The boy was one among many Armenians deported from southern Anatolia in 1915 by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government in power at the time. He never saw his brother again. His son remembers that his father would frequently jump out of his bed during night terrors, saying he dreamt of his last moments with his brother.
That son is Artin Arslanian, a professor of history and international relations at Marist College, New York. His family was deported in 1915 from the city of Maraş. Like most Armenians today, Professor Arslanian has a tragic family story. This interview touches upon some of the details of that particular story, while reflecting the perspective of one of the many different voices within the Armenian diaspora.
You published an article in Today’s Zaman on July 18, 2010 titled “Of Turks and Armenians.” Among other things, the article addressed the tragic story of your father and how it haunted him all his life. Can you please retell it?
It is a story that has also haunted me in the sense that he would never stop talking about it. He was a kid during the deportation. American missionaries found him and his younger brother in the Syrian desert. Immediately afterwards, they performed a medical examination -- to find that his younger brother was badly ill. They wanted to separate his brother, probably because he needed medical care. But they were holding hands and the younger brother did not let go. He hung on to his older brother, crying, yelling and saying: “Brother, don’t let me go! Brother, don’t let me go!” After they were separated, my father never saw him again. We know nothing about what happened to him. So my father would jump up from his bed in the middle of the night because of his recurring dreams of that moment.
How old were they at the time?
My father was 6, and his brother was 4. But we only think it is 6 because missionaries put them against the wall, measured them, and guessed their ages. They had no ID cards. So I never knew how old my father really was.
What happened then in the orphanage?
My father spent three years there. Then, interestingly enough, his uncle from his mother’s side found him in 1918. He brought him to their home and decided to adopt him. But then he realized my father seemed to be the only survivor of his family and said, “I am going to keep his name Arslanian.” In Lebanon, each family has a number in the government documents. For this family, the number its 818. And it is interesting: For my father it says Halacian and Arslanian. Two family names. So keeping the name of the family was some sort of internal struggle to survive. They did not want that name to disappear -- although Arslanian is a very common name among Armenians. In fact, my wife’s parents happen to be Arslanians from Antep. Interestingly, that is how we met in college as freshmen. When the professor was reading the roll and said “Arslanian,” both of us said, “Yes!”
Is the survival of your families from the deportation due to the location of your cities?
Yes, the path from Maraş, or Antep, is much closer to Syria. And among the Antep people especially, those who were rich enough to sew gold coins into their clothes were able to be safer and take care of their families by bribing people on the way. Those who did not have anything starved.
How long after the 1915 deportation were you born?
I was born in 1942.
In Borj Hammoud?
Yes. Borj Hammoud was then an Armenian enclave; you might call it a ghetto. I actually did not hear Arabic until I was 10 or 11 years old because all the neighbors were Armenian; the police were Armenian; the local muhtar (village head) was Armenian. And we went to Armenian schools. They did not teach us Arabic in school.
How much Turkish was spoken there?
The older generation spoke Turkish. They listened to Turkish music and Turkish news.
Were they hoping that they would go back to Turkey once things turned back to normal?
It depends. I know one case from my wife’s family where they had their house keys with them. And on his deathbed, her grandfather gave the keys to her father so that he would use them to reclaim the house in Antep one day. But the family went and found that the house was turned into a modern hotel. So, some did go back. But the reason they spoke Turkish and they listened to Turkish music was because they were the most comfortable with Turkish. They did not speak Armenian. So, as I say in the article, as young boys and girls, our job was to teach Armenian to these older folks. We did not want them to speak Turkish. But, in the process, we learned Turkish, because they were always responding to us in Turkish.
How much of it do you remember today?
Well... I do remember a lot of it, because when I came to UCLA for my doctoral work, they wanted a fourth foreign language. So besides, English, French, Armenian and German, I took two years of Turkish at UCLA. But I have not been using it, so although I still understand it, I am not fluent.
How many years did you spend in Lebanon?
I left after I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the American University of Beirut. And, interestingly enough, I majored in British history. Even at that point I did not want to get involved with Middle Eastern or Armenian history.
...which is somewhat unusual, right?
Very unusual. First of all, it is unusual for the son of a “muhacir” (emigrant) to go into the liberal arts. The idea for my father’s generation was that if your son goes to college, he is going to become a doctor, an architect, a pharmacist. And, in fact, my brother is a physician and my sister was a nurse. When people asked my father what his kids did, he said, “One is a doctor, and the other is nurse, and the third one is a…” He would not say “historian,” he would say, “political scientist” -- to impress them more, I think.
