Monday, January 5, 2015

Like Water On Stone by Dana Walrath

It's difficult reading about the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century when Muslim Turks systematically slaughtered millions of Armenian men, women and children in what was the first genocide of the 20th century. It's difficult to comprehend such atrocities. I'm convinced that it is necessary for second and third generation Armenians - the descendants of those who survived, to continue to educate the rest of the world about what happened within the Ottoman Empire during World War I.  This is especially important since Muslims and Kurds in the region of  what is now Turkey and Syria continue to insist that the Armenian genocide never occurred. Without some acknowledgement of the genocide, there can be no healing between Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims.

The story in Like Water On Stone mirrors the events of author Dana Walrath's Armenian ancestors. Her mother's mother (Dana Walrath's grandmother) Oghidar Troshagirian hid during the day and travelled at night with her siblings after their parents were killed, in order to escape the massacre. Like many descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide, Walrath knows little about what happened to her grandparents (her grandfather Yeghishe Mashoian was also a survivor) as this horrific event was something not spoken about. Walrath knows that once her grandmother arrived in Aleppo she and her siblings were able to emigrate to America because her maternal uncle lived in New York. She also learned that her family were millers in Palu and that several older siblings of her grandmother did escape as well.

In 1984, Walrath and her husband travelled to Palu where they asked people living in the area about the location of nearby mills. They eventually found a mill with buildings attached in the woods near a fast flowing stream. They met a woman whose family now owned the mill. "She said that the mill had been in her family for sixty years; before that, it had belonged to Armenians. With anti-Armenian stories running Turkish newspapers that summer, and all visible traces of Armenian inhabitants systematically denied or destroyed, I had kept my identity hidden as we traveled. But I told her the truth. We held each other's gaze as the water hit the mill wheel and the stone of the stream. The official Turkish policy of genocide denial evaporated for one brief moment on that rooftop."

 Like Water on Stone tells the story in free verse of the Donabedian family during the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1919.  The family consists of Papa, Mama, older brothers Kevorg and Misak, Anahid, thirteen year old Shahen and his twin sister Sosi and their younger sister, five year old Mariam who live in Palu, deep inside the Ottoman Empire. The Donabedian family are Armenian Christians who live in a country ruled by Muslim Turks and Kurds. Their Papa survived the 1895 massacre of Christians ordered by Sultan Hamid.

In Part I Palu 1914 the poems portray the everyday life in Palu in which the lives of Muslim Turks and Kurds and Armenian Christians are seemingly intertwined with one another. Yet there are signs that all is not well.  For example, Shahen's older sister, Anahid has married Asan, a Kurd. This makes other Armenian families reluctant to marry their daughters to the older Donabedian boys. Mama insists that they must marry their own kind- that is other Christians. Sosi is being taught by her Mama how to run a household, to cook, to dye wool, to weave and to bargain for fabrics. When they go to purchase wool they are insulted by the Turks they purchase fabric from. But Sosi's mother reminds her daughter that despite being ruled for miles by Turks, the land they live on belongs to the Armenians who planted the olive trees. Papa considers the Turks his friends; they make music together but do the Turks and Kurds feel the same way about the Armenian Christians?

The poetry also portrays life in Palu in 1914. Throughout the summer of 1914, Shahen and Sosi carry baskets of apricots from the trees that lined the river up to the roof to be dried. Meanwhile Shahen tried to convince his Papa to let him travel to America, but Papa wants him to study with Father Manoog so he can go to college in Kharpert. Papa's friends, his daughter's inlaws Palewan and her husband Kaban with his duduk and zurna and Mustafa Bey Injeli and his dumbek come to play music with him. Days later Anahid comes from the market with a poem written in the hand of Vahan, the son of Baron Bedros, a Turk, whom Sosi loves. As the summer passes, the olives ripen to black and the grapes are harvested.

The Donabedian family receives a letter from Mama's brother who lives in New York, warning them that war has begun and they must leave the Ottoman Empire. He asks them to at least send Shahen to America but Papa refuses saying that the Turks and Kurds he knows are his friends and that they will not harm them.  However, as summer slips into autumn and the persimmons ripen, the Turks fights the Russians and the Armenians are expected to fight alongside the Turks. Shahen begs Papa to send him and Misak and Kevorg to America. "Papa will not listen."

Part II Massacre 1915 opens with soldiers coming to the Donabedian mill searching for weapons.  When the family have no weapons to give the soldiers as they are millers, they are threatened with arrest. Armenians are sent to build the Baghdad Railway and Anahid's husband, Asan is sent to fight at the Russian front. While their leaders and men are imprisoned, other families go into hiding or leave. One such family is the Arkalian's whom Father Manoog blesses before they leave.

Despite Papa's assurances that they are safe, soldiers come to the mill and arrest Kevorg and Misak. Baron Kaban and Baron Mustafa vouch for Papa and his family and the Turkish soldiers leave but the family fear for Shahen who is in school. Shahen manages to sneak home and his parents dress him as a girl so he will not be taken away as his brothers were. Then at dawn one day, Papa tells Shahen to take his sisters, Sosi and Mariam to the highest field and not to return until they come for them. If they do not, he is to take them south to Aleppo to the Forty Martyrs Church where there is a priest who helped their uncle travel to America. Shahen, Sosi and Mariam run into the hills in the hopes of meeting their parents again. But the horrifying screams tell Shahen that probably Papa and Mama will not be coming to get them. And so Shahen begins the journey over the mountains and across the desert to Aleppo. It is a journey that will see their faith, their perseverance tested to the limit.

