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The Armenian Diaspora: History as horror and survival

BY MATEIN KHALID / 16 August 2007

THE ruins of the Ummayad caliph’s summer palace were silhouetted against the spectral moonlight that shrouded the Bekaa Valley. But the village of Anjar fascinated me as it was peopled almost entirely by Armenians, descendants of the twentieth century’s first killing fields in Western Anatolia during the final death spasms of the Ottoman Empire.

My favourite hotel in Moscow is Hyatt Ararat, the name of the sacred twin peaked Armenian mountain. A million Armenians live in Moscow. A few months later, I was in Paris, strolling the down Boule St Michel when I witnessed the vigil and requiem mass in Notre Dame that commemorated the ninetieth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The exhibits, faded sepia photos of hanged men in Constantinople and skeletal bodies scattered in the Syrian desert that fateful summer of 1915, the summer of Gallipolli, moved me to tears.

The Armenians genocide still poisons Turkey’s international relations and hopes for EU accession. When the French parliament adopted its genocide bills, an outraged Ankara threatened economic reprisals. But the UN, the European Parliament, Russia, Switzerland, Canada and a dozen nations now recognise the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. The recent assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink by a nationalist fanatic triggered mass protests against Turkey’s Orwellian failure to come to terms with its own past, against Law 301 that makes even a public reference to the Armenian genocide a crime against Turkishness. This Law 301 was used to haul Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk to court because he dared to question the horror that befel the Armenians. Hrant Dink’s funeral was among the most well attended in the history of Istanbul, as even outraged liberal Turks held subversive banners like “we are all Armenians” and “Murderer 301”. The ghosts of the Armenian death marches now haunt both Turkish hopes to enter the EU and its Kemalist state ideology’s attempt to white-wash a past that stubbornly gate crashes the present.

Armenians live all over the Arab world. In Syria, Armenians dominate business and finance in Aleppo, run hotels whose guests whose guests included Colonel TE Lawrence, Ataturk and Agatha Christie. There is even a joke that Assad’s Baathist dictatorship depends on the Armenian car mechanics who fix the four wheel drives of the Syrian mukhabarat. After all, no secret police can long survive without its vehicles. The Armenian diaspora still influences the internal politics of Lebanon. In last weeks’s elections in the Metn district, President Amin Gemayal narrowly lost to General Aoun’s candidate even though most Maronite Christians voted for him because of the Armenian swing vote. It is ironic that even as Maronite militias routinely massacred their Palestinian, Druze and Sunni enemies during the civil war, the Armenians refused to anoint warlords or take sides in Lebanon’s political fratricide, though ASALA was born in the enclave of Bourj Hammond, where shop signs and café menus are all in the ancient Armenian script. ASALA and the Justice Commandos were, of course, the Armenian terrorists who assassinated a number of Turkish diplomats in the 1970’s to exact vengeance for a genocide whose orphans belonged to the generation of their grandparents. The Armenians, orphans of history like the Jews, the Pakistani muhajirs, Hindu Sindhis and the Palestinians, have used history to make history.

The Armenian presence in the Indian subcontinent dates back millennia. When Cochin’s pepper was the black gold of the Roman Empire, used as tribute to placate the barbarian Germanic tribes in the centuries before meat refrigeration, Armenian merchants settled in the Malabar Coast in yet another fascinating example of Kerala’s myriad encounters with the Middle East. Armenian mercenaries fought in the armies of the Peshwa, the Nawabs of Arcot, the Sikh potentate Ranjit Singh, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the East India Company. Emperor Akbar married an Armenian princess whose filigreed palace still stands in Fathepur Sikri. The royal harem’s doctor was the fabled Armenian Lady Juliana and Akbar’s Armenian diplomat travelled to Goa to invite Jesuits to debate theology with the Grand Mughal. Three generations later, an Armenian Sufi poet Sarmad, compared to Firdousi and Omar Khayyam, was executed by Aurangzeb for heresy. Sarmad’s tomb near the Jaama Masjid in Delhi still draws countless Hindu and Muslim piligrims. There is an Armenian Lane in Bombay and my father remembers playing with Armenian children in his boyhood Calcutta of the 1940’s, remnants of a community invited by the Nawabs of Bengal generations before Job Charnock and Plassey. Armenian merchants in medieval Surat, storytellers extraordinaire centuries before Bollywood, introduced the mystique of India to Europe and amassed great wealth with their virtual monopoly on the trade in spices, muslin, emeralds and silks. After all, the fabled 195 carat Prince Orloff diamond was sold to Russian Empress Catherine by an Armenian jeweler from Hindustan.

Armenia’s princes created a state in Western Anatolia six centuries before a carpenter in Roman Judea changed the world with his preaching. Christianity was adopted by the people of Hayastan, the fabled Armenian homeland that existed in the histories of Xenophon and Herodotus. Armenia, sadly, was located in the Middle East’s ancient imperial choke point. The Armenians fought existential wars with the Sassanid Persian Shahs, Roman Caesars, Baghdad caliphs, the Seljuk Turk and Ottoman sultans, Mongol khans, Russians Tsars and Soviet commissars. They survived massacres, invasion, wars, pestilence and even horrific earthquakes, such as the December 1988 yeshegar that gutted Leninakan and Spitak. For more than two thousand years, the Armenians existed as exiles and enriched the lands of their refuge. The Los Arminios of Beverley Hills populate the boardrooms and creative departments of Hollywood studios. Octogenarian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian of MGM Grand is an Armenian, as was the writer William Saroyan of Fresno. There is an Armenian university in Beirut, Armenian newspapers in Australia and the Bay Area, even a prosperous community of Armenian bankers, business magnates and cosmopolitan expats in Dubai and Sharjah.

It does not surprise me that the Safavid Shah Abbas forcibly ordered Armenians to settle in Persian cities. Armenians have often played a secret role in history’s turning points. An Armenian spy broke the Ottoman vizier Kara Mustafa’s siege of Vienna. An Armenian oilman owned Iraq’s black gold gushers. Armenian merchants opened the first coffee houses and cafes in Left Bank of the Seine. Armenian blood flowed in the veins of the Byzantine emperors, Levantine Crusader kings and Abbasid caliphs. Armenians gave the world yoghurt, chess, sacred temple art, geometry, the MIG fighter jet (Mikoyan!), the Iraq Petroleum Company, Gary Kasparov and New York’s finest caviar place Petrossian. The survival of this effervescent race is a testament to the fact that not even a genocide can destroy the human spirit, that time is not only a process of death but also a people’s rebirth.

 Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst

 
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