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Women of Şanlıurfa, Ottoman Turkey (photographer unknown, 1915)

Women of Şanlıurfa, Ottoman Turkey (photographer unknown, 1915)

“Ingrata patria, ne ossa quidem habebis”
Ungrateful fatherland, you will not even have my bones.
– Scipio Africanus’ reply to Rome.[1]

“Judged by common standards, the [Trojan Women] is far from a perfect play” (5) begins Gilbert Murray in his introduction to his translation of Euripides’ tragedy, Troädes (Trojan Women). It’s a curious statement to make. He wrote it in the beginning of the 20th century, 1915. The Great War was already a year old. Though he had no way of knowing it at the time, the Armenian Genocide had just begun. I assume what Murray’s criticism comes down to is that Trojan Women has no conventional action to it. There is no satisfactory outcome. No classical heroes. No moral victories. No conclusion. It simply tells the aftermath of a terrible war from the losing side.

I say it is a curious statement because, seen at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, to even criticize Trojan Women based on Victorian assumptions of the role of art and its rigid functions, comes from a place of privilege, safety and arrogance about the nature of warfare itself. It means, in the words of Wilfred Owen, you were still buying into “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori.” “How sweet and fitting it is/ to die for one’s country.” It also means you haven’t studied the play as closely as you think you have since it challenges the very notion of the function of so-called “classical” drama. The Gods, who during The Iliad decided the outcome of the Trojan War at every step, are now impotent. They still squabble like children, but they cannot effect any outcome despite all their hubris. The great patriotic heroes – Odysseus, Paris, Achilles – are revealed to be sadistic butchers and nothing more. They give the orders for a slaughter of a whole people but are never seen on stage, everything is carried out by sycophants and unnamed foot soldiers. The protagonists are the survivors of the destruction of Troy, the women of the title, who are about to be either raped and murdered or sold into slavery and scattered to the ends of the earth. That’s it. There is no intervention. No last minute heroics. Even though, through other stories and myths, we have been told the outcome of some of these character’s lives, the ending is left deliberately ambiguous. Any redeeming aspects of their faith and religion or their belief in an afterlife of salvation are shown to be false. The only thing these women know is that misery lays ahead for them and destruction lays behind and Euripides demands we look at this: this feminist, anti-war manifesto written in 415 B.C.

The Iliad, at least in comparison to the world Euripides shows us, is a pornographic farce. There is no tension in Homer’s story since the outcome is already known ahead of time by the audience; it’s just a matter of applying poetic license to as many descriptions of macho gore and manly death as possible.[2]

Some critics have said that The Iliad is an anti-war denouncement, which only makes sense if you consider the movie Scarface (1983) to be a cautionary tale about cocaine. The Song of Ilium is fatalistic and pre-deterministic at its core since at every single turn in the plot we are shown it is the Gods making all the choices. And so, after ten years of killing, a million and a half spears have been thrown and we have been told how the brains of the enemy ooze down the shafts of each one in vivid detail. When the movie The Expendables came out the tag line was: “If testosterone could mate with an explosion, this would be the offspring.” Indeed and, as Euripides says to us, it’s that kind of “mangasm” that we don’t need.

Instead of a battlefield we are shown the refugee camp where the survivors of the war have been taken to. All the adult men of Troy are dead. All that is left is their fallen queen, Hecuba, who will act as the ceremonial mouthpiece for all the wrongs done against her city, her people and her person. Her daughters, the cursed Cassandra and the child Polyxena, will soon be taken from her. The wife of Hector, Andromache, will be sold into slavery after being stripped of all her dignity. The Chorus, whose traditional function is to comment on the play’s theme and help the audience understand what is happening, have no more idea about their fate or the motives of the Greeks than Hecuba does. All they can do is tell the story of how Troy fell and all the bitter mistakes that were made. This is how the play begins and it only gets darker. Helen, the kidnapped wife of cuckold Menelaus and the whole reason the Greeks lay siege to Troy, is reunited with her husband and suffers no punishment for her many betrayals. Polyxena is offered as human sacrifice to the tomb of Achilles and Andromache’s son, Astyanax, the only male Trojan apparently left, is taken from her and thrown from the walls of the city onto the rocks. After Hecuba’s daughters, sisters and friends are either killed or taken away as slaves to the victorious Greek generals she gets to witness the ruins of Troy itself being set on fire and burned to the ground. The play ends with the echoes of the god Poseidon moaning about the cruelty of men but he doesn’t actually intervene on Hecuba’s behalf and all the vengeance Athena promised she’d wreck upon the Greeks in the Prologue won’t apparently happen until sometime in the future, if it will happen at all.

