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Genocide


Respect Your Process

Turkish translations of DREAM OF BREAD AND FIRE and ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS

When I was in college, I studied for one semester with a poet who dispensed counsel the way my grandmother handed out hard candies. This poet told me that if my boyfriend didn’t make me feel like I was the most beautiful woman in the world, he wasn’t doing his job and I should fire him. Another memorable bit of advice was about writing, and left her lisping voice echoing in my head with this mantra, “Respect your process.”

During my student days, I was prolific. I wrote a poem a day in long hand on narrow ruled yellow notepads, and often they sprang fully formed from my head like Athena. I rarely revised, and often didn’t even type them. I would bring them to my professor on the yellow notepads, he would make a few comments, and say, “Just keep writing.” And so I wrote and wrote and wrote. In graduate school I learned about revision, and often took a poem through ten or more drafts before I was satisfied with it and moved on to the next one. This was in the old days when it was possible to keep track of drafts because I typed each one on a sheet of paper using an IBM Selectric Typewriter.

By the time I started working on my first novel, Zabelle, I was writing on a computer. Gone were the yellow lined note pads for the first draft, and gone also was the stuttering and humming electric typewriter. The only way I could think of attempting something so long and unwieldy as a novel was by breaking the task into story chapters. I had the stamina to write one ten-page chapter, and after that was done, I started the next. Once I had a stack of these chapters, I figured out how they fit together and then rewrote them so they made a coherent, if episodic, narrative. Revising a text that was two hundred and seventy pages long was a much more daunting prospect than rewriting a one- or two-page poem. By the time I got through the last chapter, I went back to the beginning and noticed more things that needed fixing, and went over the whole thing once again. Working on a computer, there was a lot of continuous fiddling with bits here and there, so it was harder to keep track of how many drafts I did, but it was probably upwards of three before I even sent it to my agent. With her suggestions, I did another draft before she showed it to the editor. There was another pass with the editor’s notes before the production process started. The copy editor did a thorough once over, and then it was done. This was pretty much how it went with my two subsequent novels, Dreams of Bread and Fire and All the Light There Was.

You would think that the fourth time I approached this kind of project, I’d march ahead with assurance. But no, when I started writing my latest novel, I felt as though I were at the bottom of an enormous mountain peering up at a peak that was enshrouded in clouds. How would I ever manage to get to the top? I’m a slow writer—in part because I do a massive amount of research before I start writing, and because other aspects of my life (my family’s needs and challenges, my geriatric dogs, my work as an organizer, as well as the distractions of our calamitous political moment) often crowd out my writing. I can’t write for more than two hours a day. I used to be able to produce two pages in two hours, but now I eke out one page a day.

At one point over a year ago, I said to my spouse in despair, “How am I ever going to get this thing done?” He answered, “If you write one page a day, you’ll eventually finish it.” In other words, “Respect your process.” And much to my surprise, at the end of October I printed out a completed rough draft of this novel about an Armenian family in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. It opens with this same family in New York on 9/11, and ends with a folk tale about a girl who talks with birds. It’s rough, and it needs a lot of work. But it’s done, and my first and most trusted reader, the aforementioned spouse, confirmed that the structure is sound—this was my biggest worry. 

I took a hiatus from the novel so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes. While on this break, I wrote a talk that I delivered on a panel at Columbia on November 20, which was published last week by the Armenian Weekly. Also in November, Egg & Spoon Theatre Collective staged an off-off-Broadway adaptation of Zabelle. My novel All the Light There Was recently appeared in Turkish translation from Aras in Istanbul, which had previously published Dreams of Bread and Fire. And three weeks ago I saw the cover of the Arabic translation of Zabelle, which will be published in February 2020 by Fawasel Books in Syria.

And now it’s time to get back to work.

Nancy Kricorian


Weaponizing History

This week the U.S. House of Representatives, in a rare moment of bipartisanship and in a rebuke to the Turkish government, overwhelmingly passed a resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. The lead sponsor of the bill, California Democrat Adam Schiff, said, “Given that the Turks are once again involved in ethnic cleansing—this time the Kurds who live along the Turkish-Syrian border—it seemed all the more appropriate to bring up a resolution about Ottoman efforts to annihilate an entire people in the Armenian genocide.”

