Chronicle of Current Events

Armenia and Azerbaijan: After the War

Image: David Ghahramanyan / NKR InfoCenter PAN Photo via AP

By Philalethes.

Americans have enough to worry about: a new and deadly surge in cases of the coronavirus; and, over a fortnight after the general elections, a moody, egotistical President still refuses to concede to the alarmingly senile victor. The “cancel” culture, “critical race theory”— these and other totalitarian schemes have already undermined our basic liberties to an alarming degree. There is scant cheer beyond our borders: more disease, more dismayingly corrupt politics. No wonder that many of us escape into Netflix and Amazon Prime video in the evening instead of reading the international news pages. Those who still do take an interest in world events are disappointed, because access to them is marred by lies: the mainstream American media crossed the line between reporting and editorializing long ago, and no longer even pretend to seek and present the unbiased truth. 

The danger in this situation should be plain: America cannot survive and thrive, politically or economically, in isolation from the rest of the world; and an indifferent and uninformed public cannot sustain a democracy. Policy becomes then the property of an elite, insider establishment cozily allied to special interest groups with the cash to press their point. And “by the people, for the people” be damned.

The recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan presents an example both of shocking indifference and of manipulation. The manipulation of American Jewish opinion is of particular concern. Tablet magazine is a well-designed online publication that appeals to the educated, urbane reader— the upscale sophisticate. Click on the link and smell the double espresso. The other day Tablet printed an article, “Jewish-Muslim Solidarity in Azerbaijan” by Milikh Yevdayev, who is identified as “the Head of the Community of Azerbaijan’s Mountain Jews,” For a community leader in the hills, Mr. Yevdayev is quite an accomplished essayist who writes superb English and is adept at presenting a detailed version of history. Doubtless he reads Tablet in his own Azeri version of Fresno over morning coffee and just decided on the spot to pen an article on the recent war. And I’m Queen Marie of Roumania.

Because Yevdayev’s slick piece is almost identical to articles on the Armenia-Azerbaijan war that I’ve read elsewhere of late, in, for instance, The Jerusalem Post, my doubtless fertile imagination suggests that Azerbaijan’s propaganda office churned out several such pieces. The authorities in Baku then made various Azeri Jews, and Israeli friends of the Azeri state, offers that, shall we say, they could not refuse. We should note that Azerbaijan is a repressive police-state, and the professional qualification of the present “president,” Mr. Aliyev, is that he is son of the previous dictator. Money makes the world go round, as worldly folks know, and oil-rich Azerbaijan has plenty of the green stuff to lubricate the wheels and other moving parts of… journalism. A term that can now serve as the new euphemism for the world’s oldest profession. 

The war in the Transcaucasus is of interest to me, gentle reader, because for a quarter century I held this country’s oldest and most prestigious professorial chair in Armenian studies, at Harvard University. I also taught Armenian studies as a Lady Davis Fellow and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I know Russian and Armenian almost as well as English, have studied Persian and Turkish, and have spent a good part of my life in the various republics of the former Soviet Union. I’ve got hundreds of scholarly books and articles under my belt. And so on. These are just credentials, not boasting: I’m Emeritus now, which is a fancy way of saying retired with library privileges, and I live, not on the East Coast but in a sleepy farming town in the Central Valley of California. No urbane, sophisticated, upscale hipsters here. Hold the espresso. I presented the above credentials and asked Tablet whether I might respond in an article to Yevdayev. They said no. The following, then, is what one would have written in their pages, had one been allowed to.

The substance of Yevdayev’s pitch to the Anglophone Jewish reader is not so much praise of Azerbaijan, though there is plenty of that, as defamation of Armenians, all of them. If he is to be believed, the Armenians are the worst and deadliest enemies of the Children of Israel since Ramses II, Haman, Antiochus IV, Vespasian, Titus, Torquemada, Chmielnicki, Hitler, Ilhan Omar, and the coronavirus. In fact the Armenians are just all-around miscreants, full stop. In 1918, he writes, the Dashnaks in concert with the Bolsheviks carried out pogroms across Azerbaijan. Yevdayev, or, more likely, the hired hand who “assisted” him to write his thoughtful piece, seems to have been carried away here. He doesn’t explain who those dastardly Dashnaks are. The term is shorthand for members of the Hay Heghap’okhakan Dashnakts’ut’iun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. This was a nationalist political party founded by left-leaning Russian Armenians in 1890 that opposed Tsarist rule and took over in Armenia following the October Revolution and the collapse of the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks— Lenin’s internationalist, Communist party— actually overthrew the Armenian Dashnak, Azeri Mussavatist, and Georgian Menshevik bourgeois republics and founded the Soviet Union. They were enemies, not allies. But so what.

