Sunday, August 08, 2004

Burning Tigris: Part 1 

(I am trying out mailing my blogs to publishing, since my connection is pretty foo.)

I had the pleasure of hearing and speaking with Peter Balakian up in St. Cloud a few years ago.  He is a poet, and a professor of English who had interest both in poetry and Holocaust studies was instrumental in bringing him to campus.  His book at the time was "Black Dog of Fate", a more personal memoir of growing up as the child of diasporan Armenian parents.  There are many such books like Black Dog, but what gave it a degree of specialness was the attempt to tie his personal reflections of learning the genocide from his family to the history of the genocide itself.  Balakian has been a stalwart combatant of the denials of the genocide by historians funded by the Turkish government.  That work is reprised in an epilogue to Burning Tigris, and those unfamiliar with it should read that epilogue.  Those who've followed the Armenian question before probably will revisit old ground.

I say that in part because one of the objectives of Burning Tigris (whose subtitle is "The Armenian Genocide and America's Reponse") is to emphasize America's early role in calling attention to the "Armenian question", which was what to do about the crimes committed by the Turks dating back to the 1840s against non-Muslims in the Ottoman empire, of which Armenians had been the largest minority group.  The book opens in America with a history of the New England Protestant groups that sent missions to Ottoman Turkey.  They soon quickly turned from the Turks to the Armenians, who practiced Orthodoxy.  (The Apostolic Church, as you might guess, wasn't too pleased.)  Thus Protestant groups from America as well as from Europe were in a position to witness the genocides, and vigorous protests began in America as early as the 1890s, well before the start of "the genocide" of 1915.

Balakian is a storyteller first, and he does a great job weaving historical elements into a description of the American response to the earlier periods, focusing on the relationship between Ohannes Chautschumian and a group of Boston social reformers including Julia Ward Howe, Alice Stone Blackwell and Isabel Barrows.  Chautschumian was an Armenian priest who studied languages, eventually coming to America and studying at Harvard Divinity.  Howe and particularly Blackwell championed the cause of the Armenians in America as a result of their conversations with Chautschumian.  The story is at points personal and poignant, as Alice and Ohannes were attracted to each other personally.  (Balakian does not describe the relationship in great detail, which was rather a relief, but he does say they would have married had Ohannes lived long enough for this to happen.)  The point Balakian makes though is quite clear:
The Armenian human rights movement had homes in many cities ... but Boston seemed to be its center, and Alice Stone Blackwell, Isabel Barrows, and Julia Ward Howe were at its epicenter.  Almost every major newspaper in the United States covered the Armenian massacres with regularity, but the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Boston Transcript covered the massacres, the Friends of Armenia [an American group formed by the three --kb] and various relief projects to a greater extent than any other papers in the country.  But it was the Woman's Journal, the organ of the American Woman Suffrage Association ... that would cover the Armenian crisis in greater depth and with a more activist perspective than all the rest.  (p. 94)
The Armenian plight was for these women tied up with women's rights, and certainly with Armenian families -- where the leader of the home is always the eldest female, the mayrig -- the two causes found common ground. 

It is a fascinating point that he makes here, that one of the first international human rights movements of the US was the Armenian question.  It therefore comes as a great mystery why, when the Young Turks committed their greater genocide in 1915, the Americans and Europe did not react more forcefully.  It is this which the book promises to get to next, and where I'll pick up next time.