The day before the vote, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, my friend Khatchig Mouradian, lecturer at Columbia University, called on Congress to take a principled stand on the issue, saying, “The bipartisan sport of killing Armenian genocide bills and weaponizing the suffering of its victims must end. By passing this resolution, the House can help ensure that the Armenian genocide is acknowledged and commemorated, but no longer exploited.”

The final tally on H. Res. 296 was 405 yeas, 11 nays, and 3 presents. One of the most perplexing and disappointing votes was that of Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, who released a statement explaining her present vote that included a sentence echoing Turkish government propaganda on the issue: “But accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics.” As Turkish President Erdogan phrased it in December 2018, “On the question of genocide, please let’s leave the discussions to the Historians and let’s listen to what the Historians have to say.” Despite a century of Turkish denial, both Omar and Erdogan should know that there is extensive historical documentation and overall consensus on the issue. And, as Armenians, Kurds, and Palestinians well know, how could a political gesture happen outside the push and pull of geopolitics?

Predictably enough, the day after the vote, as part of a televised speech to members of his party, Erdogan denounced the U.S. House of Representatives, saying, “The countries who have stains of genocide, slavery, colonialism in their history have no right to give lessons to Turkey.” Part of the problem with these demagogues, such as Erdogan and Trump, is that there is always some twisted truth in their outrageous statements. Yes, the U.S. has its own shameful history of genocide, slavery, and colonialism, and yes, the timing of this vote had to do with Congress’s fury over Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds and Turkey’s incursion into Syria, and yet, this Congressional resolution was long overdue.

Generations of Armenian-Americans have been working for decades to prod the U.S. government to take a stand on this issue. In 1984, Congress passed a resolution designating April 24, 1985 as “National Day of Remembrance of Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” stipulating it should be “a day of remembrance for all the victims of genocide, especially the one and one-half million people of Armenian ancestry who were the victims of the genocide perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923, and in whose memory this date is commemorated by all Armenians and their friends throughout the world.” A companion bill was introduced but never passed in the Senate. It is unlikely that a companion version of this week’s House Resolution 296 will make it through the Senate. But this vote in the House, which was due in large part to grassroots organizing, has again put Armenian history on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

One hundred years of denial makes this tragic history an open wound for Armenians, and for Armenians the images of Kurds being driven from their lands are dismally familiar and even traumatizing. This gesture by the U.S. Congress doesn’t undo any of that, but it does mean that for a brief moment we aren’t being “gaslighted.” Our history has been described, discussed, and acknowledged. This isn’t justice, but it is meaningful and important.

In an interview with France 24, Khatchig offered this sage analysis:

After decades of denial, it has become very difficult to come to terms with the past. Turkey is also worried about what would follow an acknowledgment: Reparations for the utter dispossession and destruction of an entire nation…But it’s also important to note that in recent years, in Turkish civil society, there have been many intellectuals, scholars, writers who HAVE spoken out on the importance of confronting the past and delivering some measure of justice to the victims of genocide.

Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian Minister of Parliament in Turkey from the pro-minority leftist HDP party, wrote on Twitter: “US Congress has recognized the Armenian Genocide. Because my own country has been denying this for 105 years, our tragedy is discussed in other world parliaments. The real healing for Armenians will come when we can talk about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey’s own parliament.”

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


No Friends But The Mountains

Armenian tent camp at Ras al-Ain circa 1916
Armenian tent camp at Ras al-Ain circa 1916

The past few days I’ve been saddened and appalled by the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. When I see in the news the name Ras al-Ain, a place that was bombed by Turkey yesterday, my heart clenches. Ras al-Ain was where my grandmother ended up in a tent camp, along with eight thousand other Armenian orphans, after the death marches of 1915. This most recent U.S. betrayal of the Kurds is seemingly the result of an impetuous decision by Trump on a phone call with Turkey’s president. I thought of the Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The Turkish assault will likely bring an end to the Rojava experiment in democracy, and could well result in the resurgence of the Islamic State in the area. When I read that Armenian-inhabited areas of Syria had come under attack, I thought of the Armenian proverb, “Land of Armenians, land of sorrows.” By the end of Thursday, it was reported that most of the Armenian families had relocated from the conflict areas.

