Tuesday, January 6, 2009

April 2004

T. S. Eliot begins his famous poem, The Waste Land [1], with the phrase, “April is the cruelest month.” When I first read that line, way back in my sophomore year of college, I stopped at the very beginning of this long and complicated poem to reflect. No matter what Thomas Stearns Eliot meant or thought when he penned that line in 1922, the words hit me square in my soul. All I could think about of was the Turkish Genocide of the Armenians which began on April 24, 1915 with the arrest and execution of our leaders and intelligentsia in Constantinople.

On April 7th of this year, I went to St. Vartan’s Cathedral in New York for a book signing and lecture from Professor Richard Hovannisian. The title of both book and lecture were the same: Looking Backward, Moving Forward [4]. The lecture was a reflection of Professor Hovannisian’s forty plus years of activism and study of the Armenian Genocide. Among his many memorable comments, he said that he lamented that this most horrible part of our history began in the spring. Spring is a time when flowers bloom, fields and trees come to life. It is sad that this season or renewal is also the time when Armenians commemorate the single greatest tragedy that happened in our difficult history. Professor Hovannisian’s comments reminded me of Eliots line and my reaction, and always view the coming of Spring in two minds.

The effect of the Genocide had on our people is immeasurable. For those that somehow escaped and survived, their way of life was completely altered. The way of life of the Armenians who had inhabited the Armenian Highlands for Centuries was completely destroyed. While life in the Ottoman Empire was not entirely pleasant with many Armenians living in fear and poverty as second class Christian citizens of an Islamic Empire, they were living in Armenian lands. They were born, grew, married, had and reared children, learned and plied trades, tended flocks, grew crops and eventually died in these lands, in these mountains, in these Armenian Mountains.

Many of us living in the Armenian Diaspora today are the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond of that generation that survived. Most of the survivors were children at the time of the killing and deportations. Most adult men were already separated and killed. Children survived, often with the varying degrees of aid from Turks and Kurds, who may not have always had the most altruistic motives at heart. Some who survived and remained in our lands did so as Turkified and Islamified Armenians who also lost their heritage in their survival. Those of my grandparent's generation that managed in harrowing and incredible ways to get to Syria, France, Lebanon, Iraq or the United States began picking up their lives, beginning anew somehow, marrying and raising children of their own. The held on as tight as they could to their loved ones, their language and their culture.

Do I hate the Turks? It would be very easy to do. I hate what the Turkish governments did to us beginning in the 1890s with Sultan Abdul Hamid achieving its full and heinous conclusion in 1915 with the Young Turks. I hate that the Republic of Turkey has followed a policy of denial, suppression and revisionism which continues until today. It is harder to hate all Turks, as many, sadly, have no clue as to what happened.

Call me naive, but I have thought for many years that the Turks should admit to what happened in the prior regimes. In doing this they could refuse to cede any lands but offer some limited number of Armenians a chance to return to the highlands in a kind of homestead program. This would show openness and convey an image of magnanimity. Probably very few Armenians would take them up on their offer as a return to an agrarian lifestyle would not be practical for most of us in the Diaspora. Also, I cannot imagine any but the most zealous and patriotic considering moving back to be an even smaller minority in lands where Kurds and Turks clash and Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise.

I also thought that with the founding of the Republic or Armenia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey could have again acknowledged the atrocities of prior regimes; guarantee the sovereignty of the Republic of Armenia with the proviso that there would be no further claims for reparations or territory. Armenia might have had to accept such an offer given the problems of recovering from the earthquake and such. No, Turkey’s strategy has clearly worked for them. They have us Armenians fighting denial and recognition of the Genocide in Europe and the United States, while time marches on making the Genocide more historical than current.