* * *

It’s astounding, as I write this, to think that 2400 years ago Euripides laid out a method in which to talk about something that, more often than not, defies our postmodern ability to satisfactory express: the effects of war on a civilian population. People serious said the claim that “After 9/11 Irony is Dead,” or that, “After the Holocaust No Poetry” as well as a curious statement in one literary journal I found that stated: “A ban on the following subject matter: the Holocaust, bars of soap, grandparents with blue tattoos … Jerusalem at dusk,” speak about certain frustrations, yes, but hardly at all about the nature of art and it’s ability to address horror. What we become numb to are certain artists and their insistence on using cliched images, their refusing to invent a new language that will allow us to understand horror except in the most trivial of manners. Euripides, however, shows us that not only can we, but that we must be able to discuss the horrors we human subject each other to if we wish to remain human. One gets the hint from Murray’s commentary that the audiences for Trojan Women have not always been up to the task. “Indeed,” he writes, “the most usual condemnation of the play is not that it is dull, but that it is too harrowing; that scene after scene passes beyond the due limits of tragic art.”[3]

How ironic that talking about war’s effects in real terms is deemed too “tragic” for tragic art.

It is for that reason, as well as the 20th century’s inability to satisfactory talk about the Armenian Genocide in clear words, that I chose to use Trojan Women as a framework for telling this story.

In a way, though, the Armenian Genocide is the antithesis of Troädes. The Ottoman-Armenians were not a foreign country the Ottoman-Turks conquered. They were citizens of the same empire. There was no Troy – an armed city-state with its own army ready to defend itself. Yes, the Armenians did defend themselves and yes the Turks did lay siege to several of their own cities — Van, Zeitun, Musa Dagh — but that’s where the comparison stops. These were farmers and shepherds fighting off a modern, mobilized army. There are Armenian heroes, of course, but no Hectors in the classical sense. No generals with equivalent military strength to pit against a similar adversary. No. The Ottoman-Armenians were a minority to begin with within the Empire. The term “Dhimmi” is used interchangeably in the play with Armenians since that was their status and the sort of dismissive term a bully like Ivedik might use. To be a Dhimmi meant you were a non-Muslim living in a Muslim world. Like the term Négritude in the 1930s where certain Black intellectuals found solidarity in a common identity as a rejection of French colonial racism, Dhimmitude is a modern concept to address a very old problem. By the time Abdülhamid II became Sultan whatever protection and civil rights the Dhimmi once enjoyed had been systematically dismantled. They paid an inordinate amount of taxes, their men were conscripted into the military and, more importantly, they had virtually no legal recourse. Your land could be seized, you could be imprisoned or executed simply because Sharia law allowed it. And so, when the Young Turks needed a scapegoat to blame after the debacle of the Battle of Sarikamish, which cost the Ottomans, through Enver Pasha’s vanity and gross military incompetence, over 60,000 of their own troops, it was easy to blame a small minority within the Empire who already had no protection, no armies and no allies who’d come to their defense.

Another important difference is that there is no Hecuba in the story I am telling. On April 24, 1915, by orders of the Young Turks, some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople were arrested and executed. If there had been an equivalent Trojan Queen then that’s when she died. Anahit is the wife of a village baker. There are ditch diggers here, farmers, school teachers, but these are humble people with no vast wealth to plunder, as was the case in Troy. What Anahit and the Chorus of village women lament, instead, is the destruction of their books, their language, their way of life. Taken from them are their churches, their songs and their symbol of identity, the holy mountain called Ararat. There is no Helen in this play, for that matter, no trickster who is able to talk her way out of punishment. There are fallen queens, of course, but they take the form of the Armenian feminist intellectuals who were executed or fled into exile: Srpuhi Dussap, Sibyl, Mariam Khatisian, Marie Beylerian, Shushanik Kurghinian and Zabel Yesayian. Each deserves her own story to be told but it is not this one. This belongs to an anonymous woman named Anahit and her village neighbors because, in the end, a war against civilians is a war against women such as these.

There is a Cassandra, the closest thing we have to a narrator, Narine. Cassandra was cursed with the gift to foretell the future but no one would ever believe her. Modern interpretation seems to like to she Cassandra as second-rate Ophelia: demented, raving and doomed. It is with her monologue that Euripides allows the women of Troy anything close to prophetic revenge. We know, according to myth, she is taken by Agamemnon to be, literally, his sex slave (what is constantly referred to as a mistress) and, when they return home, both shall be murdered by Clytemnestra. This is the plot of another Euripides play, Electra. What Cassandra tells her mother is that, basically, it’s a good thing the Greeks have decided to take the women of Troy as slaves since this will allow them to get close enough to their rapists to kill them. Of course no one believes her, to which she says:

“… Let him carry me off to Argos. For once there, I will turn our marriage bed into his tomb. Helen had a thousand thousand Greeks killed beneath our walls but I shall do even worse to them. Cassandra will be their doom. Through me, and because of me, their King, their great King, shall perish. By my sacrifice their royal house shall fall. And I shall destroy his people as he has destroyed our own …” (Sartre, 25)

I like that sentiment and I let Narine say those lines but, of course, this doesn’t happen in the deserts of northern Syria, the terrible Der ez Zor, in 1915. To try to work that into this story would mean that the story called Operation Nemesis, when members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation hunted down and assassinated many of the high ranking Young Turks responsible for killing 1.5 million of their own people, wouldn’t happen. So, unlike Cassandra, Narine is not prophetic. She is not even a reliable narrator since she disappears from the second half of the play. I don’t know who is telling the story, truth be told, since no one survives, except, in the end, the Armenian culture. But that’s what real life is all about. Survivor’s tales are only fragments. Those who lived through horror do not know what was happening at the time. It is only through years of sifting through evidence that one can come to a conclusion and the characters of this play do not have that luxury.

