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 people 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 stil [sing]l 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 find meaning.
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.
You can watch his interview in Yerevan, Armenia, with the think-tank CivilNet on http://civilnet.am/2013/04/06/soft-power-in-british-local-politics/