On the eve of April 24, Martyr’s Day, we join a few thousand 20-somethings on a 4 kilometer march from Opera, at Yerevan’s center, up Baghramian Street, past the President’s House, past the American University of Armenia, past the old Soviet Military Hospital, across the Kievyan Bridge, and up to the Genocide Memorial. Perched on a promontory, separated by a large stone slab from the Genocide Museum below ground, the memorial is two sharp stone spires, nested next to a circle of trapezoidal granite obelisks that lean protectively over a sanctuary, open to the air, a fire within. Halfway there, some young men’s hate chants are crashing on our backs and ears; we hurry forward to the parade’s clearer heads–some bishops in black, and bearers of an enormous flag.
“Some wounds never heal” reads one button. “Why won’t the Armenians give up their fixation on genocide?” I once heard an American ask. Try asking the bereaved parent to overlook his child’s murder.
In my own experience, the inflicted wound, pound for pound, always hurt more than an accidental wound. For better or worse, the brain’s pain system takes social factors, like apparent intention, into account. Then there is the social kind of hurt–feeling ignored, snubbed, rejected. Our brains register social pain using the same networks as those that perceive physical hurts. Despite all this fancy equipment, it often seems that we acknowledge and comfort the accidental hurt (earthquakes,tidal waves, hurricanes) more readily than the inflicted hurt.
We cross the bridge and head up the stone walkway along the far side of the Hrazdan River Gorge. Every year, along these last 300 meters up to the Memorial, walks the greatest confluence of Armenians that the world knows. They walk mostly in family groups, and they carry lilacs, tulips, roses. We arrive, and lay the flowers down. Before the day is done, there will be a 64 foot circular wall, six feet high, under the sky and the stones.
If you talk to Barack Obama, or your American Ambassador in Armenia, or the leaders of Turkey, you will not hear the term “Armenian Genocide.” In this silence, for some, the perpetrator’s original message, “you are not of us, you deserved this,” may continue to echo. Perhaps, among other things, this ritual serves memory by correcting other cognitive errors–shame, or guilt, emotional scars of a historical monstrosity. This is what I see most clearly about Martyr’s Day–a will to fill the silence with better understanding.