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Saturday, July 31, 2021

I should worry less about what will happen to Armenia. I just wish the people of Armenia had the same choice.

My wife says I should stop thinking so much about things I have no control over, such as the fate of Armenia.

She repeated this insistently the other day after I mentioned Tatul Hakobyan for what probably seemed like the hundredth time since we heard him speak at St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Charlotte a few weeks ago.

Hakobyan is a journalist and author from Armenia whose new book chronicles his experience covering last year’s six-week war in Artsakh. His view of the outcome is summed up in the title, Valley of Death: 44-day Catastrophe.

Hakobyan’s account leaves no doubt that the loss of much historic Armenian territory in the region commonly called Nagorno-Karabakh, including the strategically vital city of Shushi, leaves Armenia itself in greater peril than at any time since the 1994 ceasefire with Azerbaijan.

“We lost everything Armenians built there in the last 30 years,” Hakobyan said.

His book goes into greater detail.

“We lost what we had liberated during the two-and-a-half years-long First Artsakh War at the cost of 6,000 lives,” he writes. “In six weeks, leaving behind more than 4,000 lives and up to 10,000 wounded, we lost more than 8,000 square kilometers of land with the roads, schools, churches and buildings built on that land during the past three decades, including many architectural monuments.”

I’m 6,000 miles from the battlefield but still shocked by the magnitude of this defeat. I stayed on high alert while reading Hakobyan’s book, hoping to find some indication that the situation wasn’t really so dire. I couldn’t find a single loophole, which left me feeling even more miserable than I already felt.

Much of what Hakobyan witnessed as he shuttled across the war zone belied the Armenian government’s insistence that its army was successfully resisting the combined Azerbaijani-Turkish onslaught and preparing to push the invaders back to Baku.

Hakobyan saw the wreckage left by Turkish drones, and the mounting bodies of Armenian soldiers. Perhaps most heart-rending, he saw many young volunteers who had come to fight but who were left wandering dazed and leaderless.

“We sent an entire generation into a death trap,” he said.

Hakobyan conducted his reporting the old-fashioned way, on the ground and under fire. He was prepared to flash his reports to the world in a most modern method—posting them to Facebook— but the world wasn’t ready to read them.

The tragedy is that Armenia never got the chance. Who knows what lives or land might have been saved if his message had gotten through?

Born in the nearby village of Noyemberyan, Hakobyan was able to traverse the chaos of war because he knew the land and many of its residents and local officials. His reporter’s identity card usually served to satisfy security checks.

But continued access depended on obeying the censorship strictures of martial law, which forbade reporters to contradict official accounts. As a result, Hakobyan’s most telling reports were filed to his hard drive rather than to the Internet. Valley of Death is largely composed of these previously unpublished posts.

Hakobyan became increasingly agitated as the Armenian government turned aside Russia’s initial attempts to broker a ceasefire. When Hakobyan tried to evade the censors, his Facebook page was logjammed by accusations that he was a liar, a defeatist and even a Turcophile.

It’s clear to me that he’s none of the above. It’s equally clear that the person most responsible for the disaster is Armenia’s most egregious liar, the charmingly incompetent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Pashinyan’s charm is undeniable if no longer irresistible. A former journalist himself, Pashinyan led the country’s so-called Velvet Revolution in 2018 and was carried to the prime minister’s office on a wave of public adulation. He soon came to personify the historical truth that successful revolutionaries rarely make successful leaders.

In fairness, Pashinyan inherited a mess. The corruption he’d railed against was real and its corrosion reached into every aspect of government and society. Yet even Pashinyan’s most ardent acolytes refused to consider its effect on Armenia’s defenses.

As a result, Armenians went to war blindly believing that the bravery of Armenian fighters would bring victory just it did when Armenia wrested Artsakh from Azeri control three decades earlier.

Armenia had maintained supreme confidence in its ability to defend Artsakh all that time, refusing to consider concessions that might lead to a permanent peace settlement. Pashinyan became the latest Armenian leader to rebuff demands backed by international mediators for Armenia to return Azeri villages seized as a buffer during the first war.

