An Interview with Lucine Kasbarian by Todd Bartel

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Interview with Lucine Kasbarian by Todd Bartel, Curator and Director of the Thompson Gallery, Cambridge School of Weston of Weston, Massachuetts

(Reprinted from the Thompson Gallery Blog, March 30, May 26 and August 18, 2015)

Todd Bartel: Was “Am I My Keeper’s Brother” – a cartoon drawing of a gorilla behind bars – your first political cartoon? What prompted you to develop that original cartoon and then submit it to your local newspaper as a high school sophomore?

Lucine Kasbarian: Yes, it was my first political cartoon. Around that time the theories of evolution and creationism were being discussed in school. I had been weighing both theories and thought an ironic way to express them would be to take the Biblical question Cain posed to God about Abel – Am I my brother’s keeper? – and turn it on its head.

As for the motivation to publish, since childhood, I had been an avid reader of the Sunday comics in the Bergen Record. When I was about ten, a favorite comic strip, Mandrake the Magician, was pulled from the lineup of Sunday comics. I wrote to an editor to express sadness and to request that the paper reinstate it. To my surprise, the editor wrote back to say he had received many similar letters from readers, and that the paper was going to bring the comic back. Based on that positive experience, years later, I felt encouraged to contact the paper about its interest in publishing my gorilla cartoon. The editorial page editors liked the concept as a social commentary and had one of their staff illustrators redraw the cartoon. For that, I received my first payment for cartooning work.

Bartel: What generation American-Armenian are you, and can you shed light on how your family came to live in the United States?

Kasbarian: I’m the second generation in my family to be born in the United States.

Turmoil, danger, massacres, expulsion and genocide affected all my grandparents. Their families were large on both sides, but I will stick to discussing my immigrant grandparents for brevity’s sake.

My maternal grandfather, Hampartsoom Hampartsoomian — yes, that was his name — was a miller living with his family in the village of Khorokhon in Sepastia, a province of Western Armenia — now called Sivas in present-day Turkey.

Just prior to the Genocide, the Turkish government was rounding up Armenian men ostensibly to serve in the Ottoman Army, but really in order to eventually kill them and render the general Armenian population defenseless.

To avoid inevitable death, Hampartsoom was advised to depart the country for a while. He fled to Bulgaria, leaving his wife and children behind with the intention of returning. While he was gone, his family was wiped out in the massacres and death marches.

My maternal grandmother, Armaveni Ghazarian, was a teenager when she witnessed her father being rounded up by the Turkish military and police with the other men of Sepastia and led away. She later discovered that they had all been taken to the outskirts of town and slaughtered.

Along with the other Christians in her town, Armaveni, her mother, and a young male cousin were rounded up by the Turkish authorities and sent on what was termed a deportation but was in actuality a death march.

Armaveni’s cousin was dressed up as a girl in the hope that concealing his gender might prevent his murder during the march. Turkish soldiers drove Armaveni’s caravan — with most victims making the journey on foot — endless miles through valleys and over steep mountains.

Food and water were scarce and often totally withheld. Many Armenians who first traveled with carts and pack animals soon sold them for morsels of bread. Many caravans were attacked and robbed by marauding Turkish and Kurdish townspeople and bandits. Armenians were stripped of their valuables and even the clothes and shoes they were wearing. The Turkish soldiers encouraged and engaged in the same kinds of acts.

We know from the historical record that these soldiers were often violent criminals that the government released from prison specifically to torture the Armenians — and Christian Assyrians and Greeks, too — in the most gruesome and agonizing of ways. Women and girls were raped in front of their families and often abducted. Pregnant women were disemboweled. Their unborn fetuses were torn out of their bellies and mangled for sport. Eyes, tongues, teeth, fingernails and toenails were torn out.

According to eyewitness testimonies collected by British Colonel Sir Mark Sykes in Aleppo, Syria in 1918, and later published in “Memories of the Holocaust,” written by Dr. Levon Daghlian, Turks raped Armenian men; gang-raped women, who were later sold into slavery; crucified children and left them for dead; drowned women en masse in rivers — and some head down in Turkish toilets; crushed heads with iron tongs; and poured kerosene on Armenians and set them afire in group infernos.

The members of Armaveni’s caravan were forced to continue the march, many naked and barefoot. Along the way, Armaveni saw gendarmes shoot Armenians who tried to draw near rivers to quench their thirst. This was not simply relocation, as the Turkish government alleges. It was deliberate torture and murder for the native Christians. Of course, the Genocide also enabled Turkish theft on a grand scale — land, properties, churches, schools, homes, businesses, and bank accounts.

