by Mark Mustian
All my life, people have asked me if I’m Armenian. I’ve always responded that I am, but that it’s way back there, and I’ve never known much about it. One day someone asking this same question asked me if I had read Peter Balakian’s book Black Dog of Fate. I hadn’t, and did. Peter’s book tells of his grandmother’s story of surviving the forced march of Armenians from Turkey at the beginning of World War I. Mesmerized by the story, I located other books, many by survivors or children of those that survived this deadly trek. I hit upon the idea of writing a book about the topic, but decided to approach it from the point of view of the Turks, of someone on the other side. Several (several) years later, The Gendarme was born.
Most people, I’ve discovered, know very little about the Armenians. People will ask: now where is Armenia? They might have heard somewhere the term “starving Armenians”. The truth is that Armenia was an ancient, Christian kingdom occupying large parts of what are now eastern Turkey, Iran and areas around the Black Sea. The small country of Armenia is carved from the remnants of the Soviet Union. Fewer people still know the events of 1915, when the Turks–at war with, among other people, the (Christian) Russians–feared the large Armenian minority in Turkey might be in collusion with their enemy, and as such massacred many of the men and sent the women, children and old people on a forced march through the desert to Syria.
As I read the stories of survivors of this trek, I kept wondering: what were the Turks—those doing the expelling—thinking when this happened? In a way it’s not dissimilar to the treatment of other “enclave” populations in wartime: witness the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or those of German heritage sent from Britain to Canada during the war. The difference is that today the Turks deny these events happened, offering as explanation for the elimination of over one million Armenians that “it was a time of war” and “many people suffered deprivation and loss”. To refer to these events as genocide remains a crime in Turkey to this day.
My novel is the story of a 92-year old man who earlier in life served as a gendarme, escorting the Armenians on their trek through the desert. Injured during the war and having lost much of his memory, only late in life does he begin to recall scenes from this odyssey, and to remember in particular a young woman among those deported. At its core, the book is a love story, but one weighted with history. Much research, historical and otherwise, was involved in writing it, as I had never been to Turkey or Syria, and so I read survivor accounts, histories of the era, and diaries of participants, including those on the Turkish side. I would write a little, research more, write a few more pages, research more still. It took me, start to finish, almost seven years to completely finish it.
After I’d signed the publishing contract but before the book was published, I got the chance to travel to Turkey and Syria, to see for myself the paths these caravans had traveled. It was rewarding, as well as illuminating, and I was pleased that, for the most part, I had described things from research much the way that they appeared to be. Still, there’s nothing like seeing for yourself rock and wasteland, desert and citadel, and I was grateful for the opportunity to make a few tweaks to the manuscript, to solidify with fact and detail some of the things I’d come up with out of the air.
The most frequent comment I receive from readers who’ve read the novel is: “I had no idea this thing happened”. That’s why I wrote the book. I want people to know, and to try and understand, and to think. To perhaps form a bond. To consider love, and loss, and what makes people do things. And reduce the possibility that something like this happens again.
Visit Mark Mustian’s website to learn more.
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