I attended Armenian grade school in the suburbs of Philadelphia until I was thirteen years old. As we grew older, the extent of Armenian language classes within the curricula decreased, and by seventh and eighth grade it had been relegated to the realm of the “cultural.” We still had Armenian language and history lessons, and bible class was often taught in Armenian, but by and large we engaged with the language mostly through theatrical and musical school performances that reenacted significant historical moments in Armenian history.
One of the most memorable yearly events occurred when we would perform the destiny that awaited Armenians. Every April, for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, we would reconstruct the Armenian Genocide in the form of a passion play. Our Armenian schoolteachers would cast us as either hapless Armenian villagers, or as heartless Turks eager to rape, kill, and abuse – in this case – our classmates. And so I became a young mother with a young son dressed in girl’s clothing who had miraculously escaped death and been nursed back to health by kind Bedouins, who also doubled as my friends. Sometimes, however, my friends also murdered me.
We participated in these activities willingly; no one was forced, or even asked, to join in. We excitedly and nervously watched the auditorium fill with our audience and were delighted when they clapped approvingly at our renditions. In fact, as 24 April approached, we couldn’t wait to commemorate. First, there was the impending thrill of performing, and then there was the incentive of missing classes and other assignments because we needed to practice, block scenes, and have dress rehearsals. Performing commemoration transformed our program into one of entertainment and consumption. Together, the whole of the student body, the school staff, and the audience, including parents, family members, church clergy, and parishioners, rendered the Armenian Genocide into a show, its victims into characters in a play.
After our performances, we would patiently listen to the closing remarks by the principal or invited religious leader who would convey their pride at our commemorative performance and connect it to how the genocide had ultimately failed in its aims. Nevertheless, there was an additional, deeper motivation and reward for participating in and observing these passion plays. Among these moments of entertainment, consumption, and seeking admiration, we created a collectivity. The Armenian Genocide intervened in our lives through collective memory. Our grandparents were its direct survivors. Given our separation from its actual trauma, performing genocide became the sole method to engage with our grandparents’ stories and make them part of us. And we yearned for this involvement. It explained our very presence in that room while validating our acting on stage. The stories we performed exemplified our families’ histories, and their simplification rendered them universal Armenian experiences, linking all of us in that room together.
Such a construction was necessary. After all, we were children of immigrants from myriad countries in the Middle East--mostly from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria--whose parents had come from towns and villages in modern Turkey. As we memorized the lines our teachers composed, and acted both death and survival, like any driven actor, we essentialized the experience. This was not only because we wanted to perform satisfactorily in front of our peers, parents, and community leaders. We objectified the tragedy so that it could be then shared and enjoyed collectively and repeatedly. We concurrently produced and demonstrated our commonality. Rendering our grandparents’ experiences and their trauma into an afternoon production allowed us to construct a collectivity that would in turn commemorate the Armenian Genocide, together. This bond helped us access the memory of the Armenian Genocide, but ensured that we were not directly subject to its trauma or isolated in its aftermath.
Searching for Collectivity Beyond the United States
Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide takes on an additional form in Lebanon. Armenians in the United States were far from any resting place of Armenian Genocide victims, and so representation became the sole option to create and experience communal memories and make them our own. Armenians in Beirut engage with the memories of the Armenian Genocide through Armenian Genocide monuments, in relative close proximity to where the atrocities occurred. The most accessible and visited of these is a small complex built in the shape of a mini Armenian cathedral located in the Armenian Catholicosate monastery complex, in Antelias just north of Beirut. First constructed in 1938 and renovated in 1993, it sits just to the left of the main cathedral, and can accommodate a handful of people standing. Once inside, human remains, purportedly of Armenians found in the deserts of Der Zor (Arabic Dayr al-Zor), surround the observers, with sand and bones encased in floor-to-ceiling glass panels that line the interior of the structure.