Because Yevdayev’s recitation of history moves swiftly from that sort of ahistorical muddle to pure mythology. American Armenian groups, he informs us, supported Hitler and the Holocaust in the 1930s. He’s rather jumping the gun here, because the Holocaust hadn’t begun yet. It’s a minor howler compared to other productions of the Turkish propaganda machine. I recall an article in The Forward, in the 1990s, that claimed the Turks had every right to massacre Armenians in 1915, since the latter were Soviet agents. If that is so, then they were to be acclaimed also as prophets, since the Russian Revolution lay two years in the future; the formation of the Soviet Union, another five years down the line after that. I remember confronting The Forward’s editor about this mendacious bit of science fiction. But let’s return to the new assault against truth and decency by Mr. Yevdayev and Tablet. As regards Hitler, yes, it is true some Armenians in this country were among fascist sympathizers of various ethnic backgrounds— Italian, German, Hungarian, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the whole Heinz 57— in the 1930s. But most Armenian Americans were anti-Nazi. 

It is worth remembering one of those anti-Nazi American Armenians. He is nearly forgotten today, but he should not be. The investigative reporter who did the most to expose fascist movements in the US of the 1930s— Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, the Silver Shirts, the German-American Bund, the America Firsters, and the rest— was an Armenian survivor of the Genocide, Avedis Derounian, who grew up in my own home neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.

Derounian got into undercover investigative reporting because he understood that the genocidal murderers of 1915 were the mentors of the fascists of a generation later. He infiltrated fascist groups, posing as an Italian-American supporter of Mussolini, and wrote under the pen name John Roy Carlson. His report in Fortunemagazine spurred Congressional investigations. His later book, Under Cover, became a national bestseller during World War II. I knew him briefly in the last years of his life when he would spend his days quietly in the B’nai Brith library in Manhattan— I then worked for the Armenian Diocese on 34th Street and Second Avenue (it was the best job I’ve had in my lifetime) and Avedis and I talked on the phone. During the McCarthy era, American Dashnaks had smeared Avedis as pro-Bolshevik, and his career never really recovered. When I knew him he was a very quiet, broken man. But let him be crowned with glory. He was a true hero. 

And here is something that may interest you. In 1933, the same year Hitler came to power, a Czech Jew named Franz Werfel published, in German, his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It became an international bestseller. It’s about the Armenian Genocide. The word “genocide” was actually coined only in 1942, by a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin: he wanted there to be legal terminology to describe the systematic and premeditated mass extermination of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey in 1915. That massacre was a blueprint for the Holocaust. Hitler admired it. The future commandant of Auschwitz as a young soldier took part in it. But the people of five farming villages on the wooded slopes of Musa Dagh— the Mountain of Moses, near the Mediterranean coast not far from modern Iskenderun— refused the Turkish deportation order and fought back, holding off the regular army till a French battleship rescued them.

Dashnak papers like the Hairenik in Boston featured Werfel’s book tour in America. They reprinted sermons by Rabbis declaring that the killing of the Armenians by the Turks was a portent of what Germany was planning. In the event, Jewish partisans and Warsaw Ghetto fighters drew inspiration from Polish and Yiddish editions of Werfel’s book. In the Land of Israel, the Yishuv planned what it called its Musa Dagh— its own last stand, our Alamo— on Mt. Carmel, should the Wehrmacht break through to “Palestine.” It is true that some Dashnaks were pro-Nazi, but plainly there was no unanimity on this issue. One requires nuance and context to write history— but Yevdayev and Tablet, by presenting a tendentiously selective recital of facts, are promoting not history but its opposite. Propaganda. The Big Lie. 

If one is to believe Yevdayev, Azeris are so damn philo-Semitic that we should drop everything, join hands, dance the hora, sing Hatikvah, and then ejaculate. But it’s also worth remembering a Russian Jew who grew up in Baku. Lev Nussimbaum loved the romantic East, fled the Transcaucasus after the Revolution, settled in Berlin as many emigres did, and wrote a novel in German, Ali and Nino, about the romance of an Azeri boy and Georgian girl in the turbulent days of the Dashnak, Menshevik, and Mussavatist republics. The villain of the book is a wicked, jealous Armenian named Nakhararian who periodically threatens the couple with his big, black, powerful motorcar. (Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.) Nussimbaum had converted to Islam and taken the name Kurban Said.

