Long After Armenian Genocide, Retracing A Grandfather's Steps To Survival
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Investigative reporter Dawn Anahid MacKeen's latest story is one her mother always wanted her to tell. It's about her grandfather and how he survived the Armenian genocide of 1915. One and a half million Armenians living in modern-day Turkey were killed. Turkey says it was not genocide, but a result of widespread conflict in the region. MacKeen's grandfather left behind journals that became the seeds of her new book "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey." I asked her what she knew about her grandfather before she began her research.
DAWN ANAHID MACKEEN: My mother told me stories about my grandfather and they were very sad stories of this man who was struggling across a desert and was just fighting for his survival and was so thirsty he had to drink his own urine, which is a very strange thing to hear as a child and it just sounded really gross. And, of course, it was history that I couldn't comprehend until I was in my 30s and I could finally read his firsthand testimony of what happened to him during World War I in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.
SHAPIRO: So you read these journals and set off on your own reporting family research trip through Turkey and Syria, retracing his steps. How did that journey change your sense of your grandfather as a person?
MACKEEN: I had to see the land that he wrote about. You know, the desert that he was driven across with his caravans, it became a prison to him because it was inhospitable and there weren't many people around. And as I traveled from west to east and the land grew more stark, I just -it was a hard moment to see that, to think of my grandfather outside in the elements. You know, at one point when he was in a makeshift camp in what is now western Syria, a thousand people died from disease in just one month. So this was the kind of thing he was up against, and he really had to summon heroic strength inside to have the courage to continue each day.
SHAPIRO: Will you read from a section of the book where you talk about the experience of retracing your grandfather's steps a century later? This is page 153.
MACKEEN: Sure. (Reading) Only halfway into my 900-mile journey and I was already weary, and I was a well-fed 36-year-old traveling by car and train, not on foot as Stepan did. I was the one sleeping in beds rated by stars, not outside on the hard ground under the constellations. Just an hour after leaving my air-conditioned hotel room, I was weak and feverish and needed a bathroom, and I was still far from my endpoint, a godforsaken mound of dirt named Markada, just short of the Iraqi border where my grandfather's caravan of thousands met its end.
SHAPIRO: On your journey researching this book, you visited Syrian cities such as Raqqa. And a hundred years ago, your grandfather saw it as a haven. Today, the city is controlled by ISIS. What does your experience in the city tell you about this place that is now so - in the news - so fraught, so full of violence and strife?
MACKEEN: My experience in Raqqa - and I went there twice, I returned to Syria again in 2009 - was the complete opposite of what you're hearing now from there. It was, in a way, a haven for me just like it was for my grandfather because when I arrived there, I met this Bedouin Sheikh and he took me into his home and gave me his daughter's room and that night, hosted this dinner on the Euphrates and there were Armenians there, there were Bedouins, Arabs. Everyone was around a table enjoying each other's company. There wasn't this religious divide or a hatred that you see. And it just breaks my heart seeing what's happening to Raqqa and also that many people are learning about Raqqa for the first time through this message of hate.
SHAPIRO: And the Sheikh took you in out of a sense of hospitality or out of a sense of connection to your grandfather? Describe why he welcomed you in this way.
MACKEEN: I think it was out of hospitality. And the people in this region are, you know, had been known for that. And this Sheikh, also, when I met him, I told him about what happened to my grandfather. And the people in this region know what happened to the Armenians. These stories have been handed down in their families of, you know, the mass graves that have been in that area or the Armenians that were taken in by the different clans. And when I told this Bedouin Sheikh in Raqqa that I wanted to find the clan that saved my grandfather's life and it was somewhere in the region, this Sheikh all of a sudden called someone else and this person came over and all of a sudden had two phone lines and started calling all over the region to try to find this clan. And it was an incredible moment for me to watch this happen because it was really a pipe dream. And all of a sudden, they narrowed it down and they said, we found them. Can you go tomorrow? And I said yes, please, please, take me to them.
SHAPIRO: Have you kept in touch with any of the people you met in that part of Syria?
MACKEEN: You know, sadly, the Bedouin Sheikh died in 2009 when I returned for the second time to Syria to that region. But I do keep in touch with the clan that saved my grandfather's life. And now since the war began, communication has been really difficult. But one of them has left the region and became a refugee just like my grandfather.
SHAPIRO: Wow, and gone where?
MACKEEN: He made it to Europe and was part of the sea of refugees, you know, going from boat from Turkey to Greece and just what we're seeing in the newspaper. And he's trying to start his life anew there, just like my grandfather did when he came to this country many years ago.
SHAPIRO: How does that parallel make you feel across a century?
MACKEEN: Yeah, I could never have predicted this. I - first of all, finding them was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. But then when the war broke out and one of them told me - and this was even before the Islamic State took over the territory - you know, just dealing with famine and seeing corpses in the street and really struggling to survive, he said, we now know what your grandfather went through.
SHAPIRO: He said that to you?
MACKEEN: He did, he did. And it just - I don't even know what to say. It's just - it's heartbreaking because I don't want anyone else to ever have to go through what my grandfather went through.
SHAPIRO: I want to bring this back around to your grandfather. We know he survived, but ultimately, what happened to him?
MACKEEN: Well, he came to New York with my mother and my aunt in 1930. And he opened a candy store on 133rd and Amsterdam, and he worked around the clock. And then during World War II, he moved to Los Angeles and they kind of steadily started investing. He bought a few apartment buildings and by the time he was in his 80s, he was still climbing onto the roof and fixing the roof.
MACKEEN: Yeah - he achieved his dream in the United States and was always so happy to be here. He would play "God Bless America" on his accordion.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) If your grandfather were alive today, is there a question you would want to ask him?
MACKEEN: I would ask him what he would want for people to learn from his story. And I believe it's about having history not repeat itself. We have to stop having history repeat itself.
SHAPIRO: Dawn Anahid MacKeen is the author of "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey." Thanks so much for talking with us.
MACKEEN: Thank you so much, Ari. It's been a pleasure.
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