Thursday, January 8, 2009

April 2005: April 24th 1915 – 2005, 90 Yrs

I. Embarrassed, Angry, Obsessed?
Last year the April letter was about the Genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. This year has to be on the same subject primarily because on April 24th Armenians around the world observed the 90th anniversary of the beginning of this crime. On this date in, 1915, the Armenian leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople were arrested and later killed in prison.

I know a lady, Donna. She is a reader of this e-letter. She is not Armenian. Upon receiving the April letter of a year ago and scanning the subject matter, she forwarded it to a Turkish colleague who she thought might find it interesting. Upon his reading of the letter, he gave Donna a first hand lesson in Genocide denial and Armenian-Turkish relations in general. Upon my discussing this episode with her, she noted that it seemed that I was obsessed with this topic.

I was taken aback for two reasons. First, I don't feel "obsessed." Second, I was both embarrassed and angry with myself for appearing overly ethnic and "obsessed."

Upon just a little reflection, I could see how she thought I was "obsessed." I know people much more obsessed with this issue than me. But then, obsession is a most relative thing. Even though it has been 90 years, the magnitude of the crime certainly has had a lasting effect on those of us that are practicing Armenians.

I suppose the obsession comes from not having a sense of closure or resolution in what happened. I grew up with people who survived this genocide. They were my grandparent’s generation. In 1915, when it all began, they were only children, mostly of humble origin, whose families were mostly agrarian scrapping out livings in rural villages in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. They were second class citizens in their ancestral homelands. They lived that way until the governments changed and the idea of a homogeneous Turkic nation took hold. At the same time the Armenians were experiencing a national awakening. Christian missionaries, having no luck with the Moslems, focused on converting the Armenians from the ancient, traditional Armenian Church to their particular protestant spin on Christianity. The very positive side of this was that the missionaries built schools and hospitals. They educated the Armenians. The ideas of rights, freedom and self-determination crept into the hearts and souls of the people. In the intellectual centers of Tiflis and Constantinople/Istanbul, the Armenian became politicized. An Armenian Question or problem arose in the minds of the Turks.

The Turkish solution was what we would call Ethnic Cleansing today. They decided to obliterate the Armenians from Anatolia via both massacre and deportation. The deportation was into the deserts of Syria where many more starved to death. My grandparent’s generation endured this crime against humanity as children. It scarred them for life. They could not help but transmit effects of these scars to their children and grandchildren.

The current government of the Republic of Turkey has denied even acknowledging that this genocide happened, let alone consider reparations and restitution.

When I re-read what I just wrote, I have to admit that I am indeed “obsessed” with my heritage and recent history. I think that next time someone suggests that I might be “obsessed” with this subject, I will say “Damn right, I am!” instead of internalizing it and feeling both embarrassed and angry with myself.

II. The White Genocide
This past year, I have had more conversations with Children and Grandchildren of genocide survivors about what we call the Silent or Quiet Genocide. This White Genocide is the residual effect of being displaced for our homelands. It is about the slow and steady erosion of the culture in many parts of the Diaspora. It is about the inevitable absorption of Armenians into the melting pot that is America and other parts of the Diaspora.

Change is inevitable. The pace of change, today, is more rapid than ever before. While Armenian culture in terms of food, music, art, literature has evolved and expanded, those of us concerned with this White Genocide is that which is slipping away. The various village dialects of Western Armenia are all but gone as are the Turkish words that sprinkled our vocabulary. Mostly the laments I have shared with musician friends are that we see our own unique American Armenian Folk Music fading away.

Armenians here in the US for the great majority, have a better life then we would ever have had we stayed in our villages in present day Turkey. There is some sense of satisfaction in this but on the other hand, we are being homogenized into America. The probability of Armenians marrying Armenians and the probability of Armenians remaining “practicing” Armenians decreases with each generation born in America. In my parent’s generation, probably 85-95% married Armenians. In my generation that number dropped to 50-60%. In my children’s generation, I estimate that 20-30% will choose Armenian spouses. Our communities would be decimated by now if it were not for the influx of Armenians emigrating here from Lebanon in the 1980s and from Armenia since 1990. But, these same generational probabilities will apply to them.

III. Some People I Know, Knew or Wish that I had Known
I knew a man named Carl. I knew him in Detroit when I was growing up and has since passed away. He was born in the US and about my parent’s age. He was a proud Armenian and a son of the city of Van. He gave a lecture to our youth group once in which he said, "Blood comes to my eyes" when he thought about the atrocities of 1915. As teenagers, we used to laugh at the statement from this humble, modestly educated man. We used to joke, repeating "Blood comes to my eyes!!" in mocking fun. There came a point where we would just look at each other and say "Blood!!" I laugh no more. Blood does not come to my eyes but my heart most certainly, noticeably, gets heavier.

