In the coming days, Armenians around the world will come together to acknowledge what I have come to call “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.” April 24 marks the 98th anniversary of the night the Armenian religious and intellectual leaders were rounded up in Constantinople — and the start of the Armenian genocide.
And yet most of North America probably can’t find Armenia on a map. Certainly only a few of us could pinpoint the mountain of Musa Dagh. Yet Musa Dagh has become for me — an American who is half-Armenian and half-Swedish — the story that brings the Armenian genocide to life.
In the summer of 1915, roughly 4,000 Armenians from six villages in southeast Turkey refused to be marched from their homes by Turkish soldiers and gendarmes into the Syrian desert to die. Roughly 1.5 million of the two million Armenians in Turkey would perish in the First World War, many of them by starvation, dehydration, and disease in the unforgiving Syrian sands.
But not those 4,000. They climbed Musa Dagh, at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, and used rifles and a few captured cannons to hold off the Turkish army for nearly two months. The women sewed a flag with a red cross on it and dangled it over the side of the cliff that faced the sea, and eventually a French battleship saw it and rescued the Armenians.
If anyone knows bits and pieces of this story, it is likely through German writer Franz Werfel’s magisterial 1933 novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” The novel was an international bestseller when it was published, though it was loathed early on by the Nazis. When the Germans were mercilessly putting down the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1944, the soldiers were surprised by how many copies of the novel they found among the dead Jewish fighters. It was my Swedish mother who gave me a copy when I was teenager.
Last year I saw that hand-sewn red cross flag. I held one of the rifles the Armenians had used from atop Musa Dagh. The flag and the artifacts sit in a community room beside the school and church in Anjar, the Lebanese town where the French eventually settled the survivors of Musa Dagh. Outside the building is a massive statue that looks at first glance like a sword with its blade in the earth, but on second becomes a cross. And on a mural inside that community room is a summit with an inscription that reads, “Let them come again. We are still the mountain.”
I journeyed to Anjar, as well as to Beirut and Yerevan and the “Bird’s Nest” orphanage in Byblos — where Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen saved the lives of thousands of Armenian orphans — for a lot of reasons.
First, there was my novel, “The Sandcastle Girls.” It’s a love story set in the midst of the Armenian genocide in the First World War. Every day that I was writing the book I felt a tug: I needed to view the bones that were pulled from the sands of Der-el-Zor. I needed to pause before the statues of Saroyan and Mother Armenia that anchor Yerevan’s streets and parks. And I needed to walk the grounds of the monastery at Khor Virap and gaze across the Turkish border at Mount Ararat.
There is, of course, an irony here. Ararat, the majestic 17,000-foot massif that dominates the western vista from Yerevan and symbolizes our heritage, isn’t even inside the country’s borders: It’s across the guard posts and fencing in Turkey. So, of course, is Musa Dagh.
Another reason for my journey was my father, an Armenian-American who died just as I was finishing the novel, and his parents, Armenian immigrants — and genocide survivors. These are the sorts of subterranean emotional currents that can inspire a novel and draw a person at mid-life to the Middle East and a small, landlocked country in the Caucasus Mountains. And Armenia is small. Barely three million Armenians live there, compared to approximately seven million outside the country. That’s how big the Armenian Diaspora is: 70 percent of Armenians don’t live in their homeland. And yet, we have retained a national identity: Our sense of a shared history and our sense of place.
Which brings me back to that community room in Anjar and the mural. My sense is that whoever wrote on the wall there, “We are still the mountain,” wanted the sentence to be interpreted two ways. Certainly he meant Musa Dagh: Attack again if you want, we are still those warriors. But he also meant Ararat: Even here in Lebanon, we are still Armenians.
Most of the time when I was in Armenia, clouds masked the summit of Ararat, even when I was at Khor Virap. Around 6 a.m. on my last morning, however, soon after I had climbed into a cab for the airport, I was greeted with a sign that the cosmos is not completely detached: The peak of Mount Ararat, snow-covered even in May. I asked the driver to stop. And there, against a sky that grew from agate to cerulean, I watched the nearly full moon set over the mountain. It was a poignant, powerful, and perfect way to remember that while April 24 is about mourning the dead, it is also about the triumph of the living — and how, indeed, we are still the mountain.
Chris Bohjalian’s 14th novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” will be published in paperback this week.