I should mention that a major reason for the Genocide was that the “Young Turk” regime was seeking to create a huge Pan-Turkist empire consisting of all Turkic-speaking peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia and to expunge all native non-Turkic peoples — such as Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks — along the way.

After many weeks of marching, the remaining survivors — starving and in a pitiful state — reached the Syrian desert of Der Zor. This wasteland turned out to be the end of the line — a vast graveyard for the human prey of Ottoman Turkey.

Armaveni’s mother expired from starvation, exhaustion and exposure. Young Armaveni buried her mother’s body with her own hands. Her cousin managed to survive but became mentally unbalanced. He was institutionalized for the rest of his life as a result of his ordeals. After she managed to escape from the desert encampment, Armaveni entered a Protestant orphanage in Syria until relatives could raise money to bring her to America. In New York City, a parish priest introduced Armaveni to Hampartsoom — who had by then made his way to America. They married shortly thereafter and produced three children: Nishan (Nick), Ardashes (Arthur) and Aghavni (Alice) — my mother.

My paternal grandfather, Hagop Der Kasbarian, was a silk weaver from Alipounar, a suburb of Western Armenia’s Dikranagerd province — now called Diyarbakir in present-day Turkey.

Even prior to the Armenian Genocide, Turkish oppression of Armenians was commonplace. Hagop’s father Der Kasbar — the local parish priest — along with Hagop’s elder brother Garabed were murdered during the Turkish massacres of 1894-96 ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

In 1912, Hagop left the country to find work in America before harm could befall him at the hands of the Turks. By then, it seemed to his family that the Armenians faced a bleak future in their own homeland and that Hagop needed to find a way for them to leave the country.

As fate would have it, when he established residence in the United States, the final letter Hagop received from his younger brother Hovhannes, the Secretary of the Armenian Progressive School in Dikranagerd, and dated just before the Genocide began in April 1915, said: “Don’t worry about us. We’re all well and alive.” Soon after, Hagop’s brother Hovhannes and many of his relatives were murdered by the Turkish government.

In early 1915, Hagop had married a young woman from his village who had also migrated to America. In 1917, she bore a son, but she herself did not survive childbirth. Three years later, after WWI had ended, Hagop went to Aleppo, Syria in search of an Armenian mother for his infant son.

My paternal grandmother, Lusia Kazanjian, was married to a miller. Like the other men in her town, Lusia’s father and husband were massacred by the Turks. She had two infant children and her mother with her when she was driven out of Dikranagerd in 1915. My father tells me Lusia did not want to speak much about the horrors she witnessed and experienced. However, we do know that while she managed to smuggle out the property deeds belonging to her family, her two infant children perished during the death marches. Lusia and her mother, Hadji Touma, struggled on to Aleppo. (Borrowed from the Arabic, “Hadji” is a term given to a Christian who has made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.)

Hagop and Lusia met in Aleppo and were married in 1920. Together, they made their home in Union City, NJ, where they had three sons: Hovhannes (John), Haroutiun (Harry), and Garabed (Charles) — my father.

As you can see, two of my four grandparents – Hampartsoom and Lusia — were married with children before the start of the Genocide. They lost their spouses and children, but were determined to persevere by remarrying and having second families.

I am in awe of the courage and willpower these survivors possessed and the resolve that drove them to carry on, even as they tried to cope with their shock, grief, trauma and displacement. In effect, an entire nation had been orphaned, exiled, and made rudderless overnight.

I learned from a very young age about what had happened. I knew that other American children my age did not necessarily have widespread death and destruction in their immediate family histories. Naturally, this knowledge of Armenian history motivated me to preserve and practice the traditions of my people so that their folkways would not disappear as our ancestors did.

I wish I could see our civilization as it was, to know more about my relatives from several generations back, and to have had an intact family that supported and lavished love upon each other. While some general information is available — such as the foregoing — much is fragmented or has been lost due to Turkish destruction of Armenian documents, especially church baptismal records.

I cherish the few family photos that we possess from the Old Country. I often study the faces of my ancestors to try to know them and read their thoughts. Seeing a family resemblance between those who have passed on and those living today is a sign of the astonishing force of nature. Seeing these likenesses allows me to appreciate the chain of continuity of life – such a fragile thing for us – and feel a comforting connection with ancestors whose lives were mercilessly and prematurely brought to an end.

Had the Genocide not taken place, my family would still be in Western Armenia today, a land that today is called Turkey. I hope one day to reclaim our confiscated properties in what I will always call Western Armenia.

For a longer treatment, readers are welcome to consult an interview conducted by a Kurdish writer-activist with my father in InfoWelat, a Kurdish political journal:

Excerpts from my mother’s family history are available in the following interview:

Bartel: When did you start making art about Armenian history and intergovernmental politics?