While these forms of commemoration--the school reenactment play and the mini chapel filled with human remains--seem essentially dissimilar, both rely on the participation, observance, and consumption of trauma by an audience. One enters the sanctuary seeking these bones. Visitors are told that Armenian bones “littered” the deserts of Der Zor in Syria. And yet, they’re not seeing them in Syria, but near Beirut, within an enclosed space built to entrap them, but not bury them. Indeed, their original resting place was disturbed in order to create this experience of remembrance and commemoration. The dual action of placing bones inside the glass panels and observing them transformed victims into spectacles, remnants into relics.
The harvest of these bones, and their movement for the creation of the communal space to honor the memory of Armenian Genocide victims, turned them into relics. The act of viewing these bones, removed from their resting place, objectified their experiences and availed them for consumption. This conversion of bone to relic ready for consumption demonstrated the need and desire to access the memory of the Armenian Genocide. The building of the mini cathedral paralleled the creativity inherent in a genocide reenactment play, as both processes visualized an event, objectified the occurrence, and produced an experience that could be consumed, and therefore shared, by an audience.
Bones became consumable relics even in the Armenian Church in Der Zor, which is located near the banks of the Euphrates, the closest church to the fateful desert, where thousands of Armenians perished in forced death marches. Until 2014, it housed a two-story museum as part of the complex, with a large monument in the basement and the exhibited bones, teeth, and sand that had been unearthed nearby.
My school reenactments of the Armenian Genocide constructed Der Zor as a barren, sad, place. Last I visited a few years ago, it was actually quite beautiful. Trees lined the green spaces along the banks of the river and families picnicked in their shade to keep cool. I remember thinking about enjoyment in Der Zor, this place that had come to be synonymous with death in the narrative of so many Armenians. Oddly, the picnic spots, ones so close to a site of mourning, soothed me. As bones transformed into relics in the museum of the church, the banks along the river opted to transform into a site of relaxation--with families and children milling and running about. I remember taking in the scene and thinking to myself “this is a testament to survival and life,” finding it a comforting juxtaposition to the museum at the base of the church with its exposed bones and commemorative plaques.
Tragically, Syria’s ongoing war has mutated Der Zor and its church into exactly what we as grade school students in Philadelphia once imagined the place to be. In September 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra and Da‘esh razed both the city and destroyed the bones that were used to create a collective memory of the Armenian Genocide. But there hasn’t been the opportunity to mourn the relics. After all, should one mourn this created space of commemoration when its current inhabitants are displaced and their city destroyed? And yet, Der Zor’s destruction, while an inescapable consequence of war, is a loss, even if one among many. Furthermore, the inaccessibility to Der Zor, the church, the museum, and the opportunity to view the bones only further relegated the Armenian Genocide to the realm of performance. While Der Zor was also a site of production, as bones were taken and turned into relics and labeled “commemorative,” it was simultaneously the access point to the death and burial site of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Its destruction ensured that the collective commemoration and remembrance of the Armenian Genocide is dependent upon representation. It also reinforced the significance and the need to protect remaining sites of commemoration.
With the destruction of Der Zor, it seems that all we are left with is performance and relics as the means to access the memory of the Armenian Genocide. While this is partly an outcome of the agonizing war in Syria, it is also an expected consequence of time and space. It has been one hundred years since the events of the Armenian Genocide. Descendants have moved multiple times to different destinations worldwide. These distances fostered the constructions of theatrical representations of death marches and the relicization of human bones, as they became the mediums to both create and commemorate a communal memory and experience of genocide.
Nevertheless, Armenians, as individual actors, are not solely responsible for the intertwining of entertainment, consumption, and commemoration. The Armenian Church in Lebanon is also getting in on the act. It is helping to transform the Birds’ Nest Orphanage (Trchnotz Puyn in Armenian) complex in Byblos into a site of pleasure. This plot in Byblos, once a sanctuary for orphans of the Armenian Genocide and retaining the remaining gravesite dedicated solely for the victims of the Armenian Genocide, has been leased for the development for an upmarket beach resort in order to capitalize on profit. In doing so, the Armenian Church in Lebanon has designated the site exclusively for entertainment.
