As the Poppies Bloomed by Maral Boyadjian

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This is a novel about the Armenian Genocide, but it focuses on the home and community lives of a group of people in an Armenian village. We don’t see the death marches: we do see some of the main characters being murdered in their own homes.  I’ve head people question the popularity of The Diary of Anne Frank, because it doesn’t show the concentration camps or the Einsatzgruppen massacres; but the whole point of that book is that it reminds us that the victims of the genocide to which it relates were just ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else.  This one’s the same.  The author uses the word “dehumanisation”, and, when there’s just been yet another mass hate killing, this time in El Paso, and when a frightening number of people seem to think it’s OK to dehumanise anyone who votes for a different political party to them, holds different views on a particular issue, or has a different ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic background, sexuality or sexual identity, it’s critically important to remember where dehumanisation can lead.  The author’s grandparents all survived the Armenian Genocide.  Up to one and a half million people didn’t.  The book also gives a very interesting insight into Ottoman Armenian culture and traditions.

I was quite disturbed by a comment I read on Facebook last week: someone had written that “[supporters of a particular political party] are not people”.  OK, you probably shouldn’t get too wound up over things that ignorant people write on social media, but there’s so much of it around these days.  It’s about anything and everything.  Often it’s the usual “hate crime” areas – race, religion, sexuality, politics.  Sometimes it’s targeting groups of people for the most bizarre reasons, like which football team they support, or even which newspaper they read.  All right, obviously I’m not suggesting that anyone’s about to try to massacre people who read a particular newspaper, but when you spout that sort of hatred, when you label people, when you dismiss them, lump them together, when you dehumanise them … it’s a slippery slope.

Anyway.  This book’s set mainly around the time just before and after the Siege of Van in the spring of 1915, when Ottoman forces attacked the city of Van and were beaten back by the Armenian resistance.  Exactly what was going on, especially whether or not the Armenians had Russian support, is still unclear – but what is clear is that horrific atrocities were carried out against the Armenian civilian population of the area, before, during and after the siege.  The region had already seen massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1900s.  The book’s centred on the Sassoun area, closely linked to Armenian nationalism, and the scene of massacres in 1894, 1904 and 1915.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of life in an Ottoman Armenian village. There’s a lot of very interesting detail about the structure of family and community life, and about food, drink, clothing, farming, the treatment of illnesses, and the rituals surrounding births, marriages and deaths. There are romances that work out, and romances that don’t. It’s a book about a group of relatives and friends leading their lives. It’s so important that there are books like this, fictional or non-fictional, about the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, or any other genocide, as well as accounts of death marches and concentration camps and mass shootings, because it’s so important to remember that the victims were just ordinary people They should have just lived their lives out in peace, but they had the bad luck to be part of a demographic group that was the target of other people’s politics and hatred.

This was a long-running thing, though. There’d been some talk internationally back in the 1890s about tackling the issue of the Turks’ treatment of the Armenians, but nothing was done about it. The older generation of characters well remember what happened then. Several characters are involved in political movements. The fear of the Turks hangs over them at all times. And then we see the killings, in several of their guises. We see women, children and old men massacred in their homes. We see other women taken away, their fate unknown: we know that mass rape was a big part of the Armenian Genocide. We see young men conscripted into the army to fight in the Great War, but killed by their supposed comrades. We see other young men killed in clashes between Armenians and Turks.

We also see that a lot of the killings were carried out by Kurds. That’s something that’s rarely spoken about, although it is acknowledged by some Kurdish groups.

Some characters survive. At the end, we see one of them in America, telling his grandchildren what happened. That’s based on the experiences of the author, who was born in Lebanon and now lives in Canada: all four of her grandparents were survivors. She mentions that many of her friends had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government won’t acknowledge that it happened. Most other governments don’t recognise it either – not because they don’t believe that it happened, but because they won’t risk upsetting modern Turkey, a major player in the complex politics of the Middle East.

Unusually, it was in the news in the U.K. recently, when respected academic surgeon Lord Darzi, whose grandparents fled the Armenian Genocide and lost many relatives and friends during it, resigned from the Labour party. He said “As an Armenian descendant of a survivor of the Armenian genocide I have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other discrimination against religion or race”.  In the U.S., Kim Kardashian West – not someone I thought I’d ever be writing about!! – has drawn attention to the subject, calling on the American government to recognise the Armenian Genocide.  It won’t happen, but at least she’s raising awareness of a subject that isn’t spoken about enough.

