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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.

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.

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.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thanks to Joe Zeytoonian for showing me a new way to tell the Armenian story

My father bought an old upright piano when I was five or six years old. He couldn’t play and never tried to learn, but he encouraged me to try.

To his delight and mine, it didn’t take long before I could hunt and peck my way through my favorite nursery-rhyme tunes. By Christmas, I had Jingle Bells pretty much nailed, although some of the jingle got a bit jangled.

Joe Zeytoonian and Myriam Eli at St. John's
The result so encouraged my parents that they bought a new piano as a present for my seventh birthday. I took lessons well into my teens but I never really learned to read music.

For years, I was proud that I could play so well by ear that most people didn’t know I was musically illiterate. I even faked my way through middle-school band.  Best of all, my father seemed pleased that I could play the melodies from his Armenian recordings.

What else mattered?

Actually, it all mattered when I began to think about pursuing music seriously. It was clear that I’d have to start over and work incredibly hard just to learn the basics that I’d skimmed over. By then, I was already on my way to mastering the simpler ABCs of English, so it was much easier to commit to working with words. 

I have no regrets about my career choice, but I still love music so much that I occasionally experience wistful what-ifs while listening to friends who not only have real talent but who dedicated themselves to developing it.

Joe Zeytoonian, for instance.

Joe and I didn’t know each other growing up but we experienced parallel childhoods as first-generation American sons of Armenian Genocide survivors. My father was a dry cleaner, his was a cobbler. Mine sang Armenian and Turkish songs while playing 78-rpm phonograph records. His father sang Armenian and Turkish songs while playing the oud.

“That music really pulled me in,” Joe says. “It became part of me.”

The growing affinity alarmed Joe’s father, who worried that teaching his youngest son to play might set him on a path to becoming a professional musician. In his old-world view, that wasn’t a sufficiently high aspiration.

As a result, Joe didn’t start playing the oud until his mid-teens. He figured it out on his own. I don’t play the oud but I know enough to be awed by the idea. An oud is a lute without frets. Imagine a piano without keys and you’ll get an idea of the challenge this presents. 

When I sat down at my piano keyboard, I at least had a one-in-thirteen chance of hitting the right note every time. But like the human voice, the oud’s is infinitely variable.

An oudist doesn’t just play notes, he shapes them and expresses himself through them. As a result, the oud is hauntingly evocative—an instrument peculiarly suited to a people whose music conveys a long, rich but often painful history.

Joe played with local bands at Armenian dances while earning a mathematics degree at Boston University. For years, he worked days as a computer programmer while playing his music at night and on weekends. He was in his mid-thirties when he made the life-changing decision to commit to music full time.

In 1981, Joe moved to Margate, Florida with his life-and-music partner Myriam Eli. Together they formed the Harmonic Motion Music and Dance Theater. Myriam is an exceptionally versatile dancer who also plays percussion instruments. Joe sings as well as plays the oud.

Often joined by other performers, they showcase an array of musical styles from different  cultures. They’ve recorded and performed with many top Near and Middle Eastern musicians, as well as mainstream artists such as Shakira and Gloria Estefan. It adds up to a long resume, matched by an impressive list of honors.

I’ve always enjoyed their performances, so I was particularly excited as well as a bit surprised when Joe called a few weeks ago and invited me to participate in an event on Miami Beach.

Joe read my memoir and was struck by similarities in our experiences. He asked me to read a few selections during a music-and-dance program at St. John’s United Methodist Church. The church wanted to expose its community to Armenian culture while acknowledging the 100-year remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.

I was intrigued when Joe suggested I speak in three segments interspersed with music and dance. I’m used to working solo, and I was unsure whether I’d be intruding on the program. But Joe assured me the arrangement would work well, and I trusted him.

He was right, of course.

The program called Hye Doun (Armenian Home) drew a mostly non-Armenian crowd from throughout South Florida. Joe and Myriam were joined by Iranian-American musician Reza Filsoofi and vocalist Alique Mazmanian. You can see a sample by clicking here.

The reaction of the audience and our hosts from St. John’s was truly rewarding. Several people said they’d known little about Armenians or the Genocide but came away feeling strongly about the Armenian experience and thanked us for enlightening them.

I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I’m thankful to Joe and Myriam for giving me the chance to try something different: telling the Armenian story in a collaborative effort of words and music. It would be fascinating to explore more ways to do that.

I also came away with a deeper appreciation of their artistry after getting an up-close look at the discipline and effort behind the music. Clearly, I had the easy part, which made me at least a bit less wistful about my abandoned piano.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Telling the truth about The Armenian Genocide is the best way to serve America's interests

In the hundred years that Armenians have mourned the Genocide’s martyrs and marched for justice, Turkey has exerted extraordinary effort to fabricate an alternate reality.

In the hallucinatory history taught in Turkish schools and peddled to the world by Turkey’s academic toadies, the Ottoman government evacuated Armenians from the path of war in 1915 for their own safety.

The resulting deaths are described as unfortunate—tragic, even—but unintended.

