“The Armenian Genocide is Not a Past Event, It is An Ongoing Struggle”: A conversation between Sophia Armen and Banah Ghadbian
April 24th is the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide that saw over 1.5 million Armenians & Assyrians killed from 1915–1923 and displaced from their land. This marked a foundational moment in the making of the modern Middle East, that is often erased by scholars and organizers in the West.
There are 15 million Armenians and Assyrians who continue to live in forced diaspora around the world today because of these events. The government of Turkey and the government of the United States claim the Genocide never happened and work together to deny recognition, return and reparations to the communities.
This is a conversation between Banah Ghadbian and Sophia Armen in honor of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, April 24th.
Banah Ghadbian is a 24-year-old Syrian Arab Muslim feminist writer and poet based out of San Diego.
Sophia Armen is a 27-year-old Armenian-American civil rights organizer born and raised in Los Angeles.
Banah Ghadbian: What is your personal connection to the Armenian Genocide?
Sophia Armen: I remember in the immediate days after 9/11 in the United States, the first time a middle aged white man yelled at me to “Get out and go back to your country.” I stood still in shock. I was 9 years old. This moment was foundational to my formation of who I am today. I didn’t understand. I could not hold in my small body this well of hate of this man. And I did not understand what he needed from me. I remember having two thoughts. One, clenching my small fists was “no, no, NO!” I thought. That “no” was rage. The “no” I felt that day was important, it was one of the first times in my life I felt my power, my rejection of immorality, and injustice, it’s the feeling everyday that I get as I work in the community today. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That these systems feel wrong.
But something else happened that day. I heard my insides scream in anger but then it came, a deep and unexplainable rush of sadness. It engulfed me, poured over all contours of my young body and a second thought rushed into my head. Because even though I was so young, I remember I wanted to yell back at this man “I cannot go back to the land I am from.”
It does not exist.
My name is Sophia Rakel Armen. There is much in a name. Who was there and who was lost. I carry them in my body. I carry them every time I say my name out loud or write it down. My name is Sophia Rakel Armen. My last name Armen is the story of Armenians from Istanbul, or Bolis, as we say in Armenian. My father’s side of my family was from Istanbul — a place of intellectual exchange, art and culture. My great grandfather whose first name was Armen (a popular Armenian first name for boys), was very young when Talaat Pasha gave the orders for the mass extermination of the Armenians.
The Turkish soldiers came to his home and he watched his entire family slaughtered in front of him. Now orphaned and shaking with fear he was found by American missionaries who were in Turkey at the time trying to convert Eastern Christians to American Protestantism. When they found him they asked him what his name was and all he could say was “Armen, Armen, Armen” as he relived the images of terror. These Americans changed his name to an Anglo name, Albert, and made his first name, his new last name. From that moment on our family name changed forever. He became Albert Armen. Because of these decision by others, the Turkish government’s bloody massacre of my family and Western colonial presence, my family tree stops abruptly, its branches are cut.
When he eventually made it to the United States, he had no idea who his family was or who was left of them. My great grandfather struggled his entire life reliving the scenes of his family’s massacre in front of him. In an act of resistance, he changed his name to an Armenian version of Albert, which was Avedis. In his moment of refusal navigating both the trauma of genocide and the assimilationist forces of the United States, he became known as Avedis Armen.
My middle name, Rakel, is from my mother’s family, the Der Mugrdechians. My mother’s grandmother had several children at the time of the genocide. My family was active in political parties and in the Armenian resistance against the incoming Turkish troops looking to massacre the residents of the city of Van, in Southeastern Turkey. Van is a specifically important reference in this debate. Because it is the resistance in Van that the current Turkish government uses to say that the Armenians deserve their fate because they were “terrorists” and “traitors.” But my family were village people, the marginalized and forgotten and they were as Ottoman as everyone else.
It should be noted, the city of Van is racialized today by the Turkish government as a “terrorist haven” because it is a center of the Kurdish struggle. The Turkish government today uses the rhetoric of “national security,” like the United States, to bomb the lands my family was displaced from. The ideology of racial supremacy in Turkey may look different today but its core tenants are the same and the originate from the same logics of the Armenian Genocide. I watch Kurds face racist violence in Van today, as a person whose family is denied return to Van and see our struggles as connected. This is the pain and the opportunity.
