Monday, October 20, 2014

Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch"s Dance of the Banished explores the controversial Armenian genocide which occurred almost 100 years ago in Ottoman Turkey. Repeatedly denied by the government of Turkey over the past century, the 20th century's first large scale genocide took place in the Anatolia region as Turks turned on their Armenian Christian citizens and annihilated them through mass murder and death marches into the desert. Despite Turkey's repeated refusal to acknowledge internationally the Armenian genocide, there is much evidence proving the Young Turk government's mass murder of its Christian population, the destruction of Armenian culture and intelligentsia, including the seizure of property and the desecration of Armenian holy sites.International recognition of the Armenian genocide has been slow and hindered by political interference as Turkey is important geographically to the United States and other NATO countries.

Almost one hundred years later,  the region to the south has experienced yet another violent "cleansing" by a radical Muslim group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seeks to establish a Sunni caliphate in the area. Armenian and Syrian Christians, Yazidis, and Shi'ite Muslims are the victims of  ethnic cleansing in this modern conflict.


Ali Hassan announces to his beloved Zeynep that he will be traveling to Canada.Hagop Gregorian was to have taken Ali's younger brother, Yousef, with him to Canada but instead will take Ali. The men worked in other countries sending money home for their wives to pay taxes and support their families. Ali promises Zeynep that he will return to marry her, giving her a journal and asking her to use it to record what is happening to her and then mail it to him. He promises to do the same with his journal. But Zeynep will have none of it. She tells Ali she will not wait for him and refuses to be his betrothed.

With this beginning, the novel, divided into eight parts, tells the story of Ali in Canada and Zeynep in Turkey during the years of 1913 until late 1917. Their narratives form the separate parts of the novel beginning with Zeynep in Eyolmez, Anatolia in June of 1913. Still reeling from Ali's departure, Zeynep becomes determined to leave her village. Zeynep is not on good terms with Ali's mother who has complained to the dede about her. Zeynep's cousin, Fatma who is married to Ali's brother Yousef, has a baby girl along with a son named Suleyman. In December of 1913, the Turkish army takes Zeynep's brother, Turabi, along with Riza and Hassan. Early in 1914, Protestant missionaries arrive in Zeynep's village attempting to convert the Alevi Kurds to Christianity. When Zeynep tells the teacher, Miss Anton, who is from Toronto, Canada about wanting to come with her to Harput, Miss Anton flatly refuses because Zeynep will not convert to Christianity.

Zeynep decides to take matters into her own hands and when the missionaries leave for Harput she follows them on foot. She is eventually discovered and welcomed by Reverend John Emmonds and his wife, Lenore. Before arriving in Harput they stop in Mezreh, which is half Armenian and is headquarters for the Ottoman Army, where Zeynep helps them.  In Harput Zeynep finds the Emmonds home to be spacious and is puzzled by the many empty rooms. Zeynep meets Keghani an Armenian girl who lives with the Emmonds and Yester an Armenian woman who comes in to cook for them. Yester's husband, Onnig does various chores for the missionaries.

At first life is good; Zeynep and Keghani work at the hospital and then attend lectures at the college. They are well treated by the Emmonds. From her mother's letter she learns that the Turkish soldiers are raiding the villages and young men are being forced into the army.

By August, 1914, Zeynep hears that Austria, Germany and Serbia are at war with Russia. Since Germany and Turkey are allies it likely means Turkey will enter the war. When Zeynep learns that all men between the ages of twenty and forty-five must enlist or they will be hunted down she worries about Turabi. Quickly the situation escalates out of control. Armenian men trying to avoid the draft are imprisoned, the men are marched up and down the streets and are beaten, soldiers steal from the marketplace, and the women and children begin to starve. By September the soldiers, including the Armenian men and Turkish officers are marched out of  Harput through Zeynep's village of Eyolmez to Erzurum where there is fighting.

A month later, Fatma, Aunt Besse and Suleyman show up in Harput bearing a terrible story. When the Turkish soldiers came to Eyolmez they stole everything from both Armenian and Alevi alike. With the villages in the area all overrun by the Turkish soldiers, the people fled into the mountains. It was there that Fatma's baby died. Fatma tells Zeynep that there were no Armenian soldiers with the Turks, which puzzles her because she knows the Armenian men left with the Turkish army. Fatma also gives Zeynep a letter written to her by Ali.

Ali's narration begins in January of 1915 in Kapuskasing, Ontario.He is a prisoner of war having been sent to northern Ontario because in the eyes of the government he is from Turkey and therefore must be a Turk - an ally of Germany and therefore at war with Canada. This Ali cannot understand because he is an Alevi Kurd, one of the original inhabitants of Anatolia. The Canadians believe that anyone in Turkey who is not Christian must be Muslim.

When Ali first arrived in Canada he worked in the foundry in Brantford. But when the war started, all foreigners were fired and now without work Ali struggles to make ends meet. Both Ali and Yousef are arrested along with many other men, for allegedly trying to blow up the post office. Ali's landlord, Hagop Gregorian tries to reason with the police but he is told that they have orders from the government in Ottawa. First he is sent to Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario and then to the wilderness of Kapuskasing where he is ordered to chop down trees to make bunkhouses for the prisoners.

What follows in alternating parts are the stories of Ali and Zeynep. Ali struggles to cope with the loneliness and hardship of the north and the sometimes brutal treatment by the guards. They are forced to cut down the beautiful huge trees which Ali feels is a terrible wrong.  The terrible conditions leads him to make a rash decision which almost results in severe consequences. Hearing about Turkey's involvement in the war, Ali is desperately worried about what has happened to Zeynep. Will he ever see her again?

