Even though it happened way back in 1915 throughout much of Eastern Turkey, I’m not surprised in the least that the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks is still today such an inflammatory topic (although the Turkish state denies genocide per se) almost a century after it took place.
By happenstance many years ago, I once painfully withstood an example of the long-smoldering ire firsthand from one of the surviving genocide victims, an aged Armenian grandmother. I still remember her bitter rage when, due to my own youthful imprudence, she misdirected her vitriol at me.
Getting to how this unpleasant confrontation happened in the first place begins with the irate old Armenian woman’s grandson, who happened to be one of THE best men I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling friend. He was a dark haired, dark featured fellow with a face punctuated with huge Byzantium-like eyes that gave him a childlike innocent look, along with a substantial nose common to many from that part of the world. His name was Michael Boloyan, an Armenian-American Marine reservist.
It was my good fortune that he had signed up for a stint with the U.S. Marine Air Reserve. Subsequently, he was based at Alameda Naval Air Station, where I too was stationed. I say “my good fortune,” because his enlistment in the Marines provided me the opportunity to get to know him.
Mike’s innate goodness almost single-handedly kept me from falling headlong into the iniquitous mire that can be the U.S. Marine Corps. As an impressionable 18-year-old still not entirely sure of my place in the world, I found myself sinking into the same wicked habits that I was seeing around me in the older marines, many of whom displayed a self-indulgent foulness of word and spirit that I never dreamed existed just weeks before during my previous comparatively naive schoolboy existence.
Mike Boloyan NEVER used foul language, and even when I last saw him when he was already in his early twenties, believe it or not, I honestly think the unmarried fellow was still a virgin. If you know Armenians, then you know they are a deeply spiritual Christian folk and do not take their beliefs lightly as many US Christians tend to in these post-modern times. He had never been to Armenia, but within the walls of his family’s modest home located on a quiet street in Berkeley, California, he was very much within the culture of the old country. He wholeheartedly wrapped his traditional Armenian way of life around him like a comfortable old blanket.
Michael’s goodness was infectious. When around him, like him, I never used coarse language. He had that affect on people. In fact, when other marines were not so inclined to watch themselves in his presence I felt obliged to step up and ask them to mind their potty mouths. Mike would just shake his head and grin shyly saying, “Phil, you don’t have to do that.”
He was an auto upholsterer and had been since before turning 16. I believe he worked in his chosen trade in a small shop in or near Berkeley, and the years of stretching fabric had made Mike’s hands the most powerful I’d ever seen. The saying “he doesn’t know his own strength” definitely applied to Mike. You shook hands with him at your own risk. Without realizing it, even what he considered to be a gentle squeeze of a handshake felt like a vicious death grip to mere mortal-handed people like myself. For such a sweet guy, his otherwise gentle paws were unintentional metacarpal crushers.
Several times, during the years I knew him from the late 70s to early 80s, Mike invited me into his family’s home for dinner. There were other family members around whom I’ve long since forgotten, but I still vividly remember Mike’s feisty grandmother, who was already very old then—I think well into her 70s—when I first met her in 1976. I only wish he would have given me a briefing on what NOT to say around the old girl, because as far as she was concerned I made the ultimate booboo, and I don’t think she ever forgave me for it.
I had never heard of Armenia before meeting Mike, but I was very familiar with Armenia’s western neighbor, the country of Turkey, having lived there twice for a number of years during the 60s. My Turkish experiences were mostly pleasant, and still quite fresh in my mind having last departed from there just 5 years earlier. My eagerness to speak well of my Turkish experiences had never betrayed me before, but my enthusiasm for things Turkish was about to get me into some very deep doo-doo as Michael introduced me to his diminutive old grandma.