In the United States, we basically destroyed the American Indian culture and way of life. With the exceptions of minority Indian communities, most Americans today do not relate in any personal way to the massacre, dare I say Genocide of the Indians. Any suggestion that lands be returned to the Indians that would require displacement of any other Americans would be viewed as ludicrous or if the suggestion was viewed as serious or probable, it would be met with political outrage and possibly civil disorder. The Indian Wars, in the west, were fought 100-150 years ago. The Armenian Genocide began 89 years ago. Using the American Indian example, does anyone but the descendants of the victims care what happened in this very land? The Indian Genocide has become something we study, something of historical interest, something that happened over a hundred years ago.

As stated above, Turkish citizens may or may not know what was done to the Armenians. But, they know two things very well on which Kemal Attaturk founded the Turkish Republic. First, every Turk I surveyed, a most un-statistical sample of four, know that Turkey relinquished an empire after World War I were not about to give up "a hand span of the motherland" [4] without, secondly, putting up a "fight for the motherland until the last drop of blood.” [4] That motherland is the current Republic of Turkey which includes the Armenian Highlands.

I am sure this has been part of the Turkish government’s plan. The recent opening of some scholars to discuss the event may be a prelude to an acknowledgement of an “historical event,” that though sad, the current government or populace can claim no connection or responsibility. So, it is very unlikely that Turks will ever concede a pebble of our lands to us. When you consider that the population of Turkey is 64 million with the second largest army in NATO and Armenia has maybe 2 million, the probability in the short term of any reparations in terms of territory is bleak indeed. Yet, the Armenians have survived for centuries, so no matter how bad things may seem, we cannot be counted out.

Maybe the Turks can do for us what we have done over the past decade or so in the US in all our benevolence and sense of justice have done for the American Indians: let us open casinos. I would call mine Poker Massis.

For an Armenian living in the Diaspora, nothing hammers home what we have lost than a trip to the Republic of Armenia. Even with all the trouble the country has endured with the 1989 earthquake, the war with Azerbaijan, the blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan and the emigration of a large portion of the population, it is still Armenia. It is still the only place in the world where everything is Armenian. The impact of that can only be experienced. This little country about the size of Maryland is all that remains of the Armenian Lands. Everyone on the streets looked like someone I knew. The signs, the restaurants, the shops, the market, everything good and bad including significant poverty and social problems, everything is Armenian. This is all we have and all we have left. It had a great and positive effect on me. Even the littlest of things excited me, like reading the words grgin portsir (try again) on a bottle cap.

On April 25th I went to the Genocide Commemoration in Times Square. There were many excellent and distinguished speakers include Congressman Frank Pallone of NJ, Senator Charles Schumer of NY, Curtis Sliwa and others. My favorite speaker was the mayor of Troy, New York: Harry J. Tutunjian. He is the grandson of Genocide survivors. His speech was beautiful and from the heart, expressing his love of his grandparents, their difficulties, struggles and inevitable successes of their children and grandchildren. He was excited, honored, proud and nervous all at the same time. Mayor Tutunjian told us how the night before he had explored Genocide websites and how sad it made him. He is absolutely correct. It makes us sad. Yet, we come to commemorations, read books, and look at Armin Wegner’s photos [2] over and over again. We vacillate between sadness and anger. It is eighty-nine years later and we still ask two questions: Why? And why can’t they just admit to what was done?

There is no closure for the Armenians and none either for the Turks.

Also at the Genocide Commemoration, there was a difference in tone of the Armenian and non-Armenian speakers. We are still talking about ourselves and what happened to our people. While the non-Armenian speakers advocated for justice for the Genocide of the Armenians, they put what happened to the Armenians in the larger context of fighting against all Genocide. This difference is probably because we have no closure for what was done to our people. We are definitely against genocide but somehow we cannot see past our own history. Armenia and Armenians need to be global spokesmen against all Genocide. That is the only way we will ever keep our own tragedy from becoming a historical curiosity. This was also part of Professor Hovannisian’s message in his April 7th lecture.

