"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Do you ever feel Uprooted? Armenians around the world know what it's like, and we're still learning to deal with the consequences


Hagop Goudsouzian’s first trip to Armenia was clearly a homecoming, even though he had never been there before.

His great-grandparents fled the smothering Ottoman realm in the 19th century and the family settled in Egypt, where Goudsouzian was born. He was living in Canada, focused on his budding career as a filmmaker, when he became riveted by the turbulent events that led to Armenia’s renewed independence in 1991.

Goudsouzian felt compelled to go to Armenia in search of his “forgotten and sometimes ignored” identity. Nearly a quarter century later, he is still exploring the meaning of that identity—and, as his films show, he has plenty of company.

His first foray resulted in the documentary Armenian Exile. He followed with My Son Shall Be Armenian, documenting a trip to Armenia and Syria with other descendants of Genocide survivors. His latest film, Uprooted, completes what he calls his Armenian Trilogy.

Along the way, however, Goudsouzian has explored the bond between Armenia’s culture and its national identity in other films, including this three-part Armenian Echoes series that details efforts to preserve Armenia’s musical heritage.

Goudsouzian’s films, which are available on DVD or pay-per-view streaming on HagopGoudsouzian.com, are marked by unusual intimacy and visual honesty. The viewer becomes part of the filmmaker’s conversations with folks he’s gotten to know and whom he clearly admires for their determination to survive as a people, not just as individuals.

These aren’t travelogues, carefully framed to showcase Armenia’s extraordinary beauty. We meet people with broken teeth but unbroken spirits, villagers who carry buckets of water up rocky hillsides and artists who carry the immense burden of capturing the spirit of a nation that is always so close to extinction.

I was engaged by Uprooted the moment I read the title. I think Armenians venerate their land more than most because they’ve been torn from it as well as torn apart from each other.

As Goudsouzian notes in the film’s opening, Armenia is home to only about a quarter of the world’s 12 million Armenians. How is it possible to sustain a culture when life in the Diaspora becomes the default? Clearly, the homeland must lead the effort. It is an extraordinary obligation for a poor country where mere survival demands great exertion.

Goudsouzian’s work suggests the effort required to perpetuate Armenian culture may be far greater than many of us in the Diaspora realize. We romanticize the homeland by imagining that our spirit springs from its soil, but culture is created and carried by humans. So the human loss suffered over the centuries inevitably drained Armenia’s cultural pool. As a result, Armenians have to repeatedly regenerate their culture in order to carry it forward.

One of the most interesting aspects of Uprooted is its exploration of the blurred line between the Diaspora and the homeland. In a very real way, Armenia is the Diaspora because much of the nation’s population is descended from Genocide survivors who fled East rather than West. One man speaks emotionally of coming from Sasun, now in Turkey, yet he eventually reveals that he was born after his family came to Armenia. What matters more to him is that he feels he is from Sasun, so he is compelled to relate the story of life in that time and place while keeping the memory alive.

I think the most challenging question raised by Uprooted and Goudsouzian’s other films is: What makes someone Armenian? No one offers a definitive answer, perhaps because there is none. But just about everyone acknowledges that the reality of our uprooted and scattered people is that identity can’t be based on birth place, or even language. Yet there must be more than just lineage if the Armenian identity is to survive in any meaningful way.

I know many who believe feeling Armenian is enough, but Uprooted suggests a more active role is necessary. Even if you don’t speak Armenian you can learn an Armenian song, or prayer. Cook something you remember from your grandmother’s table. Tell as much as you know of your family’s story to your children.

We are not like other people who have to search for their roots; we carry ours with us, because we have no choice. If we work at it, we can nurture them to take hold wherever we find ourselves in this world. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The saddest day of the year for Armenians feels even sadder this year than it did last year

My wife and I flew to Armenia last year to participate in the 100-year commemoration of the Genocide, including the canonization of our 1.5 million martyrs. 

It was an unexpectedly uplifting experience.

Of course the sadness was always present, as it is every day for Armenians everywhere in this world. But the sodden heaviness of April 24 became nearly unbearable as I stepped slowly, head down, toward the chamber that holds the eternal flame at the Genocide Memorial.

Then I looked up and saw more Armenians than I have ever seen in one place in my life—and still more coming from every direction. Almost all had walked for miles, and some probably had walked for days.

A few carried banners, many carried flowers but together they carried a clear and loud message to the world: 

We are alive.

Armenia is alive.

I felt privileged to add to this vital testimony with my presence, on behalf of my father. He survived 1915 but didn’t live long enough to stand on the soil of free Armenia as I did.

