Monday, January 12, 2009

April 2008: The Armenian Genocide – Take Five

Every year my April letter has been about the Armenian Genocide. It has always been about pointing out the injustice, railing against the Turkish Government, and trying to find some closure. The closure will be slow and tough to come.

Some years I rant and rave. Other years I am more introspective. I think this letter falls more into the introspective category.

April 3-5, 2008: April 4th was the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. On April 4, 1968, I was in the ninth grade at Cadillac Junior High School in Detroit. I was thinking about going to high school. I was thinking about Cass Tech the magnet school one had to apply to. I was thinking about Cooley, the stately beautiful high school just two blocks from our home.

I might have gone to Cooley but Detroit was changing in those days. It was an increasingly less safe place to attend. Since the 1967 riots, white flight to the suburbs was in full swing. The demographics of the City of Detroit were changing. So, I opted to go to Cass Tech. I loved that school but only stayed there a semester because we moved to Livonia. We were part of the demographic changes.

I was in Atlanta, March 31 – April 2. Atlanta was his Dr. King’s lifelong home. There certainly was a lot of buzz about the anniversary in Atlanta. The Atlanta magazine that we somehow get at home, without ever subscribing to, had dedicated their entire April issue to the life, times, and sad ending of the good Dr.

I listen to his words today. They are so important, so right, so well crafted. He was a great thinker, orator, and leader. He seemed above it like Gandhi. Like Gandhi he was assassinated.

I, my family, we were all victims of J. Edgar Hoover’s smear campaign. We were led to believe that Dr. King was both a communist and a womanizer. Both of these accusations one false and the other a fabrication diminished the man in my parents and hence my eyes. Being black, he was already starting at a disadvantage.

Back then in 1968, it was 53 years since the beginning of the heinous acts of 1915. My family, in this case my grandparents and great-grandparents, was part of another demographic shift: The Armenian Genocide. They were lucky to have lived. But, they were removed from their homes and somehow with a combination of luck and fortitude made it to the United States. My Mother’s family settled in Detroit. We were part of a demographic change in 1915. We were part of another very different demographic change in the late sixties. We had much more freedom in the latter.

It strikes me very odd that many Armenians I knew growing up had a dislike for blacks. When I look back at both the Armenian Genocide and the life work of Martin Luther King, I am struck with one thing. Armenians for the most part focus on our own tragedy, almost exclusively. We can live in this great country and see little irony that we as disposed people live on the lands of disposed American Indians. There is no irony or guilt because we invoke, mostly subconsciously, that the injustices happened a long time ago and we had nothing to do with us. “We weren’t here then, we had nothing to do with it. The past is the past. That is so long ago.” This is not unlike what the modern day Turks say about the Armenian Genocide. Why aren’t we more empathetic?

Over time, I find this dichotomy increasingly shocking. Just who the hell do we think we are?

Of late, we are improving. We are acknowledging the ethnic cleansings in the Balkans and the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, mostly in our “never again” speeches. Yet, we never really seemed to associate with the civil rights movement. Only fifty years after the Genocide we were pretty focused and occupied with making what happened to us an issue and a movement. I do not believe we gave the civil rights movement much attention.

In the middle of these thoughts came an e-mail on April 5th written on April 4th from a long time friend. Manoog Kaprielian entitled Forty years ago when ‘HOPE’ was killed. He wrote over two thousand words on the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was quite happy to get this e-mail. It was just what I needed to feel a little bit better about the Armenian People. It does not surprise me at all that this relief came from Manoog.

Manoog is originally from Providence, RI a major US city from an Armenian perspective. He is a contemporary and has done something exemplary and very cool. He relocated to the Republic of Armenia. He is living in Yerevan, an expatriate in his ancestral home. From his reports, it sounds like it was a great move for Manoog and no doubt a great benefit to the citizens of Armenia that have come to know him.

His e-mail reflecting on the day “’Hope’ was killed” consists of nine moments and lessons from his serving in Vietnam through April 4th of this year. I will share Moment Nine:

MOMENT #9 (my draft number) Having written this in the middle of nowhere, this would have been delivered an hour earlier had I not left the keyboard for a take out order and simply asked the first man I saw about his memory of this day 40 years ago. His response was very rich. My weak Armenian and non-Russian language skills prevented absorption of the entire breath of this 59 year old native Armenian. His name was Gagik, and at 19 he was actually standing on the very same spot I ran in to him. He imparted, oh so much, of the Rev. King, his sermons, and the unforgettable cleansing feeling he once experienced from the worship and song of the Baptist Church. Can we all look back like Gagik? For if we could, we may be all the better to tend to our collective future. Can we simply go to the 'very same spot' forty years ago, pick up HOPE and move forward again?
Thank you Manoog and Gagik for the opening the door and letting a ray of hope in!

