Why did you feel compelled to write this book?
Ever since I can remember, my mother has been telling me about what happened to her father. Still, the story was relayed in fragments, and I couldn’t grasp how extraordinary it was until I could finally read it for myself as an adult. (This was thanks to a relative who translated his account, which was published in the sixties by a small press, from Armenian into English.) After reading it, I couldn’t believe that he survived, and the ripple effect that my entire family was alive. My grandfather Stepan believed he lived in order to tell the world what happened, and shared his ordeal with my mother throughout her childhood. She then passed it onto me. This is our family’s heirloom. Other people inherit fine china. I inherited this story, along with it the responsibility of retelling it.
Would you have survived this?
I ask myself this all the time. At each turn, what would I have done when faced with the same near-impossible odds? Would I have made the same decisions as my grandfather? Or would I have given up? My grandfather did everything to reunite with his family again, transforming himself constantly, and pushing his own physical and emotional limits. He was level-headed, and always tried to plot his next step, escaping from one of the worst killing fields of the genocide. He donned the uniform of a Turkish soldier, dressed like Lawrence of Arabia, and became part of a clan to escape the Turkish gendarmes who were trying to kill him. He learned Arabic. Later in the war, he became a translator to a German officer later, using his basic French. This was a man who only had a third grade education, but the survival skills he picked up as a child after his father died helped him to persevere. He was also a kind man, which ingratiated strangers to assist him. And, of course, there’s the luck factor; he was extremely fortunate, too, to have been able to escape so many times when others didn’t have that opportunity.
But if I am honest with myself, I know I’m not as clever or as strong as him. I have long ago decided that I wouldn’t have lived.
How did you discover more of his journals?
I had just moved back to Los Angeles from New York and was quickly finding out how difficult it was to report on this subject. I had the journals from the small press, but they only told part of the story. Of course, this is a genocide and most people didn’t survive, and even if they did, it’s a century later. Almost everyone involved was long gone. Suddenly, I was living at home at age 35, and feeling like a complete loser. My mother and I had a huge fight about me quitting. She didn’t want me to stop. Just to be flippant and to state the impossible, I blurted out: “I cannot help you unless you raise your father from the dead, and have him tell me what happened to him.” Two days later, my mother found two of his notebooks. After that, my uncle searched his garage and unearthed two more. After finding those, I felt almost as if I had a mandate to complete this project.
How did you fill in the blanks from your grandfather’s journals?
The book is really a tapestry of many experiences. While my grandfather’s story is the main arc, I reconstructed the world around him through thousands of pages of research documents. Luckily, my grandfather was extremely detail-oriented and had an elephant-like memory, and wrote down the names of the villages he was pushed through on his death march, and the full names of people he encountered. Most of the people were from his town of Adabazar (now called Adapazari), which is not surprising. Many of the deportees grouped together by hometown in the camps. The caravans were also often emptied—slaughtered— by calling out the names of the towns.
I felt like an amateur detective, looking for any information about these people. I went through oral histories, and every single memoir that I could find written by his fellow villagers. I searched newspaper articles from the time period, almanacs, immigration records, and compatriot books that survivors wrote. I advertised in Armenian newspapers– much like Armenians did after the genocide, as they tried to locate lost family members. The same search is happening today, with the refugee crisis, as families are being separated from one another due to the war and mass exodus.
I scoured libraries in five countries, and Googled a lot! I found one family in Canada, one in Virginia and another in the Seattle area. But one of my biggest finds was the writings of one man who survived the same massacre as my grandfather. After years of research, I finally found his account in Armenia and Romania, where he’d moved following the war. The articles were published in 1924 and 1940. When I found this, I cried. I just knew that if I looked long enough, I’d find it. He described the same massacre as as my grandfather, and dated it within a day of my grandfather’s account. It’s moments like this that I am dumbfounded that these atrocities are still denied. The eyewitnesses may be gone, but they left a paper trail.
Why did you write about your experience in the book?
I didn’t set out to do this. I just wanted to see the land that my grandfather walked, which is now modern-day Turkey and Syria. The harsh terrain was also a prison for my grandfather and the other Armenians, and I believed I needed to see it in order to write accurately about it. But then, unexpectedly, I found the descendants of the Arab sheikh who saved my grandfather’s life in Syria. I wanted to find this man’s family but didn’t think I would. When I did, I realized that I became part of the story. The sheikh was Muslim and accepted my Christian grandfather for who he was, regardless of his ethnicity or religion, and treated him like a son. The sheikh’s descendants welcomed me in the same manner, like a long lost daughter, with some three hundred people greeting me at my arrival to the village. They were as beautiful as the sheikh. Finding them was one of the transcendental moments of my life. There I was, half way around the world, and I found the clan that was my grandfather’s extended family.
I think in this pitched climate of religious enmity, of Muslims versus Christians, the message of the sheikh is a powerful one. Just one person’s act of kindness can transform a family for generations.
What were the dangers in writing this book?
