On the Centenary of a Genocide, Remembering My Great-Grandfather and the Forgotten Victims of an All-But-Forgotten Tragedy

Gallo ShaboThe Armenian Genocide, not unlike the Holocaust, decimated multiple people groups, but is usually associated with only one.

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.

Iwardo means “eye of the rose” in Aramaic. A small, rural village in the mountains of Southern Turkey that seems lost in time, Iwardo has been continuously inhabited since roughly the tenth century AD, and its stone houses and historic church still stand as they did when my distant ancestors lived there.

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.


An Interview on Rhetoric, Logic, & Argumentation

This is a 2010 interview with Annie Urbanik of Prestwick House, originally published on the Prestwick Cafe blog. 

Q: How does this book differ from more traditional texts?

A: I don’t know of any other book that treats logic as a tool for writers. That’s probably the most unique thing about this text: the fact that it gives logic its proper place in the language-arts classroom, as the primary mode of rhetorical persuasion.

It may not be universal practice to teach logic in the context of communication these days, but the idea certainly isn’t new. In fact, it’s straight out of Aristotle. The book is really based on a classical understanding of what a student must know in order to communicate well.

Q: Why do you think it is important for students to learn about rhetorical appeals, logic, and logical fallacies?

A: The Common Core standards are the most pressing reason for teaching these skills at present. The standards for reading and writing require that students perform logical analyses and write sound arguments. If students haven’t studied rhetorical appeals or the basics of logic, they’ll have to rely on guesswork and intuition as they work toward these goals. But students who’ve studied these subjects will have the advantage of understanding the legitimate methods of persuasion, how logic works, and what a sound argument looks like.

The point isn’t simply to fulfill the standards for their own sake, though. The idea is to teach what benefits students the most—and the Common Core Initiative makes a great case for emphasizing these subjects. In their publications, they say that the ability to write a sound argument is a major determiner of success both in college and in the workforce. For those who are interested, there’s a section dedicated to this topic in the standards’ Appendix A, called “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards.”

Q: What sorts of examples and exercises are included in the text?

A: Many of the examples in the book are taken from famous works of literature. The rhetoric section includes several speeches that illustrate the different approaches to persuasion, and the logic portion of the text includes fallacious quotes from several fictional characters.

As for the exercises, they range from simple multiple-choice to complex analysis questions. Some of my favorite exercises are the ones that ask students to imitate a given example of a fallacious argument or to evaluate a famous quote from a logical perspective. These exercises should help students achieve some of the Common Core writing standards.

Q: How do you envision teachers using this book in their classrooms?

A: There are a few different ways to approach the text. Teachers can cover the entire book, or they can focus on a discrete unit, like the section on rhetoric or the chapter on the ad hominem fallacy. The material is concise, and it’s divided into short chapters, so it should lend itself well to the time constraints of a classroom situation.

The book was written with AP Language classes in mind, but it could really be used to help students fulfill the reading or writing standards in any advanced course. It should be useful in lessons on composition, rhetoric, speech, debate, or analyzing nonfiction. We’ve also had a teacher suggest using the text to accompany novels like 1984 and Brave New World.

Q: What level of student is this book appropriate for?

A: The teachers on our review board seem to think that the book could benefit students at various levels. The general consensus is that it’s ideally suited to the intended AP-Language audience, but several teachers have said they’d like to introduce the book’s concepts to pre-AP students in tenth or even ninth grade. Others have recommended using the text in composition courses at the college level.

The text scores a 9.7 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grace Level test, which is supposed to correspond roughly to a tenth-grade reading level.

Q: What was your favorite part of the book to write?

A: One aspect of the book that was particularly fun for me was incorporating classic works of fiction into the text and interacting with them. I enjoyed interrupting fictional conversations to point out fallacious arguments from Huck Finn and Professor Pangloss, among others.

The whole book was a pleasure to write, though. The topics of rhetoric and logic are fascinating, and I learned a lot in the process.

Q: What new projects are around the corner?

A: I’m currently working on a book that’s geared towards the Common Core’s Reading Informational Texts standards. This book is still in the concept stage right now, but the idea is to compile a group of grade-appropriate texts and use them to walk students through the reading standards.

Choosing Texts: Do the Common Core State Standards leave room for teacher discretion?

No one likes the idea of forced conformity and “one size fits all” solutions. Not surprisingly, one of the chief concerns we hear from teachers about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is that they seem to take a cookie-cutter approach to improving education.

Indeed, the standards do represent a general push toward standardization, as their name implies. Perhaps most conspicuously, they propose a universal shift toward more difficult texts and tasks than have traditionally been assigned in recent decades. In the English Language Arts category, there is an emphasis on teaching literary and informational texts that are significantly more difficult than those currently taught in most American schools.

In the Common Core literature, this upward shift in text complexity is described in the rather arcane language of the Lexile Framework, as shown in the chart below.

Text Complexity Grade Bands and Associated Lexile Ranges (CCSS English Language Arts Appendix A, page 8)
Text Complexity Grade Bands and Associated Lexile Ranges (CCSS English Language Arts Appendix A, page 8)

Looking at these charts and figures, many educators fear that the standards do not adequately account for the variation among students and classrooms. Is it really feasible to take any given twelfth-grade classroom and suddenly begin teaching what we think of as college-level texts? What about the students who are struggling with the less challenging literature they are currently being assigned?

One educator who serves on Prestwick House’s National Curriculum Advisory Board described the concerns of many when she told us, “The idea that all students can learn to the same level of understanding, while high-minded, is just not true.”

There is good news, though. Within the CCSS framework, there is still room for teachers to exercise personal discretion and choose texts that make sense for their students.

The standards do not require teachers to do any of the following:

  • Replace human judgment with Lexile scores.
  • Disregard students’ abilities and backgrounds.
  • Teach from a prescribed list.

What, then, are the standards proposing for the text-selection process?

The CCSS identify three factors to consider when gauging text complexity:

  1. qualitative measures
  2. quantitative measures
  3. reader and task considerations

These three factors are depicted in the standards’ Appendix A as three parts of a triangle—and each element is given equal weight.


It’s important to note that the quantitative element—a computer-generated number, such as a Lexile score—is only one part of the triangle. This is the only factor that is not ultimately left to the judgment of a human being, whether it be a district administrator or an individual teacher.

What’s more, the standards directly state that quantitative measures are not always accurate and should not be used to overrule the judgments of educators. Appendix A says that educators are expected to balance quantitative and qualitative considerations by “employ[ing] professional judgment to match texts to particular students and tasks” (page 7). Quantitative measures will, in fact, be outweighed by the other two-thirds of the triangle in many cases.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be talking about the strengths and limitations of the Lexile Framework and other quantitative measures, as well as their proper application. I’ll also be unpacking the more subjective factors in selecting CCSS-appropriate reading assignments—the “qualitative” and “reader and task” considerations. When it comes to choosing texts for your classroom, the Common Core standards may not be quite as limiting as they initially seem.