The Burden of Memory | The Nation


The Burden of Memory

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But the novelty of its narrative notwithstanding, The Burning Tigris cannot escape becoming yet another artifact in what the young scholar Lisa Siraganian has called "the fetish-culture of diasporan Armenians." In this culture, many diaspora Armenians are reared to hate Turkey with a fervor that seems completely at odds with their daily lives as typical--even liberal--American citizens. Clothes with "Made in Turkey" labels are put back on the rack, Turkish restaurants are avoided and a vacation in Istanbul is shunned by even the most adventurous travelers. At Armenian summer camps and youth groups, third-generation Armenian-Americans who don't speak Armenian and have never seen Armenia learn to perpetuate this legacy. Many are descendants of genocide survivors, but often it is the later-generation descendants who take up the cause most ardently, suggesting that something besides a simple interest in justice fuels their behavior. In the face of the distress of assimilation, the glory of a shared victimhood is seductive indeed, especially when it can be attained without having actually suffered.

About the Author

Meline Toumani
Meline Toumani is a writer based in New York City.

Also by the Author

An Armenian-American writer asks if the Armenian obsession with genocide recognition is worth its emotional and psychological price.

Sociologist Anny Bakalian has called the quest for genocide recognition a sine qua non for the Armenian community in America. A literal grasp of her words calls to mind a scene from George Steiner's controversial novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. In a provocative climax, Steiner's Adolf Hitler character suggests that Jews should be grateful to him for having catalyzed the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. A similar tragic paradox underlies the Armenian situation: Without the shared sense of purpose afforded by the pursuit of Turkish recognition, would the Armenian diaspora simply assimilate and disappear? In other words, is Turkey's denial the diaspora's lifeblood?

The enthusiasm surrounding the release of The Burning Tigris was a reminder that the needs of the diaspora, which lives in the shadow of the history that defined it, differ from--and sometimes clash with--those of the 3 million citizens of Armenia, who live for their own future. So what about that little piece of land in the Caucasus where Amazon.com doesn't often deliver?

In Armenia itself, Turkish denial of the genocide barely registers as a concern among the citizens of the tiny republic, who are lucky if they get through each day with enough running water and electricity to put dinner on the table. Armenians are not indifferent toward the genocide, or to Turkey's denial of it, but the historical tragedy has been supplanted in their imaginations by the demands of day-to-day life. Since 1988, when a terrible earthquake killed 50,000 Armenians and left one in ten citizens homeless, the country has endured relentless suffering. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in food and power shortages during the harsh winters of the early 1990s, and simultaneously the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh felled many, severely drained resources and sparked a refugee crisis.

At the train station in the capital city of Yerevan, the hardships of daily life are on full display. The train platform, which used to bustle with travelers, is now the site of a chaotic outdoor market that has spread across most of the platform and surrounding grounds. Vendors from the outskirts of Yerevan entreat passersby to pick up a few peaches, a light bulb or some plastic shoes. It is the clearance sale of all the city's bazaars, and not in a good way.

Inside the silent station hall, a dust-shielded board lists distant cities that Armenians could have visited in the past; virtually any place of interest in the Soviet sprawl was once accessible by rail. But the only place the train now goes outside Armenia is to neighboring Georgia, an equally rocky country that is larger than Armenia, almost as ancient and at least as poor. Eighty-five percent of Armenia's possible ground access to the outside world is closed due to blockades imposed by Turkey on the west and Azerbaijan on the east. The small gap in the precipitous mountain border that Armenia shares with its friendliest neighbor, Iran, is best traversed in a tiny Niva, Russia's answer to the Jeep.

But the trunk of a car can hold only so much for market, which is why Armenia's economy is so effectively strangled by the Turkish and Azeri blockades; they curtail cargo transport and the development of import and export relationships in all directions. The World Bank estimates that these blockades have an impact of up to $1.1 billion a year on Armenia. If the blockades were lifted, according to the bank, Armenia's GDP--currently at $3,770 per capita--could increase by 10-18 percent, and Armenia's exports could double.

Azerbaijan closed its border with Armenia in 1991, when Armenian and Azeri forces began fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory geographically encompassed by Azerbaijan but historically populated by Armenians. A bloody ground war ensued, and Armenia won control of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as several surrounding districts. A cease-fire in 1994 ended the fighting, but a real resolution has yet to be reached. As Azerbaijan's next of kin, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to protest the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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