Saturday, February 9, 2008

Of Grasshoppers and Men

An Interview with Arundhati Roy
By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
Feb. 9, 2008

Arundhati Roy was born in 1959 in Shillong, India. She studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives, and has worked as a film designer, actor, and screenplay writer in India. Roy is the author of the novel The God of Small Things, (Random House/HarperPerennial) for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize. The novel has been translated into dozens of languages worldwide. She has written several non-fiction books: The Cost of Living (Random House/Modern Library), Power Politics (South End Press), War Talk (South End Press), An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (South End Press) and Public Power in the Age of Empire (Seven Stories/Open Media).

Roy was featured in the BBC television documentary, “Dam/age,” which chronicles her work in support of the struggle against big dams in India and the contempt of court case that led to a prolonged legal case against her and eventually a one-day jail sentence in spring 2002. A collection of interviews with Arundhati Roy by David Barsamian was published as The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile (South End Press). Roy is the recipient of the 2002 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Prize.

On Jan. 18, 2008, Roy delivered the Hrant Dink memorial lecture at Bosphorus University in Istanbul. In her lecture, titled “Listening to Grasshoppers: Genocide, Denial and Celebration,” Roy reflected on the legacy of Hrant Dink and dealt with the history of the “genocidal impulse,” the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the killing of Muslims in Gujarat, India in 2002.

Speaking about the slain editor of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, Roy said, “I never met Hrant Dink, a misfortune that will be mine for time to come. From what I know of him, of what he wrote, what he said and did, how he lived his life, I know that had I been here in Istanbul a year ago I would have been among the one hundred thousand people who walked with his coffin in dead silence through the wintry streets of this city, with banners saying, ‘We are all Armenians,’ ‘We are all Hrant Dink.’ Perhaps I’d have carried the one that said, ‘One and a half million plus one.’”

“I wonder what thoughts would have gone through my head as I walked beside his coffin,” she added. “Maybe I would have heard a reprise of the voice of Araxie Barsamian, mother of my friend David Barsamian, telling the story of what happened to her and her family. She was ten years old in 1915. She remembered the swarms of grasshoppers that arrived in her village, Dubne, which was north of the historic city Dikranagert, now Diyarbakir. The village elders were alarmed, she said, because they knew in their bones that the grasshoppers were a bad omen. They were right; the end came in a few months, when the wheat in the fields was ready for harvesting.”

In this interview, conducted by phone on Feb. 2, we talk about some of the issues she raised in her lecture and reflect on genocide and resistance.

Khatchig Mouradian—What was going through your head when you were writing the speech for the commemoration in Istanbul of Hrant Dink’s assassination?

Arundhati Roy—These days, we are going through a kind of psychotic convulsion in India. Genocide and its celebration are in the air. And it’s terrifying for me to watch people celebrating genocide every day. It was at a time when I was very struck by this celebration in India and the denial in Turkey that they asked me to go to Istanbul.

When I landed in Istanbul, I realized that there’s a very big difference between what Armenians, Turks and others could say outside Turkey—where everybody could be very direct about the Armenian genocide—and inside Turkey—where, Hrant Dink, for example, was trying to find a way of saying things in order to continue living. His idea was to speak out, but not to die.

In Istanbul, I spoke with people and I was very concerned not to give the impression that I flew in, made a speech, and flew out leaving everybody else in trouble. I was interested in helping to create an atmosphere where people could begin to talk about the Armenian genocide to each other. After all, that’s the project of the Armenians who are living in Turkey and trying to survive there.

At the same time, I was somebody who is involved quite deeply in issues in India and I didn’t want to be some global intellectual who flies in, makes some superficial statements and then flies out. I wanted to relate the issue to what I knew and what I fought for, and tried to push a little bit more and a little bit more. And this is not a simple thing to do.

K.M.—The story that weaves your lecture together is that of your friend, David Barsamian’s mother, Araxie Barsamian. In an interview, you say, “I think that a story is like the surface of water, and you can take whatever you want from it.” What did you take from the story of Araxie Barsamian?

A.R.—In fact, David happened to be in India just before I went to Turkey and we talked about the issue. It mattered to me that I knew him. I’m not saying that if I didn’t know him I wouldn’t have spoken, but it suddenly became something that was more personal. I was having the discussion with a friend that there are people who talk about politics that is informative and politics that is transformative. These are such silly separations because in Turkey, for example, everybody knows what happened. It’s just that there’s a silence around it and you’re not allowed to say what happened. And when you say it, it becomes transformative in itself. I made my point through the words of David’s mother instead of going and saying, “Look, that bullet that was meant to silence Hrant Dink actually made someone like myself take the trouble to go and read history. Whether I say it or I don’t say it, you and I know what happened, and if you want to maintain the silence, then people here will have to fight with that, as I will have to fight with the celebration around genocide in India.”

