Armenian Expeditionary Rescue Group. L-R standing: Yesayi Kereshekian, Garabed Kavafian, Hovhannes Kavafian, Levon Yotnakhparian seated, with his young brother Dikran seated on the floor

‘Crows of the Desert’ Sheds Light on Little-Known Hero of the Genocide


WATERTOWN — Documentaries on the Armenian Genocide, it seems, are having a moment. Take, for example, “Crows of the Desert: A Hero’s Journey Through the Armenian Genocide,” written, directed and produced by Emmy Award winner Marta Houske.

The film tells the incredible story of one man’s heroism during the Armenian Genocide. It has been shown at numerous film festivals and won several awards, much to the delight of Houske. “Crows” tells the story of Levon Yotnakhparian, many members of whose family were killed during the Armenian Genocide. He was one of the lucky ones who escaped, however, he went back to the desert again and again to rescue fellow Armenians.

The film will have its Boston-area premier on Sunday, October 7, at 4.30 p.m. at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, and kick off the 2018 edition of the Arlington International Film Festival.

From Left, Marta Houske, Paul Turpanjian, Dr. Vahram Shemmassian and Dr. Carla Garapedian

During a recent interview from her office in California, the veteran filmmaker recalled that while working with Paul G. Turpanjian, he gave her a copy of a relative’s memoirs which related the story of Levon Yotnakhparian and his heroic exploits. It had been edited and published by his namesake grandson Levon Parian. Turpanjian went on to executive produce the documentary.

She said, “I read it and he goes, ‘do you think that we can make a film out of it?’”

She noted that the story was “remarkable. I decided to take it on. I was tired of doing commercials.”

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Not only does the story have an Armenian hero, but it sheds light on the collaboration of a large number of Arab and Druze helpers that came to the aid of the Armenians. And to top it off, the story features T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

She assumed that the project would take a couple of months, however, it turned into a labor of love of many years.

The harrowing subject, and the sheer amount of violence she read about and saw have taken their toll on Houske. “I am still recovering, quite frankly,” she said, noting that she spent a solid four years, starting in 2013 to work on the film.

Houske said that in general she loves the “time travel” aspect of delving into history.

As for this story, she said, “It is more important than ever that we learn from the past.”

Levon and the Armenian Expeditionary Rescue Group

She said, “It is a mess in the Middle East. It is heartbreaking that they have blown up cities,” like Palmira, Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus.

“It is a horrible slaughter of innocent people,” she added. “This documentary is embedded with emotion. The first six months or so, as I started work on it, at times I would lay my head down on my desk and cry a bit, due to the overwhelming ‘terribleness’ of it all — the inhumanity and outrageous cruelty. (And I am not a weepy person by nature.) The horrible stories are literally ‘beyond belief’ and yet true. Most likely more than we can possibly imagine.”

Bringing the Story to the Masses

One of the main difficulties in creating documentaries about the Armenian Genocide is the scarcity of footage and the lost documents as a result of the interminable desert marches.

Houske successfully sought help from the Bibliotheque Nubar of the AGBU in Paris, and many other individuals and organizations.

For Houske, one of the most unbelievable aspects of the older Yotnakhparian’s story, as well as the story of the Armenian Genocide, was that she had no idea about it.

“I could not believe I didn’t know anything about the Armenian Genocide,” she said.

Yotnakhparian, when he survived, asked the leader of the Arabs, King Hussein Bin Ali, to help the Armenians. The shocked monarch complied and sent an edict ordering Arab tribesmen and soldiers to take care of the Armenians, telling them “to take care of them as you would our own.”

(This was the exact area where Lawrence was, near Aqaba, a port on the Red Sea that is now part of Jordan. The Arabs were also fighting against their Ottoman overlords, seeking independence. They were aided in their efforts by the British forces, in which Lawrence played a major role. In the aftermath of World War I, Syria and Jordan were established and Iraq, of which Faisal became king.)

The Armenians also received help from the Druze community, based in Jabal al-Druze, in what is now straddling the Syrian-Jordanian border. The Druze are Arabic speaking but not Muslims; their community is focused on their religion, which is a mixture of Islam, Greek philosophy and Hinduism.

“The Druze played a key role” in helping Armenians, Houske said. A Druze chieftain, allied with King Faisal, and close to Lawrence, Hussein al-Atrash, protected the refugees fleeing the Ottoman Turks.

Houske noted, “The refugees were in a war zone. World War I was still going on, especially Levon’s particular areas of emphasis, south of Damascus, down to Aqaba and east to Jabal al Druze.”

