Companions in suffering, An Interview with Thea Halo

2/24/2008 3:15:00 PM
Thea Halo

"Memory is the only way home", says the American author, Terry Tempest Williams. And memory was Sano Halo's only guide, as she embarked, with her daughter, Thea, on a journey to Turkey in search of Sano's home, 70 years after her exile. It also seems that home is the only way to memory; it is only there, in modern-day Turkey, that Thea "fully embraced" herself. "It was the first time I felt connected to my heritage", she says in this interview. "I didn't have a heritage until I stood on my mother's land and then on my father's land. For the first time in my life I felt connected to these people, who were finally my people", she adds.

A journey is incomplete, I believe, if it does not pave way for another trek. After Thea Halo had visited her Pontic Greek mother's and Assyrian father's lands, she embarked on another pilgrimage, that of the mind and the soul, to discover and help preserve a history much forgotten and a genocide barely remembered. The culmination of this pilgrimage was Not Even My Name, a book that recounts, through Sano Halo's survival story, the genocides of the Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Assyrians that took place in Ottoman Turkey during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

However, Not Even My Name is also a book about the beautiful things in life. “I wanted to show the beauty of the Pontic Greek culture, at least in these three villages, and what they actually lost, because it is only by seeing the beauty of what was that you can you understand more fully the tragedy and injustice of what has been taken away”, says Thea Halo.

“Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear”, says Shakespeare.

I dedicate this interview to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Assyrians and Pontic Greeks that perished in Turkey almost a century ago, just about the same time that a million and a half Armenians were marching to their deaths.

Aztag- You often speak about "the exclusivity of suffering." In an interview you say, “It's truly unfortunate that many late 20th Century activists, who work so hard to make the Armenian genocide known to the world, fail to include their fellow sufferers.” In your opinion, what is the reason for this “failure”?

Thea Halo- I have many contacts with Armenians and great affection and love for them.

It was an Armenian family who rescued my mother when she found herself destitute and alone in Diyarbekir, and they took her to safety as their daughter. My aunt was also Armenian. So I feel a very great affinity for the Armenian people. That's why I found it truly disturbing when I discovered that the failure to mention the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians by many Armenian historians and activists was not just an oversight, but an actual agenda of exclusion and denial. The Genocide of the Greeks of Asia Minor are referred to as "an exchange of population", even though these historians know that by the time of the exchange in 1923, at least one million Asia Minor and Pontic Greeks had already been slaughtered. The Assyrians are never mention at all. Someone once explained this behavior by telling me, "I'm sure you understand that these Armenian historians feel so personally tied to this history because it was a Genocide of their own families and people." And of course I do understand, because it is the story of the Genocide of my family and my people, which makes their exclusion even more painful when the exclusion comes from those who should know better. It also makes it more reprehensible, and it should stop. The inclusion of the Greeks and Assyrians does not diminish the horror of what happened to the Armenians. Even my mother, who lost her own family and people, always describes the slaughter of the Armenians as truly horrific.

I've come to realize that there is a kind of tribalism in the world that is the cause of almost all the world's misery. When one thinks of tribalism, one thinks of underdeveloped or backward nations. But I use this word "tribal" even for the United States. There is the greater tribe that makes up the country, and then the sub tribes, which are the various ethnicities. And there is another tribe, and that's the handful of elite who are ruling the world, almost all of whom do so from behind the scenes, behind the presidency. The differences of the peoples of the world: language, look, customs, food, dress, dance, etc., has been something quite exquisite to me throughout my life. But on the other side of that coin, we have this drive by the more powerful tribes who think nothing of obliterating others for their own greed or ideologies. Then we have Genocide. That's what happened in Turkey in the first part of the 20th century during and after WWI. It's what happened during WWII. It's what's happening today.