I visited President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria before the civil war. He ruled with a firm hand, as we all know. The secret police followed me and harassed me. They would do that for every foreigner and part of the challenge was to figure out whether it was routine or not. Mine was not routine, and the questioning continued until I left the country. I had heard they thought I was a spy for Israel. And it just so happened that I left just before Israel bombed Syria in September 2007, not far from where I had been traveling, reportedly to take out a secret nuclear reactor site. After I left, intelligence agents really harassed everyone that I spent time with. I was originally supposed to fly out after the date of the bombing, but had become so spooked by the police tail that I changed my flight and left earlier. I’m very grateful that I changed my itinerary, and don’t know what would have happened had I stayed.
The town of Raqqa is written about in your book. Is this the same Raqqa that’s now headquarters for the Islamic State?
Yes. Ironically, Raqqa was an incredible place for me. I visited twice before the war, first during the retracing of my grandfather’s steps, and then two years later. I was welcomed unequivocally. I even stayed overnight at a local tribal leader’s house, who hosted a dinner party for me on the Euphrates River, with musicians serenading our table under the stars, the long table laden with food, with conversation with people of different faiths. Clearly the town has changed: Now it’s the international symbol of hate and intolerance.
During the genocide, Raqqa was one of the few safe havens for Armenians, and after the genocide, many settled there, building churches and schools, and growing close with the local population. While it was a poor town, the people were extremely friendly and proud of what they had and were unified, regardless of religion. Later, I read that ISIS turned the Armenian church into a recruitment center for jihadists. And in nearby Deir Zor, fighters blew up the memorial to the Armenian genocide victims, which I visited twice, and wrote about in the book.
Many of the people I spoke with in this area knew about the tragic history of the Armenians. Not ever imagining that in just a few short years many would be facing their own survival as the area descended into war.
Is it true certain factors made it almost impossible to publish this book?
My grandfather barely lived to tell his story. I always felt that I didn’t have the credentials to write about survival. What did I know being brought up as a middle class American in the Hollywood area? Then while writing the book I found myself unexpectedly facing my own survival, when I became critically ill. I had many complications and had to fight my way back to health again. But I was driven: I had to complete this book, and understood on a different level what my grandfather faced, when one’s body is taxed to its limit.
How did the genocide affect your family?
It affected them in every way. My family is scattered around the globe in France, Turkey and the United States. They left Turkey, just like the refugees are fleeing the Middle East today. I used to think this was a little bit fancy to have cousins in France, but after learning more about my family history I find it heartbreaking, of separating from those you love, losing your life’s possessions and livelihood, and starting out in a new country without the language. My grandfather could never get over that he survived, while so many others did not. He spoke about it every day to my mother, who in turned spoke to me. There’s something called transgenerational trauma and I definitely believe it was passed down to my mother’s generation. My grandfather would repeatedly tell my mother, “I’m going to die next year.” He’d say that all the time to her, not ever believing that he’d escaped his death sentence. How can that not affect a person? She grew up worried all the time that she was going to lose her father.
What was being in Turkey like?
I was very nervous going there, after growing up with stories of knife-wielding Turks. In 2007, just before I visited, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist was assassinated for speaking out about the genocide, and the government was prosecuting those who took up the issue. But I experienced real kindness from many people. And while I was infuriated by conversations with people who denied it happened, I had to remind myself that there are many good people who have been been taught a warped history. This is a state-sponsored denial. Children learn in their history books that the Armenians were the agitators, that they had sided with the enemy during a time of war, and their deaths were a consequence of that. It doesn’t mean that these individuals are bad people, which I think is a frequent assumption. The Turks today aren’t the ones who perpetrated the genocide. For many of the people, it’s about education. We need to educate the future generations of Turks about what happened in a way that acknowledges the atrocities and allows the healing to begin. Of course, individuals also bear responsibility in this information age to educate themselves and question the history that they’ve been spoon-fed.
Why does it matter that Turkey still denies this?
History keeps repeating itself. We are seeing nearly identical images of persecution coming from the area where my grandfather suffered a century earlier. We are seeing the death convoys, the violation of women, the mass executions. It’s important to learn more about the forces that cause a genocide, and how to prevent it from happening again. After it happens, accountability is crucial. Perpetrators need to be adjudicated in criminal courts. For the Armenians, this has never really happened. On top of that, the modern state of Turkey campaigns against recognition. The Armenians can’t heal until their suffering has been acknowledged. Every time someone says it didn’t happen, the trauma is reopened. I think Pope Francis described it best when he said recently on the 100th anniversary of the killings, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
Any funny experiences during your research?
One time I thought I’d found the long lost daughter of an individual named in my grandfather’s journals. I had become obsessed with finding this man, and had already been searching for several years. This man had escaped from the same massacre as my grandfather, and later died in the Soviet Gulags in Siberia. I just believed deep down that he would have written about his experience. I received word about this “daughter” and raced to the Armenian old folks home where she lived, and the woman was wheeled in. “This is it,” I thought. I was feverishly writing down everything she said, but as I probed, I discovered that though she shared the same last name, and was from Romania, where this particular man fled after the war, the sweet lady had no relation to the man I was looking for, but was very interested in chatting for the rest of the afternoon! It was a nice encounter, just not the one I was anticipating.