"As President, I will recognize
the Armenian Genocide" -- Obama 2008
There are two problems with this denialist fantasy. That it isn’t true is actually the lesser problem. The greater problem for Turkey is that even if it were true, it wouldn’t matter.

As Geoffrey Robertson points out in An Inconvenient Genocide, the very facts admitted by denialist scholars and Turkish officials would provide sufficient basis for prosecution of genocide under international law.

I cite Robertson’s book because he makes the case exceptionally well, focusing on facts rather than on the outcome. He avoids sensational but questionable assertions and sticks to clearly admissible evidence, which is fitting for one of the world’s most prominent and vocal human rights attorneys. 

The evidence he presents makes clear that the word “relocation” used in Ottoman directives was a euphemism for extermination. The brutal circumstances of the relocation of Armenians from their homes in Eastern Turkey is well documented in accounts by non-Armenian sources, including Germans working with the Turks.

Hundreds of thousands of people were marched without sufficient food, water or shelter into the uninhabitable Syrian desert. These haggard marchers were repeatedly attacked by thieves, rapists and murderers. Those who survived the journey were left to die in the sun, or burned alive in caves.

None of this is compatible with the fable that the evacuations were temporary. Even before these poor people were reduced to bones, their homes were seized and turned over to Turks or Kurds.

One of the most egregious fallacies repeated by denialists is that genocide cannot be proven without evidence that the government ordered the extermination of all Armenians. But as Robertson explains, forcing even part of a population into circumstances where most could be expected to die is genocide, and it cannot be legally (or morally) excused by the exigencies of war.

With that alone, the prosecution could rest its case except that there is no prosecution and there won’t be.

Armenia’s suffering gave birth to the very term genocide as well as to the international convention aimed at eradicating this most inhuman of human crimes, but it all happened too late to bring justice to Armenians.

Why is that?

In the wake of the First World War, Britain took the lead among the victorious powers in urging prosecution of war criminals. The worst offenders took off running. Turkish thugs sought refuge in Germany, while Germany’s Kaiser fled to the Netherlands.

As disappearing acts go, this hardly rivaled Houdini but it didn’t have to. Post-war politics and the nascent state of international law made extradition difficult even in the case of Turks who were convicted in absentia of involvement in the Genocide. Delay after delay ensured that all such efforts petered out within a few years of the armistice.

What makes this not only relevant but important so many years later is that America helped the bad guys get away with murder.

President Woodrow Wilson opposed creation of an international justice tribunal because it would violate the “sovereignty principle” that governments were responsible for punishing crimes against the people they ruled.

As related by Robertson, Wilson reasoned that Armenians “were Ottoman subjects, and their suffering at the hands of their own government would have to be punished by their own government – present or future – if they were to be punished at all.”

We know how that’s worked out—at least, so far.

Despite a century of disappointment and insults, Armenians are making real gains in achieving international recognition of the Genocide. Response to this year’s centennial commemoration has been overwhelming.

Turkey’s churlish attempts to draw attention away from the Genocide memorial in April fell flat while Armenia’s pleas for recognition generated a wave of support from around the world.

The European Union adopted a resolution recognizing the Genocide while urging Turkey to do the same. Pope Francis also called on Turkey to tell the truth, and he celebrated a mass in memory of the Genocide’s victims. The president of Germany, Turkey’s war-time ally, called the Genocide by its rightful name and admitted German complicity.

It is very nearly possible now to declare that no civilized nation tolerates Turkey’s lies and evasions. Unfortunately, there are two notable exceptions: The United Kingdom and the United States.

Both continue to avoid using the words genocide and Armenian in the same sentence. Contrast the courage of Germany’s president with our own President Obama, who broke his pledge to recognize the Genocide and turned down an invitation to attend this year’s Genocide commemoration at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Vice President Biden did attend. Like Obama, he was once a vigorous advocate for Armenians and for truth about the Genocide. But he sat in silence throughout the memorial ceremony and left immediately after. He declined to speak to the gathering or to exchange more than polite greetings with the president of Armenia.

This is very much in line with the Administration’s insistence on not offending a vital ally. American presidents have followed this crooked path to disappointment for  decades. Not long ago, for example, Obama thought he’d persuaded Turkey to join the fight against ISIS. Instead, it attacked the Kurds who were fighting ISIS.

Obama’s abandonment has been so disappointing that some Armenians have suggested there’s little point pressing this year’s presidential candidates for their position on the Genocide. I think it’s more important than ever given the momentum at work.

As an American, I certainly don’t want my country to become an outlier as the world evolves toward zero-tolerance for genocide. What’s at stake is much more than embarrassment.

If President Wilson had shown more gumption, the Armenian Genocide could have been a powerful and far-reaching force for international justice and human rights in the wake of World War One. Instead, Hitler was encouraged by the world’s passivity. Robertson reminds us of this with the cover quote: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”

He also reminds us that the truth of this quote is so powerful that Turkey and its denialist clients insist Hitler never said it. He did. You could look it up.