My family from Van was deported on a death march through Der Zor, Syria where they were sending Armenians knowing they would die in the desert of starvation and disease, or would shoot them in mass. Along the away, Rakel, my great grandmother, had all of her children in line. They marched these Armenians through the desert to execute the orders of ethnic cleansing, to execute them or so that they would die of starvation.
Along the way, Turkish troops would randomly target Armenians for execution, take all their belongings, and select women in the line to rape. Rakel’s daughter, my Aunt Lucy, was crying the whole time because she, a small child, was disturbed by the commotion. The other Armenians in the line got angry at Rakel because Lucy was drawing attention to them. If anything attracted the attention of Turkish soldiers, they would be shot on the spot. Rakel, as she told it, was forced to leave Lucy behind a rock so the caravan could move on undetected. But after two nights, her heart beckoned to her and went back for her daughter even though she could have been killed. I am named for her — for her bravery and her laugh.
Both sides of my family are from the largest centers of massacres of Armenians in Turkey. We know our stories, our customs, our food and our culture. The Armenian language of my family is peppered with village dialect Turkish no longer spoken. And we keep these alive in diaspora, in our bodies and in our prayers. A century later.
When my family came to Fresno to establish one of the first Armenian communities in the United States they faced a climate charged with white supremacy and racial discrimination. There were laws that Armenians could not own property, some were chased out of using the same public facilities like bathrooms or pools as white Americans and as refugees they were taunted with racial slurs. They faced a fatal concoction of anti-immigrant/anti-refugee racism and Orientalism, many of the tropes used today against all Middle Eastern refugees have their origins from this time. Despite this my family persisted and survived establishing thriving Armenian cultural, philanthropic and religious organizations. Many of the oldest Armenian-American organizations in the United States started because the first Armenians to come here needed them as protection and community to help each other work through discrimination, assimilation and displacement.
Today, my face in the post 9/11 United States is a constant marker for racist white America I don’t belong “here.” My name is a constant reminder that I have no where “there.” That unexplainable feeling that washed over me that day when I was 9 right out of the schoolyard is something I navigate every day.
In the Armenian Genocide “debate” on TV in the United States you actually see very few Armenians getting to speak. I speak as an Armenian woman to rupture the many layers that complicate this story. I speak against the racist portrayals of my community and our story’s co-optation by Islamophobes in the United States and Europe, I speak against Turkish denialism which pretends I am not part of their community and denies my families and millions of others our history and rights, and I speak as a woman against much of Armenian nationalism that denies space for Armenian feminists, queer people and dissidents.
Today Armenians are banned from this country (the United States) by the thousands because of the #MuslimBan, but their stories are not told because we complicate the narrative, because our stories are not valued in both the discourse of power and the resistance to power. Armenian-American organizations have abandoned our people who are experiencing refugeehood and this travel ban, in the name of political strategy. This is unacceptable.
But I have hope.
I speak as an Armenian woman who in her very own “debate” is only referenced, I practice daily the refusal to be silenced. I will not let Islamophobes try to co-opt the dead of my family to create more racialized violence against others. I will not let Middle Eastern nationalists refuse to grapple with racism in our region. I will not let Armenian and Assyrian identity be erased from discussions on displacement, war, imperialism and genocide. I watch daily American media pundits and people from the region speak on “Armenianness” with such authority, but who is absent from the conversation is us, Armenians ourselves, who live it. We are more than the Genocide. We are not victims. We are resistors. Like that fateful day when I was 9 years old, I scream and cry “no.”
Banah: How is the Armenian Genocide framed? What are common misconceptions about this debate? And what the devices and claims in the discussion?
