Saturday, April 25, 2015

National Poetry Month—The Armenian Genocide at 100

Unlike the Nazis who were quite proud of their handiwork and kept meticulous records including photographs and film, the Turks have always tried to deny and hide their genoidal slaughter of the Armenians.  Little photographic and documentary evidence survived, but here the victims of one massacre were laid out for display after the Army passed through.  An Orthodox Priest looks on.  The man in the tie in the center on the table was probably the local mayor or other official.

Yesterday, April 24, was the day officially selected to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.  On that day the Ottoman Turks began arresting for deportation more than 2,600 leading Armenian intellectuals—doctors, university professors, writers and editors, lawyers, architects, artists, musicians, and the like.  Most disappeared, never to be seen again.  I am sorry to have missed the date, but not too concerned, because the deportations and the killings went on for months as troops, police, and civilian mobs rampaged through Armenian communities in Turkish cities, and their villages, towns and farms.  There is lots of time to remember the estimated 1.5 million who were killed.
In the midst of World War I—the carnage began the same day as troops of the British Empire—ANZAKS—landed on the shores of Gallipoli, the world hardly was aware of what was happening in the mountains and deserts of a far-off and exotic land.  It only slowly became aware as survivors and refugees spilled into neighboring—and often unwelcoming—lands.  The horror tales were regarded as exaggerations of the normal brutalities of war.  The Ottomans fell, but the new Turkish government steadfastly denied that the massacre had occurred at all.  At worst, they said, there were casualties in a civil war caused by Armenian terrorists.  If  people died in great numbers, it was as a result of war, famine, and the actions of adjacent states, not the policy of a failing empire. 
The word genocide had not yet been invented.  It took the mass killing of the Nazis on an even grander and more industrial scale for humankind to wrap their heads around the notion that such things as the attempted eradication of whole peoples was possible.  In the post-war years the United Nations coined the word genocide from Greek root genos meaning race and the English suffix cide for the act of killing.  Killing a race.  Got it.  So did the surviving Armenians who recognized what had happened to them and began their long campaign to have it officially acknowledged.
The United States for geo-political reasons—Turkey had become a Western ally, a member of NATO, and a secular, democratic state strategically placed in the Muslim world—has always opposed recognizing the genocide for fear of alienating their ally.  Indeed, President Obama let the anniversary pass once again without a mummer even as the Germans and Russians, who know firsthand about the topic, have acknowledged it.
Of course, perhaps the U.S. is concerned that someone will notice our own century’s long genocide by attrition of the native peoples who European settlers and their descendents dispossessed, and hold us equally accountable.

Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan, Armenia

The Armenian Genocide is commemorated by dozens of monuments spread across the Middle East, Europe, and North America—where ever the diaspora fled.  The largest and most revered, however is the Armenian Genocide Memorial built in 1967 on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan the Armenian SSR, a member state of the old Soviet Union.  Today as independent Armenia in the troubled southern Caucasus it is a homeland occupying a portion of the territory that also sprawled from eastern Turkey through northern Iraq and Iran.  Armenians remaining in those countries face ethnic and religious persecution for their Christian faith
At any rate, the anniversary has drawn new attention to the now irrefutable facts.  The Armenian Orthodox Church named all 1.5 million victims Saints and April 24 their Feast Day.  Stunning, when you think about it.
The Armenians were and are a people with a rich poetic tradition of their own.  Naturally, their bards have had something to say about it.

Atom Yerjanian who wrote as Siamanto was born in town of Agn on the banks of the Euphrates in 1878.  Well educated, he became a leading poet and chronicler of the vicious repression of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire starting at the turn of the century.  He was forced into exile in Egypt, Paris, Geneva, and the United States, but returned to his homeland in 1913 to document his people’s suffering.  He was one of the intellectuals arrested for deportation in 1915 and died after torture that August.  Armenians consider him as the ideal poet-as-hero.  This poem was bitterly prophetic.
A Handful of Ash
Alas, you were a great and beautiful mansion,
And from the white summit of your roof,
Filled with star-flooded night hopes,
I listened to the Euphrates, racing below.

I learned with tears, with tears I learned of the ruins,
Of your broad walls battered down, stone by stone,
Onto your fragile border of flowers in the garden...
On a terror-filled day, a day of slaughter, of blood.

And charred is the blue room
Inside whose walls, on whose rugs
My childhood delighted,
And where my life grew, where my soul grew.

That gold-framed mirror is shattered, too,
In whose silver depth my dreams,
My hopes, my loves and my burning will
Stood reflected for years, and my musings.

And in the garden the spring song is dead,
The mulberry and the willow there, they have been blasted, too,
And the brook that flowed between the trees-
Has it gone dry? Tell me, where is it? Has it gone dry?

O I often dream of the cage
From which my gray partridge, mornings
And at sunrise, fronting the rose trees,
Would rise, as I did, and start its own distinct cooing.

O my homeland, promise that after my death
A handful of your holy ashes
Will come to rest, like an exiled turtledove,
To chant its song of sorrow and tears.

But who will bring, tell me, who is to bring
A handful of your precious ashes,
On the day of my death, to put into my dark coffin
And mingle with my ashes, ashes of a singer of the homeland?

A handful of ash with my remains, my native home-
Who is to bring a handful of ash from your ashes,
From your sorrow, your memories, your past,
A handful of ash to scatter on my heart?


Alan Semerdjian
Alan Semerdjian is an American poet/essayist/musician whose 2009 book In the Architecture of Bone came to grips with the immigrant refugee generation and their families and the ghosts of the genocide.  The Grandchildren of Genocide from that book makes the powerful point that the past is not the past…
The Grandchildren of Genocide
We think of bombfields and big when we think of genocide.
We think of mass cleansing. We think in holes. We think
the whole page. We think what’s under it, what they’ve been
covering up. We think there might have been people
in those whole pages.
We think of chambers when we think of genocide. We think
of people crying. We think of people climbing. We think of
people climbing and crying, crying and climbing. We think of both
people climbing and people crying. We think in chambers.
We think in those horrible chambers when we think of genocide.
Those horrible 20th century chambers.
When we think of genocide, we don’t think of mountains and deserts.
We don’t think of bazaars. When we do think of them,
we don’t think of young democratic people and pomegranates.
We don’t think of young democratic people with pomegranates
at bazaars when we think of genocide. We don’t think of them
next to our grandfathers. We don’t think of next to them.
Then there are young democratic people who don’t eat pomegranates
and don’t think of genocide. We don’t think of them either.
We don’t think of them when we think of genocide, but we do think
of moustaches. We don’t think of long and lovely moustaches,
but we think of moustaches when we think of genocide.
We don’t think of grandfathers plural or generations of grandfathers
before that when we think of genocide. But we do think of mothers.
And mothers before that. But we do think of mothers,
but we don’t think of women. We don’t think of women dancing.
We don’t hear the music when we think of genocide.
These things we think about and not hear when we think about genocide.
And we don’t think of civil war as genocide. We hear about it.
We don’t call in enough with such information.
We think about reconciliation, but we don’t
think about reconciliation when we think about genocide.
We don’t study the memorials, we don’t explain the play in papers,
we don’t shake hands and make up. When we think of genocide,
we do other things with our hands.

Alan Semerdjian

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