Unless, of course, you’re in Turkey.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Armenians continue to suffer for their faith, but the truth behind the Genocide is complex.

This year’s centennial has inspired a great deal of discussion about the Armenian Genocide, all of it valuable.

Every memoir and every academic treatise adds important evidence and deepens our understanding of events that continue to affect succeeding generations.

His Holiness Aram I of Cilicia
Yet our understanding will always be imperfect because genocide is beyond the comprehension of rational beings.  No matter how much we learn about any genocide, the equation seems impossible to solve.

This doesn’t stop us from trying, nor should it.

By examining the unique circumstances of the Armenian tragedy we hope to learn and share some universal lessons—at the very least, to identify the early warning signs of the next horrific episode.

This year, of all years, much of the world is paying attention to us. So when we share our observations, it’s important that we choose our words with care.

I think we’ve performed with admirable clarity and dignity, but one area where we could use more care – and thought – is in connecting the Armenian Genocide to the current worldwide surge of violence by Muslim fanatics.

It’s easy to see parallels to the Genocide in the destruction of Armenian communities in Syria and elsewhere in the roiling Middle East. Who isn’t reminded of 1915 by scenes of ragged refugees whose homes and churches have been reduced to rubble?

And it isn’t just Armenians being kidnapped and beheaded. The persecution of Christians has become so widespread and devastating that the New York Times headlined a recent report: “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?”

The sub-headline was even more chillingly reminiscent of the Armenians’ abandonment: ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.”

It’s understandable that Armenians, proud of being the oldest Christian nation, feel the effects of this onslaught so keenly. Some draw a direct line from the events of 1915 to current events, explaining the Genocide as a direct act of Christian persecution.

Among the most prominent and important dissenters from this view is also one of our most important Christian voices: Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia.

“What happened against the Armenians, the Genocide, was not because the Armenians were Christians,” he told a Vatican correspondent. “This was part of the pan-Turkish ideology and politics and plans of the Young Turks.”

His Holiness knows history.

The Turks who directed the Genocide were not religious. They were driven by ambition to revive and expand the fractured Ottoman realm by creating a new Pan-Turkic empire.  

The Armenians, to our lasting misfortune, were in the way.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – certainly not mass murder. There was clearly a religious dimension to the Genocide, as there had been to almost every aspect of Armenians’ lives as Ottoman subjects for six centuries.

While we often hear that Armenians and Turks once lived peacefully as neighbors, Turkish historian Taner Akcam makes clear that the peace held only as long as Armenians obeyed the rules that kept them subservient and humiliated.

In his Genocide book A Shameful Act, Akcam notes that Muslim superiority was a fundamental principle of Ottoman rule, which was guided by Islamic law. As a result, the regime had always “specifically oppressed and discriminated against non-Muslims.”

Islamic law gives non-Muslim subjects a degree of protection and even tolerence to practice their own religion. But as Vahakn N. Dadrian notes in The History of the Armenian Genocide, the Ottomans reasoned that Armenians forfeited such clemency during the 19th century by appealing for European help when pressing for reforms.

What followed were the Hamidian Massacres of 1894 to 1896, which claimed hundreds of thousands of Armenians.  Many were slaughtered by their formerly peaceful neighbors who were exhorted by their sultan to punish unbelievers.

Dadrian relates this scene reported by the British consul at Aintab: “The butchers and the tanners, with sleeves tucked up to their shoulders, armed with clubs and cleavers, cut down the Christians, with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ ”

The executioners paused only when the time came to kneel in mid-day prayer, then resumed their bloody work.

Given that history, it’s understandable that many Armenians welcomed the Young Turks into power in 1908 with their promise of constitutional protection for all.

Despite its secular trappings, however, the new regime remained committed to Turkish-Muslim superiority. Whatever their true feelings and motives, Talaat and his cohorts skillfully exploited religious fervor to foment the bloodlust of 1915.

I think it is clear Armenians did suffer grievously because of their Christian faith. It’s not at all clear that they wouldn’t have suffered regardless.   

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Antonina Mahari's example of courage and hope through years of Soviet torment makes me feel very lucky but also a bit ashamed

