by Robert Kazandjian

The identity I was constructing for myself collapsed around my L.A-Gear-clad feet when I was six or seven.

My friend Kirilos arrived from Sudan, and joined our school. The teacher, encouraged by my proud declarations of Egyptian heritage, told me to speak ‘your language’ with him. ‘Parev, inch’pes es?’ (Hello, how are you?) I asked. Kirilos smiled and shook his head. The

teacher suggested I was speaking the fantastical language of some playground game. Her ignorance was a green light for the collective ridicule I then suffered. I blamed my dad.

Genocide scattered my people across the globe like sunflower seeds across an Istanbul patio. We have grown and blossomed but the violent dislocation from our homeland, followed by the systematic denial of this shameful history, has cultivated endless burdens and complexities amongst the Armenian diaspora. Intergenerational trauma bloodies our dreams. The responsibility to have our ancestors’ suffering finally recognised weighs heavily upon our shoulders. I have often felt confused and rootless. Where is home?

My brother and I were raised with the stories and symbols of Egypt, my dad’s birthplace. He proudly recalled his own father’s response to the Suez crisis; my grandfather

My brother and I
My brother and I

prepared to defend their block with a humble rifle while invaders’ heavy artillery strafed above the rooftops. He described horseback rides around the Pyramids of Giza and how the Nile turned to liquid gold at sunset. When my dad called us ‘hokis’ (my soul), and when we tentatively repeated phrases he had taught us into the telephone to my precious grandmother in Cairo, I imagined this beautiful language belonged to the Egypt of Suez, Giza and liquid gold rivers.

 

And so, when Kirilos and my teacher unwittingly unraveled my Egyptian heritage I was hurt. I needed answers. I began to understand that my dad was Armenian. His parents were born in Cairo, like him, and they were Armenian. His grandparents were born in Turkey, and they were Armenian. My dad explained that when his grandparents were children, nearly all Armenians lived in Turkey. As my dad sketched our family history, his mouth shaped a smile but his eyes were clouded with a sadness unfamiliar to me. I was happy. I told him this. I had lots of Turkish friends at school. I saw his face reflected in the proud men who collected Bahar, Celal, Gurkan and Muesser from the gates at the end of every day. I felt a natural affinity with my Turkish friends, as though we belonged to the same place. The sadness in my dad’s eyes thickened.

We would often go to meet a large group of my dad’s friends. Conversations swirled noisily above plates of Cacik and Dolma, with people from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iran,

My father when he arrived in the UK
My father when he arrived in the UK from Lebanon

Iraq, Egypt and Palestine. Kevork was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. All of these warm, wonderful people had met at school in Cyprus. And they were all Armenian. The geographic gymnastics was bewildering. Descriptions of home were strange. Searching empty coffee cups and cigarette-smoke clouds for memories, while describing Aleppo and Beirut and Baghdad, it was as though images of a different place altogether were being conjured, a place now lost. Mouths shaped smiles. Sadness clouded eyes.

 

The reality of the Armenian Genocide crashed into my consciousness during Easter of 1995. I remember the exact year because when my dad arrived from the Armenian church and began unwrapping the Lahmacun he always returned with, I asked about the badge pinned to the lapel of his jacket. Black background, the number 80 in blood red, words ‘never forget’ beneath it. Now confronted by the unavoidable duty to share our people’s tragedy with his child, my dad quietly described the events that unfolded in 1915. Detail was spared, particularly regarding my own family. I was told only that my Grandfather’s parents fled their home in Istanbul while my Grandmother’s family escaped from Urfa. My dad is a mathematician; he emphasised the number of Armenians who survived, avoiding the hideous manner in which approximately 1,000,000 of my people were slaughtered.

The burning sense of betrayal I felt was mixed with sheer disbelief. Could the great grandparents of children I saw so much of myself in have my ancestors’ blood on their hands? Why were Armenians marked for death by the Ottoman Turkish government? What unspeakable things must we have done to justify such cruelty?

Compelled to be proud of my family’s survival, I announced my Armenian heritage at

My greatgrandparents
My Great Grandparents – who escaped the genocide

school to anyone who would listen. The blank, unimpressed responses crushed me. Teachers told me I must actually mean Albanian, or perhaps even American. Teachers told me Armenia was, in fact, a city in Russia. I was angry and humiliated. Yet again I felt my identity collapsing around me. I tried to relay what my dad had explained to me about the genocide. Outright dismissals often followed. How could something so terrible have happened if nobody knew about it? I wondered if my dad had lied to me like he would lie about how long he’d be in the betting shop.

