"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

Friday, June 27, 2014

Another Armenian tragedy is unfolding in Syria

The scene in Aleppo as reported by The Armenian Weekly
I’m an average American in my knowledge of the political, social and economic forces animating the current turmoil in Syria.

In other words, I know very little.

I’m more interested than most, however, in part because so many Armenians are in the line of fire.

Armenians have a long history in Syria, particularly in the north.  
During the Genocide of 1915, vast numbers of Armenians were driven into the Syrian desert to die. But with the end of Ottoman rule after the First World War, Syria became a haven for thousands of Armenian refugees.

Like most predominantly Arab countries, Syria has a Muslim majority but it also has a significant Christian population and a historic practice of tolerance. Feeling both thankful and secure, Armenians turned their temporary settlements into permanent homes by building villages and churches in their own traditions.

At the population’s peak, there were was many as 150,000 Syrians of Armenian descent. That number has probably been reduced by a third in recent years for all the expected reasons, including the region’s conflicts.

Now the Armenians who remain are caught in the back-and-forth between government forces of President Bashar-al-Assad and anti-government rebels. Among the hardest hit are the Armenians of Aleppo, where many of my father’s relatives settled after being displaced from Turkey in 1922.

Some Armenian villages have come under direct attack. The long-standing Armenian community of Kessab was left deserted after assaults by fighters who crossed the border from Turkey. Government forces have since retaken the town.

The death toll in Kessab remains unclear, as does the extent of Turkey’s involvement in the broader Syrian conflict—but the parallel to 1915 is eerie and infuriating to Armenians everywhere.

Armenians throughout the world are responding to urgent calls for donations while also pressing for international intervention.

Whether the United States or any other outside power will do much to help is beyond me. But here’s what I do know: Much of what we’ve read and heard about the Syrian conflict is wrong.

It was initially portrayed as the latest iteration of the Arab Spring, a phrase that assaults both language and logic. This is not a simple good guy/bad guy battle between a despotic regime and idealistic democrats.

As in all the Middle East, there are more than two sides vying for domination and it’s hard to tell whether there’s much good in any of them.

What is clear is that Armenians are suffering once again for the very reason that has threatened our existence so many times: We are simply in the way.



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Armenians should learn from the success of efforts to educate the world about the Holocaust

Why is there no  major film
 about the Armenian Genocide?
In my experience, Jewish people respond more strongly and with greater empathy to stories of our tragic history than any other non-Armenians. Many are well aware that Hitler was emboldened by the world's refusal to punish the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide.

Then why do some Armenians bristle at any mention of the Holocaust?

Their complaint boils down to this: We were slaughtered first, so why do they get all the attention? Implicit in this thinking is a fallacy: recognition of the Holocaust and recognition of the Armenian Genocide are not mutually exclusive.

The impression of an imbalance exists for a number of reasons, among them Israel's stubborn and shameful refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. But the most obvious reason is the volume and frequency of Holocaust references in the media. Armenians notice this more than most because we're so sensitive to the Genocide's relative lack of recognition.

Many of us, however, don't realize that today's Holocaust consciousness is the result of a long and sometimes complicated effort.

Like Armenians after the Genocide, many Jewish refugees focused on rebuilding their own lives after World War II rather than reliving their nightmare. Even many American Jews, conscious of antisemitism here at home, shied away from talking publicly about the tragic events in Europe.

Several developments after the war encouraged survivors to speak about what they'd experienced: The Nuremberg prosecution of war criminals documented and exposed the Nazis' crimes. Faced with the world's judgment, Germany renounced its past and began making reparations.

Finally, the creation of Israel lent survivors a sense of hope as well as purpose. Giving testimony about the death camps and other atrocities became a way to help ensure that the world would not allow a recurrence.

Even so, public consciousness was slow to awaken while much of the conversation remained muted. The Holocaust as an upper-case term didn't begin to come into popular use until the 1960s. Schindler's List, the first major Hollywood film to deal with the Holocaust graphically and at length, wasn't released until 1993.

Armenians have had more time to find their voice but they've had a much harder time making it heard.

The Western powers abandoned the Armenians after the Great War and quickly withdrew their attention and sympathy. Absent the sort of international pressure Germany experienced, Turkey has continued to deny history while continuing to receive military and economic support from America and its allies.

As a result of these disparate circumstances, Holocaust deniers are rightly dismissed as kooks while Genocide deniers receive cover from an American government that will not acknowledge the history documented in its own records.

These are undeniably serious obstacles, but they're not insurmountable—and that is the crucial point.

I understand why my father spoke so seldom and quietly about the horrors he experienced as a child, but I'm under no such compulsion. I'm blessed to live in a country where I can't be prosecuted for speaking the truth about the Armenian experience before, during and after the Genocide.

The hoodlums who committed that horror tried to erase me before I was born but they failed. No one stopped me from writing a book about my struggle to learn my history and embrace my identity. It may be too late to hear the stories of our parents and grandparents, but we can tell their stories as well as our own.

It's worth noting that the screenplay for Schindler's List was written by Steve Zaillian, an Armenian-American who won an Oscar for his efforts. So why has there been no such ambitious portrayal of the Armenian Genocide?

I know about the efforts over the years to keep Hollywood from making such a movie, but Hollywood is an anachronism. Today there are more ways then ever to tell a story visually and deliver it to an audience anywhere in the world.

Who could stop us if we were truly committed?

To me it's clear that we Armenians simply haven't told our story loudly enough or well enough or insistently enough to command the world's attention. Instead of resenting the effectiveness of writers, film producers and survivors who keep the Holocaust in view, we should admire and emulate them.