Saturday, January 10, 2009

April 2006: The Armenian Genocide - Take Three

April 23rd, a miserable rainy day in New York, was the day of the Annual Genocide Commemoration that usually takes place in Times Square. I did not go. Not because of the pouring rain. I actually had a musical engagement in Farmington, CT. We played for a Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary. I was glad to do something positive and life affirming on this date instead of being in New York for the commemoration and hearing the same speeches… which I will most certainly return to next year.

I was glad to go and play the old songs for a couple, the children of immigrants who had somehow survived the massacres and starvation. It was a happy time on what is normally a day to reflect on sadness and loss.

There were two survivors at this party. Both were born in Kharpert. Yeghsapert Mazadoorian and Margaret Badrigian. Digeen Yeghsapert was from the small village of Yeghikeh, where my Mother’s mother Azniv was born. Digeen Margaret was from Meziré, Veri Kaghak, or basically Kharpert Heights. She was proud to say Veri Kaghak, though she had not seen the place for 90 years. But for those of us that still know, it has some cache. I dedicated songs to them. For Digeen Yeghsapert, I sang Knkush Hayreni, a song praising Armenian lands and culture. Her son and the groom took turns wheeling her wheelchair around the dance floor. Everyone was clapping and Digeen Yeghsapert was swaying her arms in the style of the Armenian ladies’ dance. Everyone was clapping and she was so very happy. Digeen Margaret asked if I knew a song about a leblebi (roasted chick peas) seller. She thought it might even be Turkish. I knew the song. It was from a Turkish operetta. I sang Rouben Altiparmakian’s Armenian version: Hey Valla. It was great seeing two survivors at the same party in 2006 so alive and having such a good time.

I have been reading the reflections of others on this years April 24th Anniversary. Some were quite personal like Rachel Goshgarian’s. I read Henry Morganthau III’s piece in the April 24th Boston Globe. I read Khatchig Mouradian’s essay posted on ZNet. I read Professor Fatma Muge Göcek’s statement on this year. Allow me to reflect a bit on some of these words.

Rachel Goshgarian: Rachel Gosgarian wrote how she went to the Widener library at Harvard where she is a graduate student and scholar. She went to the Armenian stacks, her place of refuge where “in the seven years I’ve been at Harvard, I haven’t once bumped into anyone there.” She sat on the floor and read. She read poems old and new. She read of the lifestyle and culture that was disrupted. The people that were uprooted, massacred, starved, or deported were human beings with unique personalities, professions, strengths and weaknesses as in any group. “Armenians who lost their individual identities to one identity: that of being Armenian… A group of human beings whose memory today is tainted by rejection. A rejection of their historical importance; a rejection of suffering.”

On the evening of the 26th, I did my version of what Rachel did in the Widener library except I retreated into the headphones of my iPod. I listened to the soulful duduk of Suren Asaduryan, the folk music of Kharpert, Van, Erzerum, and performed by Knar, Onnik Dinkjian, Richard Hagopian, Ed Arvanigian, and the Muradian Ensemble. I listened to Erzerumi Shorer like thrice. It is the perfect April 24th offering. It is a bittersweet reminder of the joys of the culture, lifestyle and homelands. It also, somehow, conveys the weight of the disruption and the loss of so many.

Oddly, listening to Erzerumi Shorer reminded me of our neighbor, Mrs. McCormick, back when we lived on Strathmoor in Detroit. She once told my Father, “the Armenians must have such a sad history.” My Father responded, “it is true, but how did you know?” She commented, “the music I hear sometimes from your house is so sad.” The houses were close and we did, sometimes, crank up the music.

I listened to Ard Mi Unim Karine performed by Knar. This is a most happy song of the Kharpert region. “It is a lovely year, laugh you beautiful girls, it is a special year.” I would love to know what year that song was written. I listened to Pontic Greek music sung by the late great Stelios Kazantzidis. His Tsaimbasin captures the magic of the Black Sea region, Trabizond was the central Pontic city, and reminded me of what one of my Pontic friends once told me. “After the Turks finished with the Armenians, they came after us.” There are no Ponic Greeks left in Turkey. There are no Greeks left in Smyrna, er Izmir. There are no Greeks left in Constantinople, oops I mean Istanbul.