Many, including Republican U.S. Senators, the Armenian government, The European Union, and others, have denounced the Turkish incursion, recognizing it as an attempt to drive out the Kurds and repopulate the area with Syrian Arab refugees, who are increasingly unpopular in Turkey. When questioned about the Turkish offensive, euphemistically dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” and the heavy losses the Kurdish people will likely suffer, Trump said that the Kurds had never helped us in World War II, “they didn’t help us in Normandy,” therefore he wasn’t worried about it.

In response to widespread denunciation, Turkish President Erdogan lashed out at his EU critics, threatening to allow millions of Syrian refugees to “flood Europe.” As Ronan Burtenshaw, editor of The Tribune in the UK, pointed out on Twitter, “The EU has no moral high ground on this issue—it did a grubby refugee deal with Erdogan, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in his camps. Now he can use them to threaten us, and deliver talking points for the Far-Right in the process. Reap what you sow.”

The whole thing is gutting and infuriating, and with the garbage mountain of cruelty piling up around us on all sides and with regard to so many issues and causes, it’s hard to know what to do but sputter with helplessness and rage. But there are things to do—demonstrations to organize and attend, electoral campaigns to work on, and ways to help those in our communities targeted for harm. There’s another Armenian proverb I like to remember: “The voice of the people is louder than the roar of the cannon.”

Nancy Kricorian


Friends and Neighbors

Each day there is some new racist anti-immigrant policy announced by Trump and the cartoon villains who are running our country. As is by now apparent, with the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and practices, cruelty is the point. Their theater of cruelty is meant to rally their so-called base and to send a message to immigrants and would-be immigrants that they aren’t wanted in this country, unless they can, as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services Ken Cuccinelli put it, “stand on their own two feet,” by which he means unless they are wealthy, able-bodied, and preferably white.

Last week when ICE raided workplaces in Mississippi, arresting 680 people, the videos, photographs, and news reports about distraught children whose parents had been detained, leaving many kids without family care, were terrible. One little girl, who sobbed on camera begging for the release of her father, was particularly heartbreaking.

That night, I had nightmares about the three little Albanian girls whose family I have worked with through the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) for 18 months and two little Honduran girls whose mother I had helped fill out an asylum application in early June at the NSC Pro Se Legal Clinic. In my dreams, the little girls were crying for their parents the way the kids in the Mississippi videos had done. But I actually know these kids. I have heard in great detail about the violence their parents had fled, and I have learned about the dire conditions in the countries from which they come. I also know about how fearful their parents are about the possibility of being detained and deported.

As part of her asylum application, J., the Honduran mom, wrote about the domestic violence she had suffered, and her reluctance to go to the police to report the abuse, which meant she didn’t have documentary evidence to support her claim. She said, “In countries like ours the only record of these violent events is in our memory. Unfortunately in my family there was a lot of domestic violence. I saw that my aunts were often beaten by their partners, and if they called the police, the abusers would go to jail for maybe one night. Unfortunately, in my country the police only believe you once you are put into a box and buried in a hole.”

Last Monday, as part of a NSC accompaniment, I went to immigration court with J. and her two girls, aged eight and six. The girls were hungry and bored because of the long wait outside the courtroom. People with attorneys are seen first, and those without lawyers can wait several hours or more for their turn. No food is allowed in the waiting area or in the courtroom, so I offered to take the girls to the cafeteria in the federal building while their mother awaited her turn before the immigration judge. The so-called cafeteria sold only chips, candy bars, cookies, and soft drinks, so they selected chocolate and chips. As we sat at the table eating and talking, the older girl said, “Would you be our grandma?” The little one said, “Can you also be our auntie?” I laughed. They laughed. But we were now friends.

