In late April, President Biden became the first US president to recognize the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish government. Biden stated, “Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination.”
“No president has been courageous enough to say these words because of fear of harming foreign relations with Turkey–,” poet Peter Balakian told NPR’s Scott Simon, “– ironically, Turkey, a government with one of the worst human rights records in the world over the course of the past several decades.”
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Balakian wrote that Turkey’s denial of the genocide “has been poisonous, holding Armenians hostage in a wilderness of grief and shutting them out of their place in history.”
Balakian is a prolific writer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2016. In Balakian’s memoir Black Dog of Fate (1997) he recounts the way that the genocide was a muted presence over his growing up in New Jersey. He never delved into the history until the summer before graduate school when he started reading books from his parents’ shelves. He has since become a spokesman and activist on the genocide and Turkish denial. ACM is grateful to Balakian for giving us permission to publish excerpts from Black Dog:
I recalled something my grandmother told me when I was ten, as we sat alone on the patio after Sunday dinner. It was late summer because I remember the sound of the cicadas in the maples, and how the whole yard sounded like a great shaking rattle. My grandmother sat reclined in a green-and-white chaise lounge, drinking a glass of tahn. She wore sunglasses, and all I could see was the hedge of rhododendrons reflected in the dark plastic of her glasses. As usual, she just started in, as if she were talking about herself. “You know the one about the man who sent to Constantinople to seek his fortune?” she said.
“Nope,” I said, hoping to indicate that I didn’t want to know about the man who went to Con-stan-tin-o-ple.
“After he had been in Constantinople for a while, he heard about a man from his village who had also arrived, and because he had left behind his father, mother, brother, sister, and his dog named Manook, he went to find the man from his village. He was led to a pastry shop where he noticed his fellow villager eating kadayif and drinking coffee. ‘Hadji Ovan’ (that is, John who has made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land), he cried as he walked into the pastry shop, ‘have you come from Bitlis?’
‘Yes,’ Hadji Ovan said, cutting his kadayif.
‘What’s the news there?’
‘What news do you want?’
‘How is my dear Manook?’ For he missed his dog more than anything.
‘I’m sorry, my friend, but Manook is dead.’
‘Are you telling me that Manook is dead?’ the man asked, because he couldn’t believe it.
‘Yes, my friend, he ate the meat of your mule and died.’
‘Does that mean the mule is dead?’
‘Yes my friend, the mule died while hauling your father’s gravestone.’
‘Are you trying to tell me, Hadji Ovan, that my father is dead?’
‘Yes, my friend, the mule died while hauling your father’s gravestone.’
‘Are you trying to tell me, Hadji Ovan, that my father is dead?’
‘Yes, he lived two weeks after your mother’s death. She died of a broken heart when she heard how your brother died trying to save your sister.’
‘Are you telling me that my mother and brother and sister are dead? Why don’t you just com eout and say it: my family is all dead, my home ruined!’
‘I don’t know if your home is ruined,’ Hadji Ovan said, ‘but when I left the village, the Turks were tilling the soil where you house once stood.’”
It was one of those bizarre stories my grandmother came out with occasionally that left me bewildered and speechless. As I watched the sun glare off her glasses, I sat there in silence picking at the nylon bands of the chaise lounge until my mother appeared with a tray of watermelon and cheese, and everyone came out and started in on dessert. And I was relieved.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, [my mother’s family] the Aroosians were in the silk-processing business, mostly in reeling, which involves the culling of threads form cocoons in order to produce the uniform strands that constitute commercial raw silk. When my grandfather, Bedros Aroosian, arrived in the United States in 1905, he went to work in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey. An Armenian Genocide survivor, my grandmother in 1916 supported herself and her two daughters in Aleppo by working as a tailoress. In 1920, when she married my grandfather, they opened a French Cleaning and Tailoring business in Paterson, where they cleaned and tailored, among everything else, a good deal of silk.
And so the ritual of critically evaluating everything material and aesthetic was part of some long-inherited past. Dinners, for one, were always a subject. No matter how gorgeous, flavorful, fine, and textured the food, it was discussed in detail. More salt, less salt, too much allspice, olive oil too coarse, pine nuts too chewy. Lamb strong, lamb underdone, lamb done too minutes too long; chicken too gamy, chicken too stringy, and on and on. My mother would say, “That Grand Union is going to hear from me first thing in the morning.” Auntie Lu would say, “They have some nerve.” That was a favorite phrase of all the Aroosians: establishments that sold us anything less than the finest meat, fish, or produce had some nerve. It was taken as a personal affront. Auntie Gladys would say, her voice squeaking with irritation, “You just tell them that we won’t pay for lamb like this.”
All matters concerning decoration consumed hours, weeks, months, and even years of intense round-robins of consultation and opinion. Wallpaper, upholstery, lighting fixtures, furniture, and rugs. Swatches of cloth for drapes and upholstery, clippings of wallpaper, trial carpets and chandeliers and sink fixtures went back and forth, back and forth from stores, dealers, and warehouses, as if our house was a small Middle Eastern souk here in the wealthy suburbs of New Jersey. Whole weekends were devoted to discussing these objects, in tones of moral highness.
