In “Sad Days of Light,” Peter Balakian talks about how his grandparents survived during the genocide and the harsh situations they might had to face for their survival. Balakian uses imagery throughout his text to show how the Armenians suffered due to the act of inhumanity in the genocide. In the article, “Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview”, John Kifner describes the genocide and its consequences following the war and its impact on the other nations including the U.S. Kifner talks about the Armenian Genocide and highlights about the use of term the genocide and its negative impacts on the people. In “How Not To Do Things with the Word: Barack Obama on the Armenian Genocide,” Suren Zolyan argues that Obama avoids the use of the word genocide when referring to this period in Turkey’s history in an attempt to keep good relations with an ally, while showing sensitivity and concern for the Armenian people. The genocide caused the terrible conditions for the Armenians and supporting evidences show that how the use of the word genocide was considered as taboo and it affected the nations.
The word ‘genocide’ was invented by a polish – Jewish origin lawyer ‘Ralphael Lemkin’. Raphael followed the widely reported massacres and deportations of Armenians in his youth and then later came up with the word ‘genocide’ as an original term to reflect and highlight the phenomenon during the Nazi Holocaust in Germany. The Armenian genocide took place after World War I in the Near East and the Russian Caucasus. About 1.5 million people suffered; some were killed and those who were not killed were tortured brutally by either rape, beating, being driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink and shelter. The use of the word “genocide” has had a significant impact on how several nations have related to each other.
In 1915, the strong Armenian community in Los Angeles (California) were criticized because of the genocide and in response, the Turks condemned the U.S. for using this term “genocide.” (Kifner) He describes how the use of word ‘genocide’ caused fear by the people of Turks to the Armenians and the U.S. Moreover, the use of the word ‘genocide’ led to threatening of the White house regarding Turkey hindering the air space and ground-route access to the U.S. military. In all articles, the important literary techniques used are historic context, and selection of detail to show how people suffered from the cause of genocide and the consequences of the incident. Obama’s point of view for this word is different which avoids using the term genocide instead refers to the Armenian phrase to avoid the conflict. Balakian uses imagery throughout the text to get the significant idea of the situation during the genocide. In the lines, “She stood against a backdrop of steam hammers and bulldozers …..wind blowing through her eyes,’ Balakian describes how her grandmother had to overcome the dreadful weather conditions with the bag of fruit in her hand. (16) He says how his grandmother dealt with the difficult situations during the genocide to survive. Balakian also uses his point of view to narrate the incident. He says, “When I told her I was hungry…..on this long road,” means that the author was feeling hungry and asked her grandmother for food, but she describes the dreadful situation of the grocery store. She states that the person in the grocery store is standing with injury in the ankle and the babies are missing in the East Orange(town).
The articles by Kifner and Zolyan connects with the primary source “Sad Days of Light” by sharing the similar context about the effect of genocide on people’s lives and the outcomes after using the term “genocide.” Balakian refers indirectly to the pain of the Armenian people in his poems that they had to cope with the hard times at most. In the article of the “New York Times,” Kifner says “Turkey, which cut military ties to France over a similar action, has reacted with angry threats,” means the use of word genocide lead to the critical situation among the two countries. The author also says that after the world war, there was no peace. This situation takes us back to the historical times thinking of how threatening it might be during the war and how the use of a word can leads to a conflict between countries.
Barack Obama released a statement in January 2008 about the complicated matter for using the word “genocide” to describe the Turks slaughtering thousands of Armenians.” In “How Not to Do Things with the Word: Barack Obama on the Armenian Genocide,” Zolyan describes the Obama’s strategy for replacing the term “Genocide” with the word “Meds Yeghern,’ meaning the genocide in Armenian language. Obama’s situation was in dilemma and complex because as a candidate for President, he promised that if elected he would recognize the Armenian genocide. So, when he became the US president, he gave an unexplained expression ‘Meds Yeghern’ the Armenian name of the 1915 Genocide meaning “everything and nothing”. (Zolyan 63) For the Armenian audience, this indicates a full acceptance of their point of view and even their language, but for the rest of the world, it was merely symbolic.
Zolyan argues that the transliteration of the Armenian name of the genocide can mean “everything and nothing”. This is because for the Armenians who have lost their people, there is a great impact of this word on their lives(everything) and for the rest of the world it seems meaningless sign(nothing).
In 2006, the use of word genocide lead to the dismissal of the American ambassador to Armenia. During his stay in the USA, Ambassador Evans had a semi-official meeting with some representatives of the Armenian Diaspora in California and expressed his opinion: “I will today call it the Armenian Genocide. I think we, the U.S. government, owe you, our fellow citizens, a more frank and honest way of discussing this problem. The Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century. I pledge to you. We are going to do a better job at addressing this issue”. (Zolyan 67) By this statement the ambassador was expressing support for the Armenian people but due to difference in “point of view,” the use of word lead to the firing of the U.S ambassador.
The Armenian Genocide laid the ground for the more-homogeneous nation-state that eventually became the Republic of Turkey. By the end of the war, more than 90 percent of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire were gone, and many traces of their former presence had been erased. The massacre ended only when the pressure from the European powers increased and they threatened to military intervention in the same way they had done in the Christian Balkan countries. Therefore, these mass atrocities and genocide are often interchanged within the context of war. This shows how the use of a particular word lead to anger and tension among nations. The war can not only lead to terrific conditions between two nations, but its effect is seen all over the world.
Obama fulfilled his duties as the President of the U.S. by keeping his promise that he made to Armenian people by taking Armenian genocide into consideration and, he came up with the solution which showed concern for Armenian people by avoiding the use of the word “genocide.” This shows that how a word acquires so much power that it can have a strong influence on people and the consequences are that it can affect the alliance among the nations. The words like “mass killing”, “atrocities”, “massacres” can be used for the phenomenon, but they don’t describe the situation as the word “genocide” does. Although genocide involved killing of huge mass population by Turks, they are not ready to accept the culpability behind this incident. After Obama introduced the word “Meds Yeghern” to replace “genocide” by Obama, and it was used throughout the years to describe the incident of mass murder of the Ottoman Empire.
On April 24, 1994, Bill Clinton made American President’s Statement during an annual event and named this day as Armenian Remembrance Day. (Zolyan 66) The main purpose of the discussions regarding this topic is to make everyone aware of the phenomena of genocide without denying it. Therefore, the main communicative purpose is to pay tribute to the genocide victims but without uttering the tabooed word.
The word genocide carries a deep meaning for Armenian people as they have lost their loved ones, heritage, and other valuable things in the genocide. The genocide was not just a conflict between two nations, but it also impacted negatively the relationship of other nations as well. For instance, the U.S. was threatened by the Turks while using the term genocide. Thus, the appropriate use of word can avoid rising of crucial situations which helps all the nations to maintain peaceful relationship, and unity among the nations. This concludes that the phenomena of genocide are not a small part, but it’s a huge matter of history that needs to be taken into consideration.
- Balakian, Peter. Sad Days of Light. New York. Sheep Meadow Press, 1983
- Kifner, John. Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview. The New York Times. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/ref/timestopics/topics_armeniangenocide.html?mcubz=0
- Zolyan, Suran. How Not to Do Things with the Word: Barack Obama on the Armenian Genocide” The Russian Journal of Linguistics 2019 Vol. 23 No. 1 (62—82)