When the Nazis came to power, Azeri sympathizers with the regime angrily rejected him as a fellow Muslim and denounced him to the Gestapo as a Jew. So much for Azerbaijan’s philo-Semitism. Said managed to get to Italy, where life was precarious but there was less grass-roots racialist fanaticism to be found. I am happy to report that he died in peace. His gravestone is inscribed attractively in Persian script and is topped by a stone turban. Unfortunately, “putting the hat on somebody” is a Persian expression for deception, though: the gifted artist had been taken in by his own infatuation, perhaps. Ali and Nino is a very Azerophile (let’s coin the word) novel, complete with a strong draught of Armenophobia. But if Azeris had had their way, its author would have died in a gas chamber.

Yevdayev does not say a word about any of this stuff— Musa Dagh, Armenian anti-fascists, Kurban Said, nay, the very Armenian Genocide itself. Nor does he mention another inconvenient truth: in the wake of the Genocide, Azeris carried out massacres of Armenians in Baku and elsewhere, including the city of Shushi (Azeri Shusha). The latter, with its ancient cathedral, was the spiritual and cultural heart of the ancient Armenian region of Artsakh— the place now called in a mixture of Russian, Turkish, and Persian “Nagorno-Karabagh,” meaning “Mountainous Black Garden.” In 1930, the Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda traveled through the town and were terrified by the blackened ruins and deathly silence. Murdered Armenian Shushi was still an open grave. But Yevdayev’s handlers, and their accomplices at Tablet, have the chutzpah to pretend that the killers are the victims! As the Prophet said to king Ahab, Ha-ratsachta ve-gam yarashta, “Is it not enough that you murdered? Would you be the victim’s heir as well?” Evil men are never content with mere untruth: nothing will satisfy them but the truth’s very opposite. For shame.

It is a fact, as Yevdayev reports, that two Dashnak leaders, Dro Kanayan and Garegin Nzhdeh, formed a unit of the Wehrmacht. But it is not the whole truth, and is presented so selectively as to be, yet again, the mere buttress propping up a further lie. I have never discovered any evidence that the Armenian unit participated actively in the crimes of the Holocaust. On the contrary, Soviet Armenian prisoners of war volunteered for the unit in order to escape the concentration camps in which they were imprisoned and have a chance to save their own lives. For Red Army captives were treated just as badly as Jews by the Nazis. One notes in passing that there were Turkic units of the Wehrmacht, far more numerous than the Armenian one, as well as a Bosnian Muslim volunteer corps that needed no threats or coercion. Come to that, Germany cobbled together Dutch, Danish, and even an English unit. Some of the Wehrmacht’s Armenian troops took their enlistment as a chance to try to escape back to Russia, to their own lines: that is why the Nazis transferred them from the Russian front, which desperately needed cannon-fodder, to… guarding strategic vineyards in the south of France! Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Armenians fought and died for the Allies in the Great Patriotic War, some of them led by a fellow Soviet Armenian, Marshal Baghramian, commander of the Belorussian front. I knew one of those humble foot soldiers, one of those quiet heroes.

I was in Erevan, the Armenian capital, on the day of Baghramian’s death in the early 1980s, and one of the city’s principal avenues, Barekamut’iun (“Friendship”), was promptly named after him. I never had the honor to meet Marshal Baghramian, but nearly a decade before his passing, on one hot summer day in 1973, a middle-aged man had stopped me on Sayat Nova street in Erevan and invited me to his home for a cool drink. I guess with my long hair and hippie-ish attire I must have stood out as a foreigner from a mile away. We sat on the balcony, his wife brought refreshments, and he pointed to photos of his younger self in an album. “I walked on these” (pointing at his feet) “from here all the way to the liberation of Prague.” I was nineteen. I don’t recall his name and I’m older now than he was then. But when I watch the movie that had just come out then, Belorusskii Vokzal, “Belorussian Station,” and sing Bulat Okudzhava’s song about the war at the end, Zdes’ ptitsy ne poyut, “Here the birds don’t sing,, and start to cry (just writing this, the tears started rolling down my face, no, it is too ridiculous, muttered Pnin), I remember him. What was his name? What were their names? They were Armenians, Jews, Russians, Georgians, Azeris, Uzbeks. Hovhannes, Vasya, Volodya, Borya, Beso, Yasha, Akhmet— thank you all.

