Monday, April 23, 2012

April 2012: The Armenian Genocide

Every year in April, this letter is dedicated to and focused on the Armenian Genocide.  Every April.  I have looked at this from every angle I can think of and every angle that interests me.  I am not sure I have resolved anything. Clearly, it is an important topic to me.  It is for other Armenians as well.  I do get nice feedback from other Armenians when I write something in these April letters that resonates with them.  It is a recurring theme in our lives and an issue that will not go away until there is closure.  For the Armenian Genocide, closure has been elusive.
In the time I have been formally writing about this there have been changes.  As the internet has made the world smaller, there are Armenians and Turks that have gotten closer together.  It is good to see Turkish scholars and artists that believe what we Armenians have experienced and know to be true.  Beyond the Armenian issue, Turkey is in the throes of trying to determine what kind of country they will be.  The Armenian issue is but one of the issues that are part of this debate.
This year a few questions are on my mind.  First, who were the victims of the Genocide?  Secondly, who actually committed the crimes?  As we approach the 100th Anniversary of this crime, this Genocide, there are a scant few Armenians alive that actually experienced the event.  By the same token, the Turks responsible for planning and executing the Genocide are all gone. Can I hold the grandchildren responsible for what their grandparents did to my grandparents? 
It is no longer about individuals.  It is for the Armenians about the memory of individuals and the memory of a generation.  It is about the memory of a lost homeland.  It is about the loss of a lifestyle and the chance to evolve a culture in our own land and country.
The issue no is not with the people, it really cannot be any longer.  It is with the government, with the state, who separates itself from the Ottoman State and furthermore denies any wrong doing by that government during World War I.  The most they are willing to admit to is that there were causalities on all sides.  In the worst case, they will accuse Armenians of atrocities.
The American Indians:  This last statement actually makes me think of the United States and what was done to the American Indians in the creation of this country coast to coast, sea to shining sea.  I have alluded to this before in these April letters.  I am going to expound on it more in this one.
We, the United States of America, were none too kind to the American Indians.  We basically took this entire land from them or from the English, French, or Spanish who were already in the process of taking this land from the Indians.  For the most part we did not do it nicely.  We cheated them out of Manhattan.  We pushed them out of their homelands by an ever increasing population of settlers who simply built towns which turned into cities on the lands.  We took land and made them into our farms.  If and when the Indians protested we used force to inflict our will on them.   The coast to coast nation was well established before the coining of the term Manifest Destiny in 1845.  We quickly finished the job after the Civil War preparing ourselves for the American Century.  Certainly, we negotiated treaties with them and at times even bought land from them.  I do not think that any of these deals were fair.  Certainly killing all the buffalo was wrong.  Read about The Trail of Tears and see some eerie similarities even if the numbers involved were not the same. 
Key to Manifest Destiny was the belief we were taking civilization to west to the Pacific Ocean.  We were doing a good thing.  Since our definition of civilization inherently included Christianity, we were essentially doing God’s will or work.  Who was in our way?  Indians.  Injuns.  Redmen.  Injuns.  Heathens.  Non-believers i.e. giavurs.  These savages did not look like us.  They did not believe in our God and his only begotten Son.  They had no written language.  They did not have the same notion of property ownership as we did.
They were savages.  If left unchecked, they would attack us.  They would take our women and children.  It was not safe, or even possible, to live peacefully among them.  They could not be trusted. 
I learned this viewpoint 100 years after the fact watching cowboy and Indian movies with my maternal grandfather growing up.  As kids, we played cowboys and Indians.  Our goal was what the culture taught us:  to kill the Indians, to protect our homes from these heathen savages.  Indeed, the only good pretend Indian was a dead pretend Indian. 
When I look at some of the same movies now, I see they were not quite so biased.  But, very few gave the Indians a fair shake.  In the 1960s and 1970s, with emergence the various liberation movements for Blacks, Women, Homosexuals, and others, we began to confront our treatment of the American Indians.  Films like Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josie Wales began portraying the US as the bad guy in the American Indian Wars.  Books like James Michener’s Centennial portraying the Cheyennes, who referred to themselves as the human beings, as simply noble versus noble savage or just plain savage. 
There is a great soliloquy in The Outlaw Josie Wales:

I'm an Indian alright but here in The Nations they call us the civilized tribes.  They call us civilized because we are easy to sneak up on.  White men have been sneaking up on us for years.  They sneaked up on us and they told us we wouldn't be happy.

