Category: Armenia

Interlitq’s Interview Series: Shahé Mankerian, Author of History of Forgetfulness, interviewed by David Garyan


Shahé Mankerian

Interlitq’s Interview Series:

Shahé Mankerian

Author of History of Forgetfulness

Click here to read Ed Bedford’s review of Mankerian’s collection in The Indiependent
Click here to read Christopher Atamian’s review in The Mirror Spectator

 

DG: Like Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, who published their first collections of poetry later in life—at forty and forty-four, respectively—you released History of Forgetfulness, at a point where most poets would’ve perhaps already released two or three titles. Given the serious nature of your topic, what would’ve been lost had you attempted to write this book earlier, and how did your experiences ultimately help make this the cohesive, engaging, yet entertaining work that it is?

SM: First, the journey to publish a poetry book in the U.S. is a crapshoot nightmare. You probably have a better chance of hitting the jackpot in Vegas than getting a publisher to notice your unsolicited manuscript or win a “first book” competition. For two decades, I kept resubmitting my manuscript. It was a finalist to four prestigious awards: the Bibby First Book Competition, the Crab Orchard Poetry Open Competition, the Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Award, and the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. It was always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Hence, I didn’t release a book in my thirties or forties because I kept making U-turns when I hit dead-end streets, and I was too stubborn to self-publish. The silver lining was this: in the span of 20 years, I kept sending steady stream of poems to various journals, and a good number got published. I kept finetuning orphaned poems with my writing group. Otherwise, I rearranged poems or added newer ones to the manuscript. Since I experienced the Lebanese Civil War in my preteens, the focus of my manuscript remained consistent: to chronicle the war from the lens of a child and use the recollection of an adult.

DG: Which poem in the collection is your favorite, why, and was it composed earlier or later in the writing process?

SM: It’s like asking a teacher to pick his favorite student. Every student has the likelihood to surprise you and become your favorite on any given day. Having said that, the title of the book, History of Forgetfulness, comes from a poem that I wrote in 2010. It’s situated toward the end of the book. Oddly, it’s a poem that does not take place in Beirut. As a whole, it captures the beginning stages of my mother’s battle with dementia in America. The poem feels misplaced. It pulls readers out of the mayhem of Beirut and places them in Mama’s car somewhere in Los Angeles. It is a poem that captures the reluctant loss of memory, a compact scenic hopscotch of a woman who forgets the mundane, humdrum of life. Yet, the last three lines capture the essence of the poem and the book: “She can’t sleep at night / because when she closes her eyes, / she remembers everything.” It gives me goose bumps every time I read the poem because it captures the genesis of my mother’s journey into the bleak world of dementia. An early reading of the poem at the Skylight Bookstore can be seen on YouTube.

DG: Is there a poem whose composition presented particular challenges, perhaps because of the events surrounding them, perhaps also because of your own memory—what you remembered and what you couldn’t remember?

SM: The first poem of the book is entitled “Educating the Son.” It was written circa 2005 when I was writing my dissertation under the guidance of Dr. Timothy Steele, who is considered one of the major New Formalist practitioners. Influenced by his attention to meter, I wrote this particular poem in iambic tetrameter like Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” or Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Both the form and subject matter created a number of challenges. It was the summer of 2004 when I started writing the first draft. At that time, I had converted the garage of my parents’ house into my working and sleeping quarters. I was cooped up in a space with no AC during the midsummer heatwave in Pasadena. Delirium set in as I tried to untangle the meter of the poem. The form controlled the storytelling. The image of the boy working at a morgue appeared unexpectedly. Buried deep in biblical undertones, he demanded my full attention as he struggled with the question of life and death. The poem ends with a twisted homage to Luke 24:5, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And the reverberating answer is, He lives.

DG: In the poem, “Bibliophile,” the speaker recalls a father breaking his wife’s tooth “with the spine of a book.” It’s a dramatic, yet at the same time calm scene, as the mother has “goosebumps but no signs of quiver.” At the end, the speaker wants to scream “I hate your fuckin’ books!” It doesn’t happen. They say never to equate the speaker with the poet, but in this case, the challenge is more formidable. How “personal” is this poem and what were those books the father so enjoyed?