We’ve all seen James Bond films, so we’re familiar with the character of the evil genius who threatens the world.
I doubt such villains really exist. The great threat to life and liberty is more likely an idiot who has acquired the trappings of authority: a title, a uniform or, God forbid, a gun.
I was reminded of this as I read My Odyssey by Antonina Mahari. It is a pain-filled account of the author’s life journey from Lithuania to Armenia by way of Siberia beginning in 1944 when she was 20 years old.
Her native land lurched between Russian and German occupations while she was a teenager. She was a law student at Vilnius University when the Russians returned with a vengeance.
Antonia was arrested on suspicion of being an anti-Soviet agitator, although how or why she had fallen under suspicion was not clear. Such things were never clear.
She endured nightly assaults by a screaming interrogator standing beneath a portrait of the ever-smiling dictator Joseph Stalin. Although beaten and humiliated, Antonina did not confess to any imaginary crimes so the interrogations continued.
All of the women who shared her airless cell experienced the same horrors.
“Every night, women who were beaten during the interrogations were thrown into our cell half dead,” she wrote. “A Polish woman died. Her kidneys were crushed. A seventeen-year-old Lithuanian girl named Genute went mad . . .”
Antonina wondered what the torturers could possibly have meant to accomplish, as prisoners knew confession would likely result in a visit to Vanya the executioner. In the years that followed, she experienced a great deal more pain and witnessed many pointless deaths.
She came to understand there was no sense in any of it.
Eventually judged incorrigible, Antonina was consigned to Siberia. There she toiled and shivered among a multitude of other suspected free thinkers from all the captive nations: artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, scientists, military officers.
Many of them had been good Communists, or thought so until they were dragged from their homes. They had the talent and intelligence to rebuild their shattered homelands but those very attributes made them a danger to their rulers.
In this topsy-turvy world, complaint was forbidden. A sigh in the company of an informer could lead to further torture. Everyone was expected to sing songs in praise of Stalin, even as his minions drained their lives of joy and purpose.
It was in this stifling atmosphere on a collective farm in 1952 that Antonina fell in love with Gurgen Mahari, who sang folks songs of his native Van as he worked. He could smile because Stalin was absent from the lyrics, and because he could sense humor in the irony of his miserable circumstances.
One of Armenia’s greatest writers, Gurgen was forced to herd pigs.
“Now, those who once raised pigs write poems, and we have taken their place with the pigs,” he told Antonina.
Mahari had been arrested in 1937. He was hardly a subversive, much less a revolutionary, but his love for Armenia showed boldly enough to make his work incompatible with Soviet internationalism.
The state prescribed 10 years of confinement to improve his exuberance for Communism. Within a year of his release, Mahari was arrested again and sentenced to life in Siberia.
But this did not keep Mahari from his work. Exhausted and bone cold, he wrote each night by the fire in his tiny log hut even though none of his poems or stories could be published.
The writer and his work might have been buried together in the tundra except for a great stroke of luck: Stalin died in March 1953, and the torments he fostered stopped along with his cold heart—for a while, at least.
Antonina and Gurgen, now married, were released in 1954 and given an apartment in Armenia’s capital. The great writer was once again celebrated not only by the public but by his fellow writers, who visited often and joined him in spirited literary dialogues.
Antonina worried that the great volume of cigarettes and vodka he consumed during these sessions would shorten his life but these excesses merely weakened him. It was his friends who finally killed him.
In 1966, Gurgen Mahari published his master work. The novel Burning Orchards was set in Van and followed events leading up to the siege of 1915 when the Armenian population was slaughtered and their homes reduced to rubble.
The author’s close friend, Paruyr Sevak, another of Armenia’s most honored writers, denounced the book. He argued that Mahari had portrayed Armenian revolutionaries in a way that blamed them for inciting the Genocide. He made a speech calling his comrade “a traitor and a servant of the Turks.”
Other writers joined Sevak, and a crowd burned the book in front of Mahari’s home. The Writers Union demanded Orchards be rewritten. Mahari complied despite his wife’s objections but his concessions did not improve his standing.
No one spoke in the author’s defense because no one dared to. Mahari became deeply depressed, and his wife kept close watch as he threatened to jump off the balcony. “Antonina, there is nothing worse than seeing your literary creation being dragged through the mud and to know that your friends, your beloved countrymen, are doing it.”
He died in 1969, broken by the unrelenting torrent of hate.
No one could blame his widow if she had moved back to Lithuania but she didn’t because her beloved Gurgen had begged her to stay in Yerevan. “You are the only person who can tell the truth about me.”
He told her to write about their cruel experience in the fool’s paradise. “Write, and have no mercy on anyone. It is very important for history.”
So she wrote, and she waited. Although Stalin was gone, obedient comrades still sang to his memory and saluted his statue. The secret police and their informers still made notes of sighs and whispers. People still disappeared into the Siberian wilderness.
So Antonina guarded her notes and the papers Gurgen left behind, and she finished My Odyssey in secret. A manuscript was smuggled out of Armenia and an abridged version published in Beirut in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Armenia was finally free, but no publisher there would touch it.
“All the publishing houses were filled with former comrades,” she wrote. “They were holding their posts and settled very comfortably.” None of these brave editors thought it would be a good idea to stir up unpleasant memories—and none thought it would be wise to point fingers.
Antonina persevered until Armenia was finally ready to read her story. Her memoir was published there in 2003. The following year, she had the good fortune to meet Ruth Bedevian while Bedevian was visiting Yerevan.
Bedevian had learned about Gurgen and Antonina Mahari while researching an article on Armenian writers. Antonina subsequently asked Bedevian to help have her memoir translated into English, and Bedevian agreed.
It was not a simple request to fulfill. Bedevian assembled an impressive group of experts who were able transcend literal translation by lending context to unfamiliar times and places.
The result is anything but a conventional memoir. The chapters don’t follow common structure or order. The book is filled with obscure references. Most striking to me is the unfamiliarity of the central subject: Have you ever read anything by Gurgen Mahari?
I haven’t, but I found his life story fascinating—inspiring, depressing, infuriating all at once. I felt privileged reading the book, and I felt ashamed thinking about how often I complain because my computer is acting up or because my den is a bit too warm or because someone’s making a racket mowing the lawn.
Now when I have such silly thoughts I will think instead about Gurgen writing by weary hand in his Siberian hut, and Antonina wrapping her manuscript in an old swim suit and folding it into the bottom of her suitcase to hide it from the secret police.
It is wonderful to live and write in America. We certainly have no shortage of idiots, but they can’t send me to Siberia for sighing deeply at the thought of them. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Shish kebab may not sound Armenian but it makes me happy -- and that's what counts.