Kasbarian: The murder of journalist and free speech advocate Hrant Dink in 2007 started it. Dink was an ethnic Armenian citizen of Turkey. He was born in 1954 in Malatya. He devoted his life to encouraging peaceful coexistence between the various peoples in Turkey. He also spoke often about the need to uphold free speech and openly discuss the Armenian Genocide without reprisal if Turkish society were to successfully evolve and grow. When he was murdered for his views, I was outraged. Cartooning seemed a productive way to deal with and make statements about injustice. I like the immediacy of cartoons. They can make a point through words and pictures, and inform others about an issue in a snapshot.

Bartel: One thing I deeply appreciate about the art you create is that your intellectual knife splits the finest hair. Can you provide an example of what prompted the creation of one of your cartoons?

Kasbarian: Thank you. My cartoons are often responses to things that have happened in history or are happening in the present. For example, in 2010 Turkish authorities announced their intention to make a an alleged goodwill gesture towards the Armenians by renovating the 10th century Holy Cross Cathedral on the island of Aghtamar, located on Lake Van in what was once Western Armenia (present-day Turkey). You see, Turkey holds this church hostage – it is considered one of the greatest remaining jewels of Armenian architecture. During the time of the Genocide, it was confiscated from the Armenians and worship there has, by and large, been forbidden. In fact, the church had been used for target shooting for decades.

The state had long removed any signage indicating the provenance of this cathedral, which, incidentally, the Turkish state now runs as a museum. True to its penchant for renaming historic Armenian places, the state had taken to calling it Akdamar or Agdamar, which in Turkish means “white vein.” Armenians know that the island of Aghtamar is named after an ancient Armenian legend, while the term “white vein” stands for nothing. Given the ongoing and predominant movement to “Turkify” indigenous Armenian cultural assets, I felt compelled to produce a cartoon called “Identity Theft,” featured in Perspectives from Exile on page 23.

A trendy issue in popular culture at the time of this cartoon’s creation was the concept of credit card identity theft. That prompted me to think about an even older form of identity theft: when occupying forces co-opt the land, culture and traditions of indigenous peoples. Thus, I used the punch line, “Will that be MasterCard or American Express?” uttered by the Turkish ticket-taker featured in the cartoon.

The expression of irony and sarcasm helps me ward off despondency, which is a natural condition that can arise from living in exile for three generations. Being denied the right to reclaim one’s native land is a condition that has far-reaching implications that affect millions of people around the world to this day.

Bartel: Cartooning has recently been at the center of international focus regarding free speech and issues related to the First Amendment to the US Constitution—as in the cases of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris and, the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest in Waco, Texas. Glenn Greenwald, American journalist, lawyer and author spoke out on the former saying:

"Free speech, in the hands of many Westerners, actually means: it is vital that the ideas I like be protected, and the right to offend groups I dislike be cherished; anything else is fair game. It’s free speech if it involves ideas I like or attacks groups I dislike, but it’s something different when I’m the one who is offended."

As a political cartoonist who deals with complicated and sensitive issues, what are your thoughts about free speech?

Kasbarian: There seems to be no “one-size-fits-all” solution when it comes to what is universally considered appropriate or inappropriate regarding free speech.

This is one of the reasons why I created a cartoon called “the Orwellian Age of Enlightenment (page 35).”

“Orwellian,” of course, is a term that describes a societal condition that author George Orwell identified as being harmful to a free and open society.

Journalist and free speech advocate Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian citizen of Turkey, spoke about the need to be able to openly discuss the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. He was killed for it by 17 year-old Ogun Samast, a Turkish citizen.

The main message in this cartoon is to show two opposing but concurrent laws regarding free speech. The cartoon asks if either law really advances free speech.

On one hand, discussing the Armenian Genocide in Turkey is punishable by Article 301 of the penal code because such discussion purportedly “insults Turkishness.” Human rights advocates around the world question this law because speaking about historic truths such as the Armenian Genocide has been criminalized by the inheritor of the Turkish regime that carried out the Genocide and that does not wish to accept the truth or deal with the consequences.

On the other hand, an opposite law is in effect in Europe. Questioning the factuality of the Holocaust in Europe is also punishable by law because it is considered “hate speech.” We should note though, that the law does not apply to the denial of other genocides.

In any case, neither law—in Turkey and in Europe—allows for open discussion. It is this paradox that the cartoon tries to spotlight.

There is currently no universal consensus on whether there should be limits to free speech and what those limits should be. I certainly do not have the answers. I think it’s is an issue that the world will continue to struggle with for many years to come.