Retracing the Path of the Genocide, History Becomes Contemporary


BA-BJ837_book1_G_20160101195618By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN – With a hundred years now having passed after the start of the Armenian Genocide, the immediacy of the event has most obviously faded away. The generation of survivors of the Genocide is nearly all gone now from the earth, and even their children are elderly. Nonetheless, the story of the Genocide and the effect it has had on people’s lives still seems to resonate powerfully, and it seems the third generation, the grandchildren of survivors – the last generation in direct contact with these eyewitnesses, is now carrying the torch. The number of new books on the Genocide and its consequences which have been published over the past few years attests to this. Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey (Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is one of the most recent ones.

Many grandchildren work to get their grandparents’ personal stories heard by broader circles. Some translate memoirs into English, while others transform the experiences they heard about into literature or other forms of art. MacKeen’s approach adds a different layer to the original story. She did not stop at just visiting the hometown of her ancestor in Turkey, as many do. Instead, she wanted to retrace as much as possible the actual journey of deportation and escape by traveling to Adabazar in western Turkey, and then going to the Syrian deserts through the same routes as her grandfather.

Her well written book maintains a certain level of suspense for both story lines, which are developed in alternating chapters. Her mother always implored her over the years to use her skills as a reporter to get grandfather Stepan Miskjian’s story told, and MacKeen wondered to herself, “Nearly a century later, where was my sense of moral obligation? Doing nothing felt like forgetting, and forgetting genocide seemed almost as heinous as the crime itself, especially in light of Turkey’s denials” (p. 7).

MacKeen, who could not read Armenian, did not let the language barrier interfere. Other relatives translated her grandfather’s diaries and she and even her mother learned details that never had been spoken about. However, there were still certain gaps, and there were no contemporaries left who could fill them in. Instead, MacKeen visited libraries in Europe before beginning her own odyssey to Turkey and Syria. She used contemporary Armenian and European newspaper accounts, as well as other memoirs, survivor testimony, history books and collections of archival documents in various languages.

It was only a few months after the assassination of Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink in January 2007, but this did not daunt MacKeen. She traveled the deportation routes from Adabazar until the Syrian border, occasionally seeing remnants of the former Armenian population, and visiting places mentioned in her grandfather’s memoirs. The tension of traveling in a denialist Turkey hostile to Armenians, and then in Syria where the secret police keep close tabs on foreigners, along with the emotional dimension to her trip, reliving the terrors of the Armenian deportees, make the chapters devoted to her journey riveting.

Simultaneously, Miskjian’s detailed diaries allow MacKeen to present to her readers the dizzying sequence of acts of brutality and destruction victims and survivors experienced and their states of mind with an immediacy enhanced by her literary skills. Many of the chapters depicting his adventures end in suspense, with the reader left wondering whether he survived that particular tribulation or succeeded in successfully escaping.

The two parallel narratives merge at the end of the book when MacKeen meets the descendants of the sheikh who saved Miskjian’s life near Deyr el-Zor. She is able to thank them on behalf of her family. She says that this “has been the transcendent moment of my life” (p. 298). In the epilogue, MacKeen addresses Turkish denial of the events of the Genocide, and ends with her mother’s words calling for “total understanding and forgiveness of what has happened.”

There are some minor historical errors. For example, the Armenian prelate of Izmit (Nikomedia) Stepannos Hovagimian was not a deacon in 1913 but an archbishop (p. 37). However, in general the book has been carefully prepared with the assistance of various Armenian historians. It is a useful addition to the literature on the Genocide, and the fact that it has been published by a major American publisher means that it will be accessible to a broader audience than just Armenians.