Harut Sassounian: True to the past
Today isn’t so much a red-letter day on the Armenian calendar as a black-letter one: the commemoration of the Armenian genocide in Turkey.
The Armenian American names Saroyan and Deukmejian, California writer and governor, respectively, might ring a bell. Here’s one that sounds a klaxon: Harut Sassounian, one of the most visible Armenian Americans in a dozen time zones. As president of a major charity, he has delivered above half a billion dollars in medical supplies, computers and vital equipment to Armenia. As publisher and columnist of the weekly California Courier, he presses for full, official acknowledgement of the 1915 massacre as genocide, a knifepoint balancing act for the U.S., which counts Turkey as a major strategic ally.
He comes, he says, from a family of warriors — including his grandmother, garlanded with a bandolier of bullets in a 1920s photograph made in Syria, where he was born. His weapons are words and paper; speaking for and to a sometimes fractious Armenian community, he quotes an old line: “Bring two Armenians together, and they will form three political parties.”
April 24, 95 years ago, was the beginning of the genocide. What happened?
Every important Armenian leader in Istanbul — writers, poets, intellectuals, scholars, you name it — [the Turks] arrested them and killed them. The Turks were thinking, “Once we kill off the leaders, the rest are sheep without the shepherd.”
The California Courier has been around since 1958 — and when you arrived in 1983, you changed it.
The paper was started in Fresno by two gentlemen; one was an Armenian by the name of George Mason. There were a handful of Armenian-language papers at the time but not a single newspaper in English. It caught like wildfire. It was a social newspaper; it wasn’t political at all. So it went for 25 years. Then Mason hired me.
The first week, I wrote that the Turkish ambassador [to the United States] should be expelled as persona non grata for the Armenian genocide. Mason got tons of complaints — who is this radical terrorist you hired? The column created such a reaction — initially a negative reaction. They asked Mason to fire me immediately.
[Readers] were used to babies being born, vacations..... Many were cultural Armenians, not political Armenians. Their Armenianism was lifestyle Armenianism.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, but Armenians are also a nation [with] a long history and culture, and genocide was committed against them. The newcomers, it matters to them. They want to right the wrong; they feel strongly about this injustice. If somebody wants to leave their history behind, that’s their choice. But if somebody wants to struggle to regain what we lost in the old country, he also has that right. You can protest, you can petition your congressman, the president.
There’s a current news story about a bone marrow drive for a little girl in Glendale who’s a quarter Armenian. The search focuses on Armenians because they have a distinctive genetic makeup, being less likely to marry outside their ethnic group. Why is that?
If you know what Armenians have been through, then you start appreciating why. Armenians are an ancient people with an ancient civilization. At one point basically every Armenian lost just about everything — their grandparents, their language and culture. I cannot go back and fight the genocide — I cannot bring back those people. I cannot declare war against Turkey. So the only thing I can do is to hang on to whatever little is left of the culture, as my way of getting back at those who tried to wipe it out.
Armenians abroad dreamed of a free Armenia — and it happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We thought we wouldn’t see it in our lifetime. But all of a sudden we woke up and behold, there’s a free Armenia. So part of our dream is realized, but that’s not the full dream. The land west of current Armenia, where Mt. Ararat [stands, along with] thousands of churches and monuments, that’s where the real Armenian homeland is. Now we have 10% of what was Armenia historically. We’re looking forward to 90%.
There’s a very powerful Armenian brain trust here and around the world. Would it help the Republic of Armenia for those people to go back?
Some Armenians have gone back. But there are very practical considerations. The country is so destitute, there basically are no jobs. So unless you’re financially independent, you’re going to be a burden. It takes a very hardened person to really go there and live. Secondly, people have their lives, their families here. It really is a hardship to pull up your roots.
Even if all Armenians want to move there, that’s not necessarily a good thing. [The diaspora has] turned the tragedy of the genocide inadvertently into a blessing because when the homeland needs something, Armenians have contacts in terms of trade, import-export, neighbors and colleagues. If it wasn’t for the Armenian Americans lobbying Congress, Congress would be allocating much less aid to Armenia. It would be worse off.
Armenia and Turkey are doing unprecedented work to normalize relations. Why would Armenians abroad take a harder line toward Turkey than the Armenian government does?
Running a country is different than being an individual in the diaspora. If I were the president of Armenia, I would be making decisions based on certain constraints that I don’t have sitting in Glendale right now. As an individual I can take a very hard line.
In some instances, Armenia’s leadership would like to take a position on something but they know it would have negative repercussions if they became a little more demanding. The diaspora is much freer to make such demands, so we make those demands. Sometimes, us taking a hard line is very helpful to Armenia, because they look much more accommodating.
You once told The Times’ editorial board you wouldn’t talk to Turkish officials, but you would talk to Turks.
What I said was, I do not speak with Turkish officials who deny the genocide. There’s no point in arguing with them. They’re going to deny it, no matter what I say. But regular Turks — I talk to them, we communicate. Someone in Turkey now who’s 30, 40, even 70, 80 years old, they have not committed any crime. I have no hatred or animosity against the Turkish population at large. These people have not done anything against me or my people. The Turks who did the crime are dead. What is really sad and unhelpful is today’s Turkish leaders denying such an event took place, sort of linking themselves to the earlier crime by covering it up.
[Recently] on Turkish CNN, four prominent scholars [said they were] for the recognition of the Armenian genocide. One line was just a killer line: “In Turkey, we have Armenians desperately trying to prove to the world that they were killed, and Kurds desperately trying to prove that they’re alive, that they exist.”
What are the misconceptions about Armenians here?
[That] they’re clannish and don’t integrate into the larger society. In Glendale there’s always a dispute which goes like this: Why do you have to speak Armenian to each other? This is America — speak English. You hang around each other; it’s like a little Armenian clique.
By all means we should be fluent in English, we should participate in the Lions Club, we should go to football games and partake in everything American. But if somebody chooses to speak only Armenian, go to an Armenian grocery store and go to Armenian barber, that’s his business; no one should force him. If [anyone] doesn’t want to speak English, and he has a life he can live just knowing Spanish or Armenian or Hebrew, that’s his business.
There are a lot of Armenians who are integrated into society — many of them change their names; you can’t even go by the “ian” at the end.
Gov. George Deukmejian didn’t change his name to “George Duke.”
The governor is a very unusual person. Not only is he fully integrated into American society and mainstream politics, but he kept his long Armenian name. A lot of people advised him [not to].
What is Armenian Americans’ sense of President Obama now?
It’s a very sad situation. We passionately supported his candidacy because he’s not the typical politician — he comes from a minority background, he knows what it is to be suffering, so we identified with him right away. When he was a senator, he spoke fervently in defense of the Armenian cause, in defense of recognition of genocide. He even gave a speech when he was a candidate [and] said: “America deserves a president who will tell the truth about the Armenian genocide. I intend to be that president.” So we all believed in him. And the minute he becomes president, he does not say genocide, he finds a euphemism the way Bush and Condoleezza Rice did. He even went so far as to use an Armenian word to describe [it], which was really ridiculous. He’s done everything that he said he would not do.
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.