Today marks the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide. I’ve written before on this topic and what it means to me – as the descendant of not one but two Genocide Survivors. Haig Aram Tavoukjian and Hasmig Caloustian were both survivors, growing up in an Armenian Orthodox orphanage in what would come to be known as Bourj Hamoud, Lebanon. This suburb was founded by Genocide survivors and remains an Armenian enclave today. My grandparents, their children and their children’s children grew up there. I had the fortune to go there when I was younger – up until the Lebanese Civil War that started in 1977 made it too dangerous to go back. My memories are extremely hazy of that time, but I remember mountains, the sea, the forests and my grandmothers, my Medz Mairig’s, songs.
While I never got the chance to meet my maternal grandfather – he passed away well before I was born – I still have a special spot in my heart for my Nani. I remember her as a diminutive, feisty lady, weathered, iron in her spine, no-nonsense and hard on her kids and doting on her grandkids. I grew up at her knee listening to songs that I barely understood. Sure, there were the nursery rhymes I still recall snippets of. But there were other songs, songs that brought a tear to her eye as her vision loosened and fixed on some far horizon.
I honestly don’t know how I came to learn of the genocide. I know my grandmother raised me on Armenian Folklore and
tales. Haik the founder – for whom Hayastan, the Armenian word for Armenia, is named. Aram, his great-grandson and ancestor of the Armenians. Saint Gregory the Illuminator, first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, founded by the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus (Jude) . Mesrop Mashtots who created the unique Armenian alphabet. Vartan Mamikonian who died a Martyr facing down a Sassinid army who tried to impose Zoroastrianism on his Christian countrymen. And of course my all time favorite – David of Sassoun – the Armenian Beowulf that drove out Arabs invaders from Armenia. There are more which I only vaguely recall the stories of now.
But somewhere along the line, I learned about the Armenian Genocide.
I dug deeper, I asked my mom and I think it was then that I found out that my Grandmother and Grandfather was a survivor. I’ve told the story earlier so I won’t go through it again in this post.
The Genocide was a formative fingerprint on my soul. It was one thing to learn of evil, another entirely to find out how close that evil came to extinguishing not just myself, but an entire people for no other fault than their different culture and faith. It sits with me still and on every April 24, I am a lead weight. Don’t call it despair, rather a shocking reminder that there but for the grace of God go I. Yes, I’m aware of the original phrase attribution and it’s intent – and it was intentional.
There’s a sadness that dwells deep for family and descendants that I will never know. For giants in Literature, Science and Politics that were murdered, driven into the wastes and killed. For the Diaspora which followed and seeded Armenians through out the world. A popular, French I think it is, phrase goes – “Turn and you will find an Armenian.”
We’ve made progress in recognition. Turkey remains in denial, of course. And, disappointingly but unsurprisingly, so does the US Government. That recognition counts in a way that, and I mean this humbly, only a Genocide survivor can feel. One day there will be less lead and more feather on this day. But not this day.
The tree that was cut down sprouted from acorns that spread through out the world.
Rest in peace Nani and Grandpa – I hope you found the family you were ripped from.
Medz Mayrig! (Grand Mother)
She is my Armenia
My window to the past
Stories she used to tell
Humming childhood songs
In between tears for family lost
Her tatoo’d lips,
Henna stained hands
A flavor of truth
To stories of flight
From bloody fields and roads with no end
We argue as Armenians only can
As I hear the shouts
All I see are her tears for family lost
When his zeal is needed now
Where the heroes of today
To teach tomorrow
Lessons of yesterday?
She rocks back and forth
Dreams as she sleeps
Cries when she’s awake
Humming childhood songs
Serdis (my heart), my lovely Armenia
April 24, 2006