William Saroyan in Bitlis - Photos by Fikret Otyam
William Saroyan made his second visit to his ancestral homeland of Armenia in May, 1964. Saroyan was one of the best-known Armenian-Americans in the world, and his visit was covered by newspapers in Armenia and Turkey, as well as around the world. Saroyan was accompanied by journalists, shooting footage for newsreels, writing pieces on the visit, and taking an incredible number of photographs. Several photographers followed Saroyan on portions of his trip, including a legendary newspaper photographer and painter, Fikret Otyam.
Born in 1926, Otyam studied at Istanbul State Fine Arts Academy under the painter and poet Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu. Though he had studied art, his first career after college was as a journalist. He wrote for many newspapers and magazines before largely turning to photography and painting. Notably, he wrote for Cumhuriyet, often considered Turkey's newspaper of record. He often served as the photographer for his own stories and would become known as an important Turkish photojournalist. It was as a part of that job that he covered Saroyan's 1964 visit to Turkey for Cumhuriyet.
The portion of Turkey Saroyan visited included much of the area considered historic Armenia, including Van, Erzurum, Agri, and Muş, but a major focus of the trip was Saroyan going to Van, and then on to Bitlis, the birthplace of his parents.
Van has been a major city since the eleventh century. Located on Lake Van, the largest lake in Asia Minor, it was a part of the Kingdom of Armenia dating back to pre-Christian times, though was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Today, there remains an Armenian minority, though Kurds and Turks are the major ethnic groups.
Saroyan then sailed to Bitlis, the traditional home of the Saroyans. Covering the trip for Cumhuriyet, Otyam took photos of Saroyan in many locations, most notably among the ruins of the traditional Saroyan compound.
"An old man guided him to the vestiges of a stone house he insisted belonged to Saroyan’s own family. He was photographed before the ruined hearth. “It’s a good place to live forever, the people are good, the flowers good. It’s an unforgettable day.” - Dickran Kouymjian in the Introduction to An Armenian Trilogy
“I know all of this. I know the old trees. I am a Bitlistsi! My father walked on these roads.”
"Saroyan and his entourage walked around town for two hours, then went up to the massive fort that dominates the city. There a performing bear put his paw on Saroyan’s shoulder. He judged that a good omen." - Dickran Kouymjian in the Introduction to An Armenian Trilogy
On this visit, Saroyan announced that he would write a play called Bitlis. He would eventually write the play, now a part of his trio of plays known as An Armenian Trilogy, though it would be eleven years before Saroyan tackled the writing of the play. The play, which details Saroyan's journey to Bitlis on his visit in 1964, was first published in 1985, edited by Fresno State University professor Dickran Kouymjian.
Though Saroyan spent several more weeks in Turkey, clearly the 1964 visit to Bitlis was an important and powerful stop for the legendary author. He would return twice more, in 1976 and 1978, before passing away in 1981. Fikret Otyam would publish many of the photos in Cumhuriyet, and would send a number that had not been used to Saroyan shortly thereafter. These photos were eventually acquired by Forever Saroyan, LLC, and constitute an important part of our photograph collection.