One Hundred Hours of Denial

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So… This has nothing to do with music, but it pertains to an essential element of my life’s groove, and has been my main groove for the last month or so. It is an important topic that I feel very strongly about, and I believe that it deserves a voice (at least this once) in this long-forgotten blog I guess I still have.

ONE HUNDRED HOURS OF DENIAL

by George Krikorian

Photo on 4-24-15 at 6.20 PMApril 24, 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. That day has now come and gone, and there seems to be little hope for any sort of closure to come soon. At least four generations of Armenians have now been made to bear this wound left open by the failure for global recognition of this event, and it seems that a fifth is sure to follow. While some European nations, such as France and Germany have made commitments to properly labeling the events what they were and are—genocide—the United States’ inability to be a leader in giving justice to the Armenian people continues to be an overwhelming barrier to ending a century of denial.

As the first generation of my family to not be one hundred percent Armenian, I often feel very disconnected from my roots. At the same time however, I believe that this is a condition that drives me to learn more, to educate myself and participate in sharing and supporting widespread knowledge of the genocide and its impact on the Armenian people and the world itself. I believe that this generation of part-Armenians, growing up in diaspora, represents a significant moment in our people’s history. We hold a specific responsibility to defy our fractured identity and not succumb to the lingering will of the Ottoman Turks. If this is allowed to happen, then the genocide, despite any kind of recognition, can still succeed in the extermination of our people.

Every year around this time, I make some kind of effort to raise awareness, but it never feels like it amounts to much. I have tried writing poems, sharing articles through social media outlets, and even dropping bits of information into conversations to provoke discussion on the topic. Other than that, I have the Armenia bumper sticker on my car, the Armenia baseball cap I adorn during the month of April, and the flag I keep over my bed. But these are just images, objects and debates—often led more with frustration and anger as opposed to direction and resolution—which after the day is over, another year goes by in near silence.

On April 22, an idea hit me on route back to Vermont after a visit to my hometown of Acton, Massachusetts. I had pulled off to fill up on gas and grab a snack to kill the hunger that had just welled up inside me. This is the story of the road, it seems. A constant urge to use and to fill underscores the whole experience—money and food, gas and coffee—each exit and pull off a divine opportunity to relieve the “exhaustion” of driving with consumer goods. At times, it feels that each rest stop may very well be the last opportunity to sate a hunger, to be content, even while the journey will reach an ultimate terminus—a promise that things will settle back into comfort, the “toils” of the road forgotten once more.

I had made it just past the I-93 tollbooths in Concord, NH, where the rest stop—recently remodeled—is the ultimate pleasure center for the weary traveler. With gas, restaurants, gift shops, and a liquor outlet, one wants for nothing when they stop there. Normally I would have built up a small pantry and loaded up a few bottles of booze, but something held me back from indulging further. I grabbed a cookie that was almost the size of my head. The cashier sang praise to my choice, confirming the worth of my impulsive purchase, and I dipped back down into the car.

Back on the road I wolfed the cookie down, barely taking time to savor the buttery mouthfuls. After brushing away the resulting crumbs from my lap, an eerie wave of dissatisfaction washed over me. I saw myself as weak, gluttonous, unable to push forward without forgoing easy pleasures—a condition of my environment, a creature of comfort. In the strange way that thoughts weave themselves together before the windshield, my criticism turned toward frustration and then reflection as I remembered what day was approaching. I began to think of my ancestors—torn from their families and homes—facing true starvation and torture with no end in sight. These were circumstances I could even begin to conceive of, which, on top of the other horrors and atrocities inflicted on the Armenian people, have gone unrecognized and even been forgotten to time.

GenocideLogoThe past two weeks had already been marked by my usual carpet bombing of news tidbits from the present and past, hoping that any “likes” or shares I made were furthering the caus. No matter how much I had read, how much I had thought, there was nothing particularly poignant about any of my actions. Marches were set in Boston, New York, DC, and Los Angeles, but I had made no plans to get myself to any of them. So, as I stared through my windshield into the night and the endless stretch of I-89 before me, I decided—rather abruptly—that I had to commit myself to something greater this year. At the stroke of midnight, I would begin a hunger strike to protest the United State’s failure to recognize the genocide.

