Family of Shadows

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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Garin K. Hovannisian, a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A writer living in Los Angeles and Yerevan, Armenia, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of the new investigative memoir, Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream (HarperCollins), just released on September 21.

FP: Garin K. Hovannisian, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

I would like to talk to you today about your new book.

Let’s begin with what inspired you to write it.

Hovannisian: I don’t think I was so much inspired as I was haunted — possessed, in a way, by this dark and complex and deeply dramatic story of my family, which contains within it the complete history of Armenia, from the Genocide of 1915 to the present day. For me, writing Family of Shadows was an act not of inspiration but of liberation.

FP: Share with us what the book is about.

Hovannisian: Family of Shadows is an American Dream story with one magnificent twist. Of course it begins as a classic immigrant story: My great-grandfather Kaspar watches the murder of his family and the destruction of his Armenian homeland in 1915. He escapes to the great San Joaquin Valley of California, where he cultivates a small farm and begins investing in real estate. He realizes the Dream, and this is where most immigrant stories end.

But it is only here that our story actually begins, because my grandfather Richard is not happy on the farm. He loathes the endless labor and he is haunted by the figure of his father — a man who almost never speaks about his past, but through whom the past screams out in the middle of many nights. And so Richard resolves to find the source of his father’s nightmares. He leaves the farm for Berkeley and Beirut and ultimately for UCLA, where he pioneers the field of Armenian Studies in the United States and becomes a world authority on genocide.

And now our narrative takes a twist truly unprecedented, because my father Raffi, who goes to public schools, plays football, makes the student council, and graduates from the finest universities of law and diplomacy in the United States, is himself a man born out of context. Like his father before him, he rebels. He cheats destiny. He jumps over his own shadow. In 1989, as a democracy movement is gaining momentum in Soviet Armenia, my father quits his law firm in Los Angeles and moves with me and my mother to the homeland. When Armenia eventually declares its independence in 1991, my father — an American citizen — is appointed the republic’s first minister of foreign affairs.

Maybe you’ll say my father gave up the American Dream. He’d probably tell you that the American Dream isn’t about achieving liberty, but about sharing liberty, returning liberty to native lands.

FP: Address the Shadows for us.

Hovannisian: In college I heard a line from Pindar, the ancient Greek poet: “What is a man? What is he not? Man is what a shadow would dream to be.” This book is about shadows who dream to be men. It is about individuals — Kaspar, the survivor; Richard; the pioneer scholar; Raffi the repatriate and foreign minister — who have defied the great forces of history.

FP: Tell us the facts about the Genocide.

Hovannisian: The 20th century is the century of genocides, and those who have studied them in comparison — the scholar Israel Charny, for example — will tell you that each genocide depends on the precedent of the one before it. The most famous of these is, of course, the Holocaust, but it is not the first. The modern formula of national extermination was actually invented in 1915, when the Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire realized the systematic deportation and slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.

“Go, kill without mercy,” Hitler told his top commanders a few days before the start of World War II. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

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  • FBastiat

    On denying the genocide of the Armenians (from here):

    I suppose that we should be somewhat thankful that in this case we at least get an unambiguous concession that the "policy of expulsion and resettlement" was not only real but even "ruthless." But that's all we get. Forget about the "annihilation of an entire people" — it seems quite uncertain whether Lipstadt really believes the "policy" killed any people. Our professor cites no sources for this rendition of history. Not that surprising, since it's a rendition shared by no one: not those who commanded the carnage nor those who actually witnessed it nor those who today truly "acknowledge [it] adequately." Enver Pasha, one of the Turkish triumvirate rulers, openly declared, "The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up [!] of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation." Talat Pasha, another Young Turk, was equally explicit: "Turkey is taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes, i.e., the indigenous Christians." The second group includes Mustafa Arif, Minister of Interior, who admitted that the "wartime leaders, imbued with a spirit of brigandage, carried out the law of deportation in a manner that could surpass the proclivities of the most bloodthirsty bandits. They decided to exterminate the Armenians, and they did exterminate them." Our ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., wired Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, calling the actions of the Young Turks an attempt at "racial extermination." In Ambassador Morgenthau's Story (1919), we read, "When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact." Finally, in 1994, Yossi Beilin, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, provided the proper memorial: "It was not war. It was most certainly massacre and genocide, something the world must remember … We will always reject any attempt to erase its record, even for some political advantage." Too obviously, denying the Holocaust parallel can be the effect of only one of two causes, neither charitable: an immense ignorance of this history — or a conscious "attempt to erase its record" precisely "for some political advantage."

  • Arius

    My father that survived the Turks genocide of the Armenian people told us "don't trust Muslims, they don't think like us". What did I know then, I was a kid then, but now I know that he is right. We in the West have inherited a Christian morality and ethics that good and evil are both within, both trying to influence us and we choose one or the other, and it is our choice that we will have to account for before God. Muslim morality and ethics is in another universe. In Islam in order to choose good you need only follow to the letter the rules written in the Koran and Hadith. Evil is all else that is outside of Islam. Muslims project all their evil onto the other, that is, non-Muslims. That is why they can practice deception (lies) and mass murder on us as sanctioned by the Koran, the Hadith, and the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. To the Muslim how can it be evil to deceive or kill that which is evil?

    Don't trust Muslims! Don't trust their logic, their facts, or anything they say. When you argue with a Muslim keep in your mind at all times the mentality that you are arguing with.

    My father is no longer living to hear the delusional blockheads in the West say that Islam is a religion of peace. In 1915, and during the many earlier Muslims' mass murder of Armenians an Imam would be reading from the Koran while they ritualistically cut our throats.

  • tagalog

    God bless the Armenians! They were Christianized within 200 years after Christ died, and are among the earliest Christians of the Eastern Church. They survived war after war between the Persian Empire and the Russians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Kurds, the Islamic Arabs, and the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. The genocidal murder of Armenians in the 1915 period was a two-fold genocide, not only as to their ethnicity but as to their religion. They've managed to hold on to both without intermingling with some conqueror, or betraying their vision of Christ. God bless 'em, I say. May they prosper and grow in numbers.

    If I may be bold, Armenian girls are among the most beautiful in the world.

  • Bess

    I agree with Arius. Islam is not a religion of peace. There may be some decent Muslims but I wouldn't even trust them. Greece won their Independence from the Turks in early 19th Century. For 400 hundred years the Greeks lived under oppressive Turkish rule. The Turks were brutal to Greek Christians. How many Greeks were told to convert to the Muslim faith or die? How many Greeks became Turks? Those Greeks who didn't become Muslims died horrible deaths: woman, children it didn't matter. Many who went to their deaths are now Saints. The plan was to exterminate the leaders thinking the Christians would fade away without their leaders.The Turks tortured thousands of holy Greek men and women and yes, children. As evil as this was the Turks were masters of deception. They would kidnap young Greek boys and raise them as Muslims. These Greek boys now men were called Jennasaurus (not sure of spelling). They committed horrible crimes against the Greeks, their own people. This is the Muslim mind set: devious and demonic. Muslims are infiltrating every country like locusts. They overcame the Greeks by their sheer numbers. Is history repeating itself?

  • Vivi Andersen

    It is so importent :

    " Don´t trust muslims ! Don´t trust their logic, their facts or anything they say.

    When You argue with a muslim KEEP IN YOUR MIND, at all times, THE MENTALITY

    If we don´t do that we will learn the truth at the hard way !

    In Europe we are now underway in this learning process!

  • Suzy

    Garin, this sounds to be a very interesting and fascinating story. I read your interviews in some other papers and look forward to reading your book. I am sure your family's
    story is something to be admired. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  • Jerry

    Islam is steeped in the 7th century view of its "enemies" and thus, the Koran reeks with hatred for the infidels. Until and when, the Koran is revised to reflect the more inclusive views of other religions, we must be very wary of the encroachment of Islamists in our pluralistic societies. Afterall, this notion is anathama to all Muslims who demand fidelity to Allah and Mohammad, and a theocracy. Sharia is the foundadtion of this faith and as such, totally the opposite of what we, in the west, consider our innate freedoms.

  • UCLA student

    Great Article! Thank you for supporing Garin in his journey! The Armenian community and Armenia owe a lot to the Hovannisian family.