blog

On April 24th

My cousin Vera at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. 2008.

 

April 24th is the day that Armenians memorialize the 1918 genocide that took place in Ottoman Turkey, where over a million Armenians were systematically killed.

My father, being fully Armenian, will attend a service at the Armenian Church in St. Paul this evening, where he will light a candle for his own father, who was deported through the desert by force and orphaned in Aleppo, Syria, and for his mother, whose own father was taken away in the night and shot. He will think of the honor he has of being a grandfather himself, once a boy who had no grand-parents, and of being a free, wealthy man, someone born in a refugee camp, a Christian in a Muslim nation, now living in Southern Minnesota, married to a blond Norwegian, with two daughters he sent to college and beyond, where he enjoys indoor plumbing and electric heating, plentiful food and clean water, medical care and leisure.

Being half Armenian, I know this history. But being half odar, I won’t do much teeth-gnashing and garment-rending. I am not holding any sort of grudge about the genocide. Nor any sadness. I don’t even care if the U.S. won’t acknowledge the genocide, or the April 24th holiday – which won’t happen as long as we need Turkey as an ally and airbase – because I cannot manufacture outrage. I don’t see the good in hanging onto this baleful hate.

Three years ago, I visited The Motherland with my father and my sister. We were traveling with groups of Armenian-Americans. People who looked down at my father, who married out of the tribe, and thus diluted the brand. So as disturbing as the Genocide Museum was, it was my treatment at the hands of these people – who called me odar, who sneered that I didn’t speak Armenian – that hardened my heart, and after which I wrote the following:

I didn’t realize I had a solemn duty to my people that involved living within a proscribed, traditional community. I didn’t realize that people take intermarriage so seriously, that it is a slur to label a person as “odar” – as “other.” As “half.”

I grew up in Southern Minnesota, in a university town ringed with farmland. My friends were all a mix of white, blond or bland: half-German, half Swedish was a popular blend, or Irish Catholic with Lutheran, if you wanted some spice. My friends were half and I was half and nobody cared. We were immersed in typical American school cultural norms, which involved being led by the nose by MTV or whatever clothing being sold at the mall. 
But my Dad didn’t happen to join my friends’ fathers down at the Circle Inn (“Circle Inn…Stagger Out!” said the t-shirts they sold behind the bar) for a beer or seven. My Dad worked long hours as a professional, traveling often, and when he was home, he liked to work in the yard or lie on the couch and get me or my sister to play the piano for him. He watched boxin, took us on vacations, went fishing, insisted we attend church. A Protestant one. There were no Armenian Orthodox high-hatters in the Midwest at that time.My mother, 100% Norwegian, plunged into her love of history and worked at a local museum. She listened to Showtunes and Bon Jovi, took care of my aging grandparents, bought us new clothes every August before school started. We had a dog, Cookie, whom my Dad always walked. We lived in a standard 1970’s-built American home: sunken living room, deck out back, bikes and cars in the garage. Except for my father’s accent – which I wasn’t cognizant of until about age 11 – we were Minnesotans; we were half, my sister and I. But I had considered it an easily emulsifiable blend.

It wasn’t until I was 34 years old, eating lunch in Alaberdi, 5 hours outside of Yerevan, that I realized an entire culture, closed andconniving, lay on the East and West coasts, places where class mattered, where professional status mattered, where purity of culture was apparently in the wild throes of self-preservation, in full disapproval of the structure of our family. 

I guess it took me 34 years, but I am apparently just discovering that the exotic vein of “Armenian” that runs through me is also membership in a clannish, exclusive group hell-bent on beating its denizens with memories of horror, genocide, poverty and excruciating sacrifice. To this end, the values of culture and the Motherland (or Fatherland – either phrase leaves me cold) seem to take precedence over the story of the individual.

I guess I am uniquely American in this aspect. I have no desire to sublimate my one life to the melodramatic tirades of my ancestralhistory. Neither will I invoke tradition, or God, as my steadfast companion. God, who is constantly appealed to but evidently quite disinterested in the tooth-gnashings of my people, offers nothing but a return to sameness, to sadness, to grim, unyielding victimhood.