Sophia: Well that is just it. The Armenian Genocide is portrayed as a debate of two equal sides who just have two different opinions or views of history. This is called normalization. And then are told to just get over it. But that construction doesn’t take into account power and the reality that these are not two equal sides, this was not a “conflict,” but a powerful government that massacred its own citizens and almost successfully erased an indigenous population. Those unfamiliar with the region, believe that today this debate is between the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia but it is not. That is the normalizing trope that the government of Turkey pushes and its Western allies spew so that no justice will come to the Armenian people who are the descendants of those massacred in Turkey. This is a strategy of the Turkish government.
There has been no justice for the millions of Armenians massacred or the forced displacement of our community.
While the Armenian people have a history of thousands of years, the modern Republic of Armenia was established in 1991. The West reduces our struggles to the actions of governments and nation-states, so we must not fall into that trap. The modern Turkish republic is not just debating with another nation-state. As a matter of fact, that is the way Turanists deny justice for the Genocide — that there exists a “two sided history” that just needs “reconciliation.” President of Turkey Erdogan gets up on the mic every year and says the Armenian Genocide never happened, we never were in Turkey and when we were that we were traitors. He says the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey should sit down and have a roundtable to “work out the facts.” But Erdogan’s Armenian Genocide denial is actually not a conflict with another government but with its people, Erdogan’s genocide denial is actually a conflict with people like me all over the world whose families live in exile, who are descendants of his shared land.
There are many devices that the dominant normalizing narrative uses. It says the Armenians were foreign agents during the Genocide of competing powers, and today the Turkish government continues this trope by claiming Armenians in Turkey are the pawns of foreign imperialists. This claim is a racist construction that denies the history of Armenian agency of Armenian-led political parties, social justice and civil rights campaigns throughout the history of Ottoman and present-day Turkey, and ultimately serves the aims of those in power. This claim was fundamental to the ways that my family was targeted for extermination and was a scapegoated to justify their deaths. And now like all governments in the Middle East who are being resisted by legitimate social justice struggles internally, the Turkish government attacks social justice movements and calls for reparations by Armenians by associating them with Imperialism, as Zionist sympathizers, or as “terrorists” even if none of these are true. These devices are how powerful post-colonial era governments garner sympathy and condemn and conquer movements to keep their ruling control. We have seen uprisings throughout the region face these attacks.
Banah: Yes, many of the ways the Turkish government portrays this issue include that this was a time of war and that there is no documented fact. The government says that Armenians left voluntarily or never existed in great numbers. They claim the villagers attacked the government. And that there are two sides of history that need to be sorted out. The Turkish government claims that the Republic of Armenia’s government refuses to “come to the table” so to speak.
Sophia: There are thousands of pieces of documented evidence of the Armenian Genocide. Many of us know where our houses are, still have the deeds and keys to homes currently occupied by Turkish and now Kurdish residents. But the reality is is that this is not where the truth lies, the truth is not in the pages of scholarly texts or documents, it is in our people. The “evidence” of the Armenian Genocide is passed down through oral storytelling in our community. And the problem is because Armenia and Armenians globally are marginalized in politics in the West and East, our struggle is marginalized. But our struggle is righteous, and we must never be co-opted by geopolitical power players.
One of the biggest ways that the current Turkish government whitewashes this history and denies it is through saying that the Republic of Armenia refuses to have an “unbiased historical convening,” to “sort out the facts” with “unbiased historians.” What needs to be said is that these stories live in the people who are the descendants of those who died, largely outside of the current borders of the new Republic of Armenia, in our massive diaspora. The mass of these stories don’t live in any powerful archive or in history books. Because of our marginalization in the West and in the region, they live isolated in our Armenian community, our stories only invoked for political purposes to forward some agenda if an outside government can use us. But the stories live. They’re living in me, in the loss of my name.
Governments may try, but you cannot deny we exist.
Because the Armenian diaspora from the Genocide lives across the world like shattered glass, it’s a community you cannot reassemble into what it was. So we have to make it into something else, something more beautiful — a mosaic using all of its pieces. But this is difficult. Because when the oppressor pretends that everything is fine, there’s no ability to move forward or to develop a future Armenian identity that can encapsulate all of us if this history is denied. Because if we have to stay rooted in what has not been recognized, we will be unable to dream Armenian identity beyond the past, beyond loss.