The thirty-year war between the Armenians of the enclave of Karabagh and the surrounding state of Azerbaijan began because the Stalinist regime had fixed boundaries and shaped enclaves that guaranteed future problems— much as the lines drawn in the Middle Eastern sands by the Sykes-Picot agreement at the end of World War I were, in David Frumkin’s felicitous phrase, a peace to end all peace. Armenia is a very small survivor-state, ethnically almost homogeneous. There are non-Armenians in the country, to be sure: the Armenians have always been friends, and protectors when possible, of the Yezidi Kurds, and I have visited the peaceable Yezidi village of Ria Taza on Mt. Aragats. But few other national minorities reside in Armenia. Armenian and Christian identity are coterminous, and aside from some intermarriages and converts there is no such thing as an Armenian Jew. Maybe there were once: ancient sources mention them, so it is likely they became one nucleus of nascent Christianity in the country. Armenian has many Hebrew loan words related to religion: Armenian k’ahana, a priest, from Hebrew kohenmas, sanctified bread, from matzah;bema, a reading table for Scripture, from bimah; and gaghut’, diaspora, from galut

Armenians, like Jews, have many Diaspora communities, so hundreds of thousands of Armenians lived in the Soviet Transcaucasus but outside the boundaries of the new republic, both in big cities like Tbilisi and Baku, and in rural areas like Akhalkalaki and Karabagh. In the course of carving up the region, Moscow assigned both Karabagh and the Armenian district of Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan: the latter was ethnically cleansed of Armenians (more on that presently), and is now a quiet, in fact very quiet, Azeri exclave. (Exclave, because it has no common border with the state of which it forms a part. Quiet, because graveyards are.) BBC Travel recently published a gushy travel story about how ecologically, ah, clean it is. Might one more accurately put it, (ethnically) cleansed?

Armenian districts elsewhere in Georgia and Azerbaijan endured; however ethnic tensions grew as the Brezhnev régime allowed, even encouraged, local nationalisms in a ploy to divide et impera. Karabagh Armenians began to demand autonomy, and the Azeris responded with sanguinary pogroms in 1988-1990 in Sumgait, Baku, and elsewhere. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Transcaucasian nations separately declared their independence, full-scale war erupted. The Armenians got the upper hand, and in the early 1990s they conquered not only Karabagh but the regions around it, thereby achieving strategic depth. But that came at a terrible cost: about a million Azeri and Kurdish Muslims were expelled from their homes and most lived for three decades in wretched conditions. It is estimated that on both sides, some thirty thousand people died. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forced to flee Azerbaijan: many went to Armenia and Russia, but some made their way to the US. I met one of these in Boston, a quiet, pleasant man from Baku who was, like his father, a shoemaker. He had seen his father murdered by Azeris in cold blood. Not a Dashnak activist erecting statues of Nazi collaborators or renaming subway stations after chauvinist fools. Not a guerrilla drunk on imbecilic irredentist fantasies. A shoemaker. A worker. An innocent man. In Boston I also met an Azeri woman from Erevan, a physician married to an Armenian. She told me there were a few Azeris there, most of whom survived by staying as anonymous as possible. But some had been murdered. 

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was not the only party on the block. Civil war erupted in 1992 in Georgia, to the north: the ancient and lovely cosmopolitan metropolis of Tbilisi was scarred by artillery fire, and Abkhazian and then Ossetian separatists broke away from Georgia. They did so with the help of Putin, who bit off chunks of the country’s territory and strongly asserted the Caucasus as part of Moscow’s sphere of influence. To be fair, he did so even as the Americans, breaking one promise after another to the Russian Federation, admitted the Eastern European and Baltic states into NATO and brazenly interfered in the Ukraine, supporting the nationalist coup d’état there. Armenia and Russia signed a defense pact: Russia got to station its forces on Armenian territory, with the promise they would guarantee Armenia’s security, were it to be invaded. In lieu of the repayment of loans Russia gained control of Armenian utilities: electricity, gas, water. Erevan city hall became the headquarters of the Russian embassy. The country became a pawn, with no choice in the matter. It is landlocked, with no important natural resources. It is also rife with corruption. 

As though that were not enough, since independence, Diaspora Armenians from the Middle East have flooded into the little country, some bringing with them the unwanted baggage of the racialist bigotry and medieval hatreds they acquired in the Arab world, including the anti-Semitism that many people in Arab and Islamic countries seem to imbibe with their mothers’ milk. One such creature, who became Armenia’s ambassador to the Gulf Emirates, if you please, informed me over coffee in the summer of 2002 that Jews kidnap and kill Christian children and use their blood to bake our Passover matzos. He said this, without a flicker of shame, to my face. My friend Garnik Asatrian, one of the world’s few truly great scholars of Iranian languages, exploded but to no effect. The man had his opinions and was not about to be swayed by the facts. His example is not unique. A friend who reported for the semi-official newspaper Hayastani Hanrapetut’iun (“Republic of Armenia”) told me back in 1998 that a sort of rubbishy chauvinist mysticism: “Aryan” racial theory, pseudo-linguistics in support of “autocthony”, etc.— had taken hold after the disappearance of Marxism-Leninism. The sleep of reason, said Francisco Goya, produces monsters. 