I do think what happened in Turkey was a Christian Genocide. But I don't think one can simply use that term without differentiating who the Christians were, because although the Assyrians, Greeks, and Armenians lived in the same land for thousands of years, their languages, cultures and histories were unique. It's important to acknowledge that there was an Armenian, Assyrian, and a Greek Genocide, but overall it was a Genocide of the Christian of Asia Minor. I even differentiate between the Asia Minor Greeks: the Ionians, Pontians, and Cappadoccians, first because the Pontians had their own empire, and second, because I think it's important that we remember their distinctive historical names and regions in Asia Minor.

One of the reasons I think the Armenians do themselves a great disservice by failing to mention the Genocides of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians is because there was a small faction of Armenians in Turkey who were fighting for an independent state for Armenians... obviously for very good reasons. These so-called "trouble makers" gave the Turks and their supporters, then and now, the excuse to blame the victims for their own Genocide, even though the vast majority of Armenians were simply trying to live their lives. It's only when one looks at the scope of the Genocides that the Young Turk regime perpetrated, and Mustafa Kemal "Attaturk" continued, against the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians, that we see it was not because some Armenians were causing troubles. Rather, it was a plan to rid Turkey of the Christian population to fulfill the edict of "Turkey for the Turks."

Aztag- Why is it that few people have heard about the Genocide of Assyrians and Pontic Greeks?

Thea Halo- In Greece there are a lot of Pontic Greeks and a number of books about the Pontic Greek Genocide. They have been working for recognition for at least 35 years, even here in America. Assyrians have also worked for many years to get this issue on the table without much success. I blame this failure mainly on two factors: One, there were no viable books that told the story of what happened to the Greeks and Assyrians, until my book, Not Even My Name was published. But perhaps equally or more important, those with the strongest voices in our society, have traditionally had this tribal mentality I speak of. They have wanted to portray their own people as being exclusive in their suffering, and therefore, have failed to even make mention of the Genocide of other ethnic peoples. Until quite recently, Jewish historians and activists only focused on what happened to the Jews during WWII. There was a doctrine that the Holocaust is the definitive Genocide and therefore one need not look further to understand the phenomena of Genocide. The study of the Holocaust became a mandatory part of the curriculum in many, if not all, schools in the US. But the other ethnic, religious, or social groups slaughtered by the Nazis were not mentioned, and other Genocides were overshadowed or ignored, even the Armenian Genocide.

Now many Jewish Historians have recognized the Armenian Genocide and Armenians have finally gained a voice. But in turn the Armenian historians and activists fail to mention the Genocides of their fellow sufferers: the Assyrians, the Pontic Greeks, and the other Asia Minor Greeks, even while including other Genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Cambodia, in so-called "comparative studies" programs.

Fortunately, not all Armenians believe that the exclusive approach is the right one.

Aztag- In an interview, you say: “To remember does not mean stirring up hatred within or without. Hatred destroys what was good and pure in the past and the present. It simply means to embrace what is ours.” It is not easy to overcome feelings of hatred, especially for the very victims of genocide and their immediate descendants, is it?

Thea Halo- My mother lived through this Genocide; she lost everybody and everything by the age of ten. She had lived side by side with the Turks. Turkish villages surrounded the Greek villages. My mother said they bartered together and had no problems. One can't say that no Turk ever attacked a Greek, Armenian, or Assyrian. Of course some did, for various reasons. But overall, they lived together peacefully. I've heard countless stories from Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks, of how Turks saved the lives of their families. My mother says that you must put blame where blame belongs, on the Turkish government. If you begin to single out the people of a country, and forget that whatever they did was instigated or sanctioned by the government, you will then never get rid of the hatred. This tribal mentality takes over and goes on and on until we're all gone, because there are hatreds that go back thousands of years between almost every tribe on earth. We must learn to acknowledge the past without living in the past.

We don't understand how the past has affected us. Because I was born and raised in New York City, I can say it hasn't affected me, but that's not true. My parents went through this Genocide. They raised me, and we don't know all the subtle ways that their lives and experiences have affected us. We are the product of our parents. If we don't acknowledge their past, and embrace it as part of ours, we never fully embrace ourselves. Only if we try to understand where we come from, can we really understand who we are.

Aztag- And when did you yourself come to this understanding?

