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Armenians in Lebanon Reflect on Killings of 1915

Family photos collected by artist Patil Tchilinguirian provide a record of lives rebuilt in a foreign land and, for her, a means of soothing an emotional wound that she and members of her family feel to this day.

The photos stretch back nearly a century, documenting the years after her grandparents arrived in Lebanon.

On Friday, millions of people across the globe will mark the 100th anniversary of the historical episode that displaced Tchilinguirian's grandparents and others like them: the deaths in 1915 of up to 1.5 million Armenians, in what their descendants and other contemporary observers say was an act of genocide.

The mass deportation and killings of Armenians took place under the Ottoman Empire, from which modern Turkey arose. Turkey has acknowledged that Armenian Christians died in fighting with Ottoman Turks, but angrily denies the killings amounted to genocide, saying those who lost their lives were victims of civil war and unrest. Turkey also disputes the death toll.

On the centenary of the start of an event that continues to cause deep anger and pain, Tchilinguirian and other Lebanese Armenians are using their talents to find new ways of responding to the violence in their history.

In the process, they are confronting taboos within their own community.

Pain across generations

"I can’t explain to you how painful it feels," said Tchilinguirian, who is using the pictures as inspiration ahead of an exhibition exploring Armenian identity.

"It’s a thing you’re born with, and you carry it, but you don’t understand it."

Such pain is felt deeply by many Armenians, and is written large across the walls of Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud district, the center of the Armenian community in Lebanon.

In the run-up to the centenary, new posters adorned with slogans that say, "We will not forgive, we will not forget," have joined the faded graffiti castigating Turkey and calling for land to be reclaimed for Armenia.

Instead of focusing on the pain or anger in her exhibition, Tchilinguirian is choosing to use her work as a "celebration" of survival.

"It’s about using creative expression to innovate on this topic," she told VOA.

Accommodating space

For musician Eileen Khatchadourian, Lebanon offers the space in which creative innovation and activism for the Armenian cause is not just possible, but a "duty."

Lebanon is home to around 230,000 Armenians, as well as a thriving cultural and intellectual scene that includes Haigazian University, the only Armenian university that exists in the diaspora.

Meanwhile, Armenian politicians are represented in Lebanon's parliament and the mass killings are formally recognized. On Friday, all of the country's public and private schools will be closed in memory of the events of 1915.

"Being in Lebanon as an Armenian makes it easier already," said Khatchadourian, who performed in Istanbul this week and calls art "the fastest way of passing on the message."

"When I travel abroad," she added, "I see Armenians who are united but live in a big country where their voices cannot be heard so much."

She also cited the impact of the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975 and lasted 15 years.

"Those who survived the Lebanese civil war didn’t have time to think about genocide: Their main concern was how to take care of their family and not die under bombs."

In a concept reflected in a song on her newly released album, "Generation 3," she said the third generation has had the chance for activism on the issue that its predecessors did not.

Lessons of conflict

The experience of seeing continuing sectarian divisions within Lebanon after its civil war was a driving force behind "Monument," the latest play by theater director Hagop Der Ghougassian.

"These problems still exist because people refused to talk," he said.

The play, recently performed in Bourj Hammoud, seeks to address how best to react to the mass killings 100 years ago that have played a key role in Armenian identity.

"I know the speeches, I know what happened in 1915. I want something new I can build on," explained Der Ghougassian. "It’s about the old approach, and a new approach, in which we need to engage with the world, and present Armenia to the world.

"We are in the modern world, so need modern techniques. It’s about speaking to foreigners and presenting our cause rather than just keeping it for ourselves."

Engaging Turkey

For Der Ghougassian, who considered art as the best way of delivering this message, the need to engage with the outside world extended to Turkey.

The idea of such a move, however, even when engaging with Turks who do not deny the carnage, remains deeply sensitive.

"The diaspora is very hardcore, with even young Armenians identifying themselves as victims of genocide without knowing much more of Armenian culture," said designer Doreen Toutikian.

"But we don’t think it’s healthy that young generations are growing up with so much hatred within them without thinking there may be a different way of dealing with things."

Like Khatchadourian, Toutikian is combining her activism with her creative talents.

She heads the MENA Design Research Center, which seeks to use design for social impact.

For Toutikian, furthering the Armenian cause means challenging the views of many within her community as she sets out to lead a new project inviting Turkish activists to Lebanon to work with Armenians.

Details of the project are yet to be confirmed, with the launch delayed due to what she said were concerns over a "heated" reaction amid the heightened emotions surrounding the centenary.

"Many people are against it," she said.

Toutikian said, however, that the idea is not "to get people to forget, or say that everything is fine," but to find a new way of moving forward.

"It can’t all just be protest and aggression," she said. "If we want to change people’s perspectives within Turkey, then we’re going to have to do it from the inside."

It is a sentiment that resonates with Tchilinguirian, who is planning to take part in the program and points out the importance of looking beyond the April 24 anniversary.

"We have somehow created a new Armenia, and passed along our culture, and that is something that is beautiful," she said.

"It's about seeing how we can accept what happened as part of our history, and find new ways of co-existing, collaborating and opening up a dialogue."

"We’ve focused on the recognition," she added, "but what comes next?"