History is Filled with Ironic Connections

As death and destruction continue to plague the Middle East, we are reminded that the region has always been a cauldron of ethnic tensions and hatreds, sometimes held at bay by despotic governments, sometimes erupting into bloody episodes that horrify the world. One of the largest and darkest such episodes took place beginning April 24, 1915 as hundreds of Armenian leaders were rounded up and subsequently killed by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire and their accomplices. 

The story of the Armenian Genocide is big and complex. There is a list of some recent and respected books on the topic follow the column below which I wrote years ago.

January 1, 1995 — Three times in my life I’ve been face-to-face with people whose ancestors could have raped, tortured, killed or made slaves of my ancestors.

My father’s family is from Armenia, a small nation located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, where Turkey, Iran and Iraq come together. Armenia is a very ancient country, having been formed at least 500 years before the birth of Christ. It has one of the oldest, continuous languages on the planet. Armenia has grown and shrunk with the ebb and flow of history, in one of the busiest regions of the ancient and modern world. It has been conquered by Alexander the Great, Romans, Ghengis Khan, Muslims, Persians, Turks, Russians, and others. It is said to be the first country to accept Christianity as its national religion.

Before the Nazis the systematic genocide of the Jews during World War II, the Turkish massacre of Armenians during the first part of the century had been the modern world’s worst example of atrocities committed by one people against another.

It has been reported by many sources that the Turks of the Ottoman Empire were responsible for the deaths of nearly 1.5 million Armenians between 1915-16 and beyond. This was during and shortly after World War I when the Middle East, too, was the scene of chaotic fighting among Turks, British, French, Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, Russians and others.

The current population of Armenia, now one of the former Soviet Republics is about 3 million. Needless to say, the Turkish massacres came close to wiping out the entire Armenian population in their small corner of the world.

My grandmother, Dzovinar (meaning: rose by the sea), was a young girl at the time of the massacres. There were eleven children in her family. Only four survived the massacres. As family legend has it, she escaped with murderous Turkish soldiers in hot pursuit. She somehow made it to an orphanage, then France, then Canada. Eventually, she came to America.


The first real Turk I ever met was a “real” Turk. In college, I washed pots and pans in my dormitory cafeteria to earn a little extra spending money. (The pots and pans job paid a quarter more an hour than the dishwashing jobs). I usually worked standing between the Turk and a middle-aged family man from India, working on a Doctorate in Education. They both spoke broken English, just like all four of my grandparents (my mom’s parents being directly from Sicily). I could understand the Turk and the Indian, but they did not understand each other very well. I acted as a sort of interpreter.

I got to be friends with the Turk. We were both young and single. We went to a few bars together. Or we’d sit in his apartment and drink straight, warm vodka (or “wadka,” as he called it). He had served in the Turkish military and could drive a tank. His favorite musical group was the Moody Blues, which he pronounced as though it was one word with only one syllable.

Only once did we mention what had happened during World War I. “This is America,” I told him. “We must forget that.”

“Right,” he said, “That is history.”

I never told my grandparents about my Turkish friend.

Old memories die hard. But post-World War II suburbia, where I grew up, was a mish-mash of second and third-generation ethnic groups. We learned to co-exist.

My Turkish friend opened a landscaping business, and, is now an American citizen, living in Michigan.

Years later, I visited a friend who was attending Syracuse University in upstate New York. Her Turkish roommate showed up along with several other Turkish students. We sat for hours smoking Turkish cigarettes and drinking Turkish coffee.

“Those were Ottoman Turks,” they said of the atrocities. “We are trying to move past those parts of our history, of which we are not proud.” (The new country is called Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923.)

“Yes. And America is a good place to forget the ancient hatreds of the old world.”

A few years later, I went out on a blind date. A buddy was dating a woman who “had a sister” — that kind of thing. There was something familiar about my blind date but I couldn’t figure it out.