This is a very interesting book.  It’s not heavy-going or difficult to read, and it tells the reader a lot about Armenian culture.  There’s a lot of romance and family life in it.  But, essentially, it’s a novel of the Armenian Genocide, and that makes it important as well as interesting – both because the Armenian Genocide isn’t given the recognition that it should be, and because the world seems to be increasingly poisoned by hatred and we need to stop and remember where that can lead to.  This is a book about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.  And most of them end up being murdered.  Everyone who posts some nasty comment on social media, or shouts abuse at someone in the street, should bear that in mind – and, after what’s just happened in Texas, this is a particularly good time to do so.

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis

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ArmeniaThis is the first historical novel I’ve come across which tackles the issue of the Armenian Genocide, the hundredth anniversary of which was commemorated earlier this year.  It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it covers a very important subject.

Up to 1.5 million people were killed in the atrocities against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.  Only 29 countries officially recognise what happened as genocide.  Many regional parliaments and assemblies do too, and only Turkey and Azerbaijan officially deny that what happened was genocide, but most national governments are reluctant to commit themselves, perhaps due largely to the fear, given the situation in the Middle East, of the possible consequences of upsetting Turkey.

France has taken the lead in trying to persuade Turkey to change its position; other countries, notably the Republic of Cyprus and Uruguay, have also done much to ensure that what happened is recognised; and the Pope spoke out about the subject in April … as a result of which, Turkey recalled its envoy to the Vatican.  Rather bizarrely, most of the coverage of the centenary commemorations in the English language media seemed to centre on the visit of Kim and Khloe Kardashian to the memorial complex in Armenia.  I am not a fan of the Kardashians, but they did speak very movingly about the genocide and their sadness that it isn’t properly recognised.

No-one who was actively involved can be alive now, and no blame can be attached to modern-day Turkey and its people … but the subject remains extremely sensitive in Turkey, and, especially given the present situation in Syria and Iraq, most governments dare not risk confrontation with the Turkish authorities.  So it’s very unlikely that there will be widescale recognition any time soon that what took place was genocide.  But it was.

Moving on to the book, it was one of these which flip between different time periods and different sets of characters: we had the British granddaughter of a woman who’d survived the Armenian Genocide finding a series of letters written by her grandmother, shortly after the grandmother’s death in the mid-1980s, and part of the book was narrated by the granddaughter, part by the grandmother via her letters, and part by the grandmother’s brother, who, unbeknownst to her, had also survived and was living in Cyprus.

Much of the stuff set in the 1980s wasn’t particularly good, quite honestly.  It was just all too easy for everyone to find their long-lost relations, via a series of highly improbably coincidences and a few phone calls.  And no-one seemed the slightest bit upset to discover that a lifetime of lies had been told about someone’s paternity.  One aspect of which was however shown very well was the pressure put on some of the younger generation to stick to the old ways and remain within, and, in particular, to marry within, the Armenian community, even if that wasn’t going to make them happy.  That’s something which is common to many minority communities, and I’ve known families torn apart by it.  Happily, in this case, the Armenian grandfather eventually accepted that his granddaughter should marry for love, regardless of ethnicity or religion or anything else.  Another was the long-term psychological effects on those who’ve been through such a trauma, and how depression and anxiety can strike them even decades later.

The parts of the book which covered the events of 1915 and the years immediately following it were much better – and very. very sad.  We saw men killed, women and children deported, women abducted and raped, deportees being massacred, and deaths from disease and from the sheer difficulties of making such long journeys in a harsh climate and without food and water.  Then we saw the survivors being scattered across the globe: Cyprus, Britain, the USA and Lebanon all featured in this book, and, of course, the Armenian diaspora covers a myriad of other countries too.

The book didn’t actually mention the issue of recognition of the genocide, even though that’s usually the first thing people talk about when the subject’s mentioned.  Maybe the author didn’t want to seem to be too political: it’s an extremely sensitive subject.  But she’s done a good job of telling the story in the form of a novel, and I hope that a lot of people will read this book.  It’s a story which deserves to be read.