How a Poet Writes History Without Going Mad

Chronicle of Higher Education
May 7, 2004


How a Poet Writes History Without Going Mad

On a recent book tour for The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and
America’s Response, I was asked by an eminent Armenian psychiatrist how
I was able to write about massacre, deportation, rape, and torture
without becoming depressed or even incapacitated. He told me that in his
own course on trauma he found it nearly impossible to teach about the
Armenian Genocide because it caused him such pain.

My response was not psychological. I would imagine that any writer who
writes about the worst things human beings can do to each other has to
deal, in a personal way, with the weight of those realities. Working in
such domains can be depressing and even traumatic. You can feel as if
you are living in an alternate universe. In my own case, many of my
ancestors perished in the massacres and death marches carried out by the
Ottoman Turkish government in 1915. About 1.5 million Armenians died
during the 20th century’s first modern episode of race extermination,
and another million were permanently exiled from their homeland of 2,500

In writing The Burning Tigris, I wrote about two histories — the
genocide and the American response to it — and entwined them. My major
discovery was that during the period of America’s ascension to
international prominence, at the turn of the 20th century, the U.S.
response to Sultan Adbul Hamid II’s massacre and decimation of about
200,000 Armenians in the 1890s, and then to the genocide of 1915, was
America’s first human-rights movement. The movement, which helped to
define the nation’s emerging identity, spanned more than four decades,
from 1894 into the 1930s. Intellectuals, politicians, diplomats,
religious leaders, ordinary citizens, and grass-roots organizations came
together to try to save the Armenian people. The passionate commitments
and commentaries of a remarkable cast of public figures — including
Julia Ward Howe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Clara Barton, Alice Stone
Blackwell, Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Jr., Spencer
Trask, and Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr. — made a difference. They
and other courageous eyewitnesses recorded their accounts of massacre
and deportation, and often risked their lives to save men, women, and
children in the killing fields of Turkey.

The crisis of the “starving Armenians” became so embedded in American
popular culture that, in an age when a loaf of bread cost a nickel, the
American people sent more than $100-million ($1.25-billion in today’s
economy) in aid through the American Committee on Armenian Atrocities
and its successor, Near East Relief.

Given that extraordinary history, it is dismaying that Congress has not
been able to pass the most basic commemorative resolution on the
Armenian Genocide. There has been intense pressure from America’s NATO
ally Turkey, which denies the genocide and is engaged in a propaganda
campaign to cover it up. Such is the irony that the United States lacks
the moral courage to affirm its own first international-human-rights

What keeps one going through the research and writing about massacre,
torture, sexual mutilation, rape? During the Armenian Genocide, the
Turks and Kurds performed some of the most hideous acts of violence in
recorded history. Often they did so in the name of Allah and with the
ideology of jihad as a rationale; teenage girls were raped with
crucifixes made from tree branches; clergymen and teachers, professors
at Protestant missionary colleges, had their eyes gouged out before they
were beheaded. On the deportation marches the mobile killing squads —
the chettes — and gendarmes often sliced off women’s breasts, or
slashed open pregnant women and dashed their babies on the rocks.
Thousands of women were raped, abducted, sold into harems. Women
committed suicide, often in large numbers, to avoid such fates. As
Christians they believed they were going to a better world.

Ambassador Morgenthau, a Jew trying to save this Christian minority,
appealed to the Turkish minister of the interior, Talaat Pasha, more
than once to stop the massacres. Morgenthau described in his memoir the
torture and cruelty, like the practice of bastinado, in which Turkish
gendarmes would beat the soles of the feet of an Armenian prisoner until
he fainted, revive him, and begin again. Sometimes the victim’s feet
later had to be amputated. Sometimes “they would extract his fingernails
and toenails; they would apply red-hot irons to his breast, tear off his
flesh with red-hot pincers, and pour boiling butter into the wounds. In
some cases the gendarmes would nail hands and feet to pieces of wood —
evidently in imitation of the Crucifixion, and while the sufferer
writhed in his agony, they would cry: ‘Now let your Christ come help
you!'” Morgenthau said.

“One day,” he wrote, “I was discussing these proceedings with a
responsible Turkish official, who was describing the tortures inflicted.
He made no secret of the fact that the government had instigated them
and, like all Turks of the official classes, he enthusiastically
approved this treatment of the detested race.”