SM: First, I must say, my reverence for books comes from my father. He created an atmosphere full of Armenian and English books in our Beirut apartment. In Father’s personal library, you might’ve found Siamanto’s book of poems squeezed next to a novel by Somerset Maugham. I grew up in a world without daytime TV or videogames, and boredom was king. I turned to books because they were there.


Atom Yarchanian, better known by his pen name, “Siamanto.”
He was executed at the age of 37 by Ottoman authorities during the Armenian Genocide.

Before writing this poem, I remember seeing the famous quote by Bertolt Brecht on a bookmark: “Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.” It dawned on me that I can manipulate Brecht statement into something truly violent, a situation where a book actually becomes a weapon of a hungry man, my father, who victimizes my mother in the kitchen. As a child, I had witnessed my father turning over the kitchen table in a state of rage. I remember my mother’s shocking silence. I was too young to understand the root of my father’s rage. I could only predict, and I do so in the poem. Yet, Brecht allowed me to use an object—a weaponry—of reverence in our home as the means to victimize a loved one.

DG: There are two poems in this collection, “Lord’s Prayer: Age 8,” and “Lord’s Prayer: Age 28,” both in the first part of the book, but separated by some pages; with respect to the former, it’s a work full of highly original images, reflected in the fearful imagination of an eight year old, while the latter is equally powerful, and yet it remains fearful while also attempting to project a sense of strength that comes with adulthood. Can you talk about these works, and also how growing up in a warzone affected your personal and creative development in later years?

SM: These are coded poems, loaded with the burden of trauma. Growing up in a war-torn city, children became the scapegoat of adult frustration and fear. Rewriting the Lord’s Prayer was an attempt to give these scarred children the sacred power to protest.

I migrated to America at the age of 12. The trauma of war didn’t miraculously dissipate in the Promised Land. Wearing Levi’s and Nike didn’t magically erase the scars. During my formative years, I avoided writing about the war. I was derailed by the poems of Charles Bukowski—like every crazed poet in Los Angeles. Then, I took Ron Koertge’s poetry classes at Pasadena City College, which provided two important tools to shape my writing. First, he kept repeating, “Make each line of your poem filmable.” And I realized: “What’s more cinematic than war?” Second, a subtle seismic shift occurred when the poet La Loca visited Koertge’s class. After I shared one of my poems, she suggested I read The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano. Reading Galeano’s work made all the difference. I realized the scars that I have collected as a child can blossom into poems. Stephen King said, “That’s all history is, after all, scar tissue.”

DG: Women, along with the nurturing qualities of motherhood, are a frequent theme in your work. In “The City of Lost Children,” the narrator speaks of the woman’s skirt as a safe haven from the danger and violence of his surroundings. In “The Sniper as Cupid,” on the other hand, it’s the man saving the woman. Along with a discussion of those poems, what were the differences, if any, in how men dealt with the conflict as opposed to women?

SM: The poem “The City of Lost Children” reminds the reader the absurdity of going to school during a civil war. “Boys couldn’t / play in the same playground as girls.” Yet, as we were hiding in shelters, and bombs were destroying our city, the wall between girls and boys detonated. In the subterranean world, children collectively hid to stay alive. We played, ate, and slept together on the concrete floor of the shelter. Mothers and fathers sat on blankets, played pinochle, drank Armenian coffee, and told racy jokes to pass time. Above ground, when bombings ceased, we returned to our old ways. Fathers went to work. Mothers pretended to be dutiful wives. Teachers divided boys and girls in separate playgrounds or kept them seated apart in classrooms. This was a failed experiment that made us crave the opposite sex even more.

“The Sniper as Cupid” pays homage to that failed experiment. Under the most unlikely circumstance, a sniper becomes the catalyst to blossom love. Unfortunately, the fastest way to erase gender differences is to create a war. When a community is under attack, the walls between men and women dissipates quickly because the struggle to stay alive transcends gender differences.

DG: Have you traveled to Lebanon in recent years? If so, how has it changed since the events you describe in the book? If not, would you like to visit?