* * *

I am, of course, a product of my time and culture. I am not Armenian though I lived in Armenia for two years, in the city of Gyumri, as a Peace Corps volunteer. I worked in an orphanage for mentally and physically disabled infants. The “throw away children,” as they were called. No one talked about the Genocide during my time there. The 1988 earthquake that had destroyed the city hadn’t been dealt with, let alone discussing the greatest horror of their people with strangers. It wasn’t until years after I returned to Michigan that I even began thinking of telling a story like this and then I was worried I would do a bad job. The only thing worse than having a stranger tell your story is a having a stranger make a complete mess out of your story. So I began to read. There are not a lot of survivor’s tales translated into English, which is a shame and needs to be addressed. The text everyone should read, however, if they want a vivid history of Ottoman Turkey in the beginning of the 20th century, is Margaret Ajemian Ahnert’s amazing chronicle of her grandmother Ester’s horrific memories, “The Knock at the Door” (2007). The bath house scene in this play draws upon those accounts and if I owe any primary source a huge debt of gratitude it is Ahnert’s.

Simon Wiesenthal said, “The new generation has to hear what the older generation refuses to tell it.” I don’t know about anybody else, but the lesson I need to hear is about the pitfalls surrounding revenge. Hecuba spends much of Trojan Women cursing the Gods and the Greeks equally. Both are “monsters” and “inhuman” and in her eyes can no longer consider themselves honorable. This is the language of the victimized, the cliched language we must be wary of if we want to tell our stories since we have heard it from every group of people who have ever been wronged through the course of time: we are good and moral and our enemies are not and one day we shall get revenge. Hecuba, for all her suffering, is no better than the Greeks when it comes to forgiveness and mercy. She wants to totally obliterate them. The first thing she urges Menelaus to do is kill his wife, Helen, and Andromache blames Hecuba for causing their downfall by not killing her own son Paris as was ordained by the Gods when he was born. No one takes personal responsibility for the dire state they are in and that is the moral outcome of Trojan Women: calling the other side evil, for Euripides, had no more impact than the Gods’ threats at the beginning of the play. The Greeks and Trojans are equally blood thirsty and there is no sense in Hecuba that she’d ever consider mercy as a logical emotion to show her enemies.

I have the privilege, safety and arrogance to consider that mercy may not be the natural state of human condition in the same way that I had to consider whether or not I’d allow Astghik to be separated from her son. In the end I needed to have at least one act of self-determination, somewhere. We are creatures that have build our cultures by destroying everything we come in contact with and yet, simultaneously, we also continually strive to be better than that. This is the mystery of our species that I do not understand. If I cast myself anywhere in this drama, then it is alongside Narine’s ghost, aren’t we all one more shadow flickering under a brutal sun? We wait for a salvation that won’t happen until sometime in the future, if it will happen at all.

(October 31, 2010)

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Notes:

[1] Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (235–183 BC), the Roman general who defeated Hannibal at the final battle of the Second Punic War at Zama. Despite being one of the greatest military tacticians the world has ever seen he retired early and lived quietly, taking no part in Roman politics. As an old man he was taken to court on trumped up bribery charges which so shamed the citizens of Rome they forced the prosecution to drop the case. Scipio fled into voluntary exile to Liternum, on the coast of Campania, where he lived there for the rest of his life, revealing his magnanimity by attempting to prevent the ruin of the exiled Hannibal, his former enemy, by the corrupt of senators of his own people. It is said he had the inscription “Ingrata patria, ne ossa quidem habebis” carved on his tomb, a message to those he did so much for and was treated so poorly by in return. (Liddell Hart, 18; Scullard, 37-38) return

[2] I had first attempted to turn to The Iliad as the model to tell this story, writing in Free verse. The poem, while true to its source, was still nothing more than a war poem. Praising war was not the story I wanted to tell. return

[3] I had first attempted to turn to The Iliad as the model to tell this story, writing in Free verse. The poem, while true to its source, still nothing more than a war poem. Praising war was not the story I wanted to tell. return

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Works Cited:

Kévorkian, Raymond. Le Génocide des Arméniens. Paris: Odile Jacob. (2006)

Liddell Hart, B.H. Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon. London: W Blackwood and Sons. (1926)

Murray, Gilbert. The Trojan Women of Euripides. Translated into English rhyming verse, with explanatory notes. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. (1915)

Sartre, Jean-Paul (adapted). Euripides’ The Trojan Women. English translation by Ronald Duncan. New York: Knopf. (1967)

Scullard, H.H. Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician. London: Thames and Hudson. (1970)

Yeór, Bat. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam. New Jersey: Cranbury. (1985)