With enormous enthusiasm and affection, she shook my as yet unblemished teenage hand with both of hers. Her own tiny hands were shrunken, wrinkled and mottled, yet cool and pleasant. From a face ravaged and withered by a lifetime of difficulties she smiled up at me with eyes filled with interested friendliness. Cocking her head in curiosity, she seemed to peer into my soul. All the while, she spoke rapidly in Armenian, while Michael answered her in turn, I presumed telling her all about me. It all sounded like Greek to me. By this time I felt great pressure to make a good impression, but alas, it was not to be… Soon, unwittingly, I was about to make one of the biggest gaffs of my young life…
The old woman led me into a formal parlor and Michael followed. The first thing I noticed were portraits and family photos that very nearly covered all four walls of the small room. All the photos were very old and in tones of faded black-and-white. Michael explained to me that these were photographs of long dead relatives from when his family used to live in Turkey many decades before.
Aha! An opportunity! I practically blurted, “Oh really! I used to live in Turkey. I really enjoyed it and met some nice people there!”
As I started gushing about Turkey and Turks, Michael attempted to interrupt me and waved his arms at me urgently behind his grandma to try make me stop, but at that young age I was too obtuse to understand that I was totally messing up. I started to get the picture, but it was too late.
The old woman’s sweet demeanor did an immediate 180-degree turnaround on me. I was no longer a nice young man to be esteemed; now, I was someone who had consorted with the devil himself. Her face hardened with hatred and heated words erupted like machine gun fire from her mouth. I had no idea why she was suddenly so furious with me, but I knew it had something to do with Turks. I was stunned and mortified. Only a few months before, I had learned to shrug off and withstand the barrage of artificial fury from a horde of marine drill instructors, but I had never encountered this kind of actual visceral hatred before. It was disconcerting to say the least.
Michael did his best to soothe her but she was having none of it. I stood there completely helpless, not yet even knowing what I had done wrong. She continued to assail me in heated Armenian, while I assumed Michael apologized for me as he attempted to smooth things over. I told him to please tell her that whatever I had said that I was very sorry.
In a voice filled with regret he said, “It’s okay Phil. I’ll explain later. Just please, don’t talk about the times you lived in…” he paused and continued, “…that country… Okay?”
Eventually her anger waned, but still she insisted on pointing out to me each of her dead relatives enshrined on the walls around us. I was to find out with plenty of horrific detail that each had been murdered by the Ottoman Turks during the convoluted happenings of The Great War, now known as World War I. I remember vividly that after all those years since the mass killings—by that time more than 60 years—that there was no apparent grief left in the bosom of the animated old woman; instead, I saw nothing in her but unadulterated fury. I realized too late that even though she could not speak English she certainly understood enough to know that I had been speaking well of her sworn enemies.
Regrettably for me, I didn’t know it then, but learned later (beginning on that day!) that the Ottomans did not make many friends during the centuries of their empire. They tended to cruelty and slaughter in all the regions over which they ruled, and apparently, the religion of the people they dominated did not much matter. In fact, even though the Ottomans were Muslim, they committed the same sort of heinous acts in the Islamic lands they controlled as they did to the Christian Armenians.
Indeed, the Arabs under the Englishman, Lawrence, exacted with great relish many acts of gory revenge against the Turks as they drove them ignominiously from Arabia and from all of the lands of the Middle East. Now it makes sense that all that "Lawrence of Arabia" stuff happened during the same period of Ottoman colonial collapse that caused the Turks—in their time of desperate defeat—to expel and kill Armenians by the hundreds of thousands from Eastern Turkey.
Michael’s grandma saw my discomfiture and calmed somewhat, but only to the point that she stopped her verbal assault on me. She went from that to trying to convince me that there could be nothing virtuous about Turkey, or from any Turk for that matter. I was reduced to chastened silence and quiet nodding as she explained the deaths of each of her long departed family members. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even after 60 years, to her, all those people on the wall had died just the other day. She went to her grave not long after that still filled with loathing and seething detestation. It was the most abject history lesson that I’ve ever received.