His defiant rhetoric was popular at home and in the diaspora. He insisted that Armenians would consider any incursion in Artsakh an existential threat and react accordingly. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan was building a first-class arsenal of modern weapons and an equally powerful web of allies. Its ceasefire violations became increasingly common and brutal.

The proof that it didn’t take a genius to see war coming is that even I had it figured out: “Azerbaijan clearly wants Karabakh back and is positioning itself to take it,” I wrote in 2014.

It’s impossible to believe Pashinyan knew less than I did about Azerbaijan’s intentions or its capabilities. It’s also impossible to believe he had failed to take stock of his own nation’s defenses. He had to know that his army wasn’t equipped or trained to back up his bluster.

Yet in truth, so much of what happens in Armenia puzzles me.

Hakobyan was among many who believed the defeat would quickly lead to Pashinyan’s ouster. Yet shortly before the author stopped in Charlotte, Pashinyan’s party was returned to office with a solid majority. Apparently Armenians thought the other two-dozen choices on the ballot were even worse.

Maybe they were, which is truly sad but so is almost all the news from my ancestral homeland these past months.

Hakobyan notes that it still is possible to drive from Armenia to Artsakh but Azeri flags now line part of the route. Azerbaijan’s troops continue to push the cease-fire bounds, not only in Artsakh but against the boundaries of the Republic. Some were standing on Armenian soil as Hakobyan spoke.

Worst of all, Armenian soldiers continue to die.

Why is this happening? Azerbaijan and Turkey don’t have to test Armenia because the war was test enough. They are testing Russia. The ceasefire agreement signed in November calls for Russian troops to remain in place for five years but that’s a best-case scenario with no real guarantee.

As Hakobyan correctly points out, Russia has never been our reliable friend or protector. The lesson should have been driven home in 1915 and again in 1920. Armenians may be willing to believe the outcome will be different this time because they see no alternative: No allies came to Armenia’s aid during the war and none have stepped forward since.

Incredibly, the Biden Administration is actually preparing to help Azerbaijan reload. Among the fictions offered to satisfy legal constraints, the state department certified that a hefty new round of military aid is "necessary to support U.S. efforts to counter international terrorism; or is necessary to support the operations readiness of the United States Armed Forces or coalition partners to counter international terrorism; or is important to Azerbaijan's border security.”

Given America’s indecent but intransigent support of Turkey and Azerbaijan, it’s hard to argue with Hakobyan’s premise that another war could lead to greater disaster. He’s obviously correct in urging that Armenia take advantage of whatever respite is provided by Russian peace keepers to strengthen its defenses and modernize its weapons.

We part ways, however, over his recommendation that Armenia attempt to negotiate a long-term settlement with the victors. This would almost certainly mean accepting Turkey’s conditions that Armenia drop its demand for recognition of the Genocide along with forfeiting claims to Armenian property and territories lost in the last century.

And that would be just for starters.

Hakobyan concedes that sitting across a table from Turkey’s President Erdogan would be stomach-churning for any Armenian but he bolsters his argument by citing historical precedents for humility in the face of defeat. He notes that even the staunchly nationalist Dashnaks were willing to negotiate with Turks in an attempt to save the first Republic.

He’s right of course, except that it didn’t work. Turkish troops invaded Armenia in 1920 barely a month after their government signed the Treaty of Sèvres recognizing Armenia’s sovereignty.

In fact, Turks have never honored any agreement with or regarding Armenians and have never respected Armenia's borders. Why would they? Treaties and borders are Western constructs suited to nation-states, not empires.

Erdogan may claim the title of president but he dreams of being the new sultan, or perhaps caliph. There’s no reason to think the hapless Pashinyan would somehow outfox the foe who humiliated him.

I want the struggle for justice to continue, not only for Artsakh but to protect the artifacts and monuments of Western Armenia—and yes, to restore those historic lands to the Republic. 

