What trauma does and what recognition might mend

“The Family” by Gulen Torossian Der Boghossian, representing survivors of the Armenian Genocide fleeing to the Diaspora

It has been another year, again, that Armenians all over the world will commemorate the 1915 Genocide. It has been 106 years since the Ottoman State – under orders by Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and Djemal Pasha – marched millions of Armenians out of Anatolia, displacing them from their homes and dispossessing them of all they were forced to leave behind on the death march. It’s been 106 years since countless women were raped, abducted, humiliated and mutilated…since hundreds of thousands were gutted, shot, hung, crucified, starved, parched, and otherwise forced to die in the burning desert heat of the Syrian desert. It’s been 106 years since butchers, with their specialized skills, were hailed to cut up and dispense of Armenian bodies, bodies that had, for petty nationalist reasons, become a “problem” for the Ottoman State. It’s been 106 years since 1.5 million Armenian lives were taken. In these 106 years, Armenians all over the world have continued to remember these atrocities, passing down the horror (as well as their reactions to it) from one generation to another. 

Beyond memories of “then,” Turkey’s will to annihilate Armenians is something lived and experienced in the contemporary world in a multitude of ways. In 2007, Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul. According to some, his assassination was caused not only by his continued devotion to speak of the Genocide and to demand recognition for it, but  also because he was raising awareness that Sabiha Gokcen, a darling of Turkey and Ataturk’s adopted daughter, was an Armenian girl abducted during the Genocide and raised as a Turk. For decades, Armenians in Turkey – especially those in Anatolia – have been forced to suppress their Armenianness (their Christianity, their language and sometimes their names) because of fears of violence against themselves. In the 2000s, Armenians in the city of Diyarbakir (Dikranakert for Armenians, Ahmed for Kurds), rebuilt and renovated St. Giragos, an ancient Armenian church in the city, in a move to “go public” as Armenians again. The church reopened in 2011, only to be confiscated by the Turkish state in 2016 along with many other churches after becoming damaged by bullets during clashes between Turkish armed forces and Kurdish fighters. In 2020, as Turkey was involved in the six-week bloody Artsakh War – sending fighter planes, military personnel and Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside Azerbaijani soldiers – the “Grey Wolves,” an unofficial movement attached to nationalist organizations in Turkey who support Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were attacking public monuments in France dedicated to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. The French government banned the “Grey Wolves” and set up special guards at these monuments. The Grey Wolves are also charged with organizing marches through the streets of Lyon, chanting threats against Armenians. Even in denying that a genocide against Armenians ever took place in the Ottoman Empire, Erdogan has been insistent that to be called “Armenian” is an insult and has also referred to Armenians and other Christians in Turkey as the “leftovers of the sword” – those who should have been annihilated in the early twentieth century, but continue to survive. On Facebook, Garo Paylan, an Armenian member of Turkish Parliament, declared that Erdogan’s use of this phrase “was invented to refer to orphans like my grandmother who survived the Armenian Genocide. Every time we hear that phrase, it makes our wounds bleed.” 

This sense of continuously bleeding wounds – wounds that have not closed over, have not healed, have not been tended to and thus continue to bleed and sometimes fester – is a continuous problem not only as a result of recurring acts of violence and hatred against Armenians by Turkey’s leadership and their hordes, but amongst Armenians themselves. This year, as we memorialize the Armenian Genocide for the 106th year, without recognition from Turkey and without the full recognition of the US Executive Branch, I am reminded of what trauma does. What, in other words, wounds that continue to bleed can do for a collective history and a collective (un)consciousness of a people. The referent of “Genocide” as the bed on which contemporary Armenian identity lies has massive consequences on how Armenians continue to develop social, cultural, political, economic and emotional lives. The trauma of genocide is a trauma that cannot lead to any kind of proper mourning and has led to a melancholic reality of Armenian identity, a sense of identity tied to cacophonous feelings of loss and continuous grief. Unimaginable and uncontainable loss and grief that continues to bleed and continues to breed loss and grief. The lack of recognition of genocide allows Armenians to feel that they are continuously the objects of someone else’s will to annihilation, that their very existence is only an accident of an initial failure, a part of a project that will continue until it is successful—an accident of history, an unfinished historical project, an existence that was not supposed to be and one that is relegated constantly to the “not-yet-annihilated.” The refusal of Turkey as well as major global powers, including the President of the United States, to speak of the Genocide as a genocide, consistently produces the fear that this historical project is still on its way to completion. A trauma that is not post; a traumatic encounter that is still ongoing. 

If it is 2021 and you are a “leftover of the sword,” who are you?

In his memoir of coming into Armenian identity through the discovery of his family’s survival of genocide, writer Peter Balakian asks of his grandfather, “If you are Armenian in 1922 and you’ve survived the massacres, who are you?” He responds to this question with the words of Armenian writer Gostan Zarian, a survivor himself: “Our generation has more friends in the next world than in this one. There are places where I walk with anguish as if I were crossing a graveyard of memories.” As we approach 106 years following the Genocide and just half a year following the brutality of war in Nagorno-Karabakh, I want to reflect on Balakian’s and Zarian’s words. If it is 2021 and you are a “leftover of the sword,” who are you? The dangers of this place of existence are perhaps most profoundly felt in the Republic of Armenia today. By official counts, more than 4,000 young men were killed in the 2020 war. Many of their helmets were collected and recently placed in a public park in Baku to celebrate Azerbaijan’s victory. And as the perpetrator of the Genocide – as Azerbaijan is often thought to be completing the original task of the Ottoman State – celebrates success, the Republic of Armenia is caught in a cycle of revanchism and revenge. Popular nationalist movements align with major oligarchic and criminal elite, demanding the resignation of PM Nikol Pashinyan who is seen to have made major mistakes during the war, leading to its loss. Opposition movements organize a theatrical public performance of the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the late Romanian dictator and his wife, threatening PM Pashinyan. He too, these protesters are saying, will soon arrive at his public execution. Priorities are on death and mourning rather than life and living, making war rather than making democracy, and a future that looks more like the past rather than something different, something free of the burden of amassing graves. The wounds of Armenians continue to bleed, a kind of compulsion in the face of another’s will to annihilation. 

This is what trauma does. I am not so naïve to believe that the US recognition of the Armenian Genocide – which may or may not force Turkey’s own hand of recognition – will bring an end to this trauma and the consistently bleeding wounds of what it means to be Armenian in 2021. Recognition, however, is certainly a step toward something else. Recognition, putting an official word on the catastrophe, may not solve 106 years of social, cultural, political, economic and emotional disaster, but it can offer the respite of naming the pain and narrating the catastrophe to its end. Recognition might finally mark the grave of the Genocide, mark it as an historical event – an event that once occurred in the past – rather than an ongoing project.

Editor’s Note, April 23, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the year of Hrant Dink’s assassination as 2006. It has been corrected to 2007.

Tamar Shirinian

Tamar Shirinian

Tamar Shirinian is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her work explores nationalism, gender and sexuality.

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