Sunday, 13 January 2013

Week Two - Jeanette

Black Dog Of Fate by Peter Balakian (1997)
Recommended by Josh

Something you’ll read a lot about in my blog entries is the book Seasons They Change: The Story Of Acid And Psychedelic Folk. I wrote it between mid-2009 and mid-2010, and it was published at the very end of 2010. The most positive change that Seasons wrought was the entry of many fascinating new people into my life: people like Josh. He makes fissured experimental folk music, and he was a big part of the Brattleboro free-folk scene of the first half of the 2000s.

After Seasons wrapped up, Josh and I stayed in email contact as friends; over the last year or two, he has generously sent me releases from his record label, brilliant mix tapes, and his superb artwork. Our relationship is wonderfully old-fashioned. It reminds me of writing my fanzine Kirby in the latter half of the 1990s, and the friendships that arose from it (more of all that in later posts).

Josh (in common with a few other friends) couldn’t settle on just one book to recommend to me. I picked the memoir Black Dog Of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past simply because it was the first on his list.

Peter Balakian, an American by birth, grows up in the affluent New Jersey suburb Tenafly and wants for nothing. The first hundred pages of Black Dog, about Peter’s childhood, really tried my patience. Nothing is quicker to activate my twitchy working-class chip than whines such as ‘but Daaaaad, I don’t want to go to private school,’ or ruminations on personal inadequacy based on little more than being an under-par cellist. I repeat: there are one hundred odd pages of this. Armenia is no more than quicksilver through the paragraphs.

But, when Peter is in eighth grade (ages 13-14 to non-Americans), a process of discovery begins. He is charged with writing about a Near Eastern culture for a school social studies project. His father is pleased. ‘Here’s a chance for you to learn something about Armenia,’ he says. So Peter goes to the family’s encylopaedia:

There was not much on Armenia. Knowing that Armenia was once in Turkey, I decided to see what there was on Turkey: a sizeable entry with coloured 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.

In all of these books on Turkey, Peter never found one reference to Armenia. The deadline for his project pressing, he writes about Turkey rather than Armenia, and received an A for his well-researched work. He tells his father about his good grade:

            ‘I wrote about Turkey,’ I said.
            My father stared 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?’

Balakian learns what the Turks did to us – a long campaign of hatred and oppression, culminating in the 1915 Armenian Genocide – through the 1919 book Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, written by the American ambassador to Turkey during World War I. Balakian quotes great chunks of this book to give the reader key facts, and to illustrate his own coming into knowledge.

The Central [Turkish] Government announced its intention of gathering the two million or more Armenians living in several sections of the empire and transporting them to this desolate and inhospitable region [the Syrian desert]. The real purpose of the deportation was robbery and destruction; it really represented a new method of massacre. When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant for a whole race; they understood this well.

Scholars consider this event to be the first genocide: a state-organised attempt to murder a race of people. At least 500,000 people, and perhaps as many as 1.5 million people, were killed. The manner of death for the majority was nothing short of the absolute worst way to go: a combination of starvation, torture, rape, dehydration, exhaustion, beatings, and the psychological horror of seeing all of your family drop dead, one by one, in front of you.

The rest of Black Dog is devoted to Balakian uncovering Armenia, first through Morgenthau, and then his own family. In particular, he hears ‘Dovey’s Story’, a first-hand account of a desert death march. The story is so harrowing, so relentless, so overwhelming, and it brought me to desperate tears. Through the process of discovery, Balakian learns not only about Armenia and its history, but something that we all do: that our parents, our grandparents, matter in their own right and not just in the way they look (or do not look) after us. That we are not the be-all and end-all.

This made me rethink those first one hundred pages. Perhaps Balakian wanted the reaction of ‘what an over-privileged arsehole’ to his inconsequential angst, to contrast with the extreme suffering of his Armenian forebears, and to tell us, subtly: 'I know, I know now, that I had nothing to complain about. But I didn’t know then.' However, even in the light of this, I do think his decision to spend so much time on his own upbringing wasted too many valuable pages.

This week, I’ve mentioned Black Dog to several friends. Few knew much, if anything, about the genocide; my own limited knowledge had come via studying World War I six years ago. Before that, I couldn’t have told you one thing about it.

Why is there such a problem of ignorance around the Armenian Genocide?

Balakian offers a possible reason towards the end of Black Dog (in two excellent new chapters added to the book for its tenth anniversary edition). The present Turkish government, in common with every one of their governments since the genocide, denies that it ever happened. They sponsor historians to fabricate or skew evidence; they suppress literature that mentions the event; they send propagandists to historical conferences, who distribute anti-Armenian literature. Today, Turkey is a large and crucial part of the sensitive Near/Middle East region; Armenia is politically unimportant. Turkey’s voice drowns out that of Armenia. A shocking number of nations, including the UK, have not officially recognised the event as a genocide, even in the face of the overwhelming historical evidence. It seems that it’s just easier to simply not talk about it. This book, then, is a way in to learning of one of the most horrific, yet under-reported, events of the twentieth century. Black Dog did not completely satisfy me, but maybe it shouldn’t; I want to read Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story in full, and track down other texts mentioned in Balakian’s bibliography.

Actually, I have already visited the library with this in mind. I found exactly zero books on the subject.

For more info on the Armenian Genocide, the Wikipedia entry is an excellent introduction. The Armenian Genocide Museum website offers more depth, including a detailed chronology and (of course, highly distressing) photographic material.