I was struck by this same message of survival and determination everywhere we went, often wordless but unmistakable and delivered with the confidence that came from knowing that, at long last, Armenians weren’t just speaking to themselves.

Despite Turkey’s frenetic attempts to divert the world’s attention, many nations and leaders stepped forward to express solidarity with the Armenian people. Pope Francis celebrated mass in memory of the Genocide’s victims and called on Turkey to tell the truth. 

The European Union recognized the Genocide and urged Turkey to do the same. The president of Germany also called the Genocide by its rightful name and admitted that his nation had been complicit as Turkey’s war-time ally.

Looking back, I wonder: Did we really believe this would last?

I certainly hoped it would, but Armenians know from painful experience that the world’s empathy is ephemeral. Few crimes against humanity have elicited as much genuine outrage as the Armenian Genocide, yet none has been so quickly discarded.

And that is exactly the word: discarded. Not forgotten, as you might forget to feed the cat or forget where you put your car keys, but tossed aside and left in a muddy rut along a side road of history that can be easily bypassed by demagogues.

Unfortunately, the world has an abundance of them along with a constituency of fools who are easily misled. As a result, the truth of the Genocide is once again under assault—and this time, so are Armenians.

Temporarily quieted but never silenced, Turkey has launched a vicious media blitz using print ads as well as editorial copy written by Turkey’s shills. The common theme is that America’s loyal and truthful ally is being undermined by duplicitous Armenia and its evil Russian overlord.
  
This may seem laughable but it goes beyond the usual topsy-turvy Turkish campaign of denial portraying Armenians as fabulists who dreamed up their own slaughter. This is sophisticated propaganda crafted by American public relations and marketing experts and placed in upscale publications such as Forbes Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

More chilling, billboards suddenly loomed over city centers in Boston and New York where Armenians planned to gather for this year’s memorial. The images showed Armenians with fingers crossed, a not-so-subtle message that young and old who come together in commemoration each year are liars.

Why should anyone in America be taunted while mourning their murdered grandparents?

Shameful as this is, we are merely forced to defend our honor. Armenians in Artsakh, also known  as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, have been forced to defend their homes and lives.

Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh
Increasingly over the past year or so, sniper fire and the artillery shells have torn at the fragile ceasefire that ended the fighting with Azerbaijan more than 20 years ago. Then on April 2, Azeri forces opened a large-scale assault that lasted several days. Civilian victims included an 11-year-old boy and an elderly couple. 

Dozens of Armenian defenders were killed, some reportedly beheaded ISIS-style.

You might shrug this off as a border brawl in a region where violence is endemic, but the repercussions could be extraordinary. Any further conflict might easily become a full-scale war involving Armenia and Turkey, which has vowed to back Azerbaijan, as well as Russia, which supplies arms to both sides. There’s also Iran just across the border, with deep religious ties to the Shiite Azeris. 

If you want to know what led to this tangled mess, listen to this talk by Dr. Levon Chorbajian, who knows a million times more than I do. But here’s my short take: Just forget this separatist nonsense repeated so often in the American press. Artsakh is historic Armenia, settled by our Urartian ancestors a few thousand years ago.

The population was still nearly all Armenian when Stalin gave it to the Azeris in 1922. At least the Communists had enough sense to keep a lid on things for 70 years. War was probably inevitable when the Soviet Union disintegrated. But why must it be perpetual?

Putin makes a public show of being a peace maker without a commitment, leaving Armenians to wonder if he would defend Artsakh as well as Armenia itself if the worst came to pass. There’s no good reason for him to delay making a real contribution to a permanent settlement by simply acknowledging his predecessor state’s meddling and admitting that Artsakh never rightfully belonged to Azerbaijan.

It’s clear that expecting the truth from the Kremlin is as much a fool’s dream as expecting it from Ankara, or Washington.

Turkey’s reinvigorated propaganda campaign may actually be the least troubling aspect of its government’s aggression, including persecution of the Kurdish minority just across Armenia's western border. The war on the Kurds has even become cover for Turkey to seize historic Armenian churches.   

Histrionic President Erdogan’s crackdown on press freedom and his prosecution of critics is widely seen as a lurch toward dictatorship and has drawn condemnation from around the world,  

There are significant exceptions in the West, however.   

Among the most alarming is Germany, which is kowtowing to Turkey and offering it  billions of Euros in hopes that it will stanch the flow of Syrian refugees. Given Turkey’s treatment of refugees and its human rights record, this is like hoping Charles Manson is available to babysit.

Yet Chancelor Angela Merkel is so deeply mesmerized by Erdogan—or perhaps so afraid of Syrians—that she has agreed to prosecute a German comedian who poked fun at him. This is outrageous, yet in an odd way Merkel and I agree: Erdogan’s behavior is no laughing matter.