They told us we would be happy in The Nations.  So they took away our tribal lands and sent us here.  I had a fine woman and two sons but they all died on the Trail of Tears.  I wore a frock coat to Washington before The War.   We wore them because we belonged to the five civilized tribes.

We dressed ourselves up like Abraham Lincoln.   We got to see the secretary of the interior.  He said, "Boy, you boys sure look civilized."   He congratulated us and he gave us medals for looking so civilized.  We told him about how our tribal lands had been stolen and how our humans were dying.

When we finished he shook our hands and said "Endeavor to persevere!"  They stood us in a line John Jumper, Chili McIntosh, Buffalo Hump, Jim Buckmark, and me, I am Lone Waite.  The newspapers took our picture and said, "Indians vow to endeavor to persevere."   We thought about for a long time, endeavor to preserver, and when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.

~ Lone Waite, Indian chief. Lone Waite was played by Chief Dan George who also stole several scenes in Little Big Man.

Endeavor to persevere indeed.  That is the battle Armenians are fighting in the Diaspora especially in the United States.  If it were not for recent generations of immigrants from the Middle East and now Armenia, our community here would have certainly assimilated into the melting pot.
Lone Waite and company went to meet with the Secretary of the Interior.  It was another Minister of the Interior, Mehmed Talaat, who was the nemesis of the Armenians.  I do not think he ever used the word persevere and Armenians in the same sentence however.
We endeavor to persevere.  My friend Ken Hachikian and his colleagues at the Armenian National Committee endeavor to keep this issue alive.  They endeavor to make sure the current Turkish government does not forget that they have a long pending wrong with people who were and still might have been productive citizens of their empire and now their republic.  Yes, it is a different government in terms of constitution but there was a nice linear flow of leadership.
Was the current Germany responsible for the crimes against their Jewish citizenry?  Is the American Government responsible to the crimes we committed against the American Indians?  I believe the answer to that is:  Yes.
Do I believe that Joe Average American or Cemal Average Turk is responsible for what was done by their government and by their military one hundred years ago?  I do in so much as they are citizens of the country that is responsible. 
As a citizen of the United States of America, I could ask myself.  Am I responsible for what was done by this country to the American Indians 150 years ago?  Am I responsible for the dropping of the only two atomic bombs on human populations? How would I react if somehow I was told that I live on Potawatomi land and have to forsake my home because of a wrong done generations ago?  My reaction would be like I would expect to hear from the Turks or Kurds living in my great-grandfather’s house in Keserig.  I would protest and tell my government and the Potawatomis “this is our home.  I am sorry about what happened so long ago, but I was not responsible for that and I am the legal owner of this property now.”
How similar is the Armenian and American Indian situations?  I see similarities.  Other Armenians do not agree with me.  I had a discussion with a lady a few weeks ago.  She refused to see any similarities between the Armenian Genocide and the American Indian Genocide.  I see this in Armenians sadly.  We think this only has happened to us or that Genocide is worse and more heinous than that of other peoples. 
Google “American Indian Genocide” or “American Indian Holocaust” and read some of the material.  Judge for yourself if there are any similarities.   
Mi Amigo Juan:  I have an Armenian friend, Juan Payassian in Argentina.  We met exchanging music videos on YouTube.  We both love the same kind of music: Armenian and a la Turca.  I just exchange videos, Juan makes them.  He takes old recordings and adds his own images.  He does a great job as he is an artist by trade.  You can view all of his videos on his YouTube channel:  Juan's Channel .  Juan has put some great music and wonderful montages to go with the videos.  I especially like the following:

·         Udi Hrant - Hüseyni saz semai
·         Konyalim
·         Juan reciting Neruda's Mi Voz