April 10, 2008: Professor Müge Göçek of the University of Michigan sent an e-mail through the Armenian Workshop Listserv entitled: Remembering Hrant Dink. The last sentence in her first paragraph really grabbed me:

And I want to draw on this occasion to once again remember Hrant Dink, to especially recall Dink’s passionate love for his ancestral land, for the soil and for the people dwelling on it.
I really related to this. I cannot begin to compare myself to Hrant Dink (see my April 2007 letter) who to me was both a zealous Armenian and Turk at the same time. But, I love my ancestral land, at least the parts I have seen in the current Republic of Armenia. But I knew I would love the land and the people well before I ever visited. The same can be said of the lands, our ancestral lands, lying in the Republic of Turkey the lands of the Armenian Highlands or Eastern Anatolia. (The photo at the top of this posting is Professor Göçek and me at the University of Michigan Armenian Club Dance, 1-25-08)

Like Hrant Dink, I think I would like the people living in those lands now. Certainly, Hrant Dink knew many more of them. But I have meet enough citizens of the Republic of Turkey be they Armenian, Turk, Kurd, or Gypsy to know I enjoy the people. Certainly, Professor Göçek is a perfect example. The Listserv she created and runs is a great forum for peoples who share these lands and have overlapping cultures and no doubt genetic codes to find common ground in a sea of hate and ignorant politics.

If I were living in Turkey, I am certain I would have the same feelings. I am equally certain I would not have the same feeling for all. It is hard to like or even tolerate those that hate you. I am even more certain that were I living in Turkey, probably harboring the same sense of right and righteousness as Hrant Dink did, But, I am equally sure that I would probably not be as brave a spokesman and force as he was.

April 20, 2008: Armenians and Turks do not speak the same language. We do not have the same religion. For over a hundred years, except for the few Armenians remaining in the Republic of Turkey, we have not lived together. Yet, amid all the politics and hatred, there are Armenians and Turks trying to kindle some hope for a better future for both peoples.

The culture overlaps. It has to; we lived on the same lands for hundreds of years. The citizens of Turkey probably have a lot more Armenian blood in them than they think, though probably not as much as we Armenians think.

The overlap is certainly in the food. But, the food extends over the entire region. I have seen ridiculous on-line arguments of whether Baklava is Greek or Turkish in origin.

To me, the overlap is in the music: the music I love and play. The music lies in the intersection of Armenian and Turkish cultures. This music touches my very heart and soul. It does the same for a lot of my family and friends. This is something I have known since I was a mere boy and felt with greater intensity since becoming a student of this music when I was a teenager., the on-line video posting and sharing website, has been a real bonus for those of us that like this music. We can watch the best of the music we like from Turkish television and concerts. We can and do share the best of what we see. It is both uplifting and a bit depressing all at once.

Late last year, I got the following link in an e-mail from the gifted Armenian-American musician Mal Barsamian: I clicked and listened to this song Çalsin Sazlar performed by Burhan Çaçan. Wow. I loved it. I played it over and over again. It was the essence of the music that I loved.

I showed it to my wife, Judy. She watched the first few seconds of it and blurted out, “Oh my God, we’re Turks!” Yes we are, or they are Armenian. Or the culture that goes to the heart and souls of both peoples are closer than most on both sides ever want to admit.

I forwarded the link to everyone I knew would enjoy it. They all had the same intense and warm reaction. I did buy the CD and noted a bit to my surprise that the song and words were attributed to a composer, Kenan Erel. It was not the folk song I thought it was but this is an incredible piece of music to me.

Burhan Çaçan is a Kurd from Erzerum (I think). This video was from a Turkish TV show. I was amazed at how the people looked like many people I know or have known. I was saddened by the continued White lingering part of the Genocide that began in 1915. In Turkey, they have TV shows playing the music I love. It is main stream. This part of Armenian culture is dying off.