One night, the sisters had my buddy and me over for dinner. My date fixed pilaf, a middle eastern rice dish which is now served in many varieties, almost anywhere in America. But there is a particular way it is made by Armenians and that was the way my date made it.

“Where did you learn to make pilaf like this?” I asked.

“Well,” said my date’s sister, “We’re Turkish, and we should know how to make good pilaf.”

“Oh no!” said my date, mostly to her sister. “I never told him we were Turkish.”

(She, of course, knew I was Armenian, because anyone with “ian” on the end of their name is Armenian. I guess my ancestors wanted a code to identify one another).

What had seemed familiar about the woman I was dating became obvious to me at that point: she looked very much like one of my 100% Armenian relatives. History had so mixed our gene pools that, given a neutral corner in America, ancient animosities were not only forgotten, but barely recognizable. The thought had occurred to me that my date and I, through some quirk of fate, might even be related. I have forgotten why we stopped dating, but it wasn’t because of the way she made pilaf.

Since moving to the South 11 years ago (31 years as of 2015), I’ve had a hard time understanding the lingering vestiges of the Civil War. At the time it was being fought, my ancestors were herding sheep in Armenia, or growing tomatoes in Sicily. The American Civil War is not a part of my family’s personal heritage, although, as Americans, it is a part of our collective history.

Recently, Tennessee has seen a rash of cross burnings, fire bombs, and murder — all, one way or another, motivated by old hatreds.

We can carry hate to our graves. Or, we can let go of it and live in peace.

We should bury the past, and the symbols of the past. Bury them with respect, if you wish, but they should be buried.

P.S. After reading a rough draft of this column to my father to confirm some of the family history, he told me something else. My grandmother was, indeed, chased by Turkish soldiers. A family took young Dzovinar in, and allowed her to hide in their house until she was rescued and taken to an orphanage. The family that saved her life was Turkish. 

From The Guardian

Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris is a readable account emphasising US testimony. For forensic research by a Turkish historian, try Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act. In An Inconvenient Genocide, the British lawyer Geoffrey Robertson makes the human rights case. The wider background of the first world war has been recently retold in The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan. Other accounts include Thomas de Waal’s Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide and Vicken Cheterian’s Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide. Professor Bernard Lewis’s statement onDistinguishing the Armenian Case from the Holocaust. The website of the Gomidas Institute focuses on historical documentation about the genocide and current campaigns.

I am reading a recently published book There Was And There Was Not by Meline Toumani. A simple Google search will give anyone interested in the topic enough reading to last a very long time. Also, the Google+ history communities have a number of articles.

BACKGROUND: Armenia is an ancient nation, historically covering a large area in what is now eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and northern Iran with communities scattered into present-day Syria, Lebanon and Jerusalem. Armenians say they settled around Mt. Ararat after Noah’s ark landed there following the Bible’s Great Flood. It claims that in 301AD it became the first nation to accept Christianity as its official religion.

Being in at a geographically important trade and military crossroads, Armenia has been conquered many times by many different cultures. Most of its ancient homelands came under Ottoman rule during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and remained so for hundreds of years.

During World War I, the region was a chaotic battleground with Turks, Russians, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and others along with the western Allies fighting it out for the future of the entire Middle East.

On April, 24 1915, Ottoman (Turkish) authorities arrested more than 250-270 Armenian political leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople (now Istanbul). These leaders along with several thousand more were soon killed, jailed or deported. The date is used to commemorate the beginning of The Armenian Genocide.

“While there is no clear consensus as to how many Armenians lost their lives during the Armenian genocide and what followed, there seems to be a consensus among Western scholars with the exception of few dissident and Turkish national historians, as to when covering all the period between 1914 to 1923, over a million Armenian might have perished, and the tendency seem recently to be, either presenting 1.2 million as figure or even 1.5 million, while more moderately, “over a million” is presented, as the Turkish historian Fikret Adanir provides as estimation, but excludes what followed 1917.”



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