The only way I can keep from descending into despair is by taking action, whether it is by helping people fill out asylum applications, by accompanying friends to immigration court, or by working with groups organizing against the cruelty. In New York City on August 10, over 100 people, among them members of the NYC DSA Immigrant Justice Working Group (to which I belong) were arrested in a #CloseTheCamps action that shut down the West Side Highway near an ICE field office on 26th Street. The next day, a coalition of #JewsAgainstICE protestors, including Never Again is Now and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, occupied an Amazon store in Manhattan to demand that Amazon cancel its contracts with ICE. In upstate New York, the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement has a rapid response network that sends out texts when ICE agents are spotted in town so people can drive to the location, offering support to their targeted neighbors, and often preventing detentions. This is the time to mobilize radical kindness and militant refusal in the face of their relentless cruelty.

Nancy Kricorian, New York City 2019


Solace

In Central Park last week, on a bird walk in the North Woods led by an Audubon Society naturalist, we saw a Cooper’s Hawk perched regally in a tree, an immature Great Blue Heron fishing in the Loch, four Northern Flickers, and a half dozen species of warblers that were passing through on their way south, in addition to the abundant Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, European Starlings, and American Robins that call the park home. The fall wildflowers—Canada Goldenrod, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, White Snakeroot, Spotted Jewelweed, and several varieties of Aster—were in bloom. When the cruel and venal doings of human animals are cause for despair, I take solace in the natural world.

 

I was considering delaying this post until after the Kavanagh “situation” had resolved itself one way or the other, assuming that we will be flattened by despair when the Republicans steamroller the Democrats and the rest of us. It has been almost eviscerating to watch the hearings and then follow the sham FBI probe, and the change in tack by the Republicans to undermine and insult the women who came forward with accusations. I have been “triggered” by Kavanagh’s words, his gestures, his petulance, and his arrogance. I wasn’t alone—tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women were angry, distraught, and horrified by the spectacle of ruling class white male privilege and power that played out in the Senate hearings and in the political maneuvering that followed.

 

Each day there is a new assault on our values and the most vulnerable among us—migrant children warehoused in a tent camp in Texas, gay diplomats’ partners denied visas, the planned weakening of mercury regulations, and revisions to the Department of Justice web site reflecting a harsher stance on kids who are accused of crimes, to name just a few.

 

But we can’t let them beat us down into apathy and hopelessness. We have to remember the great Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman’s admonition: “In the cruel and terrible time in which our generation has been condemned to live on this earth, we must never make peace with evil. We must never become indifferent to others or undemanding of ourselves.” Grossman lived through World War II, he was a journalist traveling with Russian troops as they liberated Treblinka, his mother was murdered during the massacre at Berdichev, and he survived Stalin’s purges, although his masterwork, the incredible World War II novel Life and Fate, was “arrested” by the Soviets and was not published until after his death.

 

As Grossman put it: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.” I am not so sanguine as to think that individual acts of kindness are enough in the face of the systemic violence and the cruel policies that we are confronting, many of which are just harsher and unapologetic versions of policies that were put in place during previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic. But while we do all that we can through making irate phone calls to elected officials, joining in strategic electoral organizing, supporting grassroots campaigns run by unions and groups on the front lines, and volunteering with local organizations advocating for the most vulnerable people, creatures, landscapes, and institutions, we can also try to make the world a little less dismal by being kind.

 

Charles Aznavour, French-Armenian singer, songwriter, actor, and philanthropist, died this week, and I leave you with an old blog post about his family’s small role in the French Resistance and a video of a classic performance of his song “La Bohème.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Building the Nest

Mural in Nor Hadjin

 

When I arrived in Beirut on the evening of October 27, I took a taxi to Baffa House, a guesthouse in Mar Mikhael where I would be staying for two weeks. The goal of my trip was to become familiar enough with the nearby Armenian neighborhoods of Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin where the characters in the novel I’m currently writing reside so that I could thoroughly inhabit those streets, buildings, schools, and churches in my imagination. I had started writing the novel, but then got stuck. I wrote a scene in which Vera Serinossian, the narrator and protagonist, was walking from her school in the Armenian “suburb” of Bourj Hammoud, a 1.5 square kilometer municipality just outside Beirut city limits, to her home in Nor Hadjin, a small Armenian neighborhood of about four square blocks on the other side of the river within Beirut’s boundaries. As she was crossing the bridge, Vera sees an elderly Arab man lying dead on the pavement. He has a sniper’s bullet hole in his forehead.

