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

Serj Tankian
Imperfect Harmonies
Reprise Records

“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.

Mocking the Big Ideas of the World

In many ways, the pair are both representative of the difficulties posed by an Armenian artist confronting the Armenian experience, and the brave moral and artistic choices which can be made in response to them. Some understandably find it difficult to imagine a way to artistically encompass the enormity of the destruction; others would argue that nothing but art can hope to articulate it. However, those who perceive any interaction between art and political activism as nothing but agitprop will be unable to appreciate those difficulties, or the fascinating works Tankian and Egoyan have produced as a result.

Egoyan’s 2002 film Ararat unflinchingly addressed both the horrors of the Genocide and the unqiue challenges of creating an art in response to it. The personal nature of the subject-matter to Egoyan — as well as his wife, the actress Arsinée Khanjian, who co-stars in the film — is palpable to the viewer, and informs Ararat with a striking emotional honesty. Central to its multi-stranded plot are the travails of a famous director (based in part on Egoyan, and played by legendary French-Armenian actor-singer Charles Aznavour) attempting to shoot a historically honest big-budget movie about the Genocide, the making of which is his own way of articulating why what happened then is so important to what is happening now.

Egoyan’s career in both stage and screen, most notably his Oscar-nominated, much-acclaimed 1997 adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter, has solidified his reputation as one of Canada’s most interesting directors, and arguably refutes the idea that any Armenian artist who deals with the Genocide will be pigeon-holed along with that issue. He has not gingerly tip-toed around the subject, nor has he allowed it to consume him. Neither has the Lebanese-born Armenian-American Serj Tankian, best known as the lead singer of System of a Down – but his is a career in constant evolution, which demonstrates a far more complicated illustration of the possible interactions between Armenian art and activism.

“Armenians can tear down any fucking wall.”

— Serj Tankian, in concert in Yerevan, 12 August 2010

Once upon a time, I would have been the last to expect it. Though System of a Down contributed disproportionately to the background noise of high school, I was never their most enthusiastic proponent; for years, my standard joke was that I liked everything about the band… except the music. They had the misfortune to hit it big during the brief, hideous Nu-Metal boom; I suspect the general, fetid stupidity of that abominable subgenre caused many to tar them with the same brush. But then as now, I never had much patience for the self-satisfied shredding and grinding that punctuated their more interesting instrumentation, or the tedious bouts of screaming which periodically interrupted Tankian’s otherwise impressive singing.

Over a decade later, my opinion of System of a Down has not changed dramatically — teenage prejudices die hard — but I can admit that the band’s flaws were the flaws of metal in general (to my jaundiced ear, at least), but their virtues were all of their own. And by the time I was in university, I could guiltily admit to a few tunes I did more than tolerate; there were even a few historic occasions they motivated me to dance, after a fashion. Whiskey helped.

However, where I was undeniably wrong was in my underestimation of Tankian. Superficially, he has pursued a similar career path to Mike Patton, who parlayed the success he found with Faith No More into more avant-garde endeavours like Mr Bungle and Fantômas. After System of a Down’s break-up in 2006, Tankian followed up Elect the Dead, his acclaimed first solo album, with a series of increasingly experimental and unexpected projects.

He recorded a symphonic live album performed with a full orchestra, guest-starred on albums by Buckethead and Wyclef Jean, co-wrote a musical based on the myth of Prometheus with Steven Sater, contributed to the sountrack of Batman: Arkham City and last year, published his second volume of poetry. Reflecting on the sonic evolution of Tankian’s extensive discography, the dizzying range of influences — rock, metal, jazz, funk, goth, electronic, classical and traditional Armenian — is evident, and provides an always-unpredictable context for what is undeniably one of the most powerful and theatrical singing voices in modern rock.