Turkey blockaded Armenia after the first Karabagh war, and Armenia’s already shaky economy plunged from very bad to abysmal. Turkey is Sunni and was then pro-Western; its perennial rival, Iran, is Shia and was and is sort of pro-Russian and is decidedly anti-Western. Armenia’s southern Kapan corridor, sandwiched between Nakhichevan (the Azeri exclave, yes, I know it’s a lot of long words, but they will all be on the exam), provided a land border with Iran. To call it a lifeline might be an exaggeration, but in the circumstances it was a great help. About ten years ago I spent some weeks in Erevan, in a pleasant little apartment belonging to Professor Asatrian. Every morning I brewed Iranian tea over an Iranian-made gas burner and enjoyed it with a piece of rahat lokum  (Turkish Delight is the English name for the candy) from nearby Iranian Tabriz. An hour or two later I’d be waiting at a café for a friend while listening in on the conversations in Persian at nearby tables: Iranians rent or even buy holiday apartments in Armenia, where they can take off their veils, drink alcohol, and enjoy other pleasures that are frowned upon at home. As far as Armenia is concerned, Iran is a very good neighbor indeed. 

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, meanwhile, forged an alliance with its ethnic brethren in Turkey. It became friendly with Israel, too. Iran may be an innocuous trading partner for Armenia, but it presents a different face towards the Jewish state: its government denies the Holocaust, sponsors terrorist attacks, reprints the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, calls for Israel’s annihilation, funds Hezbollah and Hamas, and is trying to make an atomic bomb. The Iranian people are traditional friends of the Jews, and Iranian Jews are Iranian to the core. It is the present regime that has made of itself, stupidly and unnecessarily, an existential enemy. Turkey, till the accession of the present Muslim Brotherhood dictator Erdogan, was by contrast very friendly to Israel, though it demanded as the price of amity that the Israeli government decline officially to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Israel acceded— as does the United States. Azerbaijan, Turkey’s bosom partner, was only too happy to sell Israel oil, benefit from Israeli diplomatic ties (the Jews control not just Hollywood but all of America and possibly the Moon, remember?), and buy Israeli high-tech weaponry. Israel in exchange rents listening posts and landing strips conveniently close to the Azeri-Iranian border. My brother Josh, who knows a lot more than I do about military matters, tells me that Azerbaijan won the recent war with Armenia thanks to the adoption of the US tactic of using small fighting units, and the employment of armed aerial drones, both Israeli- and Turkish-made, to target armor and artillery emplacements. Both sides used cluster bombs and missiles on each other’s civilians, killing thousands of innocent people. The Azeris did not bomb Armenia proper, so Russia was not obliged to intervene and possibly risk thereby an incident involving direct fighting with Turkish forces helping the Azeris. Were Erdogan to claim Russian aggression, NATO might be obliged to intervene then on Turkey’s side. That could start World War III, even as the automatic invocation of interlocking treaty obligations made inevitable the outbreak of World War I.

Instead, just as Azerbaijan was on the point of annihilating the Armenians of Karabagh, Putin brokered a five-year ceasefire, thereby averting a worse massacre, pleasing both Erdogan and Aliyev, and letting Russia’s Armenian clients know, in no uncertain terms, that the tail here doesn’t wag the dog. Peace, such as it is, is to be enforced by a few thousand Russian soldiers. Armenia is required to withdraw from all the buffer districts it captured around Karabagh: thousands of Armenian residents have been fleeing in terror, burning their homes and destroying infrastructure as they go. God knows what will become of them. Azerbaijan is reassuming sovereignty and refugees are returning to the shells of their own old homes— which the Armenians had destroyed. It is an appalling human tragedy, and both sides are deeply embittered. 

Azerbaijan holds Shushi (in Azeri, Shusha), which is on the high ground above Karabagh’s largest city, Stepanakert. The final status of that city and the rest of Karabagh/Artsakh is not specified by the ceasefire agreement, though the sanctity of religious buildings is guaranteed and Azerbaijan has pledged to protect civilians. Given the implacable mutual hatred of the two sides, I don’t give the ceasefire a chance, and there could easily be a massacre of the Armenians left in Stepanakert and elsewhere. There are too few peacekeepers to make that much of a difference; and if Putin steps down, as has been intimated, the interregnum in Russia could be chaotic but at all events would divert attention from the Caucasus. One recalls that after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian imperial army, which had been there for a century, just went home, leaving the locals to their own devices. Among other things, Turkey invaded Russian Armenia in 1918 and began massacring people, hoping to finish the job begun a few years previously on its own territory. History could repeat itself.