Thea Halo- It was first when I visited Turkey. It was the first time I felt connected to my heritage. Here in America, nobody knew who the Pontic Greeks are. And everybody told me that I couldn't be Assyrian, because the Assyrians don't exist anymore. “How I can be something that doesn't exist?” I used to think. Consequently, I didn't have a heritage until I stood on my mother's land and then on my father's land. For the first time in my life I felt connected to these people, who were finally my people. And after writing my mother's part of the story, which included the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks, Assyrians, and Armenians, I began to research the general history for the book, and I realized how important their story really is.

The thought that people who had lived in a land for 3 thousand years and more, could just be wiped from the face of that land and all memory of them seizes to exist, not only there, but from the face of the earth, was a powerful testament. That certainly makes the Genocide complete, when no one has even heard of your people. People ask me sometimes why I titled the book "Not Even My Name." The reason was that my mother lost everything, family, home, language, and country, even her name. But many Pontic Greeks and the Assyrians tell me that for them the title also has a bigger meaning. It means that even the names, Pontic Greek and Assyrian, was lost to the world. It was an interesting revelation for me.

Aztag- Many Armenians attach great importance to the land they lost. For them the genocide isn't “simply” the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, it is also the expulsion of an entire people from its land and the wiping out of a culture. When you speak about your "father's land" and your "mother's land", do you have similar feelings?

Thea Halo- Almost every ancient culture has this attachment to the land. What else is there without a place to call home? When I stood on that land, for the first time in my life I could actually feel my ancestors, my grandparents. They became real to me for the first time. They were as much a part of that land as the trees, the rocks, the grasses. Their blood and sweat is mingled with the earth for thousands of years. How can one walk away from that without feeling that a part of oneself is somehow left behind, somehow missing, like an amputated leg or arm that continues sending out sensations to the brain, even though it's gone? Just the other day my mother said to me, "you know, when you are born in a country, there is a part of you that always feels that that country is your true home."

Aztag- Do you think the recognition of these genocides should be a prerequisite to Turkey's accession to the EU?

Thea Halo- I don't think that only the recognition of the Genocides is important, I think many factors are important for Turkey's inclusion into the EU. But by recognizing the Genocides they would resolve some of the other important issues as well. For instance, journalists, publishers, and teachers are still being jailed for talking about the Genocides. If you recognize the Genocides, then you don't have to keep jailing your teachers, publishers, and journalists on this issue. As my father used to say, you kill 2 birds with one stone. And there are other human rights issues that Turkey has to deal with. I must tell you, when I went to Turkey I found a very beautiful land visually, and I found the people to be exceptionally sweet and hospitable. It's a shame that they can't speak freely and learn what happened in their own country without fear.

The sad thing is that they lost so much, because the Greeks, Armenians, and

Assyrians had so much culture there. They brought so much vibrancy to the country that was lost. They were wonderful artisans, intellectuals, teachers, and musicians. At the time, there were Europeans who were saying, "What in the world will Turkey do without the Christians?" After all, it was the Christians who were the intellectuals and business people, who had the education to help Turkey progress into the 20th century. When Turkey got rid of the Christian populations, they set themselves back, way-way back. The general Turkish population was not well educated at that time, because the Turkish government didn't bother to educate them the way the Christian missionaries educated the Christian populations. For the most part, the government wouldn't allow Muslims to attend the Christian schools, for fear of conversion, so most Turks of the time remained peasants and farmers. Consequently, the Turks did themselves a great disservice, because the removal of the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians left a great vacuum in Turkey.

Aztag- What was the impact of your book? To what extent did it help raise greater awareness about the genocides of the Pontic Greeks, the Assyrians, and the Armenians?

Thea halo- One of the first emails I got when the book was published was from a young Pontic Greek girl living in Holland. She said, the Pontic Greeks lived in Asia Minor for 3 thousand years and I go to school and no one in Holland knows we ever existed. It really touched my heart. I knew what she was talking about because no one knew that we exist in New York. So, of course, it makes a difference. They could then start to teach this history in schools. My book was picked up by UCLA and they began to teach high school teachers how to teach Not Even My Name to their students.