In the Diaspora, we link to our Armenian heritage in a variety of ways, be it through family, culture or church. One of the most important components for me is music. I love the folk music of the Armenian Highlands, the simple dances and songs of love and life from a bygone era. Listening to this music, and better yet performing these songs and dances is my connection to those lands I have never seen, the people all but gone, and a lifestyle which I am undoubtedly ill equipped to have lived. The instrumentation has evolved from the basic Davul – Zurna (bass drum and double reeded woodwind). We have Americanized or modernized the music to some degree. But there is a definite continuum and that continuum is my link to what we have lost, what was taken from us. The words of many of these songs are still in the dialects rarely spoken and are sprinkled with Kurdish or Turkish words. Some songs and dances belong to several of the peoples living in those lands. Most of the songs are have very simple lyrics, “Under the Apple Tree”, and are almost nonsensical to our ears, “The Chicken ate the Bulgar wheat, the little chick ate salt.” Many higher brow Armenians and Turks wonder, no they are astonished that, one, I know and like this kind of music, and two, perform it. I try to explain it to them, but by virtue of their asking, I know they will never fully understand. As I always told my kids, it is country music, just from a different country and… a different time.

Regarding closure for both Armenians and Turks, there is some reaching out. I have no clue where it will lead nor do I entirely trust the Turks. But there are some positive signs. Some Turkish Scholars like Fatma Müge Göçek, who contributed an essay in Professor Hovannisian's book listed below, and Taner Akcam are openly studying the issue. Akcam, for one, believes that Armenian and Turks cannot move forward until they agree to a shared history of what happened. There is even musical collaboration or detente. A few Armenians and Turks have recorded together. My favorite is a CD called Fuad featuring the talented Turkish folk musician Erkan Oğur and the renown duduk master, Djivan Gasparyan, from Armenia. On Fuad, they recorded an old song, Yemeni, a folk song from Elaziğ, or what they Armenians know as Kharpert, from where three of my four grandparents hail. This song laments those Ottoman soldiers who died fighting in Yemen. This song has become an anthem of the Armenian Genocide for some Turks and most Armenians who still speak Turkish: Giden gelmiyor, acep nedendir (all who left are not returning, why is that?). It is a beautiful and very sad song.

No matter how hard we try, we can never capture or master the way that first generation, that surviving generation, sang these songs or danced these dances. They were born in those lands, in those times. They had breathed the air and drank the water. They straddled two centuries and as many continents. We could be more accomplished, even professional, musicians or dancers. It matters not. They had a taste, heaviness, simplicity, stoicism, and several other dimensions I cannot even define. Yet, when I play that old music and people are dancing, I feel the connection. The Turks took a lot from us, but somehow this kind of spirit survives in many of us, three and four generations removed and scattered about the world. There is something in us that cannot be massacred or exiled out of existence.

In closing, here is poem from the famous Armenian poet Hovhanness Toumanian (1869 – 1923). In reading this powerful and sad poem, you can see how we, Armenians, view life through the lens of the Genocide.

The Armenian’s Grief [3]

The Armenian Grief is a boundless sea,
An immense, dark sea,
In pain, in that black water,
My soul swims aimlessly.

Now it rises up with a fury
Toward the clear sky above,
And tired now it plunges
To the endless depths.

Wine is not unendingly deep,
Nor can it raise me as far as the sky…
In the vast sea of Armenian sorrow
My tired soul moves, always in grief.

I never ever expected to include references when I started this e-letter project!

[1] The Waste Land, www.bartleby.com/201/1.html

[2] The Armenian Genocide, http://www.theforgotten.org/ (when you choose the language, you hear me playing the introduction to Herosneri Genatsuh from the ARPMusic.com CD For The Children Armenia..)

[3] Tolegian, Aram editor and translator, Armenian Poetry Old and New, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1979.

[4] Hovannisian, Richard G., ed., Looking Backward, Moving Forward, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, 2003

No comments:

Post a Comment