In the early 1970s I went to eastern Turkey on an assignment to photograph historic Armenian sites, particularly the historic Armenian church of Aghtamar, situated on a small island in Lake Van. The ruins were what remained of the 10th century Church of the Holy Cross and had been the seat of an Armenian Apostolic Catholicate between 1116-1895.
I traveled to Turkey from Beirut with my Armenian-British-Lebanese girlfriend — I’ll call her Leila — not just because Leila was a wonderful traveling companion, but also because she, like so many inhabitants of The Levant, was multi-lingual. In addition to the common three languages — Arabic, French, English — spoken by many Lebanese Leila spoke Turkish, Armenian and Kurdish and she wanted to visit her mother’s ancestral homeland as well accompany me as companion and translator.
We had to be careful: We couldn’t admit we were there to photograph Armenian sites or that Leila spoke Armenian. The closest thing we could admit to was that her mother was Turkish and that we were stopping in Van en route to visiting Mount Ararat, favored by biblical literalists as the legendary location where Noah’s Ark beached when The Flood receded.
We spent a few days around Aghtamar, occasionally with a local guide who repeatedly claimed that all the sites we were visiting were Turkish, ate lots of kebabs, and bought whole watermelons that we consumed for water content because the local water was so unsafe. Armenia never came up. Armenia never came up in spite of the fact we were walking, dining and sleeping amidst ruins, tiptoeing through sacred spaces that just decades before witnessed genocide.
Friday, April 24, 2015, was the 100th anniversary of the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, a genocide where 1.5 million Armenians were killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee Turkey as refugees.
“I would like to see the power of the world destroy this race, this small group of minor people, whose wars have been fought and lost, whose buildings have fallen, reading is not read, music is not listened to, and prayers are not answered,” William Saroyan wrote. “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Because when two of them meet anywhere in the world, you will see that they will create a new Armenia,”
Many of those refugees created new Armenias in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where Leila lived, and later in places like Los Angeles and Watertown Mass., which I occasionally visit to buy Armenian delicacies like lahmajoun , often called Armenian pizza.
Today, as I write, I’ve been home for just a few hours, freshly returned from a trip to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — a combination of work and pleasure — where nightly when I returned to my hotel and turned on the TV – and each morning when I awakened – I’d find the screen filled with images of fighting in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Ukraine.
I remembered, too, as I watched Saudi TV, that in 1975, 40 years ago this month, a bus carrying Palestinian refugees passed through Ain el-Ramaneh, near Beirut, and was attacked by Lebanese Phalangists, killing all passengers. While there’re differing sectarian versions of what preceded the slaughter there’s broad consensus that Ain el-Ramaneh was Lebanon’s point of no return, the point from which civil war erupted, violently consuming more than 125,000 Lebanese.
Although I had covered other conflicts the Lebanese Civil War was personal: It was my father’s birthplace and it was where I believed I was going to spend the rest of my life — and I didn’t want that life to be a short one! At one particularly ugly point early in the civil war, I remember, when the Lebanese Christian Kataeb were on a rampage, militiamen manning a checkpoint would hold up a tomato and ask the driver and passengers to identify the fruit.
If they answered “bun-a-dura” they were presumed Lebanese and allowed to pass. If they answered “bun-dura” they were presumed Palestinian and often shot on the spot.
Journalists working the war often had laissez-passers, IDs, issued by various warring factions — and we collected as many different ones as we could. We approached checkpoints very slowly, hoping to discern in advance who we were approaching — Druze? Syrian? Sunni? Palestinian? Christian? Muslim? — so we could display the correct ID and pass through without incident.
Privileged, we never had to identify the tomato. Privileged, I was rescued from the Lebanese Civil War by being awarded a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard University, where I took shelter in academia, played squash and ate well.
These days, most mornings, whether in Exeter or Jeddah, as I have za’atar , a mixture of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds, with olive oil on Arabic bread, tomatoes, which I pronounce “bun a dura,” and cucumbers for breakfast, followed by strong coffee flavored with cardamom, I often don’t turn on news of war, famine and exploitation until I finish eating.
Because if I watch as I eat I feel guilty. My solution, therefore, is simple: not watch until after I’m comfortably sated. Although my breakfast is simple and common it is privileged as long as for others it’s unattainable. Out of privilege I can choose to act or ignore. Out of privilege I can choose to fast for a day or for all of Ramadan. Out of privilege I can turn the TV off.
In the Episcopal calendar April 24 is Genocide Remembrance Day when the church calls to “Defend and protect those who fall victim to the forces of evil, and as we remember this day those who endured depredation and death because of who they were…”
“… those who fall victim to the forces of evil…”
So many to defend, so many without privilege. For them, for each other, we are accountable.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.