Monday, March 7, 2016

The One Hundred Year Walk - An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen

I loved this book - and it was so enlightening.  I knew a little bit about the Armenian genocide, but this book really brought it to life - in all its horror.

First of all I can't say enough about how well the format of the book worked.  The author, a journalist, is encouraged by her mother to tell her grandfather's story.  While she vaguely remembers her grandfather, and grew up hearing her mother's stories about his survival of the genocide, she is not convinced to take on the project until she finds her grandfather's journals.  At first she is missing the most crucial years of the genocide, but after much searching they are found in her uncle's garage.  She then works with her mother and her mother's friends and relatives to translate them from Armenian to English.  She also studies everything she can find about the genocide (which is less than she would have hoped).  Armed with this historical information, she retraces the route her grandfather was forced to walk when the Turks led the Armenians on a death march during World War I.  The chapters of the book alternate between Dawn's quest and that of her grandfather.  And she had enough information to convincingly write her grandfather's chapters in the first person from his perspective.

Dawn's grandfather, Stepan, was a courier in Adabazar, a town in the Ottoman Empire not far from Constantinople.  The town had a large, vibrant Armenian population prior to its being swept up in a mass government deportation.  Stepan himself is drafted into an army work gang which is first overworked and underfed clearing roads and railway lines.  Eventually they are just led on a long march through the desert - and Stepan gradually comes to the realization that they are being led to their deaths.  At the same time his family is deported to a refugee camp in a place called Chai and are miraculously able to stick together and stay there until the end of the war.

Stepan survives through a combination of incredible will and ingenuity, bonds with fellow residents of Adabazar who he meets along the way and, at times, just plain luck.  He escapes more than once, only to be returned to his doomed march though makes his final escape with the assistance of an Arab sheik in what is present-day Syria.  He works as his assistant under the sheik's protection until it is relatively safe for him to return to Anatolia to reunite with his family.

Dawn realizes her grandfather's strength when she is unable to cope with the walks he used to take as a courier and has trouble crossing the desert in a car with provisions.  She is able to locate the descendants of the sheik who saved her grandfather's life and is greeted by 300 of them - where she is able to convey her family's thanks.

The description of the tortuous conditions the Armenians suffered are powerful; made more so by the fact that the current Turkish government still does not acknowledge the "Armenian issue" as an act of genocide.  In fact, Dawn felt compelled to hide the true purpose of her visit to Turkey for fear of agitating the authorities.  To this day the US has also feared calling the event a genocide - even though Dawn quotes from communiques from the US Ambassador at the time pleading with his government to intervene (he eventually resigns from his post as he finds it too hard to deal with).  There are also interesting reports from German soldiers which make their way to the rest of the world but result in limited action - interesting because Germany was an ally of Turkey at the time and because similar reports coming out of Germany would be similarly ignored only a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to gain insight into an ugly era in human history - but told from a very human perspective.

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