Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Dark Side of Mount Ararat

I hate using cliché phrases, but history has not been kind to the Armenians. 1700 years ago this ethnic group formed a Christian kingdom in Eastern Anatolia, the Armenian heartland, even before the Roman Empire tolerated the religion. The ravages of time, or more specifically the depredations of invaders and conquerors throughout the next millennium—Arabs, Sassanids, Byzantines, Seljuks, Mongols—put the Armenians on the defensive and ultimately left them an island civilization surrounded by a sea of hostile neighbors and demanding overlords.  A series of Turkic invasions throughout the Middle Ages culminated in the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Armenians, most of whom lived in the six Armenian vilayets or provinces of Eastern Anatolia, formed one of the large non-Muslim minority groups of the empire’s millet system.  While the Ottomans had tolerated these subjects, the fate of the Armenians, after nearly six centuries of discrimination, took a darker turn in the late 19th century as the empire, “the sick man of Europe,” staggered and limped along amid the fragmentation of its lands.  Whereas the Ottoman sultan had thousands of Armenians massacred before one century was done, the Young Turk regime during World War I would choreograph a systematic genocide in the next.  Still, the Armenian diaspora has managed to survive and even flourish for almost a century now.  The Republic of Armenia in the Caucasus became an independent state in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Empire, but even more Armenians reside in places like Beirut, Tehran, Aleppo, Paris, Montreal, and Los Angelesthe “command center.”

This brings me to the book I recently finished reading: Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream (Harper Collins, 2010).  The young author, Garin K. Hovannisian, offers a well-written account of his family’s history.  The story revolves around his great-grandfather Kaspar, grandfather Richard, and father Raffi. These three men were trailblazers in their own way.  Kaspar survived the 1915 genocide as a teenager and would eventually emigrate to the United States and set up a home in the San Joaquin Valley of California.  Richard Hovannisian would become a professor of history at UCLA and a pioneer of Armenian studies.  Finally, the author’s father, Raffi, after graduating from UCLA (a common source of education for this family, as it has been for my own), would acquire law degrees and get involved as an activist and politician in the struggle for Armenia’s independence.

The mass murder of Armenians during World War I involved the systematic killing of an estimated 1.5 million people, leaving many of the survivors to form a diasporan community throughout the world.  The Medz Yeghern, or great calamity, is the boogeyman that haunts Garin and his forefathers.  He refers to a “family brokered between a genocide and a dream,” and I take the latter to mean both the American dream and the family’s aspirations to find restitution and vindication for their people.  The “shadows” that cast a dark gloom over the family’s history refer not merely to the genocide itself.  The Republic of Turkey has continued to deny the crimes of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire.  Such denial is like a second stab in the back to the Armenians, not allowing them to mourn properly, for the grieving process necessitates a confession and acknowledgment of past sins; this injustice has been playing out for many decades now.

The Turkish government’s narrative for these deaths is plausible on the surface, and most Turks on the street, it would seem, have bought into it.  First, Turkish officials and academics reduce the numbers of casualties significantly.  Holocaust deniers do the same thing.  Second, they claim that these deaths occurred because of wartime measures.  The Ottoman Turks relocated the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia away from the eastern border so that they could no longer aid and abet the Russian enemy against the Ottoman Empire in their pursuit of an Armenian nation state.  Finally, representatives of the Turkish Republic almost always make the claim that Turks and Muslims suffered in greater numbers during World War I, as if such a numbers game is an adequate rebuttal to the charge of genocide.  Armenians and non-Armenian genocide scholars worldwide who have considered the evidence see 1915 as the first genocide of the twentieth century.  I don’t want to get into the minutiae of the arguments, but the number of victims, the manner of death, the evidence of systematic murder from top officials, and the geographic spread of the killings belie the Turkish claims about “unfortunate” deaths in the context of war.

Before we condemn the Turks out of hand for such an insidious denial of a people’s fate, let us consider the killing, starvation, and relocation of various Indian Nations in North America at the hands of the U.S. government and its willing accomplices, the settlement communities.  The reasons that we do not recognize this tragedy as genocide, or at least ethnic cleansing, are, I suspect, the same for the Turkish government.  First, it would open up a legal and costly can of worms, as the victims would take to the courts for reparations and restitution.  Second, it’s a matter of national honor and pride.  Who wants to think of their country as the perpetrator of genocide?  However, the comparison between the Armenian Genocide and the “American Holocaust” has its shortcomings.  Americans in the last 20 to 30 years have been coming around to the idea that, for example, the Plains Indian Wars, the relentless pursuit of the Nez Perce, and the Apaches War were not really wars at all but rather desperate attempts by ethnic communities to survive against a white culture bent on their destruction.  Moreover, to be blunt, our ancestors did a more efficient job of killing a people and its culture than did the Ottoman Turks.

