Saturday, April 22, 2017

An Endless March: Stories of the Armenian Genocide and the Quest for Recognition

Special for the Armenian Weekly
Spinning skirts float in the air. Chiffon veils sway overhead. Slippered feet glide across the floor. The melancholic melody of “Offering,” by Ara Dinkjian, flows through my ears as I imagine Armenian women, with thick black braids and long white dresses, dancing in unison.
‘We sat at the memorial, Tsitsernakaberd… which features twelve towering slabs of steel forming a circle: each slab represents a province of the former Armenia now lost to Turkey, and an eternal flame lies in the center.” (Photo: Rupen Janbazian)
For a moment the music fades and I re-enter reality — standing in front my sink washing dishes. I can hear the news from the TV in my living room. I sigh in disbelief at the latest story from Washington. Then, thankfully, the song carries me away again. My thoughts turn toward my family as they often do; first to my mom and her beautiful Armenian eyes, and then to my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Perhaps because the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is nearing; perhaps because this song encapsulates the sadness and hope of the Armenian experience; I suddenly feel inspired to share my family’s story.
*The quotes that appear in this essay are from the memoir, “Oasis in the Desert,” written by my late grandmother Rose Akgulian. The text recounts the harrowing story of her mother, Nazely, a survivor of genocide. It seemed natural for my grandmother and me to write this together.
To think of all the silent tears she must have shed, the futile prayers she must have uttered!”
The Year was 1915. My two great grandfathers were living in the United States working in factories to send money to their families in Turkey. They were not there on Red Sunday, when the Ottoman government imprisoned, deported and killed 250 Armenian intellectuals and public figures — the start of systematic persecution that would claim the lives of 1.5 million Armenians, and approximately 400,000 Assyrians and Greeks . They were not there when their families and friends were raped, murdered, burned, buried alive, drowned, or marched into the desert.
Both of my great grandmothers were there. Hripsime was young. She was kidnapped and forced to work in the home of a Turkish family as an indentured servant until her brothers finally rescued her. She then came to the United States and married my great grandfather Avak who had tragically lost his wife and children in the genocide. For the rest of her married life, Hripsime’s husband would refer to her as Zarhouey, the name of his deceased wife.
My great grandmother Nazely was forced on a death march along with her infant son and her mother. As she walked through the desert, her son died of starvation in her arms; she wrapped him in her apron and buried him with her own hands on the side of a road, never to return. Her mother became too ill to walk and collapsed under a tree. The Turkish soldiers forbade Nazely to help; she had to leave her mother to die in the desert alone. I cannot begin to comprehend the overwhelming pain she must have felt, yet my great grandmother marched on. She ended up in an orphan asylum in Syria and eventually made her way to Constantinople. There she spent the winter sleeping by the sea with hardly any clothing and no food in her stomach. In Constantinople, she met a man whose nephew, Nick, was living in the United States. Nick’s children had been kidnapped during the genocide and his wife had committed suicide. After exchanging photos, their marriage was arranged and soon Nazely was on her way to the “Land of the Free” — her future uncertain.
“It is amazing what tenacity makes people cling to life when there is no longer anything to live for—no matter how strong the storm, they seem to maintain enough fight to cling to the living…”
It was sunrise on a beautiful morning in July of 2013. I was laying down on a step at the top of The Cascade, a giant staircase in downtown Yerevan, Armenia. I could hear the soft chatting of my cousin and my friend nearby. It was hot, quiet, and peaceful…if you didn’t count the pack of stray dogs barking in the distance. The sky was cloudy but I was overtaken by the view: the city sprawled out around me, and Mount Ararat in the distance, peaking at us from Turkey —what a tease! Legend has it Mount Ararat is where Noah landed his ark after the great flood . This breathtaking site has been important to the Armenian landscape for centuries. In 1921, after the genocide, Mt. Ararat became part of the modern Turkish State — a devastating blow to a demoralized people. Nowadays the mountain serves as a constant metaphorical reminder of  a homeland lost and the tragic events of 1915.
I took my first trip to Armenia with eleven members of my family and some friends. We began our visit building homes for those in need and spent the rest of the time jammed together in a bus, sightseeing, and blasting Harout (a famous Armenian singer) with the windows down. The atmosphere was generally fun and spirited, but there were, of course, somber moments and times of reflection.
One such occasion was our visit to the genocide museum in Yerevan. There we saw images of emaciated lifeless bodies lying in piles, skulls tossed haphazardly in a pit, faces and hands of Armenians scarred with Islamic tattoos. These images continue to haunt me. We sat at the memorial (Tsitsernakaberd) outside, which features twelve towering slabs of steel forming a circle: each slab represents a province of the former Armenia now lost to Turkey, and an eternal flame lies in the center. As we moved around the inside of the structure, I thought about my family and especially of how proud my late grandmother Rose would have been if she could see us all gathered there together. In what can only be described as a sign from above, one of her favorite songs began emanating from the speakers.
“The last time my mother saw my grandmother, she was lying under a tree helpless. No wonder that mother developed such an unpiercable passivity…”
There is intrinsic sadness woven into Armenian DNA. The invisible scars of genocide are imprinted on all of us — emotionally but physiologically as well. There have been studies that examine how trauma actually alters gene markers and these genetic traits are then passed on to future generations. This pattern is called epigenetic change. Research into this phenomenon has been conducted on survivors of myriad traumas and their offspring: for example, survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. Though a century has passed—the traumas of the Armenian Genocide still linger.
