Black Dog of Fateby Peter Balakian
In this tenth anniversary edition of his award-winning memoir, New York Times bestselling author Peter Balakian has expanded his compelling story about growing up in the baby-boom suburbs of the '50s and '60s and coming to understand what happened to his family in the first genocide of the twentieth century—the Ottoman Turkish government's extermination of more than one million Armenians in 1915.
In this new edition, Balakian continues his exploration of the Armenian Genocide with new chapters about his journey to Aleppo and his trip to the Der Zor desert of Syria in his pursuit of his grandmother's life, bringing us closer to the twentieth century's first genocide.
For poet Balakian (Colgate Univ.; "Dyer's Thistle", etc.), a Tenafly, New Jersey, childhood circa 1960 revolved around food-centered rituals with relatives, some vividly characterized here, including his grandmother, Nafina Aroosian. While together they baked a sweet bread called choereg, she told him odd, parable- like stories, including one involving the black dog of the book's title. Similarly puzzling were his family's occasional references to the "old country." As a student and young poet the author began to glean bits of this past, but his education in Armenia's sad history didn't really begin until after college, when, in a watershed moment, he picked up the memoir of the US ambassador to Turkey on the eve of the Great War. That text is extensively quoted to re-create Balakian's experience of reading, in rushing, energetic blasts, this difficult-to-fathom saga of persecution, brutality, and murder. Revelation of his own family's experience of the genocide came next. In dreamlike, novelistic prose, Balakian tells of his relative Dovey's suffering on the forced "deportation march" from her Anatolian homeland. The author encounters a "Bishop Balakian's" memoir of the atrocities, which he describes as "like reading a skeleton," the words "like pieces of bone." This and the other excerpted primary sources through which the dead speak provide dramatic perspective, authenticating the nightmare. In light of what Balakian calls the Turkish authorities' "paper trail of denial extend[ing] to the present," he insists that commemoration is an essential process for survivors; and he comes to understand his family's numbed response as a necessary coping mechanism.
A rare work of seasoned introspection, haunting beauty, and high moral seriousness. Includes a chilling genealogy of Balakian's parents' families.
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Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter II: Mother
An Armenian Jew in Suburbia
We always lingered over dinner after church on Sunday afternoon. In summer we dined on the brick patio in the backyard under the shade of the maple. A plastic tablecloth over the picnic table. The smell of charred lamb. A silver serving dish with some leftover shish kebab and seared vegetables for those whose appetite might reemerge after a while of talking. The pink-and-white azaleas and the little lavender bouquets of rhododendron petals lushly hemming us in. Sunday was family day. On Sunday we seemed more Armenian. Some assortment of relatives -- my grandmother, aunts, cousins, uncles -- always would be there.
On Sundays I felt like I watched my family as if I were watching a play. My mother passes a tray of bereks, triangles of filo filled with sharp cheese and parsley, and Auntie Gladys passes a large bowl of ice in which float black olives and radishes cut into rose shapes. Everyone sits on lawn chairs and chaise lounges. A moment later, my mother opens the sliding glass door carrying a tray of highball glasses filled with tahn, a drink of yogurt and water poured over ice and mint leaves. In a white silk blouse and a dark skirt with an apron tied around her waist, my mother is formal and informal, at once decorous and casually suburban, with dark wavy hair cut short against her fair, freckled skin. She is never sitting down but poking and prodding at the food, passing around plates and silverware, and delegating small responsibilities to everyone to make sure we are all within earshot of her voice. At the grill built into the side of the brick chimney my father is fanning the coals, and in the kitchen my mother is seeing the lamb through its last stages.
Since Saturday night the shish kebab has been marinating in a large terra-cotta bowl with slices of onion, coriander, paprika, some crude olive oil, some red wine. As the oil soaks into the paprika, making a rosy hue on the lamb and the pearly crescents of onions and flecks of black pepper and allspice, the whole bowl glistens. Cubed and trimmed of fat, spring lamb is soft and a deep brick color as you glide it up the skewer with chunks of green pepper, Spanish onions, and Jersey Beefsteak tomatoes before it goes over the white coals.
When the vegetables are charred and the lamb slides off the skewers, my father fills the large silver bowl. In a blue-and-white painted dish is a pyramid of pilaf decorated with dried fruits and nuts; there is a basket of bakery rolls and small glass dishes piled with pickled vegetables called tourshi. I sit with my hands on my cheeks, scowling and hungry. The only thing that pleases me is the food -- its wonderful colors and many fragrances. From around the block I can hear cap guns and my friends playing ball and tag. All I want is to eat in a simple five minutes and get the hell out of this extended ring of adults, but the very idea is impossible because this is an immovable feast, an unquestioned reality of our Balakian Sunday ritual. And I might as well have tar on my butt because I'm stuck here for the day. After the tahn and bereks and shish kebab, there will be paklava or kadayif, some melon and grapes and a soft hunk of fresh white cheese, and finally, some cardamom sweet coffee in small porcelain cups; and for the venturesome members of the family, a sip of French cognac.