I got the words to Çalsin Sazlar. The song is now in my repertoire. In fact, I sang it at the University of Michigan Armenian Club and dedicated it to Professor Göçek who led the dance.

YouTube has opened up a whole wonderful window. My musician friends and I share the best of what we find from classical to folk.

I have written that my family is from Kharpert. The city, rebuilt after an earthquake, is now known as Elaziğ shortened from the Ottoman name Mamûret'ül-Azîz. A folk song of the region is Çayda Çira. I remember my maternal Grandmother’s brother Samuel performing this song and sending us a tape from his home in Aleppo, Syria. I searched the song on YouTube and found several versions. This is my favorite and the clarinet reminds me very much of Samio Keri’s playing. If we were still there, we could have been in or even made this video.

There is no end. Consider this very poor quality video. It is the beginning of a Belkis Akkale concert from the 1980s. It begins with a song on the cusp of Armenian and Turkish cultures. We know it as Ha Nina and it has been recorded by Harout Pamboukjian and others. Is it Armenian? Turkish? Kurdish? Note the famous Zurnaci (double reed horn player) Binali Selman featured in the beginning.

On the classical side, here is a posted video of Kurdili Hicazkar Longa composed by the Armenian Kemani Sebuh (born 1857 in Istanbul and died 1937 in Cairo). Sebuh was a late Ottoman composer and violinist. This longa or prelude is still popular and performed both by cabaret and classical groups in Turkey and the Armenian Diaspora.

If we go back to Elaziğ, here is another piece that greatly reminds me of Samio Keri. This Halay could easily be called Kharperti Halay as Elaziğ Dik Halayi.

My friend Varoujan Vartanian is a son of Dickrangerd. He is a very good and popular singer growing up in Beirut and now in New York. Dickranagerd is now known as Diyarbekir. Here is a song from that region Hele Yar Zalin Yar that Varoujan sings in the Dickranagerd Armenian dialect. This version is from Izzet Altinmese.

Hachig Kazarian and Richard Hagopian recorded a Dersim Medley on their first Kef Time Albums. These were great pieces. I noted that the person that posted the Elaziğ Dik Halayi had a YouTube name of Palulu1907. Interesting moniker, since in 1907 there were still Armenians living in Palu. More likely Palulu was born on July 19th. Palu is another city in the same region as is Dersim. I followed that link and found two the Dersim Medley tunes. What a fabulous group. Here are two of them, Dersim Dört Dağ İçinde and Bu Dere both performed by Muzaffer Ertürk. Bu Dere was also recorded in the 1930s or 40s by the Armenian oudist Marko Melkon in New York.

Another song that Richard Hagopian sings that I love is Karadir Kaslarin. Here is a lovely duet version featuring Sevval Sam and Ferhat Göçer.

The most famous song on this Armenian – Turkish cusp is without doubt is Sari Gelin. There is even a book written about this song in Turkish. The foolish on both sides insist it is an Armenian, Turkish or Azeri song and that the despicable enemies stole it as their own. The title words have meaning in both Armenian and Turkish. Here are two versions. The first is sung by Nilufer Akbal in Armenian. The posting of the video is dedicated to Hrant Dink. The second in Turkish is by one of my favorite singers, Gulay.

The master Armenian Oudist, Udi Hrant, sang Her Sabah, Her Seher (Every morning, every night). Armenians here, like me, still performing song. Hrant would sing “I play the saz all day long, people call me lazy.” John Bilezikjian has changed the words to “I play the oud all day long…” Here is a very nice version sung by Gülsen Kutlu with neither the oud nor saz line:

Lastly, I have to include this short clip of Zara singing Yemen Turkusu. This song was written to commemorate the Ottoman soldiers who went, fought, and died in Yemen. It is yet another folk song of the Kharpert - Elaziğ region. It has double meaning today as an anthem to the Armenian Genocide because of the power full line in the chorus

giden gelmiyor, acep nedendir
all who left are not returning, why is that?

There are so many more songs I could reference here. I have probably already put too many. So, as have marked the 93rd Anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide listen to this music. Think of Martin Luther King a bit and his message of peace and living well together. Listen to Çayda Çira and think of my Samio Keri, a son of Kharpert. Listen to Sari Gelin and think of Muge Göçek reading this letter in Ann Arbor, MI and Manoog Kaprielian reading it in Yerevan, Armenia both dreaming of, hoping for, and working towards a better world.

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