The author sifted through dusty family archives and above all a recording of his great grandfather telling of his experience not long before his death in 1970.  Kaspar Gavroian, who changed his surname to Hovannisian to honor his father (the author’s great-great-grandfather Hovhannes Gavroian) upon arrival in America, had the most harrowing experience as a youth imaginable.  While his father was off fighting the war, gendarmes and Kurdish death squads rounded up the rest of Kaspar’s family from the village of Bazmashen in the vilayet of Kharpert and sent them off on a death march into the Syrian desert.  Turkish soldiers and gendarmes murdered and raped at will, and Kurds came down from the mountains to participate.  Some of the attractive women had opportunities to save themselves by becoming concubines and wives of their captors.  As for Kaspar, he survived because his mother let him become a servant boy to a Kurd.  He would never see his family again.  The boy would grow up quickly, for after he fled his new life of servitude, he found himself in an “Army of Orphans” defending the town of Garin against the Turks.  Robbed of his family and his youth, Kaspar arrived on Ellis Island in 1920 to start a new life for himself with little prospects.  A difficult man who would soften a bit  in his latter years, Kaspar would overcome the odds to become a first-generation Armenian American.  He would marry and have four sons in the peaceful surroundings of the San Joaquin Valley, which served as a transplanted Kharpert for an expatriate community.

Unlike his brothers, Richard Hovannisian had little interest in farming at the family homestead in Tulare, or anywhere else for that matter.  His destiny was a bookish one.  Attaining degrees at Berkeley and UCLA, the author's grandfather Richard would move his family to an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles and enjoy a long, prestigious career.  Currently  a Professor Emeritus of History at UCLA, Richard spent years on a seminal multivolume history of the first Armenian Republic (1918-1920) and mentored a number of doctoral students.  Occasionally he weighed in on the Armenian Genocide.  How could he not, as an Armenian American professor of history?  Yet his involvement in this controversy, it seemed, was never a primary academic interest, but rather the call to duty in defending the record of history.  Family of Shadows gives a few instances of conflict between the author’s family members, namely his grandfather and father, and deniers of the genocide.  I was already aware of efforts on the part of the Turkish government to control the narrative regarding 1915 by endowing university chairs with the tacit understanding that the recipient of such an honor would be kind to Turkey's past.  I didn't know about the battle inside the UCLA history department over an endowed chair in Turkish studies to counterbalance the one in Armenian studies that Richard had painstakingly established, in part with his own money.

Garin makes it clear that his tale is one of two homelands: the heartland in Eastern Anatolia and what has traditionally been called Russian Armenia on the other side of majestic Mount Ararat.  The former is part of the Republic of Turkey and is largely off limits to Armenian expatriates and other Westerners who might want to poke around there, while the latter existed under Soviet rule until an independent nation emerged in the early 1990s.  Moreover, both expatriate Armenians and citizens of Armenia have been in constant conflict with Azerbaijan over a mountainous region called Nagorno-Karabagh that is populated mostly by Armenians.  Among the list of Stalin’s evil actions we should include his capricious transfer of the region to Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s.  Garin’s father, Raffi, who embraced life as a third-generation Armenian American and excelled in academics and football as a young man, would make the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the independence of Armenia, and the independence of Nagorno-Karabagh his lifelong pursuits.  Unlike his father Richard who preferred a life of scholarship, the son would become a political activist, even to the extent of renouncing his U.S. citizenship to become an Armenian citizen and the country’s first foreign minister.

If you want to learn more about the Armenian American community and the impact of genocide on a family from generation to generation, check out Garin Hovannisian’s book.  The author is obviously proud of his heritage.  Here and there he’ll mention well-known people who are either Armenian or partly Armenian: Cher, Andre Agassi, Mark Geragos (of Scott Peterson fame), William Saroyan, George Deukmejian et alia.  (Somehow he forgot to mention Dr. Kervorkian!)  I’ve been reading about the Armenian Genocide for years and still have learned a few things.  For instance, I didn’t know about the impressive Armenian Genocide Memorial erected in 1968 at Bicknell Park in Montebello, California.  I gained new insights on the Armenian diaspora, especially in California.  Overall, Family of Shadows presents a compelling story of survival, assimilation, and success.

I’ve added this book to the required reading for a course I’m teaching in the fall semester.  While the author goes into more detail on the struggle for independence for Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabagh region than my undergraduate students will want to know, this political struggle is an important part of the story: like the Jews seeking refuge in a nation state of their own, Armenians’ establishment of a homeland is a matter of survival.  The Republic of Turkey has been a strong ally of the United States for decades, and for this reason, only one U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, has publicly called the 1915 tragedy genocide.  I find myself in the disconcerting position of being a Turcophile and yet committed as an academic who dabbles in the field of genocide studies to inform students about this evil act.  Hopefully, all the cards will be out on the table someday.  Hopefully, the successors of Mustafa Ataturk Kemal, who once referred to the genocide as “a shameful act,” will see the wisdom of owning up to the sins of the past.  Then again, the United States has not fully dealt with the skeletons in its own closet.