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The Armenian Genocide of 1915 - Past Horrors, Contemporary Realities

" We are, each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and how others imagine us" (Philip Gourevitch)


The forgotten fate of the 1.5 million Armenian victims of the Genocide of 1915 marked the opening chapter of a century that was to be marred by genocidal conflicts. It is estimated that in the 20th century alone more than 60 million people became the victims of genocide - yes 60 million men, women and children were annihilated due to their membership of a national, ethnic community, religion or simply because they were deemed undesirable by those who controlled the reins of power. We are all too familiar with Hitler's assertion: 'who now remembers the Armenians' to explain and legitimate the annihilation of European Jewry during the Second World War. The devastating assault by Hitler on Jews was to mark a stain on the moral conscience of the international community and acted as one of the catalysts in propelling the United States to facilitate the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. International opinion that had conveniently forgotten and which indeed continues to have a selective memory on the plight of the Armenians was subsequently united in its impassioned declaration that such horrific episodes should never be repeated. Yet they were to be repeated again and again and the genocidal conflicts of the 20th century have arguably been lessons not learnt and moral challenges to which the international community has proven unable and to a great extent unwilling to rise up to.

My initial objective, when I began writing this article, was to place four selected genocidal events and conflicts briefly in their wider historic and political contexts in order to assess the dominant forces that bind the Christian Armenians, European Jews, Bosnian Muslims and Tutsis of Rwanda. It very quickly became evident that this was a task ridden with pitfalls especially to a person lacking an academic background in the huge field of genocide studies. Consequently, I changed track and have written what can be largely defined as an opinion piece that seeks to communicate how we as Armenians remain invariably and intrinsically tied to our genocidal past. As stated by Philip Gourevitch, an author and acclaimed commentator on the Rwandan genocide, "We are each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and how others imagine us". Indeed, the Armenian genocide constitutes the principal focus of Armenian national discourse and our imaginations are arguably the products of an episode in our historic past whose reverberations continue to have an impact on the perceptions of consecutive generations of diasporan Armenians. Admittedly, my opinions will invariably be influenced by the baggage I carry with me as an Armenian, a human rights worker and some may say an idealist in a world increasingly motivated not by the search for peace but by the self-serving agendas of politicians who seem intent on unleashing further havoc with their actions rather than addressing the root causes of existing tensions.

Memory and remembering: A genocidal legacy:

I will begin by recounting an incident that happened to me last year as it sharply demonstrated how the genocide constitutes an integral part not only of how we "imagine ourselves to be" but also of how "others imagine us". Following the completion of my M.Phil degree I underwent a long-winded interview process for a job as an editor with a consultancy firm specialising on the politics of the Middle East region. After successfully overcoming the expected hurdles of tests and so forth I received an e-mail from my would-be boss enquiring whether my Armenian background would interfere with my coverage of Turkish political and economic developments. I remember the thought that struck me was that if I were a Jew working on the European desk would I be asked whether I would have a problem say exploring Schroeder's stance on Iraq because of what the Nazis had done to European Jewry in 1939? The answer to that is an unequivocal no. The reason arguably being that whilst the Jews have achieved closure on a clearly horrendous but internationally recognised episode in their history the Armenians have not achieved that closure and the wounds inflicted nearly a century ago remain to be healed. In other words closure and healing come from a moral recognition of past injustice. The distinction between Armenians and Jews is that whilst world Jewry has gained this recognition the Armenian struggle continues on.

When I told a Jewish-American friend of mine what had just occurred during the interview process, he looked mildly bemused and told me if a Jew especially in the United States had been subjected to a similar line of questioning all hell would have broken loose! The strength of American Jewry and the deeply rooted relationship between the US and the State of Israel and the general international consensus that the holocaust not only occurred but was indeed one of the gravest crimes of the 20th century are some of the reasons why a similar line of questioning would not be directed to a Jewish person, anywhere in the world but especially in the United States.