Lastly, I listened to the beautiful art songs of Rabbi Isaac Alghazi: the extraordinary Sephardic Cantor. I fell in love with this mans voice and musical offering. But, I liked, perhaps even more what I read in the liner notes. He left Turky in the 1930’s, “presumably due to the governments policies favoring ethnic Turks over minorities.” Alghazi left Istanbul and settled in one of my favorite cities, Montevideo, Uruguay where he served as Rabbi until he passed on in the early 1950s.

Muge Göcek:
The best thing I read was a posting on the listserv by Prof. Göcek from the University of Michigan.

The Armenian Listserv is an on-line dialog in which e-mails are sent to a general address and disseminated to all. The listserv is dedicated to furthering the understanding between Armenians and Turks. The participants are, for the most part, scholars and other interested parties. The listserv is the creation of Professor Göcek. She is an energetic and enlightened soul. Her goal is that as stated by Taner Akcam: Armenians and Turks cannot move forward until they have a collective view of what happened.

The view of the Turkish scholars on this listserv is much closer to the Armenian view than the “Kemalist,” official state view of the Republic of Turkey. The number of postings is ten to twenty per day. With attachments, this can be like drinking water from a fire house. But the postings are most educational and eye opening. I have met most interesting people due to being on this listserv.

I read a master’s thesis from Ugor Üngör, a young historian studying in Amsterdam. He wrote a brilliant history of the extermination/deportation of the Armenian’s from Diyarbekir (Dickranagerd). He can be an honorary Armenian for the candor and truthfulness of his work. His background is mostly Kurdish and he subscribes to a more multi-cultural view of what Turkey should be than the current unified Turkish view of the Republic. This is but one example of the kinds of things posted on this listserv. I will have lunch with Ugor when he is in New York in May. (If anyone wants his master’s thesis let me know, I would be happy to e-mail it to you.)

Because of her work, Professor Göcek is vilified by some Turks. She has shared the scandalous awful e-mails she has received calling her traitor, mixed blood, and things I will not mention. She simply moves on bolstered that such criticism means she is doing the right thing. She has even been accused of being bribed by rich Armenians. Many scholars, laughingly, wrote her to ask to spend a weekend on her yacht or villa financed by this supposed Armenian money.

Professor Göcek eloquently stated her belief and position for an April 24th commemoration for which she was invited but was unable to attend. The impact of her words was most touching. I share them in their entirety:
Even though I cannot be there with you on this very significant day, I want you to know that as an ethnic Turk I am not guilty, but I am responsible for the wounds that have been inflicted upon you, Armenians, for the last century and a half. I am responsible for the wounds that were first delivered upon you through an unjust deportation from your ancestral lands and through massacres in the hands of a government that should have been there to protect you. I am also responsible for the wounds caused by the Turkish state denial to this day of what happened to you back then. I am responsible because all of this occurred and still occurs in the country of which I am a citizen. Yet I want to tell you that I personally travel every year to your ancestral lands to envision what was once there and what is not now. When I am there, I realize again and again how much your departure has broken the human spirit and warped the land and the people. I become more and more aware of the darkness that has set in since the disappearance of so many lives, minds, hopes and dreams. It is for all these reasons that I think it is time for the Turks too to recognize that vast loss, to start to uplift that darkness and begin the process of healing. I therefore firmly believe that soon in the future you will find among you many Turks who too will recount the names of all those brilliant Armenian intellectuals of Istanbul forcefully deported on this very significant day only to be massacred, Turks who will mourn with you this vast loss of ours, Turks who will work alongside you on your ancestral lands to help recreate what was once there.
Muge… it does my heart good to read such words. Thank you.
Robert Fisk: Robert Fisk is the Beirut based Middle East correspondent for The Independent, a UK newspaper ( He has worked the Middle East beat for over thirty years and is of the tried and true tradition of getting to where the action is and talking to all sides to get the story, often putting himself in harms way.

