REMEMBRANCE, FORGIVENESS, TRANSFORMATION: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
June 19 2013
By Ara Iskanderian
Every year Armenians the world over gather to commemorate the memory
of the 1.5 million Armenians who perished during the First World War.
This is an event all serious commentators agree was the twentieth
century’s first genocide. The date itself (24 April) is symbolic.
Ninety-eight years ago on that day the Turkish authorities of Ottoman
Istanbul rounded up and arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals, business
and clergy – any and all potential leaders – before proceeding to
deport them all to Chankiri prison, a few miles from modern Turkey’s
capital of Ankara. Few deportees were ever heard of again.
One deportee, the future Bishop of Marseille, Grigoris Balakian
was a man of great faith, who struggled to minister to a massacred
congregation singularly asking, “where is God?” Balakian couldn’t
answer. Instead, he vowed to survive, if only to write a testimony
recording the fate of his people. The result is a veritable tome
entitled Armenian Golgotha. Part-history, part-memoir, and laced with
religious imagery – the chapter recounting the eve of 24 April is
tellingly entitled ‘The Night of Gethsemane’ – and has as its subtext
a cleric’s struggle with faith in the face of shattering tragedy.
“What could I do?” asks Balakian rhetorically, “Nothing – except
try to firmly hold all these criminal and tragic events in the black
folds of my memory, and in the event of my survival, bequeath them
to future generations.”
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, writing some 24-years later in
Man’s Search for Meaning argues, “suffering ceases to be suffering
at the moment it finds meaning”. Frankl, a trained psychologist,
calls this process Logotherapy, and though it might be anachronistic,
arguably Balakian’s resignation to survival, if only to record his
account, provides meaning to his experiences. His herculean task,
as he reminds us, we will return to later on.
Writing much later, a frustrated Balakian laments; “Oh, no pen of
any individual can possibly convey the suffering and misery of the
exiled Armenians…” he continues “If all the seas were ink and all
the fields were paper, still it would be impossible to describe, in
detail, the reality…” Here is a recurring theme in Armenian memory
of genocide; the rewording of the question “where is God?” framed
in an inversion of Biblical text. Consider Balakian’s above quote in
light of John 21.25 in the New Testament.
Compare too, the music of the contemporary, and world-renowned,
Armenian heavy metal band System of a Down (SOAD). In ‘Chop Sue’y,
a song inspired by the Armenian Genocide, the band amalgamate Mark
15.34/Mathew 27.46 and the abrogating verse of Luke 23.46, before
inverting it. SOAD sing: “Father into your hands I commend my spirit,
why have you forsaken me?” Alternately, “where is God?”.
This question underscores many events occurring around the
anniversary. However, Armenians today are more likely to ask the
whereabouts of justice than God. Justice for Armenians hinges on three
‘R’s’: Recognition, Recompense, and Restoration. The attainment
of these ‘Rs’, and their conspicuous absence, means 24 April can
occasionally seem more about seeking justice than commemoration.
Arguably though, the two are synonymous.
Armenian frustrations aside, justice is an inevitability, albeit born
of a slow process. Heartening are the various civil society initiatives
in Turkey undertaken by Turks themselves. It is governments that
are lagging. Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth provides us with
a roadmap for justice: firstly, it is ridiculed, secondly, it is
violently opposed, and thirdly it is accepted as being self-evident.
Commemoration is different. It embodies remembrance and calls upon
memory. It is a regular act, but tellingly silent. To a degree,
commemoration is very personal, requiring the individual to provide
meaning to a legacy. Commemoration also demands the responsibility
of ownership, as expressed through not just explaining why, or how
something happened, but why it should matter that it did. Owning a
legacy means not hinging some future point of closure on recognition
by a third party, in this case a nonchalant government. Recognition is
beyond Armenians control, it also prolongs suffering. Commemoration
ignores the question where is God, or justice, and the third party,
instead commemoration demands finding meaning, and to paraphrase
Frankl, this remains the only answer to genocidal trauma.
The logical question then is: what is that meaning? Arguably,
celebrating the very markers of difference that once set aside the
Armenian people for extermination are the very things we need to
celebrate for having survived. This gives meaning and quick reward.
Speaking the language, maintaining traditions, reading and writing
literature. Reviving, renewing, these are acts of commemoration that
require no anniversary, no recognition, and truly express a defiant
ownership of a legacy, and give meaning to trauma. Balakian recounts
a Turkish policeman incredulous that prisoners sang as they marched
to their deaths, “What a carefree nation you are! We massacre you,
we exile you, and yet you still songs”.
Father Balakian replies, “Yes, they were right, but if the Armenian
nation had survived after five long centuries of persecution and
massacre, the reason was this vitality, such that the more they
massacred the hated hydra, the more new heads it grew…” Here is the
challenge of meaning Armenians face: how to live once more. Failing
to answer positively gives truth to Frankl’s damning definition:
“meaninglessness: enough to live by, nothing to live for” recognition
alone doesn’t suffice.
Armenians claim to have been the first nation to convert to
Christianity. The historic tenacity with which Armenians have clung to
Christianity sets them apart from their neighbours, arguably singling
them out for massacre. For a Christian people trying to comprehend the
presence of God in a legacy, fatalism and atheism are easy options,
neither help much with providing meaning.
Personally, I have struggled to reconcile my Christian faith with
the familial legacy and national narrative of persecution, which I
have inherited. However, when I have employed my faith to digest the
genocide’s legacy I have found it easier to commemorate, easier to
In Exodus 32.10 we read: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may
burn hot against them and may consume them, in order that I may make a
great nation of you.” Here is my answer to the question: where is God?
The legacy of genocide places a demand on my faith as a Christian. It
asks of me and challenges me to forgive. The Christian injunction to
forgive gives meaning to the legacy I inherit, as much as the legacy
I inherit provides meaningful challenge to my faith. In my own way
I have answered the question of where is God, and in finding meaning
through my choice of commemoration; to be a Christian, to forgive.
The Christian faith hinges upon the ability to forgive. Armenians
both as the descendants of victims, and as Christians, can only make
sense of their past, and be empowered to confront their future through
that process of forgiveness, not human-made justice. The beauty of
forgiveness in the Christian context is that it requires no recognition
from the forgiven. Forgiveness offers Armenian Christians ownership
of their history and its legacy. It allows for a fresh start.
The parallels with Christ’s crucifixion that we as Christians might
live again are certainly guilty of being Armenocentric, but calling
upon our faith will provide us with the tools to find meaning to
our past and future. I write this mindful of the Beatitudes and also
Matthew 6:44 “…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute
you.” I sign off this article with a poem by Nâzim Hikmet that
encapsulates some of the tensions I have sought to draw out herein.
Hikmet, a Turkish poet detained in Chankiri prison some 20 years
after Bishop Balakian, wrote:
The grocer Karabet’s lights are on.
This Armenian citizen has not forgiven The slaughter of his father
in the Kurdish mountains.
But he loves you, Because you also won’t forgive Those who blackened
the name of the Turkish people
© Ara Iskanderian is an elected local councillor for Northolt
Mandeville Ward in the London Borough of Ealing. A trained historian,
and currently qualifying as a lawyer, he regularly comments of
developments in the South Caucasus.