 

After I wrote this scene, during an interview that I conducted at the end of this past summer with someone who had lived the war years within these precincts, I had been told that this bridge between Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin was called “The Death Bridge” because of the snipers that targeted people who crossed it. The Phalangist militia was on the hill of Ashrafiyeh within shooting range, and to the north the Leftists and later Syrian troops posed a similar danger. It occurred to me that my idea of having my family cross that bridge from home to school and back on a daily basis during the war years might make no sense. I needed to go to Beirut to find out.

 

The guesthouse in Mar Mikhael was a five-minute walk from Nor Hadjin and Khalil Badawi, another Armenian neighborhood adjacent to Hadjin. It was another ten minutes on foot to Bourj Hammoud. So each day of my stay I walked those neighborhoods. Through my network of Armenian friends in Beirut and in America, I had the good fortune to meet and to interview a host of people who had lived through the war years and had stories they were willing to share. I met the editor of the Ararat Daily Newspaper who told me about the night the Phalangists had set off a bomb in the newspaper’s offices in 1978. I visited Dr. Garo, the sole physician in Nor Hadjin, who had treated everyone from survivors of the Karantina Massacre to wounded Palestinian fighters in Naba’a to local Armenians who had been injured during various rounds of shelling. I interviewed the principals of two Armenian Evangelical schools—the Gertmenian School in Nor Hadjin and the Central High School in Ashrafiyeh. I attended Sunday services at Sourp Kevork Church in Nor Hadjin.

 

My friend Antranig, who grew up in Nor Hadjin, gave me a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out the ironwork on the facades of some of the houses, knocking on doors so he could show me the beautiful original tile work in some of the apartments, and explaining how Nor Hadjin had been a completely self-contained Armenian village within Beirut. “We had everything we needed. There were three schools, a church, a dispensary, grocery stores, a compatriotic union, and all kinds of artisans and craftsmen. The only thing missing in the early days was a confectioner, so the leaders of Hadjin convinced one to move from Ashrafiyeh to open a sweet shop.”

 

He also told me a story about the Death Bridge. During a ceasefire, Antranig and his friend took bikes and crossed the bridge to Bourj Hammoud. The two teenagers had just made it to Bourj Hammoud when shooting broke out between the Syrians and the Khataeb (Phalangists). The boys ditched their bikes and jumped into a building where they waited out the shooting, which went on for over five hours.

 

Antranig’s father, who could make out the bridge from his balcony in Nor Hadjin, called a friend in Bourj Hammoud to find out what had happened. There were dead bodies on the bridge, he was told. So he went down to the bridge to check the bodies to make sure his son was not among them.

 

By the end of my two weeks in Beirut, I had accomplished what I had set out to do. The Serinossians would not be crossing the Death Bridge on a daily basis. I had decided to situate my family in the small, self-contained neighborhood of Nor Hadjin, with extended family living across the river in Bourj Hammoud. I had determined which school the children attended, the church in which the family worshipped, and even the house in which they lived. In addition, like a bird assembling twigs, twine, and grasses for a nest, I had collected dozens of anecdotes, stories, and historical details that would help me in pushing forward with the novel.

 

Nancy Kricorian

 


The Opposite of Coals to Newcastle

Mrs. Alice Kharibian (photo courtesy of Alexandra Kharibian)

Mrs. Alice Kharibian (photo courtesy of Alexandra Kharibian)

 

Last week as I was preparing to head downtown for breakfast with an acquaintance who runs a small press, I considered bringing him a copy of one of my novels. I had known him during my days running a literary scouting business, before having published a book, and hadn’t seen him in years. But wasn’t bringing a book to a publisher akin to carrying coals to Newcastle? In the years that I worked as a literary scout—reading dozens of books, bound galleys, and manuscripts each week—when someone gave me a book as a gift, I felt slightly queasy. It was like what you might experience at the end of a pie-eating contest if someone put another slice of pie in front of you.  

