Sometimes it seems as if relations between Turks and Armenians can never improve. Hence, it comes as considerable relief to read Family of Shadows and Deep Mountain. These two works, in different ways, are about change and redemption. The authors, Garin Hovannisian and Ece Temelkuran respectively, are still in their 20s and 30s, and perhaps it is for this reason that their books offer new perspectives on tragic events that occurred nearly a century ago, but which continue to cause much anguish today.
Family of Shadows recounts the experiences of four generations of Hovanissians. Though written with deep respect, it is hardly an encomium, and it lays out a full range of their foibles and frictions, as well as accomplishments. And what a family the Hovannisians are! Garin’s grandfather, Richard, is the preeminent historian of the Armenian Republic and, indeed, may be said to have created modern Armenian studies. Great-grandfather Kaspar survived the troubles in 1915 Ottoman Turkey and migrated to the United States, where he worked as a barber and house-mover, and established himself as a pillar of the Armenian community in California. Garin’s activist father, Raffi, became newly independent Armenia’s foreign minister in the early 1990s, and is now a politician there—a famous, and yet to his son, Garin, a somewhat enigmatic figure. And these are just the male characters that populate the tale: the wives and daughters in Family of Shadows have also made a considerable mark in the United States and Armenia.
Family of Shadows depicts the tug of memory and explores the concept of “Armenian-ness.” While it describes the dismal history of early 20th-century Anatolia, the focus of the book is on Armenian-Americans, each generation of which apparently comes of age in a different social pressure-cooker. For the Hovannisians it was initially the threat of extermination in Turkey; later it became the need not just to assimilate and succeed, but to excel in America, and to make Armenia viable as a nation.
Threading through the generations is the memory of 1915 and the sense that justice has still not been served. As Garin so poignantly describes, the shadow of genocide goads the Hovannisians into continual restlessness and the desire to do something--through activism, politics, or exhaustive scholarship--so as to set the record straight.
One senses that Family of Shadows is Garin Hovannisian’s attempt to uphold rigorous family standards. He poignantly conveys a sense that, despite familial warmth and nourishment, there is perhaps something ever so slightly cloying, even burdensome, about growing up Armenian (or perhaps it is just growing up Hovannisian). For example, Garin recalls riding a tricycle in childhood as his adoring father coaches him in pro-Armenian rally slogans—all the while recording this Kodak-moment in a home movie!
Another passage describes an episode when Raffi and friends debate a young comrade’s impending marriage to a woman outside their circle of committed Armenian-American activists. Their earnest deliberations over duty, love, and honor, and their ultimate decision about the affair (a decision which the mature Raffi years later came to regret) will surely move anyone who has encountered Romeo, Juliet--or Cupid.
Deep Mountain is an altogether different kind of book, the power of which derives from Ece Temelkuran’s courage and sincerity as she confronts the legacy of 1915. Temelkuran, a Turkish journalist and friend of the assassinated Armenian editor Hrant Dink, asks tough questions of Armenians—and also of her compatriots. Her mission is to meet and connect with Armenian communities in the Caucasus, Europe, and the United States, and also with Armenians living in Turkey. They constitute for her a presence, an unfamiliar “other”-- symbolized by Mount Ararat, which looms, often invisibly, throughout the book.
Both Dark Mountain and Family of Shadows explore the psychological dimensions of genocide—a phenomenon that spiritual teacher Eckhard Tolle calls the “Pain Body”: an idea, thought, or memory that gives meaning to individuals, societies, and even nations, but which can also “parasitize” and paralyze them.
Temelkuran becomes haunted by the myriad accounts of 1915 atrocities that are passed down through generations of Armenians. Why do this, she asks her Armenian interview subjects? Is it not morbid? Probing further, Temelkuran asks Armenians if they don’t sometimes get tired of the burden of memory—a question that could seem obtuse or rude, but Temelkuran sincerely wants to know. She is a determined listener. Some of her interlocutors respond with silence or rejection, and this makes for some high drama. More often than not, however, she receives considered and thoughtful responses, some of which shock her. Gradually Temelkuran comes to understand that the answers to her questions are not obvious at all, and this realization brings her to a new level of clarity about her own society and its history.
A personal anecdote: many years ago, in Washington, DC, I met a group of teenage Georgian diabetics who had traveled from the Caucasus for medical consultations. Chatting with their chaperone, a physician, I mentioned having visited Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia. “Ah, Stalin,” the doctor mused, “You know, for these young people, Stalin is but a dream.” Then he paused and added: “And may he always remain a dream!”
The dilemma for contemporary Turks and Armenians could be put in similar terms: Should the darkest chapters of their shared history be remembered, or should they be allowed to become a dream?
Temelkuran wrestles with this as she describes her Armenian friend Ruth:
“…Armenians and Turks represent themselves and their lives in very different ways …. We Turks are always young, and always wishing to be younger. I glance over at Ruth. I think about the various Armenian women and girls who are younger than her. At a very young age, they start out in life in the company of the aged, listening to the stories of another age. In Turkey, we’re raised to be younger, faster, more dynamic. Yes, we memorize a few dates and a few marches. But even the tales told us by our grandmothers begin with the founding of the Republic. How difficult it will be for these two communities to understand each other. And yet, how easy it’s been for these two women, me and Ruth, to share stories of our common humanity.”
Both Temelkuran and Hovannisian avoid recriminations and attempt new modes of discussion about their respective and changing communities. The question that hovers over their narratives is twofold: With regard to history, is there way of getting beyond being right? And, if so, can it be done in a way that is respectful of the past, present, and the future?
Deep Mountain suggests that the answer lies through respectful listening, forbearance, and recognition of the pain of others. These are not processes that can be mandated or legislated. Family of Shadows draws no conclusions, and Garin Hovannisian is eloquent about the limitations of words when it comes to the challenge of conveying a sense of history and duty:
“…Each word was a coffin, each sentence a grave. …I mourned my words as I wrote them, because I knew they were unjust. I had seen how a twist of thought or phrase could corrupt the innocence of a human feeling or the truth of a moment in time. I had faith in words, yet I knew that words were disenfranchised of the past they dreamed to tell. And as I wrote of great men, I came to believe that writing history was really an act of mortifying the past. I was resurrecting the dead only to give them their final shapes, then to kill them for eternity.”
One comes away thinking that it sure isn’t easy to be Armenian or Turkish these days—but also encouraged by the possibility that Turkish-Armenian relations can change, if not soon, perhaps in increments, through the influence of more such books.
Hovannisian and Temelkuran are obviously reaching out to a wide audience as they explore such universal concerns as trust; the meaning of family, community, and home; and the importance of place and memory. Certainly they will make the reader reflect upon whose stories one believes, and why, and the meaning of being Armenian or Turkish today.
Alex van Oss is the Chair of Caucasus Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute.