History and the people who make it: David Barsamian

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 27th in a series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

David Barsamian was interviewed by Paul Ortiz [O] and Matthew Simmons [S] in 2014.

B: I was born in Manhattan in 1945. My parents were from Turkish Armenia. They came to the United States in 1921. They were refugees from one of the major genocides of the twentieth century: the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, which began in 1915.

So growing up in New York, I was bilingual, bicultural, very much part of a different culture while being at the same time a hundred percent American, whatever that means: eating hot dogs, playing stickball in the street, punch ball, basketball, off the point, all these street games, box ball.

At the same time there was this other part of me which was bilingual, bicultural, the Armenian-ness of my background. We spoke Armenian at home. The major informing factor was the genocide and the shadow that it cast over me and everyone in my generation, ’cause it wasn’t remote. These weren’t my great-forefathers. It was my parents that lived through that.

Three of my four grandparents were killed in the genocide, aunts, uncles, cousins. Worse than the physical annihilation, perhaps—’cause we all die—was the cultural annihilation. The separation from memory and tradition and the land.

We were from a rural farming community. I visited my mother’s village in Turkey in 2005. It’s completely Kurdish today. I found apricot trees, a creek that she had told me about. It was a very moving experience to go back to this village. Being severed from that connection was very traumatic, much more for the survivors than for me.

The very first interviews I ever did, long before I thought I would do radio as a profession, the very first interviews were with survivors of the genocide ’cause I thought, well, “these people, 70, 75, 80, 85, they’re gonna die, they’re gonna take all their memories with them.”

So, I got a twenty-dollar K-Mart tape recorder, using cassettes in those days, with a really cheap microphone, and I started recording these interviews. Only recently have I digitized them. One that I did, the very first interview with my mother, was actually taken by the great Indian writer Arundhati Roy in one of her books. She called it Listening to Grasshoppers. It’s my mother’s story of survival.

It’s hard to qualify genocides: it’s organized state murder. It’s much more impactful than random violence by gangs. They can leverage all the power of the state: the police, the judiciary, the military.

The railroads were harnessed to transport people. This is thirty years before the Holocaust. Hitler knew what had happened to the Armenians in Turkey. He was challenged by some German generals before the outbreak of World War II, that Hitler had already given them orders about massacring Jews.

They said, this is not what we’re about. We’re a military formation. We want to fight wars, not attack citizens who are not bothering us. Hitler told them, don’t worry—who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians? He was right. There was no judicial accounting for the Turkish government, for those perpetrators who carried out this genocide.

Now this story comes full forward to today; 2015 marks the hundredth anniversary of the genocide and the Turkish government to this day denies that it ever happened.

They say, it was World War I, lots of people died. It was tragic, but it wasn’t genocide. All the evidence in all the archives—the German government, Britishgovernment, U.S. government—without doubt documents that it was systematic, it was state-organized, and by every definition, it qualifies as genocide. Turkey is still in denial, which means what to me and other Armenians? It should matter to everyone because it’s a human rights issue. It means there’s no closure, there’s no acknowledgement. We cannot move forward when our past is being denied. It’s a cause of pain to Armenian-Americans and I think citizens of conscience anywhere.

O: What were some of the stories that really stood out to you?

B: I think I would start crying if I had to tell you. They’re just heart-breaking and when you hear it from your mother it’s like … I could hardly breathe. It’s hard enough interviewing your own mother but hearing about the loss of her three younger brothers, her parents, it’s just horrifying that someone had to live through that, someone that you know intimately.

Those were the most difficult interviews I’ve ever done in my life. Everything I’ve done since—Chomsky, Zinn, Edward Said, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy—those are all snaps in comparison because the emotional kind of cauldron that was churned up talking to your mother was incomparable. In terms of the interviews that people think are very, very difficult with some of the people I just mentioned—Vandana Shiva, Bob McChesney or all these other people that I’ve talked to—it seems like I was on Mount Everest and since then I’ve been like gliding down, because that was the most difficult mountain to climb.

I remember someone from my mother’s village who told me this story. His parents were killed. The Turks took a lot of young Armenian children and put them in Muslim schools, gave them Muslim identities, Islamic names.