SM: I left Lebanon in 1979 and traveled back 22 years later, in the summer, before 9/11. After 15 years of war, Beirut exuded a sense of rejuvenation and resiliency. The bloody period between 1975 to 1990 seemed lost in the collective memory of the people. Bakeries and seafront cafés were back in business. The beaches looked crowded. Taxis honked their horns incessantly. Patchy buildings with shrapnel-ridden balconies were the only reminders of the past. I visited my neighborhood, the apartment building of my childhood, my school, my father’s grocery store, the railroad bridge, the church, the mosque … places that reappear in my poems. I also visited Bsharri, the birth village and the final resting place of Khalil Gibran, the great Lebanese-American poet. This was a pilgrimage of sorts, to see the paintings and the handwritten manuscripts in his museum. As a poet, I feel a strange affinity to Gibran because he also left Lebanon at the age of 12 and immigrated to the United States. The first section of my book starts with a quote by the poet: “If the other person injures you, you may forget the injury; / but if you injure him, you will always remember.”

DG: You’re the principal at St. Gregory Alfred & Marguerite Hovsepian School. How does your work in this capacity inform your creative life?

SM: It helps that I work at a school where creativity reigns supreme. It also helps that I teach language arts and writing to the 8th grade graduating class. At least one period a day, I am in the classroom reading my favorites: Saroyan, de Saint-Exupéry, Cisneros, Nikki Grimes, Bukowski, and Bashō. Poetic expression lives in our classroom. My students are familiar with contemporary Armenian-American poets who we consider our friends. We memorize and recite poems by Aram Saroyan, Gregory Djanikian, Peter Balakian, Diana Der Hovanessian, David Kherdian, Lola Koundakjian, Lory Bedikian, Alan Semerdjian, Alene Terzian-Zeitounian, Arminé Iknadossian, Nancy Agabian, Arthur Kayzakian, Alina Gregorian, Arto Vaun, and Tina Demirdjian. When I assign writing prompts, I write with them. They see me writing on the white board; they witness my struggles. I keep writing, erasing, and rewriting. They point out my grammatical mistakes, clumsy line breaks, unnecessary wordiness. We listen to jazz as we scribble words. They get irritated with me; I get irritated with them. We argue; we laugh. We watch strange movies together. I repeat Ron Koertge’s mantra: “Make each line of your writing cinematic.” They listen. They don’t listen. It’s the best job in the world for a writer.

DG: You’re a board member for the International Armenian Literary Alliance. Can you talk about this organization, some of its upcoming projects, and your involvement in it?

SM: The International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA) has been one of the great blessings in my life. It’s been so rewarding to work with a group of like-minded individuals who love the arts and literature. Under the leadership of Olivia Katrandjian, we have created an alliance that celebrates writers. We foster the development and distribution of Armenian literature in the English language. Last summer, I had the pleasure of directing our inaugural Mentorship program. We paired 11 accomplished mentors with 11 magnificent mentees. Alan Semerdjian also spearheaded our inaugural Young Armenian Poets Awards, an annual contest that recognizes and provides a platform for exciting new Armenian writers between the ages of 14-18. Both events will return in 2022. Nancy Agabian & JP Der Boghossian are planning a Queer Armenian Literature event in 2022. Since we work closely with the Armenian Institute in London, we can foresee several collaborations with them.

Most importantly, please become a member of IALA. The annual membership gains you access to craft talks, panels, workshops, mentoring programs, and peer feedback groups. Since we recently attained our 501c3 charitable status, your donations will be tax deductible. You will find all the membership information by clicking here.

DG: What can we expect going forward—are you thinking about new poems?

I have most of the poems ready for my next two manuscript. History of Forgetfulness is the first volume of a trilogy. The second volume will chronicle my family’s challenges and mishaps in America as immigrants. These are the early years in the “Promised Land.” Again, the poems are viewed using the lens of a child and the recollection of an adult. Finally, the third volume will deal with the perpetual question of homelessness or being uprooted. Hopefully, the journey to find a publisher for these books will become easier now that I have my first book in circulation. Finally, I cannot thank Isabelle Kenyon enough, the editor at Fly on the Wall Press, for taking a chance on my work. I never thought my first book would be published in the United Kingdom. I guess the British like to take risks in literature. Without a doubt, I have been fortunate.

