Monastery as Chicken Coop

Interview with Vaughan Pilikian - Director of Leper Colonyby Vaughan Pilikian

Vaughan has an MA in Classics from Cambridge University and an M.Phil in Sanskrit from Oxford University, and studied filmmaking and fine art at Harvard University.  He is the author of two poetry books and two volumes of translations from ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata (New York University Press). His award winning short films have been exhibited at over one hundred festivals around the world, and the production of his play Leper Colony recently ran for three weeks at the Yard Theatre in London.  Vaughan is the son of Professor Hovhanness I. Pilikian. – Editor.

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Something strange is happening one hundred years after the Ottoman Empire began its campaign to exterminate the Armenian people. Billboards are appearing beside American highways emblazoned, white text on a blue background, GENOCIDE; Styled like the motto of an election campaign or the name of a new designer fragrance.[i] What is the significance of this? Does it announce the final destination of the Armenian Genocide, projected into the open economy of the slogan, to circulate more and more widely, and to mean less and less? Or is it a message from Marshall McLuhan’s future, one that we can only glimpse in confusion and incomprehension receding at speed behind us in a rear-view mirror?

Perhaps these billboards represent a last, doomed attempt at the peculiar phenomenon of recognition, a kind of capitulation to indifference. In the West, we cannot breathe for commemorations. It seems that all of history, especially the most recent, has been re-photographed and re-curated for a thousand new exhibitions, museum displays and centenaries. And yet, even as these reconstructed memories force themselves deeper and deeper into our lifeworld, the events they depict become ever more remote, spectral, unreal, merging into the fictions that have proliferated around them. Perhaps the Armenian case is a defining one for its sheer negativity: Jean Baudrillard was moved to point out the bleak irony of a people who “wear themselves out trying to prove they were massacred.” [ii] In a curious way, the seeming recalcitrance of the Genocide to be recognised for what it is has kept it from disappearing. But the time has now come to move past the question of the fact of the Genocide, which is really not a question at all, and to raise one that is: the question of restitution. This transition is long overdue, and now that a century has passed since the massacres and deportations began, a necessity, if we are to avoid the habit of reiterating, obsessively and fruitlessly, the fact that there was a Genocide. All that can come of this habit is a strange sort of recursion, as a trauma survivor in his sleep performs a series of compulsive and repetitive gestures of significance only to himself. Even the commemoration of the genocide has become an excuse for political stagnation and cultural stasis, for a sort of artificial reckoning of the present, a prophylaxis against reality.

Part of the problem seems to arise from a confusion in what is meant by recognition. Evidentiary and legal recognition must not be conflated. The first, largely achieved, has implications that are diffuse and unquantifiable. The second, largely unachieved, would, if pursued correctly, bring with it specific and far-reaching implications.

To recognize something is literally to re-think it, to bring it back to mind, as something that was known or is known, but is in some buried or lapsarian state that needs new attention. There can be no doubt in the act of recognition that the fact has been cognized at least once already. This is trivially true in the evidentiary sense. Recognition of the Genocide as historical fact is now accomplished: the evidence is immense, multifaceted, precisely documented, and actively suppressed today only inside Turkey. Individual denialists outside the Turkish regime must themselves be ‘recognised’ for what they are: fantasists and buffoons who condemn themselves through their own stupidity. One thinks of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, soberly asserting as evidence for the fraudulence of Anne Frank’s diary the fact that she describes her family using a noisy vacuum cleaner while in hiding.[iii] There is certainly a kind of torrid farce in these kinds of fringe pronouncements, but it would be foolish to accord them significance.

The Genocide has also been cognized, at least partially, in a legal sense. As everyone knows, the Genocide Convention of 1948 was in its very essence conceptualized out of an assessment of what happened to the Armenians. Its architect Raphael Lemkin explained that he “became interested in genocide because it happened to the Armenians”.’[iv] The massacres, deportations and expropriations organised and legislated between 1915 and 1918 by the Sublime Porte were foundational in the conceptual, linguistic and legal definition of genocide. It seems almost tautological to try, then, to ‘prove’ that the Armenian Genocide happened. The argument is circular; an effort to vouchsafe the applicability of a term to a fact that defines it.

When something blatant and fundamental is grasped in its fullness it takes time for it to make become generally accepted, until at last it seems impossible to imagine it was ever not understood. Lemkin recounts in his unpublished autobiography a ‘heated discussion’ he had as a student at the University of Lvov with a philology professor about the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian for the assassination of Talaat Pasha. Lemkin was troubled that Talaat had simply walked free despite his crimes and that a man whose entire family had been wiped out by his policies was now on trial for taking vigilante revenge. His professor’s assessment was less nuanced: ‘Let us take the case of a man who owns some chickens. He kills them. Why not? It is not your business.’[v]

Should we be surprised that a Polish professor of linguistics could in 1921 have entertained so sanguine a view of mass murder? Lemkin’s anecdote sheds some light on the moral and intellectual arrogance of which the social elite are uniquely capable. The limits of thought, even at the vanguard, are always determined by political hegemony. Before the 1945 London Agreement which paved the way for the Nuremberg Tribunal there was no criminal law to check the right of political or military leaders to murder their own populations. Lemkin was grappling with a philosophical problem whose existence could not even be discerned by the well-schooled minds of his educators. It lay hidden, submerged in the rhetoric and prerogatives of power. And it was the child in Lemkin, the shocked innocent that sought out the word to name the crime. Many would step in line with the smirking philologist of Lvov before Lemkin’s life’s work would at last have its historic impact.