If Auntie Anna was with us (as she often was), she would proclaim, not too long after tahn was served, that suburbia would be the ruin of America, and she was not subtle about letting us know that it would be the ruin of us, too. My aunt Anna Balakian was my father's oldest sister, and although she was married, she used her maiden name professionally, which was unusual for a woman in the 1950s. She was a professor at NYU and her books on French poetry bore the name Balakian on the book jacket.
Auntie Anna spoke with such opinionated emotion that she could cast fallout on the conviviality of the moment "The whole idea of su-burr-bi-aa is wrong" -- she liked to linger on a vowel so that the depth of her opinion was inseparable from each word. "This is how the bourgeoisie will triumph," she said, as my mother grew indignant. "There's more community and goodwill here than anywhere in America, Anna, or anywhere in the world, for that matter," she glowered back. "You're lost here," Auntie Anna said, and made it clear that we had sold our souls to a barbarous society that didn't know the difference between Monet and Donald Duck, Mallarmé and Michener. We would become just like everybody else -- a thin slice of yellow plastic cheese in the long, soft loaf of Velveeta that was America. Before my mother could erupt, my father interrupted with some comment about how well the kebabs had come out, and members of each side of the family tried to disentangle the two women by urging them to get the dishes and platters and bowls of food around the table. "Peter needs some more 7-Up," my grandmother said loudly to my mother, "come on, hurry up, hurry up."
I remember a lot of conversation in the family about the suburbs in those days, especially in 1960, after we had moved to Tenafly. A book called The Split-Level Trap had come out that year written by Dick Gordon, a psychiatrist, and his wife, Kitty, who lived a few blocks away and were friends of my parents. The Split-Level Trap, which bore the dedication "To the people of Bergen County, New Jersey," was an insider's guide to the moral decay of suburban life -- divorce, alcoholism, adultery, juvenile delinquency -- and it prophesied doom. Because my parents knew that the Gordons' field work had been done in Tenafly and other neighboring towns I began to wonder, as I listened to my aunt and mother fight it out, why my parents settled here. My aunt's rants against the suburbs were unsettling. I would watch my mother bristle with anger at Auntie Anna, and my aunt staring with fierce disapproval at my father, seeming to me to say, Why did you marry her and come to these suburbs?
Almost every part of Bergen County was an easy commute to Manhattan, but not every part was new suburbia. Our first house was a two-story brick and clapboard built in the thirties. It straddled the sloped corner of West Englewood Avenue and Dickerson Road in Teaneck. Our part of Teaneck was mostly brick and clapboard or stucco and plank, Tudor revival, dating from the decades between the wars when Teaneck had become a fashionable suburb. In 1953 my father set an iron lamppost into the front lawn and hung a sign announcing his medical practice.
The lawns of Teaneck were well manicured, thick and green and edged with privet, forsythia, or hydrangea. My father and our neighbors compulsively yanked and dug and pulled and poisoned weeds out of the cracks between the large concrete blocks that made up the sidewalks. In the driveways of Dickerson Road were Fords and Chevys, some Buicks and Oldsmobiles. I remember Mr. Goldfischer's Caddy, a white '56 with chrome that shined like the bullet noses of the rockets I gazed at in LIFE magazine. Every morning I stared out my bedroom window at the driveways separated by a strip of grass and at the Goldfischer Cadillac, which dwarfed the gray '54 Olds my father and mother shared, the seats of which gave off the sour residue of regurgitated milk and infant formula and "a faint uriniferous odor," as my father called it.
Dickerson Road was Jewish, and our neighbors were Blumenthal, Cohen, Berg, Berkowitz, Goldfischer, Oshinski, and Liebowitz -- Jews who had moved up from Union City or Brooklyn after World War II. I spent half of my early childhood wanting to be Jewish, in Mark Blumenthal's finished basement with its paneled walls, fluorescent ceiling lights, and Ping-Pong table. On that dank floor with its loose linoleum tiles we flipped baseball cards and sat in front of a small RCA television to watch the Yankees. We played with toys made by Remco and Ideal. A miniature Cape Canaveral, with rockets and missiles, launching pads, and beautifully drawn control panels, was our favorite.