I am sorry that my great-grandparents died cruelly and unnecessarily. I am sorry for the horrors my grandparents witnessed as
children and for the grueling, impoverished circumstances in which they raised my father. I am sorrowed when I think of the little
boy who was my father and the scarcity of affection, time and money he lived 
with, as a pure innocent.
But instead of banishing myself to linger within such melancholy drapery, I prefer to look out the window of the world in order to see that which I have been given. I am here and I am unwilling to believe that wallowing in hatred, acting like a victim or treating others unkindly because they are “odar” or “half” is any way to honor the sacrifices of the survivors.

Instead, I will live as I please, a luxury many of my relatives of mine did not have. I have learned to see the world as a gift we are to unwrap. At the bottom of the box is a grave. In the churches of old Armenia, in the entryways, the exalted were buried next to the lowly and the entire congregation trod over this floor of headstones, reminding us that we are all the same in the eyes of God, we are all equalized in death. What will be left of my life when I am gone, this mixed blood so sniffed-at by my countrymen? My hope is this: much more than half. 

Do people really believe that the Armenian in me will disappear? Do they doubt that a careful, enterprising descendant of mine won’t be able to find this elusive thread (an orange, blue and red one, if you’d believe the hype)? Do they believe that, diluted, side-by-side with my husband’s Dutch pragmatism and Irish alcoholism and my Norwegian stoicism, the need to bang on tables for “soorch” and dance wildly in circles after drinking too much plum vodka will recede? Can people not stomach seeing their beloved ways set beside
another’s, equal in pleasure and tradition?It sickens me that this professed Christian nation can put its ethnic pride before love of others. Using a term like “odar,” encouraging sustained hatred of Turkey and Turks – these are cultural virtues?

Diasporans have had enough time to lick their wounds and repopulate. Surely, by our own reporting, our people have flourished. We have a national sovereignty, whether you approve of its size or not, and the place is a bustling, garden of life.

So spare me the derision for my mixed background, for the fact that I don’t bow and scrape every time someone peels a pomegranate or invokes the Motherland. I don’t know any Turkish people and I cannot hate people I don’t know. I’m heading directly into the future – being whole, or half, however you want to calculate it – and I don’t have any more time to look back.

2 Comments

  • Carrie on Apr 24, 2012 Reply

    Thank you, sorry to make you tear up!

    I think if your faith or culture serves to make people feel shitty, then it’s not got much use for anyone. But some people like to wrap up in their tradition like a blanket, I guess.

    Having never lived in Armenia, either, my father was removed as well. Going there was like a Muslim going to Mecca, for a Diasporan, but the experience didn’t hold that for me. I guess I’m more interested in muddles and hybrids than in purity. I remember George Carlin saying that he didn’t get why people were ‘proud to be Irish’ or whatever nationality they were, because it was a feature of themselves they’d done nothing to have. They just inherited it, no choice. It’s like being proud to be beautiful, I guess. So it seems silly when people use ethnicity or tribal affiliation as a club against others, or turn their history into an Olympics of Suffering.

  • Ela on Apr 24, 2012 Reply

    Amen sister! This is awesome, tears in my eyes.

    I guess the “half” experience is even intensified by having grown up in the US, so far from Armenia. My experience, growing up mostly in England but constantly going back and forth to Israel, felt more like a foot in both worlds.

    My mother’s father told her that I was inferior to some prostitute’s kid born in Israel, because my dad wasn’t Jewish (forgive me if I already told that story)–my dad never forgave that. To me, it’s simply sad that religion and race can be so divisive. My best friend growing up was half English, half Swiss; another close friend was also half and half Israeli/English; another was half Canadian… But in the melting pot of the midwest, I can see how the contrast can be even greater.

    I don’t know how to say what I’m feeling right now, but I found this post so moving.
    love
    Ela

Leave Reply