I thought I was prepared for this. Throughout my reading career, I have been repeatedly confronted with accounts from the Holocaust, from the antebellum South, from the American invasion of Vietnam. Steeling myself with the knowledge of humanity’s capacity for violence, I dove into Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s retelling of her grandfather’s odyssey through the Armenian genocide. MacKeen eased me in with context: Adabazar’s newly flourishing Armenian neighborhood, 1910. Stepan Miskjian is an energetic, jovial man with a courier business between his hometown and Constantinople. Along with his brother and three sisters, Stepan lives and works in a tight-knit community that celebrates new freedoms in the wake of a revolution. But soon after, the Ottoman Empire enters the Great War, and it all goes wrong.
With the help of Stepan’s meticulous journals, MacKeen reconstructs her grandfather’s journey on and off the page: she charts her travels through Turkey and Syria, tracing her grandfather’s footsteps nearly a century later. On trains, carts, and, most of all, his own two feet, Stepan is swept with thousands of other Armenians deep into the desert to waste away. Four years of struggle see Stepan face beatings, typhus, countless hours in the biting cold and blistering heat. He makes some friends, reunites with others, but ultimately loses so many more to Turkish weapons, if not illness or exhaustion. In the present, MacKeen visits cities where thousands of refugees once made camp and finds Armenian mass graves marked only by heaped earth by busy highways, all the while being tailed by police.
No, I wasn’t prepared for this, but not for the reasons I expected. Were there atrocities that made me look away from the page? Yes. But it was not the violence as much as the ruthless survival instinct that made me hold my breath. Stepan, wearing nothing but rags, is chased to a new encampment, and what does he do? He finds old gas cans, washes them out, and fills them with water to sell so he can buy bread. When his luck turns and he is taken in by a kind Arab sheikh, a weak and emaciated Stepan first returns the clothes he is wearing to the farmer who loaned them to him. Resourceful and kind, Stepan manages to cling to more than just survival — he is so utterly human through it all.
This book is not for everyone, obviously. But if you can, I suggest you read it; more than anything, I implore you to read about the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government continues to deny it (the United States did not officially acknowledge it until 2019), and although most who know of it do not deny its existence, the impact of the genocide must not be forgotten. As many as two million people were exterminated by the Ottoman Empire on forced marches, cramped livestock carts, and sprawling camps in the desert by 1923. Because the genocide was so long ago, there are very few, if any, survivors left. Through her grandfather’s journals, Dawn Anahid MacKeen brings us this incredible narrative of survival; we should take to heart Stepan’s strength while working toward a world where “genocide survivor” is an obsolete term.