Do you own the food you eat?

I’m not asking to see the receipt for the Big Mac and fries you wolfed down at lunch. I’m talking about ownership in the broad, cultural sense. I’ve heard the question asked a number of ways—occasionally profanely—since my wife and I created seven years ago.

Our goal was simple: to preserve the recipes we treasured while touting the glories of Armenian food. Our definition of Armenian food was just as simple: anything Armenians eat.

In my case, that would include lasagna and hot fudge sundaes. But I’ve always shown more discipline in writing than in eating, so we’ve been able to focus on the dishes that bring back memories of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens.

That still adds up to a long and incredibly varied menu. Armenia’s history of repeated invasions brought the tastes from many pots to the homeland while scattering refugees across the globe.

Traditional Armenian recipes evolved in different ways in all those places. So did Armenians’ palates, and so did Armenians themselves. We hear almost every day from readers with Irish or Italian names who want help recreating a dish they remember their “Armenian grandmother” used to make.

What better way to stay connected to each other as well as to our shared past?

For me, and for many Armenians, there’s no food memory more powerful or more mouth-watering than shish kebab. My family ate Armenian food almost daily when I was growing up, but shish kebab always signified a special occasion.

Or maybe it just made any occasion special. It’s a far simpler dish than many that Mom made more often but the ritual involved all of us.

The meat had to come from an Armenian or Syrian butcher who knew lamb and had the skill to cut it properly. My mother was in charge of seasoning and marinating the meat overnight, then skewering and salting it just before cooking.

When I was old enough, I got into the act by making the fire, always starting with kindling wood because Dad said lighter fluid ruined the taste of the meat no matter how long you waited for it to evaporate. And make no mistake, the kebab had to be cooked outdoors over a flame, never in the oven.

Rain might delay the meal but it was never an excuse to cheat. My wife remembers her father moving the grill into the garage as they tried to chase the smoke out the open door. I remember my father hoisting ours into the back of his station wagon and finishing the kebab as we drove home from the park in a downpour.

Like all Armenian fathers, mine was in charge of the actual kebab cooking, turning the skewers regularly so the meat seared evenly. Mom, meanwhile, prepared the bulgur pilaf and salad but I never wandered far. I’d stay by the fireside breathing in the smoky aroma of roasting meat, onions and tomatoes while waiting to taste the first piece and pronounce it done.

Then I’d watch Dad slide the meat off the skewers using a ragged chunk of bread as a cushion. Every Armenian father did the same, and every Armenian kid kept his eye on that bread as it swelled and softened in the juices at the bottom of the pot. 

I know siblings who fought over it every time. I was never luckier to be an only child than at kebab time.

Whenever I make my own kebab, my head swells with memories of these countless childhood barbecues and picnics – and, of course, of my parents. My wife has the same reaction. Making kebab together is a very real and wonderful way of sharing our early lives as we tell kebab stories until we’ve swallowed the least bite.

Apparently lots of folks share this experience or, perhaps, wish they did. Back in 2010, I posted a video on YouTube titled How To Make Shish Kebab. I got an email the other day notifying me that the video had passed 100,000 views. 

This astounds me as much as it pleases me that I somehow lured 100,000-or-so people away from the latest zombie movie or Wheel of Fortune rerun to watch me broil lamb the Armenian way.

Because YouTube allows comments, I know lots of folks found the video informative and enjoyable. Many added their own thoughts about seasonings or cooking techniques – all to the good. As I say on the video, every family has its own ideas about the “right” way to make kebab, and I’m happy to sample them all.

But while the reaction from most has been quite positive, some of it was downright nasty. A handful of comments were so ugly that I deleted them to keep the site family friendly. The gist of the crankiest complaints was that shish kebab is not Armenian and that Armenians “stole” not only the name but the very idea of skewering meat from Turks.

It’s clear some of the rowdies hadn’t watched the video. In my narration, I explain that shish kebab is known as khorovatz in Armenia. But how many views would I have racked up with a video called How to Make Khorovatz?

What's the origin of the common name? I’m no linguist, but I can use a dictionary pretty well and I’m a master Googler. The etymology is usually explained as a fusion of Persian kebab and Turkish shish (skewer) – and please don’t bother “correcting” the spelling. Both were long ago anglicized and adopted into American usage.