This train of thought reminded me of the time long ago when I went to visit Alice Kharibian, my grandmother’s lifelong friend who was the model for the Arsinee character in Zabelle, my first novel. Mrs. Kharibian had agreed to tell me the story of how she and my recently deceased grandmother had together survived the Deportations of 1915, also known as the Armenian Genocide.  My father and I drove to Jamaica Plain, where Mrs. Kharbian lived, and I brought her a bouquet of flowers.

When I handed her the flowers, Mrs. Kharibian, who was known to be frank, said, “Honey, why did you bring me those? My son’s a florist. You should have brought me some meat.” She put them in a vase nonetheless, and then we sat down for a long session of storytelling with the tape recorder rolling (as the tape did roll in those days).

It was then that she told me about how close to starvation she and my grandmother had been during their days as orphaned girls at Ras al Ain in the Syrian Desert. One of the stories, which I put to use in my novel, was about their finding a dead and rotting camel by the side of the road. The carcass was full of maggots, but they managed to use the ragged lid of a tin can to cut flesh from it and then roasted the meat over an open flame. “We couldn’t stand to eat it,” she told me, “but we sold it to others, and with the pennies we got, we were able to buy some bread.”

On the way home my meat cutter father told me that when he had given my grandmother a ride to her friend’s house, it was his habit to bring Mrs. Kharibian a good cut of meat—steak, sirloin tips, or some lamb chops. 

That afternoon, when Mrs. Kharibian explained to me how she and my grandmother had survived while tens of thousands around them had perished, she said, “Your grandmother was so wishy-washy. If it wasn’t for me telling her what to do, she would have been dead in the desert. I had to be jarbeeg for both of us.” (Jarbeeg is the Armenian word for clever.)

Mrs. Kharibian was clever, tough, and bossy, all of which served her and my grandmother well for survival.  At my grandmother’s funeral, she sat down beside me and said, “We were girls together in the desert. What will I do now without her?”

 

Nancy Kricorian

22 September 2016, New York City


When Violence Enters the House

 

Istanbul, 24 April 2015

Istanbul, 24 April 2015  (photo by Filip Warwick)

 

When violence enters the house, justice escapes through the skylight.

~ Armenian proverb

 

As an amateur observer of Turkey’s internal and external politics, it is strange to think back on my three visits to the country—June 2014, September 2015, and April 2015—when I was full of hope about reconnecting to the land where my grandparents were born. During the first journey—my Armenian Heritage Trip to Turkey, or Twenty Armenians on a Bus (with lots of jokes and weeping)—we covered about one third of the country, ranging from Istanbul to Mersin, from Adana to Aintab, from Ani and Van to Diyarbakir. While we were in Diyarbakir, we attended services at the beautifully restored Sourp Giragos Armenian Church in the city’s historic Sur district. In September 2014, I participated in the Istanbul meetings of Columbia’s Women Mobilizing Memory Workshop, deepening friendships with progressive Turkish academics and graduate students I had met under the workshop’s auspices. In April 2015, I was part of Project 2015, an effort to bring hundreds of Armenians from around the world to Istanbul to commemorate the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide. On April 24, we gathered with over ten thousand people in front of the French Consulate on Istiklal Avenue near Taksim Square for a vigil of remembrance, and my friend Heghnar Watenpaugh read a beautiful speech entitled “Let Us Make a New Beginning” in Armenian and Turkish.

 

Fast forward to the summer of 2015. (I won’t go into the complicated details of the June 2015 Turkish elections, but you can read about them here. The elections were “redone” in November 2015, and you can read about that here.) The peace process between Erdogan’s ruling AKP party and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fell apart, and the Turkish Army placed a number of Kurdish cities and towns under round-the-clock military curfew. Things devolved further in the Kurdish region during the fall of 2015 and the winter of 2016. The Kurdish population of Diyarbakir’s Sur was placed under military siege, and vast swaths of the neighborhood was laid waste. In March 2016, the Turkish government expropriated much of the district, including Sourp Giragos, and slated the area for “urban renewal.”

