Writing with an Ear to the Ground: The Armenian Genocide's "Stubborn Murmur"





Armenian Genocide, ANZAC Day, Kemal Ataturk, Turkey, World War I, Albany, transgenerational trauma

How to Cite

Polain, M. K. (2013). Writing with an Ear to the Ground: The Armenian Genocide’s "Stubborn Murmur". M/C Journal, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.591
Vol. 16 No. 1 (2013): catastrophe
Published 2013-03-19

1909–22: Turkey exterminated over 1.5 million of its ethnically Armenian, and hundreds of thousands of its ethnically Greek and Assyrian, citizens. Most died in 1915. This period of decimation in now widely called the Armenian Genocide (Balakian 179-80).

1910: Siamanto first published his poem, The Dance: “The corpses were piled as trees, / and from the springs, from the streams and the road, / the blood was a stubborn murmur.”

When springs run red, when the dead are stacked tree-high, when “everything that could happen has already happened,” then time is nothing: “there is no future [and] the language of civilised humanity is not our language” (Nichanian 142).

2007: In my novel The Edge of the World a ceramic bowl, luminous blue, recurs as motif. Imagine you are tiny: the bowl is broken but you don’t remember breaking it. You’re awash with tears. You sit on the floor, gather shards but, no matter how you try, you can’t fix it.

Imagine, now, that the bowl is the sky, huge and upturned above your head.

You have always known, through every wash of your blood, that life is shockingly precarious. Silence—between heartbeats, between the words your parents speak—tells you: something inside you is terribly wrong; home is not home but there is no other home; you “can never be fully grounded in a community which does not share or empathise with the experience of persecution” (Wajnryb 130). This is the stubborn murmur of your body.

Because time is nothing, this essay is fragmented, non-linear. Its main characters: my mother, grandmother (Hovsanna), grandfather (Benyamin), some of my mother’s older siblings (Krikor, Maree, Hovsep, Arusiak), and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Ottoman military officer, Young Turk leader, first president of Turkey). 

1915–2013: Turkey invests much energy in genocide denial, minimisation and deflection of responsibility.

24 April 2012: Barack Obama refers to the Medz Yeghern (Great Calamity). The use of this term is decried as appeasement, privileging political alliance with Turkey over human rights. 

2003: Between Genocide and Catastrophe, letters between Armenian-American theorist David Kazanjian and Armenian-French theorist Marc Nichanian, contest the naming of the “event” (126). Nichanian says those who call it the Genocide are:

repeating every day, everywhere, in all places, the original denial of the Catastrophe. But this is part of the catastrophic structure of the survivor. By using the word “Genocide”, we survivors are only repeating […] the denial of the loss. We probably cannot help it. We are doing what the executioner wanted us to do […] we claim all over the world that we have been “genocided;” we relentlessly need to prove our own death. We are still in the claws of the executioner. We still belong to the logic of the executioner. (127)

1992: In Revolution and Genocide, historian Robert Melson identifies the Armenian Genocide as “total” because it was public policy intended to exterminate a large fraction of Armenian society, “including the families of its members, and the destruction of its social and cultural identity in most or all aspects” (26).

1986: Boyajian and Grigorian assert that the Genocide “is still operative” because, without full acknowledgement, “the ghosts won’t go away” (qtd. in Hovannisian 183). They rise up from earth, silence, water, dreams: Armenian literature, Armenian homes haunted by them.

2013: My heart pounds: Medz Yeghern, Aksor (Exile), Anashmaneli (Indefinable), Darakrutiun (Deportation), Chart (Massacre), Brnagaght (Forced migration), Aghed (Catastrophe), Genocide. 

I am awash. Time is nothing.

1909–15: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was both a serving Ottoman officer and a leader of the revolutionary Young Turks. He led Ottoman troops in the repulsion of the Allied invasion before dawn on 25 April at Gallipoli and other sites. Many troops died in a series of battles that eventually saw the Ottomans triumph.

Out of this was born one of Australia’s founding myths: Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs), courageous in the face of certain defeat. They are commemorated yearly on 25 April, ANZAC Day. To question this myth is to risk being labelled traitor.

1919–23: Ataturk began a nationalist revolution against the occupying Allies, the nascent neighbouring Republic of Armenia, and others. The Allies withdrew two years later. Ataturk was installed as unofficial leader, becoming President in 1923.

1920–1922: The last waves of the Genocide.

2007: Robert Manne published A Turkish Tale: Gallipoli and the Armenian Genocide, calling for a recontextualisation of the cultural view of the Gallipoli landings in light of the concurrence of the Armenian Genocide, which had taken place just over the rise, had been witnessed by many military personnel and widely reported by international media at the time. Armenian networks across Australia were abuzz. There were media discussions. I listened, stared out of my office window at the horizon, imagined Armenian communities in Sydney and Melbourne. Did they feel like me—like they were holding their breath?