 

About Shahé Mankerian

Shahé Mankerian is the principal of St. Gregory Hovsepian School in Pasadena and the director of mentorship at the International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA). He has been the co-director of the Los Angeles Writing Project. He is also the recipient of the Los Angeles Music Center’s BRAVO Award, which recognizes teachers for innovation in arts education. His debut poetry collection, History of Forgetfulness, was published by Fly on the Wall Press, on October 22, 2021. The manuscript has been a finalist at the Bibby First Book Competition, the Crab Orchard Poetry Open Competition, the Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Award, and the White Pine Press Poetry Prize.

Shades of Water, a poem by David Garyan


A Street in the Rain, 2020
Aram Arakelyan
Watercolor on Paper
8-1/4 x 11-3/4 (A4)

 

May 26th, 2021
Ravenna, Italy

 

Shades of Water

To walk by yourself
in the rain,
without a destination,
is at last how it feels
not to be bothered
by the whispers
inside a crowded library—
precisely the one
where every book
you want has been checked out,
perhaps never to be returned,
or better yet lost
by the librarian herself.
It’s a feeling of complete
hopelessness and hope—
like finding a wooden
cup full of gasoline
in the forest you wish
to burn down,
like having an empty glass
big enough to contain
the ocean but not its waves,
so desperate to jump over the edge.
When you’re alone,
a person might gaze
from their window;
another may pop
their head out the door,
and make eye contact
just for a second,
and even this would be enough
if the city wasn’t so big—
everyone really is a stranger
and those who aren’t
point at you like explorers
who can no longer walk,
but still look at maps
of places they’ve never been.
How far will you go to find
the darkest cup of whiskey tonight?
How long will you sleep
just to drink the blackest
coffee in the morning?

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

 

About Aram Arakelyan

Aram Arakelyan is finishing his studies in physics at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Aside from painting with watercolors, he enjoys photography and drawing. He was born in Vanadzor Armenia.

The Curious Case of Democracy in Ethiopia and Armenia, an article by David Garyan

06/12/2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

The Curious Case of Democracy in Ethiopia and Armenia

What might two landlocked countries—one in the Horn of Africa and the other thousands of miles away in the Caucasus, sandwiched between two hostile powers—have in common? Well, more than the fact that they’re landlocked, actually. I’m talking, of course, about Ethiopia and Armenia; for the former, having no access to water is a condition, we might say, that developed relatively recently, at least in historical terms, while for the latter, the same predicament has held for at least a hundred years. The event which brought about Ethiopia’s loss of its Red Sea coastline was the Eritrean War of Independence, lasting from 1961 to 1991, which resulted in Eritrea becoming an officially recognized country in 1993; for Armenia, meanwhile, the loss of its access to water came about because of Turkey’s refusal to uphold the terms set out by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, which would’ve granted the small Christian country access to the Black Sea, along with regaining some of its historical lands, such as Kars. For the geographically, inept, here’s the Horn of Africa with the current post-1993 borders. Having placed it in many other articles, I won’t bother with the Armenian map this time.

Already, we have touched upon one general feature both countries have in common—loss—but this term is so vague, loose, and abstract that everyone, from the Chukchi people living on the tip of Russia’s shores all the way back round to the coast of Alaska inhabited by the Inuit, have experienced it. More interesting and to the point is the other commonality (quite uncanny, indeed) between Africa and the Caucasus—and this is Christianity.

A fact perhaps recognized by a large number of Ethiopians and Armenians—yet something almost universally unknown by the majority of people—is that both nations are among the first official Christian states in the entire world. Indeed, the religion was practiced in a clandestine capacity throughout Greece and Rome, with apostles such as Paul traveling to Athens, where he gave a speech on the famous Areopagus (once the place for the city’s council of elders 500 years before Christ’s birth), and Peter, arguably the most famous among them, whose upside-down crucifixion in the Eternal City has come to be viewed as the ultimate sign of humility towards God. Below is Caravaggio’s famous depiction of the event.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Christianity, at that time, was nothing more than a cult, really—a threat posed to the establishment no different than the one many controversial sects project today, which is why it was brutally oppressed beginning with Nero all the way down to Diocletian, and probably subsequent emperors as well.