On the other hand, when I lived in Japan in the early 80s not too many years after my encounter with the unforgiving Armenian woman, I met another woman who had also experienced the cruel loss of family to callous murder, yet she had an entirely different outlook toward her enemies. Her name was Lonnie. She had been just a young girl living in the Tarlac area of the Philippines during the time of the Japanese occupation of 1941 to 1945. Learning of this and always interested in speaking to people of their wartime experiences, I asked her what it was like.
Speaking slowly with great sadness she shared with me a horrendous story. When she was 6 and her brother just 3, a Japanese patrol passed by their modest nipa house where they had been playing outside. Suddenly, one of the soldiers impulsively grabbed her tiny brother by a leg and tossed him high in the air causing him to wail in fear. Before the little lad could hit the ground the cruel soldier caught the tiny tot on the tip of his bayonet, killing him instantly and abruptly ending the toddler’s plaintive screams.
Horrified and sickened, I asked her, “Lonnie, how can you live in this country knowing that these are the people that did that terrible thing to your little brother? Some of these old guys around here actually served in the Philippines during the war, you know that don’t you? You know what? My landlord TOLD me he had served there. How do you do it? I don’t think I could.”
I’ll never forget what she said: “Phil, you can’t hate forever or it will destroy you. Eventually I forgave them, because that’s what our Lord would want us to do. My brother is gone, but now he’s in a better place with God.”
As a Christian, I knew that technically, Lonnie was right, still… I think Michael’s grandmother’s response of continuing her hatred over the decades is probably the more normal of the two women’s very different responses. To forgive, especially to forgive murder of family, is not natural and is probably the most difficult thing anyone can do, especially considering the nature of what both of those women experienced in their lives.
Lonnie died of an aneurysm not long after she shared her story with me. She’s buried in the American cemetery out on Clark these past 23 years. I used to wonder if she didn’t die from the emotional strain of what she witnessed all those years ago as a young girl. I’m sure she was in the throes of PTSD, the bodily stresses of which can really mess with the human physiology. I hope that like her brother she too is now in a better place.
As far as the immediate furor over Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional insistence on declaring that our ally, Turkey, committed genocide against the Armenians almost 100 years ago, I wish she wouldn’t. For one thing, we can’t force any country to feel remorse when they aren’t willing to do so. To tweak them now, when we are so utterly dependent on Turkey’s cooperation in keeping supplies flowing into Iraq makes me think that she is knowingly trying to sabotage our current good relationship with this fellow NATO nation. If Al Qaeda and the Shia militia cannot cause us to lose perhaps she thinks she can personally make it happen through this backdoor method.
Aside from the international considerations of the Armenian genocide, I personally wish the Turks would do what Germany did long ago concerning its own considerable misdeeds during WWII, and just admit that the transgression happened and apologize. It wouldn’t cost them anything but pride, as I’m sure we are long past any possibility of reparations. We can't punish a country for things done more than four generations ago. It just isn't feasible or right.
Unfortunately, the belligerent attitude of many contemporary Turks toward the 1915 massacre has done nothing to heal old wounds. I foresee the current standoff between Turks and Armenians concerning this issue continuing for at least another 100 years. That seems to be how they do things in that part of the world.
Even so, many modern Armenians want to put this ugly history behind them so that they can move on and normalize relations with the Turks. After all, Armenia is landlocked and shares a vast border with Turkey. The Armenian economy could stand a dose of normalization with their ancient enemy, and most modern Armenians know it. Yet, this probably cannot happen until the Turks take the first step and admit that the wrong happened all those decades ago.
To my practical American mind, I have a difficult time understanding how this has not happened already. I mean, my own family has long since forgiven the English for what they did to my Irish and Scottish ancestors; and we’ve also pardoned the Canadian Tories for murdering our grandfather, Samuel Lount, way back in 1838 in Toronto. How long do you hate people for what their dead great great grandfathers did?
Eventually, as my friend Lonnie reminded me, forgiveness is the only way to go.