By Alin K. Gregorian
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The talk by Dawn Anahid MacKeen, author of The Hundred Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, at Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Greater Boston, on Sunday, October 16, was memorable for many reasons. The audience sat mesmerized listening to the California author talk about her grandfather’s story of courage, strength, humor and survival, while close to $3,000 were raised to help Syrian Armenians.
The program, cosponsored by the Tekeyan Cultural Association, National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and the church, became an almost cathartic session where several audience members whose parents or grandparents had gone through the Armenian Genocide, as well as the day’s speaker, got choked up.
The Hundred Year Walk is the story of MacKeen’s grandfather, Stepan Miskjian, who had been born and raised in the town of Adabazar, in modern Turkey. He had been drafted into a labor battalion in 1915. He eventually ended up in Raqqa, Syria, where the locals saved him.
She was especially glad that the program was raising funds for Syrian relief. “Our hearts break all over again it is so important to come together and try to help them.”
In the book, MacKeen uses her grandfather’s detailed journals to write about his crossing the desert into Syria on foot and going far into the interior, all with an astonishingly small amount of food and water. She then wrote about her own retracing of those steps in 2007.
So much of what she saw in that trip, including the elaborate Armenian Genocide memorial and monument which had been erected in the city of Der Zor in 1991, have been bombed into oblivion.
“I grew up hearing about Der Zor and I had to visit it,” she said. “Like many Armenians, I came to Der Zor to remember, to never forget.”
MacKeen had been living New York, where she was a successful investigative journalist, but as time went by, she realized she did not feel fulfilled and decided to move back home to Los Angeles.
There, her mother started telling her that since her job is to dig deep and tell stories, she should focus her efforts on her grandfather’s story. The idea did not go over well. “I cannot tell Baba’s story, not without you waking him up from the dead,” she recalled her angry words.
But, her mother continued her campaign and with help from her uncle, they found many of the journals that he had written in Armenian. She started by having them translated and then tried to find every single person mentioned in those pages to bring the story to life.
Soon, she realized that she did not have a choice in the matter; it was her fate.
“Other people inherit fine china; I inherited this story,” she joked.
So much of her grandfather’s story is entangled with the story of Syria. So many of the sites that she visited 10 years ago do not exist today, including the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Der Zor. Her grandfather, unlike many Genocide survivors, was not silent about the issue.
Many who had survived their ordeal through the desert, settled there and eventually formed a thriving community. The elaborate monument dedicated to the Armenian Genocide was opened in 1991.
The region was not one that her grandfather could forget, and passed it along to his daughter, MacKeen’s mother. “This was a region her [mother’s] father had called hell and nothing else,” she recalled.
MacKeen recalled how her grandfather would try to share his brutal story of survival, but as a child, she did not understand it. He would tell her that he was so thirsty he had even resorted to drinking his own urine. Her reaction then had been only one of revulsion. It was only later, as an adult, that she was truly able to grasp what odds and horrors he had faced.
“My grandfather would beckon her [MacKeen’s mother] and tell her about what had happened. While many people wouldn’t speak about what had happened, he could not stop,” MacKeen recalled.
She recalled that he had told her as well as his daughter that “being a witness to that satanic” nightmare, he had said, “I vowed it as my duty to put to paper what I saw.”
What MacKeen wanted to capture in the book, in addition to the tragic circumstances that her grandfather saw, was his charming character, including his relationships and friends before the Genocide.
“Before the war there was excitement, a new school, a printing press and a library,” she said. “He and several others built an assembly hall.”
He became a courier and was ambitious to succeed.
Reading his journals, she said she was struck by how funny he had been, keeping a straight face while playing pranks. In fact, that practiced straight face helped him as he tried to survive by bluffing his way out of dangerous situations.
“I thought of him as just a Genocide survivor. I had reduced him to one layer,” she said.
So on she went with the research, heading anywhere she could to find information, from the Vienna Mkhitarist Monks’ archives to France, Turkey and beyond.
His tragic story began when he was conscripted into a labor battalion in 1914 and the rest of his family was put on a packed cattle train.
He soon realized that the labor battalion was not one he could survive and escaped far into the desert in Syria. “He knew what was happening, that no one was going to go home,” MacKeen said.
Just when he hit the lowest point mentally, realizing that in essence he was one step ahead of death, he had an epiphany which gave him strength: he knew his mother and sisters were not in the desert facing the conditions he was, and therefore, he thought, they possibly had a chance. “He thought ‘I’m lucky’ and gave thanks,” she recalled. Making the moment even more fortuitous was that it was on the anniversary of his father’s death. “He prayed, ‘Dear father, today I will be with you.’”
In essence, he crossed the desert with two cups of water and a handful of raisins.
Somehow, he arrived in Raqqa, and heard about a sympathetic Muslim Sheik, to whom he introduced himself as Mustafa. The older man did not believe that Stepan was giving him his real name and asked for the real name. Stepan came clean and the Arab man and his family took him in as a son.
MacKeen projected photos from her trip back to Raqqa and so many other stops in Syria that he had made. This once-cosmopolitan city is now known for being the headquarters of the Islamic State.
She told the audience, as she recalled in her book, that when she arrived at the home of the descendants of the sheik, she saw a crowd of about 300 milling about and assumed that either the Mosque had just finished services or that some other event was taking place. She was shocked to learn that they had all gathered to meet her at a grand feast held in her honor.
“This was the ripple effect of one kind act. Four generations are alive because of that kind sheik,” she said. Remarkably, now it is that family that is in need of shelter.
What is going on in Syria now, she said, now is being correctly characterized by Secretary of State John Kerry as genocide. And so many of those who had fled a century ago to Syria, now are fleeing again.
The question-and-answer period was especially touching as so many, including Fr. Mampre Kouzouian, related stories about their own families, and still after the passage of so much time, he and others in the audience choked up.
Aram Arkun, executive director of the Tekeyan Cultural Association, made introductory remarks, speaking about MacKeen, as well as the efforts of the TCA to help Syrian Armenians fleeing the country.
In addition, Susan Kouzouian Derderian spoke about her impressions about the book.
Donations are still being accepted for Syrian relief. Anyone interested in making donations can send a check made out to the Tekeyan Cultural Association, with Syrian-Armenian Relief in the memo section, and send it to TCA, 755 Mount Auburn St., Watertown, MA 02472.