I never knew a lady named Maryam. She was my great grandmother. She was my paternal grandfather Aram's mother. Upon hearing of what was to come, she took my grandfathers college textbooks and buried them lest the Turks find them and be even more brutal with the family for having an educated son and a potential leader. Later, she left her youngest child Rouben with some Turkish neighbors. He survived and made it to America. She did not.

I know a lady named Lisa. She is about my age. She was on the train with us going into Manhattan for the April 24th commemorative programs and requiem services. She was with her sister and they both had on badges they had made indicating that they were grand daughters of Armenians from Bitlis, Sepastia and Kharpert. She told me that April 24, 2005 marked her parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. I asked how her parents had picked that date for their wedding. She said that her mother, who passed away several years ago, said she wanted to begin her Armenian family on that date to symbolize the survival of our people.

I know a man named Ken. He is about my age. I first met him in 1967 when we were at Camp Haiastan together. Ken was born, raised and lives in New Jersey. He was co-chairman of the Commemorative Program that took place in Times Square. He gave a short but rousing speech that reminded me and others of William Saroyan’s story of the Armenian Speech makers who did not need or use microphones. They would rant, bellow, and pace. They would engage and energize the crowd who would be fired up to be more Armenian. Ken reminded me that day of the late great Arthur Giragosian, the epitome of that lost style of speech making. Even Arthur’s son-in-law noted the similarity. Ken began by showing a photo of his great-grandfather, an Armenian priest, Der Hoosig Kahana Kachouni. Der Hoosig was a priest in the city of Arabkir. During the Hamidian Massacres of 1894-96, the prelude to what would happen in 1915. He refused to sign a document identifying those killed as insurgents. With his life in peril in Arabkir, he was moved to Istanbul where he was among those arrested and killed on April 24, 1915. Ken told a story about his daughter Ani and a recent school project she did on Armenia. In her report, Ani claimed that Mt. Ararat was in Armenia. Her teacher pointed out that Mt. Ararat was not in Armenia but in Turkey. Ken ended his speech byu saying he would rather his daughter fail then ever change her report. He bellowed, “Mt. Ararat is in Armenia; that is the only answer!” The crowd went wild.

I know a lady named Nurhayat. Nur is from Turkey. She worked for Colgate and had a short term assignment in New York in 2002. We became friends, bound by the parts of our culture that overlapped: food and music. Upon her return to Turkey, she sent me an e-mail with a photo of Mt. Ararat, Agri Dagh, taken from the Turkish side. She noted, "see, the mountain does not care which side of the border it is on." I was truly unable to judge whether she was baiting me, insulting me, just being playful, or completely unaware. Mt. Ararat is the symbol of Armenia and Armenians for centuries. You can see it from Yerevan, the capital. Yet, it lies across the border just inside of Turkey. All I know is that for a most focused instant upon reading that comment, I knew exactly what Carl meant when he said that “Blood comes to my eyes!"

I know a man named George. George was born in Detroit and a good son of Govdun, a village of Sepastia. George is a prince of a fellow. He has written two Armenian themed books. His first, Armenian InfoText, was a kind of single volume Armenian Encyclopedia. He wrote it so that both adults and schoolchildren would use it. His second book is a Michener style novel, Never to Die. I am reading an advance copy to write a review of it. This 600 page tome has two different storylines in alternating chapters. The even chapters present Armenian history from antiquity to the twentieth century. The odd numbered chapters are a tale about a French led expedition to Mt. Ararat to try to find Noah’s Ark. The expedition includes an American born Armenian and a Turkish major. I have only read 200 pages but, as all things George does, he surpasses expectations.

I never knew a man named Soghomon. Soghomon Tehlerian is an Armenian hero. He killed Talaat Pasha, leader of the Young Turk Government and the principle architect of the genocide that began on April 24, 1915. He tracked Talaat to Berlin, confronted him in the street and shot him dead. Soghomon died in 1960 and is bured in Fresno, California. On April 2nd, Judy and I visited his gravesite and memorial monument in the Armenian section of the cemetery while we were in Fresno for a family wedding. It was a very quiet, solemn, and bittersweet moment standing at his gravesite. My heart was definitely heavy.

I close this letter with a quote from the great American – Armenian writer, William Saroyan. It embodies our spirit and illustrates our collective obsession. Most Armenians know this passage very well. Many have it in their homes, often framed and displayed on the wall. I present it here for those of you who may not have seen it before.

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race; this small tribe of unimportant people whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no more answered.

Go ahead, destroy this race! Destroy Armenia! See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their homes and churches. Then, see if they will not laugh again, see if they will not sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will
not create a new Armenia.

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