I know I’m not alone and so does Hakobyan, who suggests that Armenians in the diaspora who cling to the Armenian Cause exert too much influence on Armenia’s government.

He believes our thinking is dangerous because it prevents Armenia from finding common ground with far more powerful neighbors who clearly aren’t going anywhere. That view seemed to be shared by companions who joined him on his American tour to promote his book and his work at the ANI Research Center.

“We all have dreams,” said Arsen Kharatyan, a former foreign policy advisor to the Armenia’s prime minister who translated The Valley of Death into English. “But they aren’t always the same dreams. We have to have a painful discussion about that with the diaspora.”

I’m willing to listen to their argument because I understand Armenia’s dilemma but I don’t think our very different perspectives can be reconciled any more than I think Armenia's enemies can ever become its partners.

Perhaps it really is best for me not to think about it at all.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The world won't act but Armenia can: Indict anyone who commits crimes against the Armenian people

Adolf Eichmann's trial may  
suggest a path to justice  
More than two months after the ceasefire, families still wait for Azerbaijan to honor its commitment to return Armenian prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, reports of Azeri atrocities against Armenian civilians and soldiers have mounted, reminding us that the assault on Artsakh was much more—and much worse—than a naked land grab.

In fact, the war itself was an atrocity, a violation of every precept of international law created to protect the world’s peoples and their lands from aggressors.

Yet thousands of Armenians are dead and historic Armenian soil and relics lost because precepts provide poor protection from drones and cluster bombs.

You don’t have to know history to understand that such weapons would not be in the hands of Armenia’s predators if the international community truly cared about its professed ideals.

If you do know history, the hypocrisy and perfidy of the West are tragically familiar—and so is the world’s denial of responsibility, which in turn enables denial of guilt by the perpetrators.

I know just enough to be both unsurprised and furious. I simply don’t believe the world will punish our tormenters no matter how earnestly we entreat or how furiously we Tweet.

So why don’t we just do it ourselves?

If this seems impossible, consider how Israel dealt with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who engineered the deportation of millions of Jews to death camps in the East.

Eichmann, who escaped from Allied custody in 1946, was reportedly sighted in many places through the years before a credible report came from Argentina.

Israel sent its own Mossad agents to investigate. They discovered Eichmann working at a Mercedes-Benz factory under an alias. They tackled him as he stepped off a bus near his home on May 11, 1960.

He was shoved into a car and flown to Israel to face charges.

Eichmann’s trial was a galvanizing spectacle televised around the world. Everyone of a certain age remembers the contemptible coward in the glass booth who pleaded that he was only following orders.

The story of Eichmann’s richly deserved reckoning has been told many times. I repeat it because I think it may hold lessons for Armenians, for whom justice seems always to be just out of reach.

What I find instructive is that Israel created its own framework for justice in 1950 by enacting a law to prosecute Nazis for crimes against the Jewish people.

The frustrations of Nazis hunters after the war had shown the need for such a law. Eichmann was the most notorious of numerous Nazi officials who evaded pursuers by taking advantage of the world's willingness to look the other way.

Argentina was a favored destination for Germans fleeing reprisals. Juan Peron’s government made clear that it would not bother them, much less comply with extradition requests.

Knowing this, Israel didn’t allow itself to be diverted by such legal niceties as extradition, or questions about its jurisdiction.  

Eichmann had never been to Israel so he certainly hadn’t committed any crimes there. The law he was accused of violating didn’t exist at the time of his heinous acts. In fact, Israel itself didn’t exist until 1948, three years after the Nazi regime collapsed.

None of this kept Eichmann from being sentenced to death. He was hanged barely two years after his capture.

Although the trial took place 16 years after the Second World War, it was the first time many people around the world heard stories of concentration camps and death chambers directly from survivors. The emotional impact was extraordinary.

The trial is seen as the beginning of widespread Holocaust awareness, which grew exponentially as countless other survivors were encouraged to break their own silence. From that flowed waves of empathy that enhanced Israel’s claim to special status as a haven for an endangered people.

