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Peter Balakian Discusses Journey Through Armenian Golgotha

By Ara Khachatourian on May 22nd, 2009

Author Peter Balakian describes Armenian Golgotha, the translation of his great-uncle Rev. Grigoris Balakian’s first person account of the Armenian Genocide as the most comprehensive memoir of the Armenian Genocide. The English translation by Balakian and Aris Sevag, published by Alfred A. Knopf and released last month, is the two-volume set originally published in the first half of the 20th century. During a recent visit to Glendale Community College as part of a book tour organized by Facing History and Ourselves, Asbarez Editor Ara Khachatourian caught up with the author. Below is the interview.

Ara Khachatourian: I want to start off by taking to you about the journey, starting off from Black Dog of Fate to here—Armenian Golgotha. I would be interested to hear your perspective on it.

Peter Balakian: As you know, I began my writing life as a poet. I am, fundamentally, always a poet, and always working on new books of poems. But, somehow the lyrical explorations of poetry led me to write about this topic.

In Black Dog of Fate I have a chapter about discovering my great-great-uncle’s memoir, Armenian Golgotha. That discovery of the memoirs goes back to the early 1990s, when a clipping about a memorial service for him was sent to me from France, from a French newspaper. He was the bishop of the Armenians of South of France at the time of his death in 1934. So, I discovered my great-great-uncle… I discover Armenian Golgotha then, in the early 1990s I write a chapter in the Black Dog of Fate as part of my journey into my own ancestry. By the late 90s we had started a translation project. It seemed to me—just from having had the table of contents translated—that this book was extraordinary and nobody knew about it. It had been locked away in tiny Armenian editions for 80-some-odd years…

The translation process started with the wonderful physicist at Stanford University, Anahid Yeremian, who began feeding me the first chapters in literal form. Then, years later Aris Sevag—who did such a brilliant job—began working with me. The whole project, with many interruptions, including the writing of my next prose book on the Armenian Genocide, The Rising Tigris… The whole project was a ten-year journey.

A.K.: During those ten years, you have emerged as a voice for the Armenian Genocide outside of the community. How do you take those experiences from your literature to the publications that approach you about this particular topic?

P.B.: The broader media covers your work if you have the good fortune to have it get out and make a little bit of splash. That one, there’s no control over. If it happens, great. I find it gratifying to talk about the Armenian Genocide to a mainstream audience. That’s one of our goals… We want to educate the broad popular world about an important history—a history of world importance not just to Armenians.

A.K.: Why is the new book important?

P.B.: Armenian Golgotha, is, I believe, the most comprehensive memoir written about the Armenian Genocide by a survivor. Comprehensive. Layered. Rich. Complex. It, like no other book—I have been told this by others who are familiar with a broader range of books in Armenian—takes you as close to the event and gives you the feeling of ‘you are there.’ There’s a kind of sensual intimacy about the language, about the depiction, about the vividness from the night of my great-great-uncle’s arrest on the night of April 24, along with the other 250 intellectuals and cultural leaders in Constantinople, right through a harrowing journey, for four years, through the killing fields…

There’s nothing like this. This book is comprehensive. It has a broad panorama. It’s not just a singular survivor’s story, but it takes us across hundreds of miles of terrain through villages, towns and cities and it is also made up of many voices. I call this process in the Bishop Balakian persona ‘compounded witnessing.’ You are hearing his voice and testimony, but you are also hearing all the voices he’s listening to and recording so faithfully, including survivor accounts of children who have somehow, miraculously, risen from piles of corpses and appear bedraggled in wounded fields days later and see my great-uncle—an Armenian priest—there also leading a bedraggled band of survivors down from northern Turkey into central and southern Turkey. You hear the voices of Turkish perpetrators who open up to my great-uncle—thinking he’ll be dead in a few weeks—tell him a great deal of extraordinary stuff. You hear the voices of righteous Turks—governors and provincial bureaucrats—who are trying to warn my great uncle and his friends about what’s going to happen to them. You hear the voices of German and Swiss and Austrian bystanders… Mostly these are railway workers working on the Berlin-Baghdad railway. So, you’re hearing this kind of polyphonic acoustic in Armenian Golgotha, which gives a whole different depth and range.

A.K.: How was your great-uncle able to carry this out and preserve it? Did he start the diary then or did he do it later?

P.B.: He’s committed to writing this book by the middle of 1917. He feels that it’s a sacred duty to do this. That the extermination of Armenians is an unprecedented event in history and that it must be known and it must be recorded. He’s also being asked by survivors who are people he meets along the way: ‘Reverend father, if you survive, please write about this. We will be dead, but this needs to be written about.’ He also says he’s committed to writing this book. He also says he’s committed to writing this book because the Armenian dead remain unburied and he wants to give them a burial with this book. He says unlike other nations that have monuments and memorials, we have no nation right now, we have no way of burying our dead, so may this book serve in some way to do that. But, he also begins writing it in his head by 1917 when he’s still a refugee on the run trying to survive. He gives it the name Armenian Golgotha then and there.

He begins writing it on paper in September of 1918 upon returning to Constantinople alive (obviously I’m not giving away the plot! We know he made it). He finishes the book by late 1921—volume I—and its published in 1922 by the Mekhitarist press in Vienna. Volume II he writes immediately thereafter… The whole 71 chapters are written between 1918 and 1921… But Volume II will not appear until the late 1950s, because somehow there’s not funding and the energy is lost and no one brings it out. It’s found among his sister’s papers when she dies in Paris in 1956 and it’s published in 1959 by the AGBU in Paris.

So, we don’t have the full Armenian Golgotha—this major, monumental survivor account of the Armenian Genocide—until about 1959, and really not until the 60s and 70s is it brought out in Armenian as a two-volume set. And now, both volumes are in this one binding together. I want the audience to understand that they’re getting the whole thing.