In fact, the Armenian Church has assimilated entertainment and consumption within the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide so productively that it plans to separate the Armenian Genocide from this commemorative site. It may seem incongruous to its mission that the Armenian Church plans to detach the Armenian Genocide from a site that has marked, remembered, and historically relieved its trauma by caring for its survivors. However, this process is already underway. The one-hundred-year lease, authorized to Jean Louis Qurdahi, the former mayor of Byblos, is the final stage of a longer project that has already emptied the orphanage, shut down a school, barred social services from directly engaging with the thirty remaining boarders, and closed the on-site chapel.
Founded in Byblos in 1928 by Maria Jacobson, a Danish nurse with a Protestant missionary background, the Birds’ Nest Orphanage helped save and secure the wellbeing of Armenian orphans from Kharpert, in present day Turkey. Located just adjacent to the archeological site of Byblos and along the shores of the Mediterranean, Jacobson ran Trchnotz Puyn until her death in 1960. According to her wishes, she was buried within the complex in what its pamphlet described as “the very nest she built and became mother therein.”
In 1970, the executor of the estate--the Danish K.M.A Philanthropic Christian Ladies’ Association--decided to donate both the estate and the complex to the Armenian Church in Lebanon. For the last forty-six years, the complex has been under the auspices of the Armenian Church and has sheltered hundreds of Armenian children, largely from the most destitute and needy of families. In addition, Trchnotz Puyn provided schooling for these children and local Armenians who lived nearby, with certified social workers overseeing the children’s care and the school’s teaching methods. Between 2005-2007, the complex served the most underprivileged Armenians of Lebanon and Syria and offered a complex variety of social services including on-site case workers, ongoing social and educational activities, and counseling for abused, neglected, and sexually molested Armenian children, many of whom had been living on the streets.
The Armenian Church is working to strip the legacy of the Armenian Genocide from this space to fashion the Birds’ Nest Orphanage solely as a place of recreation. It is pursuing a platform of unadulterated entertainment and consumption free from the complication of needing to understand or access the memory of trauma. Ironically, it has done so by spearheading the establishment of the multi-million dollar Armenian Genocide Orphans’ “Aram Bezikian” Museum, on the southwest plot of the complex on the newly named “Armenia Street.” Inaugurated in 2015 with great fanfare and press coverage that highlighted the presence of local and foreign dignitaries, museum organizers and curators designated this space to commemorate the role of the orphanage, Maria Jacobson’s mission, and all of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Nevertheless the building of the museum--named after a donor’s father, one of the orphans of the complex--does not mitigate the destruction and transformation of the larger site. The establishment of this museum attempts to distract from the Armenian Church’s rearrangement of history that separates the Trchnotz Puyn complex from the Armenian Genocide and its legacy of aiding the marginalized. In addition, because Trchnotz Puyn protected the victims of the Armenian Genocide, the site actively commemorated without the perverted activity of performing victimhood or converting victims into relics. Instead of emphasizing trauma, Trchnotz Puyn healed, saved, and sheltered, and in doing so emphasized the failure of the genocide. Surely a better testament to the survival and fortitude of Armenians, it embraced the living.
Until the implementation of the Armenian Church’s beach development project, the transformations of Trchnotz Puyn had been consistent with Jacobson’s mission. She had intended the site as a shelter for the victims of the Armenian Genocide and it had accepted the pain and trauma of children of many subsequent generations. Unlike school passion plays and exposed bones, whose transformations designated the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide as a source of entertainment for audience consumption, the Trchnotz Puyn orphanage protected its victims. In so doing, it attempted to neutralize, or consume their agony, without exposing, transforming, or objectifying the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Moreover, the complex as a whole celebrates life and the lives of the victims and survivors, rather than their deaths and demise. In contrast to the lurid reenactments and skeletons that aim to traumatize the living, Trchnotz Puyn was a manifest to and for those who survived. It also comforted subsequent generations of Armenians who marked and revered the site as one that historically and continually offered assistance and relief. The demolition of Trchnotz Puyn, a unique place where loss and survival coexisted, terminates the ability of Armenians to commemorate and mourn the Armenian Genocide at sites that witnessed both pain, and endurance and hope. Its demise relegates commemoration to school plays while promoting such entertainment activities as the sole form of mourning.