Armenia is no less entitled to such a claim, yet Armenians have been supplicants for centuries with little reward. It is long past time to follow Israel’s example by asserting that Armenians stand on hallowed ground and that any trespass will be punished as Eichmann was.

Armenia should indict Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and his puppeteer, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Let them plead their case, and force them to listen to ours. There is no doubt about the outcome.

Of course, there is a difference between current heads of state and former Nazis but it’s hardly a mitigating circumstance. The power and stature of national leaders make it more important to hold them to account.

Certainly this pair would be hard to tackle at a bus stop but a trial in absentia would have great value. Once they were branded as war criminals, no other nation could deal with them without sharing their shame. 

One nation that deserves particular attention in that regard is Israel.

Not only did it help arm Azerbaijan with advanced weapons, Israel provided ongoing intelligence to guide Azerbaijan’s attack. It repeatedly rebuffed objections from the Armenian government as well as pleas for mercy from the Armenian church.

Now who stands on the moral high ground? 

To my mind, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is as culpable as Aliyev and Erdogan. Let him join them in the dock.

Surely the Israelis will recognize and honor their own example.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Armenia has lost, but we must not lose Armenia

The siege of Artsakh is over, while the siege of Yerevan proceeds.

Little that has occurred in Armenia during the past week or so is clear from my distant perch except that the people of Armenia are shocked and angry, and many feel betrayed by their own government.

Just how angry they are and what the effect will be is hard to gauge. But calls for the prime minister’s resignation—possibly even his head—are coming from well beyond the country’s deep and slimy pool of deposed oligarchs and political opportunists. 

Shocking scenes have been streaming from the capital since peace terms ending the six-week war were announced Nov. 10, including a mob that dragged the speaker of parliament from his car and beat him senseless. 

Developments since then have been a blur: the prime minister ducking in and out of hiding, members of his party resigning government posts, police breaking up demonstrations in the capital and arresting opposition leaders. 

Further roiling the situation are rumors of a foiled coup, perhaps even an assassination plot. 

As sad as I was about the war, I’m almost as sad to see Armenians now attacking other Armenians because it could portend a far greater loss. We know the lessons of our history and yet we ignore the most important one: our divisions only make us weaker. 

Armenians would do well to remember that we aren’t the only ones with access to live-stream video. The already jubilant Turks and Azeris must be cheering wildly as they watch Armenians at each other’s throats. 

Fortunately, there are calmer voices in Armenia and in the diaspora addressing the obvious questions of how this calamity occurred and what can be done to secure Armenia’s future. I’ve read a lot of smart observations but none point to an easy path forward. 

The invasion that began Sept, 27 was hardly unexpected after years of threats, ceasefire violations and outright attacks as Azerbaijan repeatedly tested Artsakh’s will and readiness while tapping its oil-rich treasury to acquire advanced weapons systems. 

Yet Armenia was evidently unprepared for the scope and ferocity of this war, which left much of historic Artsakh in ruins. The human toll is even greater, including more than 2,000 Armenian fighters dead. 

Tens of thousands of civilians who just weeks ago were encouraged to expect victory have been forced to flee, many burning their own homes to keep them from being occupied by the invaders. 

Armenia was just as clearly unprepared for the imbalance of foes versus allies. The former included not only Azerbaijan but Turkey, which provided weapons, air support and tactical guidance. Azerbaijan’s troops were also bolstered by mercenaries from Syria and Afghanistan and most likely Pakistani special forces as well. 

As for Armenia’s allies, none were evident. 

One sobering reality crystalized by this war is that Armenia stands alone. Armenians always have, yet we repeatedly delude ourselves by thinking the world’s sympathy will translate into action. 

The deus ex-machina is a Greek invention but we Armenians have embraced the idea that some greater force will appear out of the blue to rescue us. 

If so, it won’t be the Russians. 

Many Armenians around the world expected Russian President Putin to halt Azerbaijan’s advance if only to block Turkey from gaining a foothold in the Caucuses. 

