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Severing a Link, Word by Word
PostPosted: Thu Aug 04, 2005 10:25 pm Reply with quote
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Severing a Link, Word by Word; As Language Erodes, Armenian Exiles Fear Bigger Loss
By CHRIS HEDGES (NYT) 1874 words
Published: July 6, 2000

Hagup H. Asadourian communes with shadows. Some are dark and frightening, like the shades of Turkish soldiers who in 1915 herded him and his family from his Armenian village, leaving him to watch his mother and four of his sisters die of typhus in the Syrian desert.

Some are sweet, revolving around the raucous Armenian-language plays put on in the 1920's at the Yiddish Theater at Madison and 27th Street in Manhattan. And some are poignant, like the reunion with his sister, the only surviving member of his immediate family, 39 years after they lost each other one night near the Dead Sea as they fled with a ragged band of Armenian orphans from Syria to Jerusalem.

But his battle to preserve memory, the theme of all his 14 books, cannot save him from the destructive march of time. And time, to the rapidly vanishing community of exiled Armenians, will soon finish the work that, he says, was begun by the Turkish army 85 years ago. Mr. Asadourian's latest book, ''The Smoldering Generation,'' is, he said, ''about the inevitable loss of our culture.''

''No one takes the place of those who are gone,'' he said, seated in front of a picture window that looked out on a carefully groomed garden at his home here. ''Your children do not understand you in this country. You cannot blame them.''

As he spoke, his son, John, who has used a wheelchair since a stroke, jerked himself into position behind his father. He listened, his head cocked slightly to one side, with a grimace.

The death of more than one million Armenians in Turkey is often cited as the opening act for the genocidal campaigns that convulsed the 20th century. Although the Allied powers condemned the Turks during World War I, there was no effort to hold them accountable for actions against the Armenians after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The magnitude of the deaths and ultimate indifference may have led Hitler, on the eve of the invasion of Poland, to remind his followers, ''Who still speaks of the extermination of the Armenians?''

The Ottoman Turks, who feared a nationalist revolt like the one that had convulsed the Balkans, spent six months in 1915 driving most of the two million Armenians out of Turkey. In what Armenians call genocide, at least a million were forced to march in pathetic columns into the deserts of what are now Syria and Iraq, where several hundred thousand were slaughtered or left to die of starvation and disease. By 1923, Armenia says, 1.5 million were dead and orphanages throughout the Middle East were flooded with some 200,000 destitute Armenian children.

The Turkish government still vigorously denies the event. It says that some of the Armenians killed were rebels during World War I and others were victims of the fighting and the widespread famine. The Turks say they escorted Armenians away from the fighting for their own safety. They concede that, because of the war, some unfortunate incidents took place, but say that during this time fewer than half a million Armenians died along with two million Turks.

Much of the world of the Armenians, first mentioned by the Greeks and Persians in 6 B.C., has been reduced to dusty, forgotten relics in present-day Turkey. Officially, the Republic of Armenia has a population of about 3.4 million, but the poor economy, the recent earthquake and the ethnic conflict that is continuing between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh have caused at least a third of the population to leave in the last decade, Armenian scholars say.

After World War I, about 25,000 Armenians came to the United States. Some of their tales survive in small American collections of Armenian literature and poetry, like the 15,000 volumes in the Zohrab Center at 630 Second Avenue in Manhattan. But these books lie unread by all but a few scholars. Little of the work has been translated.

Zarmine Boghosian, the principal of the Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School in Queens, said she, like most who speak Armenian, failed in her effort to bring the literature to her children. And though she gives her 100 elementary schoolchildren daily lessons in Armenian, she concedes that as they go on in school the language is swiftly forgotten.

''When the sons of an Armenian school principal can no longer grasp an Armenian work from the bookshelf and read it,'' she said, ''it means that we can no longer dream of maintaining this literature.''

The loss is not only literary, but severs Armenians from the perspective of their parents and grandparents. Being Armenian, for many, is little more than a label.

''We are losing our multigenerational thread,'' said Aris Sevag, the managing editor of the English-language Armenian Reporter, a weekly newspaper published in Queens. ''We are losing our ability to understand the Armenian gestalt, our inner world.''

