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Saturday, May 30, 2015

At Armenia's Genocide memorial, the nation's glory and tragedy are fused in a single vision

Robyn and I arrived in Yerevan about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday April 22, hoping for relief from the damp cold of London and Paris.

I’d started sniffling the week before, and now I was sneezing. I needed sunshine and rest so I could work up enough strength to dislodge the cold that was clearly finding the space between my ears a bit too cozy.

My sub-tropical fantasies ended with the first chilly steps outside the airport terminal. On the way to our hotel, my wife asked our driver if he thought the weather would improve for that Friday’s commemoration of the Genocide's centennial.

“No,” he said. “It rains every April 24. It’s the day God cries for the Armenians.”

Dawn unfurled just enough clear sky to encourage a stroll through the city streets later that morning. We got a close-up look at preparations for a series of extraordinary events that were already drawing crowds to every hotel in Yerevan and knotting traffic at most intersections.

Two of these were scheduled for the next day. First, the 1.5 million martyrs of the Genocide were to be canonized as saints of the Armenian Church, followed by a heavy-metal concert performed by System of a Down. If you don’t sense a connection, you’re probably unaware that the band known to zillions of fans as SOAD is not only all-Armenian but deeply committed to raising awareness of genocide around the world.

Soldiers, flags and flowers lined the avenues as vendors positioned their carts to hawk ice cream cones, sodas and sandwiches. It appeared that everyone in the city was better prepared than we were.

Our last-minute travel decision had left no time for tactical planning. We tried to arrange a drive to the cathedral at Etchmiadzin for the canonization only to learn that the roads would be closed. It wasn’t clear how much of the 10-mile distance we’d have to walk, or whether we’d have a saint’s prayer of getting into the cathedral.

So instead we joined a throng in Republic Square, where the service was shown larger-than-life on a high-definition screen. We both shivered at the sound of the heavenly choir, and we kept on shivering as God’s tears fell with the full force a century’s sadness.
The hi-def screen in Republic Square was remarkably clear.

Robyn and I were drenched by the time we headed back to our hotel, but we were the only ones who left. The crowd continued to build as SOAD prepared to take over the square. An estimated 50,000 people spent the next several hours rocking, cheering and singing along in a driving rain.

We were not among them.

I cracked open the window of our hotel room and let the stage amps a block away do the rest of the work. Interest in the concert was so great that Rolling Stone magazine streamed it live, and I managed to click in with my iPad so we could see as well as hear the band. 

I did my best to rock along as Robyn, Aram and I sipped Armenian pomegranate wine, which warmed me up but not as much or as soon as I’d hoped.

I woke up the next day feeling miserable, which was appropriate on April 24 but still inconvenient. Robyn brought me a cup of tea and persuaded the housekeeper to round up every available box of tissues. I spent the day in the room emptying a couple of boxes while watching the commemoration ceremonies on TV.

At least I stayed dry while Robyn and Aram toured mountainsides shrouded by fog and mist. By the time they returned that evening, Robyn and I were sneezing in harmony. 

We authorized Aram to represent us in the annual torch-and-candle procession from Yerevan to the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex on a hilltop overlooking the city. The procession started at 10 p.m. and reached the memorial at 12:30 a.m.

By then, thank goodness, I was well on my way to my first semi-decent night’s sleep in days. As a result, I picked up a little strength by Saturday while Robyn hadn’t yet lost all of hers. We hired a driver and guide and we set out for Tsitsernakaberd, where dignitaries from around the world had gathered the day before. Our visit turned out to be anything but anticlimactic.

In addition to a soaring monument and tranquil gardens, the memorial grounds house The Armenian Genocide Museum, which had been under renovation since 2011. Our visit occurred on the day it reopened to the public, and the public turned out in numbers that spoke eloquently of the Genocide’s utter failure to eradicate the Armenian people.

Again, the roads were closed but our driver persuaded a security guard to let him ferry these weary Americans to the memorial’s front gate. 

Thousands of others walked much greater distances, not only from Yerevan but from outlying villages: classes of school children, troops of scouts, military units, families spanning generations.

