Evil then and now

Boston has been through a lot lately, and so has the city of Watertown. The effects of the evil that grew in the minds of the Tsarnaev brothers are bound to stay with those who were locked in their homes during the manhunt of April 19. But that was hardly the end of it. On April 24, with most residents hardly over the shock of the bombings, the Armenian communities in and around Watertown had to recalibrate their hearts and minds to honor the memories of their ancestors who perished during the genocide of 1915.

Although I recently wrote about the need to dislodge “the elephant” (the Armenian genocide) and welcome “the dialogue” for Armenian-Turkish relations, I personally cannot forget the evil that engulfed Armenians during that time, or the subsequent trauma inherited by the survivors and their descendants. So I would like to share some comments I have collected from my interviews with several of the TAWA (Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance) women concerning Armenian-Turkish history.

Tsoleen Sarian says, “I think we’re angry because we don’t know better, we don’t know how to get over this; we don’t, we can’t find our voice to educate and explain, we can only react…although we want this recognition, what comes next [is] that dark, gray area which is so unknown that everyone just stays out of that.”

Ayşe Kaya Fırat says, “It is impossible to reverse the course of things…They might say that they want material things—like they want land—but even if they were given those things, they wouldn’t be relieved…the pain won’t go away…They would like it to be acknowledged, and obviously there would be consequences under international law…but even [if] that were to happen, they wouldn’t be happy; there’s nothing to be happy about this event…it’s pain that we have to suffer together.”

Laura Bilazarian-Purutyan says, “If an individual has an injustice in their life, whether as a victim or a perpetrator…in order to move on from it and not have that experience own their life and their future and dictate all [their] decisions going forward, [the events of 1915 have] to unpack and shed light on that experience…otherwise, [it will be] like putting a rug over it, but it’s still this mountain in the middle of the room with a rug over it…rather than moving the rug and looking at it, and letting it fall apart and over time be cleaned up…It’s just not going to get cleaned up without acknowledgment.”

Zeren Earls says, “If the Turkish government could possibly say we know it, it happened, it was wartime…sorry, let’s move on—but they’re not saying that; they are denying, so it’s the denial which then forces them to reflect it in their own storybooks, or verbally telling their kids in whatever way they do to perpetuate the story.”

Joyce Van Dyke says, “I know I had a conversation long ago…in college, where somebody I was talking to said that the genocide didn’t happen…and I remember being in this very fraught situation with this person…it’s happening to me right now as I’m recalling it…The minute he said that, I felt my palms tingling, and I looked down and my palms had broken out in beads of sweat, a thing that’s never happened to me before or since…my palms are tingling right now just to remember this; whenever I sort of recall this event, that’s what happens to me….beads of sweat, and I don’t sweat much.”

Some of the TAWA participants have dealt with the memory of 1915 through works of art. For example, playwright Joyce Van Dyke, in The Deported: A Dream Play, created two female characters, both survivors of 1915; one is based on Joyce’s grandmother, Elmas Sarajian Boyajian. The reaction to Joyce’s play was mixed, including negativity expressed by some Armenians who didn’t appreciate the fact that the play raised issues of reconciliation as well as recognition. The play’s third act features a dreamlike sequence, with a potential scene of reconciliation at some undetermined time in the future. When I asked Joyce why it was important for her to write this third act, this was her answer:

“It was like breaking through into light somehow, or into life…In a way, the play is about how you live…how you live on…how you find a way to live when you know something has happened to you like this; and so it could not, for me, just end with these people releasing parts of their story and then dying…I mean, there had to be, there had to be something beyond that, it had to go somewhere…it had to have an impact somehow.”

As a Turkish American reading Joyce’s script and then watching the play, I felt a connection to what Joyce was trying to achieve with her art; and that’s probably why I was inspired to start the TAWA group. I was pressed to reconsider my reasons just the other day when a highly educated Armenian American academic questioned the validity of what I am trying to achieve with TAWA: wasn’t the basic point that a genocide had taken place in the Ottoman Empire, one where at least one million Ottoman citizens of Armenian heritage had been deported, massacred, or left to die, along with their cultural heritage and ties to their homeland in Anatolia? The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes! But here’s a second question: Is that all there is to explore, understand, and carry into the future by Armenians as well as Turks? I’m hoping the answer is no. I can’t speak for all Armenians and Turks around the world, but I believe the TAWA women can carry more than one truth at a time in their brains. Whether we can do that, without diminishing the memory of a huge number of Armenians who were killed or dispersed around the world because of the evil committed in 1915, is a challenge well worth the effort.

And finally, nothing I have said here should reduce the importance of paying respect to Armenians who, just like Joyce’s grandmother, should be remembered well beyond 1915. This was her response when I asked what she would say to her now deceased grandmother if she had the chance:

“I wish I could tell her that I remember that I never saw her cry, and that I saw her laugh many times, and that I don’t understand how she could have been the person that she was…[I] thought that all the time about her when I was growing up, all the time I was in her presence; I used to be just astounded to be in her presence and to think, how can you make food and set the table and…mend your clothes and just be a normal person…after what you went through? How can you maintain yourself, how can you maintain your composure, how can you not be insane?…How can you be a good person that does constructive things?…I never said that to her, ever, ever—and that was my governing feeling about her my whole life.”

One of the worst evils in history fell upon the Armenians in 1915, but the ones who were able to survive marched on, and against all odds, have maintained their language, culture, and traditions while making significant contributions to the world, as I witness in and around Boston every day. And just as the city of Boston was determined to stay strong after the evil we witnessed on Marathon Monday, that process of survival alone is a testament to the indestructible spirit of humanity, exemplified not only by Armenians of a hundred years ago, but by Armenians right here and right now.