Armenian literature in the nineteenth and twentieth century had a host of names who were victims of a disease that was considered incurable until a vaccine was introduced in the 1920s: tuberculosis.
Poetry and tuberculosis had a link of sorts. Four talented Armenian poets, among others, died from the disease without reaching the age of forty: Bedros Tourian (1851-1872), Vahan Terian (1885-1920), Misak Medzarentz (1886-1908), and Mateos Zarifian (1894-1924).
Zarifian, the less known of the four, was born on January 16, 1894, in the neighborhood of Gedik Pasha (Constantinople). He spent his childhood and youth in Scutari. He studied at the school of Ijadieh, the Robert College, and the Berberian School, which he finished in 1913. He was an active sportsman and earned prizes in the Armenian Olympic games organized in Constantinople (1912-1913)
He went to Adana to work as a teacher of English and physical education at the local Armenian school. The first symptoms of tuberculosis, a strong chest pain, appeared at that time. In 1914 he interrupted his work and went to Lebanon, hoping that the mountainous air would help cure him. At the beginning of World War I, he was drafted into the Ottoman army. While studying at the school of non-commissioned officers, his unruly behavior landed him before a military tribunal, which sentenced him to exile. However, some influential interventions helped commute this sentence to long-term prison. Some months later, he was freed and started serving at the military hospital as a male nurse.
After the armistice of Mudros (1918), Zarifian went to the interior as translator for the British army to participate in the task of gathering Armenian survivors. Between 1919 and 1921 he worked at his alma mater, the Berberian School, as teacher of English and physical education. His illness prompted him to pour his life experience into literature. In 1919 he started publishing poems in the daily Jagadamard. His poetry reflected a hopeful approach to life and death, and his love poems disclosed the melancholic overtones of his soul, “Ah! The superb poem of my soul,/ Of my ruined, destroyed soul…”
He published two volumes of poetry, Songs of Grief and Peace (1921) and Songs of Life and Death (1922), which were critically acclaimed. His long battle with tuberculosis came to a critical point after 1922. Zarifian, the last representative of Western Armenian poetry, passed away on April 9, 1924, at the age of thirty.