Nor is President Obama’s.

As a candidate in 2008, he promised to recognize the Armenian Genocide. This year he broke that promise for his eighth and final time as president.

Aram Hamparian of the Armenian National Committee of America was quoted as saying administration officials told him privately that offending Turkey now could “introduce uncertainty” into the region at a time when Turkey is playing a pivotal role in important matters. 

This is tragically comic in light of Turkey’s incursion in Syria, its war on the Kurds, its threats to back Azerbaijani aggression “to the hilt,” and its expansion of military bases on Armenia’s flanks. I shudder to imagine the sort of certainty the president is hoping for.

Thinking about this takes me full circle to last April. 

The first person I spoke to in Yerevan was an airport employee who helped us with our luggage. He knew we had come from America, and he saw the forget-me-not Genocide pin on my jacket.

“This is the year,” he said. “I believe it.”

He wanted to believe America would tell the truth, at last. I wanted to believe it too.

A year later, the sadness of April 24 is once again almost too much to bear.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ben Bagdikian viewed life as an Armenian, and that helped him see more than others

As a journalist, I long admired Ben Bagdikian but thought the lessons of his remarkable career had nothing to do with our shared Armenian heritage.

I was wrong.

Soon after his death on March 11 at age 96, I began reading Bagdikian’s memoir Double Vision in which he recounts his early life as a Genocide survivor and his later accomplishments as one of this nation’s strongest proponents of a free and independent press.

They seem like disparate experiences, but Bagdikian drew a clear connection.

Bagdikian first got my attention in the early 1980s when he was already well into his second career in the news business as a most respected and prescient media critic. His 1983 book The Media Monopoly traced the transition of American newspaper ownership from individual families to a handful of corporations. Not only did these corporations lack a commitment to journalism, many had other business interests and even ties to government that posed serious conflicts.

I was skeptical at the time because I naively thought the news corporation I worked for was a good one. I stuck with the business long enough to see the worst effects of Bagdikian’s premise, as corporations like mine laid off legions of good journalists because they valued the bottom line over the byline.

It should be no surprise that Bagdikian knew more than I ever will about newspapers. He was not only a critic, he was an accomplished reporter and editor at the highest levels. 

His career began on a whim, when he walked into a local newspaper office while killing time before an interview for a job as a chemist. But the beliefs and sensibilities that guided his career took root at birth.

Bagdikian was born in 1920 in Marash in Southeastern Turkey under what were very nearly fortunate circumstances. His parents were affluent and educated. They and his older sisters had been protected from death in 1915 because his father was teaching at an American college in Tarsus.

The family returned to Marash after the First World War and joined efforts to rebuild their community under the protection of French troops. The Bagdikians intended to stay a short while before sailing for America. Ben’s mother had timed her pregnancy so her baby would be born in the United States. She decided that if she had a boy, she'd name him Ben-Hur after the fictional hero dreamed up by an American Civil War general.

Instead of enjoying their promised independence, the Armenians of Marash soon found themselves under siege by Kemal’s army. The family was trapped, and Ben was born as the last vestiges of Armenian resistance were extinguished. Then the French retreated. Armenians who managed to escape the enemy’s swords and bullets were pursued as they trudged into a blinding blizzard behind the fleeing French.

The Bagdikian family’s story of survival is typically miraculous and inexplicable. As they struggled to keep moving through the storm, they watched their neighbors die of starvation and exposure. Children were the most vulnerable, and baby Ben was no exception. Convinced his silent and motionless son was dead, Ben’s father dropped him in the snow as he rushed to help his faltering wife. Luckily for Ben, he started crying and was picked up again.

Ben, of course, remembered none of this. He was four months old when the family reached Massachusetts and his father began work as pastor of an Armenian Congregationalist church. 

Ben never learned Armenian so he never understood the conversations of the old folks who gathered in the family living room. He knew only that his sisters were missing toes that had been amputated as a result of frostbite—until, as an adult, one of them showed him what she’d written about their harrowing escape.

Growing up during the Depression and coming of age during World War II, he was struck by how the Armenian experience fit into a world that seemed insistent on dividing itself into arbitrary categories of those destined to live well and those deemed unfit to live at all. His sister’s memory of being taunted as a giavour by the Turks made a lasting impression.

He remembered it when he heard New Englanders complain about “the foreign element” moving into their towns, and when he heard racial epithets while stationed in Louisiana with the Air Corps, and when he was denied a hotel room because the clerk thought he looked Jewish.

