Op-Ed: Finding a New Way of Remembering Armenian Genocide
On the 98th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, some people were putting together signs to hold outside of consulates or writing letters or calling their state or Congressional leaders while some of us congregated around monuments outside of churches to remember the lives lost almost a century ago.
What is clear however is that Armenian Martyrs Day in the United States has a distinct political aspect to it, most notably lobbying the American government to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The protests in the Armenian Diaspora grew out of the 1965 demonstrations in Yerevan on the 50th anniversary of the Genocide and gradually became a staple of April 24th observances in Armenian communities across the globe. Unfortunately I could not attend the commemoration at the Massachusetts States House on Friday due to the lockdown of the city while police closed in on the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings which got me thinking:
If we don’t have these protests or commemorations, what do we have?
Last year while in Connecticut I didn’t go to the State House in Hartford, so without a frame of reference on my calendar it took me until 5 p.m to realize it was the anniversary for the Genocide and come to think of it I haven’t down anything on April 24th the past couple years. Let’s just imagine a scenario where the U.S, Turkey and other countries with sizeable Armenian populations properly recognize what happened, this effectively takes out the protests and political actions that recognition efforts entailed. If you’re struggling to find an answer as to what fills that void, you probably aren’t alone. We don’t have any specific rituals or customs that we are suppose to perform, sure we say a couple prayers but is that really it? It’s not like in Armenia where Genocide Remembrance Day is a public holiday where it‘s normal for everyone to take time off to visit Tsitsernakaberd. I understand that the ARF Western Region asked people to take personal days or close their businesses – maybe that will work in Glendale or other areas with heavy concentrations of Armenians but it can‘t happen everywhere. We have jobs we need to go to, children have to stay in school, not everyone can make the memorial services, state house speeches or protests.
I applaud those who continue to speak out against denial but I don’t think observing April 24th should just be about protests and lobbying. As a descendant of Genocide survivors, I personally feel the Genocide itself has a huge presence in terms of how I identify myself and while I cannot speak for all Armenians out there, it definitely provides a link to the past that I worry might be severed once recognition occurs. Wouldn’t it be terribly ironic if political realization of recognition ended remembrance altogether?
Political activities on April 24th should not take precedence over any form of real reflection within the community. By real reflection I mean maintaining an understanding of what happened almost a century ago.
In 1915 a huge blow was dealt to the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire and Western Armenian culture. Clothing, dances, songs, foods and dialects unique to each village or region, collective histories and individual memories were destroyed, a renaissance in the Armenian literary tradition cut short and the cultural and historical legacy of 3,000 year-old civilization slowly erased from the land of it’s forebears. The homogenization of Anatolia stripped away the richness brought to the table by not just Armenians but Assyrians and Greeks as well. Can this all become easily digestible for the general public? I don’t think so, especially in the K-12 school systems since textbook and curriculum committees haven’t had the best track record.
It’s been a couple years but if I remember correctly, World War I in high school was basically Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, entangling alliances, trench warfare then the Treaty of Versailles. When I was younger I used to dutifully go through history textbooks and see what each said about the Armenian Genocide and more often than not, it was a side note that described it as a series of massacres in the end days of the Ottoman Empire. Nothing substantial and not the type of thing that will stick with somebody. This isn‘t an excuse to stop funneling resources towards education efforts but it‘s not the end all be all of recognition. More than anything, the onus is on us to keep the victims from being relegated to the footnotes of history.
Given this, how do we honor the memories of those who perished? Some suggestions could be to read Varoujan or Siamanto, listen to Komitas, cook a traditional dish from Marash, Sivas or Bitlis and learn a regional dance from Erzurum or Bursa. Even better, find out where your family is from and learn about it. Maybe listen to relatives have to say or stories they were told, read survivor testimony or that of witnesses like Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Johannes Lepsius and the like. You could do this with your family, members of your church and even non-Armenian friends so they can learn as well. In a similar vein, why not read up on contemporary Armenian figures? While it may seem sometimes that we are stuck in 1915, our culture is very much alive and it’s important not to forget that. They are proof that Armenian culture is still strong and flourishing, simply living represents an active form of rebellion against the Young Turks‘ intentions, even in the 21st century.
I choose to take away from April 24th is not only recognizing the significance of those we lost but also the ones who lived and the legacy we have inherited.