Nearly all came bearing flowers, which they carried to the memorial’s eternal flame set at the center of a step-down chamber. 

When we arrived, the wall of flowers was already so high and deep that we couldn’t see the flame. We couldn’t even get a picture of it until my friend Aram, much taller than I am, hoisted the camera over his head and shot blindly.

The museum's displays of documents and photos were exceptionally well-presented. For me, the most powerful exhibit was the etched wall map tracing the Genocide’s path. Everyone walking past silently focused on his family’s village and wept.

For all this, our most emotional sighting of all was the image that looms permanently over Tsitsernakaberd, and really over all Armenians everywhere in the world: Mount Ararat.

You know the story of Noah’s Ark. Armenians take it literally, as we do so many things. We believe one of Noah’s descendants, Hayk, was the founder of the Armenian nation, which is called Hayastan. For us, Ararat is the symbol and source of everything Armenian.

Robyn and I got our first full view of the great mountain on this first clear day of our trip. You can see it head-on from the bluff at Tsitsernakaberd, standing brilliant and snowy white against the blue sky no more than 30 miles across the valley.

It’s tempting to employ a cliché and say you feel as if you could touch it, but Armenians know better. Mount Ararat is locked beyond a sealed border in Turkey. 

I asked our guide, the very smart and helpful Anna, how she felt looking at Ararat and knowing it wasn’t part of her country.

“It will be again,” she said without hesitation.

Until then?

“We say, ‘The Turks have the mountain, but we have the view.’ ”

Armenians have a marvelous ability to see beyond, or maybe around, the ugliest of realities. Given our history, what choice do we have? 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Armenian writers have a lot to show for their dedication to telling the Armenian story

I set off for the London Book Fair last month with only a shadowy idea of what to expect.

I knew mostly that books by Armenian authors from various countries would be  showcased at an exhibit called The Armenian Pavilion, and I’d have a chance to brag a bit about my fellow American-Armenian writers while showing off my own memoir.
The experience turned out to be far more enjoyable and enlightening than I imagined.
The pavilion resembled a makeshift gathering space in a small corner of a vast book shop. Hundreds of publishers, vendors and just about anyone else involved in the international book trade had gathered in the cavernous Olympia exhibition hall, and it seemed they were all talking at once.
Our pavilion without walls was open to the crowds, but also to the din. Conversation was challenging, and author readings were equally frustrating for speaker and audience. The whole thing might have been too much trouble, except I was learning a great deal and enjoying myself immensely.
The variety of books on the Pavilion’s shelves was impressive: historical novels, romance novels, children’s books, plus many memoirs and other nonfiction works. Clearly, Armenians think and write about much more than the Armenian Genocide.
But the Genocide was certainly the predominant topic, as the event took place a week before the 100-year commemoration. Regardless of topic, every word written by an Armenian author since the Genocide is homage to the writers who were silenced on April 24, 1915.
I met a number of truly thoughtful and talented people who have found interesting ways to tell the story of Armenian life before and after the Genocide. Three of my British counterparts deserve mention.

Eve Makis stood out because she is not Armenian. Her parents are Greek Cypriots who moved to England in the 1960s before she was born. She’s a journalist-turned-novelist who has moved between Britain and Cyprus several times.

I know too well that the Armenian Genocide isn’t widely understood in the United States, but I was surprised to learn that Eve knew little about it until a few years ago when she began outlining an idea for a new novel set in Cyprus. She knew of the Armenian community there and decided to add some Armenian characters.

She followed her journalist’s instincts and interviewed Armenians to get a realistic picture of their community. That’s when she learned they’d come to Cyprus after being expelled from Turkey. When she understood the scope of the disaster, she committed to making it the center of her story, and she delved deeper into Armenian lore and culture.

The result was The Spice Box Letters, a novel about a journalist who sets out to learn the story of her recently deceased grandmother. She begins with a few scraps of paper found in a spice box. They were written in Armenian, an unfamiliar language from an unfamiliar place.
Her discoveries about her grandmother, her family and her own life reflect the theme of loss and silence that I explore in my own book. The Spice Box Letters is smart, engaging, and often funny – and the author’s observations about Armenians are remarkably on target.

