Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023
Page 10 of the book Ravishing Armenia contains a photograph. It is entitled “The long line that swiftly grew shorter” and shows a column of Armenians being marched through an arid, inhospitable environment by armed guards. It is a snapshot of the deportations. The book tells the story of Aurora Mardiganian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. It was published in 1919.
For years I used Aurora’s story, and the photograph a few pages into the book, to help me teach about the Armenian Genocide – to teach a narrative of the genocide that emphasised the horrific nature of the events of 1915, the deportations into the desert and the attempt to wipe out the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Aurora’s story was one of miraculous, if horrific, escape. The image on page 10 of the book was used to illustrate this: forlorn human beings being taken to their deaths in the “great plains of Mamuret-ul-Aziz, escorted by the barbarous ‘zapieths’.” All this is true…and an essential part of the historical narrative necessary for young people to know.
Nevertheless, since then, my teaching has developed – enabling my students to gain a more nuanced, sophisticated and, most importantly, historically accurate understanding of the Armenian Genocide. Now, the image is used as a starting point, as is Ravishing Armenia. It is no longer a full stop. Instead, the nature of the photograph as one produced by perpetrators (or bystanders) is considered, and the reality of the victims as being completely without agency and going to their fate in a passive manner is questioned critically. Other elements of the text are drawn to illustrate a more multi-dimensional picture of the Genocide.
In addition to the account detailing Aurora’s experiences (and that of others), I have integrated more modern scholarship into my teaching of the Armenian Genocide. The Resistance Network, researched and written by Dr. Khatchig Mouradian of Columbia University without question has enabled me to enhance the quality of my teaching in several ways.
I now dedicate more lessons of my scheme of work on the Genocide to resistance. This provides historically justified and important depth and detail to a study of the events under consideration. More than that, it gives the students an understanding that Armenians did not passively accept what was being perpetrated. They had agency. They fought for their lives in many different ways. This all helps to humanize and contextualize what the students take away from the lessons I teach.
As a starting point, we look at overt examples of what students would most readily classify as ‘resistance’ in my teaching. Together, we examine the actions of the Armenians in Musa Dagh, led by Moses Der Kalousdian. The villagers in this area, knowing what the Ottoman perpetrators intended for them as they approached, put up a stubborn physical resistance for an astonishing fifty-three days.
Using Dr. Mouradian’s scholarship, we examine a wider meaning of resistance, including his definition of resistance as “actions carried out illegally, or against the sanction and will of the authorities, to save Armenian deportees from annihilation.” We then go on to examine the work of Armenian religious and secular community leaders who had been deported to Syria as part of the Ottomans’ genocidal policies in 1915. I ask the pupils to study how these people resisted, the choices that they made and how they interacted with a larger coalition of local Muslim, Jewish and Christian allies who tried to help the deportees survive.
I have also been bringing a greater focus to survivor memoirs into my teaching. For instance, Karnig Panian’s memoir Goodbye, Antoura, which Dr. Mouradian introduced me to not so long ago, has enabled me to further enhance the granular detail with which I teach about the Genocide. For instance, I’m now able to provide a more focused view of the pre-genocide way of life that is so important to introduce to students. If the young people in my class first meet Armenians as they are deported or persecuted, it might lead to the problematic belief that the Armenians were simply put on this earth to be victims. Instead, they understand that those who were to suffer at the hands of the Ottoman perpetrators and their collaborators had lives, hopes, fears, ambitions, culture and community just like the rest of us. In this instance, Panian outlines the rich life that he and his family enjoyed in their village of Gurin during the early years of the author’s childhood. Panian’s memoir also serves to further illustrate the attempt of the perpetrators to destroy identity, as well as recounting a narrative that includes the horrors of deportation and the desert. Furthermore, the book is very powerful in allowing my pupils to understand the agency of Armenians during the Genocide and their struggle for physical and cultural survival.
All this serves to provide a more detailed, accurate, sophisticated, and most importantly, more human picture of Armenians during the Genocide. I no longer teach from a perspective that solely focuses on the genocidal actions of the perpetrators but instead allow my pupils to leave the classroom with a much better, truer, understanding of the Armenian Genocide. More broadly, some of the students that I have taught about the Genocide have reacted by wanting to know more and to become activists. They have asked to speak to experts and have interviewed Dr. Mouradian. Some in my classes, realizing that not many people knew about the Armenian Genocide specifically, or genocide in general, have worked in their spare time to raise awareness. Their work may be viewed via their Twitter account @genocide8020.
There is no official textbook for British secondary schools that covers the Armenian Genocide in any great depth, detail or sophistication. I have not received any specific training on how to deliver a scheme of work about the Genocide. However, thanks to ever-generous, inspirational, expert academics such as Dr. Mouradian, who devote time and energy to helping teachers understand more about what happened, I have been able to teach myself more about the events of the Genocide. I also use the training that I have received on how to teach about the Holocaust from the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education to fit my new knowledge into a pedagogical framework that works. I suspect that those teachers in the UK who do teach about the Armenian Genocide follow a similar path.
Postscript: The students themselves also enhance my teaching of the Armenian Genocide with the questions that they ask – those unexpected but very valuable moments in teaching when a lesson takes a different turn and explores an issue that I hadn’t planned for that day. For instance, one student asked why the British government has not recognized the Armenian Genocide. I had to confess that I did not know. We decided to investigate further and found documentation setting out our government’s defense of their position, as well as the efforts of MPs to have the Genocide recognized. This natural inquisitiveness and eagerness to have a wrong righted can give hope to us all.
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