My wife Marilyn has a thing about Anthony Bourdain.
It’s not a celebrity crush, exactly. She says she wants to be him when she grows up. And who can blame her? The guy has a pretty extraordinary gig, wandering the world, exploring cultures and conflicts, with food and as a focal point and an extended cultural metaphor. The May 20 episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown took us to Armenia. Apparently, this was a pretty big deal for Bourdain:
For years there’s been a steady drumbeat of inquiries from Armenian-American fans of the show: “When will you visit Armenia?” “Why haven’t you been to my country?”
They were very legitimate and increasingly troublesome questions. I wanted to go. I had every intention of going. But I had yet to figure out how or—more accurately—through whose eyes, through what perspective I’d look at this very old and very complicated country.
Then, out of the blue, Serj Tankian, the lead singer of the band System of a Down reached out, and I had my answer. Serj, like so many Armenian-Americans, has been trying to reconnect with his roots. His personal history, like the histories of many people who identify as Armenian, is with the diaspora—those who escaped or were pushed out by what can and should only be called a genocide. It should be noted that Turkey continues to deny a genocide ever took place.
But I have no problem using that word. I am both proud to use it and baffled by the world’s continued reluctance to call the Turks’ carefully planned and executed murder in 1915 of an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Armenians—and the displacement of millions more—anything but what it was.
Being that I am obsessed with the First World War, which I consider to be the watershed of modern history, I insisted that before we sat down for a dose of Bourdain’s sardonic wit and food porn, we pull together a little historical background. So, we watched The Promise.
The Promise (2016) is a historical drama — a tragic romance — set in Turkey just as the Ottoman Empire enters the Great War on the side of Germany and Austria. With the Russian Bear looming on the eastern frontier of Anatolia, the Turks considered the Armenian Christian population an internal security threat — and set about a systematic program of relocation, ethnic cleansing… and outright slaughter.
Here’s the Deadline description:
It is 1914. As the Great War looms, the vast Ottoman Empire is crumbling. Constantinople, the once-vibrant multicultural capital on the shores of the Bosphorus, is about to be consumed by chaos. Michael Boghosian arrives in the cosmopolitan hub as a medical student determined to bring modern medicine back to Siroun, his ancestral village in Southern Turkey where Turkish Muslims and Armenian Christians have lived side by side for centuries. Photojournalist Chris Myers has come here only partly to cover geo-politics. He is mesmerized by his love for Ana, an Armenian artist he has accompanied from Paris after the sudden death of her father.
When Michael meets Ana, their shared Armenian heritage sparks an attraction that explodes into a romantic rivalry between the two men. As the Turks form an alliance with Germany and the Empire turns violently against its own ethnic minorities, their conflicting passions must be deferred while they join forces to survive even as events threaten to overwhelm them.
A recently-released documentary entitled Intent To Destroy was framed around the making of the movie. The documentary, which I haven’t yet seen, has gotten a more positive reception than the movie itself, which was a flop. Love in a time of slaughter apparently doesn’t work as a date movie, though Marilyn and I were well taken with it.
The Promise climaxes with the epic defense of the mountain Musa Dagh, on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey. For narrative reasons, the movie compresses what was a long and grueling defense of the rugged mountain holdfast. For 53 days, Armenian partisans held off Turkish forces, and ultimately 4,000 were rescued by French warships. It was an epic act of resistance in the face of genocide.
A book titled The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was published in 1933, and during the Second World War, secret copies were circulated amongst Jews incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps as a message of hope and defiance. Meanwhile, the Bielski brothers, rural Polish Jews , were playing out their own Musa Dagh in the forests of Poland. They rescued Jews from the Warsaw and other ghettos, and took in Jews who fled to the forests, creating a forest redoubt and enabling 1,236 to survive the war. They also conducted partisan operations against the Germans and against Polish collaborators, sometimes coordinated with Soviet partisan forces.
Their story was made into the successful 2008 film Defiance.
These are hero tales that should be celebrated; men and women deciding that they wouldn’t allow themselves to be marched out into the desert to be starved to death or shot, or to be herded into cattle cars bound for death camps. They decided that, in the immortal words of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, “it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” And in their willingness to fight and die, they held out just long enough to survive.
We salute them.