The clock on the dashboard read 10:30, which allowed me some time to think things through, to set the parameters of the strike, and most importantly, decide if this was something I could actually follow through with. What I came up with was a 100-hour strike—one hour for each year of denial—which would fittingly cover just over four days—one day for each generation of my family that has lived with this injustice. I must admit that, upon its conception of this idea, I was very proud of myself. It had the weight of a true and righteous endeavor and the scale of it seemed appropriate. The notion of four days with no food would indeed be a feat, a challenge to notch in the belt, so to say. I have to admit that in the moment I was unable to resist making the Gandhi comparison, something I think we may all be susceptible to in theses situations.

As I continued to work through the conceptual aspects of the strike, I quickly pushed those thoughts to the side, and moved on to more serious motivations. This was, after all, not a weight loss gimmick or cleanse, nor was it an endurance challenge with rewards waiting at the end. It was personal, but not about me. I would not be doing this to seek attention, or even approval of my actions. Just days before, an official release had been made announcing that the Obama administration would once again not label the atrocities of 1915 as genocide. In a sense, this meant that my cause had already been defeated, but as just one person doing this without any sort of organized network, I did not expect that my actions would be making an impact anyway.

The purpose of the strike, then, would be to stand in solidarity with my fellow Armenians and to act as a personal point of recognition to my ancestors and the horrors they experienced. During the 100 hours, nothing in my daily life would change. As many do during a hunger strike, I would not station myself in an arena of public display outside of, say a statehouse, or in a park somewhere. The strike would be staged everywhere that I was and in every condition that I would normally face. My people had to march through the desert, and so I would not cease to work, to run, to push forward with all intensive activity in spite of starvation. It would be a silent strike, the suffering that accompanied it existing within the system, not removed and put on display.

I had not fully wrapped my mind around what 100 hours or four days without food would actually mean. It seemed impressive still, but a relatively short period of time, which I figured I could manage without worry. When the clock finally reached 12:00am somewhere between Barre and Burlington, I committed myself to the task I had set. There was still a kind of idealism that surrounded it, an illusion or fantasy. Not until I returned to Colchester, fell asleep, and woke again would I really come face to face with what I intended to do.

I woke up and left for work at 8:15 after my morning workout; still a bit foggy from the few hours of sleep I got the night before. Missing breakfast wasn’t terrible, as I have certainly had to pass it up before on days where I am running late. Some gurgles and churns in the stomach come through, but as long as I can get some coffee in me, things settle down. For the sake of my responsibility to work, I allowed myself to have coffee at the beginning of each day. My job has me standing all day, and is mostly based on heavy lifting, and it would not have been fair to my employer to have me falling asleep and slacking off because of my personal interests. Somewhat uncertain of what lay ahead, I packed a small granola bar in my bag. In part, as a provocation and a test, but also as a safety measure and a reminder of the possible risks I might face.

As the day moved on, it became clear to me that getting through work would be the biggest challenge I faced during the strike. I have gotten accustomed to having snacks on hand to keep my energy up throughout the day, and the impulse to eat there is strong. There is a deli just uphill from our building that churns out the steamy fumes of fries and burgers all day, exciting the appetites of everyone that lies beneath. While I do not typically go crazy for this kind of food, it seemed to tempt me more and more each time I got a whiff of it.

By noon, I had managed the hunger from the morning and was beginning to think of other ways to occupy my mind. I started equating the hours to years, counting up from 1915, and tried to imagine what would have been going on in history. At twelve hours in, it would be 1927. My family that survived the genocide would have already made their way to the United States and settled in Haverhill, MA. As they are making a new life for themselves, much of the coverage and outrage over the genocide that had come from prominent figures, such as Henry Morgenthau, and in large news publications such as the New York Times has begun to disappear. The events have begun to be written off, even recommended that they be allowed to slip away from history.

The day finished without too much discomfort other than the occasional rumble, but I found the hunger relatively manageable. After work, I prepared myself for the next major challenge—running. I normally run six to ten miles a day, but for the purposes of safety I cut the volume back and planned on three to four and dialed my pace back to be slightly slower. Seeing that I had not consulted anyone on this, I figured it would be smart to not push things too much. This was not supposed to be easy, but I wanted to make sure I would in fact be able to make it through the entire strike. I put in four miles that seemed to go relatively smooth. The fatigue, if any, that I felt could have been very well chalked up my day at work, and little less sleep than I needed.