For my grandmother, the experiences of her parents were more than just stories; they were a part of her on a metaphysical and molecular level. They are part of me too.
My mother was lonely—stranded in a world of strangers and had not one person to turn to. I realized too late what must have been passing through her mind in her frequent silences.”
I walked softly through the garden outside of the genocide museum, making my way through the rows of trees planted on behalf of nations who acknowledge the events of 1915 as genocide. I read the plaques in front of each tree and silently thanked each one of the contributors. I was moved by the support that Armenia has received but simultaneously ashamed and disappointed that there is no tree planted by the very country that my family and I now call home. Indeed, the United States of America, leader of the “free world” and refuge to  the world’s second largest Armenian diaspora community, has yet to condemn the acts of 1915 as genocide.
History has proven that such silence is dangerous. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”—Adolph Hitler famously asked before his full scale systematic attack on the Jews and other minorities. The answer was no one. Since then there have been genocides in countless other countries, including Guatemala, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. Even at this moment death tolls continue to rise in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Genocide is beginning to seem like an everyday occurrence.
Recent political developments here at home have amplified fears, anxiety, and disbelief. Each news cycle is more disturbing than the last. Whether it’s healthcare reform, the refugee crisis, or immigration bans, it often feels as though society is falling apart. In these troubled times, it would be easy to forget the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide coming up on April 24. But for those of us committed to the commemoration of these events, to remain silent would be to continue to settle for a world where perpetrators are never met with justice and where history is saturated with “alternative facts.”
We can see the aftermath of accepting such a world in our own backyard. To this day the descendants of the once thriving indigenous nations of the Americas, whose genocide remains scarcely even acknowledged, are still fighting for their dignity and human rights.
We cannot allow perpetrators of genocide to continue to abuse power through “a campaign of denial.” We must shout even louder in our fight for recognition.
Often when I read or see pictures of immigrants in ecstasy over the sight of the Stature of Liberty, I wonder what thoughts were running through my mother’s mind when she got her first glimpse of this symbol of freedom-alone, going to marry a man she’d never met, friendless, no relatives, no idea of her future—financially or otherwise—hope is a hard slave driver.”
Approximately 85,000 refugees entered the United States in the fiscal year of 2016.[1] They fled their homes from points worldwide: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan, Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Eritrea and more. They likely left behind their families, friends and everything they knew out of necessity — embarking on perilous journeys in order to escape persecution, famine, and unspeakable violence. My great grandmothers faced similar circumstances a century before…
Inspired by my trip to Armenia, I decided to dig deeper into my family’s history. I scoured the internet for days in search of information on my great grandmother Nazely and at long last found record of her arrival to Ellis Island on the passenger manifest of the S.S. King Alexander. The moment I spotted her name—misspelled though it was— it felt like suddenly I truly knew her. I moved my finger across the marked boxes next to her name, each filled with responses to standard questions: Where was she coming from? Constantinople. Where was she going? Racine, W.I. Could she read? No. Could she write? No. List the name of a friend or relative in the country [whence / from] you came. Nobody. I began to cry. I wished I could reach out and hug her and tell her it was going to be okay, that I am so grateful for her strength, that she would make a great family, and that we will never forget her.
“We would beg her to sing—sad songs mostly and when she sang them she would seem to drift along with the words into a distant place.”
I am listening to Ara Dinkjian’s melody again still washing dishes, memories still flooding my mind. My thoughts drift to summers at the beach in Cape Cod, listening to my uncles and their friends playing ouds and doudouks as waves washed against the sand. My soul was at peace in those moments and I felt fortunate to be a part of such a beautifully vibrant culture.
Yet these days I feel the responsibility of it too. My family’s quest for awareness and recognition is carried on by my siblings, my cousins, and by me. We will continue to march forth to honor the memory of those we lost and we will continue to carry on the values and traditions our ancestors fought to preserve.
As I dried my hands I glanced at the tattoo on my wrist: a wheel of eternity. I first learned about this symbol on my trip to Armenia. In a country full of symbols — pomegranates, grapes, birds and crosses carved on the bricks of buildings old and new — the wheel stood out to me. It is an ancient sun symbol from the days of Zoroastrianism that permeated it’s way into Christianity. I started seeing it everywhere, and as our trip went on it became a metaphor for the Armenian experience. Over dinner near The Cascade one night I told my uncle of my plan to get a tattoo of the wheel. He approved and told me about his travels to the towns in Turkey where our family once lived. Traces of these once flourishing Armenian communities have been wiped away, the history of our existence nearly invisible. Our buildings and churches were torn down and the bricks emblazoned with Armenian wheels of eternity re-used to build Turkish buildings and mosques. I can’t explain it, but it makes me happy to think that someone is walking by one of these buildings right now, passing one of these symbols — a subtle reminder that we are still here.
This is for my late grandmother who used to carry me around while I played with the hair around her neck, who kept pennies in a jar for me, who taught me how to blow bubbles in milk in her backyard, who was a fierce advocate for the Armenian cause, who I think of often, especially when I see a rose.

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