The depressing reality is that while Putin and Turkey’s President Erdogan remain at odds in Syria and elsewhere, they get mighty chummy wherever their interests align—and they align all too neatly in Artsakh, where both want to assert influence. 

The terms of Armenia’s surrender—let’s be honest and call it that—allow Russian forces to occupy the war zone as “peacekeepers.” Ominously, Turkey insists it will partner with Russia in that effort. 

While Putin offers assurance that Turkey will have no direct role alongside Russian troops, a joint center to “monitor” the ceasefire is being set up and Turkey is sending fresh troops to Azerbaijan. 

So the fighting has ended with about a third of Artsakh lost—including the strategically vital city of Shushi. Turkey will now be positioned to Armenia’s north and east as well as west. The terms also provide for a corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, exposing Armenia’s southern flank and potentially blocking its border with Iran. 

It’s an understatement to call this a disasterous deal for Armenia unless you accept Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s argument that it was the only way to stave off a far greater loss of life and territory—perhaps the only way to save Armenia itself. 

A gifted and even inspiring speaker, Pashinyan is a former journalist who came to power by channeling a popular reform movement into a so-called velvet revolution a little over two years ago. 

More people might have rallied behind him once again if he hadn’t raised the white flag over Artsakh in the middle of the night and then vanished. He waited days before trying to make his case by video and social media. 

His position was further undercut by revelations that he acted on his own without consulting key members of his government and made no attempt to achieve consensus with the other parties before signing the agreement. 

Pashinyan’s behavior since has been troubling, including a message he sent to troops that many people interpreted as a call for them to return and occupy the capital. Equally problematic may be his failure to anticipate the scope of the emerging disaster until it was too late. 

The Armenian people will render a judgment on Pashinyan—elections may be coming soon—but fairness as well as prudence requires consideration of mistakes that preceded him. The biggest may be the belief that Armenia’s victory over Azerbaijan during the previous war was a reliable predictor. 

No one questions that Armenian troops fought bravely and well once again despite tremendous odds but success in modern warfare can have as much to do with computer bots as combat boots. 

Military analysts say this may be the first war in which drones were the decisive factor, and Azerbaijan had all the drones it needed thanks to Turkey and Israel. You can see the results in YouTube videos of Armenian tanks and troops being obliterated by swarms of these monstrous mechanized locusts. 

Drones are just one of the glaring insufficiencies in Armenia’s old-tech arsenal, their absence mostly obscured in the public mind until now by the glitzy but ineffective purchase of a few Russian jets and obsolete missiles. 

As American political consultant Eric Hacopian wryly noted, Armenia’s drones are in the Swiss bank accounts of its corrupt former rulers who drained their fortunes from the public treasury. 

As others call for Armenia to search for loopholes in the peace agreement, or even reject it outright, Hacopian urges Armenians to focus on the future by developing their own drones and other defense systems to prepare for the next war. Do you doubt there will be one? 

Russia’s peace-keeping terms have a five-year limit. We know how Turkey and Azerbaijan will use that time. What we can’t know is whether they’ll wait that long to attack, or what bargain Putin and Erdogan will strike in the meantime. 

We can be certain only that Armenia won’t be consulted. 

So I think Hacobian is right, cost be damned. That’s easy to say from this distance but I’m confident Armenians around the world will do what’s required. 

We have the skills and the knowledge to match Armenia’s enemies. We’ll dig deep into our pockets to help pay for Armenia's defense, just as we will help pay to resettle the homeless. 

Despite the war's ugly conclusion, I am optimistic. I believe Armenia’s future is assured by the resilience and determination of the Armenian people.

I have no other choice. The current circumstances make my reflexive realism almost unbearable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The assault on Artsakh is an assault on all Armenians

 Note:  A version of this post appeared on

Most Americans are probably only vaguely aware of the war in Artsakh, a region usually referred to by the old Soviet name Nagorno-Karabakh. That may be oddly appropriate, as the war itself is a tragic Soviet legacy. 

