By Harut Der-Tavitian
When my father, Kevork Der-Tavitian, joined us in Los Angeles in 1990, he wanted to plant fruit trees in my backyard. Despite his advanced age, he toiled tirelessly to achieve this task as soon as possible. One day, when we were taking a break from our hard work, I told him that I’m impatient to see the day that the trees will grow and bear fruit so we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. Reading my mind, he replied that he might not see that day, but nevertheless he said: “My heart is full of joy even today, with the vision of that future day.” My father passed away in 2000, but with every delicious fruit that our family members and friends enjoy, we remember him, his legacy and his vision.
That legacy spans a period of 100 years, comprising the combined 175 years experience of three individuals of the same family: my father’s, mine and my son’s. It begins in Malatya in 1910, with the birth of my father. He was orphaned at the tender age of five, when his parents, sister and brother became victims of the Genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks on Armenians. He was deported from his birthplace by force, witnessed massacres, lived in an orphanage, survived through two World Wars and several civil wars, and endured countless other miseries. He had a blessed life too: a peaceful and fertile 63 years of married life with my mother Marie, six children, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
My father’s generation was distinguished by their selfless struggle for the survival and subsistence of the Armenian nation: by giving birth to multiple offspring to compensate for the loss of parents and siblings; by providing their children with education, something they were deprived of; by rebuilding on foreign land what they had lost on native land; by instilling in their children the belief and dream of restitution. They endured enormous pain and misery, led by a firm conviction that they were thus paving the way for the success of future generations.
This amazing belief and awareness of my father’s generation had a positive impact on both the individual and family level. Regretfully, it did not spread to the communal level, where antagonism and fraternal infighting prevailed, instigated primarily by some selfish partisan leaders who were trying to regain their lost glory. While asserting their destructive agenda, they did not even shy away from splitting the community and the church. The condition of the newly relocated communities would have been much better off had there been a leadership which looked after the overall welfare of the community. The likes of my father, who resigned from their party when ordered to attack fellow Armenians, had a higher awareness of nationalism than many of those so-called “national leaders.”
It was the destiny of my father’s generation to endure Genocide and forced deportation from their age-old birthplace. Although my generation, which was born in the Middle East around the 1950’s, was instilled with the ideals of Return, the anti-Soviet propaganda and the unpleasant experiences of those who had immigrated to Soviet Armenia created mixed emotions. With the emergence of Beirut as the “capital” of the Armenian Diaspora, we adopted Lebanon as our “second homeland” where we could lay roots. However, the Lebanese civil war that erupted in 1975 mingled all plans and convictions, forcing the majority of my generation to either seek temporary immigration to the Arabian Gulf or voluntary relocation to Western countries. I chose the former route. While growing up in Lebanon, I was heavily involved in the local Armenian cultural and athletic life. As a result, when during the first eight months of my stay in Saudi Arabia I managed to find only four Armenians to befriend, my whole conscious and mentality were transformed. Upon befriending them, I did not care to ask about their political or religious orientation. Their Armenian-ness was enough. It was then that I realized the futility of petty partisanship, which antagonizes fellow Armenians and even leads to fratricide. A vibrant Armenian community might unknowingly “enjoy” that luxury, but the day will come when a handful will remain lamenting their fate. So with that vision in mind, why not strive today to prevent that nightmare from ever coming true? I resolved there and then that I will lead my life with that vision in mind and will spread it around me, encouraging and supporting those who think likewise and chastising those who sow seeds of disunity and antagonism. My twelve years of stay in Saudi Arabia and my activities since relocating to Los Angles in 1989 are a testament of my conviction to that vision.
If the words “survival” and “subsistence” denote the generation of my father, the words “national preservation” and “reclamation” could denote our generation. What then would be the words that would denote the generation of our offspring? Finding an answer to this question has been on my mind even from the time when I had not yet formed my own family, knowing full well that a lot depends on the actions of my generation. Back in March 1978, I had written a poem in Armenian entitled “Legacy,” pondering about the legacy that our grandparents and parents left us with and ending it with the question: what kind of legacy will we leave to our children? The question was an open invitation to evaluate our conduct. Our fathers generally succeeded in their mission of “survival” and “subsistence.” What was the success rate of our generation in preserving the nation and reclaiming the loss, thus paving the way for the achievements of the next generation? We definitely did not achieve as much as our fathers did, despite all the advantages we enjoyed thanks to their sacrifice. Yes, the turmoil of the Middle East and the negative impact of globalization that flattens nationalistic aspirations contributed to our shortcomings, but we could have achieved much more. Let’s not live in delusion that because we have survived for thousands of years, we will continue to survive one way or another. Let’s be aware that we are on a downhill path and a major shift of strategy is needed to stop the bleeding and change direction. The pace of historical progress in this century is extremely fast. What used to take centuries is now being accomplished in decades. We have to keep pace with these developments. The trio that played a major role in our survival and subsistence a century ago, church-school-club, is not as effective anymore. What proportion of our youth is being educated by this trio now? Combine this with the depopulation of Armenia and the pathetic mentality of its leadership and you will realize the dire situation we are in as a nation.
How can we get out of this quagmire? If each one of us treats the members of the community at large the same way he/she treats family members; and if each one of us becomes aware that we are equally responsible to the “we” as much as we are to the “I,” then we would be initiating a huge wave that would lead to the betterment of our nation. It is this legacy that we should be leaving to our youth.
Speaking about our youth and their vision, earlier this month my son Razmig broke the news to us that he got accepted to a prestigious university to pursue his MBA studies. In his application, where it was required of him to write about his family, he had mentioned the following:
“The opportunities I have today are a result of the efforts of my parents and grandparents. My parents raised me with three core principles: be thankful for what you have, work hard to take advantage of the opportunities around you and work hard to provide opportunities for those who are less fortunate. A few years ago, I developed an interest in Physics and came across a quote that speaks volumes. Sir Isaac Newton once said, ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Here is one of the most accomplished individuals in history, yet rather than taking sole credit for his work, he recognized the investments made by his predecessors. As members of society, our duty is to work hard to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us, and then create opportunities for those who are less fortunate. My parents and grandparents are my giants and I strive to one day be the shoulder for others to stand on.”
The example of my son and other representatives of his generation tells us that having in mind the sacrifices of our fathers and their vision of the future, if we follow their path and act selflessly in their manner, our hearts will also be full of joy with the vision of a brighter tomorrow.
Let’s conclude with an example that depicts the necessity of developing a modern mentality in line with the demands of modern times. Several months ago, during a discussion with my son, he resembled the Armenian nation to a pie. He stated that members of my generation were cutting it into pieces, trying to secure as big a portion as possible. Some were even bringing in foreign powers to help them secure a bigger portion, negligent of the fact that the foreigner was having his cut too. My generation’s vision, he stated, should not be to secure as big a portion as possible, but to enlarge the overall size of the pie, thus increasing the size of everyone’s piece. After all, the fruits of the labor of successive generations determine the destiny of a nation.