This is something that a novel writer does. How you say what you want to say is as important as what you want to say. By telling Araxie Barsamian’s story, the history comes alive. You could say that 1.5 million people were killed or you could say that the grasshoppers arrived in Araxie Barsamian’s village…

K.M.—You spoke about the difference between speaking about the Armenian genocide outside and inside Turkey. But in your speech, you are quite bold: You do not come off as trying to imply things rather than stating them outright. You are not trying to avoid using the term genocide…

A.R.—When I started speaking about the term “genocide,” defining it, then talking about the history of genocide and what’s happening in India today—how Indian fascists killed Muslim—I wanted to make it clear that that the genocidal impulse has cut across religions and that the same ugly, fascist rhetoric that the Turks used against the Armenians has been used by the Christians against the Indians, has been used by the Nazis against the Jews, and today, it is being used by Hindus against Muslims. Genocide is such a complex process. The genocidal impulse has never been related to just one culture or just one religion. I spoke about the Armenian genocide and its denial openly to the extent that I could without shutting down the audience.

I would like to note that in my readings, one problem I realized is that many scholars who have studied the Armenian genocide in detail—almost all of them—keep on insisting that it was the first genocide of the 20th century and, in asserting that, they deny the other genocides that took place—for example, the genocide against the Herrero people in 1904. So I was also trying to talk about the Armenian genocide without giving the impression that some victims are more worthy than others.

K.M.—How was your lecture received?

A.R.—The important thing was that it was received. It wasn’t blocked out. It wasn’t denied. People didn’t say, “Oh, here’s a person who has come here to tell us about our own past.” That’s because I wasn’t just talking about the past of Turkey. For me, that was the way of guaranteeing that my talk was received.

The biggest thing is that it was received. It was taken in and it was thought about. I saw many people in tears in the hall. And I hope that in some tiny, little way, it will change the way this subject is spoken of. I might be presuming too much…

K.M.—As you point out in your lecture, genocide and gross human rights violations have plagued us for centuries and they continue to do so. What has changed?

A.R.—I don’t think that there’s been that much change in the genocidal impulse. Technology and industrialization have only enabled human beings to kill each other in larger numbers. I talked about the slaughter of 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in India. It was all on TV.

About three months ago, the killers were caught on camera talking about how they decided how to target the Muslim community, how it was all planned, how the police was involved, how the chief ministers were involved, how they murdered, how they raped. It was actually broadcast on TV and it worked in the favor of that party. The people who voted for them said, “This is what they deserve.” So I actually feel that this notion of the liberal conscience, of human conscience, is a fake notion. Today in India we are on the verge of something terrible. Like I say in the article, the grasshoppers have landed, and there is a kind of shutting down and cutting off of the poor from their resources, herding them off their land and rivers. And people are just watching. Their eyes are open but they are looking the other way. And again and again we think of the fact that in Germany when Jews were being exterminated, people must have been taking their children to piano lessons, violin lessons, worrying about their children’s homework. That kind of absolute lack of conscience is still present today. No amount of appeal to conscience can make any change. The only way disaster can be averted is if the people who are on the receiving end of that can resist.

Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, writer and translator, currently based in Boston. He is the editor of the Armenian Weekly. He can be contacted at:

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

An invitation to Musa Dagh

By Khatchig Mouradian

The Jewish Advocate
December 2007

Franz Werfel, an Austrian-Jewish writer, became an international literary figure with his 1933 novel, “Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh,” originally written in German and published a year later in English under the title “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” The novel tells the story of the heroic self-defense of the Armenians of Musa Dagh during the Armenian genocide of 1915. Werfel decided to write the novel after witnessing the plight of Armenian refugee children in Damascus in 1929. Little did he know that his novel would not only become a classic and an inspiration for generations of Armenians, but would also serve as a model of survival and resistance for his own people during the Holocaust.

After the 1938 Anschluss, Werfel left Austria to take refuge in France. And with the occupation of France by the Nazis, he narrowly escaped to the U.S. He thus avoided the concentration camps, where a generation of Jewish leaders and youth found solace, inspiration and a call to uprising in his novel.“Momentous moral questions arise from Werfel’s book,” said Prof. Yair Auron. “The story of the defense of Musa Dagh became, indeed, a source of inspiration, an example for the underground members to learn, a model to imitate. They equated their fate with that of the Armenians.” He continued: “In both cases, murderous evil empires conspired to uproot entire communities, to bring about their total physical extinction. In both cases, resistance embodied the concept of death and national honor on the one hand, and the chance of being saved as individuals and as a nation on the other.”

Auron noted that “reading the book strengthens the spirit of the members of the youth movements, the future fighters, as Mordechai Tannenbaum and other underground leaders suggested.”Werfel’s novel had a great influence on Antek (Yitzhak Zuckerman), the deputy commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the author of “A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” When talking about the Holocaust and what books to read on the issue, Antek would say that “the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising could not be understood without reading ‘The Forty days of Musa Dagh.’”

In an introduction to the French edition of the book, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Elie Wiesel writes, “The novel is a masterpiece. … This Armenian community became very close to me. Written before the coming of Hitler, this novel seems to foretell the future. How did Franz Werfel know the vocabulary and the mechanism of the Holocaust before the Holocaust – artistic intuition or historic memory?” He continues, “The novel is precisely about this memory. The besieged Armenians feared not death but being forgotten.”In a time when the memory of genocide victims – from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust – is under attack by genocide deniers, this article is an invitation to read Werfel’s novel and honor the memory of the heroes of Musa Dagh and the Warsaw Ghetto.

Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, poet and translator based in Boston. He is the editor of the Armenian Weekly.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Olives and Horizons

The Melkonian Class of 1968 Reunites On Board the AHC
By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
Feb. 2, 2008

“All the support I have provided to Melkonian—whether moral or financial—does not even pay for the olives we ate there,” says Vahe Soudjian, an import/export negotiator from France, who was on board the Costa Fortuna from Jan. 12-20 to participate in the Melkonian Class of 1968 reunion. “I owe all my successes in life to the Melkonian Educational Institution.”

Twenty-one graduates of the class of 1968 (65 percent of the entire class) and three teachers participated in the 40th anniversary reunion with their spouses and family members. They came from Australia, Greece, Lebanon, Cyprus, France, Abu Dhabi, the U.S. and Canada to see with their classmates and talk about memories of a boarding school which they say gave them everything one needs to lead a fulfilling life.

“Melkonian was a fascinating educational institute that has always fulfilled the responsibility it was entrusted with. The graduates who are gathered here 40 years later are living proof of that,” says Sarkis Hamboyan of Toronto, who taught history, geography and educational psychology at Melkonian from 1965-68. “These responsibilities go beyond teaching into hayetsi tasdiyaragutyoun. These men and women are dedicated Armenians, actively involved in community life.”

I ask him what it feels like to be surrounded by his students again. “I am feeling at home. It’s like finding a long-lost brother or sister,” he says.

Businessman Vahe Halajian from New York, who currently works in Qatar, says the reunion gave him an opportunity to reflect on the role Melkonian played in his life. “We did not know at the time what a great place Melkonian was. It created an environment for us to learn and, yes, to do mischievous things.” He pauses, then adds, “Melkonian was invaluable nutrition for our minds and souls.”

While several Melkoniantsis had not been in touch with their classmates, Chahe Bardakjian, a marketing and sales director from Greece, maintained contact. “I always look for Melkoniantsis,” he said.

Mihran Jizmejian from Toronto taught at Melkonian from 1965-73 and was also responsible for the discipline of the educational institute. He recounts how the students who had discipline problems are the closest to him today. According to him, the Armenian community is orphaned with the closing of Melkonian.

The institute might have closed its doors, but the spirit of Melkonian is alive and well. “I, as a Melkoniantsi, together with two dedicated Armenians, started a Saturday school in Sydney,” says Boghos Mikaelian, a mortgage broker from Australia. “Melkonian might have closed its doors, but it opened so many new horizons.”

America Deserves

By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
Feb. 2, 2008

“I know I haven’t spent a long time to learn the ways of Washington, but I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”—Barack Obama

The ANCA this week decided to endorse Barack Obama as the Democratic Presidential candidate who can change “the ways of Washington” when it comes to issues of concern for Armenian-Americans and the anti-genocide community in the U.S. The decision was made because the ANCA, and the Armenian-American community on the whole, are sick and tired of the ways of Washington—the way continuous administrations have insulted the memory of the victims of the genocide and the ever-dwindling numbers of genocide survivors by trivializing their suffering. These survivors have since become citizens of this country, have fought and struggled for this nation, while their presidents—leaders of the free world—have yet to validate their history.

The Armenian-American community—and, we believe, every informed and concerned citizen of this country—cannot help but be sick and tired of how the ways of Washington and the ways of Ankara merge when it comes to denial, the falsification and complete disregard to the suffering of an entire people.

The Armenian-American community is also sick and tired of the way the Bush Administration has treated Armenia and the Karabakh question, succumbing more often than not to policies dictated by a country considered to be America’s ally—Turkey.

For all these, and many other reasons, America deserves a leader…America deserves a leader who will not say, “It is not the right time” when it comes to recognizing genocide.America deserves a leader who will not say that there’s “more important work to do” for Congress than setting the historical record straight.

America deserves a leader who will stand up against human rights violations, atrocities and genocide, whether past or present, whether committed by allies on enemies.

America deserves a leader who says, “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

And, finally, America deserves a leader who says, “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that President.” And stands by what s/he says. We look to Barack Obama to be that leader.