Special for the Armenian Weekly
It’s been an unspeakably bloody summer in the Middle and Near East. The awful war in Gaza, the beheading of James Foley, the sniper shootings on border villagers in Tavush, the endless mayhem and quagmire of Syria, the micro-war between Armenia and Azerbaijan inflamed by Aliyev’s Twitter threats to bomb Yerevan, and the Yezidi genocide perpetrated by ISIS that has created mushrooming humanitarian disasters all over the region.
Today in Bolis, I passed by several scattered refugees on the main boulevard holding out their Syrian passports (or what’s left of them) as a tragic merit badge for charity. They are mostly women and children clinging on to the shreds of clothing and blankets they were able to escape with or cobble from the unforgiving roads. The Middle East remains engulfed in child and civilian casualties and deportees en masse, bombed churches and unspeakable crimes that prompt international condemnation and appeals to the “civilized” countries to intervene.
Does this sound familiar? One century ago, this same plague echoed under the spring and summer winds of the region and set the stage for the Armenian Genocide in the Syrian deserts. Tragically, recent events call to mind the old French saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Back then it was analog firepower. Now, we are in the digital age of much deadlier war toys with the capacity to decimate populations at the touch of a button from a very far distance. In the thick of this humanitarian chaos, my friends and I journeyed back to Western Armenia, the womb of Armenian civilization. We returned to the cities and villages our ancestral roots hail from, although they are now devoid of the indigenous Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian populations that worked the land and sowed the seed and stone for millennia.
In most journeys I find myself waiting for the Muse or looking for stories. That is not the case when returning to Historic Western Armenia. The stories, like bees, circle toward us native foreigners, revealing unexpected and profound moments of humanity and clarity, despite the dark fog of the genocide’s history that continues to haunt the region a century later. One such moment was the first day we docked in Kharpert Province. We drove to the ravaged Monastery of the Deaf, “Khulavank,” where we saw more traces of thugs chipping away at the very bottom of its columns, eroding the ancient foundations that will no doubt crumble soon. Then we drove to Sourp Astvadzadzin in Yalnizkoy, which means “Lonesome village,” formerly called Tadem. The morning cocktail consisted not of mimosas, but of anger, nostalgia, and rage in seeing our ancient monuments systematically desecrated by idle hands of would-be bandits lusting after Armenian “gold.” Evidently, these bandits are too clueless to ever realize that, as my good friend George Aghjayan pointed out, the churches and stones we kept returning to were the gold. From these very mixed emotions surfaced an unexpected elixir in the form of a local villager’s compassion as we stood in the ruins of the church surrounded by vegetable and fruit patches.
That day we arrived in Kharpert marked the fourth anniversary of my beloved late brother Ravik’s passing. It was the first time I was so far away from Forest Lawn, yet my brother was with me, blessing me with fortitude protected by my brothers Khatchig Mouradian and Chris Bohjalian and dear friends on the journey. With us also on that day were the souls of our grandfathers and ancestors. Inside the ruins of the church, I said a prayer and a blessing for my brother and the memories of all of my fellow travelers’ departed family members. When we returned to the harsh August sunlight outside, a young villager approached us with freshly plucked blackberries. His palms were burgundy red from the ripe berries. Offering them to us, he said, “These are from your grandfathers,” in Turkish. He knew no English and was not aware of the moment of silence and prayer we had just observed inside the cool dark of the ancient church ruins. The pain was momentarily lifted from this human touch of levity by the young villager. His welcoming compassion alleviated for a moment the sense of loss we carry as returning grandsons and granddaughters of this land. We journeyed on to Dikranagerd, Van, and the deep hinterlands of ancient Vaspurakan.
Flying back to Bolis from Van, I sat on the wing of the plane and stared at the lake that Arshile Gorky once swam in, soaking in the majesty and secrets as we soared over the Van fortress and the ruins of the walled city where the Defense of Van took place. I looked south, imagining the mountains yonder where now the Yazidi genocide is taking place. One century later, history’s cruel record player is yet again broken and much louder. I kept asking myself what could be done to end this madness and chaos that is seemingly endless. The more I thought, the deeper into the rabbit hole I fell. Pandora’s Box is tragically wide open in the Middle East and it will not be closing anytime soon. Eventually, my thoughts trailed back to those blackberries.