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.”
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.
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.
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.