Simultaneously, Tankian’s involvement in raising awareness of the Armenian Genocide steadily became an ever-more significant strand of his career, displaying a seriousness, intelligence and commitment that made sure there was no mistaking him for another celebrity with a pet cause. “If someone came to my house, killed my family and robbed my house,” he told the Armenian Weekly in 2007, “I’m not going to run after them for a hundred years and beg them to recognize that crime. That makes no sense. I’m going to take them to court and I’m going to loudly request justice, and that’s what needs to be done ultimately.”

Years ago, I remember thinking how unlikely it was that, of all the voices crying out, a shouty rock singer with a Frank Zappa beard beloved by metalheads and moshpits could become a significant force for change. But in a lot of ways, Tankian has become the best spokesman the Armenian diaspora could hope for: eloquent, honest, idealistic, endlessly good-humoured and free of bullshit in a way only artists seem to manage, with a natural audience of the young and the angry.

As his activism became a dual current to his music, Tankian co-founded the non-profit grassroots organisation Axis For Justice with Tom Morello and has continued to work tirelessly with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and the Armenian Youth Federation (ACF), with whom he has started an ongoing campaign to pressure the Obama administration into honouring the President’s pre-election promises to the Armenian-American community.

Named for a startlingly beautiful and haunting track from his most recent album, Imperfect Melodies — the first of Tankian’s songs performed entirely in Armenian — the campaign is simply entitled: “Yes, It’s Genocide”.

“Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it… See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.”

— ‘The Armenian and the Armenian’, by William Saroyan.

Tankian has said repeatedly that he does not believe artists have a responsibility to tackle political themes; that they should not be forced into it, just as Armenian artists should not feel they are trapped by the dutiful obligations of remembrance. As much as that point needs to be made, it seems increasingly moot. The will to never forget, and never stop struggling, has been woven into so much the Armenian national character by its trials that one would be hard-pressed to find any major artist, entertainer or celebrity of Armenian extraction who has no strong opinions on 1915, or has failed to vocalise them.

Even Kim Kardashian, arguably America’s most famous Armenian diasporan (and not what many would describe as a profound political thinker), has not avoided engaging with the issue, and as a result, though it may break some unwritten law of cynical cultural commentary, I’ve never had anything that bad to say about her. Admittedly, never having seen a single second of her ‘reality’ show has probably helped in that regard. But (other than offering proof the mainstream media and I have wildly different ideas about what constitutes a ‘big’ booty) the only times Kardashian has conspicuously appeared on my radar has been through her completely laudable attempts to raise awareness of the Genocide and to campaign for its recognition.

One facet of the incalculable injustice of genocide is that it stains the lives and (for lack of a better word) souls of all affected by it. There is no escaping it, or understanding it, or undoing it. The burden of the Armenian people, wherever they are, has been a struggle to find a rational, moral articulation of the Genocide’s aftereffects that allows us to transcend it, historically and emotionally. Armenian art — proof that a small nation may have a vast culture — is a way of doing that, a way of enduring and surviving, where so much of the nation and its people could not.

When I was growing up, struggling to piece together an identity from odd ends and spare parts, Armenia became the part of my heritage which offered, from the other side of the world, a counterpoint to the Celtic stew which comprised the rest of my family. Scotland, Ireland, Armenia — as my father once wryly put it, “the winners of history.” Each one forced me to consider how much I knew about those tangled national histories, how much I cared, and how Scottish, Irish or Armenian I ultimately felt.

The Armenian-American writer William Saroyan observed that “a man’s ethnic identity has more to do with personal awareness than geography.” I choose to believe that, just as I choose to feel Armenian, despite being countless miles away from a country I’ve never seen.

In much the same way, I hope, it’s a choice for Armenian artists to tackle the pain of 1915, not an obligation. Both art and Armenia should be more than death and anger, and it would be an insult to reduce them to such. Yet with that in mind, those like Tankian, Egoyan and many others who have confronted the Genocide, who have made the struggle that is its legacy a part of their lives and their art, and who have succeeded in creating something beautiful and meaningful out of something evil and pointless, have not only made a personal choice, but an immensely brave one. Long may their efforts continue.

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