Around four o'clock Mrs. Blumenthal would call us to the kitchen for a rugulach or a cheese Danish and cream soda. Sitting at the red linoleum counter with its chrome edging, I smelled the kitchen filling up with the richness of corned beef boiling in a big aluminum pot on the stove, where it seemed to float in a strange gray scum of fat and bay leaves. I stared at the piled-high white bags from the bakery and the small brown ones from the A & P, oil-stained paper bags of bagels, salt sticks, Danish. I thought the jars of herring and sour cream were jars of marshmallow candy, until I asked for some one day and found myself forcing the slimy fish hunks down my throat. I gazed at the mason jars of yellowish jelly full of gefilte fish and the almost patriotic stack of red, white, and blue boxes of matzoh on which Hebrew letters seemed to climb like spiders. Once a week a Beverages By Hammer truck pulled up to Mark's house and a man in a white uniform disappeared into the Blumenthals' basement with a crate of twelve turquoise spritzer bottles and came out with a crate of empties.
On Saturday mornings I watched from our window with envy as my friends walked with their parents in procession, family by family, down Dickerson Road on their way to schul. I wanted to join the men and boys in their black and white yarmulkes and their silk talliths. A brocade of silver and gold thread on Mr. Blumenthal's yarmulke glittered in the sun. The talliths were decorated with tassels called tzitzits, and Mark used to brag that Jews wore talliths so they could feel closer to God. "Wrapped in a robe of light: Psalm 104," he quoted. Talliths were like shawls and were adorned with gold and blue thread and tiny pearls sewn into the shapes of stars and boxes. "Tzitzits are reminders of obedience to the Almighty." Mark sounded like a Talmudic scholar when he said things like this.
I longed to be walking solemnly and confidently with my friends as they moved toward the Beth Israel Temple. I imagined the mystery of being in temple was more wonderful than anything our new, makeshift Armenian church could offer, set up on Sundays at the Teaneck Women's Club. It was strange to be Armenian on Dickerson Road, because we seemed like we should be Jews. We shared a similar feeling about family, a habit of being in the kitchen, a slower, more deliberate sense of time that was part of something I didn't understand at age seven. Dark and scrawny, with my shaggy crew cut and slightly almond-shaped eyes, I even looked Jewish.
One Saturday as I was lounging in front of the TV in my red pajamas with gray plastic feet, after The Little Rascals and Sky King and Roy Rogers were over and the procession of families had disappeared down West Englewood Avenue, I turned down the sound of the television and asked my mother why we weren't Jewish. The fact that it was December and the candles of the brass menorahs in all the living room windows of Dickerson Road were lit had goaded me on. They were more alive to me than Christmas trees.
"Because we're Christians," she answered.
"Why are we Christians?"
"Our people decided to follow the teachings of Jesus." She paused. "There's a legend that Noah's Ark landed on Mt. Ararat in Armenia. That makes Jews and Armenians cousins."
"What's Mt. Ararat?"
My mother exhaled as if she wished I would go away. "Mt. Ararat is one of the highest mountains in the world; it's snowcapped; it's our national symbol."
"The symbol of America?"
"No. Of Armenia."
As long as I had known language the word Armenia had existed; it was synonymous with the rooms of my house. An assumption. Ar. Meen. Ya. Armenia. Like ma-ma, da-da. Like hurt and horse. Arm. You. Me. Eat. The word rolled to the back of my mouth and just as I almost swallowed it, I caught it back near the epiglottis and unrolled it, pushing it forward as my jaw dropped open to the Ya and the word spilled into the air. Armenia. It was such an unconscious part of my life that I had never even thought to ask: Where is it? What is it?
My mother exhaled again. "It's in another country."
"Armenia's in another country?"
"No, Mt. Ararat . . . well, both. Armenia and Mt. Ararat are in other countries. But, we're American. That's the main thing. We're not like other Armenians. They're too ethnic."
I was more confused now. How could our national symbol be in another country, and if Armenia was where my grandparents had come from, why wasn't it its own country, and why wasn't Mt. Ararat there? My mother went on to explain that Mt. Ararat was in Turkey and Armenia was in the Soviet Union. Then she looked at her watch and told me to change and brush my teeth and meet her in the car in two minutes for our trip to the A & P.
I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. If only we were Jewish, I thought, things would be better. I would walk to schul in the morning with my parents, wear a yarmulke like Mark's. There would be eight candles in December and Hebrew letters on boxes of matzoh. I would light a candle each night, get a present each night. My eyes looked back at me from the mirror, dark, deep brown, like my grandmother's eyes. They were more Jewish than Mark's. And I thought, Jesus, God, did it matter, really? Like my mother said, we were American. We didn't go to church bazaars or Armenian gatherings. We didn't talk about Armenia. I couldn't even speak the language.
