By Aram Arkun
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Armenians of Hajin returned to their town after World War I thinking that they could rebuild their homes safely under British and French protection. Instead, Turkish Nationalist forces ended up besieging them from March to October 1920. When the town was captured, many thousands of Armenians were killed. The Hajin Compatriotic Union of Beirut, Lebanon, with the support of Haigazian University and some individual donors, organized a series of events in commemoration of these victims on October 15 to 16. These included a photo exhibit, musical performances, a symposium, an evening public concert with fireworks, the preparation of the traditional jidabur (a stew similar to herisa) and, after a requiem ceremony in St. Kevork Church in the quarter of New Hajin of Beirut, a special commemorative meal.
Hajin Armenians from places as far afield as Marseilles and Pasadena came to attend the events, though the majority were from Beirut. The events began on the evening of October 15 with formal speeches by the presidents of the Hajin Compatriotic Union and Haigazian University, respectively Paul Yacoubian and Rev. Dr. Paul Haidostian, as well as the ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to Lebanon Ashot Kocharian. A letter of encouragement from the director of the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute, Dr. Hayk Demoyan, was read.
The main speaker that evening was Dr. Gerard Chaliand, a specialist in guerrilla warfare from France who over decades has personally investigated and written about liberation movements in Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and South America. He has taught courses in major universities around the world and founded in France the Group for the Rights of Minorities. He has served as advisor to the French Foreign Ministry’s Center of Research and Planning from 1983 to 1994 and from 1997 to 2000, was the director of the European Center for Conflict Research. Just as importantly, at least for this conference, Chaliand’s uncle, Garabed Chalian, was the last governor of Hajin.
Chaliand gave an overview of modern Armenian history and nationalism. He felt the Armenian elites, especially, after World War I, were in a “sort of historical myopia” and did not understand what was going on. Context must be understood to avoid becoming its victim, he said. However, at the end, in 1920, the Armenians of Hajin chose to die bravely as warriors instead of surrendering. No other choice was left.
Musical performances by Talar and Lori Yacoubian and Arek Dakessian took place. At least 250 people were present, including several parliamentary deputies and a state minister. The crowd then walked to the Matosian Exhibition Room of the Mugar Building of Haigazian University. There, they viewed the photo exhibit, which consisted of reproductions of printed photos of various aspects of Hajin that were enlarged and displayed on the walls. The photos remained in the hall until October 20.
The next day, on October 16, a symposium took place with the participation of six speakers. Dr. Raymond H. Kévorkian, director of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Noubarian Library in Paris, France, member of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, and author of numerous works on the Armenian Genocide, spoke on the deportations of Hajin in 1915. He pointed out that this was one of the earliest deportations, which indicated that Hajin, a town with an overwhelming Armenian majority in a mountainous and inaccessible region, was considered a serious potential threat to the Ottoman Empire.
Aharon Shkhrdemian, a graduate of the AGBU Hovagimian-Manoogian Boys Secondary School, the Melkonian Educational Institute and Yerevan’s Polytechnic Institute, and editor of the Beirut daily Armenian newspaper Ararad since 2002, spoke about German-Turkish relations and the deportations of Hajin.
Aram Arkun, a New York-based historian, examined the attempts afterWorldWar I by the Armenians, British, French and Ottomans to bring to justice those specifically involved in the Hajin deportations. He focused primarily on two criminal officials, showing that not only did they escape punishment, but actually ended up prospering. As often happens during foreign intervention in cases of mass violence, the actions of the intervening powers were moved more by self-interest than justice, local courts were part of the original power structure implicated in the violence, and the victims themselves remained powerless to achieve justice.
Dr. Vahe Tachdjian, a native of Lebanon who studied in Yerevan, Belgium and Paris, who now works in Berlin on a website called Hushamadean about the Ottoman Armenian heritage, is the author of a book about French policy in Cilicia and Upper Mesopotamia. Tachdjian placed the events in Hajin after World War I into the broader context of French foreign policy, and examined the fate of orphans sent to Hajin after the deportations.
Dr. Yeghig Jerejian, like Shkhrdemian a graduate of the AGBU Hovagimian-Manoogian Secondary School, received his degree in dentistry from Yerevan’s Medical Institute. He has been a member of the Social Democrat Hnchagian Party from 1995, and in 1992-2009 was consecutively elected to four terms as a member of the Lebanese parliament from Beirut. Jerejian gave an overview of the history of Hajin and explored its revolutionary spirit.
Antranig Dakessian, another graduate of the AGBU Hovagimian-Manoogian school, studied at the literary criticism section of Yerevan’s State University’s Philological Division, and has master’s degrees from the American University of Beirut’s Political Science Division, and from Scotland’s Edinburgh University in political research. He has taught in a number of Armenian high schools, runs the Student Affairs Department of Haigazian University, and since 1993 has been the responsible secretary for the Haigazian Armenological Review. Dakessian examined the available church records of New Hajin quarter’s Surp Kevork Church as an initial attempt to understand demographic changes taking place in the Beirut-Armenian community. This is an ongoing project which may have interesting practical repercussions for the Lebanese-Armenian community.
That night in front of St. Kevork Church in Beirut’s quarter of New Hajin, preparations for a traditional madagh for the next day were taking place. The traditional jid abur was cooked in large cauldrons. A marching band belonging to the Hay Marmnamarzagan Miutiwn (HMM) of the Social Democrat Hnchagian Party led a large crowd of several thousand down the main street of the quarter to listen to a series of speakers, dancers and singers, who presented Armenian revolutionary and popular songs while fireworks lit up the sky above.
The next morning, Sunday, October 17, St. Kevork Church was full as a special requiem service was conducted after the Divine Liturgy for those who died in Hajin, and the madagh was blessed. Archbishop Kegham Khacherian of Beirut held up the fighters of Hajin as examples of how to resist obstacles in contemporary life. The afternoon ended with a special luncheon in the church at which the efforts of the Hajin Compatriotic Union’s organizing committee were recognized.
While various Cilician-Armenian compatriotic unions in Lebanon hold commemorative events frequently, this apparently was the first time that a symposium or conference with academic speakers from outside of Lebanon accompanied the more traditional religious and popular celebrations. This was an attempt to reach out to wider circles. Many of the speakers later were interviewed on Lebanese-Armenian radio about Hajin and their research. The articles presented at the conference will be published as a volume next year.