Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Peter Balakian

An Interview with Peter Balakian
By Khatchig Mouradian
Aztag Daily
November 13, 2003

"Aztag Daily" contacted Peter Balakian while he was on tour in the United
States, promoting "The Burning Tigris". The acclaimed author agreed to do an
interview by phone. During our one-hour talk, we discussed issues related to
"The Burning Tigris", the Armenian Genocide and the human rights movement it
engendered in the USA , Turkish-Armenian dialogue, and much more...

Aztag- In "The Burning Tigris" you argue that the Armenian genocide
triggered the first human rights movement in US history…

Peter Balakian- The effort to rescue the Armenians in the 1890s from Sultan
Hamid's massacres, which took the lives of around 200000 Armenians before
1896 was over, engendered the first human rights movement in the US. During
the 1890s some 300,000 dollars were raised by Americans and in the genocide
period (from 1915 to 1920) 110 million dollars were raised by what was first
called the "American committee on Armenian atrocities", which became later
"Near-East relief".110 million dollars in today's terms is about 2.5 billion
dollars. It is important to note that both of these movements were
orchestrated by major American intellectual and cultural elites.

Aztag-You are stressing the humanitarian factor. But during calamities of
this enormity, humanitarian efforts are not enough, are they?

Peter Balakian- It's never enough…

Aztag- So intervention should have gone beyond that…

Peter Balakian- "The Burning Tigris" tells the history of the grid-lock
between American cultural philanthropic and relief efforts and the wall in
the state department in the white house preventing these relief efforts from
becoming active intervention in a military or political way. That's part of
the tragic story of the American response.

Aztag-In this respect, can't we draw parallels between what happened in the
USA back then, and what is happening now?

Peter Balakian- I think the Armenian case inaugurated a modern paradigm for
human right issues in the USA. Which is to say that there can be a great
deal of passionate commitment at the grassroots level and among
intellectuals but we have not figured out how to get beyond the barriers
created by the White House. It is still the same problem we are wrestling
with, that's why the Armenian case has so much to teach us.

Aztag-Samantha Power's award-winning book "A Problem from Hell" also
addresses America's response to the Armenian genocide, as well as other
genocides of the 20th century. What are the differences between your and
Power's approach?

Peter Balakian- Samantha Power wrote a brilliant book about America's
ineffective response to genocide throughout the 20th century. My book deals
with how Americans tried hard to help save the Armenian people and the
obstacles they faced from their government.

Aztag-How can such books help create social change?

Social change is complex; it is not a neat and clean process. It is the
result of decades of proper education. If one studies the evolution of the
African-American human rights movement one will see that it took decades and
decades before blacks and whites could sit in the same restaurant and eat

Aztag-Let us talk about the sources you used. A couple of reviews noted that
you have limited yourself to English-language sources.

Peter Balakian- I have used dozens of foreign office records in the UK. The
French and German sources I used were translations. The same goes for
Turkish sources. I have also used hundreds of US State Department sources.

Aztag-Is "The Burning Tigris" a continuation of "Black Dog of Fate" in terms
of your quest to discover your roots?

Peter Balakian- It is a continuation of my pursuit of historical truth. I
don't want to make a simple comparison, because "Black Dog of Fate" was a
memoir. It was a literary exploration of my coming of age as an Armenian
American. It had history in it and it brought history to the reader but it
wasn't history in the methodological sense. "The Burning Tigris" is a
history and its assumptions and conventions are different.

Aztag-What was your motive for writing this book?

Peter Balakian- As an Americanist, as I began to discover how rich the
American history was, I decided to write a story from that perspective. I
knew I would also write a history of the Armenian genocide. I also felt that
our history has never portrayed in a trade book, so I wanted to do that.

Aztag-How and when did the idea of writing "The burning Tigris "come to you?