Aztag- "Not Even My Name" is already translated to Greek and Dutch. Are there any plans to translate it to other languages, including Armenian?

Thea Halo- I think it would be important and I would love to see “Not Even

My Name” translated into Armenian. A Turkish publisher also wanted to publish it and an Icelandic publisher recently contacted me for the rights.

Aztag- You are one of the very few who are speaking out about the Genocides of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians; with this comes great responsibility. A Scholar or an author, who deals with the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide for instance, might be under less pressure, because there are many others in the field. How do you deal with this pressure?

Thea Halo- I do feel very responsible and when I'm asked to give a lecture, I do feel

I should go, but I also enjoy going out there. I usually bring my mother with me. She loves doing this because it's something very important to her. It's nice to see her with some of the older people who have lived through this. They hug and kiss each other; because my mother's memory helped put this history on the map. She became a very important person and a symbol, and she feels this importance. There's an immediate connection between them when they meet, even with the younger generations, that's just so wonderful to see. One young Pontic Greek girl in one of our audiences in New York stood up and said to my mother, "you are our history; our history alive." It was very moving. So I do enjoy doing this, but I also feel a great responsibility, and will continue to feel that way, until there is proper recognition of the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians.

Aztag- What about your mother? She is very much involved in this as well, isn't she?

Thea Halo- My mother is 94. I was amazed the first time we had a radio interview on NPR. My mom was on the phone and I was in the studio in Boston. During the interview she laughed and she cried. Then I found Lisa Mullin’s website on the internet for "The World." Mullins said her favorite interviewees were Thea and Sano Halo. I was surprised, but I could understand why. My mother was perfect. Her answers were very sweet and natural. When I read the passage from the book about her mother giving her away to save her, my mother began to cry. She had to take a moment to collect herself. Then she said she never saw her mother again. Soon after she told a funny story about how people would ask her husband if she was his daughter, and then she laughed. She had a natural instinct not to allow the interview to become morbid. When I asked her about it later she said, "a little bit of laughter and a little bit of tears." I again realized how much there was about her I didn't know. She always loved to sing, and when we go on our events, she sings old Greek and Turkish songs for the audience that she learned as a child. She even sings an old Armenian love song she learned when living with Zohra and Hagop.

Aztag- During a lecture, speaking about your book you said, “The story is my mother's but the sunsets are mine.” Can you elaborate on this?

Thea Halo- Well, of course she doesn't remember when the sun came up and when the sun went down, when it was raining, etc. But I wanted to help people be there, really experience the story. All the facts are hers; the story of the village, what happened to the people, the couple who ran away and married, that's all true. But the part where they stare into the puddle of water as they stand before their parents, of course, that's part of the things I added to help the reader enter the story. From what people tell me, it does help them be there. They feel they were actually walking with my mother on that harrowing death march to exile.

Aztag- Any plans for another book?

Thea Halo- I do think of many other books. The book that I would like to write is a collection of interviews with people who have experienced Genocide, because in that way we will see how similar the suffering really is. Maybe in this way some of the tribalism will be put away. But it's impossible to get rid of all the tribalism. Unfortunately, Genocide has become big business. It's not simply a moral issue anymore, and this is what I find the most objectionable. Some Armenians have told me that certain survivors have passed away but they have already been interviewed, and they'll turn over the tapes to me. Same goes for Assyrians and Pontic Greeks. So I am hoping that for the ones I can't interview directly, I can at least access the tapes of their interviews.

I guess my focus in life has always been both the beauty of the world and the injustices. I think that those two things often go together. If you look at the various cultures that once inhabited Turkey, for instance, they are all unique and very beautiful. They created great works of art and architecture and they developed communities that allowed them to survive and prosper for thousands of years, at least in the periods when they weren't being slaughtered and oppressed. And that's why I wrote the book the way I did. I wanted to show the beauty of the Pontic Greek culture, at least in these three villages, and what they actually lost. Because only by seeing the beauty of what was, can you more fully understand the tragedy and injustice of what has been taken away.