Then it all went quiet.

Manne wrote: “It is a wonderful thing when, at the end of warfare, hatred dies. But I struggle to understand why Gallipoli and the Armenian Genocide continue to exist for Australians in parallel moral universes.”

1992: I bought an old house to make a home for me and my two small children. The rooms were large, the ceilings high, and behind it was a jacaranda with a sturdy tree house built high up in its fork.

One of my mother’s Armenian friends kindly offered to help with repairs. He and my mother would spend Saturdays with us, working, looking after the kids. Mum would stay the night; her friend would go home. But one night he took a sleeping bag up the ladder to the tree house, saying it reminded him of growing up in Lebanon. The following morning he was subdued; I suspect there were not as many mosquitoes in Lebanon as we had in our garden.

But at dinner the previous night he had been in high spirits. The conversation had turned, as always, to politics. He and my mother had argued about Turkey and Russia, Britain’s role in the development of the Middle East conflict, the USA’s roughshod foreign policy and its effect on the world—and, of course, the Armenian Genocide, and the killing
of Turkish governmental representatives by Armenians, in Australia and across the world, during the 1980s.

He had intimated he knew the attackers and had materially supported them. But surely it was the beer talking. Later, when I asked my mother, she looked at me with round eyes and shrugged, uncharacteristically silent.

2002: Greek-American diva Diamanda Galas performed Dexifiones: Will and Testament at the Perth Concert Hall, her operatic work for “the forgotten victims of the Armenian and Anatolian Greek Genocide” (Galas).

Her voice is so powerful it alters me.

1925: My grandmother, Hovsanna, and my grandfather, Benyamin, had twice been separated in the Genocide (1915 and 1922) and twice reunited. But in early 1925, she had buried him, once a prosperous businessman, in a swamp. Armenians were not permitted burial in cemeteries. Once they had lived together in a big house with their dozen children; now there were only three with her. Maree, half-mad and 18 years old, and quiet Hovsep, aged seven,walked. Then five-year-old aunt, Arusiak—small, hungry, tired—had been carried by Hovsanna for months. They were walking from Cilicia to Jerusalem and its Armenian Quarter. Someone had said they had seen Krikor, her eldest son, there. 

Hovsanna was pregnant for the last time. Together the four reached Aleppo in Syria, found a Christian orphanage for girls, and Hovsanna, her pregnancy near its end, could carry Arusiak no further. She left her, promising to return.

Hovsanna’s pains began in Beirut’s busy streets. She found privacy in the only place she could, under a house, crawled in.

Whenever my mother spoke of her birth she described it like this: I was born under a stranger’s house like a dog.

1975: My friend and I travelled to Albany by bus. After six hours we were looking down York Street, between Mount Clarence and Mount Melville, and beyond to Princess Royal Harbour, sapphire blue, and against which the town’s prosperous life—its shopfronts, hotels, cars, tourists, historic buildings—played out.

It took away my breath: the deep harbour, whaling history, fishing boats. Rain and sun and scudding cloud; cliffs and swells; rocky points and the white curves of bays. It was from Albany that young Western Australian men, volunteers for World War I, embarked on ships for the Middle East, Gallipoli, sailing out of Princess Royal Harbour.

1985: The Australian Government announced that Turkey had agreed to have the site of the 1915 Gallipoli landings renamed Anzac Cove. Commentators and politicians acknowledged it as historic praised Turkey for her generosity, expressed satisfaction that, 70 years on, former foes were able to embrace the shared human experience of war. We were justifiably proud of ourselves.

2005: Turkey made her own requests. The entrance to Albany’s Princess Royal Harbour was renamed Ataturk Channel. A large bronze statue of Ataturk was erected on the headland overlooking the Harbour entrance.

24 April 1915: In the town of Hasan Beyli, in Cilicia, southwest Turkey, my great grandfather, a successful and respected businessman in his 50s, was asleep in his bed beside his wife. He had been born in that house, as had his father, grandfather, and all his children. His brother, my great uncle, had bought the house next door as a young man, brought his bride home to it, lived there ever since; between the two households there had been one child after another. All the cousins grew up together.

My great grandfather and great uncle had gone to work that morning, despite their wives’ concerns, but had returned home early. The women had been relieved to see them. They made coffee, talked. Everyone had heard the rumours. Enemy ships were massing off the coast.

1978: The second time in Albany was my honeymoon. We had driven into the Goldfields then headed south. Such distance, such beautiful strangeness: red earth, red rocks; scant forests of low trees, thin arms outstretched; the dry, pale, flat land of Norseman. Shimmering heat. Then the big, wild coast.

