"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

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.