R.P. (Rubina) Sevadjian grew up in Ethiopia, where her family settled in the Armenian community that began to develop before the Genocide as a result of previous waves of persecution under Ottoman rule.
Sevadjian had several important goals when she wrote In the Shadow of the Sultan. She wanted to memorialize the culture of Western Armenians that is fast disappearing even in the diaspora while also showing that the destruction of that culture began before 1915.

Most of all, she wanted to introduce this culture and history to young readers—a challenging target for any author, but a special challenge when the subject matter is so brutal.
The story, set in 1896, is simple but powerful: A boy is thrust into manhood when his father is killed by a Turkish neighbor. He has no time to mourn, as Turkish swords are in the air throughout his village. He sets out to find his mother but finds only devastation and is forced to make choices about his own survival and the survival of his nation.
I’m a few years beyond the demographic of choice, so I don’t know how a young adult reader would react. But I like the book an awful lot, no doubt in part because I like the author—and I deeply admire her commitment to historical accuracy and to telling an important story that  is too often ignored.

George Jerjian
I was aware of the Armenian connection to Ethiopia, but I was floored to find that George Jerjian was born in Khartoum, Sudan, which to me existed only in
black-and-white movies of the 1930s.
The circumstance fits perfectly with the experience of a people scattered around the world, but his family’s location was the product of extraordinary achievement rather than sudden displacement.
George’s paternal grandfather, George Djerdjian, was born in Arabkir in 1870. His parents sent him to college in Erzerum, and he did so well he won a scholarship to continue his studies in Zurich. He returned in 1900 with a doctorate and a camera.
While teaching at Sansarian College in Erzerum, Dr. Djerdjian returned to Arabkir each summer to take photographs. A chemist, he was able to develop his film and he carefully preserved the glass-plate negatives. He stored them in Alexandria, Egypt, when fellow Arabkir natives offered him a job in their Sudan business.
Dr. Djerdjian died in 1947, and the plates were eventually shipped to his family in Khartoum. They somehow survived several more moves. The journey of the plates and the family continued into George’s day, as unrest in Sudan led to relocation.
When George’s father died in 2003, the plates turned up intact in a box in the family’s London apartment. George recognized their importance. He has donated them to the Genocide Museum in Yerevan, and has now compiled 100 of the prints in a book: Daylight after a Century.
The word remarkable is overused but it is appropriate in this case. These photographs, crisp and well-focused, document not only a community but a way of life that no longer exists. We see people in their homes, their schools, their churches. We see their faces, and we can glean a good deal about their lives while knowing what they couldn’t know about what lay ahead.

You can see many of these photos and hear George’s narration on YouTube. I saw the video at the book fair and had the added pleasure of meeting George. Although I returned from London with a long reading list, I was so engaged by his thoughts that I clicked another one of George’s books into my Kindle as soon as I got home. 
The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled, tells the story of George’s grandmother, who was saved during the Genocide by a Turkish official. The story became more powerful when he learned that the official was responsible for the deaths of many other Armenians.
The book goes on to lay out the history of the Genocide, sharply and directly. He argues that Turkey should acknowledge the truth, and explains why he believes that will happen. I thought the reasoning and writing were both powerful. Also impressive: the foreword was written by former Sen. Bob Dole, who has long been friendly to the Armenian case.
When I relayed those thoughts to George the other day, I was still digging through back issues and catching up with chores that piled up while we were away. Soon after, I came across a recent story in the Armenian Weekly about a visit to America by Ragip Zarakolu.
The story explained that Zarakolu is a Turkish intellectual, publisher and human rights activist who has long been at odds with his government. He served time in prison in the 1970s after being declared “subversive.”
The sentence didn’t deter him from campaigning for freedom of speech in Turkey. He not only spoke publicly about the Armenian Genocide, he did something even more incendiary: He translated The Truth Will Set Us Free into Turkish and published it. 
He was convicted of “insulting the state” and again sentenced to prison. The sentence was eventually reduced to a fine but he is still appealing his conviction.
I know quite a few authors, some very successful in the ways we usually think of success. George is the first author I’ve met who wrote a book so powerful that someone was willing to risk time in a Turkish prison so others could read it.

