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Yes, It's Genocide: Armenian Artists and the Obligations of History

Serj Tankian

For many artists of Armenian descent, engaging with the legacy of the 1915 genocide is more than dutiful; it's of crucial importance to how we understand and confront the modern world and its troubles.

"What art needs is greater men, and what politics needs is better men."

-- William Saroyan, Something About a Soldier.

In Yerevan, the necropolis of Armenia's artistic greats is known as the Komitas Pantheon. It was named, with good grace, in memory of a remarkable Armenian priest, composer, pedagogue, musical ethnologist and, ultimately, martyr. It was the least anyone could do.

Born Soghomon Soghomonyan in 1869, he was orphaned at the age of 11; his upbringing came from the Armenian Apostolic Church. Ordained as a Vardapet at 25, he renamed himself Komitas in tribute to a 7th century holy poet, and devoted the next 18 years to the relentless study, practice and preservation of traditional Armenian music. Traveling from village to village, teaching and composing as he went, watching the local dances and writing down what he heard, Komitas eventually amassed over 3,000 songs that might otherwise have been lost in the horrors to come, and brought the music of Armenia to international attention.

Many can guess what came next. Once you reach a certain point in history, innumerable Armenian stories become one and the same; they all share the same black chapter. On 24 April 1915, later to be known as 'Red Sunday', Komitas was arrested by Turkish authorities, along with several hundred other Armenian intellectuals -- politicians, journalists, lawyers, teachers, clergymen, artists, poets -- in the first official act of a policy by the Ottoman Empire to finally end the problem of their rebellious, long-persecuted Armenian subjects. Today, 24 April 1915 is remembered as the first day of the Armenian Genocide.

Komitas was not among those murdered, but he was indisputably a victim. Under the 'Tehcir Law', he was transported to the city of Çankırı, a journey over 300 miles, as part of the mass-deportations that served as cover for much of the Ottoman efforts of extermination. Armenian deportees were crammed into overloaded cattle cars without food or water (many thousands would die en route to their final destinations), to face summary execution, death marches or concentration camps upon arrival. It was only due to the desperate intervention of United States ambassador Henry Morgenthau that Komitas survived at all, as one of eight Armenian notables reprieved from deportation by a hasty diplomatic entreaty.

But Komitas was Komitas no longer. At some point on his terrible journey, unbearably brutalised by the abusive guards and inhuman conditions, overwhelmed by the prospect of death, and witness to the growing, waking nightmare that enveloped his nation, something inside him broke. A man who went to incredible lengths to preserve an ancient, multifaceted, ever-evolving culture was forced to watch a near-successful attempt to destroy it and the people it inhabited. Komitas suffered a complete mental breakdown, most likely as a result of post-traumatic stress, and spent the remaining 20 years of his life in a French psychiatric clinic.

It's too easy, too glib to say the story of Komitas is the story of Armenia in the 20th century -- abused beyond breaking point, put through so much suffering perspective is lost, apparently alone in a world that does not seem to make sense. It's more honest to say his story is what those of us of Armenian descent fear might lurk on the other side of our historical endurance. Because in spite of all the memories, the denial, the lies and the hatred, we must not be driven mad by our past.

"The question is settled. There are no more Armenians."

-- Talaat Pasha, 280th Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, leading architect of the Armenian Genocide, in conversation with the German ambassador, 1918.

Some historians complain that the unique legacy of Komitas has been swallowed by the Armenian Genocide, and that it's unfair to view his work purely through the prism of the tragedy which ended it. Unlike the generations of Armenian artists born after 1915, it was the sad tale of his life, rather than any of his musical or scholarly output, that says most about the butchery of his nation. But those same generations of subsequent artists have arguably been even more suffused by the legacy of genocide in the decades since; it would be massively dishonest to ignore the sense of obligation that 1915's shadow must cast. Virtually any artistic figure who identifies themselves as Armenian -- whether as a citizen of the small republic itself, or as part of a vast and far-flung diaspora -- invites the question, spoken or not: How do they feel about the Genocide? Will they reflect those feelings in their art? And if not, why not?

If it was purely a matter of the weight of history, of looking back and reflecting on the sorrows of a bitter national past, the sense of obligation might be less overwhelming, to artists and ordinary Armenians alike. But many will already know that talking about the Armenian Genocide, the crime against humanity that hid in plain sight for the better part of a century, is not that simple. The world has no shortage of cowards, liars and apologists who will not let it be so.

Long after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the present government of Turkey still adamantly refuses to acknowledge the 1.5 million Armenians who died in the Genocide, or the part Turkey played in their deaths. The party-line, delivered straight faced, is that the death toll was a 'mere' 500,000 or so', and ascribes those deaths to the effects of World War I, rather than a conscious policy of extermination.

It's a lie that makes all those who engage in it complicit in the monumental crimes they seek to deny. This cannot ever be overstated.

Convincing the rest of the world to acknowledge the realities of history has been slow, painful work, but its victories have been hard-won; to date, 21 countries and 43 American states officially recognise the Armenian Genocide for what it was. Each recognition has been met with the same predictable wave of controversy from the Turkish government, Turkish nationalists, and amoral political pragmatists of every stripe who have their own repulsive reasons for preferring the lies of the past -- and the present -- remain forever undisturbed.

As those who follow European news will be aware, France -- which recognised the Armenian Genocide in 2006 -- is now the issue's latest battleground. A law proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy which would make denial of the Genocide illegal in France, much as Holocaust denial has been criminalised in many European countries, was struck down in February by France's Constitutional Council as unconstitutional, and a threat to freedom of expression.

Despite cynical (if not entirely baseless) suggestions that the law may be a means of courting France's estimated 400,000-strong Armenian community, both Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, his Socialist opponent in the upcoming presidential elections -- who, under most circumstances, would be hard-pressed to concur on the colour of the sky -- are in rare agreement on the proposed legislation, and have vowed to redraft the law and make a second attempt.

By contrast, such starkly defined principle has been in short supply in the United States. In the past month, Hillary Clinton has faced calls from the Armenian-American community to resign as Secretary of State following her astonishing display of political cowardice and equivocation in evasively declaring the Genocide "a matter of historical debate" at a Town Hall meeting of the State Department earlier this year. This is little better than her predecessor, Condoleeza Rice -- who bragged in her memoirs about her role in defeating two separate Congressional resolutions to recognise the Genocide orchestrated by what Rice creepily referred to as "the powerful Armenian American lobby" -- or President Obama himself, who said during the 2008 election that "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide." So far, it has failed to get one.

"Do you know what still causes so much pain? It's not the people we lost, or the land. It's to know that we could be so hated. Who are these people, who could hate us so much? How can they still deny their hatred?"

-- Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), in Atom Egoyan's 2002 film Ararat.

Against this backdrop, almost a hundred years after the attempted annihilation of the Armenian race, two days before the next Genocide Remembrance Day on 24 April, UCLA's Hammer Museum in Los Angeles will host a discussion on the enduring impact of 1915 between Serj Tankian and Atom Egoyan -- two artists of Armenian descent who have made clear that they see art which addresses the Genocide as profoundly necessary. I wish I could be there to see it.

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