The small and historically Armenian region was severed from Armenia in the early 1920s by Stalin and designated as an autonomous division within Azerbaijan. That left Armenian Christians, including many Genocide survivors, surrounded by a hostile population of Turkic Muslims. 

The tenuous arrangement endured for nearly 70 years until the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s and Stalin’s successors loosened their grip. This led to a series of massacres of Armenians in Azerbaijan.

Like many other Soviet-occupied territories, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence when the Communist regime collapsed and voted to join newly independent Armenia. Azerbaijan, however, claimed the territory as its own.

The result was a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that  ended in a 1994 cease fire, but the end of hostilities settled nothing. Artsakh’s independence remained unrecognized by the major powers while Azerbaijan, flush with oil revenue, rebuilt and strengthened its military while waiting for an opportunity to exert control.

There have been numerous warning signs over the years, including an extended clash in 2016. Now, despite concerns about the potentially calamitous consequences of war in the Caucuses, the world has allowed Azerbaijan to attack once again.

The war has been raging for more than a month and the results are already calamitous for Armenians. Authorities estimate that 90,000 of Artsakh’s 140,000 residents have been forced from their homes since the fighting began, and more are being displaced every day.

Three attempts at a cease fire have now failed. There is little hope that the Azeris will back down while they have the advantage, and their advantage appears to be overwhelming.

Armenia itself, optimistically three million strong, is fully mobilized in defense of Artsakh. The prime minister has called on all Armenians to join the effort, and they are responding to the call.

Azerbaijan, however, has a population of about 10 million. It is fully backed by Turkey, population 80 million, which is providing weapons and logistical support and has pledged to send troops if needed. (Russia, which many Armenians see as a potential savior, has supplied weapons to both sides.)

Azeri ground forces, meanwhile, are bolstered by mercenaries from Syria and Pakistan. They are getting air support from drones supplied by Turkey and Israel. Most distressing, Azerbaijan has attacked Armenian civilians with Israeli cluster bombs, a clear violation of international law.

I know this much because incredibly brave independent journalists have been risking their lives, although much of what they are reporting has not appeared in mainstream newspapers or on television.

A good deal of what does reach us is at best incomplete or warped by politics and profit. War is, after all, always a money-making affair for someone.

We’re fortunate to have friends who keep us informed and encouraged. Among the most valued is author and journalist Lucine Kasbarian, who has done an invaluable job placing the current war in historical context while pointing out the fallacies and failings in media reports.

Her brave brother Antranig is in Stepankert, the capital of Artsakh, filing his own reports while helping journalists cut through the propaganda. 

The best hope for Armenians may lie in a successful plea for international recognition of Artsakh’s independence—really, its right to exist—and in revulsion at evidence of Azerbaijani atrocities against Artsakh’s defenders and citizens.

Armenians across the United States are making great efforts to draw the world’s attention to the truth. The best way to take part is to know that truth by staying informed. 

Here are a few links that may help. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My daughter got married last year. And the year before—and once again in between. Lucky for her husband, she chose him every time.

I’ve been too busy with weddings to write anything for months. Believe me, it is a lot of work being father of the bride, and it does not get easier the third time.

Here’s the amusing side of all these weddings: We have only one daughter, Mandy, and she’s had only one husband, Ron.

They apparently just like getting married to each other.

The first ceremony took us by surprise, although we knew it was coming. Mandy and Ron had tipped us off that they planned to be married at a date to be announced, and Ron even extended the old-fashioned courtesy of asking for our blessing even though he certainly knew our approval would be immediate and enthusiastic.

Wedding I at the
city clerk's office
The surprise came when my wife and I were visiting family in New Jersey just over a year ago. Mandy and Ron asked us to join them for a day out in Manhattan, where they live and work. She didn’t mention that our destination would be the city marriage bureau.

After a brief ceremony, the four of us took a cab to Chinatown for lunch. I’m pretty sure the ride was the day’s biggest expense.

Is anything in life ever just that simple?

Our dim-sum feast was delicious but it didn’t satisfy Mandy and Ron’s appetite for sharing their happiness. Their solution was to plan Wedding II, which Mandy assured us would be an intimate affair for their closest friends. As it turned out, they have as many close friends as I have gray hairs.