This guy, from my mother’s village, his name is Sakishagokyan. I later meet him in East Orange, New Jersey, where he was a tailor. Poor guy, he was living on virtually nothing, but he had a lot of energy and he was big influence on my life. So he was in this Turkish orphanage and every night the headmaster would come around and say, say your name. I am Mustafa Ahmad, and I am a Rakib Haan.

And then when the lights went out, he would jump up from bed and say, I am Sakishagokyan. I am Armenian. I am not Turkish.

So it’s an act of defiance by a young kid who managed to keep his identity in that situation of desolation and murder and dispersion. A lot of kids were just swept up and their identities were lost. A lot of young girls were kidnapped, forced into marriages with much older men, forced to convert to Islam.

Today, in Turkey, there are lotta stories coming out now about, oh yeah, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, she was Armenian. Books have been coming out, so some of those memories are being unearthed, because there’s a little more space today in Turkey to talk about the genocide and what happened. Although one has to be very careful.

For example, Orhan Pamuk, the great Turkish novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize, received death threats for talking about the Armenian genocide. He left the country. Elif Shafak, a fine novelist, she left the country. Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist was talking about these issues; he was murdered in broad daylight in Istanbul. So there’s still a lot of pressure from the state to hide the history.

O: In the United States, did you grow up with a sense of an Armenian community?

B: Well, in my neighborhood in the Upper East Side of New York, which is a very richy area today, not when I was growing, there were four or five Armenian families and we knew them all. My father had a grocery store, there were a couple of other stores. They did jobs when they came because of their limited English in which they could exploit their own labor and the labor of their children and wives.

My father’s store was open seven days a week; he’d open at six in the morning and work ’til ten at night. When I was growing up in the [19]50s, he finally started taking Sundays off and he closed the store at nine o’clock at night. So it’d be Monday to Saturday, six to nine, and he’d make peanuts.

This is before the time of mass industrial agriculture and bananas from Ecuador and mangoes from Mexico. It was white bread, onions, potatoes, eggs, it was beer, and sodas and cigarettes and gum. One of my jobs was to restock the shelves. He wouldn’t let me do much ’cause I was a kid, but whenever I could I was very excited to do something useful like that.

There were few Armenian families in our immediate neighborhood. Many men from my father’s village escaped before the genocide, so they have a close-knit community that helped one another out. If there was a new immigrant, they would lend them money so they could start a business. They were all doing businesses. Mostly, grocery stores. I had one uncle, he was married to my father’s sister, who had a grocery store in West Harlem about 137th Street. Like that, there was a connection but it was a dispersed community. The church held a lot of the people together.

My mother was very devout in the kind of stereotypical, Mediterranean, cultural way. The women tend to be very religious and the men tend to be indifferent, agnostic, if not atheistic. My father would go to church on Easter and Christmas. The church was a community center, a place where you would meet people.

I had three older siblings. They’re all dead now. My oldest brother was twenty-five years older than I and then brother after that was twenty-three, and my sister who died a couple years ago, she was twenty years older. It was odd chronologically-speaking because my siblings were like my parents, age-wise. My brother would take me to Central Park or to the zoo or to a ball game.

My parents chronologically were like my grandparents. I didn’t have any grandparents, only my father’s mother survived and I knew her a bit. So values, all those platitudes about working hard and being successful in school and getting ahead.

But there was such a gap between me and my parents, they didn’t have a clue what I was doing, what school was like or any of that. They had difficulty communicating with me because they were so old world and old and I was so new world, and into Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets, all that music that was breaking then. They couldn’t make anything of that. It was another universe.

The one thing that, of course, is so overwhelming is a constant sense of affection and love. No matter who you are or what you did—and I did some pretty nasty things as a kid, including trying to steal cars and burning down an ice cream parlor that wouldn’t serve us kids—they were always there. It was always support and that was unwavering and constant.

There was an appreciation of being alive ’cause when you go through a situation of mass murder where so many of your compatriots, friends, neighbors, and relatives are exterminated, life takes on a kind of extra meaning. I don’t want to overstate this, but there’s more of an awareness of surviving and how close you came to death that makes life a little more precious, whereas you know, in a typical subdivision in Denton, Texas, you may never experience anything like that.

Search for “David Barsamian” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview; look for a second segment in the next issue of the Iguana.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.

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