In the face of such horror, can a writer even suggest there is pleasure
and excitement in doing the work, in the act of writing? I came to The
Burning Tigris as someone who has spent most of his life writing in the
rhythms and image language of the lyric poem and, at the time, was
finishing a book of new poems. In the 1990s I wrote a memoir, Black Dog
of Fate, about growing up Armenian-American in the suburbs of northern
New Jersey in 1950s and ’60s and gradually awakening to the history of
the Armenian Genocide my grandparents had lived through. One of the
challenges for me in crossing genre boundaries was to find the ways I
could bring along the appropriate aspects of my craft. In writing a
memoir, I discovered that the past could be opened up by finding images
in memory that, like a thread, could unravel into a once-forgotten

So in writing The Burning Tigris, I had to find a way to allow my own
literary process whatever life it could have within the confines of
writing history. Otherwise I could not write the book. Writing the
history demanded relentless digging in hundreds of documents, hundreds
of books, and hours of taped interviews with genocide survivors and
others who remember that period. It demanded problematizing history and
creating interpretive perspectives. Yet I began my project believing
that a good history had to be readable, even pleasurable, no matter how
horrible the subject. I was committed to crafting a coherent story, to
giving to the mass of facts a shapemeandering or shifting as it needed
to be, but a shape. Given the dual history of the book, it would have to
be a complex shape. Like a cat’s cradle the story would have to move
back and forth across the Atlantic with some elasticity. There would
have to be as much texture as possible, a texture of time and place.
There had to be scenes etched with vivid images; voices alive and
speaking. If I couldn’t create that — the more joyous dimensions of
writing — I wouldn’t be able to write the book.

There are moments in the shape of the narrative and the drive of the
history when opportunities present themselves, when you must resist the
expository voice that is first instinct to those trained in purely
academic ways. Those opportunities often revolve around a character, or
an event that has expansive possibilities, a place connected to that
event, a place you can inhabit with images of locale, narrative detail,
voice, and dialogue.

In the midst of the massacres and deportations in the autumn of 1915,
the American consul Leslie A. Davis was stationed on the eastern plateau
of Turkey. Like many other U.S. consuls posted in the Ottoman Empire,
Davis was an ordinary American boy. He had grown up in Port Jefferson, a
rural town on the north shore of Long Island, attended Cornell
University, taken a law degree at George Washington University, worked
as a journalist for a while, and then decided to make a dramatic career
change. Like many of his colleagues in Turkey — Edward Nathan in
Mersina, Oscar Heizer in Trabzond, George Horton in Smyrna, W. Peter in
Samsoun — Davis had been raised in a peaceful America, in a decade
often referred to as the “gay ’90s,” and had signed up for the Foreign
Service with a sense of excitement about seeing the wide world. In 1915
these young American men found themselves in Turkey in the midst of what
Davis would call “one of the greatest tragedies in all of history.”

Overnight they and their consular staffs and the missionaries also
stationed in Turkey became rescuers of Armenian men, women, and
children. They hid them in consulates, churches, and houses; they
provided them with food, and saved their movable wealth when possible.
The consular staff members also wrote — they wrote letters and
dispatches back to their boss, Ambassador Morgenthau, stationed in
Constantinople, and to the Department of State. They wrote, in a manner
that discloses how well men in government used language at an earlier
time in our history — clear, vivid, elegant, and in many ways
clinically austere prose. They wrote in ways that Ernest Hemingway might
have learned from.

After reading hundreds of pages of Davis’s dispatches and reports about
the Armenian Genocide, and after reading his particular account of
riding by horseback around a remote lake miles from Harput, I decided to
devote a chapter to his experience of that journey. His own account of
his ride to Lake Göeljük was, I believed, of major importance to
understanding something profound about the Armenian Genocide. I called
my chapter “Land of Dead.”

In the summer of 1915, the deportations and massacres claimed the vast
majority of Armenian lives; the arid Anatolian plain and the Syrian
desert were the epicenter of the story. Faced with that unfathomable
moment, I decided not to write a chapter in the expository voice of
academic synthesis. Rather, I decided to slow time down, to take the
reader into the summer of 1915 through the kaleidoscopic perspective of
key witnesses who were stationed in various parts of Turkey. That could
provide a panoramic view of the meticulously planned process of race
extermination that happened all across Turkey. Furthermore, given the
Turkish government’s assiduous denial of the facts of this history, it
seemed all the more important to pause here and go slowly; to allow the
reader to sink into it, section by section; to loop back over
deportation routes; to get the feel of geography, weather, the epic haul
of death marches. One of my witnesses was Leslie Davis.