The United States keeps saying “prove it,” and so we bring out our dead every year.
Every year the United States denies the Armenian Genocide, because of its ties with the Turkish government. It is a deeply dehumanizing and Orientalizing process that is always about there is not enough “proof.”
A lot young Turkish people in Turkey frame the Armenian genocide as an ideological debate, or a political discussion, or disturbingly, even, invoke the genocide as something to prove their edgy leftist credentials today in Turkey claiming they have these “native” roots. But for Armenians living in forced diaspora, it’s our entire lives and identities being questioned by the Turkish regime every day. We are forcibly disappeared from the conversation. We are the ones Erdogan should be addressing every time he gives his speeches. As Black feminist thinker and poet Audre Lorde famously said, “we were never meant to survive.’ But we are here, and we defy this denial of the Genocide in our very existence. To my young Turkish friends, I would say, we Armenians are here in exile and we are alive out in the world in the millions. Not only are our histories, but yes, also, our futures are bound together.
As I see young people protest for freedom recently in Turkey, I support them. But I see these beautiful efforts are all framed by unsettled ghosts. For the Turks to have freedom, the Armenians must have justice. Our histories are bound together, our futures are bound together, whether we choose to believe it or not.
Banah Ghadbian: Why is the Armenian Genocide historically contested? The United States and The Republic of Turkey refuses to say this was orchestrated and systematic mass murder with most controversy around the using the term “genocide” itself.
Sophia: People say the only reason the Armenian Genocide is denied is because Turkey is afraid recognition would mean material reparations for people like my family. It would mean land rights and the right of return which would disrupt the demographic ethnic cleansing policy continued through the villainization and criminalization of Armenianness, and now Kurdishness, in Turkey.
But I do not believe this is the sole reason. The Armenian Genocide is contested not because of the disputed suffering of my people, because the debate of statistics, or that there are not hundreds upon thousands of stories like my family’s available as evidence. The Armenian Genocide, and the ongoing struggle against anti-Armenian racism and reparations in Turkey and the larger Middle East, is denied because of power and identity.
It is because reckoning with this history means reckoning with the very foundations onto which the modern state of Turkey was built. It means that the Turkish people would have to grapple not only that this creation of an Other that was necessary to enable the genocide, but also that that Other was used to define Turkishness against something, and thus, it was used to define Turkishness itself. It means unpeeling the petals of a celebrated Republic of Turkey to reveal a stinking root. It means getting to the core of what is means to be Turkish today, how power decides this and how power has decided this historically. I believe, the Armenian Genocide has very little to do with what or what not Armenians are or were. I believe the “debate” on the Armenian Genocide is actually about a fight over the heart of Turkey and Turkish identity.
That is why it is so charged.
The Armenian Genocide is contested because to reckon with this history would be to hold a mirror to a nation. It would mean having to claim responsibility. It would mean dealing with demons and ghosts.
This is the violence of the United States. This is the violence of the Republic of Turkey. The government and businessmen that run these countries are haunted by their ghosts, not by just the dead, but by the moral weight of having to crush its reminders and resistance wherever it blooms. Having to constantly cover up, rationalize and disappear genocide is the greatest neurosis of empires. Beyond their NATO Alliance and their support of Zionism, this is what the United States and Turkey have in common.
To reckon with the Armenian Genocide would mean to reckon with a nation. It would mean actually understanding the construction of the “Turk,” as an identity, has been based on violence and exclusion. As white Americans in the United States who won’t refuse to reckon with Black and Indigenous genocide, it would mean the country’s “foundation story” would be unraveled.
Banah: You said that the ways denialism operates requires that this be seen as a past event. How is the Armenian Genocide as issue of today?
Sophia: There is nothing past about this. These are the stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents. People we grew up with. Who lived through the experiences of witnessing their entire families massacred. My Aunt Lucy died just recently, and she died here in the US, in a country that claims her story does not exist. And this claim is tied to the tricks of political power.