On April 7th, I went to hear Mr. Fisk speak. His was the plenary speech of a conference entitled, Armenians and the Left ( Mr. Fisk’s speech was co-sponsored by the Armenian National Committee-Eastern Region, The Armenian Youth Federation-Eastern Region, The Center for Peace, Culture and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center, and The New York Society for Ethical Culture in whose classic amphitheater the lecture was held.

The New York Society for Ethical Culture ( is based on the tenets of Ethical Culture “inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of our lives to create a more humane society.” The religion/belief and society was due to the seminal efforts of Dr. Felix Adler in the late 1800s. Construction of the Society’s center and school on Central Park West began in 1902. They have many fine works to their credit including the Visiting Nurse Service which is a valued thriving service to this day. Probably because of their humanistic bent accompanied by placing their faith “in the demonstrated capacity of people to do wonderful things” makes it easy for some to classify the Society as leftist.

Their members and constituents, by my reckoning, made up half of the attendees at the Fisk lecture. The remainder of the packed house of 500, 600, or 1,000, I hesitate to guess, were Armenians and members of other ethnic groups for which Mr. Fisk has spoken up. My cousin David Gavoor and I sat next to each other and ended up talking to a couple of Bosnian men who held Mr. Fisk in the highest esteem.

David and I tend to be centrists, maybe due to our economic views, a nudge right of center (this may elicit hearty laughter from some of you). But, all we heard from Robert Fisk was what sounded like the truth. He is a brilliant speaker and gifted writer. He mesmerized and held the crowd literally on the edge of our chairs. He had everyone nodding in agreement or disbelief at the same time be they left wing tree hugging humanists or right wingers who had come to the lecture directly from their Wall Street jobs.

In fact, Mr. Fisk said exactly that. He did not consider himself a political thinker or philosopher (he could have fooled me). He considered himself a journalist; a journalist whose job it is to seek the truth. To get at the truth, Mr. Fisk gets to where the action is or was and talks to all sides to get the full picture, often putting himself in harm’s way. The result is exactly his intent, when he speaks everyone seems to hear the truth.

His 2005 book, The Great War for Civilisation, is a thousand page masterpiece and a must read for anyone who wants to get a deeper understanding of how we got to the present conditions in the Middle East. Every Armenian should buy the book simply for Chapter 10 The First Holocaust. In forty pages, Mr. Fisk states exactly what everyone should know about the events of 1915 whether we call it massacres, holocaust, or genocide. Simply brilliant, simply the truth.

Yet, one must evaluate everything Mr. Fisk says. There is an easy tendency to simply pick up his views when they support what one already believes. I walked into the lecture with a belief that Islam was the enemy. I walked out with a more balanced view that separates the religion and the politics. I can separate good pious Christians from those that use the religion for personal gain be it wealth like the worst of televangelists or political gain as has happened through history. I can do this because I am living it, know the people, and see it kind of first hand. Regarding Islam, the vast amount of my knowledge is second hand. I must admit that most of what I see and read, creates an us vs. them mentality.

Furthermore, I must freely admit, that given what happened to the Armenians in what is now called Turkey was done along religious barriers. Mr. Fisk, after chastising the Turkish government for not owning up to their past, challenged the Armenians by saying it is time for the Armenians to begin speaking up about the Turks and Arabs, Moslem or otherwise that assisted the Armenians. He pointed out that most of the survivors would not have survived without such help at some level. Again, Mr. Fisk speaks the truth.
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I could have written so much more on this subject. I realize I did not comment on Henry Moranthau III’s piece or the others. There is just not enough space. If you are interested in you could read his grandfather’s book, Ambassador Morganthau’s Story available on Amazon. If you are interested in the Armenian Listserv, e-mail Professor Göcek and ask to be put on the list (

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