A.K.: The book coming out right now has an important significance with the issue of the Genocide being so politicized. What are your views on what’s happening right now with the Obama situation?

P.B.: I think as we look back on the process of education on the Armenian Genocide over the last 10 to 15 years, the progress has been enormous. I think the good news is there’s really no denial out there. There’s only this Machiavellian politicization because of Turkish pressure… Yet, I think, President Obama did more than any president ever. To go to Turkish soil and tell the Turkish parliament ‘you have to face you past honestly and unresolved past history will be forever a burden… And I haven’t changed my mind about what happened to the Armenians in 1915.’ I think in some way it’s speaking in syllogism. But, he really did stick it to the Turkish ruling elite in his trip in April and they were clearly angry about it.

I think it’s kind of absurd that the word ‘genocide’ could not have been used in the statement on April 24 by President Obama, but, I think he made the most extensive and detailed affirmation of the reality of the Armenian Genocide than any president has ever made. I think we need to take that as a positive sign and keep pushing for the continued growth in progress here. I think it’s important to recognize when doors are opening and not always feel they’re being closed when everything doesn’t work perfectly. I agree that people are disappointed and I understand why, but I think it’s important to keep the glass half-full here.

A.K.: Please tell us about your travels and your current tour.

P.B.: It’s been an extensive book tour with Armenian Golgotha. I’m very grateful to be here on the West Coast in part with the great help of Facing History and Ourselves, fantastic curricular and educational organization that has done so much to make Genocide studies part of the US curriculum. The Allstate Foundation has also teamed up with Facing History and my publisher Alfred A. Knopf… So, I’m here with a lot of support. It’s East Coast-West Coast and back in Canada at the end of May. This tour will keep going. I think the point to be taken is that Armenian Golgotha is such an important book. It has such a far reach for our understanding of the Armenian Genocide and for getting others to feel the event and get close to it. I think Armenians have a special obligation to take this book and get it out there in a very comprehensive way.

A.K.: You had mentioned that you were in the Middle East. How do the audiences there relate to this book? Is there a difference between audiences here?

P.B.: I think there’s a particular kind of intensity among Armenian communities in the Middle East. They still feel very close to the spot of the crime. I’ve just been in Aleppo and the audience there is really not far from Der-Zor. Aleppo was a key refugee spot in the survivor experience. There is an interesting electricity and fire. In Beirut as well. It’s always exciting to be there.

A.K.: Were you on a book tour in the Middle East?

It was kind of a book tour and a pilgrimage…

A.K.: …Because we all read ‘Bones’ in the New York Times Magazine. I know I was moved that Sunday when I opened it up.

P.B.: ‘Bones’ is a small excerpt from the second of the two new chapters in the new edition of Black Dog of Fate, which is a new book now because of the new chapters.

A.K.: Thank you!

An Exceprt from Armenian Golgotha:

The Night of Gethsemane

On the night of Saturday, April 11/24, 1915, the Armenians of the capital city, exhausted from the Easter celebrations that had come to an end a few days earlier, were snoring in a calm sleep. Meanwhile on the heights of Stambul, near Ayesofia, a highly secret activity was taking place in the palatial central police station.

Groups of Armenians had just been arrested in the suburbs and neighborhoods of the capital; blood-colored military buses were now transporting them to the central prison. Weeks earlier Bedri, chief of police in Constantinople, had sent official sealed orders to all the guardhouses, with the instruction that they not be opened until the designated day and that they then be carried out with precision and in secrecy. The orders were warrants to arrest the Armenians whose names were on the blacklist, a list compiled with the help of Armenian traitors, particularly Artin Megerdichian, who worked with the neighborhood Ittihad clubs. Condemned to death were Armenians who were prominent and active in either revolutionary or nonpartisan Armenian organizations and who were deemed liable to incite revolution or resistance.

On this Saturday night I, along with eight friends from Scutari, was transported by a small steamboat from the quay of the huge armory of Selimiye to Sirkedji. The night smelled of death; the sea was rough, and our hearts were full of terror. We prisoners were under strict police guard, not allowed to speak to one another. We had no idea where we were going.

We arrived at the central prison, and here behind gigantic walls and large bolted gates, they put us in a wooden pavilion in the courtyard, which was said by some to have once served as a school. We sat there, quiet and somber, on the bare wooden floor under the faint light of a flickering lantern, too stunned and confused to make sense of what was happening.

We had barely begun to sink into fear and despair when the giant iron gates of the prison creaked open again and a multitude of new faces were pushed inside. They were all familiar faces—revolutionary and political leaders, public figures, and nonpartisan and even antipartisan intellectuals.

From the deep silence of the night until morning, every few hours Armenians were brought to the prison. And so behind these high walls, the jostling and commotion increased as the crowd of prisoners became denser. It was as if all the prominent Armenian public figures—assemblymen, representatives, revolutionaries, editors, teachers, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, merchants, bankers, and others in the capital city—had made an appointment to meet in these dim prison cells. Some even appeared in their nightclothes and slippers. The more those familiar faces kept appearing, the more the chatter abated and our anxiety grew.

Before long everyone looked solemn, our hearts heavy and full of worry about an impending storm. Not one of us understood why we had been arrested, and no one could assess the consequences. As the night’s hours slipped by, our distress mounted. Except for a few rare stoics, we were in a state of spiritual anguish, terrified of the unknown and longing for comfort.

Right through till morning new Armenian prisoners arrived, and each time we heard the roar of the military cars, we hurried to the windows to see who they were. The new arrivals had contemptuous smiles on their faces, but when they saw hundreds of other well-known Armenians old and young around them, they too sank into fear. We were all searching for answers, asking what all of this meant, and pondering our fate.
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