To cut a long story short, after a couple of days of consideration I replied to the e-mail saying that whilst I am an Armenian I can't see why being an Armenian would interfere with my coverage of the power struggles within Turkey. I got the job but to some extent the dye had been cast and although now I have left that post I nevertheless feel that the exchange I had proved instructive since it demonstrated for the first time in my conscious memory that wherever in the world we may be our struggle for genocidal recognition, or simply our genocidal legacy can colour the kaleidoscope through which others perceive us. This slightly long anecdote brings me to the concept of memory and how the power of Armenian memory, comparably to the memories of Jews, Bosnians and Rwandan Tutsis should not become a debilitating force but a coherent and organised tool of political mobilisation. To put it another way how can we further utilise our collective memories and the perceptions of others of us to advance the struggle to promote the recognition of the Armenian genocide to a wider international audience?

Memory and symbols as instruments of political mobilisation:

We are all conditioned by our past history, and the genocide of 1915 constitutes an integral element of our national consciousness. The fact that 1.5 million Armenians fell victims to the Young Turks' agenda of Turkification is not an episode that is confined to the yellowy and murky pictures of Armenian skeletons but a feeling etched in the hearts of most Armenians. I guess this feeling is awakened in different people at different times, and although in the past I had fairly ritualistically attended various Armenian events it was only very recently in my early twenties that I feel I have slowly come to grips on what it really means to be an Armenian. So what in my opinion constitutes being an Armenian and what role do symbols, and more specifically symbols associated with the genocide, play in determining this abstract notion of an Armenian identity?

Symbols of the Armenian genocide can be found in abundance in the homes of most Armenians. These symbols may include a picture of Mount Ararat or a khatchkar tucked behind graduation pictures or maybe a poem by William Saroyan proclaiming the invincibility of the Armenian spirit. Most of us have come to overlook these symbols yet these symbols remain an inescapable element of our historic identities. Sometimes these symbols acquire a contemporary edge, as was the case with the recent Atom Egoyan film Ararat that explored the psychological impact of the genocidal past on consecutive generations of Armenians. I will proceed to define the notion of symbolism and subsequently turn my attentions to selected Armenian symbols in order to demonstrate the extent to which the genocide, albeit in a very subtle way, permeates our everyday existence.

Defining symbolism:

The eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz contends that symbols are a "tangible formulation of notions, abstractions from experiences fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiment of ideas, attitudes, judgements, longings or beliefs". The use of symbolic instruments to express episodes of suffering is certainly not a unique phenomenon but something that corresponds with the rise of nationalist politics. Tombs for unknown soldiers that can be seen in every city in every far-flung corner of this global village illustrate the respect accorded to those who have undertaken the ultimate sacrifice for the so-called national good.

Symbols of the holocaust feature prominently not only in Jewish and Israeli discourse but also in Germany with the German national curriculum being geared towards sensitising new generations of Germans to the horrors committed by fellow Germans under Nazi rule. Here rests the distinction between Armenian and Jewish symbolism. Whilst symbols associated with the holocaust are incorporated within German discourse, the marginalisation of the Armenian cause makes the role and function of our symbols all the more potent and indeed instrumental in promoting our cause. The various pictures of Mount Ararat scattered in most Armenian homes indeed express, as stated above by Geertz, a 'longing'. But this longing rests not as much on a real desire to return to this historic entity etched within our imaginations but on a need to encapsulate our past experiences to ensure that they are not lost on future generations of Armenians.

A parallel can be drawn here with how hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees scattered in refugee camps throughout the Middle East safeguard the keys to their houses, houses that have long been demolished by Israeli bulldozers, but memories of which remain engraved in the hearts and minds of many Palestinians. Moreover, sketches by Palestinians of the pre-1948 period attach an almost sacred importance to olive trees, which have come to symbolise the precious tranquillity of the past and a sense of harmony in sharp contrast to the current disharmony and calamity that prevails in the occupied territories. An exhibition was recently staged in Manhattan by a Palestinian painter entitled, 'Places and Spaces: Olives of Palestine' that emphasised the symbolic importance attached to the ritual of olive cultivation in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and statehood.

