Columbia Armenian Center Honors Balakian

NEW YORK—“He has lifted memory to an art,” said Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, in his tribute to noted author, poet, and teacher Peter Balakian.

Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate recently saw its 10th anniversary publication, 12 years after the original publication and 24 printings. The latest publication includes two new chapters about Aleppo and Der Zor. It was during a U.S. State Department book tour to Syria that Balakian took a trip to Der Zor and made the chilling discovery of the exposed bones of victims of the Armenian Genocide.

The program, sponsored by Columbia University’s Armenian Center, was opened by Armenian Center executive board member Aram Arkun, who welcomed the more than one hundred in attendance, following a mezze reception replete with Armenian delicacies.

One of the two keynote speakers for the event, Jay Winter— the acclaimed Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University, a specialist on World War I and its impact on the 20th century, and the author of America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915—opened his philosophical thesis entitled “Thinking About Silence” by relating that Balakian has recognized and acknowledged people who have suffered. “Memory is everywhere today, but no one knows what it is. Books like our grown children take on a life of their own.” Balakian, he related, has “inserted a third term between memory and dialogue, and that word is silence.”

Explaining that the silence he was focusing on was not the absence of sound, but rather the “absence of conventional verbal exchanges,” Winter added that silence is a “socially constructed space in which subjects and words normally used in everyday life are not spoken.”

In the context of war and violence, he continued, “the primary impulses underlying the social construction of silence are first ‘liturgical silences,’ the eternal themes of loss, mourning, sacrifice, and redemption; secondly, they are ‘political or strategic silences’ with the hope that the passage of time can lower the temperature of the disputes or even heal the wounds they cause; and thirdly, it is the concept of who has the right to speak about the violent past.” He supplied numerous examples involving these three constructs.

Silences, the Yale University scholar pointed out, “do not mean forgetting. Silences can be deafening,” he declared. Balakian’s book is about the “unsayable,” and his letter to his grandmother “is a meditation on silence. The portrait of the grandmother is someone who could not choose to speak other than through her silence.”

Speaking Through Silence

Silence is many things, and “all occupy and frame the landscape of remembrance,” he said in conclusion. Quoting the French writer Maurice Blanchot who wrote in 1952, “To be silent is still to speak,” he said, “to speak of silence as a social phenomenon is to speak of the many ways in which we all observe silences, and thereby agree to deal with moral ambiguities, to live with and through contradictions, by both remembering and forgetting the past.”

Walter Kalaydjian, a professor of English at Emory University and a literary critic who has examined the poetry of the Armenian Genocide, emphasized that “documenting the historical record of genocide is a crucial task in the struggle to prevent crimes against humanity. But proving the case of the Armenian Genocide does not in itself offer sufficient testimony to the catastrophe of its traumatic imprint, not just on the survivors, but on the second, third, and even fourth generation,” he noted, and quoted Terence Des Pres who called these succeeding generations “secondary witnesses.”

He referred to the new chapter in Black Dog of Fate where Balakian tells of uncovering the exposed bones at Der Zor and smuggling some back to the United States. “At Margadeh, Syria, the anonymous remains of the dead overflow the sanctioned crypt of Der Zor’s Holy Martyrs Armenian Church as the silent evidence of genocide’s modern biopolitic—a corporeal excess denied the communal rites of mourning and proper burial belonging to ordinary death,” Kalaydjian said poetically.

U.S. Geopolitics Involved

This grim evidence of exposed bones was the result of oil exploration by the United States, “its oil economy, its ongoing war in Iraq, and its strategic policy of maintaining tacit complicity with the Turkish state policy on genocide denial,” he related. This new chapter in Black Dog of Fate “marks a turn away from the somewhat privileged status of ‘American son’ inscribed in the memoir’s original subtitle, and now toward a collective and decidedly internationalist, social identity rooted in the Armenian Diaspora and its campaign for human rights beyond genocide.”

Peter Balakian, a professor of humanities and English at Colgate University, whose book The Burning Tigris was a New York Times bestseller, said that he was grateful that he grew up in a family “with silence.” A good portion of Black Dog of Fate involved “hunting down my grandmother’s story,” Balakian revealed.

Surviving the death march with her first husband and two infant daughters, his grandmother arrived in Aleppo in 1915, and lived there for five years. She later moved to New Jersey, where she had two more daughters. “Then emerged a series of absences and presences,” he said, reading sections of the new chapter that describe his search for his grandmother’s address and life in Aleppo. And from the archives of the Armenian Prelacy, he saw photos of his aunts, as well as those of the 5,000 emaciated women and children from Sivas.

During the lengthy question and answer period where many questions were posed on the right of return, memory, trauma, and the recognition of the genocide, Kalaydjian commented that his students felt angry that they may not have known of their own family history. And Winter pointed out that Armenians or any other victims of genocide should not rely on governments to recognize their tragedies. “We must escape from civil rights to the domain of human rights. The response to human rights emerges from below, not from a government. It’s not President Obama’s business, but ours,” he stated with emphasis.

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