Every journalist has what Bagdikian calls double vision. We try to see people and events objectively, but they are always framed by our knowledge and experiences. Bagdikian viewed the world through the lens of the outsider, focusing always on those who were excluded and in danger of being abandoned like the Armenians of Marash.

He covered wars “from the bottom up,” passing up briefings from generals in comfy hotels to observe the effects of the fighting on everyday soldiers and civilians. He traveled through the Deep South with a black reporter to cover some of the most violent Civil Rights clashes. He lived in a flop house to report on the homeless. He allowed himself to be locked up as a murderer, hiding his true identity from guards and other inmates so he could report on prison conditions.

Bagdikian’s reporting won acclaim but he made a lasting contribution to journalism as an editor, oddly enough after his paper got beat by its main competitor on one of the biggest stories ever.

The New York Times stunned readers and enraged the Nixon Administration in 1971 when it reported results of a secret Pentagon study of strategies and decisions about the Vietnam War. The study known as the Pentagon Papers contradicted many of the government’s public pronouncements about the motives, strategy and progress of the war.

The government got a court order stopping publication after the first day, arguing that national security could be endangered by further revelations. No other paper had the information until Bagdikian got word that the Times’ source, defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, was willing to give him copies of the documents if he promised to get them into print.

Bagdikian boarded a late flight for Boston and carried back two cardboard boxes crammed with thousands of documents. He assembled a  team of reporters to quickly sort through them and begin writing while he argued with the paper’s lawyers and executives about the need to get a story in print.

The lawyers were certain the courts would come down hard on the paper, and that the administration would punish The Post in other ways, perhaps by stripping the company of its valuable TV licenses. Bagdikian argued that the public had a right to know what was in the documents, and that a journalist’s obligation to the public outweighed any business concerns.

Bagdikian won, and the Post printed what the Times couldn’t. The government did go to court, but Bagdikian’s reporters helped the paper’s lawyers shatter the government’s claim that national security would be harmed if the Post continued its reporting.

The case solidified one of our most important First Amendment freedoms: the right to publish without prior restraint.

Bagdikian's achievements would be a remarkable legacy for any journalist, but his start in life makes them more meaningful to me. He showed it’s not only possible to survive humanity’s greatest crime but to triumph over it for humanity’s sake.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Turkey hopes the world won't notice it is spinning out of control, but Armenians everywhere must pay attention.


Turkey is galloping towards an authoritarian regime full speed ahead.”
  
How many Armenians in America understand the danger of Turkey’s deteriorating internal situation coupled with its apparent willingness to risk a confrontation with Russia?

Flanked by hostile regimes in Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Republic of Armenia is facing mounting concerns and outright threats. Developments have been so rapid that I’m having trouble keeping up, and I really am trying.

In case you’ve been busy trying to figure out if that’s a presidential debate or Saturday Night Live on your TV, here are some highlights from the past few months:

*After ignoring America’s repeated pleas, Turkey finally agreed to join the fight against the Islamic State. It then attacked the Kurds in Syria who were fighting the Islamic State.

*Turkey also renewed attacks on Kurds in its own country—Kurds who are in fact Turkish citizens—using the pretext of a separatist uprising. The crackdown is centered in eastern provinces where Kurds are a majority in former Armenian population centers. News photos from Diyarbakir (my father’s birthplace) show a smog of tear gas settling over rubble. The city’s historic Armenian Catholic church was among those damaged.

*Turkey’s incursion in Syria has brought it dangerously close to Russian forces conducting air strikes against rebels. The Russians support the government of Bashar Assad, who provides Russia with its only naval port on the Mediterranean. Turkey wants Assad and the Kurds out of its way. So far, there have been no direct clashes with the Russians (there's currently a fragile cease-fire), but there’s widespread doubt this can continue. All this comes while Putin continues to seethe over Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November.

*Making all this worse, Turkey is convulsing over a series of bombings and terror attacks in Istanbul and elsewhere that have brought tourism to a standstill. Responsibility for the turmoil has been split between Kurds and ISIS, but many observers blame government provocation for the action of Kurdish militants. The government also can't escape blame for the ISIS attacks, as it was crucial in abetting the terrorist organization’s rise by allowing it to recruit in Turkey and giving it border access as its fighters moved into Iraq.

*The Erdogan government has reacted to both the turmoil and widespread domestic criticism by tightening its already firm grip on the press. Last week, authorities seized the nation’s most widely read newspaper, Zaman, and replaced the editors with government trustees. Crowds chanting in support of free speech were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas (see the photo at the top of this column). “The crackdown on expression comes amid a growing sense that Turkey, once seen as a bastion of stability in the region, is being enveloped by instability,” the New York Times reported. The Times story included these chilling words from journalist Asli Aydintasbas, who lost her column in the Milliyet newspaper last year under government pressure: “This pattern is appalling, and Turkey is galloping towards an authoritarian regime full speed ahead.”