Why did you make that “unusual” career choice?
Maybe I did that unconsciously. Then, in 1967, I came to the US. My Ph.D. was, again, in British history. But what happened was ironic. I did my dissertation on the Russian Civil War and the British intervention. I worked on the Caucasus, and the Caucasus took me to the conflict in Karabakh, so I happened to come back to this whole issue through back roads and suddenly found myself where I originally never wanted to be.
In that 2010 article, you wrote, “The hatred of Turks, and all things Turkish dominated our lives.” But that sentence is referring to decades ago, and I see various attitudes in the Armenian diaspora today. For example, some are very friendly towards the Turkish people, probably because we remind them of their homeland.
Turks remind us of ourselves. Even our English accents are the same. We look alike. We have the same manners. We eat the same kind of food.
If Turks become more appreciative of the past and present grievances of Armenians, do you think that the Armenian diaspora will become less reactionary?
I think you are raising a very interesting question. And it has been raised by a number of scholars. Some people are more rational, more open-minded, more willing to sit down and talk, and see the commonalities among the Turkish and Armenian people. They look at this issue dispassionately and see it as a historical fact. But such people are not in powerful positions in the Armenian diaspora. My issue has been that some people have used the genocide as a platform for their leadership and for their career. They have made a business, a career out of it. It is a job. That is the “genocide industry.”
Pretty much like the “genocide denial industry.”
Yes, and there is also a “Holocaust industry,” and so on. I think that is one thing that ties the Armenian diaspora together, regardless of how unaccepting they are of each other. Iranian Armenians, Lebanese Armenians, Syrian Armenians, Armenian Armenians and Armenians from the former Soviet Armenia... They cannot stand each other. There is always the “Other.” Always, even in Los Angeles. But you see, one thing that ties the diaspora together is the denial. What if Turkey said, “We are sorry, we did it?” What would be the reaction of the Armenian communities? This is an important question because then Armenians would lose the platform that ties them together.
How was your Today’s Zaman article taken by Turkish and Armenian people?
There were a number of Turkish readers who agreed. Some Armenian comments were negative, in terms of how I must think about the bigger issue in the Armenian case, and so on. So according to them, I was kind of a hippy, feminized, spineless Armenian. But the article was translated into Arabic and Russian. It was also published in Argentina and Ireland. But the Armenian news media did not pay any attention. I recently heard that an Armenian paper in Boston had reproduced it about a month ago. I also did not get any comments from my Armenian friends I sent the article to -- which kind of tells you a lot.
Why do you think that happened to be the case?
It kind of questions their whole framework.
Which arguments in the article do you think do that?
The argument that this harping on the genocide and Turkish denial generation after generation is not really doing any good for us.
There is something called “the wounded identity,” referring to the construction of a whole identity on the basis of a past grievance. Is that the case for the Armenian diaspora?
That is exactly the case. In a sense, it is an intellectual prison. This is why I believe the genocide still continues.
In what way?
Armenians have made this the center of their intellectual lives. We concentrate our time, our intellectual capital, our emotions on the genocide. It has been almost a hundred years. We cannot liberate ourselves from the issue to get on with our lives intellectually. That is all I am saying.
That also links to what you said in the article: “The issue of the Armenian genocide is not our problem -- it is Turkey’s problem. Let the Turks come to terms with their history by freeing it from their self-manufactured myths, reassess their past and transform their state from an ethnically exclusive home for Turks alone into an inclusive one for different ethnic and religious groups who consider themselves citizens of Turkey.”
Exactly. I believe the solution is not going to come through making more governments recognize the genocide. So far, 25 governments have legislated that there was a genocide. So what if another 40 governments come to that conclusion? What do we accomplish? Scholars in the field overwhelmingly agree that there was a genocide, 25 countries agreed -- another 20 countries is not going to make any difference.
My last question, and half-jokingly: What do you usually do on April 24th?
Nothing. I do follow what happens. But I don’t participate actively. I know it is a memory, and the memory is in me.
Of course you feel the pain...
But I don’t see the point in demonstrating on the street. Honestly, I don’t. If I do that, what will it get me? We will convince the consul, and he will come out and say: “I am sorry. I was wrong”?
What is your alternative, then?
I believe my alternative is just to honor the memories of those who lost their lives, to think about that, to take the lessons from it and to be kind.