An Archaeology of Armenian Agency

This past winter solstice, I set out early to watch the light slowly growing in the east, as the last stars faded from view, and migrating songbirds brought the crisp air to life. In those fleeting moments, trouble and transformation in this age of existential meta-crises flickered through my mind: COVID-19, the Artsakh War and its ripples, Turkey’s actions in northeast Syria, the Beirut explosion, mass protests in India, Nigeria, Chile and the US, fires and poverty in California, my father’s heart condition, my five-year-old nephew’s loose tooth…

Fortified by the rising sun, I walked back to the tiny, converted garage which had become my temporary US home in COVID time. Much to my surprise, Dr. Khatchig Mouradian’s remarkable and highly anticipated new book, The Resistance Network, was leaning against the doorstep. 

Holding the book in my hands, I had chills, in a good way. It is a trail-blazing invitation into integral facets of the Armenian Genocide which have largely been missing from the scholarly and popular discourse—namely, the emergent and loosely connected network of unarmed, grassroots humanitarian resistance, defined by Mouradian as actions taken against the will or the laws of Ottoman central authorities. Considering the devastations of the Artsakh War, the familiarity of the perpetrators and the immediate and ongoing mobilization of Armenians around the world, though there are notable differences, the parallels are striking. 

Never before had I been excited to read a book about the Genocide. 

As a poet, artist, activist and student of restorative justice and collective trauma healing, amongst the brightest spots of my 2020 were classes and talks offered online by Mouradian, lecturer at Columbia University, covering monuments and racism, Artsakh, epidemics and related human rights themes. During his summer class Apologies, Non-Apologies, and Reparations, active hope of justice and healing was revitalized within me, for our people and all those who are targeted. It has stubbornly persisted despite Artsakh shockwaves and every bit of unrepaired harm, past and present. 

Armed with bookmarks featuring potent lines from poet Vehanoush Tekian, I opened The Resistance Network and embarked on an internal version of the journey between Aleppo and Der Zor my great-grandmother euphemistically referred to in Beirut as “the great adventure.” As I read, though I never met her, I felt her presence and that of those who sacrificed everything to save thousands of lives. In the desert, she lost five of her children. Of the two who survived, one was my mother’s father, Garabed.

Drawing upon deep wells of source material, intellect and insight, Mouradian takes the reader into the on-the-ground nightmares and grassroots resistance active between and beyond Aleppo and Der Zor from 1915 to 1918. In tracing the genesis of concentration camps and “Ottoman trajectories of civilian internment,” he also names ways that epidemics and a fundamental need for shelter, dignity and nourishment were weaponized against those who were deported, and redeported, to almost-certain death in the desert. His revelatory analysis evokes further parallels in today’s world, of pandemics of othering and unbelonging.

As he makes plain, the blow-by-blow experience of the Armenian Genocide was even worse than many of us may have imagined. Considering ongoing crises of racial injustice, poverty, dispossession, mass incarceration and concentration camps (i.e., immigrant detention centers), I believe the same could be said of today’s inhumane policies and deteriorating social conditions, in the US and globally. I suspect Mouradian would agree.

Yet, as a duduk player friend says, we must not let destruction have the last word. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he, too, is a Khatchig. With engaging language and laser-like precision, Mouradian’s work is a masterpiece of brilliant and embodied scholarship and storytelling, lifting up lived experiences of suffering and resistance in the face of the doom planned for all our relations. To echo filmmaker Eric Nazarian’s moving ode to Mouradian and his inspiring work, as gutting as much of the history is, The Resistance Network also radiantly makes clear that life-affirming acts of agency and solidarity are possible, even under the most unspeakable conditions. This, too, evokes parallels, with the transnational and cross-pollinating liberation movements rising in response to authoritarianism. 

Throughout the book, hundreds of first-person accounts, church committee records and Ottoman archives bring to life the day-to-day conditions of those who were deported, and redeported, as well as the immediate and persistent resistance by Armenians and allies alike.  Those who had been cast flatly as passive victims now rightfully take center stage as agents bearing complexity, courage and ingenuity. As a result, I have a firm grasp on the reality that our ancestors, including women and children, actively resisted annihilation the entire time and in a myriad of ways, mirroring creativity, intelligence and bravery during the Artsakh War, and of many other targeted groups worldwide. 

Thanks to Mouradian’s compelling and poetic work, countless tender stories of humanitarian resistance are not only a part of the canon of Armenian Genocide scholarship. They are reshaping it. Testimony matters.

In January, to celebrate the launch of The Resistance Network, Dr. Mouradian was in conversation with Dr. Henry Theriault, President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, who highlighted the critical importance of the book, for Armenians, genocide scholars and those interested in cutting-edge urban studies. Theriault rightly praised Mouradian’s work as being a deeply researched and interdisciplinary “archaeology of Armenian agency,” in which hidden histories are unearthed and explored through a weaving of diverse theoretical frameworks, to address gaps and flaws in the scholarship and make the narrative more complete, definitively situating the Armenian Genocide in global contexts of imperial harm and indigenous resistance.  

It is also worth noting there are elements of Mouradian’s background which made him actively and organically well-positioned to bring this work into being. I encourage those who are curious to seek out both the book and his recent interviews in which enlightening stories are shared.

Mouradian allows space for nuance and paradox in examining the actions of prominent perpetrators and players such as Cemal Pasha and many more, without centering them. Instead, stories which have stayed with me are of children who risked everything to go between the camps, delivering messages written on their bodies, or bread concealed in their clothing. I cannot help but imagine that perhaps one of Garabed’s siblings was amongst them.

For me, 2020 came to a quiet close, after a New Year’s Eve spent playing with my niece and nephews, a humbling privilege while so many families are torn apart, displaced and grieving.  Later that night, accompanied by the glow of a Christmas tree, I dove back into Mouradian’s book, as midnight came and went. A few hours’ sleep later, I awoke to a brave new world transformed by steady snowfall, a vision of painfully pristine beauty. When a wave of sorrow threatened to pull me under, I was entranced by a flash the color of a red poppy, in the tree outside my solitary window. Upon a branch sat a bird looking back at me, bright against the snow, reviving the spirit of The Resistance Network and one of its opening epigraphs, from Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey.

“You look at the network,
and then it starts to look back at you.”

~ 

With profound gratitude for the ancestors, the survivors, The Resistance Network and its author, I invite us all to imagine the possibilities of history made more whole, for the sake of the emerging future.  

Ուրիշ աշխարհը կարելի է։
Another world is possible.

Elise Youssoufian

Elise Youssoufian

Elise Youssoufian is a poet seeking justice, truth and beauty in every language.
Elise Youssoufian

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1 Comment

  1. Elise writes a touching masterpiece about Katchig’s masterpiece. I learned so much from The Resistance Network and have referred it to others. Hopefully there are enough copies!

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