*Remarkably, the Erdogan government has managed to escape serious criticism from the West and has even drawn praise from Germany. Publicly at least, America continues to entertain the fantasy that Turkey is an ally that shares our democratic values. Turkey, meanwhile, has taken in as many as two million refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the roiling Middle East but many have used it as a transit point in making their way to Europe. The refugees left behind make valuable bargaining chips: Europe doesn’t want them, and is willing to overlook Turkey’s transgressions if it will keep them away.

What’s most troubling is that Turkey’s behavior seems increasingly irrational and self-defeating, which could lead to greater repression and aggression. The Washington Post offered this observation from Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University: 
Turkey now stands completely isolated, trapped in a maze of quandaries that are partly of its own making. It has so alienated everyone it cannot convince anyone to do anything. It is a country whose words no longer carry any weight. It bluffs but does not deliver. It cannot protect its vital interests, and it is at odds with everyone, including its allies.”

The pressing question for Armenia is whether those allies will fight on Turkey’s side if it goads Russia into war. That’s clearly what Erdogan hopes, although it’s frightening to think he’d take the risk.

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1949, back when we worried that the Soviet Union would see it as an easy target. The treaty pledges every NATO member to defend any other member against an attack. But it also obligates each member to promote peaceful relations and settle any disputes by peaceful means. It’s hard to argue that Turkey hasn’t repeatedly violated those terms.
  
I continue to believe Armenia’s smartest defensive move—genius, really—lies in out-sourcing border patrols to the Russians. Turkey can’t cross the border without tangling with the biggest boy on the block. But Turkey is reportedly building new military bases near the Armenian border in Georgia and Azerbaijan, a sign that it may be willing to test Putin’s patience as well as America’s allegiance.

Russia, meanwhile, has shipped Armenia a fresh supply of fighter jets, missiles and Russian support troops. If that’s sounds comforting, consider what happened the last time the Russians rode to Armenia’s rescue.

The first Republic surrendered to the Soviets in 1920 in return for Russia’s promise to protect its territory. Soon after occupying the capital, the Russians turned over about 80 percent of that territory—and the surviving Armenians who lived there— to the Turks and Azeris.

You don’t have to go back that far for more sobering reminders that Russia always hedges its bets. It has provided more than three-quarters of the weapons for Azerbaijan's armed forces, which have stepped up sniper attacks and raids on Karabagh in violation of the cease-fire there. 

In sum, it’s a dangerous and unpredictable situation changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep track of.  I’ve been paying even closer attention since a friend forwarded information the other day on how Armenians in the diaspora can join the homeland’s army in the event of war. That got my attention, although luckily for all concerned I’m about 30 years and many pounds past being any use in that regard.

What raised my initial question about the awareness of other Armenian Americans is that I’ve heard friends say,  “Don’t worry, Putin has Armenia’s back.” Or, more disturbingly, “Putin is Armenia’s friend.” 

There’s an awful lot I don’t know about world affairs but I’m certain of this: Mr. Putin is nobody’s friend. 

He is a Russian nationalist who will fiercely defend his own turf with no particular regard for anyone else’s. If you doubt that, ask a Ukrainian. Then ask yourself why Putin would feel greater affection for Armenians than for a people who share his Slavic roots and Orthodox religion.

This does not make him an enemy, but he’s an ally to be wary of. Put it this way: He wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice if you wanted to give a neighbor a spare key to your house. Of course, that’s assuming you had a choice of good neighbors to rely on. 

Unfortunately, Armenia doesn’t.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

It's hard to be sure, but I'll make my best guess about whether a candidate will help or hurt the Armenians—and I won't apologize for that

I used to think presidential candidates should be judged by how well they would guard America’s interests, period.

It annoyed me to hear anyone suggest a candidate was unacceptable because he wasn’t sufficiently committed to liberating Cuba or to defending Israel—or even to standing up for the perpetually beleaguered Armenians.

For most of my life, Armenia was jammed tightly in the maw of Soviet Communism, which was also the great threat to America. It seemed clear to me that the common interest was overwhelming. 

So I didn’t care if a candidate had failed to issue sufficiently salutary proclamations as a governor if I felt certain he’d champion the ultimate triumph of freedom.

But times change, and so do I.
            
My disappointment with the current resident of the White House is certainly one reason for my heightened interest in the Armenia-friendly prospects of his potential successors. 

I was as disheartened as most American-Armenians by President Obama’s broken promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide, but I’m even more disturbed by his determination to continue America’s intrusive and destabilizing policies in the Middle East. 