What looks like a coup for Putin may actually turn out to be more of a win down the line for Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman, Islamist pretensions. The Turkish strongman has recently asserted a claim to Jerusalem, too. All of which means that in supporting Azerbaijan, for all the soberest and strongest of Realpolitik reasons, Netanyahu may have just handed a key victory to a real enemy of the Jewish people. Congratulations to all involved, and especially to the useful (and, doubtless, handsomely compensated) idiots of media outlets such as Tablet magazine. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, they say. But I prefer Holy Scripture. They who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. This mess could in future involve Israel, too.

Yevdayev wants his Tablet readers to be convinced that Armenians are steeped in Jew-hatred and anybody sympathetic to them must be a traitor, a dupe, or a fool. For Israel to back Azerbaijan against them is not, in his view, just geopolitically sound, but morally right. That isn’t really so. 

Is there Armenian anti-Semitism? Yes. Armenians are human beings, not angels, and unfortunately the hatred of Jews seems to be hard-wired into Christian civilization, the casting of whose central drama requires a villain. A new sort of anti-Semitism, the special hatred of Israel and Zionism, has also become the main issue and the only unifying factor of Islamist and Middle East politics. Armenians as Christians and Middle Easterners are often both “old” and “new” anti-Semites. Just as Black people in America encounter color prejudice so often that many see it as systemic, I have found anti-Semitism to pervade the conscious and subconscious attitudes of many Armenians I’ve met in the course of a long life. Such a life corrodes the soul: in the course of four decades in the field one endured both small personal slights and public abuse of cartoonish virulence. Eighteen years ago there was an unforgettable full-page defamation in The Armenian Reporter, a New York-based rag, which accused me, the author of many articles on the art and symbolism of the Holy Cross in Armenian culture, of professing a religion that spits and tramples on the Cross. (More on crosses presently.) The authors of the piece were ignorant thugs undeserving of any human respect. What was more troubling was the universal silence after one asked friends in the Church and community to publicly condemn the attack. Nobody did.

Once I even merited a death threat— a surprise, as usually only famous people get those. After a lecture on the Epic of Sasun to the participants in a summer study program in Erevan, a black-garbed patriot confronted and accused one of suppressing the “fact” that the Armenians are the ancient Sumerians (they aren’t), because one belongs to the International Levite Conspiracy. I don’t know what that is, but suppose it’s a rung or two above the mere Elders of Zion, with their Protocols. He said, in the presence of the astonished University of Michigan students, that I’d be killed if I visited the country again. I told him not to waste the opportunity and try to kill me then and there. When he hesitated, I remarked that fascists are often cowards. “I’m not a fascist,” he protested. “All men are brothers.” Well then, I suggested, if you’re a man, act like one. “How do I do that?” Let’s have a cup of tea, I proposed. So we did. The incident, thankfully, had wound down into whimsical absurdity, but it is unforgettable. 

There seems to be no end to it. When the recent fighting began between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a pro-Armenian Italian I’ve never met took the trouble to find my email address and send me an anti-Semitic hate letter. Obviously as an elderly retired scholar in an obscure California town I’m at the very center of Israeli policy planning and arms manufacturing. Jews are always a convenient target for professional haters: various countries, including the USA, do not recognize the Armenian Genocide. But let’s blame Israel. Israel was by no means Azerbaijan’s sole source of arms. That doesn’t matter, if one is in search of a scapegoat. I told colleagues about the letter. None, except for a few fellow Jews, offered a single word of personal consolation. The epitaph of humanity could well be: Nobody cares.

But when it comes to hatred, vulgarity, and stupidity, nobody has a monopoly, either. Let’s get back to crosses, shall we? In the 1990s, Azerbaijan systematically removed and destroyed over ten thousand medieval khach’k’ars— elaborately filigreed stone crosses with inscriptions and bas-reliefs— at the cemetery of Julfa in the ethnically-cleansed, former Armenian exclave of Nakhichevan. The site is near the border on the Araxes, so photographers on the Iranian side of the river were able to document the worst act of cultural desecration and vandalism since the Second World War. I organized an exhibition of before-and-after photographs of the monuments, and a scholarly symposium, under the auspices of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. An Azeri student physically assaulted me, twice, on the day of the opening; and later the same day the ambassador of Azerbaijan personally telephoned the president of Harvard to accuse me of being an Armenian terrorist. He neglected to note that, as a Jew, I supposedly spit upon and trample the Christian emblem. Perhaps he was annoyed that his countrymen forgot to do that while digging up and smashing the crosses at Julfa and loading the bits onto trucks!