Until I was about twelve and no longer so easily bet to their will, I was their companion on Sunday drives devoted to looking at houses. These drives always were predicated on the hope that my grandmother and aunts would find the right house to buy. The way it comes back to me now, I can smell the musty seat fabric of the cream-colored ’54 Olds. It is 1958 and I am sitting in the backseat between Auntie Gladys and my mother, skinny as a reed, twitching my legs. We are driving the streets of East Orange, West Orange, South Orange. The windows are rolled down and everyone is peaking intensely, so that the owners of these houses, who are trimming hedges and sweeping porches, can hear us. I feel embarrassed but certain no one can see me as I slump down in the middle of the backseat. The Aroosians are holding forth on roof lines, doorways, moldings, shingle color, landscaping, the shape of front porches. We pass Queen Anne, colonial revival, Victorian houses, and the four Aroosian women say things like, “Those Queen Annes get too busy in the front,” “most colonial revivals look too tacky,” or “those Victorians with the flat roofs, they’ve had their heads chopped off.”
Most houses failed inspection, although there was a grading system delivered as we slowly passed by, sometimes so slowly that we seemed to come to a standstill before each house, as if casing the joint for a robbery. Ugly, OK, Good, I’ll buy it approximated a grading system of F, C, B, A. The blackest mark you could give a house was something called “hum hum,” a designation I had invented when I was five and first joined them on these Sunday drives. Hum hum: Auntie Lu loved that sound, and she roared with laughter as she delivered a hum hum on a house. There were many Uglys and Oks, and an occasional I’ll buy it, but it was clear that such a house, were it for sale, was out of price range.
As the years wore on and I found myself sitting in the backseat of a ’60 Chevy Bel Air and then a ’65 Buick as we wound through the streets of Tenafly grading split-levels, ranches, and colonial revivals, my aunts and grandmother still had not found a house good enough to buy. There was something vicarious, voyeuristic, and sublimated about their harsh opinions of what were to them clear failings of the houses of northern New Jersey. Or was it that nothing in the material world was good enough for the heiresses of the family silk fortune lost to the Turks when the Armenians were driven from their homeland?
[W]hen in the winter of eighth grade I told [my father] that for our social studies project I was to write about a Near Eastern culture, he brightened up and said, “Here’s a chance for you to learn something about Armenia.”
“It’s a perfect opportunity,” he said. “To learn.”
The next day I went to the World Book and found the entry on Armenia. About 200 words and a picture of an Armenian girl in a checked dress sitting at a schoolroom desk with an open textbook. I remembered my father’s disappointment when he purchased the encyclopedia in 1960. “Not much on Armenia,” he said to my mother, and continued to place each red-and-blue vinyl-bound volume in alphabetical order on our bookshelf in the TV room. No, there was not much on Armenia. Knowing that Armenia was once in what was now Turkey, I decided to see what there was on Turkey” a sizable entry with colored pictures, maps, a list of export products. I checked the sources in the bibliography at the end of the entry and went to find them in the stacks of the Tenafly Public Library. I kept reading and reading and reading. The wealth of the sultans, the military might of the Ottoman Turks, who had come from around Mongolia and had conquered the Christians of old Byzantium. The rise of the Ottoman Empire, the waning of that empire during World War I. A great deal about Ataturk and the rise of modern Turkey. The reforms of medieval Islam and the modernizing of the alphabet.
Two weeks went by and I found that I had read several books on Turkey without ever once coming across a reference to Armenia. I thought it strange, because Armenians had lived in the land now called Turkey long before the Turks had come. For a minute, the American Indians flashed through my mind. I knew they had been in America before the Europeans came, so I went to the World Book and checked under U.S. history to find that the American Indians were mentioned often and with cross-reference, and I thought it odd that there were no references to Armenia in all these books on Turkey.
But there was no time to think about this. My paper was due in four days and I hadn’t written anything. I had no choice now but to write about Turkey. In slanted, angular script I wrote twenty pages on blue-lined, white loose-leaf paper, skipping every other line. I recounted the history of Ottoman Turkey from the time of the conquest of Constantinople through the rise of Ataturk and the solidification of the Turkish Republic. My teacher thought I wrote well, and gave the events a narrative that showed a cause-and-effect relationship during periods of change. I got an A.
I brought the paper home that night and announced at the dinner table that I had received an A for my social studies project. My father, his voice rising with a modicum of excitement, asked, “So what have you found out about Armenia?”
“I wrote about Turkey,” I said.
My father started at me, and silence hung over the table.
“What?” His voice cracked as he lingered on the t. “You were supposed to write about—”
“I know,” I cut in, “but I couldn’t find anything.”
He was shouting now. “Don’t you know what the Turks did to us?”
“Of course,” I said, but I was too hurt and confused to admit I didn’t know what the Turks did to us. Although I recalled the word massacres coming up in conversation every once in a while, when children were not supposed to be around, no one ever attached the word to meaning.
“Would your Jewish friends write about the Germans like this?”
“Maybe,” I answered, trying to save face. Then I went numb with humiliation and left the table. When I returned, the family had finished eating. I stood by the dirty dishes as my father picked up my term paper and began skimming through it. No mention of the Armenians, no serious evaluation of Turkish history. After a few minutes he put the paper down. And for a while he sat quietly. As I watched him out of the corner of my eye, I saw an inaudible gesture of anger frozen on his face and it made me feel as if he were holding something back, something more than just disappointment with my paper. His silence seemed to open inward and I knew I couldn’t speak to him then. For a moment I felt afraid, and then my fear became anger. Then my anger became indignant thirteen-year-old rage. If my father wanted me to know about Armenia, why hadn’t he said, “Here, Peter, read this,” or “Son, did I ever tell you what happened to Armenia?” I held back tears and walked out of the kitchen, and as I scuffed up the red oriental runner to my bedroom, I heard my parents speaking in Armenian.
Peter Balakian is the author of eight books of poems, four books of prose, three collaborative translations and several edited books. Ozone Journal won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Black Dog of Fate won the 1998 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir, and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize. His new book of poems No Sign is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in 2022. He is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the department of English at Colgate University.