The area of most acute concern is Syria. After the first Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011, the administration made a knee-jerk decision to help a disparate array of rag-tag rebels overthrow the Assad regime. 

We may never know how much of the arms and cash we poured into the conflict wound up in the hands of the Islamic State. But we do know that instead of displacing Assad, the consequent turmoil displaced multitudes of civilians and left many more at the mercy of ISIS. 

Communities where Armenians lived in peace since their families sought refuge from the last century’s Genocide were devastated.  

It’s just one example of the many threats to Armenians in the homeland and in the diaspora that have resulted from the turbulence spreading from the Middle East to much of the world.

Just look at a map and you’ll understand why an Armenian would feel even greater anxiety about the current crisis than the average American: there is no buffer zone, as renewed violence between Turks and Kurds has broken out in Eastern Turkey.

It may escape the attention of many Americans who have other things on their minds in this election season, but the plight of Turkey’s Kurds isn’t an isolated situation: Turkey is clearly using the fight against ISIS as cover to purge and punish Kurdish nationalists on its side of the Iraq border.

As an American, it’s maddening to me that we tolerate such outrageous behavior from a supposed ally. 

As an Armenian, it’s frightening.

Unfortunately for both America and Armenia, the already thinning ranks of presidential contenders in both parties don’t offer many clear prospects for improvement in either the clarity or execution of policy regarding Armenia or the Middle East.

Many policy experts say Obama’s drone strikes have helped recruit more terrorists than they’ve killed by creating waves of sympathy among survivors. Republicans seem to think the solution is not to leave any survivors. 

Donald Trump, for example, explained his policy toward terrorists his way: “You have to take out their families.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has been channeling the late, great Gen. Curtis LeMay, who pioneered the “carpet bomb” technique that Cruz thinks would eradicate ISIS. 

LeMay really was great when he directed the Allied air assault in Europe during World War II but less so a couple of decades later when he decided we could bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.

LeMay’s strategy might have worked if the enemy weren’t already living in the Stone Age. As a result of his miscalculation, we learned that dropping mega-tons of bombs on a jungle had considerably less effect than dropping the same bombs on oil-refineries and munitions plants. 

The approach is unlikely to work much better in a desert than in a jungle. Although population centers might be vulnerable, even LeMay resisted the temptation to blow up Paris in order to kill Nazis.

I was already thinking much too hard about all this when I came across the Armenian National Committee of America’s overview of the major-party candidates. 

They’ve  done an excellent job of highlighting the contenders’ records as well as their positions on issues of interest to Armenians. It's a valuable companion to the organization's report card on member of the House and Senate. 

I’m always cautious about making too much of such things because I’m mindful of past disappointments. But it’s good to have hope, and even better to heed warning signs. 

So I read the ANCA’s  summaries as well as recommendations by other Armenian interest groups. You can see the ANCA report for yourself at this link, but here are a few highlights that jumped out at me:

*Although he’s governor of a state with a large and active Armenian community, Chris Christie of New Jersey has no record on Armenian affairs. 

He apparently hasn’t found time to express any thoughts about the Genocide or Armenia’s current struggles, but he did sign a proclamation of sympathy for Armenia’s “victims” in Azerbaijan. My strictly personal conclusion: What an asshole.

*Donald Trump has no record of issuing any statements in support of Armenians, but the committee noted: "There are reports, however, that Trump's corporation does business with Azerbaijani oligarchs who lobby against Armenian American priorities." 

I think we all understand that business is business, and we understand just as clearly the danger of accepting this as an excuse for poor judgment.

*By contrast, two Republican senators in the race have taken a positive stand on recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Marco Rubio of Florida and Cruz of Texas both co-sponsored the Armenian Genocide Resolution working its way through the Senate. Cruz also issued a clear call for the world to follow. So, while his bombsite may need adjusting, his heart’s in the right place. 

*On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has consistently supported Genocide recognition and has stood with Armenia on critical matters of aid and restricting arms sales to Turkey and Azerbaijan. Sanders has also been a strong voice of caution against America’s Mideast incursions, including the Iraq War.

(I can't be much help to Bernie in the primaries, as I don't belong to his party. But it's a sign of these strange times that a self-proclaimed Socialist makes more sense to me than many of my fellow Republicans.) 

But how much does any of this really tell us about how these candidates would act as president? I don’t know, and you don’t either because we don’t know what political pressures are being applied even now by big donors and other powerful interests.

We do know that successful politicians are attuned to their constituencies, so it’s possible to get their attention in a state where Armenians are vocal and well-organized. But let’s face it: there just aren’t enough Armenians to factor strongly into the national political calculus.

The shifting priorities and dissipating loyalties that result from politicians moving to a bigger stage are illustrated by the example of Hillary Clinton. 

As a senator from New York, Clinton spoke out for Armenia’s interests and called on President Bush to recognize the Genocide. When she became Obama’s Secretary of State, she decided the Genocide was a matter for “historical debate.” 

She also repeatedly spurned American-Armenian groups that sought to discuss their concerns while she lauded the increasingly authoritarian and menacing Erdogan regime in Turkey.

I’m sure she has her reasons, but they don’t interest me any more than she does. 

What do I conclude after viewing all these candidates through an Armenian lens? So far, not enough to cast my vote—but more than enough to make me think twice before I do. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Merry Christmas to everyone. This really isn't late—at least, not if you're an Armenian.

Happy New Year, and Merry Christmas. No, I didn’t get that backward as so many people around the world do.

For Armenians, New Year comes first and it comes with all the goodies: food, songs, laughter. It’s also the time when our version of Santa, Gaghant Baba, brings gifts for the kids.

Traditions vary by region, but all Armenians greet the coming year with hope and good cheer just like everyone else.

The big difference is that afterward we still have a few days to get sober and serious for Christmas.

The Armenian Church celebrates Sourp Dznount, the Holy Birth, along with His baptism on Jan. 6. It’s a day for prayer, not presents. That probably sounds odd to most Christians in the West who are conditioned to think the birth of Jesus should be honored with a discrete date preceded by a month-long shopping spree.

We Armenians may earn fewer reward points on our MasterCards but we hope our devotion will earn a few bonus points on the score card that really counts.

So we follow the practice outlined by distinguished church historian Malachia Ormanian, a Roman Catholic theologian who converted to the Armenian Church and served as patriarch of Constantinople from 1896 to 1908. Ormanian noted that the early, universal church celebrated Theophany as the year’s first holy festival.

Beginning on Jan. 6th, the octave of Theophany concludes on the 13th and unites “all the mysteries which preceded the gospel life of Christ,” according to Ormanian’s The Church of Armenia.  “There are thus brought together into this one solemnity the Annunciation, the Birth, the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism, and the revelations by the Jordan.”

That’s a lot of wonder for mere mortals to ponder in one intense stretch, so it’s no surprise that the Roman church and others eventually divvied up the Christmas pudding and got the glorious snow ball rolling in December.

But the world’s first Christian nation remains one of the last to follow the ancient tradition, so we Armenians really do get 12 days of Christmas.

At least technically.

Like most Armenians in this country, my parents’ holiday practices were thoroughly Americanized by the time I unwrapped my first Tonka toy under a tinsel-trimmed tree in the 1950s. As the old saying goes, when in New Jersey . . . well, something like that.

As with many of our cultural accommodations, the celebration of Dec. 25 was a bonus rather than a loss. My father explained that Christmas in December is an American holiday as well as a religious commemoration. 

We were Americans, after all, so why not hop on the holiday wagon ride?

But we never missed church on Jan 6th (or the closest Sunday), and he told me all about the Old Country celebrations of Christmas and New Year that he remembered as a boy, including visits from Gaghant Baba.

Looking back now, it’s obvious that his reminiscences were idealized. Even Rudolph couldn’t light a path through the roiling landscape of his childhood in a time of genocide, famine and flight.

Lucky me, my memories of childhood years ending and beginning are all real and wonderful, including an annual mountain of beeping, whirling toys—more than enough to satisfy two traditions. 

And, of course, our holiday meals were always two meals: a traditional American feast of turkey or ham with all the trimmings was paired with an equally bountiful meal of lamb and pilaf.

I see no reason to make an either-or holiday choice, so my wife and I did our best to uphold both traditions while our daughter was growing up and we continue now that she’s off hosting her own feasts. This year, she hosted us. 

We managed to fuse the Armenian and non-Armenian components into one meal, as we topped her hand-rolled pasta with braised lamb.

We had a blast, of course, as just about everyone does at Christmas, yet so many people then feel guilty afterward. I think about this whenever I hear someone grouse about the American commercialization of Christmas, or when I see one of those bumper stickers that says, “Remember the reason for the season.”

Armenians don’t need such reminders. Having kept the gifts and glitter separate, we won’t be distracted today from remembering and honoring the true founder of all feasts.

Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I love a good newspaper movie, especially when Armenians are the heroes. It's just too bad one of them didn't get the Spotlight he deserves.

I’m always on the lookout for Armenian names. It’s a common trait inherited from a generation of traumatized immigrants eager to know that others had survived to carry the line forward.