The area is much further south than Aleppo, the stopping point of many survivors of the desert marches.

Praise from Garapedian

For some of the people trying to get the film made, having a non-Armenian filmmaker at the helm was a plus, since they hoped the story would reach those outside the community more readily.

Award-winning filmmaker Carla Garapedian had a lot of praise for “Crows” as well as Houske.

T.E. Lawrence

“‘Crows of the Desert,’ like many historical documentaries about the Armenian Genocide, relies on eyewitness testimony, documents, photographs and newsreel. Marta Houske goes a step further. She has taken the remarkable story of Levon Yotnakhparian and the Armenian Expeditionary Rescue Group, and created a dramatic film, all factually based, with all the detail one needs to immerse oneself into those difficult times — down to the howling wind, sand storms and marauding animals. It is a very dramatic story, dramatically told. She also tells the Jordanian part of the story. Jordan’s role during the genocide tends to be forgotten or discarded. Many Armenians were, in fact, helped by Arabs in Syria and Jordan. I met Marta through the Armenian Film Foundation, founded by the late J. Michael Hagopian. Michael Hagopian interviewed many Arabs who helped Armenians during the genocide. Some clips from those survivors are in this film.”

She added, “There are also official documents in this film that have never been seen before. The Armenian Genocide period does not have a lot of moving pictures to document it. There is, however, some newsreel. Marta went through a lot of historical newsreel, looking for footage that could be relevant. The film recently won a prestigious award in London for its use of footage (FOCAL International Awards 2018). I collected the award for the team because I was there in London and happy to support the film. It deserves that recognition.”

Garapedian added that she thought Houske’s background was an asset.

“I think Marta would not take ‘no’ for an answer when she was told some of the footage or documents she was looking for wasn’t available. Sure, an Armenian would go the distance, too — but Marta had a particular determination, based on her experience working on other films and subjects. It is her determination that makes this film work, I believe. I also think she was willing to dramatize the subject in a way some Armenians might shy away from. How do we get people to identify with a man like Levon? How do we get them to empathize? She approached that problem from a non-Armenian perspective which, I think, brought something special to the film.”

A Unique Hero

The efforts of Yotnakhparian are astounding to Houske.

“He was incredibly brave,” she said. “Levon had gone through the slaughter. Most of his family was killed. He was a master tailor [for the Ottoman army] and they kept using him. He returned from a job and asked where all the Armenians [serving in the army] had gone to.”

The unsatisfactory answer he received was that they had all been moved to another barracks overnight. Of course, that was not true; the Armenians soldiers were systematically separated and killed.

The story of what he saw and what he endured live thanks to his dictating his memoirs to his wife, Vartuhi. In addition, he kept every scrap of documentation that he could, including letters from King Faisal, transportation documents and correspondence with the AGBU.

“For Levon it was very important that the memoirs be published. He wanted the Arabs to be acknowledged for what they had done to help Armenians,” Houske said.

Eventually, after the Genocide, he became a hospital director in Damascus. However, his work was not done. The local archbishop convinced him to reconstitute the expedition group to go back into the desert and gather the orphans left in the desert.

And he agreed.

“He went door to door, finding Armenian children,” Houske said. The members of the group would say an Armenian phrase and see if any of the children recognized the phrase.

The Arab leadership announced that all Armenian women and children living with Arab families should be handed over to the Armenian searchers.

In yet another miraculous coincidence, one of the orphans found was Levon’s brother.

And Leonard Nimoy

Houske worked for many years with the late, great Leonard Nimoy, known to many as “Mr. Spock” from “Star Trek,” on his series, “In Search of,” an assignment she recalls as being “one of the most fun jobs” she ever had. As for Nimoy, she calls him “a very nice man; intelligent, compassionate, polite, very artistic, very decent.”

Her “Star Trek” credentials run even deeper, as she was a close friend of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. And to tie the whole thing together, Roddenberry seemed to be aware of what had happened to the Armenians. In the episode “Errand of Mercy” from season 1 of the show, Captain James T. Kirk, on a rescue mission, compares the massacre to the fate of the people of “Armenia and Belgium,” “the weak innocents who always seem to be located on the natural invasion routes.”

After the showing of the “Crows of the Desert” on October 7 at 4.30 p.m., Levon Parian, the grandson of the film’s subject, will be available for a question-and-answer session. In addition, Parian’s photographs will be on exhibit at the Mosesian Center’s lobby.


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