If you travel, or like to sample various ethnic restaurants, you’ll need to broaden your kebab vocabulary. It’s shashlik to Russians, lahm mishwy to Arabs, souvlaki to Greeks – all remarkably similar in concept, although the type of meat varies by local tradition, availability and religious practice.

Armenians historically favored lamb, but cheaper and more abundant pork is common fare at khorovatz stands in the homeland today. As Muslims, Turks shun pork in favor of lamb, so their kebab is more to my taste. 

The idea of skewered meat is generally ascribed to ancient soldiers who used their swords to butcher and roast stray sheep over a campfire. Whose army was first to be so fortuitously hungry and inventive at once?

The Persians make a strong case, while Turks are quite insistent that Turkic tribesmen were wielding shish as well as sabers when they thundered out of Central Asia.
Nobody can be certain, as kebab predates Instagram so we have no photos. But there are drawings that support Greek claims to have invented what appears to be the main ingredient of a souvlaki platter. (I can’t be sure, but I believe the inscription actually says, “No substitutions.”)

Archaeologist have even dug up ancient Greek barbecue grills with holes for skewers.

Until the case (or the kitchen) is closed, I’ll back my own peeps. I believe the legions of King Dikran were first to feast on sizzling swords of lamb seasoned with wild mountain onions and marinated in Armenia’s celebrated red wine.

The less-than-amusing subtext to all this is the international food fight being waged by various nations over claims to the origin of popular dishes. Making a successful legal claim can mean big profits for marketers as well as enhanced prestige for the cuisine’s chefs.

Someone came up with the clever name gastronationalism to describe the intense competition. In recent years, Greeks have successfully put their stamp on feta cheese, as the Lebanese and Israelis grind away at each other over the proper provenance of hummus.

Armenia has joined the battle in response to repeated taunts from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Between them, they’ve claimed just about every dish on the traditional Armenian menu as their own.

After 600 years of occupation, it’s hardly a surprise that Armenians share many food names and customs with Turks, just as we do with Persians, Greeks and other neighbors. But it’s a mistake to automatically attribute Turkish origin to any common dish or technique.

In fact, Armenian chefs were an important presence in Ottoman kitchens until the First World War. There’s no doubt Armenians influenced what’s now known as Turkish cuisine in important ways, just as they influenced other aspects of Ottoman culture.

Like other Armenian achievements, however, much of our culinary inventiveness has been obscured. With so many outside influences, it’s sometimes hard even for Armenians to know if we’re eating our own food.

At least now there's a serious effort underway among experts in Armenia to identity and promote Armenian cuisine. I wish them luck but I won’t be taking part because I’m not equipped – and besides, I’m more interested in eating than in arguing.

I have some lamb marinating right now, and I’m going to fire up the grill just as soon as I finish typing. I can’t think of a better incentive to keep this short.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Armenians in America know the power of a flag to unite a people, or shatter a community

How can so much emotion be stirred by the Confederate battle flag some 150 years after the Civil War’s final fusilade?

I have my thoughts as an American, and as a Yankee. But while reading the current spate of news stories, I also found myself thinking as an Armenian about the unique and extraordinary power of emblems that some hold dear and others fear.

I grew up with reverence for the red, blue and orange symbol of a nation that ceased to exist 32 years before I was born.

I remember taking my turn raising the Armenian flag at Camp Haiastan (Camp Armenia) as we sang the Armenian national anthem. I didn’t understand a word until I read a translation. One verse remains linked to the image of that brilliant-colored flag fluttering from its white, wooden pole.

Behold, brother mine, the holy flag
Which I fashioned with my hands.
Sleepless I went for dreary nights.
I washed it with my tears.

I pictured a weary Armenian freedom fighter carrying a crudely fashioned banner into the fight. To my young mind, honoring one was the same as honoring the other. 

I assumed all Armenians felt the same way – but like many of my youthful assumptions, most of what I thought I knew about the Armenian flag turned out to be wrong.

Armenians did carry flags into battle, but none I’d recognize. In its 1955-56 winter issue, the Armenian Review magazine published an article about Armenia’s flag history. It noted that different banners, some quite ornate, were adopted by various monarchs and armies since ancient times. A few images survive on coins and etchings. Colors are mostly guesswork now, although royal purple was certainly featured.

After centuries without an independent country, Armenians were left with no flag until 1885 when the Armenian Students Association of Paris commissioned one to display at the funeral of Victor Hugo.

The students turned to Father Ghevond Alishan, who experimented with several color arrangements. His tinkering led to the first tricolor insignias worn by Armenian soldiers through the First World War.

They were yellow, red and green.

When the first Republic of Armenia took shape after the war, the government wanted a flag with historical significance. So it reached back more than 600 years to the Rubenian Dynasty, which favored red, blue and yellow. Almost immediately, the yellow was changed to orange “because it easily merged with the rest of the colors and presented a more pleasing composition.”

Not only did the flag have a shorter history than I imagined, it had a short life as the national emblem. The Tricolor flew over the Republic for barely two years before being hauled down in 1920 and trampled along with the nation and its leaders. Armenia’s new Communist rulers feared the yerakooyn enough to shoot anyone didn’t follow orders to destroy it.