Later that night, somewhat as another test to my will power, I attended a show downtown. My roommates are in a band, and I enjoy showing my support to them. I went down early and sat with them as they ordered and ate a delectable spread of dishes, and was surprised to find that I was able to carry on without much envy or jealousy. Like running, I love dancing with live music, and was unable to resist burning some probably very precious energy that night. The show was out a midnight and I headed home promptly, feeling rather impressed with myself for how well the first day went. I was energized—optimistic, even—about the remaining days. As I lay down to sleep, however, I could not help but remember that just twenty-four years after the genocide in 1939, as Adolph Hitler prepared to invade Poland and carry out his own systematic extermination of the Jewish people, he defended his actions with the question, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The following morning, I rose to meet the centennial, my conviction running strong. I knew that major marches and memorials would be taking place in cities like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, and it frustrated me that I could not be present for them. While there are some demonstrations each year, this time around would have been a momentous occasion—not a glamorous celebration, but an experience to carry through the rest of my life; to be able to say that I joined with thousands of other Armenian Americans and supporters and stood for something. To starve would be an act commitment that day; an inherent state of being rather than a task.

In contemplating the strike, I had anticipated the second day being the worst—the time when my body would most crave what I had cut it off from. I imagined endless churning in my stomach, caustic loops with no hope of escape. I pictured myself doubled over delirious. I envisioned caving in. It was an impish kind of satisfaction—the flavor of the bite that ended it all—and then, “oh well, I tried.”

As I made my way into the afternoon, I was surprised—and relieved, somewhat—to find that my predictions couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was as though I could feel the energy of my fellow Armenians around the globe and feed off that alone. Not once did I notice the hunger, or even think of food; there were much greater forces at work. I noticed a change in my physical consciousness. I paid less heed to impulse, and became more aware of other parts of my body, in particular the ways in which they related to one another. I felt alive and in action—a dynamic member of the community and causes which I connect myself to.

The run after work seemed effortless. Accompanied by a good friend, the extra boost of energy allowed me to push forward without paying any heed to my hunger, my pace unwavering. This, admittedly, may not have been a smart decision to make. There was still a considerable amount of time facing me, and every extra exertion I made on myself at this point would be a direct tap into precious energy I needed. Still, the run felt good, and it bolstered my dedication. I lay down to sleep that night after having resisted another opportunity to feast at dinner, and thought long and hard about what the next day would bring. As midnight approached, marking the end of the second day, I found myself again placing things upon a timeline.

Forty-eight years after the genocide, in 1963, my father was just half a year old. He was the first member of the family to not be taught Armenian in the home, and he was part of the first generation to shy away from the church as well. This is something I often have mixed feelings about, as these new customs were passed on to my sister and I. Both of us were baptized Armenian Apostolic as custom, mainly for tradition and convenience—as our father often tells us. In doing so, it helps support the continuation of Armenian culture, and provides us with the ability to use the church should it ever be necessary.

Since then, I do not believe that I have ever attended a service or mass, and—thank god?—I have never been to Sunday school. I am grateful for not having had religion force-fed to me throughout my life; I believe this has allowed me to grow and develop in many other ways, keeping me open and receptive to new and alternative perspectives. I am often frustrated by the realization that this is a limiting factor in my ability to connect for fully with my Armenian roots, the culture of which is strongly tied to the church. Because I did not go to church, I did not learn the language, and it seems less and less likely that that is something I will accomplish the older I get. It is the language, more than anything that is important to me. I often fear that if not enough of us can speak the language, it will start to die out. Should that happen, it will be a major blow to Armenian identity—the ultimate sign that the genocide is at work, still enacting a slow and painful violence on our people after all these years.

On the third day, I started to really understand what starving felt like. It took me a few extra minutes to peel myself out of bed that day, my limbs hanging heavy. The centennial having come and gone, along with most of the discussion that stirs up as 24th approaches each year, the efforts of the strike started to seem more isolated, detached from a greater body of protest. I found my few discussions with other about what I was doing to feel less poignant, as I was no longer giving a heads up on a significant event, but rather informing them about something that was again in the past—a reminder that so little is widely known about the genocide.

I kept to myself much more over the course of the day, a practice that actually lent itself quite well to the final stages of the strike. Towards the end of work, my movements were slower, less impulsive, and decisive. This did not happen by choice, but as a natural process. I had to conserve energy to accomplish the same tasks as I normally would without burning myself out. My water consumption was impressive, averaging somewhere in the range of 20 to 32 ounces each hour when I was good about it. I cannot imagine starving and not being able to drink water. How anyone could survive an extended period of this kind of torture is a miracle in its own right, and must require—on top of immense strength in character—a preposterous amount of luck. Armenians marching through the desert—how did any of them make it?

