When President Obama used the term Medz Yeghern to characterize the Armenian Genocide, I, along with many others, felt betrayed because he did not use the word genocide as was expected based upon his presidential campaign promises.
I hereby frankly confess my ignorance as I was not familiar with the term Medz Yeghern, and subsequently consulted various dictionaries to ascertain its meaning. What I found was that it was defined variously depending on the dictionary I used. The older ones define it as Great Crime, misdemeanor, offense, rascality; the more modern ones as Great crime, atrocity, murder.
Still, it wasn’t until I exchanged views with Dr. Dennis Papazian [founding director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn] that I was able to develop another perspective of the matter.
I learned from him that “just as the Jews used the word Shoah (an ancient term with a religious connotation) as a proper noun for their genocide, and are quite content with it, highly educated Armenians have used Medz Yeghern (another ancient term with a religious connotation) as a proper noun and were quite content with it. Hence, the official name of the Armenian Genocide Monument in Yerevan is Medz Yeghern Houshartsan. The monument is not Dzidzernagapert. The site is named that, not the monument.
“People in Armenia know and use the term Medz Yeghern far more than people in the diaspora, who hardly know the term at all. My own translation would be the ‘Great Armenian Cataclysm’. You know that there are not always exact equivalent words in two languages because of subtle meanings and tones, so the literary translator tries to find equivalent meanings. A cataclysm is a final destruction, the end of a world, which is how the Armenians viewed their catastrophe.”
The real lesson I learned from Dr. Papazian was that we need not have viewed the president’s remarks as an evasion, but rather as an affirmation. Most people use Shoah and Holocaust interchangeably, and most Jews would be shocked if Obama were to use the term Jewish Genocide instead. Furthermore, the Turks’ initial reaction was one of anger as they knew, probably more than most Armenians, the true significance of the term Medz Yeghern. But when they saw the dissatisfaction expressed by many Armenian writers, they concluded that the use of the term was not objectionable. How ironic.
Just suppose that we Armenian Americans were to applaud the president for using our word for the Armenian Genocide. Can you imagine the fits the Turks would have, and the quandary the president’s advisors would be in? If it really turned out that they had cautioned him about using the term genocide, could they now declare that it was not what he really meant? Not likely; and they would thus be forced to join our team. To improve on an old saying, “If you can’t beat them, make them join you.”