'Putting An Earring In My Ear' On The Anniversary Of The Armenian Genocide
It's been just over a century since the Ottoman Empire began to systematically kill what would eventually be 1.5 million Armenians. Waves of refugees immigrated to the Bay Area, fleeing the killings. Today, tens of thousands of people of Armenian descent live here. To this day, The Turkish government continues to deny that the genocide happened, and the U.S. government refused to recognize it as well — until this year.
(Updated on April 29, 2021.)
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Grace Andonian shows me around KZV Armenian school in San Francisco. We come across an art project of Armenian sayings along with illustrations by students.
“So, for example: Hair started growing on my tongue, which means I have been repeating this over and over and over again,” says Andonian.
I’m half Armenian and I went to elementary school in San Francisco, but I didn’t go to this one.
“Another one is: Put an earring on your ear — means keep it in your mind. Remember it.”
To me, these two idioms perfectly describe what it can be like to be an Armenian American and talk about the Armenian genocide. It is so important to remember and to commemorate it, but at the same time, it can dominate the conversation. When we talk about ourselves to the world this is what we talk about.
Stories about the genocide follow a script — and they always sound something like this:
“We have come to the desert in northern Syria to look for evidence of a mass murder…”
“...the Armenian genocide began under the cover of World War II. By 1923, 1.5 million Armenians were dead…”
“...to this day Turkey denies the genocidal intent of these murders.”
These are from three separate documentaries, but they could have been the same one.
But, I want to try and tell my own story. A story not about what I know, but about how I feel. I want to understand how I feel today about something that happened 100 years ago to my ancestors.
How do I talk about this?
My grandfather was born in Erzurum, a city that’s now in eastern Turkey. When the genocide started, his family was marched out of town towards Syria. He watched his father be beheaded and then was forced to walk in circles in the desert where his baby sister died because their mother couldn’t nurse her. Somehow, he escaped westward and in the 1920s brought his family to San Francisco where he set up a grocery shop on Mission street.
I remember when I first heard about the details of what happened to my grandfather. I was a kid a few years younger than my grandfather probably was when he fled. The next day I went on the playground and told other kids that my grandfather had watched his father be murdered in front of him. And then I felt instantly guilty about it. Because I was boasting. I suppose it was my way of processing it. It’s that tug both ways: I want to remember, but how do I talk about this? As a child, I struggled with that. And I still do now.
As if history hasn’t already decided
Many Armenian Americans feel the issue will remain unresolved until Turkey recognizes what their ancestors did to ours. But do I need that acknowledgment? Maybe if I hear that denial, it will strike a nerve.
“I don’t know anything about it, but I want to know the truth. I think we should leave it up to the historians. Let history decide.”
That’s from an online video by a Turkish group called “Let History Decide.” Their message is that historians should look at the facts and decide whether it was a genocide or not — as if that hasn’t been happening for decades.
“Let history decide.”
They show the faces of people from around the world who all repeat the same phrase, “Let history decide.”
They’re from Miami, Honduras, Maryland ... and then they show a picture of someone from Erzerum — the city where my grandfather was born. This man in the film is looking out at me and saying that everything my grandfather experienced never happened.
Watching this makes me hold my head in my hands and stumble across the room. It feels like this man is trying to personally attack me and is enjoying doing it. I could say that I won’t be able to move on from this until the genocide is recognized by people like him. But do I have that luxury? What if they never do? And it makes me wonder how this feels for others Armenians like me.
One hundred years ago was yesterday
So, I spend hours talking with other Armenians. Specifically to Armenians of my generation, who are around 30 years old. How do they feel, 100 years on? Hasmik Geghamyan is a 32-year-old civil and human rights lawyer who lives in Oakland. She tells me April is a delicate month for her. On the 24th, the day we commemorate the genocide, she takes it especially easy.
“I take the day off and I light a candle," she tells me. "I pray. I burn some sage. I call on my ancestors, I remember them. Sometimes I partake in a march, sometimes I want to be in silence somewhere in nature. I think we're a testament to how something 100 years ago still impacts us.”
33-year-old Greg Nemet feels the same way. He’s lived in the Bay Area for 13 years and is involved with an Armenian fraternal organization called Knights of Vartan.