Here are my credentials as an Armenian terrorist: a few years before that exhibit and conference on Julfa I was shopping on the way home from work at Sage’s grocery store on Mt. Auburn Street, near my apartment on Memorial Drive. Two elderly ladies in the checkout line ahead of me were speaking Russian, and I offered to carry their heavy grocery bags for them. It turned out they were Azeri professors staying at the Charles Hotel, which was almost next door to me. I invited them to dinner the next evening, and they accepted. I cooked, set the table, waited. They never came: I suppose they suspected there would be a bomb in the pasta. You can’t trust those wily Armenian terrorists.

After some years I gave up on the poisonous swamp that is American academia, retired, and moved out here to Fresno. One of my pupils runs the Armenian studies program at the local branch of Cal State. I’ve not been invited in my four years here to lecture for the program, so far, though they are kindly publishing a book of mine. But having taught some Jewish studies and Biblical Hebrew language courses part-time on campus, one thus got invited— through the Jewish Studies program— to the Armenian program’s annual fundraising dinner two years ago. I sat down at the round table to which I’d been assigned. “I hate Israel,” said my neighbor by way of polite introduction. (I was wearing a yarmulke.) The gentleman, a local Armenian-American pharmacist, disapproved of Israel’s friendship with Azerbaijan and figured that insulting me would remedy the issue. I explained to him that, given the festive occasion, I would not rearrange his face right there, but would happily do so were he ever again to forget that after my lifetime of service to the field the only two words he had the right to say to me were these: Thank you. 

Another neighbor at the table, a portly, cheerful Armenian— from Damascus, Syria, as it happens— introduced himself as Koko (short for Krikor, i.e., Gregory) and added quietly, nodding at the druggist, “Don’t pay no attention to him, he full of bullshit.” Koko and I spent a great evening together talking about Armenian and Arabic language, and he showed up at my house some months later with the gift of a bottle of arak. 

A quiet life might be nice. I guess history, that nightmare in which, Delmore Schwartz famously said, he was just trying to get a good night’s sleep, has come banging on the bedroom door again. The best I can tell, this is what Clio is saying: American Jewish magazines should not sell their souls. Israel might take the long view on foreign policy and try not to play into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Iran ought to make peace with Israel— it would find a willing partner, would benefit enormously and instantly, and half the problems of the Middle East could vanish overnight. Armenians and Azeris should once and for all get over their mutual enmity. Turks should vote Erdogan out of office and become a truly open society, confronting their past with candor as Germany is trying to do. Americans might try to tear ourselves away from the latest season of whatever mind-numbing stuff we’re watching (in my case, Netflix’s “Lucifer”, which is quite good actually), and learn how to spell and pronounce names like Azerbaijan and get to know something about such places. Because another World War started with another “faraway country about which we know nothing”— as Neville Chamberlain said, in 1938, of Czechoslovakia.

Why study the Caucasus? Why care? It’s worth it, my friends. It’s Romantic with a capital letter. That’s one reason. There’s nothing like the brightly-lit cliffs over the Mtkvari river, crowned by the church of Metekhi: it’s evening in Tbilisi, you’re drinking wine with your friends, there’s music in the air, not just at your table but everywhere, because all over the city people are drinking wine with their friends and singing to the health of their hosts, and beautiful women are serving platters of divine food, and Georgian choral song is one of the proofs of the existence of God. Tbilisi airport is named after the 12th-century national poet Shota Rustaveli, whose epic romance, The Man in the Panther’s Skin, is about a knight both torn and driven by love. Imagine naming the Washington airport, not after a politician, but after Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, or Hart Crane. Or Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Blok, Mandelstam, or Brodsky, instead of Pulkovo. Or Rimbaud or Verlaine, instead of Charles de Gaulle. Or Philip Larkin, instead of Heathrow. The Erevan airport, Zvartnots’, is the ancient name of a particular class of angels of the heavenly court, the Awakened or Vigilant ones— nearby are the ruins of the early medieval concentric church (so strangely like an Ethiopian one!) that bears their name. In 1973 I listened to the harmony of fat honeybees buzzing around a fountain near those ruins and drifted off into musing about how Armenian meghu, “bee,” and meghr, “honey,” are related to Greek Melissa. There was an Azeri singer, Rashid Behbudov, whose romances were often in all three languages, Azeri, Armenian, and Persian. The first time in my adult life that I rode a horse, it was a white horse named Tufan, which means “Storm” in Persian, and we galloped through the surf of the Arabian Sea on Chowpatty Beach in Bombay during the monsoon. Later that evening I listened to Behbudov on my Walkman and could not sleep for the excitement of being in the East, in the East. When I hear Azeri Turkish I think of a white horse, the stormy sky, the surf, and the jasmine flowers whose scent suffuses India in the rainy season.