Peter Balakian- The idea for "The Burning Tigris" came to me while I was on
Tour with "Black Dog of Fate". It came as a result of reading more about the
Armenian genocide and massacres and finding out about Americans who were
involved. I started working on the book in 1999, and continued for 4 years
without a break.

Aztag-Last year, Egoyan's Ararat created widespread awareness about the
Armenian genocide. Now, your book is doing the same. What do you feel about
the politicization of the book? After all, "Black Dog of Fate" was a memoir,
but with this book you have thrown yourself right in the middle of the war
against denial.

Peter Balakian- My motivation was to write a deep, rich history of this
major event in the 20th century. The rest comes with the terrain. Since
there is denial, anybody who writes about this history enters a degree of
political dimension. But I don't want to overemphasize the denial, because
its only a tiny group of corrupt people who are perpetuating it, and nobody
really listening to them, nobody believes. They are able to coerce and bully
at certain levels and I think we are going to see that go away too.

Aztag- Taking into account the strategic importance of turkey in the region,
and in a context where real politics, the "war against terror", and oil
diplomacy, are having an increasingly heavier role, can we see that change
in the near future?

Peter Balakian- Social and political change are unpredictable, they happen
sometimes very quickly after years of preparing the ground for it. I think
that there is no need to deny the Armenian genocide by anybody. Turks must
come to terms with it. It will help them immensely, making them more
progressive in the eyes of Europe and the West. I think the denial is
untenable for Turkey, and as people become educated, the denial becomes more
absurd. Sooner or later they have to acknowledge that this is a waste of
their time and money.

Aztag- The human rights movement you discuss in your book is less explored
by genocide scholars. Are there any parallels to this story in other

Peter Balakian- Absolutely, One could write books about the pro-Armenian
movement in Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia. My hope is
that my book will spawn ideas for many books.

Aztag- Can you compare the awareness of Americans about the Armenian
genocide back then and now?

Peter Balakian- It's a dramatic reversal. Its ironic! President Hoover, as
he was looking back at those years, said that probably only the word
"England" was more deeply embedded in the mind of the American schoolchild
than the word Armenia. That's how popular Armenia was in American mind in
the first decades of the 20th century. Then, that completely evaporated and
the Armenian genocide fell into the amnesia hole. Americans forgot about
it. Now, it is being revived, so I think it's a very exciting time in that
respect. We are recovering lost cultural memory.

Aztag- What was the reason for that amnesia?

Peter Balakian- There were several factors. First the Turkish government's
denial campaign aimed at wiping Armenia out of popular memory. Mustafa
Kemal's new Turkish republic of 1922 wanted the West to drop Armenia from
the radar screen. The United States, for example, caved into Kemal's wishes
because America was interested in making friends with Turkey in the hope of
obtaining the rights to the Mosul oil fields, which were under Turkish
control in the early 1920s. Other American cultural factors made historical
memory of the 1915 Armenian genocide more difficult to achieve until the
late 1960s when the cultural climate changed. I address this in my book.

Aztag- What do you think about Turkish-Armenian dialogue, which is "en
vogue" these days?

Peter Balakian- I think any true and meaningful dialogue can only happen if
there is truth. We can't have debate without truth. Those who come to
converse around a table must acknowledge the truth about the Armenian
genocide and the moral nature of what genocide is, and then we can move

Aztag- So, in this respect, the recognition of the Armenian genocide is a
prerequisite for you?

Peter Balakian- Yes.

Aztag- Your book relates to Americans. That helps when you are presenting
atrocities that took place in the Middle East a century ago, doesn't it?

Peter Balakian- Yes, Armenian Genocide often seems like Middle Eastern
history that happened long ago in another place, now Americans and Europeans
have the chance to see how deeply the Armenian catastrophe affected the
west, and in the case of my book, the USA in particular.

Aztag- Do you have any plans to travel to the Middle East?

Peter Balakian- Lebanon and Syria are 2 of the most important places in the
history of the Armenian Diaspora and I want to visit them in the near

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