Even after Lemkin’s final triumph and the enshrinement of the concept in international law, the word seems never to have freed itself entirely of the devil that threatens always to reclaim it, to suck it back and disperse it once again into the whirlwind of power. America was one of the first countries to recognise the Genocide for what it was. General James Harbord called it in his report on the massacres as ‘the most colossal crime of all the ages,’ [vi] and the submission by America to the International Court of Justice in 1955 reiterated it as ‘one of the outstanding examples of the crime of genocide.’ [vii] Obama too seems to have recognised the Genocide with total clarity on the campaign trail before office brought with it a case of cataracts. Quite remarkably, the Genocide has even been fully recognised at particular times by Ottoman and Turkish leaders. ‘A shameful act’ was how Atatürk described it in 1926.[viii] It is often forgotten, most regularly by Turkey itself, that the Constantinople trials of 1919 convicted in absentia a host of CUP officials for the perpetration of atrocities, the verdict of the court noting that the massacres and deportations had been aimed at ‘the extinction of an entire people.’ [ix] During his time in office Talaat Pasha repeatedly and delightedly confided to anyone who would listen his intention ‘to use the world war as a pretext for cleansing the country of its internal enemies – namely the Armenian population.’[x] Today, of course, these recognitions and remarks are simply, and quite effectively, suppressed through the apparatus of the Turkish state. The logic of denial is not sophisticated. Like all suppressions of the obvious, techniques run the gamut from the crass to the ludicrous, and include the truly abject and self-parodic assertion, hilarious in some parallel universe, from the current president of Turkey, that genocide cannot logically have taken place because some Armenians survived.[xi]

Recognition will, like initial cognition, display different orders of reliability. Subject to the exigencies and acquired blindness of political calculation, no store can really be set by it. But the denialism of the Turkish state of today is of a particular order. The reason for it is quite straightforward. The Turkish state is conscious of its monstrous birth out of a gigantic crime, and aware that if this crime were recognised legally by the international community for what it was, it would have serious repercussions for the continued existence of that state in its present form. Denial is for Turkey existential. The only way that Turkey can conceal this crime from its own public is through the ongoing cultivation of race hate, which is achieved in part by the criminalisation of all reference to the reality of the Genocide. Still today, Armenians living in Turkey are threatened and intimidated by state-coordinated mobs touting racist slogans.[xii] What drives the Turkish regime’s position is terror: terror at the quicksand on which it is built. This makes immediate sense of the pattern of recognition and denial. As soon as Western Armenia had been annexed, amnesia set in, and recognition would never return. This is the reason why the denialism of the Turkish state is the only denialism that matters, and that must be confronted. And there is only one means for doing so: prosecution of the Turkish state at the World Court. All talk of truth commissions, peace commissions, protocols and the like are distractions from this objective. Turkey’s position today is in breach of the contract that binds the world system together. Once again, it is the fact of the existence of the Genocide Convention that must steer us on this point. It is certainly no longer a question of attaching blame to individuals for the Genocide. This has been accomplished by the historical record, and the individuals in question are anyway, of course, all now deceased. The passage of time has clarified the matter of fundamental responsibility for the Genocide and how it is constituted. It was the Sublime Porte that engendered the crime of genocide, and it is now the Turkish government that must be held accountable for upholding its legacy.

The point must be made that this has nothing to do with the Turkish public, and everything to do with the Turkish republic. The Turkish people of today bear no responsibility at all for the crimes of their sometime leaders. What the record shows, and what now must be brought to the global attention at the World is that responsibility lies with the executive. The Genocide could not have happened had the Young Turks not seen fit to plan, coordinate and legislate for it. History has streamlined for us the very nature of genocide itself, and we can look upon it in confirmation of Lemkin’s surmise: genocide belongs to power. It is a political act, centripetal in essence, an instruction issued from the seat of government. This is the originating fact of genocide: it is born out of a concentration of power, a centralisation, without which it cannot come into being.

In his recent magisterial book about the Genocide, the distinguished lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has explained with total clarity and in perfect detail the entirely compelling argument for the prosecution of Turkey at the World Court for the Armenian Genocide. The World Court was set up precisely for disputes of this kind between states. Only a sovereign state is permitted to bring a case before the Court. Robertson draws attention to the key articles of the Genocide Convention that pertain to this argument. Article One of the Convention states that ‘genocide, whether committed it time of peace or time of war, is a crime under international law,’ Article Nine that ‘disputes between contracting parties relating to the interpretation, application or fulfilment of the present convention, including those relating to the responsibility of a state for genocide… shall be submitted to the ICJ at the request of any of the parties to the dispute.’ Both Armenia and Turkey are signatories to the Convention. As Robertson points out, genocide has a special legal significance. Scholars, historians and polemicists can use the word as they please, but it is in that case just a word like any other. Only a legal verdict can give the word its full force. Until Armenia prosecutes Turkey at the World Court this clarifying process of recognition will forever be forestalled, and the strange chaotic circulation of fact and fantasy will continue indefinitely.