Excerpted from BLACK DOG OF FATE: A MEMOIR BY PETER BALAKIAN. Copyright © 1997 by Peter Balakian. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University. He is the author of June-tree: New and Selected Poems 19742000 and The Burning Tigris, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize and a New York Times bestseller. He lives in Hamilton, New York.
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In Black Dog of Fate, Peter Balakian describes his life growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey and slowly discovering the horrible event that his family tries to protect him from: the Armenian genocide conducted by the Turkish government of 1915. The memoir relates many of the adolescent experiences that American readers are familiar with: high school football, teenage rebellion, girlfriends, etc. However, Balakian also describes the rich Armenian cultural heritage he grew up with, particularly the language and the cuisine of his people. In college, Balakian became aware of the massacre that his grandparents and parents had escaped from before coming to America and struggles to understand why this important event in the history of his people was never spoken of amongst his immediate and extended family. This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning about Armenian culture or simply in reading about the lives of Armenians who managed to assimilate in American society while retaining most of their cultural heritage. More importantly, this book is a great starting point for learning about the Armenian genocide and the subsequent denial by the Turkish government that it ever occurred. Balakian's memoir deserves a place next to the witness testimonies of the Holocaust and other state-sponsored mass murders; the purpose of a book like this is to make sure that genocide is never forgotten. [This review also appears on FingerFlow.com, a site for review and discussion of creative works.]
Being part Armenian, I am very familiar with what was one of the saddest events in modern history. My maternal great-grandparents escaped Turkey in 1896; according to one of their sons, my great-grandfather dressed as a woman because the Turks were not allowing men to leave the country. Still, Peter Balakian's journey into his family's past brought the horrors of those events into even more intense focus. His book reminds us of the ever-present capacity for human cruelty, which has been sadly often repeated since. Garabed's great-grandson
I read this book ten years ago when it was published for the first time. I recently purchased the newly published version, which includes two additional chapters. I began to read and I felt as if I am reading it for the first time. Peter Balakian is an awesome writer. He tells the story in such a manner that helps the reader visualize every scene on every page. This is a story of one woman's survival from the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and her subsequent triumph as a mother and grandmother. This woman is Balakian's grandmother and through her we learn much more about Peter's life in the 1960s. In fact, we learn much more than that. We learn the story of thousands of Armenians whose parents and grandparents survived the tragic horrors of the Genocide. We have lived this story in its variations of multitude. Those who survived the Genocide as young adults, small children of every age, orphans, women, etc. told of the same horrors experienced in the Armenian homeland of 1915 and the following years in the Syrian desert of Der Zor. This wasteland became the graveyard of thousands of people who were forced to march, who were tortured and raped, and starved to death. We all know the story, and Balakian tells it poignantly. This is a highly recommended book. I wish one day to see the movie version and as a selection on Oprah's bookclub. I also recommend it as reading and research material for high school and college students. Thank you prof. Balakian for the new edition and for your tribute to the fallen at Der Zor.
Balakian's memoir is my story too. It is a must read for Turkish people of all ages. That's right, Turks. People who grew up in Turkey (or American-raised Turks, through their customary peer networks) have been fed a steady unhealthy diet of government-sponsored misinformation about this subject, from grade school through college. This book would shed much needed new light on what most Turks think of as accepted paradigms in their society.
When I began reading this book, I expected something historical and political in an objective sense. As I read through this book, my expectation was shattered. As a political analysis, this book is a poor one. This book is more about psychology than history, which is more touching to me. As a son of immigrants from Armenia the author describes how he grew up and how his grandmother(a survivor of Armenian Genocide in 1915)'s trauma influenced him. It looks like that he had received contradictory signals from his parents. On the one hand, his parents did not want him to know about Genocide which was too much for a young child. On the other hand, his father snubbed him for his ignorance of the Genocide though he never taught his son about it. Hence his confusion and hatred. He must have felt excluded from family. When he was a child he went to a football stadium with his father who was a physician. There he saw a small bald man who collapsed in the path of a passing football player's spikes. His father dropped a program and ran to the severely wounded man and did everything to save his life. During this process the author could do nothing but hold the program his father slipped. I know what this means. He must have felt guilty. Mysteriously or understandably, his guilty feeling seems to have been imposed on the program. Years later when the brochures for private schools arrived his house, the brochures must have triggered something in his brain. After that he behaved like a stray sheep. After he became an adult, he came to learn his family's history and the history of Genocide. And he, as a poet, participated in the political campaign against Turkish government's denial campaign. He shows how the Turkish government corrupted Princeton University in an effort to deny the Genocide. This book, however, does not look like a political propaganda. Rather it looks like a confession to heal his own soul.