On our second morning—a cool, overcast day—we took our handline to a jetty. The ocean was mercury; a  line of cormorants settled and bobbed. Suddenly fish bit; we reeled them in. I leaned over the jetty’s side, looked down into the deep. The water was clear and undisturbed save the twirling of a pike that looked like it had reversed gravity and was shooting straight up to me. Its scales flashed silver as it
broke the surface.

1982: How could I concentrate on splicing a film with this story in my head? Besides the desk, the only other furniture in the editing suite was a whiteboard. I took a marker and divided the board into three columns for the three generations: my grandparents, Hovsanna and Benyamin; my mother; someone like me. There was a lot in the first column, some in the second, nothing in the third. I stared at the blankness of my then-young life.

A teacher came in to check my editing. I tried to explain what I had been doing. “I think,” he said, stony-faced, “that should be your third film, not your first.”

When he had gone I stared at the reels of film, the white board blankness, the wall. It took 25 years to find the form, the words to say it: a novel not a film, prose not pictures.

2007: Ten minutes before the launch of The Edge of the World, the venue was empty. I made myself busy, told myself: what do you expect? Your research has shown, over and over, this is a story about which few know or very much care, an inconvenient, unfashionable story; it is perfectly in keeping that no-one will come.

When I stepped onto the rostrum to speak, there were so many people that they crowded the doorway, spilled onto the pavement.

“I want to thank my mother,” I said, “who, pretending to do her homework, listened instead to the story her mother told other Armenian survivor-women, kept that story for 50 years, and then passed it on to me.”

2013: There is a section of The Edge of the World I needed to find because it had really happened and, when it happened, I knew, there in my living room, that Boyajian and Grigorian (183) were right about the Armenian Genocide being “still operative.” But I knew even more than that: I knew that the Diaspora triggered by genocide is both rescue and weapon, the new life in this host nation both sanctuary and betrayal.

I picked up a copy, paced, flicked, followed my nose, found it:

On 25 April, the day after Genocide memorial-day, I am watching television. The Prime Minister stands at the ANZAC memorial in western Turkey and delivers a poetic and moving speech. My eyes fill with tears, and I moan a little and cover them. In his speech he talks about the heroism of the Turkish soldiers in their defence of their homeland, about the extent of their losses – sixty thousand men. I glance at my son. He raises his eyebrows at me. I lose count of how many times Kemal Ataturk is mentioned as the Father of Modern Turkey. I think of my grandmother and grandfather, and all my baby aunts and uncles […] I curl over like a mollusc; the ache in my chest draws me in. I feel small and very tired; I feel like I need to wash.

Is it true that if we repeat something often enough and loud enough it becomes the truth? The Prime Minister quotes Kemal Ataturk: the ANZACS who died and are buried on that western coast are deemed ‘sons of Turkey’. My son turns my grandfather’s, my mother’s, my eyes to me and says, It is amazing they can be so friendly after we attacked them.

I draw up my knees to my chest, lay my head and arms down. My limbs feel weak and useless. My throat hurts. I look at my Australian son with his Armenian face (325-6).

24 April 1915 cont: There had been trouble all my great grandfather’s life: pogrom here, massacre there. But this land was accustomed to colonisers: the Mongols, the Persians, latterly the Ottomans. They invade, conquer, rise, fall; Armenians stay. This had been Armenian homeland for thousands of years.

No-one masses ships off a coast unless planning an invasion. So be it. These Europeans could not be worse than the Ottomans.

That night, were my great grandfather and great uncle awoken by the pounding at each door, or by the horses and gendarmes’ boots? They were seized, each family herded at gunpoint into its garden, and made to watch. Hanging is slow. There could be no mistakes. The gendarmes used the stoutest branches, stayed until they were sure the men were

This happened to hundreds of prominent Armenian men all over Turkey that night.

Before dawn, the Allies made landfall.

Each year those lost in the Genocide are remembered on 24 April, the day before ANZAC Day.

1969: I asked my mother if she had any brothers and sisters. She froze, her hands in the sink. I stared at her, then slipped from the room.

1915: The Ottoman government decreed: all Armenians were to surrender their documents and report to authorities. Able-bodied men were taken away, my grandfather among them. Women and children, the elderly and disabled, were told to prepare to walk to a safe camp where they would stay for the duration of the war. They would be accompanied by armed soldiers for their protection. They were permitted to take with them what they could carry (Bryce 1916).

It began immediately, pretty young women and children first. There are so many ways to kill. Months later, a few dazed, starved survivors stumbled into the Syrian desert, were driven into lakes, or herded into churches and set alight.