Before I could get Consul Davis on his horse with his guides — one trip
was taken with a Turkish guide and another with an Armenian survivor —
I wanted the reader to feel the uniqueness of place, the rocky highlands
of Harput, a place I have been to only in my mind. In digging deeper to
find out about the geography and flora and fauna of the region, I felt I
could connect the reader with the scene, the moment in history more
fully. Using Davis’s account as my basis, I opened this way:

On an early autumn day, the sky high and blue on Turkey’s eastern
plateau, Leslie Davis and his companions rode toward Lake Göeljük,
through a region where thousands of Armenians lived in dozens of
villages and towns. Harput (the Armenian name of the city and the
vilayet means “stone fortress”) is rugged highland sliced by ridges,
ravines, and valleys. Davis and his friends rode past fig and
pomegranate orchards and through the broom and thyme flanking the
dirt roads. The calls of hoopoes and larks, or a black hyena
rustling the brush, broke the silence now and then. They pushed on
under that seemingly endless pure blue sky until night, when they
chose to sleep on the rooftop of the khan because they so feared the
typhus-carrying lice in the rooms below.

Having created a sense of place, I wanted to let Davis tell as much of
his story as my narrative could allow. He had a good eye and a clean,
clipped sense of syntax, owing perhaps to his brief career as a
journalist. When he reached the first destroyed Armenian village on the
way to Lake Göeljük, his descriptions were arresting in their
understatement and minimalism. In the village of Bozmashen, the houses
were destroyed — doors and windows smashed, walls crumbling into the
streets. Davis noted that they saw “no other living creatures in this
once prosperous village … except a few hungry looking cats.” He
conveyed a sense of absence that embodied the horror of the race
extermination to which he was bearing witness.

As he went on in his report to the State Department, he noted the names
of the dozens of villages he visited — villages that were decimated;
Armenian villages turned into ghost towns in a matter of weeks in the
summer of 1915. A decade later, Hemingway’s protagonist Frederic Henry
would say in A Farewell to Arms, as he defected from World War Ifeeling
betrayed by the war, its atrocities, and hollow rhetoricthat only the
names of towns had meaning: “There were many words that you could not
stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Abstract
words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the
concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers.”
Davis felt, in some intuitive way, the same. He understood the stark
dignity of listing the villages that were now destroyed and emptied of
Armenians. Huseinik, Morenik, Harput Serai, Upper Mezre, Kessrik,
Yegheki, Sursury, Sursury Monastery, Tadem, Hooyloo, Shentelle, Garmeri,
Keghvenk, Kayloo, Vartatil, Perchendj, Yertmenik, Morey, Komk, Hoghe,
Haboosi, Hintzor, Hinakrak, Tcherkeny, Visian, Korpe, Hagop, Mezre,
Dzaroug, Harsek, Mollahkeuy, Pertag. “All of the purely Armenian
villages were in ruins and deserted,” he noted. In those with mixed
populations, “the Armenian homes were empty.” The names carried the
texture of place and culture: the guttural sounds, the piling of certain
consonants, the k’s, the z’s, the y’s. Some names Turkish, some

With each paragraph of his report, his voice accrued more richness and
authority. “Everywhere it was a scene of desolation and destruction,”
Davis wrote, “the houses were crumbling to pieces and even the Christian
churches, which had been erected at great expense and with much
sacrifice, had been pulled down.” In their “fanaticism,” he said, the
Turks and Kurds “seemed determined not only to exterminate the Christian
population but to remove all traces of their religion and even to
destroy the products of civilization.” At the time Davis didn’t know
that he was writing about the template for modern genocide.

His voice kept taking me to the place. Where was this lake, why was it
an epicenter of killing, a repository for corpses? There was an
Auschwitz sense about it. A remote place, a beautiful pastoral setting,
where humans would do the worst things imaginable.

Lake Göeljük was some five hours to the southeast of Davis’s consulate
by horseback, and he went there on this particular trip with a Turkish
guide. Within miles of leaving Harput they began to see dead bodies
strewn all over the road. “They had been covered with a few shovelfuls
of dirt,” Davis wrote, “as the gendarmes found it easier to do this than
to dig holes for them. The result was that in almost every case one
could see the arms or legs or even the heads sticking out of the ground.
Most of them had been partially eaten by dogs.”

At the village of Mollahkeuy they moved onto the plain, where they found
several hundred bodies scattered over the dry ground, nearly all of them
women and children. As they surveyed the landscape, they saw that some
of the bodies had been burned. “I thought at first this had been done as
a sanitary measure,” Davis wrote, but his Turkish friend explained that
the gendarmes and the Kurds would burn the bodies in search of gold
pieces that many Armenians swallowed for safekeeping.

They climbed a steep mountain and descended into a valley that led to
Lake Göeljük — a spot that Davis recalled having been a favorite summer
camping ground for the American missionaries and Foreign Service
officers. A large and beautiful lake, Göeljük was the only significant
body of water in the region, a source of the Tigris River. Its name,
meaning “little lake,” is a Turkish translation of the Armenian Dzovuk.
The banks were high and steep, with deep ravines. The men rode around
the lake, looking down at “hundreds of bodies and many bones in the
water below.” It was rumored that the Armenians had been pushed over the
cliffs by the gendarmes — a rumor “that was fully confirmed,” Davis
wrote, “by what we saw.”

