It is certainly understandable that the Armenians are the best known among the victims of this particular tragedy; they were the original target of the Ottomans’ 1915 extermination campaigns and comprised the majority of victims, being comparatively large in number.
An argument could surely be made for using a more accurate, inclusive term for this tragedy. But, putting aside any tribalistic instincts, I consider it a triumph that these events have been featured so prominently in public discourse this year, Western media commendably advocating for the designation of genocide, even if some of our political leaders are too entangled in diplomatic concerns to concede this point.
While we are advocating for the acknowledgement and remembrance of this genocide, it may be a good time to also raise awareness of its forgotten victims, including Greeks, Assyrians, and Syriac-Arameans.
As my father translates a Turkish slogan of the era, which promoted the expansion of the genocidal efforts along religious lines, “An onion is an onion, and a Christian is a Christian.” Although Armenians had been the original target, religious identity, so closely linked to ethnicity in the Middle East, soon became the criterion that marked populations for destruction.
Aramaic speakers call the massacres “Sayfo,” which means “sword.” This is the preferred term among my own ethnic group, the Syriac-Arameans. One of the Middle East’s lesser-known Semitic peoples, the Arameans are among the last speakers of the “dead” language of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries in the first century. We trace our lineage back to the original indigenous Christians of the region and have maintained a continuous cultural identity for the the past two millennia.
This Christian identification invited persecution of various kinds, over the centuries, and I was raised with stories of my family’s many narrow escapes from death. In particular, I was told often of my family’s survival of the 1915 Sayfo genocide. This thought always instilled a sense of joy over the gracious providence of our survival, but also a sense of heaviness. There was a loneliness to keeping vigil over these memories while no one outside of my family seemed to hold them valuable.
As my father relayed the stories of Sayfo to my sisters and I, the World War I era seemed recent, to his mind. He had grown up among the genocide’s survivors, with his own grandfather, Gallo Shabo, being a local hero who had led an Aramean resistance effort.
Our ancestral village of Iwardo and neighboring Midyat were home to many Aramean Christian families and were, for that reason, targets of Ottoman massacres in 1915. When the villages were attacked, my great-grandfather Gallo lead armed men to defend the community and put up a valiant fight, despite being grossly outnumbered. As my father proudly tells the story, Gallo continued to shoot at the aggressors from a rooftop until he was physically incapacitated by bullets and captured.
Gallo spent the next seven years in a Turkish prison under a death sentence, never knowing when he might face the gallows or the firing squad. This is the part of the story that speaks to me the most, as a writer: the part where the warrior turns poet. Gallo passed his time as a political prisoner by writing poetry and keeping a journal, excerpts of which have been published in David Gaunt’s Massacres, Resistance, Protectors. He lived each day of his imprisonment believing that it might be his last, and he spent that time writing devotional verse.
I can’t help wondering if Gallo’s literary bent may have somehow influenced his captors’ decision to set him free. All I know for sure is that one day, instead of being executed, Gallo was unexpectedly told to leave Turkey immediately and never come back. He gladly obliged and settled in Northeastern Syria, where my father, his grandson, would eventually be born.
Today, Gallo’s descendants inhabit several continents. We speak many different languages, and most of us may never get to set foot on the land that our ancestors walked. I often wonder how long the language and cultural identity of such a tiny minority group can be preserved in the coming generations, spread out so thinly across the globe.
We are indeed ever increasingly scattered, as recent unrest in the Middle East has finally forced the last of my close relatives to flee from Turkey and Syria, the region that was home for so many countless generations. In a way, it’s a bitter end to the hundred years.
But, we live on–and that’s the real triumph–as survivors and memory-keepers of a people and a tragedy that many would rather forget.