What it means to be Armenian

My mother’s father is Armenian. As a kid, the fact that I was 1/4 Armenian made me feel extraordinarily exotic and cool. When we had to do projects in school where we researched our heritage, everyone else was stuck with Italy, Poland, and Germany, but I got to talk about how I was Armenian so I was special and different.

The fact is, though, that the most that I knew about my Armenian heritage until I was an adult was, according to my grandfather, “your great-grandmother walked across the desert with a baby on her back to escape the goddamn Turks.” Usually this was said in the same tone of voice that you would typically expect from “When I was a kid, we had to walk both ways uphill to go to school in eight feet of snow” – ultimately it was far more devastating than that, but it always sounded to me like a comment on the cushy life that my Armenian grandfather’s American grandchildren had. My grandfather spoke only Armenian for the first five years of his life, but after my great-grandmother passed, he didn’t have anyone to speak it to anymore and he forgot it. He did, however, call my cousins and I janum, which is actually a Farsi term of endearment. No one in my family cooked Armenian food. We weren’t affiliated with the Armenian church. All I knew was that my great-grandmother walked across the desert with a baby on her back, and that Armenian names ended in -ian, just like my mother’s maiden name.

When I moved to Chicago for college, I made my first Armenian friend, and she introduced me to a lot of the culinary delights of my heritage (kadayif is the love of my life). I also learned a bit more about the church and the general Armenian culture. But there was still a massive hole in my knowledge of my heritage: the genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks in 1915.

(If my use of the word “genocide” offends you, you can feel free to stop reading now. I’m not going to use this post as an opportunity to get political.)

As I’ve learned more about the genocide, I’m consistently shocked by how many Americans have never heard of it. It seems like it’s rarely taught in schools, and it’s generally been forgotten to history by the vast majority of Americans. As it was happening, though, it was one of the first international human rights crises and inspired a significant amount of aid from the U.S., with Clara Barton herself going on a mission to Armenian in 1896 to care for the survivors. In fact, it’s widely quoted that Hitler, on the eve of the Holocaust, thought that he could get away with the mass killing of Jews because, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

“The” genocide was in fact several years of mass genocide efforts spanning from the late 1890s to the mid-1910s, with the largest number of killings taking place in 1914 and 1915. My great-grandfather, Garabet Tsobanian (later known as Sarkis Chobanian), was born in Turkey, on Valentine’s Day 1887. He came to America through Ellis Island on May 23, 1913. By 1913, several attacks against the Armenians had already taken place, and the Raid of the Sublime Porte took place in Constantinople on January 23, 1913. The raid was a coup d’état by the Committee of Union and Progress, whose three leaders – Enver, Talaat, and Djemal Pasha – would be the architects of the Armenian genocide in 1915. I’m sure my great-grandfather knew it was time to get out of there.

In doing so, he left behind my great-grandmother, Dirouhi (nee Haunoonian), and great-aunt, Cema, who was less than a year old. Dirouhi and Cema were in Armenia for seven long years after my great-grandfather’s departure. In 1915, they were marched through the desert to die like many other women and children. My great-grandmother’s brother, a tailor, was beheaded in his own store. Dirouhi and Cema escaped and finally made it to America in 1920. Their three sons, including my grandfather, were born in America.

In the last few months, I’ve read two fantastic books on the genocide, both by Peter Balakian: The Burning Tigris and Black Dog of Fate. Both books contain graphic descriptions of the horrors of the genocide which came from first-person accounts of Americans and Europeans who were serving as ambassadors or volunteers in Armenian at the time. As I read about the intentional and systematic destruction of the Armenian people, my connection to my heritage finally became real. I live in America in a nice apartment with a good job because Garabet, Dirouhi, and Cema were able to survive unfathomable things and almost certain death. They were stronger than the fearful, weak people who were so scared of the fact that the Armenians were different that they attempted to exterminate them like cockroaches. I like to think that my fortitude and strength are thanks to my Armenian heritage.

This Friday April 24 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. It’s a particularly important one because 2015 marks 100 years since the genocide, and I’m glad that for the first time in my life, I finally feel connected to that part of my family history. I am the proud descendant of Armenian genocide survivors. I am Armenian.

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