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The persistence of collective memories

The peoples of the Middle East region need to revise their histories

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

This is a year of reckoning with the memories of genocide, massacres, expulsion, famine and death marches in the deserts of the Middle East a century ago. This is a year of living through and witnessing massacres, famine, displacement of minorities and death marches in the same cursed region. What makes the centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide, the famine that ravaged Lebanon and Syria, the rape and abduction of countless women and children, and the endless trekking of refugees in 1915 spine chilling today, is the cruel realization that we are bearing witness to similar atrocities against the descendants of some of the same groups and minorities that were brutalized one hundred years ago. When we look at the Armenian genocide in the context of a world war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with its complex intermingled populations, we see that the more than million Armenian victims of the genocide, were the primary but not the only targets of cleansing Ottoman lands of Christians and other non-Muslim groups such as the Assyrians, Yazidis and Greeks.

Then and now

The Ottomans began cleansing Anatolia of its non-Turkish populations decades before their systematic war against the Armenians in 1915, a process that continued until the mid-1920s, in which the well-established Armenian, Greek and Assyrian communities were subjected to genocide, massacres and expulsion. The horrors of 1915 were preceded by violent spasms, that spoke of the greater annihilation to come; the massacre of 20 thousand Armenians in Adana in 1909, and the mass killings of Assyrians during the Great War (estimated 200 thousands killed), the burning of Smyrna (Izmir) once a truly cosmopolitan Mediterranean city in 1922, and finally the 1924 Turkish/Greek population exchange. Today the perpetrators of mass killings, the expulsion of minorities including the Christians, Assyrians and the Yazidis, and those carrying out sectarian cleansing of Shiites and Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, are both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, as well as sectarian non-state actors and/or allies such as Hezbollah, and ISIS, among others.

Armenians and the legacies of World War I

Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution in conjunction with the Carnegie Endowment and MIT Center for International Studies held a one day conference to discuss the Armenians and the legacies of World War I. The purpose of the conference as Fiona Hill, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings said was to try to understand how the debate about the Armenian genocide has evolved from the context of World War I to 2015; noting that ‘today in 2015 we are all bearing witness to other atrocities in the Middle East…So today’s events in the Middle East are creating new trauma and cycles of collective grievance and recrimination’.

The persistence of collective memories

I was asked to participate in the panel that tried to connect the horrors of the distant past to the calamities unfolding today in the former Ottoman lands of the Levant and Iraq. Its title explains itself: 2015 and its horrors: a century after 1915. I was recruited to this task because of my writings on this website, particularly the one titled ‘The twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity’. I have always been intrigued by the power of entrenched collective memories, so I chose to address this thorny issue by fusing my family history, my upbringing in Beirut and the current unraveling of the brittle political order that emerged from the wreckage of the Great War.

I began by saying that I am not a historian of Turkey or Armenia, but that I am one of those journalists who write the first tentative drafts of history, before the professional historians botch them by rewriting them. In 1915 and afterwards, the former lands of the Ottoman Empire went through a historic transformation. The transition, coming after the western colonial powers impose their new political order, was difficult, tragic and its wrenching memories were passed from one generation to the next. One century later, we are going through another hellish transition, and no one knows when it will end and what it will bring in its wake.

The aristocracy of pain

Today the Levant and Iraq (but also Libya, Yemen and to a lesser extent Lebanon and even Egypt) are lands populated by mostly marginalized peoples who see themselves as victims; victims of authoritarianism, discrimination, sectarianism and other forms of disenfranchisement. Many of them have elevated their victimhood into the highest level of an imaginary hierarchy of pain. The collective pain of the community and the collective memory of that pain is the stuff of mythology with some groups. The motto is: my pain is more genuine than yours, it is nobler. Is there really such a thing as the aristocracy of pain? I have always wondered. Clearly, there are legal and moral distinctions between, massacres, atrocities, and genocide. And then there is the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Many people are flippant in their use (and understanding) of these complex terms. But if you have lost your family in a massacre, genocide or in the Holocaust, the personal loss and the personal pain are felt the same, even though the context in which the loss occurred is very important politically and historically.

The peoples of the Middle East region need to revise their histories; and this applies to Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds and Israelis, to Jews, Muslims and Christians

Hisham Melhem

I believe in personal and collective moral responsibility, which I don’t equate with collective guilt. And while I don’t believe in inherited collective guilt, I do believe that societies should own their histories. Those Germans who lived through the horrors of the Nazi era and its wars and the Holocaust are morally responsible for those monstrosities. Societies, should own their histories good or bad just as individuals should own their negative or positive past. The Turks today are still struggling with the terrible legacies of a century ago. And Turkish society will remain a torturous one unless it deals openly and critically with its past. When Turkey does that, there will be a collective sigh of relief.