That’s a silly exaggeration, of course. I don’t have nearly that many hairs of any color these days.

Months of planning and hard work culminated in a four-day party in the Catskill Mountains, where Ron has owned a get-away house for some time. They both enjoy a weekend of small-town bliss there whenever they can escape the crush of the city. This time, the city came with them.

Their legion of smart, funny and creative friends took turns riding a ski lift to gather on a grassy mountaintop. There, Mandy and Ron exchanged vows while a jazz band played All Of Me.

It was great fun, if not much like anything my wife and I were raised to think of as a traditional Armenian wedding. Fair enough, we thought, as Ron wasn't Armenian—not yet, anyway.

Wedding II
on the mountain 
But the reception did feature Armenian wine, brandy and coffee. And we enjoyed a pre-wedding family feast of Armenian foods that my wife and I spent days cooking. This led to Ron discovering the joy of eating leftover dolma for breakfast. There is no going back to odar life after that.

Ron had caught enough of the spirit to place little Armenian flags along the dinner table. Better yet, he contributed to the dinner’s most important element by helping me refurbish the shish kebab machine that my late father-in-law made many years ago. Now it will serve a new generation for years to come.

When the festivities concluded, Mandy and Ron set off for the Grand Canyon and other points West. “Two weddings should be enough for anyone,” I joked, but neither one laughed.

“Dad!” Mandy said in exasperation. “We still need to get married in an Armenian church.”

She’d had that in mind all along, as it turned out—and not just any Armenian church, but St. David Armenian Apostolic Church in Boca Raton, which she attended while growing up. “The wedding doesn’t have to be a big deal this time,” she added.

Now it was my turn to laugh: There is no such thing as a small-deal Armenian wedding.

One complication soon became apparent: Mandy and Ron had killer schedules stretching to nearly the end of the year. Wedding III and Honeymoon II would have to somehow straddle Christmas and New Year’s Day.

When Mandy posed the scheduling challenge to the Rev. Father Paren Galstyan, he cheerfully assured her they’d find a date that worked but he raised a challenge of his own. Mandy and Ron would have to attend a series of counseling sessions at which Ron would have to learn pretty much everything about our church.

That was a stumper, as Mandy and Ron live more than a thousand miles from the church and they were likely to arrive with little time to spare. “Don’t worry,” the priest said. “I Skype.”

Clearing up these little details took months. While a suitable date did emerge, the three essential parties couldn’t find common Skype time before Mandy and Ron arrived in Florida just days before the ceremony.

As expected, Father Paren’s cheerfully confident response was, “Don’t worry.” He solved the problem by turning what they thought would be a brief meeting into a day-long cram session on the beliefs, rituals and history of the Armenian Church.

If you don’t think that amounts to much, consider that the Armenian people accepted Christianity 1,706 years ago.  I’ve had a lifetime to learn it all and I still have to watch my wife to be sure when to stand up and when to sit down during a typically brisk two-and-a-half-hour Sunday service.

God bless Ron! He took it all very seriously, and he continued to pay rapt attention through rehearsal. The ceremony came off without a hitch. He and Mandy looked like a truly royal Armenian couple wearing the crowns that identified them as king and queen of their own realm.  

In the end, each wedding was wonderful in its own way but the third was definitely the charm—a true blessing as well as homage to all the generations before us who walked this same path.

Wedding III
Armenian at last!
Father Paren was a blessing himself, employing just enough English to make the ceremony understandable to our many non-Armenian guests. We thanked him especially for making Ron feel very much at home.

 “Is he Armenian now?” my wife asked jokingly. Father Paren looked serious. “He didn’t need all this just to be Armenian. It’s ABC: He’s Armenian By Choice!” 

The rewards of being Armenian may not always be obvious to others but they are very real and important to all of us. Ron has already discovered one of the most important: Sometimes when you are very lucky, there is leftover dolma for breakfast.

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, 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.

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.