It wasn’t until Constantine’s own conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, an event that brought about the Edict of Milan, which finally decriminalized Christian worship in the Empire. We can, thus, see Rome as one of the first Christian states, but not the first, which was Armenia (having adopted the religion officially in 301 AD) followed by Rome twelve years later, and then Ethiopia, after it likewise made Christianity its formal state religion in 330 AD.

Besides its unique Christian heritage, Ethiopia is an incredibly fascinating, complex country, full of linguistic diversity and ancient culture. Like Armenia, it managed to preserve its Christian heritage during the rise of Islam, and it’s the only country to have resisted colonial rule; in this sense, it attained the privilege of being born with the legacy of having already been a free, independent state after the Scramble for Africa (many scholars also include Liberia in this respect, but since the country’s existence began with the settlement of the American Colonization Society, it’s Ethiopia, with its ancient history, that truly represents the definition of what it means to be free of foreign powers). Indeed, it was 125 years ago that Ethiopia, under the command of Emperor Menelik II, defeated a heavily armed Italian force at the Battle of Adwa, securing its independence; in this respect, Ethiopia is the only African country to have won a decisive military victory against a European power.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the colors of the Ethiopian flag figure so heavily not only in the African cultural consciousness, but also the imagination of the entire world. The ever-present green, yellow, and red are even highly emblematic of Reggae music and the genre’s most famous proponent, Bob Marley, was, in fact, Jamaican.

It’s likewise no coincidence that both the establishment and headquarters of the African Union (a continental body consisting of fifty-five African states, roughly equivalent to that of the EU) have their basis in Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city of Ethiopia.

The country is widely considered by many scholars to be the place where modern humans originated from. The unearthing of two fossils have been recognized, according to a report by Nature magazine, to be “the oldest known members of our species,” and additionally the “discovery adds yet more weight to the argument that Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, was the birthplace of humans.” Pretty impressive.

That’s a lot of responsibility for a country to bear, which is why it was a founding member of the UN and continues to be one of the strongest economies in East Africa—accomplishments which have not managed to bring the country out of poverty, hunger, and corruption. Armenia, in many ways, suffers from the same problems. Although the distinction of being the civilizational cradle can’t be conferred upon this tiny Caucasus country, its problems nevertheless can be traced back to the Soviet influence that took hold of the society. Much less known is the fact, however, that Ethiopia, too, was under communist rule for quite some time. Naturally, although geography prevented the nation from becoming a part of the USSR, it was nevertheless ruled by the Derg, which was essentially a Soviet-backed military dictatorship.

Another aspect that’s not often mentioned is that the Cold War is in many respects a misnomer, especially as it relates to Africa. Everyone is aware of the events surrounding Vietnam, but not many know that the US and USSR, in fact, conducted the majority of their proxy wars in Africa. In this sense, the conflict was very much a “hot war” because there was actual fighting and much of it was fierce, as in the Angolan Civil War, which continued until 2002.

Besides the communist influence that couldn’t be any more foreign to the cultures of both countries, there are also modern civilizational ties between Ethiopia and Armenia. In 1924, on a trip to Jerusalem, Haile Selassie I, visited an Armenian monastery and there he encountered forty orphans who had escaped the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide. The so-called “Arba Lijoch” children made such an impression on him that the Emperor decided to adopt them all and bring them to Ethiopia, where they apparently received instruction in music. Thus, according to an article in How Africa, the Armenian influence on modern Ethiopian music is clearly visible. Under the tutelage of musical director, Kevork Nalbandian, also an orphan of Armenian descent, Selassie asked Nalbandian to compose a coronation hymn on his behalf, and on November 2nd, 1930, “the anthem, Marsh Teferi, was unveiled with the Arba Lijoch performing and Prince Ras Tafari becoming the Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Haile Selassie I.” The group of orphans continued to perform in the imperial brass band. Emperor Selassie is pictured below.

According to the Joshua Project, there are still 700 Armenians living in Ethiopia today, although a March BBC article from this year puts the figure at under a 100.

