How has the Armenian nation survived centuries of subordination, dislocation and dispossession? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. A contributing factor to the answer has been the ability of each succeeding generation to shoulder its responsibility of cultural sustainability. Some generations operated in a period of relative calm within the homeland allowing the responsibility to be completed within the traditional infrastructure of families, communities and church. My grandparents’ generation had perhaps the most challenging inheritance, and they experienced genocide and managed the transition into the diaspora. Our presence today confirms the success of their mission. Each generation enjoys the fruits of civilization and bears the burden of resolving “unfinished business.”
The last few generations both in the diaspora and the homeland have inherited the unresolved impact of the Genocide. Much of the last 50 years outside of Armenia has been devoted to establishing the pursuit of justice as a result the Genocide. It is commonly referred to as Hai Tahd. It began as a long journey to formally recognize what had been forgotten. Remarkable progress has been made as the descendants of the Genocide across the globe have embraced their responsibility and displayed disciplined capability in advocating for justice. As the journey transitions into the reparations phase, an important event took place in 1991 with Armenia’s independence and its role as the official representatives of the Armenian nation. This is now a partnership of the diaspora and the homeland. Success will happen as the relationship matures, and both parties come to the realization that they are mutually dependent. The challenge has become more urgent with the continued criminal aggression of today’s Turkey and its cousin Azerbaijan. In one sense, the logic argued by Armenians about the Turks has been painfully confirmed with the atrocities of the last 30 years. The picture has never been clearer. The stakes have never been higher, and the weight on the shoulders of the current generation never greater.
Given the gravity of the current national security and “diplomatic” initiatives, our level of self-discipline and focus should be reviewed. The work of our cause and the current challenges is not just in the hands of advocacy groups such the Armenian National Committee (ANC) or Armenian Assembly but should reflect the commitment of all of us as individuals. I would like to focus on our individual attitudes and responses because all activism starts with the individual. Looking in the mirror is the foundation of change. It is fairly common today to hear an abundance of pessimism in our community about Armenia and Artsakh. Granted, the political winds are not blowing in our favor as century-old external dynamics repeat themselves and self-inflicted wounds reflect our inability to right the ship. I prefer to describe the current climate as full of opportunity if we can garner our very best. In 2022, we find ourselves once again cradling our survival surrounded by the ever present enemy…the Turks. There is no single word in the Armenian vocabulary other than “Turk” that can draw an emotional, almost common response from the diverse population of the global Armenian nation. As Armenians, we certainly have opinions about various groups, and most of them are generalizations based on negative experiences. I remember my family elders saying “Don’t trust the French.” I finally discovered the basis of that warning from my Adanatzi family and gamavor grandfather since they personally experienced the horrific betrayal with the French withdrawal from Cilicia in 1920 leaving the loyal Armenians defenseless once again to the marauding Turks. These people in the Cilicia region experienced three historical atrocities during those fateful days: the Adana massacre of 1909, the genocide and deportation of 1915-17 and the betrayal in 1920 after the encouragement to return to their home. Most Armenians in the diaspora were given a negative perception of Turks by their parents based on familial experiences and the larger impact on the nation. Of course, this runs counter to the memories of benevolent Turks who saved Armenians and our faith which teaches forgiveness. It continues to be a very confusing dynamic for Armenians to manage. We don’t want to be viewed as a racist culture, but the absence of justice and remorse makes it nearly impossible to forgive. We continue to have adverse reactions to anything Turkish whether it be individuals or other non-political matters. This struggle is also a distraction.
We are all guilty of this distraction including myself. I call it a distraction because if we are serious about our pursuit for justice, then our actions cannot be driven by anger or hatred. It is similar to expecting a car to stay under control while intoxicated. Hatred is a distraction that damages our soul and shields us from our mission. The hatred of Turks is a convenient alternative to taking real action until it becomes personal. Several years ago, I received an inquiry from a Turkish woman in Turkey on Facebook looking for anyone named Piligian whose family originated in the villages of Sepastia. I was naturally reluctant but responded privately on messenger. This woman was searching for relatives in America who were descendants of her family. In 1915, an Armenian family was forced into deportation from Sepastia south toward the Syrian desert. One of the women on the death march was unable to continue in the vicinity of Gesaria. She hid in the bushes. A Turkish gendarme discovered her and was about to kill her when he noticed her beauty and decided to keep her for himself. This woman had a last name of Piligian. She also had a brother who had migrated earlier to America. She was forced to marry the Turkish soldier and settled into a life as a converted Muslim. The woman who contacted me was the great-niece of this woman. The surviving aunt corresponded with her brother from Turkey to America until both passed in the late sixties. Her niece was one-eighth Armenian and told me that despite her lineage and upbringing, she identified as an Armenian. Suddenly the “hidden Armenian” issue had become more than an academic exercise but a very personal reality. Was she family? She was raised a Turk but called herself an Armenian. She had planned a visit to the states on personal business, and we actually had lunch together in the Boston area. It was a stunning development and tugged at my emotions and feelings about Turks. My wife and I agreed to help her using some of the genealogy tools available. We learned that her uncle had come to this country in 1913 from the villages of Sepastia. We learned that not only did he settle in Indian Orchard, but he actually traveled on the same ship as my grandfather. According to records, his sponsor was a cousin of my grandfather’s from the same Koch Hisar village. The uncle’s name was Khoren Piligian, but the immigration documents spelled it “Horan” which added to the difficulty in tracking his past. He left Indian Orchard in 1923, but we were able to find his residence and burial outside of Pittsburgh. His gravestone had his name in Armenian spelled correctly as Khoren. We were unable to get survivor information from the cemetery unless you are family and onsite. There are two children who would be in their late 80’s, and at least one had married with children of their own. She has made it her mission to help her mother find living descendants here. In 2015, they both traveled to Armenia to participate in the Genocide centennial. She hopes to visit the US again, so we can travel to Pittsburgh and find the missing pieces of the puzzle.
This deeply emotional experience has helped to refine my political approach with the Armenian Cause. For many Armenians, given their isolation from any Turkish relationships, there is a large gap between inherited hatred and focused political activism. Between those two bookends is hopefully experiences that help us to understand that hatred does not contribute meaningfully to our cause. It is a distraction that reflects a lack of political discipline. Our agenda is with the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan which includes their supporters. This is a difficult but crucial distinction. The political dispute with the Turks covers a wide range of subjects from historical revisionism to territorial theft. There is substantial room for disciplined political activism without racist behavior. We all joke about it at social gatherings, and it feels good at the moment, but are we growing in political capability? Perhaps we should read more about our enemies to understand and anticipate their moves. At some point in this long journey, we will have to speak directly with Turks. The majority of Armenians don’t even know a Turk. This is not a conversation about reconciliation. Once we learn to respect our enemies for their abilities, we will be more effective. The Turks are skilled in geopolitical diplomacy. Our hatred limits our ability to understand this. This is about having the maturity and discipline as a people to accept the role we have inherited as gatekeepers for Hai Tahd. We need our best lawyers, negotiators, defense contractors, intelligence agencies and business minds to take on the challenge of not only ensuring the survival of Armenia and Artsakh, but to correct the injustices of the Genocide. We may diminish the value of our enemies as simply “Turks,” but their skills are significant. Succeeding requires discipline and focus. The question is whether we are all working to meet that challenge. Venting is understandable, but it is not enough.