All my life, people have asked if I am Armenian. I’ve always replied that I am, that most names ending in “-ian” reflect the old Armenian word meaning “son,” though my Armenian heritage is distant—my paternal great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. Until I reached my thirties I never thought much about my ancestry, until one day someone asking this same question also asked if I had read Peter Balakian’s book Black Dog of Fate. I hadn’t, and did. I learned then the awful fate of the Armenians at the beginning of World War I, and of those, including Peter’s grandmother, who survived the forced trek into Syria. I was mesmerized, and read more. How could this horrible thing have happened, and so few (including me) know anything of it? I read survivors’ stories, transcripts of oral histories, memoirs, and history books. I learned of the denial of the Turkish nation, and of the fact that to speak of the Armenian deaths as genocide remains a crime in Turkey to this day. Eventually, I hit upon the idea of writing a novel about the deportations, but approaching it from the point of view of one of the policemen, the gendarmes, who escorted these groups from the country. Several years later, The Gendarme was born.
After finishing the first draft of the novel, I placed a newspaper advertisement seeking a Turkish-speaking person to read the manuscript and evaluate my use of Turkish words. A husband and wife, graduate students at the local university, responded. I explained the story, including its sensitive topic, and they agreed to review it for a small fee and get back to me in a few weeks. The next day, however, they returned to my office, explaining that after further consideration they would be unable to complete the task. The subject matter was, they said, too controversial. I later found another graduate student to review the manuscript, a young Turkish man who provided suggestions I found valuable. I asked, at the conclusion of our discussion, if the novel had offended him. He paused a bit and responded that, yes, there was an element of affront to it, particularly in the presenting of things from a Turkish character’s point of view. When I asked him to elaborate, he said that it was difficult for modern Turks to understand the fixation of the Armenians and the West in general on this episode in history, that a war was on, that bad things happened in wars, including bad things that happened to the Turks in this war. The Turks and Armenians had experienced other conflicts before this. He said that modern Turkey has moved on.
I thought about this later when, in an effort to trace a general path taken by the deportation caravans, I spent part of August 2008 in Turkey and Syria. I’d completed several drafts of the novel by this point, and wanted to see the area I’d researched and written about, to travel the routes, even to feel, to the extent possible, what those deportees almost a century earlier might have felt and experienced. In 1915, at the beginning of World War I, something close to panic gripped the Ottoman Empire, a fear that the sizable Armenian minority in Turkey was aligned with their Christian brethren the Russians in opposition to the Turks in the war. A few reported uprisings prompted a massive and brutal response. Those not killed were forced to join the caravans proceeding south and east to the Syrian desert and then to the city of Aleppo. I followed this path almost a hundred years later, from Cappadocia in central Turkey over the Taurus Mountains, on to Antakya and then into Syria. Traveling paved highways in an air-conditioned van, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for old men, women, and children to make this journey on foot, along dirt roads in late spring and summer. They would have had to leave almost all of their possessions behind. The sun would have been searing, the paths dusty and arduous and long. Water would have been scarce. Disease and lack of food and thievery would have taken their toll. Some would have walked hundreds of miles. Others would have had to be carried. It was easy to see how many would have failed to survive it.
Three friends accompanied me on my trip. While my companions were aware of my research, I was cautious with our Turkish guides and most of the people we met about discussing my heritage and specific interest in the region. I found that the guides, although quite knowledgeable on all things historical, made scant reference to World War I, and no reference at all to the Armenians. When asked (usually by one of my companions), why the country was 97 percent Muslim as opposed to, say, the population in Syria or Lebanon, they mentioned reciprocal Turkish-Greek relocations after World War I, an event they described as hard on both sides but necessary, given the times. Although I found Internet references to Armenian heritage tours in Istanbul, few tourists seem to have followed the route of the caravans, perhaps in avoidance of the topic, and the sadness, anger, and shame that surround it. Treading the same path where many suffered and died is disquieting, even devastating, particularly when things now look so serene. Are bones buried beneath the dust, corpses of children who died from deprivation? My interaction with modern Syria’s border officials was both lengthy and difficult, but the visit to Aleppo itself was rewarding, as one can still envision the excitement this exotic metropolis must have presented in 1915 to those few deportees who made it. Taking pictures of the Syrian plaque that commemorates the genocide and watching an Armenian Church service provided me with a surprising sense of closure, an affirmation that these horrific events are at least recognized somewhere, recorded instead of wiped from the earth through disavowal and silence.
In 2009, Turkey and the Republic of Armenia reestablished diplomatic relations. Part of their agreement to do so included the establishment of a joint historical commission to probe the facts of the early twentieth century. With the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian deportations only a few years away, and the vote on Turkey’s admission to the European Union also looming, perhaps old wounds will be reexamined, past wrongs addressed, and long-delayed solace offered. Or will a whitewash continue? Some will argue (a la my Turkish-speaking friend) that it is time for those of Armenian descent to move on, that events that happened a century ago shouldn’t dictate current policy or affect strategic alliances. Is the labeling of events as “genocide” so important? There were, in this case, provocations: Christian Armenians and Russians forced many Muslim Turks from the Caucasus in the late 1800s; there were uprisings in 1915, though small, by several bands of Armenians. Any war produces paranoia regarding native populations—witness the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But clearly the Armenians were annihilated in Turkey, a population of over one million simply no longer there. Few would say we should forget the Holocaust when its events are a hundred years old. Should those culpable in Rwanda, or Kosovo, be excused for their actions taken in “time of war”? Genocide represents perhaps the ugliest of human deeds, the mass killing of often defenseless fellow beings. Our actions and policies should be to stop it, whenever, wherever, and however. To stop it we must publicize it. Saying it didn’t happen is a mere recipe for recurrence.
People sometimes ask, Why would you want to write about this, or even know of it, when your immediate ancestors were not part of the tragedy? I have no simple answers. In some ways the distance is helpful, permitting me a novelist’s audacity in attempting to probe the mind of one most would consider a perpetrator. In other ways it is deadening, a balm stifling emotion and fostering apathy and appeasement. Remembering is living. Forgetting, as Ahmet Khan learns, has its costs. Decades on, even centuries on, our shared history remains vital, the connection, however tenuous, to some tribal sense of before. Time stretches and calms, but still we reach, for we belonged then. We want to know. Sometimes that knowledge is painful, or inconvenient, or even damning. But it is essential. It exposes us for what we have been, and can be.