Despite the fact that their numbers were never very big, Armenians have contributed positively to the development of Ethiopia throughout the years; ever since their arrival, they’ve “played a vital role in the court of Emperor Menelik II. And later, in the early 20th Century, a community settled that went on to have an economic and cultural impact,” according to the same BBC article quoted above. It must also be noted that trade between the two peoples can confidently be traced back to the first century AD. Under Emperor Haile Selassie, the country embarked on a rapid modernization program and “Armenian courtiers, businessmen and traders played an important role in this transition,” further highlighting the impact this small, yet influential community had on Ethiopian society.

Besides their contributions to music and culture, the alphabets of both countries also bear uncanny resemblances to one another. The similarities are indeed incredible and, according to a 2003 article published in the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Ayele Bekerie provides three hypotheses for the emergence of the Armenian alphabet: The first is that it was entirely invented by one man, Mesrop Mashtots, which is the commonly-held view among the majority of Armenians; the second hypothesis states that the alphabet emerged out of previous, older alphabets that were present or known to Mashtots at the time; the third hypothesis, and perhaps the most interesting, is that “Jerusalem, the most sacred city of Christianity, is the likely candidate for the place of scholarly exchanges between Ethiopians and Armenians,” and this is why the similarities arose in the first place. Given that both countries are pretty much the first Christian states in the world, it’s highly likely that their interaction in Christianity’s holiest city may have been responsible for shaping Armenia’s writing system, which was invented in 405 AD.

The so-called Geʽez script, which the Ethiopian language uses, had already been in existence for approximately 300 years by that point so its presence in Jerusalem before the invention of Armenia’s alphabet wouldn’t have been a far-fetched possibility, by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not really surprising, then, that both countries decided to round out this strange year, 2020, much the same way, embroiled in political turmoil and war. The similarities between PM Abiy Ahmed and PM Nikol Pashinyan are almost eerie; they’re basically the same age—44 and 45, respectively; they both assumed office in 2018, promising to bring sweeping, revolutionary political changes, which they did bring. Pashinyan, for his part, took radical steps to rid the state of corruption, which brought unprecedented freedoms and economic growth to the nation while Abiy made similar reforms to allow for greater liberties and transparency; he made peace with Eritrea, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 2019 and reconciled religious tensions within the country.

Both leaders were widely praised for their liberal, progressive reforms, until those measures started to backfire. In the case of Pashinyan, the liberalization measures alienated Armenia’s closest ally, Russia, which made the fragile Republic of Artsakh (Armenia has a mutual defense agreement with Russia) very much susceptible to war and Azerbaijan certainly took advantage of that—by starting a conflict which they were sure to win and the aftermath of this victory ended up erasing all confidence that the public had in Pashinyan’s ability to lead the country (external events destabilizing internal progress, in a sense); Abiy’s problems, on the other hand, emerged internally. On his part, the democratization caused some ethnic groups within the country, such as the Tigrayans, to feel excluded, mainly because Abiy was an Oromo, and the hallmark of his political career had been fighting for the social and economic rights of his own ethnic group.

When the Tigrayans decided to revolt, Abiy started an offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (a regional political party of considerable power that for 27 years dominated the Ethiopian political landscape until Abiy came to power) on November 4th, and roughly three weeks later, captured the Tigray capital of Mekele. This should’ve ended the war but a recent article in the Washington Post paints a much bleaker picture: “The TPLF’s leadership remains largely intact despite abandoning Mekele last week. On Thursday, in a message aired on a regional television network, one prominent leader called on supporters to ‘rise and deploy to battle in tens of thousands.’ TPLF officials did not respond to requests for comment and have kept their whereabouts secret.” That the TPLF, like Azerbaijan, is willing to fight until the very end isn’t promising, at least so far as the status quo is concerned. Below is an image of the horrors currently engulfing the country.

The strange thing is that these occurrences aren’t anomalies. In fact, much of Africa in the 90’s was experiencing rapid waves of democratization, and contrary to the expected positive results people were hoping for, the outcome was utterly negative. Take a nation like Ivory Coast, for example; it achieved independence from France in 1960 and saw a man by the name of Félix Houphouët-Boigny come to power. Under his moderate political leadership, the country prospered and became one of the most stable in the entire continent. Like other African states at the time, the government functioned with one-party elections, which ensured stability and efficiency.

