[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]
To mark the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, I’m linking to two articles—and two only—that I’ve read on the subject of late. One is the remarkable essay in the January 5th issue of The New Yorker by staff writer
Raffi Khatchadourian, “A Century of Silence,” in which he writes about the historical memory of the genocide in southeastern Turkey—and how it is being recovered—through the prism of his family’s own history. At 14,000 words the essay requires a certain time commitment but is well worth it.
The other piece, in the April 20th issue of TWS, is by Boston College political science prof Dominic Green, “A great calamity: One century since the Turkish genocide of the Armenians,” in which he reviews “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Green writes
This year is the centenary of the Armenian Genocide; the commemoration falls on April 24. On that day in 1915, the Ottoman government arrested hundreds of prominent Armenians in Istanbul. This April 24, when memorial ceremonies are held in Armenia and in the cities of the Armenian diaspora, the Turkish government will be congratulating itself with diversionary celebrations of the Gallipoli campaign. The centenary has raised the diplomatic temperature and precipitated many books. Ronald Suny’s is the best of them: Balanced, scholarly, and harrowing, it should be read by all serious students of modern history.
I’ll certainly read it à l’occasion.
I should also mention Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s new feature-length film, ‘The Cut’, which has the Armenian genocide as its focus. Akin is a fine filmmaker, having directed the excellent Head-On and the very good The Edge of Heaven, though his Soul Kitchen wasn’t too memorable IMO. This one is his biggest budget and most ambitious film. It begins in 1915 in Mardin, in southeastern Anatolia—near the present-day Syrian border—where a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian, played by the French actor Tahir Rahim, lives a happy life with his wife and daughters, ages 10-12 or thereabouts, when Ottoman soldiers storm Armenian homes in the middle of the night and send their inhabitants packing. Nazaret is separated from his wife and daughters, the latter sent on the death march to the south while he’s impressed into a work gang, all of whose members have their throats summarily slashed when the soldiers are done with them. But Nazaret’s press-ganged Kurdish executioner can’t bring himself to commit the deed, going through the motions and sparing Nazaret’s life, but cutting his vocal cords nonetheless, definitively depriving him of speech. This part of the film, which depicts the genocide as it must have unfolded—with the round-ups, robbing and rape of those on the death march, massacres and mass starvation—is well-done and quite powerful, though one is provided with little information as to why it’s all happening. Turks and Kurds will wince at the way they’re portrayed, even if a small handful are shown to have acted honorably and/or with humanity. Nazaret ends up in Aleppo and, with the war over, learns that his wife had died but the daughters hadn’t, that they’d been married to rich Armenian businessmen living in Cuba. So he sets off on his journey to find them—and this is the rest of the film—taking a boat to Havana, where, communicating via writing and hand gestures, he learned that they had moved on to Minneapolis, Minnesota. So smuggling himself to Florida, he makes his way to the Twin Cities, where he is informed that the daughters are now somewhere in North Dakota. Fucking North Dakota. So that’s where he goes and where his journey ends, some seven years after he was separated from his family. As for whether or not the ending is happy, sorry but no spoilers.
This part of the film doesn’t work. What started out as an epic saga on the Armenian genocide—a subject on which there are precious few cinematic treatments—ended up as a story about a father looking for his lost family—and, with the film’s 2¼-hour running time, a long story indeed. And having the protag lose his voice was an unnecessary contrivance. Technically the film is impressive—it was shot in five countries (Jordan, Malta, Germany, Cuba, and Canada) on three continents—but otherwise it’s a disappointment. A blown opportunity. In the version shown in France the Armenian characters speak Armenian (Rahim and others being dubbed) but I read afterward that they speak English in the main version for the international market. If the one I saw had been this, I’d have given the pic the thumbs down from the get go. Hollywood press critics who saw the film at the Venice festival had the same reaction to it as did I (e.g. here, here, and here). French critics were also on the same wavelength (though Allociné spectateurs were far more positive; for once I go against the vox populi). Armenian trailer w/French s/t is here, English one is here.
UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has an op-ed in the NYT (April 23rd) on “The cost of Turkey’s genocide denial.”
2nd UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has another piece, this an excerpt in TDB (April 24th) from his new book (see above), “Yes, the slaughter of Armenians was genocide.” The lede: “The Turkish government may not want to admit it, but the murder and removal of millions of Armenians was genocide.”
3rd UPDATE: Sabancı University political science professor Ayşe Kadıoğlu has a most interesting essay in OpenDemocracy (April 24th), “Skeletons in the Turkish closet: remembering the Armenian Genocide.” The lede: “Just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır in 2012 nearly 100 years after they were buried, Turkey’s past is haunting its future and demanding that we remember the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide.”
4th UPDATE: Le Monde dated April 23rd has an eight-page supplement on the “Génocide des Arméniens,” in which there’s a full-page interview with Boğaziçi University historian Edhem Eldem, who was one of the organizers of the groundbreaking 2005 Istanbul conference on the Armenian genocide, the first ever held in Turkey on the subject. In view of the century-long brainwashing of Turks as to what to happened to the Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and the hyper-nationalism in Turkey—which is constitutive of the Turkish national identity—he is not optimistic that the Turkish state will recognize the fact of the genocide in the foreseeable future.
5th UPDATE: The website Public Books has a review essay (May 1st) on Ronald Grigor Suny’s book by Christine Philliou, Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History at Columbia University, “The Armenian genocide and the politics of knowledge.”