As was noted during the conference post war Germany exorcised its Nazi demons openly and honestly. But Germany is the exception. States with dark histories (and most states, particularly old and large ones have such histories) rarely engage in self-criticism or apologize to their victims (the indigenous populations and the descendants of the slaves in America for example).

A history of violence

We don’t have to go back to 1915, or the Great War and its aftermath to speak of moral responsibility for the killings of millions of civilians in cold blood; Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Jews and others. In my life time, more than one Arab leader was accused of committing war crimes or crimes against humanity. I struggled with many Arabs when Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq waged a genocidal war against the Kurds, and committed atrocities against the Shiites in the South including destroying their way of life and turning their traditional wet lands into a desert. There was no collective outcry in the Arab world. There were other atrocities committed against ethnic and religious groups in the Arab world, and they were met with the same collective silence.

Childhood memories

I grew up close to an Armenian neighborhood outside Beirut. I went to school with Armenian kids, and in my early teen years I knew enough Armenians to converse with the parents of my Armenian friends who spoke poor Arabic. (Elder Armenians would converse in Turkish, and I was happy to enrich my vocabulary of cuss words by adding to it colorful Turkish ones). The horror stories of Armenian genocide, that my friends heard from their parents and relayed to me, reinforced my own family history of horror emanating from the last days of Ottoman rule in Lebanon. As I narrated in my article about the ‘The twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity’, my paternal grandfather Elias Habib was abducted by the Ottoman army and taken along with thousands of young able bodied Christian men from the Levant to do slave labor in Anatolia. I don’t know how many times my grandmother Martha would tell me the story of his suffering and her loss, how my father was a lone child, and how she would never forgive or forget. Obviously, I channeled her raw hatred of those ‘monstrous Turks who killed your grandfather’. The power of personal tragedies being transmitted through loved ones to impressionistic children is immense. The Turks were thoroughly demonized in our collective memories. I brought my memories with me when I came to America in 1972. With the passage of time, learning the history of the Great War and the Ottomans, meeting and befriending Turks and visiting Istanbul, I finally exorcised my own demons, and escaped my own trap. But it took me a long time to liberate myself from the pull of collective memories. Intellectually I can talk about the family history, but I have to admit that emotionally I may not be able to completely get over it.

The history of today

When we look at what is happening in Syria and Iraq we see flashes of the Great War. The death marches in the deserts in 1915 involved Armenians, Assyrians and Yezidis. We have seen the grainy black and white photos, of haggard women and crying children. We have seen the empty eyes of emaciated mothers clutching the bodies of their bloated children during the darkest days of the famine in Lebanon and Syria. The death marches in 2015 are not that different. The victims today are also Christians, Assyrians, and Yazidis. In 1915 the Yazidis of Sinjar Mountains in Iraq were subjected to atrocities at the hands of the Ottomans and their auxiliaries, including the abduction and raping of women; a century later ISIS subjected the Yazidis to similar atrocities. Today, we see the death marches in real time and on YouTube, and the photos, of the victims of the deliberate famine imposed by the Syrian regime on some communities, are not grainy but sharp and in color. We go back a full century and do we see? The horrors of our present day.

Living in the past

Collective memories die hard. Today there is an Assyrian father telling his son that his mother was abducted by ISIS and sold to slavery. There is a Christian mother telling her daughter that her father was killed because he was Christian; there is an old Yazidi man still looking for members of his family who were driven out from their ancestral villages by the marauding ISIS killers. But this is no longer a tragic chronicle of the travails of minorities. The sectarian bloodletting by Sunnis and Shiites and the resulting cleansings encouraged by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes have created countless of orphans and widows. And their sad stories are being passed to their children, who will pass it years later to their own children, creating a hundred years of cycles of bitter collective memories. And many of these children may not be as lucky as I was and escape those vicious cycles, particularly since there those politicians and intellectuals who embellish and exaggerate the painful collective memories for their own parochial interests.

Collective memories of tragedies can have their positive side. They can be cathartic. It is important for the community to honor and remember its victims, but it is another thing to use their memories for political revenge, or to even ‘commercialize’ the memories and benefit from them, or to embellish the tragedy and to perpetuate the aristocracy of pain. The peoples of the Middle East region need to revise their histories; and this applies to Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds and Israelis, to Jews, Muslims and Christians. The words of Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist who was assassinated in 2007, were invoked during the conference. They were directed to Turks and Armenians. But they are true to all the peoples of the region and they are more relevant today than ever: ‘come; let us first understand each other. Come; let us first respect each other’s pain. Come; let us first let one another live’. It is high time to say; enough is enough, and never again.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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