Kurkjian
My wife and I both get a buzz when an Armenian pops up in movie credits or on TV or in a news story.  Even bad news is big news if an “ian” is involved. As a journalist, I always took special note of Armenian bylines, although there weren’t many. I worked with hundreds of journalists over the years but only a handful were Armenian.

One of the names I noted early and often was Stephen Kurkjian of the Boston Globe. I never met him and I didn’t see the Globe often, but many of his stories traveled far and wide along with his reputation as one of the country’s best investigative reporters.

He joined the Globe in 1968 and retired in 2007. Along the way he won more than 25 national and regional awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. I’ve known truly great reporters who’ve chased the profession’s biggest award for decades and never quite made it.

Kurkjian won it three times.

He won his last Pulitzer as part of the Globe’s Spotlight team, which uncovered a pattern of child abuse by dozens of Catholic priests in the Boston area. The paper revealed that the church was aware of the abuse but quietly shuffled the offending priests out of their parishes and pressured families to keep quiet.

Court files were often sealed or even hidden by officials sympathetic to the church.

Now the story of that investigation is being told in the movie Spotlight. I love a good newspaper movie as much as I hate a bad one, and I was assured by a friend that this one stood up as realistic and entertaining. It is indeed both, as I discovered when we saw the film the other night, but I left the theater feeling blind-sided.

The Steve Kurkjian character in the film is a quirky, peripheral figure who gets limited screen time. I know the type: a guy who’s been around long enough to have some value as a repository of institutional memory but who has little more to offer except a bit of cynical wit.

I came home wondering if my own memory had failed, but my failure was in not reading the Armenian Weekly newspaper that had been sitting on the dining room table for several days. That’s where I spotted Katie Vanadzin’s article The Armenians Who Took On The Catholic Church.

Yes, that’s Armenians—plural.

A founding member of the Spotlight team who went on to become head of the paper’s Washington bureau, Kurkjian first reported on child abuse by Boston-area priests in the early 1990s. The scope of that abuse didn’t become clear until after the Spotlight investigation got underway in 2001.

Kurkjian then rejoined the team and “played a major role in chronicling the extent of the Church’s cover-up,” according to The Globe’s account of the investigation.

As the Weekly noted, one of the film’s most dramatic moments comes when a reporter played by Rachel McAdams confronts a retired priest, who then admits to having molested boys in his parish. The interview really happened. The reporter was Kurkjian.

The Globe identified 87 priests who’d been accused in child molestation cases over a number of years, but even more shocking was the revelation that the pattern of abuse had long been clear to Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston Archdiocese.

In the film, Law refuses to comment through a spokesman before leaving Boston to take a post at the Vatican. In reality, he had to face Kurkjian, who caught up with him after getting a tip that Law was attending the funeral of an elderly priest at an Armenian church in Belmont, Mass.

I normally don’t get lathered up about movies taking license to reshape the truth. That’s drama for you, or comedy as the case may be. But Armenians have enough trouble getting noticed, so I take an oversight on this scale to heart.

Garabedian
Fortunately, the other Armenian at the story’s core gets much more attention. Mitchell Garabedian is a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims of clergy abuse. While other attorneys claimed such cases were almost impossible to pursue successfully, Garabedian has won millions of dollars for victims over the years.

Portrayed in the film by Stanley Tucci, Garabedian at first appears obsessed and cranky. He turns away a reporter who comes to his office, apparently unmoved by the paper’s interest and too protective of his clients’ privacy to want publicity. It soon becomes clear that Garabedian has been hardened by experience with both the church and the press.

He notes that the paper has shown interest in the story before only to drop its coverage, while the church has been relentless in pushing back against him and anyone else who goes up against it. A reporter played by Mark Ruffalo slowly wins Garabedian’s confidence, and the attorney helps him uncover names and details the church has kept in the dark.

In the movie as in real life, the paper’s determination is driven by its new executive editor, Marty Baron. He  sets the piece in motion by putting the Spotlight team on the story and instructing the paper’s attorneys to sue the church in an attempt to break the seal on cases it has secretly settled. 

Several characters suggest that Baron, who is Jewish, doesn’t understand the potential repercussions of such a challenge in a city as intensely Catholic as Boston—or that perhaps he doesn’t care.

Garabedian offers a more credible explanation by noting that he and Baron are both outsiders.

“I’m Armenian," he says. “These people—making us feel we don’t belong. But they’re no better than us. Look at how they treat their children.”


It’s a terrific line, and a powerful insight into Garabedian—good enough for me to give director and co-writer Tom McCarthy a partial pass for stiffing Kurkjian and to recommend the movie highly.