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Critical Analysis, Straight, No Chaser

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 5, 2003

    Below you will find reviews of two personal memoirs of young
    second generation Armenian Americans who are born in the US and
    see their Armenian heritage from a distinctly American point of
    view. One of these stories is based in Fresno, CA and the other in
    suburban Northern New Jersey. They have much to tell us about the
    Armenian American scene of the last forty or so years.

By Bedros Afeyan


"In My Father's Name" by Mark Arax
Publisher: Pocket Books (August 1997) 400 pages
ISBN: 0671010026 

Mark Arax has written a superb novel chronicling his zealous search
for the identity of the men who gunned down his father in his own bar
in Fresno back in 1972 when Mark was 15. The gripping story takes us
from Fresno to LA to NY to Mexico and Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire,
1915, the Armenian Genoicde, San Francisco, and back to Fresno to
circle around the little city of corruption and crime, related to the
pernicious drug trade.  We also visit Armenia, a nation of people
erased from its ancestral homeland, submitted to genocide by the Turks
and dispersed in this American century, arriving to America which
promised freedom and opportunity, which also delivered new strife,
leading to new crises.

This epic saga tells of three generations of Arax family members
overcoming impossible odds to finally make a decent home for
themselves in Fresno, only to have it shattered by a cold blooded
murder on a Sunday evening in a shady bar just before Mark's dad was
to have made a public announcement, naming names, letting the public
know the dirt on what went on in city hall and at police headquarters.
He was executed Mafia style with a son left in its wake holding on to
a bag of questions and a burning desire to get some nourishment from
the answers.

And yet, this state of being saddled with a sack of unanswered
questions is endemic to the Armenian existence in all its Diaspora.
The resonances between Mark Arax's intellectual saga and that of every
post-genocide Armenian are loud and clear.  Why were over a million of
their forefathers so brutally and systematically slaughtered like
cattle at the turn of the last century?  Why was the life of every
Armenian in the Ottoman Empire so cheap and worthless?  What had
Armenians done to deserve the racist wrath of Turks, Kurds and other
nomadic bands of brigands in the Anatolian plain, which is the
ancestral homeland of that ancient people, the Armenians?  Why do
Turks today resist the truth and at all cost refuse to admit what is
so plainly true?  Why the active and brutal denial and ruthless
historical revisionism?  How are dignity and justice to be restored
when civilized nations even place economic or strategic considerations
before the demands of historical truths and justice?  How can
democracies and free nations join hands and become accomplices in the
Turkish lie that nothing untoward happened in 1915, it was just war,
things like that happen all the time, Armenians gave as much as they
took (if not more) and so let bygones be bygones...?

Mark Arax would not stop asking his additional haunting questions
either.  His father was murdered.  The police never even tried to
solve the case.  Mark would do his damnedest to get to the bottom of
it himself, and he would do it at any cost.  Mark Arax was rewarded
for his quixotic aspirations by much more than he could have imagined.
While some of the minutest details of his father's murder are still
unresolved, what Mark discovered was more precious and more lasting
than the particulars of a case of a Fresno drug mob and city hall --
about to be exposed -- hit.  Mark Arax found the true identity of his
people, the Armenians in the Central Californian Diaspora, and their
struggle to preserve their traditions and rich heritage.  Through all
this, Mark guided himself to become a gifted professional journalist,
a responsible father and husband. and a conscientious citizen. The
long and persistent journey that he took makes for a great read.  The
story is compelling and gripping since it is filled with the authentic
human drama which spans three generations.  His is not a murder
mystery with bought off politicians all the way to Sacramento, with
its rich source of drugs supplied from Mexico.  No, that is only part
of the story.  His is not the chronicling of how the Hell's Angels
distributed marijuana to all points north and south in the 60s and
70s, with the marijuana being air-dropped into the vineyards of
Fresno.  No, that is only part of the story.  His is not the story of
a "crazy" grandfather who was a businessman who held fond attachment
to communist ideology, who had big dreams and bombastic demeanor and
yet failed as many times as not in all his business ventures.  His
uncles, great uncles and his own struggle with American or Armenian
identity all mix in to produce a unique story of love and redemption.
Here we have a boy who has to be the rudder in a cracked up society, a
disintegrating yet ever expanding town and a broken home.  What Mark
Arax achieves with his own life is a courageous feat.  To defeat the
forces of decadence that took his father away by rejecting that
underworld and that easier life.  Instead, he chose to enter the ranks
of the successful the hard way, by dedication, talent, sweat and toil.

Ironically, Mark might very well have ended up a two bit hood himself
and a cheap hustler hanging around his dad's bar or the golf club,
dealing, racketeering and begging for trouble.  Instead, his father's
loss jolted him into a state of permanent revulsion at that seedy
world he was just beginning to get comfortable in at the age of 15.
By correctly identifying it as the prime seducer who claimed his
father, Mark avoided that scene and kept it away from his family.
Instead, by finding his deepest roots, he has been able to set some of
his own.  Let us hope that his tree flourishes under that hot central
California sun and that his children know their dad for the American
hero on the pages of "In My Father's Name," that he surely is.  Read
for yourself and see!

			    *  *  *  *  *


"Black Dog of Fate" by Peter Balakian
Publisher: Broadway Books
Reprint edition (June 1998) - 304 pages
ISBN: 0767902548 

Peter Balakian's book, "Black Dog of Fate," tries to be too many
things and falls short of the mark at many of them. In essence, it is
an attempt to tell a sort of Armenian-American story starting in the
latter half of the last century. But it amount to one that is not
overly interesting or compelling. I find the Armenianness in this book
to be tentative, unengaged and unconvincing. Pity, since the author
has a lot of passion in his pursuit of other aspects of his life such
as football, the Yankees, modern poetry, and exposing Turkish attempts
to buy, among others, Princeton history professors to act as
mouthpieces giving legitimacy to their vile historical revisionism, as
practiced by the "modern" Turkish state and its organs.

