Harry Harootunian is Max Palevsky Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Chicago; professor emeritus of East Asian studies at New York University; and the author of numerous books, most recently, Uneven Moments: Reflections on Japan’s Modern History. In this guest post, he discusses the challenges of uncovering the truth of his parents’ experiences in the Armenian genocide while writing his memoir The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unnaccounted Lives and grapples with the multigenerational echoes of the event amidst a resurgence of political interest.
The recent resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize the Turkish massacres of 1915-1916 as a full-fledged “genocide” resurfaces the historical plight of an ethnic group designated for extinction as a “reviled” race—one that was nearly eliminated over a century ago. Since that time, its survivors and their descendants have lived with the memories of murder and mutilation scarcely acknowledged by world opinion. The events exist only as a living presence that continues to guarantee social solidarity in the shadowed diaspora communities scattered throughout the globe. Because the event faded into the background noise of 20th century political history, sovereign states failed to grant it the status of genocide. Successive U.S. presidents have routinely rejected the resolution whenever it has appeared for a vote, apparently in fear of alienating America’s Turkish ally. Even Barack Obama caved in to Turkish sensitivities after promising in his presidential campaign that he would approve of the resolution if elected. Obama was already on record for criticizing the firing of a former ambassador to Armenia for having used what he—Obama—believed was the “proper” word of genocide for describing the massacres of 1915-16. But in his presidency he failed to promote the resolution and see it through its acceptance. Turkey’s membership in NATO is cited a primary reason for this continued campaign of disavowal in the postwar decades, and the initiative was constantly sidestepped because, as former president George W. Bush recently warned, supporting such a resolution would further complicate relations with the West Asia region (Middle East). Explanations for inaction towards resolution always comprised a paradoxical combination of appeals to American national interest and Turkish sensitivity. In the case of the latter, the insistence on coddling Turkish sensibilities when Turkey has continuously and confidently denied the existence of the event, while the former was apparently justified by the presence of American air bases in the region. With the current American president’s mysteriously slavish devotion to Turkey’s thuggish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan, business ties masquerading as a concern for national interest will undoubtedly lead to another veto.
The sudden resurfacing of the resolution and its recent genocidal recognition in the U.S. House raises the question of what circumstances prompted action after decades of indifferent rejection. Where did the political energy come from to exhume the long-ignored Armenian genocide and murder of 1,500,000 inhabitants of the empire? It occurred to me that The Unspoken As Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives, my new memoir chronicling my parents’ escape from impending mass extinction and their subsequent migration to the U.S., might now seem relevant in understanding of the recent race to ratify the resolution. My account concentrates on the immense imperative of adapting from the pre-capitalist communities of a dysfunctional land empire to a modern capitalist social order and the impact 500 years of oppressive colonial rule as a “reviled” race had on this transition. Using the figure of the Armenian genocide to explain recent changes in U.S. Middle East policy, however, excluded the histories of those who suffered most from it. The Armenians perceived distance suggested that it was still unclear whether the stigmatic judgment of revilement remains an unerasable tattoo for those who survived its excesses or who came after.
The reason for the resurgence in interest in the Armenian genocide is the fear that the withdrawal of a small American force in Syria would lead Turkey to once more resort to genocide to rid the region of Kurds. What is interesting about this rapid shift is the willingness to forgo previous concerns for Turkish sensitivity by branding Turkey with an aptitude for unleashing mass murder. Americans had no trouble immediately remembering what modern Turkey had been socialized to forget. Neither policy makers nor self-styled defenders of human rights seemed aware that Kurds had been one of the principal, energetic forces (along with the Turkish military) in the execution of murders, massacres and massive theft of the very Armenians whose historical experience of near extinction was now being invoked to spare the Kurds from a similar fate. In The Unspoken as Heritage, I note the intensely eager role of the Kurds in carrying out the labor of massacre and mutilation under the Ottoman state’s sponsored encouragement. Ample scholarship shows evidence of attempts to make the Kurdish involvement in the Armenian genocide appear as common sense. This narrative, rooted in the struggle over acquisition of cultivable agricultural land, went back to the early 19th century when Kurdish brigades carried out systematic but unscheduled pogroms against Armenians. But again, ironically, once the state had successfully eliminated much of the Armenian population in the killing fields and mass deportations, it was replaced by the new Turkish nation-state, which, in the early 1930s, turned to the older strategy of ethnic cleansing by removing and annihilating the Kurds that has persisted to the present day. In view of this congestion of ironies, it now seems pertinent to explain how I’ve tried to construct my parents’ singular experience, which is the kind of ‘history’ tropic condensations invariably exclude.