Its reincarnation as high-end beach resort is consistent with the larger, ongoing trend of privatization of Lebanon’s public spaces, its beaches and coastline in particular. Over the last twenty years, but particularly within the last five, the fee to access private beaches has become increasingly prohibitive. While Trchnotz Puyn never provided public beach access, the construction of a new beach center, along with the noise and environmental pollution surely to follow, is hardly needed. Next door is the well known Eddésands Hotel and Wellness Resort. Other pricy beach resorts, in constant competition over exclusivity and luxury, already oversaturate the coast north of Beirut.
Given the devastation of Der Zor and Aleppo, isn’t maintaining Trchnotz Puyn as site of refuge more necessary than ever? While the war in Syria descends from a different history, it has produced new refugees, many descended from survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Surely Trchnotz Puyn would be more hospitable to today’s refugees than the frigid Mediterranean and Aegean waters and Europe’s refugee centers! What better tribute to the victims of the Armenian Genocide than to offer refuge to those seeking to escape from their devastating present? The highest memorial would be one that honors what Maria Jacobson had done by offering help and assistance to those seeking safety and refuge in the time of their greatest need. Instead, the Armenian Church has synchronized its demise with the signing of the contract in 2014, the same year of the destruction of Der Zor, its Armenian church, and museum.
The destruction of Der Zor’s Armenian church and museum simultaneously terminated the site as communal space of commemoration. The Armenian Church’s decision to lease the Trchnotz Puyn complex emulates this obstruction by making the site solely one of entertainment and separating it from its role in the history of the Armenian Genocide. While commemoration in Philadelphia, Antelias, and Der Zor rendered the Armenian Genocide a consumable and performative object, the Armenian Church has radicalized this notion to such an extent that it has divorced the Armenian Genocide completely from space, transforming its historical sites into places of fun and recreation. Next to Jacobson’s grave, at the entrance of the museum complex, is a space rumored to hold thirty-three soon-to-be exhumed Armenians, currently buried in the small graveyard in the northwest corner of the complex. While museum organizers and curators deny this claim, they simultaneously argue in favor of keeping Jacobson and the orphans close to one another. This manipulative sophistry promotes the further exhumation--and ultimate demise--of Trchnotz Puyn, marking its “final” detachment from even the genocide industry that commemorates the Armenian Genocide through performances and consumption.
Although construction vehicles already nearly outnumber the thirty or so remaining children lodged in the complex, it is not too late for a larger communal outrage--by Armenians and non-Armenians, those in Lebanon and beyond--to have its desired effect and shield the most marginalized of the community. Archeological remains, found during the construction process, have temporarily halted the project’s expansion. Nevertheless, given the past encounters between archeological remains and real estate developers in Lebanon, such as in Beirut’s downtown and Gemmayze districts, one can assume this site will meet a similar fate of period transformation. This brief respite is a critical opportunity to place pressure upon the Armenian Church administration, up through its top echelon. Only an infuriated protest of the exhumation of Trchnotz Puyn and of the relegation of the Armenian Genocide forever to mere entertainment can prevent the objectification of its victims and the leisurely dismissal of their tragedy.
 Fortunately, because these remaining boarders still attend Armenian schools in the area, they are able to access health care services through their attended schools. Still, long-term assistance by certified professionals, such as on-site therapy, medical care, and other social services for these disadvantaged children has been unavailable since 2007 with the appointment of the current executive director of Trchnotz Puyn, Samuel Boyadjian. Regarding the chapel/church on site, just a few weeks ago, a group trying to enter the church was told that the church/chapel was “closed,” and only permitted to take a group photograph from outside of the building.
 This program ended in 2007 with the appointment of the current executive director of the Trchnotz Puyn facility, Samuel Boyadjian.