That made the flag even more precious to Armenians beyond the reach of Red terrorists. They flew it proudly wherever they gathered – in community halls, at church picnics, in holiday parades – as a message of defiance and hope.

At least, this was true of the Armenians I knew.

I discovered later that in the weird parallel universe of “other” Armenians in America, the Tricolor had become almost as toxic as it was in Soviet Armenia. In fact, it was oddly responsible for the division of Armenian-Americans into two distinct communities.

While most Armenians in the diaspora were immune to Communist pressure, the Armenian Church remained vulnerable because it was tethered to the homeland. Even the primate of North America had to be wary.

So when Archbishop Levon Tourian was called to bless the Armenian Day festivities at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he insisted that the flag of the republic be removed from the viewing stand and replaced by the Soviet hammer and sickle.

The crowd erupted in catcalls and fistfights that spread to Armenian communities across America. At year’s end, someone shoved a butcher knife into the archbishop as he walked down a church aisle in New York. His death only made the tumult worse.

By the time I came along a couple of decades later, things had settled into a standoff. Unable to reconcile their political differences, Armenians simply divided each community into two churches – one administered in Armenia, the other outside. 

One of the few notable differences was the presence of the Armenian flag at one church and its absence at the other. So for many years, Armenians in America had no unifying banner. It took a change in the balance of world power to correct that.

Among the many images that emerged from the disintegrating Soviet Union circa 1990, I recall a photo in a news magazine of a street demonstration in Yerevan. It was a color photo, so there was no mistaking the red-blue-orange flag being held aloft by marchers.

The Tricolor had survived 70 years of gulags and death squads. I knew instantly that Armenia would be free again, and we'd all be flying one flag in its honor.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Operation Nemesis brought justice to the Armenian people. We should all be proud.