I can't think of a greater achievement, or more fitting homage to our martyred writers.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

As young men, we dreamed of going to Armenia. We finally made it, just a few years later than we'd planned.

 “I knew we’d get to Armenia together. But I didn’t think we’d be old men when we got here. How did this happen?”Aram Aslanian in Yerevan, April 22, 2015. 

There was no magic moment, at least that I recall, but Aram and I must have been nine or 10 years old when we first started talking about going to Armenia together. 

We grew up in suburban New Jersey, but Armenia was a powerful and constant presence in our lives – the idea and ideal of Armenia, at least, if not the country itself.  We learned its history and myths at Armenian school on Saturdays, and we chanted its hymns in church on Sundays.  

Our parents took turns driving us to Camp Haiastan in Massachusetts each summer so we could sing songs of national liberation as we hiked across woods and fields we imagined to be the Armenian Highlands 

As we grew, so did our circle of Armenian friends and our involvement in Armenian activities. When we were old enough to drive, we’d cruise up and down the East Coast from New York to Boston to Philadelphia to Washington or wherever there was an Armenian dance or a basketball game – any excuse to be with Armenians. 

So of course we wanted to go to Armenia, to be in Armenia. It was perfectly natural. It just wasn’t practical. 

There really was no country called Armenia back then. The name appeared on maps only in the descriptive introduction to a Soviet “republic” that appeared as cold and grim as the rest.  The Armenia we sang our camp songs about was separate but equally uninviting, still under Turkish dominion and bereft of the people and culture our grandparents knew. 

Of course, we could have gone to either place, as many Armenians from around the world did. Our checks and Visa cards would have been welcomed by hotels and tour guides on either side of the Soviet-Turkish border. We'd be standing on the land of our ancestors, regardless of the current tenants. 

In truth, reality was less appealing than our childhood fantasy, as reality usually is.  We continued to talk about going to Armenia as we got older, but there were always other realities to deal with: work, home, family. Aram became Dr. Aslanian, professor of psychology. I became a reporter, editor and author. It’s not that we didn’t notice the fall of Soviet communism and the rebirth of independent Armenia in 1991—but, well, we were busy.

We retired about the same time a few years back, but even then we weren’t quite ready to fly across the world. I really didn’t want to walk across the street to the pool. My ideal retirement here in Florida involved nothing more strenuous than opening the patio door. Aram was only a bit more energetic: He retired to Maine, so he kept in shape by shivering all winter. 

When he finally warmed up in the spring of 2014, Aram phoned. “I’m going to Armenia and I’m not going without you,” he said. I asked for time to think about it but Aram has always insisted on being spontaneous. “We’re going in the fall, so get ready.” 

Aram spent the next couple of months planning, but he didn’t plan on being sidelined by a bum foot. It’s the sort of thing us old guys are learning to deal with but not exactly getting used to.  So the trip was delayed, which turned out to be a very good thing because Aram also didn’t plan on a sudden detour to have a stent inserted in his heart. 

I put the trip out of mind until my interest was sparked by another unexpected turn of events two month ago. An opportunity to attend the London Book Fair with other Armenian authors was too interesting to pass up. We had only a few weeks to decide and make plans, but Robyn and I were both struck by the same thought: If we’re on the far side of the Atlantic anyway, why not continue on to Armenia? 

With the timing of the fair in mid-April, we could be in Yerevan for the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. I called Aram, who didn’t hesitate. We were very lucky to get flights and book rooms in short order. 
Robyn and I got there first. Aram arrived hours later. We found each other in the lobby of our hotel, a couple of old men who got to be kids again for a little while. And this is how we came to celebrate Aram’s 63rd birthday in Yerevan after a half century of dawdling.
I’ll have much more to say about our experience in Armenia, but what’s important for now is that we finally had one.