 

As I grew, reading helped me develop my understanding of the genocide independently. Conversations with my family were stunted. Details of the horror that swallowed my ancestors were being concealed. I was tortured by my own imagination, trying to sketch pictures of the suffering they endured. A generational passing of the responsibility to have this suffering recognised stood out. I began to feel this burden and it exacerbated the anger which had already taken root within me. This anger mixed with shame. I responded to tedious questions about my ethnicity with lies. I would be told confidently by acquaintances and strangers alike that I ‘must’ be Cypriot. I ‘must’ be Greek or Turkish, Arab or Iranian. I would agree. I felt unable to declare my Armenian heritage without referencing the genocide, I understood it as my duty. And when referencing the genocide, I couldn’t manage the feeling of dejection when it didn’t elicit the response I needed. I believed I was exercising self-care but what I was doing was destructive. And my own denial was tied to the denial which began with the father of the modern Turkish republic.

From Ataturk to Erdogan, successive Turkish governments have followed a policy of vehemently denying the Armenian Genocide. In 1919, Ataturk himself directed forces against the Armenian populations of Marash and Hadjin (who had only just repatriated their shattered cities under the promise of Allied protection). Slaughter followed. He then had the temerity to refute that large Armenian communities had ever existed in Turkey. Propaganda depicted Armenians as rebellious, violent insurgents and attributed deaths to internal conflict. This has been the Turkish governmental line of argument ever since. And it is the vehement denial of history, more so than the monumental crime itself, that keeps century-old wounds festering.

Imagine being told forthrightly at the dinner table by a man you respect, the father of a good friend, that your people tell lies and were not victims of genocide. Imagine letting that friendship wither and die like Tulips in autumn. Denial of truth fractured my ability to maintain authentic relationships with the people with whom I feel an innate kinship. Denial of truth nourished a quiet shame within me for feeling that kinship in the first place. Denial of truth renders my people’s suffering as obscure, unknown and up for debate; the destructive lies I told about my ethnicity were a misguided act of self-preservation.

Thankfully, my weary spirit was lifted by precious moments of genuine acknowledgment.

A minicab driver from our local firm picked me up and immediately began speaking to me in Turkish. Despite feeling uncomfortable, I explained that my dad was Armenian. He carefully pulled the car over to the side of the road, beckoned me to sit in the front with him, looked me in my eyes, shook his head and said ‘sorry’ once. He then proceeded to describe his family and their home in Adana; as I absorbed the images shaped by his words, I felt a beautiful, fleeting connection to a homeland we could share.

My boxing coach represented Turkey with distinction in international competition. He then went on to train members of the Turkish Olympic Boxing team. He hails from Gaziantep. The city’s stunning Liberation Mosque was once the Holy Mother of God cathedral for the Armenian population. Approximately 32,000 Armenians were expelled from Gaziantep in 1915, the majority were then murdered in the Syrian desert.

One afternoon, in the midst of a grueling session, my coach asked me if my surname was Armenian. I silenced the familiar anxiety rising in my chest and said yes. He told me he joined 100,000 mourners in 2007, flooding Istanbul’s streets with outrage at Hrant Dink’s assassination. Dink was a prominent Turkish-Armenian intellectual and journalist. He understood that Armenians and Turks were culturally and historically inseparable. Dink argued that full genocide recognition was crucial, not to cast shame upon Turkish people today but to carve a path to true reconciliation. Hrant Dink was charged with insulting Turkishness by the state and ultimately gunned down in the street by an ultra-nationalist. The mourners at his funeral chanted ‘We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenian’. Knowing my coach added his voice to the defiant chorus forged our brotherhood.

And it is these moments of genuine acknowledgment that reiterate precisely why there

Family
My father, my grandmother, my great grandmother and my uncle

can be no reconciliation without recognition. Too often has Armenian Genocide recognition been kicked around like a football by powerful states, engaged in political spats with Turkish governments; this is not the acknowledgment I seek. It is the recognition of Turkish people that drives me now. Centuries of cultural exchange means we share so much, yet while there remains an unspeakable void between us, we cannot truly explore any idea of a shared pain. Without recognition we cannot truly stand together as equals and resist the spectre of autocracy that now confronts our homeland.

 


Robert Kazandjian is an educator and writer. He works with vulnerable children in North London. His writing seeks to challenge inequality, in all its guises. He has previously written for Ceasefire Magazine on racism in Israel, gender politics and hip hop music, and the necessity of Armenian Genocide recognition. He blogs poetry at makemymark.tumblr.com. He cites Douglas Dunn, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin and Nas as major influences. He tweets from @RKazandjian

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