He perceptively realized how cleverly the Turks had exploited the chasms
in the rocky and remote topography in order to carry out the mass
killings. Around Lake Göeljük, he noted, the ravines were “triangular in
shape and shut in on two sides by high precipitous banks which the
people when attacked were not able to climb. Two or three gendarmes
stationed on each side could prevent a multitude from escaping that
way.” At the bottom, of course, there was nothing but water; as Davis
put it, “a row of 15 or 20 gendarmes” could keep the Armenians from
escaping into the water along the narrow paths around the lake.

The consul’s descriptions can bring us close up in a way that witnessing
with precise language can:

One of the first corpses that we saw was that of an old man with a
white beard, whose skull had been crushed in by a large stone which
still remained in it. A little farther along we saw the ashes of six
or eight persons, only a few fragments of bones and clothing
remaining unburned. One red fez was conspicuous. There were also
some skull bones, as they are the strongest and always the last to
be destroyed. These ashes were about 20 feet from a tree under which
there was a large red spot. This upon closer examination proved to
be blood, which appeared to have been there for two or three weeks.
The tree had a number of bullet holes in it, indicating that the men
whose ashes we saw had probably been stood up against it and shot.

The ghoulish images seemed endless. As they approached the next ravine,
they saw “a row of 20 or 30 heads sticking out of the sand at the edge
of the water.” Just the heads. Davis wrote that “the gendarmes with
characteristic Turkish negligence had buried the bodies in sand at the
edge of the lake because it was easier to dig and the sand had washed
off and been blown away, leaving the heads exposed.” Everywhere he
looked there were corpses: corpses piled up on the rocks at the foot of
the cliffs; corpses in the water and on the sand around the lake;
corpses filling up the huge ravines. As they passed a clump of trees
covered with vines and bushes in the middle of a ravine, Davis’s Turkish
guide told him to look in, and he saw “about 15 or 20 bodies under the
trees, some of them sitting upright as they had died.” In one ravine
Davis estimated that there were about a thousand corpses, in another
about fifteen hundred. “The stench from them was so great” that he rode
as high up on the ravine as he could, but he couldn’t escape it.

Davis learned that because the Muslims considered “the clothes taken
from a dead body” to be “defiled,” all of the Armenians were forced to
strip before being killed, and he described “gaping bayonet wounds on
most of the bodies.” Because bullets were so precious, it was “cheaper
to kill with bayonets and knives.” The bodies, he learned, were of
Armenians who had been marched from distant places. In other parts of
Turkey the same methods of massacre by butchery were occurring because
the Turks didn’t want to waste ammunition. In Ankara and its
surroundings, only a couple of hundred miles east of Constantinople, the
killing was done with “axes, cleavers, shovels, and pitchforks,” the
priest Krikoris Balakian wrote. The carnage around Ankara was so
horrible that Talaat Pasha, the interior minister, ordered more than
40,000 corpses to be quickly buried in mass graves. Still, the stench of
death and the mounds of bodies overwhelmed the landscape.

South of Harput, Davis and his companion left the lake, traveling
through the village of Keghvenk, and again the stench of rotting corpses
overwhelmed them. As they rode from Keghvenk back to Mezre, they saw
thousands of corpses half-buried, and later they learned that many of
them were men who had been imprisoned before the deportation. Within 10
miles of Mezre the travelers saw the remains of Armenian camps where
thousands had been held before they were massacred. Arriving home at
about 9 o’clock in the evening, Davis wrote: “I felt that I understood
better than ever what the ‘deportation’ of the Armenians really meant.”

I don’t wish to suggest that all of my book is like this chapter. Nor am
I making an argument for writing something that might be called
exclusively narrative history. As a scholar I’m trained to create
analytical lenses to evaluate political and social conflict and
historical change, and I am trained to use hard documents and enjoy the
depth and authenticity of those records. Reading hundreds of pages of
U.S. State Department documents and British Foreign Office records, as
well as German, Austrian, French, and Turkish official records in
translation, I found the voices of history alive in human ways. They
were more than bureaucratic; they were the drama of history in motion.
And this one moment, when Leslie Davis described his journey around a
lake, was a fabulous opportunity for me, as a literary writer, to seize
a deeper way into what the Armenian Genocide was.

The artistic challenges of locating the events, the characters, and
their voices in sensory, human time was an energizing force that kept me
writing when the darkness of the subject could have shut me down.

Peter Balakian is a professor of English and the humanities at Colgate
University. He is the author of five books of poetry and of The Black
Dog of Fate (Basic Books, 1997) and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian
Genocide and America’s Response (HarperCollins, 2003).

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 35, Page B10