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The Critical Corner - 09/06/2004

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51 pages, ISBN: 0-920266-32-0

87 pages, ISBN: 0-920266-28-2
Blue Heron Press
Kingston, Ontario, CA, 2004

    The Armenian Genocide As a Fruitful Setting for Theater,
    a Mirror into the Psyche of Diasporan Armenians, and Many
    Other Ponderous Questions Besides.

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 6, 2004

by Bedros Afeyan

    (Dedicated to the memory of my mother, Anaiis Afeyan, a daughter
    of Urfa, who sacrificed, suffered and shared her courage and love

It is often asserted that the Armenian genocide of 1915 itself, its
mechanics, the Ottoman Turkish ruthlessness, premeditation,
dehumanization, barbarism, callousness and inhumanity, just can not be
turned into art. Art, no matter how gruesome the subject, still
manages to elevate, cleanse and dignify whatever it touches, if for no
other reason than by its conventions. An Art Piece, in part,
compresses time, neatly connects and codifies, reaches for archetypes,
sharpens edges, flattens inconsistencies, stresses and repeats a
particular set of points of view and thus makes something less
horrendous than reality itself has witnessed. No matter how many jews
you strap, like sardines, onto the inside of a make shift train cart,
shaking, defecating and urinating on each other in the dark as they
are led to a concentration camp over a number of days, no matter how
bad the portrayal gets, it can not begin to resemble the actual
unfolding of events in 1942 in Germany or Poland. The overabundance of
horrors can not be captured in a carefully crafted sequence of
fleeting moments or by some well chosen words, movements, colors or
scents. It will be toned down and risk being a white wash. So how to
do the Turkish atrocities justice? How to bring them into perspective?
How can a bedroom, a dining room or a living room conversation or two
portray the sustained horror of the Ottoman mass murders or its
lasting crippling effect on surviving Armenians dished out in daily
doses of denial and historical revisionism which is a masterfully
played game of passion for the unrepentantly militarist, religiously
fanatical and racists elements of the "modern," "secular," "European,"
"democratic" Turkish state and its representatives?

It is easy to say it can not be done, since it can not be done easily.
Certainly, one must set one's scope quite narrowly, lest one be
accused of merely preaching or howling into the darkness of historical
injustices where many dormant ghosts jockey for position. Armenians
are and always will be more concerned with the calamitous fate of
millions of their countrymen ninety years or so ago than any one else.
This is as it should be. But complete denial and the suppression of
nationally sanctioned limitless violence and ethnic cleansing should
concern all nations and all peoples of the world. Armenians should not
expect the world to deliver justice on a silver platter to the
survivors and their progeny and return our land to us as well as our
dignity. No, it is up to us to do all that with the help of the
enlightened countries of the world which do not place political
expediency before their morals and ethical compass, nations that do
not make bed fellows with unrepentant murderous regimes and their
glorifiers, and call them honorable and modern, good allies and
friends, when every indication is that none of these titles is or ever
has been earned.

So what is a playwright to do? A diasporan playwright sees the
Armenian communities sway and swing towards the accommodation of this
or that extreme, be it nationalism or assimilation. The schools and
churches attract some number of followers, especially the newly
immigrated, but traditions seem to get vetted, ablated away or merged,
replaced by local color and comfort. Median ages of the participants
in regular events rise, the youth, by and large, stay away. What we
are left with is calcification, lack of rejuvenation, intransigence on
the part of the crowd which has bought the message with fewer and
fewer members added to their ranks. The crisis becomes more and more
acute as poor immigrants find status and affluence, the spiral does
not follow an Escher path. The stairs only spiral downward. The
community relations degrade and further compromise occurs so that at
the end, you have an "ian" decapitated Papaz or Aznavour, a Hadison or
a Gary where a Heditsian or a Garabedian would have been more
authentic. But what's in a name? Armenians come and go speaking of Der
Zor and Aleppo... Never mind its 2004 and North America is our
home... Der Zor and Aleppo, Khor Virab and Mamigonians carry the glow
of identity. Unless modern, current, thriving elements of our
communities take center stage in our own literature and creative arts,
even preserving traditions and memories will become difficult. It is
the continuity or development of a story line tying us comfortably to
our past that may carry sufficient appeal to inspire the young and
curious to join our plight and render our goals reachable. This does
not mean ignore the assimilation or dilution of our culture but the
realistic and persistent depiction of things as they are and as they
should be, as opposed to how they were in some idealized and
exaggerated way, implying that the present is less interesting and
less valid and perhaps even a bit shameful. Here then are some of the
elements a diasporan Armenian playwright carries on his shoulders as
he approaches his keyboard and looks at the flickering curser on his
confessional's screen. Besides all this, and especially when the
writing is to be in non-Armenian, and therefore in part be for a
foreign audience, the story of the genocide has to be told from
scratch since nothing is known about it, in contrast to the Jewish
holocaust. We can not tell our Schindler's List stories since we still
do not have the factual background exposition of a Shoah on which to
base or build the "art."

