Black Dog of Fate

by Peter Balakian


The book begins as a memoir of a happy childhood playing Little League baseball in the New Jersey suburbs. Peter’s father, a respected physician, was born in Constantinople but he never talks about his Armenian family. As many children do, Peter rebels as a teenager and his relationship with his father is strained. He is closer to his grandmother Nafina who watches all the Yankee’s games with him. Once a month he visits her house to bake choereg, a sweet Armenian bread. She sometimes tells Peter dreams or stories which he is too young to understand at the time.

Peter with his grandmother Nafina and his aunt

Peter with his grandmother Nafina and his aunt

Peter becomes a poet but it isn’t until he is an adult that he finds out about the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire in 1915. His grandmother was 25 years old with two small children when they were forcibly marched from their home. Her husband died on the march into the desert. They were given neither  food nor water. The Turkish soldiers picked off men as they walked, shooting them in the head for target practice. Women were raped or tortured.

Starved Armenian woman in the desert, 1916

Starved Armenian woman in the desert, 1916

The Armenians were Christians in a predominantly Islamic culture. In 1894, many Armenians were massacred for protesting unequal tax laws for Christians. U.S. Ambassador Morgenthau witnessed what happened in 1915 when the ruling triumvirate , Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and Djemal Pasha, ordered the extermination of all Armenians.

In his book, published in 1919, Morgenthau tells of the torture and mass killings.

Most of us believe that torture has long ceased to be an administrative and judicial measure, yet I do not believe that the darkest ages ever presented scenes  more horrible than those which now took place all over Turkey….At Angora (Ankara) all Armenian men from 15 to 70 were arrested, bound together in groups of four, and sent on the road in the direction of Caesarea. When they had traveled five or six hours, .. a mob of Turkish peasants fell upon them with clubs, hammers, axes, scythes, spades and saws. Such instruments caused a death more agonizing than guns or pistols , but. ..more economical ..since they did not involve the waste of powder and shell. (Peter Balakian, Black Dog of Fate)

Hung, shot, set on fire, tortured and raped..taken into the desert to die without food or water, a whole people were wiped out. Peter’s grandmother, it seems, was one of a group of just 150 survivors who came out of the desert and crossed into Russia.

Armenians killed by Ali Zrna, 1915

Armenians killed by Ali Zrna, 1915

The last chapters of this book were even more shocking as I read about the systematic denial and cover-up of the Armenian genocide carried out to this day by the Turkish government. They even endowed a chair for Turkish studies at Princeton, given to a man (Heath Lowry) who wrote articles and op-ed columns denying the Genocide. It is just unimaginable that even in America, academic institutions are used to help Turkey deny the genocide. “Scholars for hire,” Balakian calls it.

Peter Balakian, poet and English professor, Colgate college

Peter Balakian, poet and English professor, Colgate college

Balakian quotes Charrey and Lipstadt, saying

the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; the first killing, followed by a killing of the memory of the killing.

On the eighty-first anniversary of the genocide, one Turkish American berated his country, saying that history is still waiting for the Turkish leader who will honestly acknowledge his ancestors’ “biggest crime ever” and apologize to the Armenian people and do his best to make indemnity, both morally and materially.

Why do so few people know about this genocide? Why don’t our history textbooks address it? Why did America collude in this cover-up? I first read about it in Power, Faith and Fantasy , America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, a book which I highly recommend. I want to read more about this!!


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