The memoir attempts to re-compose what my two sisters and I could recall of our parents’ escape and migration from the perspective of our lives growing up in late depression Detroit through the years of World War II. Our parents, Ohaness Der Harootunian and Vehanush Kupalian, remained silent about what experiences compelled them to make such a long unplanned and perilous trek from their homeland, and my goal has been to construct an account that might reveal something about their early lives in Anatolia. Throughout our lives, they maintained a disciplined silence on their experience of the genocide, their collective loss, and the struggles of building a life in an alien country. As I look back to the years of our childhoods, their resolute silence, which first appeared as a mystery of origins, was transmuted into a permanent void that became our lasting heritage. My parents, like the names of the dead, were linked to experiences deposited in an unapproachable locked realm, what author Patrick Modiani, in another context, once described as “dormant memories,” forever unspoken and unawakened.
When I was younger, questions concerning our parents’ lives before the U.S. never occurred to me. When finding answers to these and other questions became a compelling imperative, I concluded that approaching them through the historical optic of the genocide would only perpetuate the Armenian genocide as a sideshow of Turkey’s involvement in World War I. Moreover, I had no qualifications to write such a history, even if I wanted to. My interests were guided by the recognition that I never really knew who my parents were. I was convinced that whatever prompted the desire to clear up the mystery might put an end to the void of this silent repression that had engulfed and dominated our lives and animated theirs.
This project stems from an intense concern with the long and multi-generational afterlife of the genocide that has remained at the heart of the Armenian diaspora. For Armenians of successive generations like mine, this concern has itself become a form of heritage that obliges each to prevent memories of the event from falling into permanent indifference and forgetfulness. As a result, I became preoccupied with understanding why the experience subjected our parents to a collective silence of the unspoken that became our inheritance. I began to sense how difficult this project had become, frustrated by the sudden realization of how little I knew of my parents and that my sisters and I never questioned what brought them to the U.S.
In the absence of sufficient resources, I’ve resorted to a re-composition of what they separately went through, hesitantly trying to envision their accompanying thoughts and feelings based off what the three of us were able recall or thought they endured as they escaped imminent death. The re-composition I cobbled together resembles most an archaeological excavation that pries and sifts through loose, unrelated fragments to serve as an incomplete representation of a life lived. To wrest them from their silent confinement and imagine the details of their fractured lives, I assumed the fictive figure of an uninvited intruder in their thoughts. Though our parents rarely spoke of their individual encounters, the experience of genocidal witness, loss and escape stalked their efforts to rebuild their lives abroad. The shadow of their earlier experience followed them as they struggled to navigate through the barriers of chronic economic and social failure.
We inherited the political toll of destruction produced by the void and its aftermath. Our starting point is our father’s loss of his entire family, a large unit comprised of several brothers and sisters (the count and names remain unknown), mother, father, grandparents and even great-grandparents; our mother came from a smaller family and was left with no relatives: her father died when she was an infant, her brother perished in the genocide and her mother never returned after putting Vehanush into a German missionary school for safe-keeping even though she made it to Beirut and remarried. As children we confronted the namelessness of departed relatives since it was effectively disallowed to speak of their past, as if it never existed. Yet we came to realize much later that naming something gives it life, which enabled us to recognize that the genocide powerfully altered and reshaped these people. Naming it allows us to enter its forgotten precincts and retrieve their repressed memories. The memoir details the lasting effects that are passed into our unasked-for legacy.
The lived irony of a genocide reproduced by its victims’ prolonged silences recalls how the Armenian genocide unintentionally (or intentionally) alludes to the Kurds’ possible fate upon the removal American troops in Syria. If the latter is ultimately an uninformed political tactic, involuntarily slipping from metaphor into momentary irony, its unwelcome contrast with the former further reinforces the truth of Marx’s observation that history, in the second time around, always appears as farce.
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