One day when I was about 10 years old, my father introduced me to Arshavir Shiragian. I remember this encounter in the hall of our church in New Jersey very clearly because Dad insisted I shake his hand.
“You just shook the hand that killed the Turks,” he said.
I found out what he meant when I read Shiragian’s memoir The Legacy a few years later. He was one of the volunteers who tracked down and executed Turkish officials responsible for the Armenian Genocide.
The best known of the avengers was Soghomon Tehlirian, who gunned down Talaat Pasha on a Berlin street in 1921. One of Turkey’s ruling triumvirate during the First World War, Talaat is considered the chief figure in the scheme that claimed at least 1.5 million Armenian lives.
At the war’s end, Talaat and his comrades fled the nation they’d led to defeat. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia. But those sentences posed little threat as the victorious French and British soon withdrew from Constantinople while the vanquished Talaat found safe haven among his former allies in Germany.
By 1920, Turkey was again convulsed in violence as Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist army reclaimed lost territory and took aim at the Caucuses. Just months before the Republic of Armenia collapsed under dual assaults by Turks and Russians, the Armenians launched their one shot at justice.
The plan to execute the nation’s arch enemies had to be carried out secretly and at arm’s length because Armenia was still clinging to hope that its Big Allies would stand by their commitment to protect its sovereignty while punishing the Genocide’s perpetrators.
In fact, the British knew where to find Talaat but did nothing. They also knew that Talaat and the others were plotting a return to power in league with their ally Kemal. This didn’t seem to bother the British or the French but the prospect both terrified and infuriated Armenians.
Any chance of finding and executing the targets depended on rapidly recruiting and deploying a dedicated network of spies and killers. The story of that effort, and its improbable success, is the subject of a new book by Eric Bogosian: Operation Nemesis.
The author is better known to most Americans than any of the book’s characters. He’s a talented writer and actor who has won praise for his stage, screen and television work as well as his novels. He’s best recognized from his long-running role on TV’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
Operation Nemesis is a striking departure, a serious nonfiction work that demanded long and intense research. I’d love to tell you Bogosian succeeded brilliantly because his name on the cover guarantees wide exposure well beyond the Armenian community. I think this is a story that deserves to be told boldly and without apology.
Unfortunately, Bogosian appears ambivalent at best on that central point.
To Bogosian’s credit, he deals forthrightly with the Genocide, which he portrays accurately and in brutal detail. He leaves no doubt that the slaughter of the Armenians was planned and carried out by their rulers.
Other interesting chapters deal with the highly publicized trial of Tehlirian. Bogosian shows that his arrest was very much part of the plan in hopes that a trial would allow a full airing of the Armenian case for justice.
The defense's portrayal of Tehlirian as a man driven by grief after witnessing the death of family members was calculated to gain sympathy for him and for the greater cause. In fact, Tehlirian was abroad in 1915 when his home was raided and his mother murdered. But his grief and revulsion were real, and they compelled him to find and kill the man he held responsible.
The trial strategy worked. Tehlirian was acquitted by the jury, and the German public was exposed to the enormity of its war-time ally’s crimes.
Unfortunately, Bogosian interrupts the tale repeatedly to offer observations and historical allusions that tend to diminish any sense of heroics on the part of Tehlirian and his colleagues while distancing the author from the vast body of Armenians of the time who embraced them.
He clearly understands why Armenians wanted Talaat and the others dead but he is just as clearly uncomfortable with the means of execution. At one point, he wonders if the Genocide stirred a “bloodlust” in the survivors.
The best critique I’ve read is by author and political cartoonist Lucine Kasbarian. She takes issue with Bogosian's efforts to frame the operation as a political assassination plot rather than an attempt to bring convicted killers to justice.
Bogosian is entitled to his point of view, of course, but Kasbarian identifies many errors and misinterpretations in the text, notably in the author’s attempt to draw a parallel between Genocide’s perpetrators and Armenian patriots who fought against them by citing “a shared code of violence.
This is the weak foundation for Bogosian’s further attempts to connect the Nemesis executions with the killings of Turkish officials by Armenians in the 1970s and the 2007 murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul by a Turkish extremist.
It’s all quite strained at best. I wonder why Bogosian thought any of it was necessary, or even interesting? I sense the heavy hand of a mediocre editor with a political agenda. A better editor would have sharpened – or preferably deleted – the author’s muddled attempt to summarize his thoughts about Operation Nemesis.
Bogosian notes that the agents of Operation Nemesis “did not see themselves as terrorists” and certainly believed they were responding to a higher calling than mere retribution.
“That does not make what Operation Nemesis did legal. One question that surrounds these assassinations is this: If you desire a world where justice prevails, then you must rely on laws. If you rely on laws, they must be universal. Laws cannot be superseded simply cause some feel that they are wrong or because a person ‘knows’ he has the right to break them.”
(Note to the publisher: You might at least hire an editor who knows what a question is.)
The author correctly states that many Armenians feel cheated by not having had a Nuremberg, the city where Nazis were tried by a special court set up by the Allies after the Second World War. His readers might have been better served, and his observations better formed, if Bogosian had explored the experience of the people most affected by those trials.
Of the many Nazi leaders involved in the persecution and murder of Jews, only 10 were executed as a result of Nuremberg. Others were sentenced to prison, but many more escaped prosecution and a number found refuge in other countries. As in the case of the Armenian Genocide, the world’s powers were eager to move on. Responsibility for tracking down the most vicious fugitives fell to Nazi hungers like Simon Wiesenthal and the Israeli government.
It took 15 years to locate the ugliest of all, Adolf Eichmann, who planned and directed the transport of European Jews to Nazi death camps.
Like Talaat, Eichmann had taken advantage of post-war chaos and powerful friends to elude justice. Arrested by the Allies in 1945, Eichmann escaped from American custody. This man responsible for the deaths of millions was living comfortably under an assumed name in Argentina when Israeli agents with the help of Wiesenthal were tipped to his whereabouts in 1960.
The Israelis could not risk seeking Argentina’s cooperation because Eichmann might be alerted, or even helped to escape once more. So no attempt was made to extradite him. Instead, Eichmann was kidnapped, flown to Israel on a government jet and tried for crimes against the Jewish people.
We know now that a good deal of consideration went into this plan. The Israelis believed a trial in Israel would have far-reaching effects in a world where the Nazis horrors already seemed to many like ancient history.
They were right.
Like the trial of Tehlirian, the trial of Eichmann – televised live– was about much more than one man’s guilt or innocence. Dour and unrepentant, Eichmann personified the Nazi death machine far more vividly than any grainy war-time newsreel. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and hanged.
To me, that sentence seems justified and overdue. But how was it legal?
Eichmann had committed no crimes in Israel, which didn’t exist when he fled Germany. The Israelis had no jurisdiction in Argentina, which protested the violation of its sovereignty. Although he was charged with violations of international law, Eichmann was never turned over to international authorities.
These objections were raised by legal scholars, including some Israelis. They echoed similar objections raised at the time of the Nuremberg trials. Among the prominent Americans who deplored the Nazis but challenged the legality of their post-war trials was Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. “We cannot teach liberty and justice in Germany by suppressing liberty and justice,” he said.
I think we can safely declare the good senator wrong based on a half-century’s hindsight and our knowledge of Germany’s emergence from both Nazis and Communists as a liberal democracy.
In trying the Nazis at Nuremberg, the world reached a vital consensus that the law of statutes and court opinions is always subordinate to the higher law that gives us all the right to live freely. Defendants at Nuremberg argued truthfully that they were following orders. That did not save them from the gallows.
In capturing and killing Eichmann, Israel followed its principles rather than any code book or treaty. Eichmann’s pivotal role in the Holocaust demanded the ultimate punishment, and there was no other realistic way to carry it out.
I see the Operation Nemesis in the same light.
To me, it’s this simple: Talaat and his murderous gang did not deserve to die in bed – and Armenians deserved justice. Operation Nemesis achieved both goals, and the people who carried it out should be venerated.
Would Bogosian feel the same way if he’d been lucky enough to shake hands with Arshavir Shiragian?