Part III  Journey 1915 and Part IV 1919 provide the details of Shahen and his sisters' journey to Aleppo and what happens when they arrive there.

The story of the Donabedian family is told in four voices, Shahen, Sosi, Mariam and the eagle, Ardziv. Ardziv becomes attached to the family when Sosi finds a quill from the eagle one day while dyeing wool. The feather will be used by her Papa to make music on his oud. The eagle feels that
"If my quill could pull laments
from the strings of an oud,
I thought, then
my heart might heal."
Ardziv had a mate and young birds in the nest before his mate was killed. The killing of Ardziv's mate by a Turkish man is a foreshadowing of the genocide. The killing is senseless in the eyes of the eagle, who hunts only for food. But as he watched the Turk and his son pluck the feathers from her wings and leave her carcass for the vultures Ardziv realized his mate's killing was done for her feathers and nothing else. Because of this Ardziv decides to watch over the three young people as they journey south through the mountains towards Aleppo.

It is Ardziv who first sees the movement of soldiers faraway.
"In distant lands
lines of soldiers
moved locust-like.
across  the earth,
their bodies clad
in identical
greens and browns,
rifles up like antennae."

And later on Ardziv sees the truth behind the Armenian men who are marched along.
"I followed the soldiers
with every fit 
Armenian man....
They walked them
in a line
along the river
for miles,
and poking
with guns,
their hands tied.
They stopped.
They stripped them.
They turned them.
They shot them.
They threw the bodies
into the river."

When Papa realizes his mistake too late, he reaches up towards Ardziv stating "No land is worth a child's life. Protect them. Please."
Ardziv states,
"I made a promise
to the empty sky.
These three young ones
would not die."

When Shahen hides with his sisters on the hilltop, Ardziv circles watching them and as they leave Palu, he follows the three young people as they go high up into the mountains to be safe. When Ardziv sees that Mariam is starving he begins to hunt for the three bringing them rabbit and snake to eat. And when a brown bear begins following them after catching the scent of blood, Ardziv leads her away from Shahen and his siblings. And when Shahen and Mariam are hurt after falling into a crack in the rocks, the eagle leads Sosi to where she can find food. The eagle accompanies them across the desert to Aleppo. Again and again, he comes to the children's aid.

Ardziv serves as the one narrator who is not in danger and who can protect the children. The eagle sees the full extent of the genocide from his vantage point in the sky. He knows the danger the Turks present because he has experienced it himself. Through the eagles eyes the reader experiences the horrors of the genocide, the murder of the men by the river and the mutilation and death of Papa and Mama. He is a the one character through which the author can express the feelings of terror, horror and anger that the mass killings evoke.

Walrath's poetry is eloquent and deeply touching. Though simple and even sparse at times, the beautiful poems in this novel express the true horror of the Armenian genocide. After setting up in detail the way the Christian Armenians live - their strong family life, the dyeing of wool, harvesting of apricots to be dried on the rooftops, the picking olives and grapes, the pruning of grape vines, the work in the mill, the music of the oud- as the story moves forward, the poems portray the terror, suffering and the overwhelming sense of loss the Armenian community experiences as first their men are rounded up and then family after family are butchered, some burned alive in their homes, others raped, mutilated and beheaded.

Sometimes it is what is not said by Walrath's poems that conveys the horror so effectively. After months in the mountains, the realization  that Mama and Papa will not meet them in Aleppo and that Misak and Kevorg are likely dead, comes to thirteen year old Sosi, Despite this awful revelation, the novel ends on a hopeful note - a future in America where they can be free, something that 1.5 million Armenians never had a chance at.

Demonstrating that not all Muslims cooperated in the genocide, Walrath includes numerous honourable Turks, including Mustafa who binds his wife, Fatima, so she will not reveal what she knows about the Donabedians, Kaban, Palewan and Mustafa who wash and bury Papa and Mama and the kindly Bedouin who takes the three Donabedian children into his care in the desert, making sure they get safely to Aleppo.

Sadly the conflict between Muslims and Christians continues in the part of the world today, over one hundred years later with the destruction of the Armenian Holy Martyrs Church in Der Zor, Syria. This church was set up as a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide and was brazenly destroyed by the militant Muslim group ISIS.

There are many excellent resources online and in print about the Armenian Genocide. Dana Walrath has included a long Author's Note, a Glossary, a map, and a detailed list of Resources for readers to explore in her novel.

Those interested in history, especially World War I, and who wish a more personal touch to their historical fiction will find Like Water On Stone to be engaging. Although deeply tragic, the element of hope and thankfulness permeates the ending.  Shahen knows what could have been his and his sisters' fate - a death march or a forced conversion to Islam. There's no sugar coating what was done. Like Water On Stone is historical fiction at its best - vivid, realistic and factual.

Book Details:
Like Water On Stone by Dana Walrath
New York: Delacorte Press     2014
353 pp.

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