 

In January 2016, many progressive Turkish and Kurdish academics, horrified by the civilian casualties in the Kurdish region, signed and circulated a petition entitled “Academics for Peace” that called for renewed negotiations between the government and the Kurds. Erdogan branded the signatories traitors, and many were arrested and fired from their teaching positions. A number of international academic bodies circulated petitions in support of their colleagues in Turkey and of academic freedom.

 

This summer’s failed coup attempt only worsened an increasingly grim political situation. The military coup was a terrible idea—at least 290 people died, and more than 1,400 were wounded. It is good that it failed, but the subsequent crackdown has facilitated a witch-hunt against Kurds and progressive voices. Several pro-government figures intimated that Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s former ally and now the accused mastermind of the attempted coup, is in fact an Armenian. (After years of genocide denial and concomitant brainwashing, many in Turkey consider Armenians to be ultra-traitors, and there has been a recent uptick in anti-Armenian racism in political speech and the media.) As the Turkish ruling party rounded up accused coup-plotters, many opposition journalists, academics and writers have been detained. Many leaders in the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish progressive alliance, who had already been subject to harassment and arrest starting in early 2016, are under further threat as they were excluded from a post-coup meeting between Erdogan and opposition parties.

 

The Turkish government’s machinations in Syria, where the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) are seen as a greater threat than ISIS, have always been complicated, as all parties in the region are playing double and triple games, with the U.S. trying to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS while still maintaining its relationship with the YPG. Just this week, Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria with American air support, and they attacked NOT ISIS positions, but targeted YPG units in Jarablus and other Kurdish towns, killing and wounding dozens of civilians. The situation is still volatile, and it is unclear how all this will play out over the next month, although it appears that the U.S. may be abandoning their Kurdish allies. Also this week, the Turkish government conditioned permission for German lawmakers to visit the Incirlik Air Base on Germany’s stepping back from its recent recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

 

On April 24, 2015, before the commemoration began on Istiklal, I participated in an Armenian Wishing Tree “public art ritual” that I had helped to conceptualize. The tree was designed and created by Turkish artist Hale Tenger. I had brought a strip of cloth—actually the waistband of one of my grandmother’s half-aprons–with the names of my grandparents written on it to tie to the tree. Knotting the cloth to the tree was surprisingly moving—there was something about the individual gesture that made the clamor and crowds fade into the background and I was alone with my memory of my Armenian grandparents who had survived such horror, and alone also with sadness about what had been lost in these lands. Yet I was also united with the people—Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, and others—who joined me in tying their own wishes for a new beginning and a better future onto the tree. In the year-and-a-half since that moment, dark days have descended on many of those comrades, which makes our unity and shared destiny that much more precious than ever.

 

Nancy Kricorian

 


Raise Your Pen For Freedom

My contribution to the #RaiseYourPenForFreedom social media campaign

My contribution to the #RaiseYourPenForFreedom social media campaign

 

Last year at this time I was in Istanbul for Armenian Genocide Centennial commemorative events. It was a sad milestone, but it was also a time that was full of hope. Our Project 2015 organizing team and almost two hundred participants had flown in from New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Yerevan, Beirut, and other cities. My experiences in Istanbul that week were so inspiring that I was fully planning to return the following year, thinking that I would even go to Diarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region, for the 101st anniversary of the genocide on April 24, 2016.

Last April my friends in Istanbul—Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and ex-pat Americans—were excited about the prospects for the upcoming elections in June 2015. They were supporting HDP (the People’s Democratic Party, a left-wing and anti-nationalist coalition), many of them electioneering for the party and all of them hoping that it would cross the 10% threshold for entering the Turkish parliament. There was jubilation when they succeeded.

Fast-forward to a year later and the situation in Turkey is worse than I could have imagined possible. Erdogan’s failure to win the super majority he needed to change the constitution and to consolidate his presidential power led him to reignite the war against the Kurds. Kurdish towns and cities were placed under military sieges with round-the-clock curfews lasting for weeks and months. The district of Sur in Diyarbakir, where the recently restored Sourp Giragos Armenian Church is located and where I visited in June 2014, is now a blasted-out war zone under threat of an “urban renewal” project that is a combination of a construction boondoggle for Erdogan’s cronies and a “cleansing” program aimed at the PPK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), but also at poor and working class Kurds. The church itself has been slated for expropriation by the government.