I wish I had known Juan when I was still travelling to Buenos Aires on business.  It would have been fun hanging out with on Calle Armenia at the Café Armenia and other shops on that Armenian street in Buenos Aires.  For now, we communicate by email and music sharing.
I bring up Juan in this letter because he recently posted a most interesting, brave, and heartfelt video on his channel.  On April 7, he posted this video:  My apologies to Turkish people.  I listened to this video and read the text of his speech several times.  I was amazed.  I read the comments and was also amazed.
Juan’s words fit into this year’s April 24th letter.  I am dancing around many of the sentiments that Juan expressed but have not quite come to his conclusion.  As they say, Juan stoops to conquer.  He has laid his heart and soul out.  I am sure some Armenians will chastise him, or any Armenian, for uttering these kinds of words.  I truly hope that this letter does not bring those sentiments to Juan for what he has bravely posted.
It is not odd and it did not surprise me that there were no comments from Armenians on Juan’s video.  I will comment and leave a link to this letter when it is done.
Should the American Indians apologize to the rest of us Americans?  Should the Jews apologize to the Germans?  Juan did just that.  He did not apologize to the Turkish government.  There is a difference. 
There is a legal issue.  It has yet to be resolved.  People like my friend Ken are working to resolve that.  They are leading the effort to recognize that church lands and buildings were taken from the Armenian people, trying to get this confiscation recognized, and then trying to get the lands back or compensation.  The Turkish Government wants to avoid this at all costs as it will raise the issue of where did all the Armenians go, who why did they leave, and why did they simply abandon their churches and schools.  There is no doubt that compensation for church and school properties will be a prelude the larger and more general compensation issue regarding the genocide.
What about at the person to person level?  Has there been an improvement of relations between Armenians and Turks.  Yes at the personal level and no at the state level.  In my own case, I had very few relations with any Turks growing up.  I had a good friend at Wayne State University in the 1980s, Halim Anisoglu, with whom I lost touch until late last year.  In this century, I have make friends and acquaintances with whom I play music, exchange music, or whose postings I follow on various websites.
I think of Osman Koker who is a wonderful fellow and friend.  He has published a beautiful collection of Armenian postcards which is a great testimony to our having been there.  He knows where all the Armenian Churches were and where most of the stones of the torn down churches are. 
I know Suha Guzel an engineer and great friend of humanity.  We began sharing videos on YouTube but have evolved to corresponding about the issues between Armenians and Kurds and both Armenians and Kurds with the Turks. 
I know two other folks.  I had included their names but they asked that I take their names off of this posting.  They are Turkish and friends of mine.  They both love the music I love.  They are very knowledgeable and one of them knows the words to every Turkish song one can think of.  We have practiced and performed together.  We never talk politics though sometimes I feel in hangs like a thick mist in the air around us. The fact that I was asked to remove their names confirms to me the strain between our two peoples.  They are truly non-political so their sentiment to not have their names mentioned is heartfelt and sincere.  But, there is a fear, also, of how they will be perceived.  I did comply and remove their names. 
Do I view these lovely people as Turks or Kurds?  Partially… because it is part of what they are.  More so, I view them as talented and interesting friends.  I view us sharing a culture. 
That is key.  That is part of what Juan was saying.  We shared a culture.  We share it still.  The humble stone homes with tin roofs on one side of the Arax river look exactly like those on the other side.  The people look the same.  The music and food overlap considerably.  Generations down the road we need to look for similarities and build bridges.
Where to from here:  While I view us as sharing a culture, some people have worked hard to keep the peoples separate.  First, it was hardliners on Turkish side who were the architects and perpetrators of the Genocide.  They have been joined equally adamant hardliners on the Armenian side.  I am more sympathetic to those on the Armenian side mostly because I am Armenian but also because they are reacting to a great historical crime and continuing injustice.
Me?  I believe in the Armenian political agenda.  I do.  I believe we must work until the Turkish State admits to what was done.  Then and only then can the Turks and Armenians create an environment where we can work, coexist, and build good relations between the two peoples.  That would be excellent.  What is the probability of it actually happening?  It used to be horribly extremely low.  Now, it is just extremely low so we are making some progress. 
I believe the Turkish government is waiting and stalling as long as they possibly can.  They are waiting and stalling so that when they do admit to the crimes of the Ottomans and Young Turks, it will be like the Americans admitting to the horrible way this land was taken from the Indians… but it was so long ago.  I can the successors of Erdogan and Davutoglu mouthing these kinds of words someday and nothing more.
I will continue to ponder the Genocide.  I will continue to support the Armenian political agenda as championed by the Armenian National Committee here in the US.  I will also continue to look for and build bridges with Armenians, Turks, and Kurds who also want to build bridges.

————— • —————

Tonight April 23rd and tomorrow April 24th I will think of those great people in the generation that survived.  I will think of my great-grandparents who I never met.  I will listen to Lone Waite’s and Juan Payassian’s soliloquies on YouTube.  I will listen to the most beautiful and saddest song I know as I do every year:   Adanayi Voghperke.

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