During the 1970’s and 80’s, however, when the oil crisis and the neoliberal reforms of the Washington Consensus began to take a toll on the “economic miracle” of Ivory Coast, conflicting interests and dissenting voices could no longer be appeased and placated with the same success. Calls for multi-party elections were increasingly on the rise and although Houphouët-Boigny conceded to these reforms (he nevertheless ended up winning his first contested election in 1990), his death in 1993 brought an end to the stability the country had enjoyed for so long.

The generally favorable attitude towards immigrants under Houphouët-Boigny’s leadership subsequently disappeared, with ethnic clashes occurring regularly, and a full-scale civil war eventually erupted in 2002. Occurrences like these were quite common throughout Africa in the 90’s and 2000’s, further highlighting the fact that democratization, while appealing and preferable, is nevertheless a risky business, especially if it opens the door for conflicting interests and gives those previously excluded the “right” to fight for them in a liberalized environment which has invariably allowed it.

Indeed, both Pashinyan and Abiy entered the political scene at the same time with similar idealistic visions for their countries, but their premierships have increasingly focused on repressing those voices which either have a different vision of what “freedom” means to them or the ones who feel like they’re excluded from it. Only time will tell how people will remember the legacies of these men.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

The Stillness That Follows, a poem by Pėrla Kantarjian

24/11/2020
Beirut, Lebanon

 

The Stillness That Follows

in memoriam.
I Hishadag.

the scene unfolds
in echoes.

listen to the silence—
in the name of Glory.

the sacrifice has been performed—
the pomegranate slit in half.

a thin smear of blood
runs in the midst of the heart as though river
shouldering the awakening
of the let-down dead,
liquidated.

our earth has yet to soak up
the fallen bones and flesh—if she can.

in my dreams i hear the brittle splintering
of their somatic minerals; the calcium phosphate,
the collagen, the muscle tissue, all in their prime,
decomposing into food for the Empire
of their birthright.

each of the fallen thousands, entireties of
their existences, reduced
into their names and years,
turned keepsake, left to desiccate
upon epitaph.

but in the gentle Caucasian updraft, their seeds
now disperse over the mesocarp,
inner wall of the fruit,
turned land.

and in a few years we will see them
putting forth shoots,
taking root in the ancestral
land once again,
and forevermore.

this is Divine law.

Dedicated to the fallen souls of the six weeks long war over the Armenian region of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), launched by Azerbaijan and Turkey on the 27th of September, 2020.

 

About Pėrla Kantarjian

Pėrla Kantarjian is a Lebanese-Armenian writer, journalist, editor, and literature instructor, from Beirut. Her written works have been published on numerous platforms, including Rebelle Society, Bookstr, Annahar Newspaper, The Armenian Weekly, WalQalam.org, and Elephant Journal.

 

In the Midst of War: Family, Friendship, and Death, an article by Armen Palyan

14/11/2020
Yerevan, Armenia

 

In the Midst of War: Family, Friendship, and Death

In his book, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana said the following: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” With the countless wars humanity has fought and the countless ones that will have to be fought still, it really isn’t difficult to accept the reality captured in Santayana’s sentiment—those possessing the privilege of being able to read what’s written here will at some point or other be exposed to war, if they haven’t been already. The extent of this exposure will vary greatly for each individual and depend on factors that are both completely outside of a person’s control but also very much within: For one, we can’t all choose to be born in Switzerland; at the same time, however, people can exercise agency; they can try building closer relationships with the people who hate them and thereby attempt to prevent an attack, but this has rarely produced results, especially if you reside in a country situated between two nations with whom both borders are closed—the land to the west is the one who committed genocide against you one hundred years ago and the one to the east is hell-bent on “recapturing” the lands on which your people have lived on for thousands of years; to make the situation even more absurd, the land to the west has now decided to help the land in the east achieve their vain ambitions.

