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'The Hundred-Year Walk': Dawn Anahid MacKeen retraces her Armenian grandfather's escape from genocide

'The Hundred-Year Walk': Dawn Anahid MacKeen retraces her Armenian grandfather's escape from genocide
Dawn Anahid MacKeen, author of "The Hundred-Year Walk," will appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC on Saturday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

One plot twist got left out of Dawn Anahid MacKeen's new book, "The Hundred-Year Walk." While she was deep into the project, doctors discovered a rare form of tumor inside her heart. Treatment required that she undergo major surgery, and recuperation was arduous. Even her water intake had to be monitored at one point, so that something as routine as thirst took on painful dimensions.

"I was fighting for my life while writing a book about survival," says MacKeen, a veteran journalist who will appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Saturday. "It was just a small window into what it's like….You can't imagine these things until you go through them."

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"The Hundred-Year Walk" follows the saga of her maternal grandfather, Stepan Miskjian, an Armenian peddler living near then-Constantinople in the early 20th century. Miskjian outwitted gendarmes and battled one physical ordeal after another as Ottomans committed mass deportations and genocide, resulting in the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians.

MacKeen had known the outlines of Miskjian's story since childhood, but she'd begun to understand its depth and scope only about 10 years ago, after getting her hands on meticulous journals kept by her grandfather, some of which had languished for decades in her mother's personal library and in an uncle's garage.

They contained the details of her grandfather's forced march through the Taurus Mountains and into the Syrian desert, his daring escapes and repeated incarcerations in decrepit jail cells and squalid internment camps, where he witnessed starving refugees driven to cannibalism. At one point, with just a homemade map to guide him, Miskjian trekked for two weeks through arid countryside, subsisting only by drinking his own urine.

"A friend gave me advice early on, and it was, 'Just say it as straight as possible, because what's happening is so overwhelming, it's horrific,'" MacKeen says. "And that mirrored my grandfather. He was very straight with it."

MacKeen, now healthy, has an easy manner. She sits, fresh-faced and simply dressed in a purple peasant blouse, at a back table at Palermo's, the long-standing Los Feliz eatery known for its hearty Italian portions and family-friendly atmosphere (to wit, the screaming child who provoked our hasty retreat to this far corner).

It's long been a local favorite. MacKeen grew up just blocks from here, in one of L.A.'s Armenian enclaves, in the home where her mother still lives. It was to that house she returned in 2006 after quitting her job as an investigative reporter for Newsday in New York. Witnessing the effect her journalism could have on everyday lives and legislation, MacKeen was determined to shed light on the story of the Armenians who perished from 1915-18.

"I saw first-hand the power of journalism, the power of telling stories and educating and hopefully, effecting change," MacKeen said. "It just hit me that I was spending my life telling other people's stories and not my own family's, and … I felt this incredible responsibility."

What she didn't know was quite what she'd signed up for in bringing to life "The Hundred-Year Walk." "I thought [writing the book] would take two years," she says. It took her a decade.

First, there was the language barrier or, rather, a number of barriers. To begin with, her grandfather's memoirs were written exclusively in his native tongue. MacKeen started taking Armenian language classes at night, just to learn how to make sense of the alphabet. "I couldn't even tell what book I was holding when I started out," she says.

She turned often to her Los Feliz neighbors to supplement her reliance on professional translators. But Armenian was hardly the only language of the polyglot Ottoman Empire, where Greek, Turkish, Arabic and German were routinely spoken. To help re-create part of the timeline for her grandfather's roughly thousand-mile trip, she called upon her high school French to piece together train timetables from archival materials.

She placed classified ads in various countries in hopes of connecting with descendants of those Miskjian had met — and written about — along the way, finally tracking down the recollections of one of his fellow escapees in a Romanian newspaper. She traveled to Vienna to sift through a stash of primary sources amassed by a group of Armenian monks. To paint a picture of life in her grandfather's cosmopolitan hometown at the dawn of the 20th century, she cross-referenced his recollections with oral histories from his contemporaries. Gradually, she crafted a portrait of the world around him.

"I was expanding his account through the clues he left me, to try create a larger picture of what happened to him," she says.

"I remember being amazed by how much historical research she was doing and decided to do," emailed Suzy Hansen, a former Salon colleague and a now Istanbul-based journalist who has reported on the region for the New Republic, the London Review of Books and others. "This is unbelievably time-consuming and exhausting work. And I think you can tell, because all of the historical sections have a real concreteness and texture to them."

To better layer on texture, both emotional and physical, MacKeen traveled deep into potentially hostile territory, and the book intersperses brief chapters exploring her own journey retracing her grandfather's steps through Turkey and Syria, just two years before the latter dissolved into civil war.

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At the time of her visit, it wasn't yet apparent that contemporary parallels to her grandfather's experience would soon surface, as Europe began grappling with massive numbers of refugees fleeing the Syrian war and violence against religious minorities wrought by the Islamic State.

"It's heartbreaking what's happening right now, in the exact same area where my grandfather barely survived," MacKeen says. "The images are almost identical. Long lines of people being led to their deaths, or being forced from their homes, or women abused."

Recently, European leaders turned to Turkey as a stopgap, working out a deal to transport many refugees and migrants there in a move some international organizations have decried as inhumane.

"My grandfather was not one to hate," MacKeen said. "Even though he went through this whole thing, he remembered the good Turkish people or people of different faiths who helped him, and were a big part of his story. And that's the part that resonated with me the most."

::

Past to Present: The Echoes of War

Who: Moderator Jim Newton, with Rita Gabis, Dawn MacKeen, Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Where: Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Hancock Foundation building, USC Campus

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When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Info: events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks

Farabee is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles.

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