After work, I put in another four miles of running, but took full notice this time of how exhausted I had become. My pace had dropped twenty to thirty seconds off the usual “cruise” pace I take for granted on a day-to-day basis. Little hills sucked the wind right out of me, I had waves of heat that would wash over my head and never seem to quite break, and my legs wobbled slightly as they made impact with the ground. I took a long shower when I finally returned home, almost feeding off the sensation. The comfort of water hitting against my skin tapped into something deep and primal inside of me—a place of total understanding and reason. It was blissful. That night I spent a few hours with some friends before retiring around midnight. Twenty-eight hours remained, and I wanted to be over with them.

All I can say about the final day is that it drove the lessons I learned from this experience into the ground. The whole day I moved so slowly that my feet dragged when I was not conscious of my stride. My pulse had fallen back considerably, which I am usually proud of, but in this case it was a survival reaction, not a health benefit. It reached a point beyond feeling heavy; the muscles and tendons at major joints had tightened up, making it hard to push forward. This, I would guess, may have been to help counteract the unsteadiness in my legs that I started feeling the day before. Each time I exerted myself, my breathing intensified and I would become lightheaded for a few seconds. I often caught myself forgetting to drink water for longer spans than I should have allowed. The final run was what gave me the greatest concern. Again joined by my friend from the previous day, some of the effort was alleviated, but by the end, the muscles in my legs, arms and sides were starting to cramp up. In the last few hundred meters, a small pain—what I hope was just a cramp—sprung into my chest off to the side, rooted in my ribs.

I put myself straight to bed that night and set my clock to go off at 4:00am. Sleep came right over me, and I have never been happier to hear an alarm spring me out of bed in the dark. Fumbling through the dark, I retrieved a Boston cream donut wrapped in paper towels from my bag. I ate it in total silence, in small decadent bites. It was a wash of satisfaction and a guilty pleasure, and I immediately went back to sleep when it was all gone. It was everything I needed and wanted right then—fat and sugar—sweet relief.

armenian-flag-by-hrante-d592-

While I still cannot hope to understand the full scope of the struggle my Armenian ancestors faced during the Genocide, I can say that starvation is a plight that no one should have to experience. I was able to manage it during my relatively short stint, but by the end I began to notice the magnitude of the toll that it would take my body should it have lasted any longer.

This was not a proud on taking or a call for attention. It was a commitment to a cause, a testament to a people, and stand against atrocity. The protest was staged everywhere because these issues infiltrate every aspect of our lives. They do not sit stagnant in the place where they believe they will be notice, but corrode the very lining of our existence. The starvation of the Armenian people—or any people that have been the victim of genocide—their culture, and their right to proper recognition are problems that endure while the rest of the world is willing to be ignorant. Even in ignorance however, these things infiltrate all of our lives, and we are all at risk for greater humanitarian crises so long as we do nothing.

One hundred years have passed by since the Armenian genocide was set into motion, and it is without a doubt still at work. If we are willing to stand in the face of corruption and disappointing political action however, it does not have to be allowed to succeed. The great Armenian-American writer, William Saroyan once said at the end of a famous quote, “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it…. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.” I have found this to be one of the truest statements ever made. Any Armenian I have ever met, I have felt an instant connection to them. There is a bond and a kinship that transcends all other emotions I am aware of. We are able to talk freely and share an understanding from a common ground. It is because of this that I believe that we will never be silenced.

Still, our identities are spreading further (not thinner) with each generation of Armenians that arises. As such, think that the way this dialogue happens is changing to a point where it could become a universal language. When you tear a pomegranate in half, it’s seeds scatter across the table, they fall into the earth, and the juices are free to run. Seeds buried in the earth are able to grow new plants, the ones that are scooped up and eaten nourish us, and the juice leaves beautiful red stains on the surfaces it makes contact with. The Ottomans may have torn Armenia apart, but in doing so, they unleashed us upon the world. We are now all over the globe, our blood tied into many other peoples and cultures that we would not otherwise have been a part of.

In carrying out the hunger strike, the only hope was that for those I was able to reach during that time to take a moment to investigate and educate themselves on this issue. In a world where we must learn to exist more and more as citizens of a global community, if this kind of knowledge can become widespread, then I believe that Saroyan’s words will extend further than he intended. For wherever a conversation can begin between two people, see if they will not create a new Armenia. In this sense, we are all Armenians now, just as we are all on this earth together. We share a responsibility to care for one another and be accountable for our actions. If we can achieve this, then the net generation will not have to know another hundred years of denial.

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