed across Asia Minor toward the Balkans. In the Balkans, from right to left, are those identified as Albanian, Macedonian, and Greek. These standing figures, like their counterparts in the East, all hold banners of autonomy; the Macedonian and the Greek seem particularly excited with banners waving in the air. The caption to the illustration is a poem:
May the resplendent rainbow — With this “sign of conciliation”
Conjoin you, poor nations — May they remedy your wounds
There is no doubt that the illustration is a satirical portrayal of where different ethnicities stood in relation to the Ottoman Empire and its newly reinstituted constitution, represented by the rainbow, symbolizing peace, rebirth, and promise. Perhaps like God’s covenant in Genesis, the constitution promised conciliation, remedy, unity, and a future free of destruction to subjects whose reaction varied from being unmoved to outraged.
For me, the illustration became an opportunity and a means to understand the rather nuanced relationship of Armenians to the period’s global craze of constitutionalism in three empires and revolutionary movements. It also served to demonstrate the interwoven revolutionary ideas embodied in the rainbow of constitution, the central banner of unity and equality, and the encircling banners of autonomy.
Therefore, I employed the illustration to reflect upon the wider world of ideas—constitution and autonomy (i.e., federation) as well as socialism—that occupied most of our revolutionaries and connected them to counterparts in the region and the globe. Through the pursuit of these circulating ideas and participation in connected revolutions, revolutionaries envisioned social and economic justice, equality, an end to ethnic antagonism, and respect for the rights of all peoples to govern themselves, as the unfurled banners advocated. Over a century later, we see a similar kind of commitment and aspiration for just rule as people from all walks of life take part in protests—whether on the streets of Yerevan or Beirut.