The worst reality is how this gets produced in Orientialist logics. Western deniers claim that this is a “debate” with two different sides who have two different versions of history, that it’s an ancient animosity of just two people who hate each other, that is unresolvable and not an ongoing struggle. This comes from Western Orientalist construction of the Middle East as a site of inherent violence because of “feuding religions” and “ancient hatreds”. But we know this is not true. This trope refuses to recognize conflict like in all parts of the world are about power and systems of oppression, structures of racism and marginalization. But the Armenian Genocide is an ongoing struggle, because the struggle against anti-Armenian racism and for freedom is an ongoing struggle whether in diaspora or in the homeland.
It is because the Armenian people, whether in Armenia or not, are struggling to be free. And as long as we struggle for freedom, Armenia will never die.
Indeed, anyone who speaks today of the Armenian Genocide cannot speak of it without the recent assassination of Hrant Dink in 2007, a beloved Armenian-Turkish journalist and the founder of the newspaper Agos. He wrote about racism in Turkey and connected it to the Armenian Genocide, which is outlawed from being discussed today in Turkey. He represented a threat — not to just the Turkish government, but he represented a threat to exclusionary Turkish identity. It’s important to understand Turkism, or Turanism, the system that created the Genocide, as an racial ideology based on dispossession and erasure through “purifying” the land. Thus, to understand the Armenian genocide is to understand that there has to be a modern reckoning with the racial logics of Turkey. Why was Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink such a threat? Because Hrant was effective. He was beloved by the people. He was making this history known and condemning racism in Turkey. He was also very critical of the Armenian diaspora in the United States and the ways we refuse to think about our closeness as Armenians to Turkey itself. And this is what made him great, he was morally consistent and genuine and it was touching the lives of people in Turkey, especially young Turks and Kurds. He was threatening because he was making more and more ethnic Turks question what they had been told. This is what made the Turkish government afraid of him. He was murdered in broad daylight by Turkish nationalists, and the police covered up his murder. The young boy who assassinated Hrant was only seventeen. This is the sadness. The power of this racism lives.
The Armenian Genocide was not a past event, it informs everyday reality in the region. You cannot have 1.5 million people disappear at the founding of the modern Middle East as we know it today and it not affect anything… The Armenian Genocide was a foundational moment in the creation of the modern Middle East and its logics are still seen throughout the region.
The other racist construction of Armenians is that we are only “victims” but we are not. And this is the problematic portrayal of many Middle Eastern Christian communities in Western media, that we are inherently victims, that we have no resistance of our own, that we are not anti-imperialists, and that we are not also affected by the American bombs dropped from Ramallah to Baghdad. Western powers parade us about when it is convenient for a Western narrative only. Also that we are inherently innocent. And we are not. We are neither of these things. Armenians in Turkey face daily racist assaults that use the same tropes of the Genocide. Turkey continues to bulldoze sacred Armenian cultural and religious sites and scrub the Armenian and Assyrian language off of buildings in Eastern Turkey. We continue to be in exile with no sight of reparations or return. Turkey continues to mark citizenship based on ethnicity and religion. But Armenians do not just sit idly by. Armenians in Turkey everyday resist the systematic erasure of Armenianness that is the continuation of ethnic cleansing. While we heard much about Occupy Gezi in Western press, we heard little about Kamp Armen, for example, an anti-racist struggle against the bulldozing of an Armenian community center where young activists from multiple ethnic communities came together.
Banah: So the Armenian Genocide is connected to ethnic minorities in Turkey today?
Sophia: The Armenians in Turkey are not an ethnic “minority,” they are who is left. And if the Genocide had not happened 20 million Armenians would be in Turkey today. Two million self-proclaimed Turks have hidden Armenian ethnic identity because they are afraid of attack and persecution. Many of these Armenians and those in exiles would have been part of the marches we see in Turkey today had they not been massacred, deported, forced into concentration camps and cut off from their land. I would be there now, had the Armenian Genocide not happened.
Today the same land where the blood of my family was spilled because they were not Turkish is where Kurds are being killed because they also do not fit this supremacy. If I say one thing in my lifetime it would be this — violence once put into this universe never disappears, it only transfers.