“And you get people saying ‘100 years?’ Does not matter," he tells me. "Does not matter a bit. That 100 years ago was yesterday because of the burden that we carry. We process constantly.”
I definitely process. But do I feel burdened? As much as I am thinking about this, I still don’t know what I feel. I also spoke with his sister, 28-year-old Rose Nemet.
“I got hit with the Armenian activist bug right after college," she says. "It’s very much a part of who I am.”
I met her on the Golden Gate Bridge. There was a march there in February to commemorate the genocide, so I invited her and her brother to talk with me. She tells me that it’s difficult to keep on explaining the importance of the genocide to non-Armenians:
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to do so, that I don't want to relinquish to somebody else. But on the other hand why is the onus on me to spend all of my time doing this over and over again? It's like reliving it,” she says.
It sounds like for her, there is this tug back and forth, but for a different reason. For her, it’s too painful, whereas for me, I think I want to feel the pain. I wanted to understand more. I ask why they think that something that happened 100 years ago still affects them today.
They take a moment. Then Greg Nemet answers.
“It's, it's ... It's because it's so close to home," he says. "That child that was walked through the desert? That's my relative. That's my brother, that's my sister. You know?”
Then Rose Nemet jumps back in. “Being a part of a people where your genocide is under question, still kind of up for debate, you feel like you have to state your case to everybody, like you're accused of something. For me, that goes from zero to hit-you-in-the-face in seconds.”
For them, and other Armenians I talked with, a big part of these emotions is seeing the continuation of bigotry and genocide now. Seeing that the problems of our genocide continue today, just with different groups of people.
Am I being Armenian wrong?
Then Rose Nemet turns the question back around to me.
“I'd love to hear how you feel about that," she asks me. "Do you still feel like you carry it with you? I'm wondering if the volume is high or if it's off?”
Ok. Moment of truth. I’m obviously still talking about the genocide. But do I feel it? Maybe that’s the issue. I care about it and I think about it, but it feels distant. And I can’t make myself feel things that I don’t feel. Then I worry that I’m being Armenian wrong. But Greg Nemet brings me back down to earth.
“I see an Armenian person when I'm talking with you," he says. "You have as much right as that guy, or that woman, or as anybody. That's it. That's it end of story. That's it!”
It feels good to hear him say that. Maybe that’s what I needed to hear. I have definitely felt that by not being Armenian enough, I am a living symbol that the genocide was successful. I think that is something that a lot of Armenians feel. It’s silly. But it’s real.
The next generation
So, if we’re struggling with this when we're 30 years old, I want to know how an even younger generation feels. Back at the Armenian school, I sit with about 15 eighth-graders in a circle on the floor of their class. They are all wearing their school uniforms and are excited to talk with me. This is the first generation to grow up without family members who went through the genocide.
I ask the students if they’ve ever met any survivors. They haven’t. Jennifer Kazaryan answers me.
“Two years ago someone died — a survivor. That was the last known survivor of the Armenian Genocide in the Bay Area,” she says.
They know all about the genocide. I ask a question and their hands shoot up. Karoleene Amanian explains how she feels about people talking about the genocide.
“The Armenian Genocide — it doesn't define Armenians. We have over 3,000 years of history. After people recognize the Armenian genocide we can move forward and have people recognize our culture,” she says.
She tells me that she doesn’t want to be defined by the genocide.
Into another century
If this were your usual Armenian Genocide piece, this would be where I talk about how I can’t rest until the genocide is recognized by Turkey.
Except, for me personally, I choose for that not to be true. I want recognition, but I don’t want to wait another 100 years for Turkey to play catch up. Like I said earlier, what if they never do? I don’t want the darkness to continue to dominate my relationship with my culture. I’ve done my genocide piece. Next time you tune in it’ll be a piece about this great new Armenian queer magazine I found called Hye-Phen, about me trying to discover Armenian Paganism, or about my famous Armenian cousin — Cher. This will be my way of celebrating my ancestors.
I’ll keep the earring in my ear to remember, but I want to stop repeating this. No more hair on my tongue.
This piece first aired on April 23, 2015.