Most husbands and fathers were never seen again.

2003: I arrived early at my son’s school, parked in the shade, opened The Silence: How Tragedy Shapes Talk, and began to read. Soon I was annotating furiously. Ruth Wajnryb writes of “growing up among innocent peers in an innocent landscape” and also that the notion of “freedom of speech” in Australia “seems often, to derive from that innocent landscape where reside people who have no personal scars or who have little relevant historical knowledge” (141).

1984: I travelled to Vancouver, Canada, and knocked on Arusiak’s door. Afraid she would not agree to meet me, I hadn’t told her I was coming. She was welcoming and gracious. This was my first experience of extended family and I felt loved in a new and important way, a way I had read about, had observed in my friends, had longed for. One afternoon she said, “You know our mother left me in an orphanage…When I saw her again, it was too late. I didn’t know who they were, what a family was. I felt nothing.” “Yes, I know,” I replied, my heart full and hurting. The next morning, over breakfast, she quietly asked me to leave.

1926: When my mother was a baby, her 18 year-old sister, Maree, tried to drown her in the sea. My mother clearly recalled Maree’s face had been disfigured by a sword. Hovsanna, would ask my mother to forgive Maree’s constant abuse and bad behaviour, saying, “She is only half a person.”

1930: Someone gave Hovsanna the money to travel to Aleppo and reclaim Arusiak, by then 10 years old. My mother was intrigued by the appearance of this sister but Arusiak was watchful and withdrawn. When she finally did speak to my then five-year-old mother, she hissed: “Why did she leave me behind and keep you?”

Soon after Arusiak appeared, Maree, “only half a person,” disappeared. My mother was happy about that.

1935: At 15, Arusiak found a live-in job and left. My mother was 10 years old; her brother Hovsep, who cared for her before and after school every day while their mother worked, and always had, was seventeen. She adored him. He had just finished high school and was going to study medicine. One day he fell ill. He died within a week.

1980: My mother told me she never saw her mother laugh or, once Hovsep died, in anything other than black. Two or three times before Hovsep died, she saw her smile a little, and twice she heard her singing when she thought she was alone: “A very sad song,” my mother would say, “that made me cry.”

1942: At seventeen, my mother had been working as a live-in nanny for three years. Every week on her only half-day off she had caught the bus home. But now Hovsanna was in hospital, so my mother had been visiting her there. One day her employer told her she must go to the hospital immediately. She ran.

Hovsanna was lying alone and very still. Something wasn’t right. My mother searched the hospital corridors but found no-one. She picked up a phone. When someone answered she told them to send help. Then she ran all the way home, grabbed Arusiak’s photograph and ran all the way back. She laid it on her mother’s chest, said, “It’s all right, Mama, Arusiak’s here.”

1976: My mother said she didn’t like my boyfriend; I was not to go out with him. She said she never disobeyed her own mother because she really loved her mother. I went out with my boyfriend. When I came home, my belongings were on the front porch. The door was bolted. I was seventeen.

2003: I read Wajnryb who identifies violent eruptions of anger and frozen silences as some of the behaviours consistent in families with a genocidal history (126).

1970: My father had been dead over a year. My brothers and I were, all under 12, made too much noise. My mother picked up the phone: she can’t stand us, she screamed; she will call an orphanage to take us away.

We begged.

I fled to my room. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t keep still. I paced, pressed my face into a corner; shook and cried, knowing (because she had always told us so) that she didn’t make idle threats, knowing that this was what I had sometimes glimpsed on her face when she looked at us.

2012: The Internet reveals images of Ataturk’s bronze statue overlooking Princess Royal Harbour. Of course, it’s outsized, imposing. The inscription on its plinth reads: "Peace at Home/ Peace in the World." He wears a suit, looks like a scholar, is moving towards us, a scroll in his hand. The look in his eyes is all intensity. Something distant has arrested him – a receding or re-emerging vision. Perhaps a murmur that builds, subsides, builds again. (Medz Yeghern, Aksor, Aghed, Genocide). And what is written on that scroll?

2013: My partner suggested we go to Albany, escape Perth’s brutal summer. I tried to explain why it’s impossible.

There is no memorial in Albany, or anywhere else in Western Australia, to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide.


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Author Biography

Marcella Kathleen Polain, ECU

Marcella Polain is a Senior Lecturer in the Writing program at Edith Cowan University in Perth. She has published three poetry collections, her latest Therapy like Fish: new and selected poems, 2008. John Leonard Press, Melbourne. Her novel, The Edge of the World, 2007, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, is based on her family's survival of the Armenian Genocide, and was short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers' Prize. She is currently working on a second novel.