That’s precisely the fate my friend, Garik Arevikyan, inherited when he was born on November 7th, 1997, in a little Armenian village called Panik, with a population of just over 2,000 residents. Indeed, it was both Garik’s great fortune and also misfortune to be born on this ancient land, which has seen conquerors of every complexion and temperament; from the raging Mongol to the blond-bearded Russian, back to the stately Roman, all the way down to the mystical Arab. That the Turk—who had almost once conquered all of Europe—likewise, at some point, also made his presence felt in Armenia is, therefore, not a surprise; what’s surprising is that he has come back, attempting to exercise his dominion over this tiny nation yet again. It’s not all bad, however; in the same vein, Garik was born in a country with an incredibly rich history, one which goes back far longer than anything the Turks or Azeris can claim. A quick look at this map showing territories held by Armenia roughly 2000 years ago reveals no trace of either Turkey or Azerbaijan—for the mere fact that the Turks entered Europe a mere 600 years ago, more or less.

I’ve always believed in free will—at the same time, I’ve never questioned the power of fate, of destiny’s cold expression that never changes, even when it’s confronted by the most desperate pleas for mercy on the part of humanity; that’s the world Garik was born into and not just because his birthplace was Armenia but because in the end we’re all, as individuals, bound by this oath—this is especially true for Armenians, however. Looking in from the outside, very few understand our existential struggle. As the great Armenian-American writer, William Saroyan, once wrote: “our wars have all been fought and lost,” (so much for the present) and though we’ve laughed in the face of every enemy, something which allowed us—until this very day—to preserve our ancient traditions and Christianity in an environment very much hostile to them, I’m not sure how much longer we can continue to do it. I think forever sounds reasonable enough and I’ll continue to believe that just to honor my friend, Garik, who made the ultimate sacrifice.

I met Garik in 2017, when I decided to attend my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu course in Yerevan. The head trainer (sensei) paired me up with him; at the time, I thought he would be an easy challenger—just a skinny, innocent-looking kid. Before I knew it, he had forced me into submission three or four times in what must’ve been less than five minutes. I was dumbfounded, but it was precisely Garik’s talent that made me fall in love with the sport, which I continue practicing to this day.

Garik’s talent, work-ethic, and determination was infectious—it made a great impression on me. As a white belt, he was already having great success in various competitions, winning the AJP Tour in 2018, previously known as UAJJF Russia National Pro when Garik won it; below is the picture of him with his medal.

It seemed like my best friend never suffered fatigue during training; he was absolutely committed to achieving greatness. His energy was my fuel and when he was called up for military service, I began spending less time at the dojo. I dearly missed my friend and his competitiveness; challenging him was like playing chess with human bodies.

Garik didn’t abandon the principles of hard work, integrity, and honesty when he was sent to serve. In the military, he utilized the grit he had developed during his martial arts training to help him get through the dangers and difficulties of war. He saw his closest friends die around him and said that he was heading into a dark place, stating he had become martaspan—literally translated as mankiller or people-killer. Even strong individuals like Garik, however—built to endure every physical and psychological difficulty—are just people in the end; they’re searching for what we all want, which is love, compassion, and understanding, as this picture shows so well.

After enduring horrors in Jabrail, where he was first stationed, Garik was transferred to Martuni, where he died under rocket fire, supposedly when he was asleep. During his thirty-three days of combat, he described sleeping no more than one or two hours, as the enemy was shelling them uninterruptedly.

My fondest memory of him occurred in December of last year. During a short period of leave from the military, he called me and I invited him to dinner at one of the best restaurants in Yerevan to celebrate our reunion; it was also the last time I saw him. After our meal, I hugged him, not knowing there would never be another chance. Shortly after, he returned to his military duties and I to my civilian ones. I thought of him often, eagerly awaiting his return; I think of him now, knowing it’s not to be.

Garik passed away some time between October 31st and November 1st; it’s not exactly clear. What can’t be doubted, however, is that he died just about a week before his 23rd birthday and less than two weeks before the ceasefire. His birthday on November 7th will now be the most difficult day of my life, not simply because Garik is gone, that his funeral had to be conducted in a closed casket manner, that he leaves behind a sister, his father and mother, but because my own brother, Tigran, passed away on the very same day one year ago. What else can I do but post their pictures here?

What other choice do I have but to live for their memories? I can do nothing else but live for the memories of family and friends. I must do this. Defeat is no longer an option.

 

About Armen Palyan

Armen Palyan was born in the United States but returned to his homeland in order to study dentistry. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Yerevan. This is his first publication.