Facts and the politics of naming: Rethinking the Armenian Genocide


Part I – Political v. Personal Discussions

The Armenian Genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It was an attempt by the Turkish government to eliminate the Armenians from present-day Turkey. From 1915 to 1923, 1.5 million Armenians were killed and many more were deported on death marches in to the Syrian Desert. Since then, Turkey has denied this history and strongly opposed recognition of these events as genocide.

Popular discussions of the Armenian Genocide increasingly focus on the politics of recognition and the rhetoric of denial and overlook the substance of these tragic events and their legacy.

My great-grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Growing up in an Armenian community in California, most of my friends’ grandparents were also survivors. The genocide was an inevitable topic of discussion. It came up whenever people discussed their families, histories, or the origins of their names. Many Armenians have surnames denoting their grandparents’ hometown or occupation in Turkey prior to the Genocide. Even today, our names remind us of the past and a way of life that no longer exists.

As a child, I spent a great deal of time listening to my grandmother and her friends talking about the past. They discussed their lives in Lebanon, where many Armenians ended up as refugees, and the way their families had struggled to regroup and regain a sense of normalcy in the decades following the Genocide. Even if it weren’t explicitly discussed, the legacy of the Genocide was omnipresent.

One day I asked my grandmother why one of her elderly friends had writing on her face. She explained that her friend had lost her entire family during the Genocide, and that during the deportations, she was taken by a Turkish family to be a domestic worker.

They had tattooed Quranic verses on her face, a practice they perceived as a means of beautification. She later escaped to a home for Armenian orphans, where she met and married a young man who was the only other surviving member from her village.

I also learned about the ways in which people dealt with loss. My great-grandmother’s mother, for instance, went into shock after she lost three of her children in one week during the Genocide. Afterwards, she made an oath that she would never utter any sound outside of prayer. Turning to religion, she spent the rest of her days in silence.

Another friend would never drink any water except rainwater. She had lost her children to thirst during death marches into the Syrian Desert. She pledged to use only rainwater from then on, denying herself the comforts that would have saved her children.

Though an avid story-teller, my great-grandfather never spoke of his experience during the Genocide. It was not until after he died that I found taped interviews with him in a historical archive. In the interviews, he recounted his experiences after marching for months in caravans into the Syrian Desert with his mother and sisters. He recalled how during death marches armed gangs regularly attacked the Armenian convoys, killing indiscriminately and raping women and girls. My great-grandfather must have been about ten at the time. In the interviews, he recalls hearing the sounds of girls being raped and the agony of knowing no one could save them. Once a girl was taken, she was never seen again.

Eventually he and his family made it to the outskirts of Aleppo but were prohibited from entering. Aleppine officials adopted a policy of refusing entry to all Armenians. During the initial stages of the Genocide, the city had been overrun by an influx of emaciated and disease-ridden Armenians, causing a public health crisis. Martin Niepage, a schoolteacher, documented the impact of the arrival of the first Armenian survivors in The Horrors of Aleppo Seen by a German Eyewitness, in which he beseeched the German government to put an end to the persecution. Through deceit and out of desperation, my great-grandfather, his mother, and sisters eventually managed to make it inside the walls of the city. Disguising themselves as workers, they were smuggled into the city by laborers.

Part II – The Politics of Naming / Recognition

There are countless other stories that I’ve read and heard, but I suppose debates about the impact of recognition on U.S. foreign policy and discussions about the niceties of terms like “civil war,” “deportation,” and “genocide” are easier to ponder. The language used to describe the Genocide in American discourse can strike one as absurd.
While Obama was still a senator, he had no hesitation labeling these events as genocide. On April 15, 2009, President Obama, like many presidents before him, opted instead for a euphemism out of fear of offending Turkey. Perhaps in a show of solidarity, he used the Armenian epithet, the term Medz Yeghern, or “great calamity.”

Like many Armenian terms, it’s rich with consonant digraphs, yet easier to pronounce than the term we use much more frequently, Dzeghaspanutiun, or genocide.

Ironically, Raphael Lemkin, the jurist responsible for creating the term “genocide,” first developed the concept with the Armenian Genocide in mind. Winston Churchill referred to these events as a “holocaust” in his history of the First World War. In 2000, Robert Fisk expanded on the politics of naming by writing about his struggle with his editors at The Independent who insisted on using a lower case “h” for “Armenian holocaust.”

They said common usage dictated that the capital “h” be reserved for the Jewish Holocaust. When pressed further, they said the Jewish Holocaust warranted capitalization because it was Europe’s genocide, and therefore, had a particular place in their culture and language.

In recent years, an increasingly absurd rhetorical game has overshadowed meaningful discussions of the Genocide. One can easily find reports insisting on the impracticability of official congresional recognition of the Genocide and criticizing House discussions of recognition for their “interference” in the precarious reconciliation process between Turkey and Armenia. In October 2009, Turkey and Armenia signed a protocol, under the close watch of Hillary Clinton, agreeing to begin the process of reestablishing diplomatic ties. The agreement reached an impasse after the Armenian Constitutional Court held that the agreement could not prevent the Armenian state from seeking international recognition of the Genocide. Neither state’s parliament has ratified the agreement.

Although federal recognition has been controversial, forty-four U.S. states have officially recognized the Genocide. So have a number of countries, including Canada, France, and Russia. These are examples of how Turkey’s relationship with its allies has survived and even been strengthened despite recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

During the drafting of the current protocols, Turkey insisted that the issue of the Armenian Genocide be resolved at a later date by a team of historians. Though such solutions seem reasonable, they overlooks the fact that the question of whether the events constitute genocide is beyond debate. Historians have reached a consensus in favor of the label of genocide. In fact, many Turkish academics and intellectuals, such as historian Taner Akcam and publisher Ragip Zarakolu have called on Turkey (and the U.S.) to recognize the Genocide, at great cost to their own liberty and safety. Both the International Association of Genocide Scholars and the International Center for Transitional Justice have officially recognized the events as genocide.

Ultimately, we must not allow Turkish denial to shift the conversation from the legacy of this Genocide and its impact on history to the banalities of naming.

Naira der Kiureghian is a 2L.

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