Paradise Lost: Remembering the post-Genocide years in Lebanon
Published: Sunday June 10, 2012
Cursing the "boat" seems a universal human exercise to express one's anger and frustration in a confrontation! Jared Diamond, the author of "Guns, Germs and Steel" puts similar angry words in the mouth of his hero when faced with a conflict: "Damn you, Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that brought you from Switzerland"! he screams at his interlocutor in a key passage of the book.
For sure Um Suleiman did not dip into a literary text to come up with her colorful expression!
Remembering my childhood years and the misery we endured as offspring of surviving Armenians born in the diaspora as a direct result of the genocidal massacres bring to mind painful memories now.
None of our parents had talked to us about this and we discovered it the hard way. The terrible wall of silence that had surrounded our childhood finally crumbled when we achieved adolescence and youth and now we were faced with the terrible past and the difficulty to adjusting to duality: of being Armenian and Lebanese, Armenian and Syrian and/or Armenian and Jordanian at the same time: in one word being an Arab citizen when we as an ethnic group had nothing in common either with the people or civilization of the countries where we lived.
I do not know whether I have anger towards my parents for having raised us in this world of total silence about the past that is so inextricably interconnected with our being and common memory, or total incomprehension for their behavior and attitude in this matter. However, I discovered similar parental silences and experiences from other generation of Armenians born and raised in different countries of the Diaspora.
One of them, Peter Balakian, a Professor of English at Colgate University and an established American author and poet, has expressed the same feeling of ambiguity, hurt and shock at finding belatedly the truth about his parent's past in his book titled "Black dog of faith" (published by Basic Books in 1997). Like other Armenian children of his generation who were born and raised a continent away in European or Middle Eastern countries, Balakian did not know about the trauma his family and ancestors had endured in 1915 during which more than one and half million Armenians perished, including many of his relatives.
"Except for those infrequent and awkward moments when my father made some kind of gesture that was directed at the meaning of Genocide, no one in my family considered the events of Armenia's recent nightmare a reality suitable for conversation or knowledge" writes Balakian in his book. "The scalding facts of the Genocide had been buried, consigned to a deeper layer of consciousness, only to erupt in certain odd moments, as when my grandmother told me a story or a dream" wistfully remarks Balakian.
II. The weight of silence
My parents as well as Peter Balakian's parents, had shrouded their story of the Genocide with a thick layer of silence and had created an artificial environment, a bubble of sort, where our generation of Armenians lived in relative ignorance, oblivious of the harsh reality and painful experience our parents had lived through and tried to protect us from the psychological consequences that were ours to discover in years to come. Perhaps it was a subconscious effort on their part to protect us from the pain they had endured or a way of safeguarding their mental sanity. That layer of silence accompanied my adolescence through high school and college years.
It was through the study of history and through my individual readings subsequently that I became aware of the Armenian Genocide, the events surrounding the crime committed against my parents and their like and the world's general indifference and amnesia towards its aftermath and consequences. As I went through this painful discovery, I also discovered , like the rest of my generation, how little was known about the Armenian Genocide outside our immediate world and how little did the outside world care about what had happened. The victims had kept silent and the world around them had also conveniently emulated their silence.
It was only in 1965, in connection with the 50th Anniversary of the "forgotten" Genocide that the suppressed anger, frustration and the fury of victims yearning for recognition of their pain erupted in public. Whether it was in Lebanon, Syria, France, Australia or the United States masses of the first generation of Armenians after the Genocide came face to face with their destiny, the internal as well as the external demons of the fate that had befallen them. This was also the first generation of diasporan Armenians who were born in their adopted countries, conscious of their civic responsibilities as well as their rights as citizens, educated in universities across the Western world and suddenly aware of the enormous psychological weight and burden of the "silence" they had labored under while fully aware and cognizant of the worldwide struggle to bring freedom and equal rights to the downtrodden, the neglected and the invisible in many parts of Asia and Africa.
Thus a new generation of Armenians took over the leadership role in communities spread throughout the world, determined to share in the general progress the world had achieved and the promises it held for emerging nations. They understood well the language that the world spoke, and they knew how to articulate their thoughts and ideas through that common language of education, communication and solidarity. It was a new beginning, marked by activism, a new sense of belonging and self-discovery.
It was thanks to this generation of new Armenians that the modern world started to hear about the first Genocide of the 20th century, to take stock of the human toll, the psychological damage, the loss of life, the usurpation of property and confiscation of land as well as the need for justice, restitution and compensation. It took 50 years from the date of the Genocide for Armenians to wake up in 1965 and scream for justice and demand recognition for their pain.