Perhaps one can suggest that the majority of Palestinians are aware that a return to pre-1948 historic Palestine is not a plausible reality, just as many Armenians have come to the painful awareness that lands lost in 1915 will in all political likelihood not be regained. However, as long as the Palestinian struggle for statehood and the Armenian struggle for recognition continue, symbols, whether they are keys to houses long gone or murky pictures of past horrors, will retain their potency. Turkey and Israel, coincidentally two of the United States' staunchest allies today, albeit with Turkey falling slightly out of favour with its current stance on Iraq, are both confronted by a grave moral dilemma that they may chose to ignore but one that will not go away. Palestinians will hand down corroded keys to future generations, just as Armenians will pass down the Armenian alphabet to future generations in order to preserve the emotive value of symbols by peoples experienced in the 'arts' of dispossession and dislocation.

This brings me to the prominence accorded to symbols associated with education, learning and knowledge in Armenian discourse. I will attempt to illustrate how and why this preoccupation with learning may be intertwined with our genocidal background. We can all visualise images of Mesrob Mashtodz leaning over the Armenian alphabet and many of us may even have come across the poem by Silva Gabudigian instructing us that the loss of our linguistic identity is tantamount to the loss of a mother. Accounts of the genocide recounted by witnesses tell of how Armenian mothers on their forced march through the Syrian desert of Der Zor used their fingers to write the Armenian alphabet on the sand in a heart-rending effort to preserve the very essence of their identity and heritage. Moreover, Armenian communities scattered throughout the world from Ethiopia to Sudan to Argentina to Baghdad assign an almost sacred importance to the institutions of church and school since both are the symbolic pillars that have helped preserve Armenian language and identity.

The Armenian community in Sudan is an illuminating example of the desire of a community to preserve and pass on the vestiges of a scattered civilisation. I mention Sudan because I was born and raised in Sudan and part of my heart will always remain in an African country where the Armenian alphabet can be witnessed on church doors and on tombstones in cemeteries. One of these tombstones reads in Armenian; " Hayrenik me sirdis metch hogh ge tarnam odar yergri metch". My translation of that caption reads, " My ashes are scattered in a foreign land but my soul will always belong to my motherland". The struggle against 'odarutiun' waged by people dead and gone and encapsulated by symbols in homes and on tombstones invariably comes down to the genocide. By struggling to preserve our distinct cultural and linguistic identity, we are asserting the will of the Armenian people, which refused to be extinguished in the darkest moments of Armenian history in the desert of Der Zor and which flourished in disparate communities in disparate parts of the globe.

Concluding remarks:

The April 24 commemorations of this year are taking place against the backdrop of war in Iraq with Turkey playing an uneasy role in providing strategic and logistical support to the United States. The US' politically expedient efforts at wooing Turkey make it plainly apparent that our struggle for recognition could face even more insurmountable obstacles in the immediate future, more so with the likes of self-declared Turkophiles like Dick Cheney controlling the reins of power. However, another reading of this situation in light of what the Americans perceive as the increasingly intransigent stance of the Turkish Parliament is that nothing is static in the current climate. Accordingly, the tide of international fortunes may come in time to turn in favour of the Armenian cause. Through organisations like the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (CRAG) in the United Kingdom and other organisations that are tirelessly campaigning for the recognition of the Genocide throughout the Diaspora, and through our collective efforts we can very gradually help push that tide in our favour in order to heal the wounds that were inflicted upon us nearly a century ago. However, for wounds to heal implies closure, which in turn will only come through the recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915 …

Anoushka Marashlian holds a BA (Hons) in History from the University of London and an M.Phil in Middle East Studies from the University of Oxford. Her fields of interest include human rights and democracy issues, with particular emphasis on the democratic deficiencies of the Middle East. Previously, Anoushka worked on the Middle East Desk of a UK-based think tank, and also on the Gulf Desk of Amnesty International

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