In answer to the self-described ‘realists’ who think such a prosecution cannot possibly yield results, Geoffrey Robertson also points out in his book that there is a precedent: in 1952 the German Federal Republic agreed to pay $850 million dollars to Israel in damages for the Holocaust.[xiii] But such a consideration is anyway not the point. The impunity of the Turkish state in this matter is a moral omission that must be corrected for the sake of the entire world system. We might reasonably ask, given the enormous weight of evidence behind it and axiomatic significance of its case, and especially in light of the recent announcement by the Armenian Catholicos of the intention to seek reparations from Turkey for theft of church property, why it is that the Armenian government seems so timid and so reticent about prosecuting its case. Its hesitation is morally untenable. The Genocide Convention was put together in order to outlaw and to recognise one of the greatest crimes a state can commit, as exemplified in the crime committed by the Ottoman State upon Armenians. What force can the letter or spirit of international law maintain if this most simple and fundamental fact continues to go unaddressed?

There is no New Armenia, no matter how one tries to rearrange William Saroyan’s words to state otherwise. When I have encountered other Armenians we haven’t so much laughed or prayed as looked around us at ruins. The violence of genocide ricochets through the years, decades, the centuries. The devastation visited upon the victims of the Genocide is still visible today in the jagged borderline scrawled across the map of Asia Minor, a line that runs like fissure through all the scattered and broken families spread out across the Diaspora. Armenians past and present have been dispossessed body and soul and no amount of fretting about who might accept or deny it will change this material fact.

And yet the deepest wound is in the conscience of the international community. What remains of its mettle must now be tested. I have mentioned reparation and restitution but all this is secondary to the principle and necessity of restoring to credibility the Genocide Convention itself, and safeguarding the emergence of the crime of genocide out of the darkness from which Lemkin delivered it. Everywhere international law is sneered at, ridiculed and ignored, and yet to give way to this cynicism is solely the luxury of privilege. The oppressed and the dispossessed around the world can afford no such idle amusements.  They know what is at stake.

When I was in my twenties I went on a journey through what is now eastern Turkey, travelling on long bus rides down dusty roads through a wild and haunted landscape. I came one day to a farmhouse on the outskirts of a small village. A young boy, the farmer’s son, greeted me eagerly. He knew why I had come and he held forth a hat for my contribution. I paid him and stepped inside. Here it was cool and dark, a welcome relief from the ferocious summer sun outside. I looked around, looked up. Above me, behind boarded-over joints and stacks of hay laid upon them I could barely make out in the gloom the faces of saints painted in fresco. Pale blue, off white and madder rose, their wide eyes raised to the tin roof, their hands holding forth roods and books. Guardians of what had once been a monastery. I looked back at the boy who had led me in, silhouetted in the rectangle of the doorway. He had been watching me curiously, but looked away as I caught his eye. He turned his face out towards the blaze of light beyond.  Chickens clucked and skipped across my toes.

 

 

 

Vaughan Pilikian

March 2015

 

 


[i] Rosario Teixeira, ‘Billboards Commemorate Genocide Centennial’, The Armenian Weekly, 12 February 2012.

[ii] Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, tr. James Benedict (Verso, 1993.)

[iii] Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank: the Revised Critical Edition, tr. Arnold Pomerans, B.M. Mooyart-Doubleday and Susan Massotty (Random House, 2003.)

[iv] Alessandra Stanley, ‘A PBS Documentary Makes Its Case for the Armenian Genocide, With or Without a Debate,’ The New York Times, 19 April 2006.

[v] John Cooper, Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention (Palgrave: 2008.)

[vi] Major General James Harbord, Report of the American Military Mission to Armenia, 5 Doc No 266 at 7 (1920).

[vii] William A. Schabas, Genocide in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2009.)

[viii] Interview with Emile Hilderbrand, Los Angeles Examiner, 1 August 1926.

[ix] Jennifer Balint, ‘The Ottoman State Special Military Tribunal for the Genocide of the Armenians : Doing Government Business’ in Kevin Heller and Gerry Simpson (eds.), The Hidden History of War Crimes Tribunals (Oxford University Press, 2013.)

[x] Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act (Constable, 2007.)

[xi] Erdoğan interviewed by Charlie Rose: cf. Harut Sassounian ‘Erdogan Claims It’s Not Genocide Because Not All Armenians Were Killed,’ Californian Courier, 6 May 2014.

[xii] ‘ANCA Condemns Anti-Armenian Protests in Turkey,’ The Armenian Weekly, 26 February 2012.

[xiii] Geoffrey Robertson, An Inconvenient Genocide (Biteback, 2014).

 

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