We must be consistent and vigilant in pursuits of justice, because if we don’t someone later will face violence. Especially now, only inter-ethnic and inter-religious feminist struggle will make possible a just future in our region.
In the United States, pictures of Armenian dead bodies circulate every April 24th, the commemoration day of the Armenian Genocide.
But, Armenians are not just “victims,” dead bodies to be consumed, we continue to resist and be at the head of progressive movements. You only hear about Armenians once a year in April for our deaths, but what of our living? We have joined with our Palestinian sisters and brothers to make connections between the Genocide and the Nakba and continue fighting racism, dispossession and erasure. In Armenia, young activists are challenging the constraints of Armenian nationalisms, and bravely asking “who gets to be Armenian?” and fighting for the women, the queer among us. In Yerevan, Armenian activists expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter from our sacred monument to victims of the Armenian Genocide in Tsitsernakaberd, making connections that the US is based on the genocide of Native and Black peoples itself. Our people just successfully organized a revolution in Armenia and ousted the Prime Minister successfully under the banner #ՄերժիրՍերժին or #RejectSerzh. They efforts are boldly drawing the vision of Armenian identity and it is time the Diaspora stops patronizing and supports it. This is where our energy should turn in the diaspora, to support these efforts. We need unity and to break this false Armenia/Armenian Diaspora divide because it does not exist. We must yell our freedom from every corner of the world.
These are the days that we live the resistance of our ancestors. Fighting not when it is easy or popular, but when it is right. To share only our loss would be inaccurate, we are alive and speaking our “no!” everyday.
Most importantly Armenian identity is not one thing and cannot be universalized. This is a setback for us but also an opportunity. The Armenian diasporan reality is difficult but beautiful.
As Armenians we have different migration histories and face very current different realities, but our struggle is one.
The Armenian struggle is not a past struggle. The people of Armenia today are fighting in the streets as we speak, for our future and this time last year organized a peaceful revolutionary uprising the entire world should look to. In this post-colonial moment in Armenia, the people of Armenia are fighting for self-determination for Armenia, for representation in their own government, for rights, for the people to decide their fate, for a vibrant civil society. We need strong stances in Armenia and the diaspora that support each other, not patronize. No exploitation. No Western imperialism. No government bosses profiting off of suffering. No government repression of protest. Young women are leading our struggles, and they are our hope. In Armenia, civil society, the youth, and women are truly leading the way. I always believe young women will lead our community to the future. All our diaspora must realize our struggle is always ultimately on our land. Our struggle is not defined by or to appease Western governments or let them “recognize” our existence. We will shake them with our yell, with our yell we cannot be “denied.”
Banah: What gives you hope? When all you hear about the Armenian Genocide is loss?
Sophia: The women in my family have always taught me about survival. Not through nationalist texts or slogans but their insistence on our family, on taking the time to be with each other and to think about who is not being heard. I have always read the ways that Armenian women cook with each other and gossip and muse on world issues as a feminist practice. I have always seen the women of my family defy the expectations placed on them and center a new world vision I am committed to: one where the “we” matters more than the “me.” This is directly in opposition to Western individualism and unappreciated in Armenian political discourse. The labor of Armenian women is never celebrated as resistance but it should be because after the dust and the debris has settled from these “debates” — we are often the ones left to pick up the pieces.
This means we see our struggle as beginning from the most vulnerable among us. It means that we acknowledges our differences as a source of strength rather than squashing them. It means we build powerful joint struggle with others. Right now our struggle for Armenian Genocide is being co-opted only to gain recognition from the powerful. But the question I have is, what are we willing to lose in the process?
Our struggle is righteous. We must refuse to be marginalized in any conversation of politics today. We are here and we will never be erased. We are not victims, but agents of change.
We will not be denied.
Because as we Armenian-Americans approach year after year of unsuccessful United States recognition and more denial, political tricks, lobbying, the questions we must ask ourselves as Armenians is not what is in our blood but what do we want it to mean to be Armenian. What could being Armenian mean in the future?
For me, being Armenian has always meant the struggle to be free.