It seems to be all the rage these days to elevate personal histories
and family testimonials into the realm of fiction and novels. The "I"
and "we" and "us" occupy center stage and the reader is invited to
enjoy the intimacy that must surely be in place via this artifice. But
is it really? Since in order to make this legitimate, the writer must
distance himself, at least initially, from all this hazy old world
exotica, and like the reader, question their validity or relevance in
present day North American society. "What are all these old world,
old-fashioned ghosts and traditions?" is the first cry of writer and
reader alike, only, of course, to be followed by a sharp bank turn
where the writer steers the satisfied and in-place reader towards the
opposite viewpoint wherein this culture and this lifestyle become
suspect in light of some tentative spotting of old world cultural
wealth that has been traded in or abandoned in order to swim swiftly
towards materialistic, memory-free, self-redefining, "comfort" seeking
and buying mores.

In the Balakian tale, one encounters suburbia instead of substance,
worldly goods acquisition instead of deep roots that steady the soul,
immediate family and relatives running away from their true identities
either towards surrealism, the abstract and unemotional, or else
towards medicine, respectability and detachment. Young Balakian
observes but never understands "the grandmother" for she is shielded
culturally from being able to reach him by her very offspring who can
not and will not instill the Armenian identity he will eventually seek
but never quite find. Their crime is self-denial and a march to the
tune of America's mixmaster piper. "Be unlike your past and your
future will be brighter," seems to be what America promises, at the
very least. The intermediate generation listens and adopts this credo
and Peter is left to find out but never quite understand just what
cost his ancestors have paid to remain Armenian and to preserve our
culture before the final denials on New Jersey patios while enjoying,
as if to serve sweet irony, full course Armenian meals and the mixing
aromas of delicacies from the old country every Sunday.

Peter is lost all right. But as the book sadly shows, he remains lost.
Paraphrasing or quoting Ambassador Morgenthau does not an Armenian
genocide expert make. Personal family testimonials of the Turkish
atrocities does not a genocide history make (For that, read Vahakn
Dadrian's "The History of the Armenian Genocide" Berghahn Books,
1995). Episodic accounts can be dismissed by the Turks as hearsay and
as mere isolated incidents, leading to more harm than good (for if
better evidence existed, the argument goes, why would anyone resort to
such flimsy fare?). For the story to have worked, for the story to
have really worked, Balakian's life and lifestyle would have had to
have changed significantly and his child rearing practices would have
had to reflect it. If the transformation were real, it would have
affected his relationship with his wife who, like him, is not leading
a strongly Armenian existence. It would have changed, solidifying his
roots, celebrating his new found identity, and nurturing the
metamorphosis by sustained community involvement and grass roots
movement participation which, alas, never appear on the pages of this
book. How else can one explain the absence of a stemming of the tide
of assimilation to which Balakian is a grand personal witness, except
that the transition has not occurred?

The ship of Armenianness has sailed by Balakian. He is finally aware
enough to be able to identify the ship and wave it goodbye and write
about it, but not resolved enough to climb aboard. That is how the
story disappoints and the lack of self consciousness vis a vis this
fate harms the potency of the book. This is a story of assimilation
and loss with a bit of midstream proto-self-awareness thrown in. For a
real story of a contemporary Armenian American finding his roots and
letting them take root in his own life and future, read Mark Arax's
book, "In my Father's Name (Simon & Schuster, 1996)," where the
transition is real and the early youth of disaffection is replaced by
a profound adoption of our essence revealed in exquisite frankness and
power by Mark Arax. One can only hope that Balakian's partial
reorientation towards our culture and traditions and essence will
somehow continue and that some day he will wish to live with a more
meaningful attachment to our cause and needs than merely as an able
observer (not withstanding his laudable actions as an April 24th --
Armenian genocide commemoration speaker and an exposer of Turkish
infiltration of the US academic arena by buying spokesmen turned
professors who masquerade as unbiased researchers). This criticism I
direct to the predecessor of this genre of American Armenian writing
first and to Balakian second. I speak here of "passage to Ararat" by
Michael Arlen (Hungry Mind republication, 1996) where a disinterested
soit-disant Armenian goes to Armenia in the 70's and by the end of the
short trip is somewhat more closely touched by this strange people's
woes and dreams. Too little, too late, and always detached, is all I
can say to these meager displays of ethnic or cultural reorientation.
Much more needs to be absorbed before the essence is transmitted to
future generations to take and behold.

However, I remain hopeful that Armenian transformatory stories and
ethnic identity survival stories of the future will be written which
will show that the tide of assimilation and cultural abandonment are
not the only outcome of this experiment of transplanting peoples and
cultures to this continent we proudly call our home. A sadder reality
could be that many more attempts will surface to glorify whatever
hybrid out of focus melding of Armenian and local mores as have
occurred, hoping to pass themselves off as authentic and laudable. One
is always faced with the choice of doing the hard work of rising to
the occasion or planting a flag wherever one happens to be and
declaring victory. May our high peak climbers (such as Mark Arax)
shine through in print and in our consciousness and not just the
masters of valleys of convenience and irreversible deterioration and
compromise which will see us reduced to stuffed vegetable eating and
folk dance admiring consumers and nothing more.

Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on his personal web pages at:

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