Meanwhile, Zeynep can only watch as her country dissolves into the chaos of what eventually becomes the Armenian genocide. First she learns that the Turkish Army has killed all the Armenian men, and then that all Armenians are to be deported. Suspecting that this will be another massacre Zeynep seeks the help of the American Consulate, who encourages her to continue recording what is happening in Harput.  Zeynep cannot understand why the government is killing the Armenians.The Alevi's try to help the few Armenians left but they soon find themselves the focus of the next wave of ethnic cleansing by the Turks. Zeynep's only chance to escape may be through the Dersim Mountains and into Russia.

Dance of the Banished is a beautifully crafted novel, from its gorgeous cover (a painting by Pascal Milelli) inviting readers into its pages, to the well-told story of two lovers separated by distance and war. Using alternating narratives, Skrypuch effectively presents the effects of war in two very different countries. In Harput, we experience the horror of the Armenian genocide through Zeynep's eyes as she struggles to understand what it happening.
People who had lived in this area for thousands of years were being rounded up and killed? I tried to set my emotions aside to make sense of it from the government's point of view. What was their purpose? Did they want all the businesses to grind to a halt and all the shops to close? What about the hospitals? Without the Armenians, who would run them? Killing the Armenians would even harm the Turks, so why were they doing this?"
When the magnitude of the killing becomes apparent to Zeynep she finds it incomprehensible.
"Mr. Davis estimates that a million and a half Armenians have been killed. Is that even possible? Each of those million and half people was a living, breathing human being like you or me."
From Zeynep we learn that the American Consul, Leslie Davis tried to get word out to the world via telegrams and photographs but these never got through. The American Consulate eventually hid hundreds of Armenians, men, women and children. Skrypuch is not overly graphic but she does managed to convey a sense of the brutality and the extent of the genocide through descriptions of the wounded, "the threadbare Armenians marched past Harput....to be marched in circles in the desert until they die." Especially tragic is Zeynep's encounter in the market

Skrypuch isn't afraid to identify those involved of the massacre when Zeynep sees a group of Turks and Muslim Kurds chanting "Praise be to Allah. Bless us in our efforts to kill the Christians." and she cannot understand the Kurds involvement since they themselves have been persecuted in Turkey.

Through Ali's eyes we see the ignorance of a predominantly British Canada, whose people and government don't understand other cultures who in war time, automatically violate basic human rights. Ali struggles to endure the poor rations, the bitter cold and his loss of freedom. Ali has a chance at freedom when Nadie offers him the opportunity to live with her people. But Ali recognizes that living such a different life has a price; abandoning who he is and failing to stand up for what he believes in.

Many young Canadians will find Ali's experience as a prisoner in Canada disturbing. Ali considered himself someone loyal to Canada, yet solely because of his nationality he was imprisoned and endured hard labour for several years. Unfortunately, this practice continued in the Second World War, as my mother's family experienced.

The author's extensive research on the Armenian genocide is evident in Dance of the Banished. Her development of the setting of the novel is realistic and her characters believable for this time period and for the Alevi culture she portrays so well. The title refers to the semah, a religious ritual dance between Alevi men and women that has a special spiritual significance. With the departure of Ali and the breakdown of society in Harput, and Ali's incarceration neither can perform this dance. When they are reunited, Zeynep and Ali feel whole again and are able to perform the semah.


There are two excellent maps included, on the back of the front and back covers. The first map is of  Anatolia, showing its location relative to Syria and Russia. The map at the back of the novel is of Kapuskasing, Ontario. The map illustrations were done by John Lightfoot and are very well done. My library copy obscured these maps by taping the cover flaps down. Also included are photographs of the Kapuskasing Internment Camp.The author also has an interesting note detailing her research and how she came to write the novel.

Dance of the Banished is an excellent piece of historical fiction and Marsha Forchuk Skyrpuch's best work to date. Definitely a future White Pine Award winner for this increasingly popular and talented Canadian children's author.

Book Details:
Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Pajama Press        2014
233 pp.

Historical Note:
This map shows the different "provinces" that existed in the Ottoman Empire in 1914.


Map of the Ottoman empire 1914. Source: http://www.bloomberg.com/image/ilBjEEQsCSVQ.jpg
In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian set the stage for Austria declaring war on Serbia. Russia supported Serbia along with Britain and France, a group of countries known as the Allies, while Germany supported Austria in war against Serbia in what came to be known as the Central Powers. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in November of 1914 despite still recovering from the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 in which it lost many soldiers. Although the Ottoman Empire won several major battles early in the Great War, with the advance of the Russians from the north into Armenia, the Empire initiated the Armenian genocide. Considered the first of the modern genocides in the twentieth century, the Armenian genocide saw the mass murder of male Armenians and the forced march of women and children into the desert where their deaths from starvation were to be hidden from the world. This was done by the Young Turk government, supposedly a progressive government that was to lead the empire into a modern era on the basis of equality. Instead, this government was responsible for the murder of close to 1.5 million Armenians.This "ethnic cleansing" of Christians from Turkey was largely ignored by the world at the time and for decades afterwards. Although many Kurds participated in the massacres, some Kurds such as Zeynep helped their Armenian brothers and sisters.

1 comment:

Marsha Skrypuch said...

Thank you for this wonderful review. You have made my day!