Saturday, February 03, 2007

"We are all Armenian"

The Globe and Mail (Canada)
Feb 3 2007

The murder of a journalist in Turkey has reopened the discussion
about genocide and its denial, filmmaker ATOM EGOYAN says.


The first book I ever read about the Armenian genocide was written by
an Austrian Jew. Franz Werfel's epic novel Forty Days of Musa Dagh
(Viking Press, 1934) created a sensation when it was published.
Meticulously researched and written with an astute sense of
psychological detail, the novel was intended as a wake-up call to
European Jewry. If it could happen to Armenians in 1915, it could
happen anywhere.

But what exactly happened to Armenians in 1915? The enduring value of
Werfel's great book is his ability to render all aspects of Armenian
life in the Ottoman Empire with a startlingly vivid clarity and
nuance. Very much in the tradition of the works of Thomas Mann (they
were contemporaries), every character is observed with a sense of
psychological magnification and kaleidoscopic vision.

Faced with certain death at the hands of the Turks, an Armenian
village mobilizes itself into action. Five thousand are led into the
impenetrable mountain area of Musa Dagh, where they heroically defend
themselves. The plot is linear and straightforward, yet each of the
main characters is infused with marvellous complexity. Werfel
presents the terrible events of 1915 with grandeur and scope, yet
fills every detail with precision and tenderness.

A defining aspect of the Armenian genocide is the methodical and
highly efficient denial of its perpetrators. Many scholarly works
have been published on this subject, including the Turkish academic
Taner Akcam's A Shameful Act (Henry Holt, 2006). The most succinct
and compelling explanation of this history is offered in Robert
Fisk's recent The Great War for Civilization (Fourth Estate, 2005).

Fisk has been in the forefront of the Middle East's conflicts for 30
years, and this monumental work is a passionate and heartfelt
indictment of the lies and deceit that have defined the politics of
the region. In many ways, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire - and
the subsequent dividing of its spoils by the West - set the stage for
the instability of the entire region. Fisk devotes an entire chapter
(titled The First Holocaust) to the Armenian Question.

In fewer than 50 pages, Fisk brilliantly sets out the brutal
machinery of genocide, chronicling Hitler's familiarity with the
mechanics and - just as ominously - its denial. He clearly explains
how the issue of the Armenian genocide began to fade from European
and U.S. attention after the First World War, despite the huge amount
of attention the massacres received at the time.

Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist who was murdered in Turkey three
weeks ago, used this point as a way of explaining the event to his
Turkish countrymen. Turkey has been able to suppress "the Armenian
Question" because the West has allowed it to do so. Even with a
growing number of countries (including Canada) recognizing the
genocide, it still runs counter to general Western interests to
pursue the matter.

When MGM tried to make a film of Forty Days of Musa Dagh in the
mid-thirties, the Turkish ambassador filed a protest with the U.S.
State Department. If the film were to be made, Turkey would ban all
U.S. films from entering the country. After a year of exchanges
between the two governments, the State Department acquiesced to the
Turkish demand, and the project was dropped.

Peter Balakian, in his highly charged memoir Black Dog of Fate
(HarperCollins, 1997), wonders how Franklin Roosevelt's State
Department could care so little about artistic freedom, especially in
light of what was about to happen to the Jews of Europe. Like Fisk,
Balakian is obsessed with the question of how a catastrophe that
loomed so large in the U.S. consciousness could slip from collective
memory (his most recent book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian
Genocide and America's Response, explores how and why the Armenian
crisis became for the United States, its first international
human-rights movement.

Balakian is a wonderful poet, and if I were to suggest one book that
combines carefully researched history with an emotionally charged
journey into the contemporary Armenian soul, this is certainly the
one to read.

Black Dog of Fate presents Balakian's upbringing in the optimistic
years of 1950s and '60s U.S. suburbia. With warmth and affection,
Balakian describes an adolescence of athletic seasons (football,
basketball, baseball), Sunday feasts of Armenian food and beautiful
evocations of his family and relatives. Balakian is a great lover of
carpets, and he weaves his words and highly charged imagery in a
masterful way. The unexpected discovery of how his grandmother made
an actual legal claim against the Turkish government after the First
World War is unforgettable. Balakian sets up his beloved
grandmother's fragmented dreams and whispered stories, disarming the
reader with a poetic sense of melancholic reverie.

Balakian then presents a dry legal document he discovers that lists
the family she lost to the genocide (husband, brothers, sisters,
nieces and nephews), as well as a complete itemization of the
plundered goods of the family business. The plaintive claim for
compensation is simply devastating.

Balakian's grandmother, signing this legal document on Jan. 31, 1920,
states, "The Turkish government is responsible for the losses and
injuries. . . . I am a human being and a citizen of the U.S.A. and
under the support of human and International law." Needless to say,
there was no response to this claim.

Last month, thousands of Turks poured into the streets of Istanbul
after Hrant Dink's murder, yelling, "We are all Hrant Dink. We are
all Armenian." In the face of such confusion, pain and hatred, there
is an urgent human need to find empathy. Great literature strives for
this generosity of spirit, and these three authors will leave a
lasting impression on the reader.

Atom Egoyan is working on Auroras, a meditation on the Armenian
genocide. This installation will be exhibited during Luminato,
Toronto Festival of Arts & Creativity, in June, 2007. Among his many
films is Ararat, about the 1915 massacre of Armenians in Turkey.

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