Reason number two is more down-to-earth moral and less romantic, though there is not and should not be a barrier between conscience and imagination.

Back when I taught at Harvard, I sometimes used to take the bus to Watertown in the evening to dine with two friends in their little apartment on the second floor of one of those suburban Boston frame houses. Watertown, the city next-door to Cambridge, has a large Armenian community. (You can see some of Watertown in the movie “Patriots Day.” I was once introduced to the future Boston Marathon bomber when he was a lifeguard working at Blodgett Pool at Harvard, where I used to swim every day. He gave me the creeps. But that’s another story.) Peter and Flora Zakarian, may their memory be a blessing, were in their eighties. Flora had been a public school and Armenian Sunday school teacher all her life. Peter was from Chelsea and had been the only non-Jew on his school’s basketball team. He worked many decades for The Boston Globe. Their families were from Harput, and they were the generation without grandparents— their parents’ parents had died on the death marches into the desert void of Deir ez-Zor. When I went to Turkey I collected some stones for them from the Veri Tagh— the upper district, as they called it in dialect— of Harput. The autumn evening I brought the little packet of stones to Watertown; they had a special bottle ready, and kissed the stones, and put them in the bottle, and Flora cried, “Oh, Peter, these stones are from Harput!” And then we walked past the piano with the Hymnal propped up before it, into the little dining room with its framed needlepoint of the Our Father in Armenian, and sat down to dinner together. 

The Zakarians are the other, maybe more important, reason I studied that faraway region. In fact they justify everything one’s encountered on the road of this life. A mighty fortress is our God, says the Psalm, then the Hymn. Peter and Flora, and some other older Armenian friends and teachers like them, made a very deep impression on my youth. They were to me what is solid, wholesome, truthful and decent, a rock in this dark and turbulent sea. The Armenians are an ancient and honorable people whose way of life is founded upon faith, family and hard work, and that way of life goes back thousands of years.

To see them fleeing burning homes again is the return, in waking reality, of what had become a nightmare. There should be no more “generation without grandparents,” not again. Armenians are human beings with the right to a house and hearth, children, a vine and fig tree, and peace. Azeris have the same right, and so do you and so do I, no more and no less. This war has paused, but the horror has not, and I fear the darkness may intensify and ruin all the good of human creativity and labor, and spread far beyond the slopes of the Caucasus. Peace is the foundation of human rights; war, the error that leads to every human wrong. 

We must think carefully, my learned Muslim Turkish friend and colleague Himmet Tashkomur once said, of what kind of a world we want to live in. One was drafting this essay on 22 November 2020, the anniversary of the day when John F. Kennedy was taken from us. I remember every minute of that terrible day, as well as the President’s voice with its eastern Massachusetts accent. It was an articulate, eloquent, charitable voice of the kind my parents remembered from the Depression-era fireside chats of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In those New England cadences is Peter Zakarian’s voice, and that of Helen Sahagian, my crusty old friend from the Armenian Progressive League who used to prop up Cambridge’s Café Pamplona. Dear God, how I miss them. Well, there is nothing for it but to try as hard as we possibly can to labor to be worthy of them, of the gift of having known them. To pray and work for peace, for justice, for equality, for brotherhood, for mutual understanding, for the wise stewardship of this small planet. Blessed are the peacemakers, said the greatest Jew Who ever lived. 

JFK said, not many months before his death:

“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace in all time… With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever… So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal… ‘When a man’s ways please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, ‘he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.’ And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence?”

Azerbaijan and Armenia, and all of us, have the human right to real peace. God grant us the wisdom to achieve it. 

1 reply »

  1. Thank you for this. A lot of it is new to me and unfamiliar (my family is also from Kharpert), but oh how I recognize the Zakarians and aspire to live up the good things my grandparents showed me. There is a lot to learn. May I suggest sometime a Zoom conference with the learned author, if he so chooses. But thank you so much for this, and I will look forward to more.

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