Turkish nationalists inside and outside the government whipped up anti-Kurdish sentiment, accusing anyone who criticized the war on Kurdish cities and towns of supporting terrorism. Once again rumors spread purporting that members of the PKK were actually Armenians, those perennial traitors to the Turkish state.

Added to all this, there have been a number of bombing attacks, two claimed by ISIS in Istanbul tourist districts, one in Suruc, and one in Ankara attributed to an offshoot of the PKK. The Turkish government continues to play a double game with regard to the Syrian war, seeing the Kurdish YPG militants in Northern Syria who are fighting ISIS under U.S. protection as a bigger threat than ISIS itself. (Admittedly all the political actors involved in the Syrian Civil War are playing double and even triple games.)

In January academics in Turkey signed and circulated a peace petition entitled “We Will Not Be Party to This Crime,” denouncing the renewed state violence in the Kurdish southeast. Within days, a witch-hunt had started against the professors and graduate students who had signed the letter, with twenty-seven of them temporarily detained, and dozens suspended and fired from their jobs. International professional associations and many academic institutions sent letters and petitions to the Turkish government decrying this crackdown on academic freedom and free speech. But in March three professors were arrested and charged with “Propagandizing for a Terrorist Organization.” This week the arrested academics will go on trial in Istanbul, and a call for a social media solidarity campaign has gone out under the hashtag #RaiseYourPenForFreedom.

I decided I wouldn’t be going back to Istanbul or Diyarbakir this April; instead I’m heading to Beirut on a research trip for my current fiction project. Turkey’s democracy has been on a downward trajectory this year—sad for me from afar, but devastating for the Kurdish communities that have been subjected to brutal military siege, and frightening for the academics and journalists who are threatened and harassed for their dissent. As HDP’s co-chair Selahattan Demirtas put it in his New York Times op-ed last week, “By ending the peace process with the P.K.K., by creating a repressive security state, by shelving the rule of law and by cracking down on free speech, he is drowning what is left of Turkey’s democracy — making this country more susceptible to radicalism and internal conflict than ever.”

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Homage to Bourj Hammoud

Homage to Bourj Hammoud

Have you heard a thrush sing while its nest burns in the wind?

~ Khalil Gibran

Listen. In the morning you can hear the bright strike of hammers and the rasp of saws. Children carry sand from the riverbanks in their school satchels. First they build the church, then the school, and finally a house for each family according to its means. The tents and shacks are taken down one by one. Each family plants a mulberry tree and tends its garden. 

The remnants of Marash create a new Marash. And so also Nor Sis, Nor Adana, Nor Giligia, and Nor Hadjin are made. You can hear the sounds of the trades learned in the orphanage workshops: carpenter’s plane, sewing machine and cobbler’s bench. The sharp smell of the tannery is in the air and in their clothes. All Beirut wears their shoes.

Look at the children outside the church in their freshly pressed clothes, and the girls have ribbons in their hair. Look at the food spread on the luncheon table and the hands that pass the platters. Someone has told a joke and there is laughter. Someone pulls an instrument from its case. 

Speak of those times, or don’t, when the parties take up arms against each other. How the women of one church throw boiling water out the window on the men with guns. When all Beirut stops fighting, for how many more weeks do the Armenian men continue to shed each other’s blood? 

Speak then of the flowering: the neighborhood children grow tall. Among them are musicians, actors, painters and poets. In this world their parents have rebuilt from ashes, they now believe anything is possible, and everything is new.  

Remember this: when the Civil War comes, neutrality is no amulet against the bullets and the bombs. Jewelers flee the downtown souk for Bourj Hammoud, where the militiamen patrol the night and then also the day. So many boats leave the port. Carrying leather suitcases to the airports, so many are exiled again. 

Remember Nor Adana, Nor Marash, Nor Sis. Men still play backgammon and grill meat on braziers on the sidewalk. Remember the narrow alleys and wooden houses of Sanjak Camp, razed for a shopping plaza. Oh people of long memory, listen, look, speak, remember: your stories are a homeland. 

Nancy Kricorian

This piece appeared in the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology