Lucine Kasbarian is a NJ and MA-based children’s book author and book publicist on extended leave. She is also a syndicated journalist/political cartoonist whose works often address exile, displacement and réalpolitik. An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the April 2007 Armenian Genocide insert of The Armenian Weekly newspaper. View her archive.
(photo credit: David Boyajian)
The opening scene is always the same: someone is trying to kill me. It happens in dark alleys, police raids, in mobs, or on my doorstep. Sometimes the assailants stalk me on foot, other times on horseback. They surround my house or break into it. They wield daggers, switchblades or just bare hands. But no matter what the setting, one thing is constant: the predators are Turks, and I am their prey.
Welcome to the dream world of “Hand-me-down Genocide,” where an Armenian provokes Turks just for being who she is.
When my mother was a girl, Medzmairig1 knew no fairy tales. So at bedtime, Medzmairig would repeat to my mother the only story she could tell: how she survived the Massacres2. What a way to put a child to sleep. I, too, learned early on about the history that haunts my people. So why should my own nightmares now surprise me?
Perhaps it isn’t so much surprise that I feel. It’s agony and distress. Some nights I dread falling asleep for fear of what will unfold. Then, there’s the special dream variety I call the “Home Box Office” version. These particular dreams occur in Western Armenia3, and there, the visions feel most life-like of all.
It doesn’t seem a coincidence that in 1999, just prior to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan’s capture in Kenya by Turkish commandos, I dreamt of a wedding in the Van region, on the island of Akhtamar4. After all, today, our Tushpa5 is a hotly contested outpost set among Turks and Kurds. In the dream, the azure waters of Lake Van6 were transparent. The islands’ bullet-riddled, still majestic Armenian Church was colored bright apricot. The tangy flavor of Prunus Armeniaca7 lingered on my tongue. I was viscerally experiencing the Armenian proverb, “Van in this world, paradise in the next.” The groom stepped out of the pages of Roupen Ter Minasian’s memoirs8, with bandoliers strapped across his chest. I looked down, saw that I was wearing an Armenian folkloric costume, and discovered that I was the bride. Even though I’d only seen photos of Akhtamar, our celebrated island in this dream seemed especially real. The solemn ceremony was a tremendous moment. It seemed as if every person our family had ever shaken hands with were present and hyper-aware that we had not only returned to our natural habitat, but to our ancient capital — if only to celebrate a wedding.
And then, just as the folk musicians were about to commence the festivities with their davul and zurna9, hordes of Turkish gendarmes trampled over the hills, drew their scimitars, and massacred every last Armenian. Butchery and bloodshed appeared all around. Destruction ruled in our Garden of Eden. Time stood still, followed by haunting, excruciating silence.
I awoke in a cold sweat, trembling and terrified. As the wedding had proved fatal, my guilt was immense. I thought, “Here, America adopted Armenian Genocide survivor-refugees as her own. And yet, two generations later, my and the Diasporan wedding guests’ instinctive urge to re-attach to the bosom of our natural mother Massis10 had led to our destruction once again.”
Thirteen years have passed since that dream, and I’m still not over it. To say in retrospect today that the dream was precognitive — that the good intentions of some Armenians to see our Akhtamar reborn would be met with disaster — would seem accurate. Even so, no clairvoyance was necessary to predict how, in 2010, the Turkish government would conduct the much-ballyhooed renovation of Akhtamar11.
Five years ago, another Abdullah — this time, Gul12 — was making the news. As Turkey’s tactic to prevent passage of the Genocide Resolution13 unraveled on the world stage, we saw cunning lurking beneath simulated courtesy. And as Gul laid down Turkey’s terms to Condi14, the absurdist theater played out under my eyelids. The dream scene was Pamukkale15. My parents and I were with a tour group. Our guide encouraged us to climb atop the caves and mounds, and pick talismans. Our feats reminded me of how tourists in present-day Armenia are invited to pause near mountains of obsidian on the road to Lake Sevan16, and gather shards as mementos. In the Pamukkale dream, however, our harvesting caused a stir among a Turkish hunting party nearby. Smartly dressed in lambs-wool caps, the Turks turned their rifles on us and opened fire. We lay flat on the ground dodging bullets until there was quiet. Our conspicuously-absent tour guide eventually returned. She pointed an accusing finger at me, and admonished, “Don’t you know not to take what doesn’t belong to you?” I froze, pondered our actions, and sheepishly encouraged the others to return our gathered amulets, only to stop again in my tracks. I turned back and said: “Weren’t you the one who encouraged us? Who are you to tell me what belongs to whom? You don’t belong to these lands!”
In the morning, this dream didn’t exactly endear me to “Come Home to Turkey,” as new tourism commercials beckon us to do. But, it did remind me of the necessity to challenge hypocrisy. Perhaps the best thing of all in that dream was that I refused to play an Armenian victim.
Things have improved since the Native American “dream catcher” from St. Joseph’s Indian School appeared in my mailbox. But how long will the greater burden we carry persist? Is it better to keep silent and spare our children this agony, or to boldly expose them to our treasured and tragic history — which when taken in totality, is a form of a birthright?
At best, these dreams highlight that which is unresolved. System of a Down17 calls it “recognition, reparation, restoration.” The spirits of our ancestors and the need to reclaim our rightful inheritance continue to hover over us despite any wishes to live untroubled lives in the present. Unfortunately — or fortunately — our destiny will follow us wherever we go.
The considerable task of rehabilitating interrupted Western Armenian life, culture and customs — on or off our historic lands, is the legacy left to us. And anyway, it could always be worse: For captive communities struggling to persist as Armenians on these very lands18, their nightmares occur when they are awake.
1 Armenian word for “grandmother.”
2 A term that was once widely used, before the word “genocide” was coined in the 1940s by Rafael Lemkin, to describe the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Genocides perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
3 Part of the ancestral homeland of the Armenian people, now within the borders of Turkey.
4 Aghtamar Island, with the 10th century Church of the Holy Cross, which is in the Van region of present-day Turkey. Van was once the capital city of Armenia.
5 An earlier name for Van and an ancient capital city of Armenia.
6 The salt water lake which surrounds Akhtamar Island.
7 The botanical nomenclature for apricot.
8 Author of the autobiography, “Armenian Freedom Fighters” (Hairenik Press).
9 A bass drum and a double-reeded wind instrument often played in unison at celebrations by Near Eastern peoples.
10 An alternate name for Mount Ararat in Western Armenia. Massis/Mount Ararat is an ancient symbol of Armenia to all Armenians.
11 In 2010, Holy Cross church was renovated and converted to a museum by the Turkish government presumably to show tolerance for religious minorities within Turkey. http://www.armeniapedia.org/index.php?title=No_Self-Respecting_Armenian_Should_Accept_Turkey%27s_Invitation_to_Akhtamar
12 Current President of the Republic of Turkey.
13 A proposed Armenian Genocide resolution is a measure currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress that would recognize the 1915-1923 Genocide.
14 Former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice.
15 The site of the ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine city, Hierapolis, now in southwestern Turkey, which contains hot springs and travertines.
16 The largest lake in present-day Armenia.
17 Taken from the lyrics of P.L.U.C.K., a song by the Armenian-American rock group, System of a Down.
18 Minorities in present-day Turkey, including the Armenians, still endure persecution. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2011/07/27/despite-the-eu%E2%80%99s-demands-on-human-rights-turkey%E2%80%99s-persecution-of-christians-is-escalating/
Note from Editor: this piece may contain views on political issues that are not black or white, however this is about the experience of Lucine and her contribution to the word “Victim”