Yet even as the Armenian language disappears, American scholars have been turning their attention to Armenian history. Peter Balakian, a professor of English at Colgate University, said that in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the rising awareness of human rights brought more attention to the Armenian diaspora.

''The Armenian genocide is perhaps the hottest discourse in the genocide studies arena and is being taught nationwide in high schools and universities,'' said Dr. Balakian, who is of Armenian descent.

''Americans, who once used the phrase 'the starving Armenians' in daily speech for decades in the earlier part of the century, are now relearning this history,'' he continued. ''I believe that this time the history of the Armenian genocide is here to stay.''

Armenians have found that the present is something in which the dead hold no shares.

''My grandmother came from Bursa, a town in western Turkey,'' said Aram Arkun, a historian. ''A man from her town meticulously compiled a manuscript with pictures, sketches and writings on the town's customs, traditions, notable families and history. This was common. A couple hundred of these local histories were published; perhaps hundreds more were not. I found the daughters of this man. They had thrown the book, which they could not read, in the trash after his death. Now a little piece of our history and our culture is gone forever.''

The decimation of their universe further impoverishes cultural studies, scholars say, as Western culture relied on Armenian monks to rescue works by such ancient Greek writers as Philo and Eusebius from oblivion.

''You lose expressions used in households, terms of endearment and intellectual concepts,'' said the Rev. Krikor Maksoudian, who once taught Armenian history and literature at Columbia University. ''Each language has its own way of describing and asserting human experience. Each contains the temper of the tradition itself. None of this can be captured fully in translation. We are losing another perspective on the world.''

Although there were once 10 major Armenian-language daily newspapers in the United States, there is just one left, published in California. Armenian clubs have closed, social societies have been disbanded and cultural events have dwindled. Proceedings of Armenian meetings, when they take place, are usually in English (except at church affairs, where Armenian clergy nearly always speak in Armenian first, then English).

Mr. Asadourian, 97, said he had accepted that his writing would not halt the slide to obliteration. (His two sons were raised speaking Armenian; his granddaughter speaks it, but does not write very well.) Rather, he writes to give a voice to the 331 people with whom he trudged into Syria in September 1915. Only 29 of those people survived.

''You can never really write what happened anyway,'' Mr. Asadourian said. ''It is too ghoulish. I still fight with myself to remember it as it was. You write because you have to. It all wells up inside of you. It is like a hole that fills constantly with water and no amount of bailing will empty it. This is why I continue.''

There are American memoir writers, like Michael J. Arlen (''Passage to Ararat'') and Peter Balakian (''Black Dog of Fate''), who struggle with the meaning of the genocide for the children of survivors. But their works, written in English, are a step away from the works of their forefathers.

''They put the Armenian experience into therapeutic form,'' said Chris Zakian, a book editor of Armenian descent. ''These memoirs get the experience out of us. But then what happens? It is another act on the road to assimilation. It helps us unload the onerous bits about being Armenian. There is no continuation of a tradition.''

Mr. Asadourian, who recently translated his granddaughters' poems into Armenian, has already begun to donate his papers to a library in what was once Soviet Armenia. He is sending them there because, although the historical experience, dialect and written script are different, ''at least they still speak Armenian.''

His passion, however, burns deep. He refused to halt the painful story of his deportation despite having to reach for a bottle of pills wrapped with a piece of white gauze. He took a deep breath before plunging into the last bit of detail, one he had left out of the lengthy chronology.

''When it came time to bury my mother, I had to get two other small boys to help me carry her body up to a well where they were dumping the corpses,'' he said. ''We did this so the jackals would not eat them. The stench was terrible. There were swarms of black flies buzzing over the opening. We pushed her in feet first, and the other boys, to escape the smell, ran down the hill. I stayed. I had to watch. I saw her head, as she fell, bang on one side of the well and then the other before she disappeared. At the time, I did not feel anything at all.''

He stopped, visibly shaken.

''What kind of a son is that?'' he asked hoarsely.

The house fell silent. Mr. Asadourian's own son, as motionless as his father during the story, flipped the electric switch on his chair and rolled out of the room.

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