Canadian Armenian author Lorne Shirinian, via his Blue Heron Press,
has just published a full length play entitled "Exile in the Cradle"
and two one acts entitled, "This Dark Thing" and "Red Threads on White
Cloth." These three plays take different stabs at the issues sketched
above and create a lively platform for discussion and exposition in
stylized and well controlled tones and colors. The effort is yet
another small step towards the dissemination of some of the facts
surrounding the genocide that had precursor tremors in the last few
decades of the 19th century and which culminated in the 1915-1924
whole sale deportation and murder of a million and a half innocent
Armenian souls guilty of not being muslims, guilty of not being
willing to give up their identity and become Turks, guilty of being
successful more often than not and being ambitious and hard driven,
not accepting a second class citizen role there to service their
conquering Turkish overlords. No one should have to die due to their
pursuit of a better life and yet this did happen to Armenians at the
hands of the Turks, The story has to be told and told correctly and
widely and well. Stabs in this direction are increasing. Ararat from
Egoyan was another great Canadian Armenian effort towards these
goals. Shirinian has now given us three more.

The first is an ambitious pastiche of scenes that begin with a train
ride on April 25, 1915. and culminate with a present day poet, with an
assimilating sister, living in Toronto, fighting to preserve her
allegiance to the history of her ancestors via her writing, as well as
coping with failed loves, children, grand children and modern problems
we all face today. Her past and her present mesh or jar depending on
circumstances she does not entirely control. She questions, yet
believes, she doubts yet she perseveres. She is a poet and so is one
of the two Armenian deportees on the train on April 25, 1915 (the
other is a business man, confidant and "in" with the Turkish ruling
classes so what could go wrong?). This makes the tale easier to tell
for a poet like Shirinian and less troublesome in terms of finding
people who can articulate their feelings and thoughts and artfully, at
that. Even the identity-escaping or -denying sister is a sculptor
while the x-lover runs a museum. The point is, this is a layer of
society that is far from the ghetto, far from the smoke filled club
house where the crashing pieces of a large number of backgammon sets
make for a curious sort of rhythmic dares with the roll of tiny dice
and puckered lip coffee sips as the quieter notes in between. Taunts,
clashes, insults to village or last name, generalized macho stances
from survivors of unspeakable horrors. No, this is not what Shirinian
knows about nor can reach in his stage world.

Instead, you have dignified, well reasoned, compressed modes of
theatrical expression, anglo-saxon in its sensibilities, if anything
at all. A short depiction of a rape or a sequence of nightly rapes in
1915, suicides, murders, deprivations, and yes, the next poetry book
that will appear which will explain it all, but we were so good in the
past together, and is this new assistant of yours your new lover, and
so on. This is the tone. The cup never runneth over. The Turkish
officials on the deportation train are vicious but this is the first
day! Even they can not do much yet to set the tone of what is really
to come in the years ahead.

The family conflicts and the juxtaposition of generations, the artists
and their identities, all make for a wider palette than the
church/club house scene, perhaps, but it is hard to see the passion
and drive behind the piece. It is very well measured and restrained so
anyone will be able to sit through it. Whether they walk out with
sympathy towards the Armenian cause or any significant added knowledge
about our specific case and saga, that is harder to gauge. This is why
one can applaud the effort as yet another step towards the bridging of
the gap of knowledge and consciousness that we would like to see our
cause receive. For Armenians in the audience, resonances and tender
moments are aplenty. The mirror is not obscured by the usual fog of
biased exaggerations and self-deceiving assertions.

The two one acts are braver and more condensed in form and scope. The
first is allegorical. It may be thought that it has nothing to do with
Armenians or their historical plight. And yet it does. In the very
narrow sense, This Dark Thing depicts the reversed roles victims and
victimizers sometimes play. You made me do it, you were asking for it,
I never meant to hurt you, this is what you get for acting that way,
and the themes of jealousy, envy, sudden failure when one's self image
still insists that you are leading, feared and dominant. Violence can
come from such sources and untold violence at that. But this theory is
a weak and simplistic psychoanalysis while the genocide has deeper
geopolitical and racial overtones which two body interactions can not
capture. This play is an experiment by way of an allegorical
telegraphic vignette, if for no other reason than to prove that a
calamity as wide as the Armenian genocide has parallels and resonances
in all sorts of human interactions and is not monolithic in its scope
or direction.

The second one act, Red Threads on White Cloth is more of a 20 page
performance piece where GENOCIDE is spelled out after some
testimonials and declarations. It is a spectacle more along the lines
of something that could be staged at an April 24 commemoration of the
genocide as part of the ritualization required at such memorial
events. It can have its place in the canon of what Armenians need to
say and do to remember, to understand, to heal and to move forward
with constructive and purposeful moves towards the resolution of our
geopolitical, social, and cultural problems in Armenia and in the vast
diaspora that is the home for the majority of Armenians.

Many more plays will have to be written on these very same themes. The
ghetto and the library, the newsroom and the bedroom will all have to
be subject to spotlights speaking of our evolution and transformation,
our metamorphosis and degeneration towards hyphenated identities that
should enhance possibilities and expand our horizons but never be
allowed to make us forget who we are, where we come from, and what we
have to offer to the world as a culture and our essence which is
uniquely our own. Tolerance, acceptance of the other and constructive
competition can elevate us as a people. Narrow mindedness, myopia,
festering insecurities and inertia could be the end of us yet. Egoyan,
Shirinian, Kalinoski, Balakian, Arax, Berberian and many others are
the contemporary torch bearers of the path that is ours to take and to
persevere until one day, neighbor with neighbor, disparate culture
with disparate culture, we will celebrate humanity in its diversity
and subtle glory, as opposed to being filled with fear from that
difference, succumbing to the urge to crush that other, and in so
doing darkening our own souls and causing endless agony to the
innocent nonviolent cultured minorities on whom we will have stomped

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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