Earliest surviving photograph of Stepan Miskjian (pictured left) and his friends, taken circa 1910 in Adabazar, then part of the Ottoman Empire. (Courtesy of the Miskjian Family)

Dawn MacKeen Honors Her Grandfather’s Legacy of Surviving the Genocide, Celebrates with Traditional Food

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Dawn Anahid MacKeen is an award-winning author of The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, which chronicles the harrowing story of her beloved and courageous grandfather Stepan Miskjian, who survived the ravages of the 1915 Armenian Genocide thanks to the “kindness of a Muslim sheikh and his family.”

Dawn’s book is required reading in many high schools and at the university level throughout the United States, and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In her book, MacKeen uses her grandfather Stepan’s detailed journals to write about his crossing the desert into Syria on foot and going far into the interior, all with an astonishingly small amount of food and water. She then wrote about her own retracing of those steps in 2007.

In Syria, MacKeen pays her respects to a relative of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, who helped her grandfather during his escape. (Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Stepan, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, recorded details of this life-altering experience and his escape to freedom in his journals which he kept throughout his life. Those journals were passed down to Dawn’s mother who tucked them away, out of sight for decades. In the mid-2000’s, on a trip home to California to visit her parents, Dawn finds the handwritten books and suddenly becomes consumed by stories surrounding her grandfather’s daring and heroic escape. Filled with a desire to understand her own family history and the struggles Stepan faced, Dawn begins piecing together his cataclysmic journey as he walked through cities, over mountains, and eventually across the desert in order to escape death.  Retelling Stepan’s story as events unfolded in 1915, Dawn also parallels this ancient history with her own modern day journey of exploration in the 2000’s, as she follows in his own footsteps retracing his route through modern day Turkey and Syria – a young woman traveling alone amid post 9/11 tension and unease.

Dawn’s grandfather, Stepan Miskjian, with his wife, mother and other family members. In Istanbul in the 1920s, date unknown, before coming to the United States. (Courtesy of the Miskjian Family)

Their shared story is a testament to family, to home, and to the power of the human spirit to transcend the barriers of religion, ethnicity, and even time itself.

“Ever since I could remember, I had heard these dramatic tales from my mother: how my grandfather wandered for years in the desert of what is now Syria; how he, Stepan Miskjian, staggered a week with two cups of water, trying to escape from the Turks who were trying to kill him, for the crime of being an Armenian,” she says. “He had been drafted into a labor battalion in 1915.  He eventually ended up in what’s now Syria, where some of the locals saved him.”  Dawn traced his steps from Adabazar (Adapazari) in Turkey to the deportation routes in Syria.

“I have been grateful that my grandfather’s courageous story continues to reach a wider audience.  He believed he had survived the Armenian Genocide in order to bear witness.”  What Dawn found in writing the book and in its aftermath is more than she ever imagined when she began the decade-long research into her grandfather’s story. “I’ve been continually moved by the response to the book,” she says. “Many non-Armenian readers have written to tell me how they had considered themselves knowledgeable about history, but didn’t know about what had happened to the Armenians or their history.  They learned about it through my grandfather’s survival story, all detailed in his recently discovered journals.”

Newly widowed, the 85-year-old Stepan stands beside his daughter Anahid and granddaughter Dawn in 1971. (Courtesy of the Miskjian Family)

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On what her grandfather did after the Genocide

“He came to New York with my mother and my aunt in 1930 and he opened a candy store on 133rd [Street] and Amsterdam [Avenue], and he worked around the clock. And then during World War II, he moved to Los Angeles and they kind of steadily started investing.  He bought a few apartment buildings, and by the time he was in his 80s he was still climbing onto the roof and fixing things.  He achieved his dream in the United States and was always so happy to be here, he would play God Bless America on his accordion,” says Dawn.

“Since I couldn’t read Armenian, I relied on my mother’s talented cousin, Yevkine LoMonaco to help out with the translation of my grandfather’s journals.  My mother and I gathered around Yevkine’s dining room table, staying until the light left us.  Each page of my grandfather’s journals revealed a snippet or news of his life – some of the words about the Genocide were so difficult to hear.  My mother and I sat there, listening as Yevkine read aloud the neat Armenian script, and translated it into English.  We broke often, nourished by Yevkine’s outstanding food.  Around lunchtime, I could smell these beurigs (boureg) baking in her oven, the fragrance wafting from the kitchen into the room where we had the journals splayed across the table.  Yevkine always had them on hand, these flaky appetizers, popping them out of her freezer when company arrived.  Her other memorable dishes included manti, dolma, bourma, paklava, pilaf, baba ghanoush – these foods always signify holidays and home to me, and family warmth, closeness, and togetherness,” adds Dawn.

“I was born in Bulgaria, but later moved to Beirut and then to the United States,” says Yevkine.  She learned this recipe from her own mother, Angel, who was separated from her mother during the Genocide.  This recipe was featured in the Brentwood Presbyterian Church Cookbook in Los Angeles. (The cookbook, Invitation to the Table, by Sandra Beckwith & Ruthie Jones is available for download at: https://books.apple.com/us/book/invitation-to-the-table/id960350329.)

Yevkine’s Armenian Cheese and Phyllo Appetizer (Beurig)

Ingredients:

1 lb. phyllo dough, defrosted at room temperature for 5-6 hours

1/4 lb. unsalted butter (1 stick)

Filling ingredients:

1lb. cottage cheese (place in a strainer and press out liquid)

9 oz. feta cheese, crumbled (Bulgarian feta is more salty, more creamy; French feta is less salty.)

3/4 – 1 cup parsley, finely chopped

1/2 – 3/4 cup fresh dill, chopped

1 large egg

Preparation:

The first four filling ingredients can be mixed together in a bowl the day before and refrigerated.  Add the egg and blend to complete the filling before assembling.  Set aside.

Remove phyllo from the box and then cut phyllo in half lengthwise.  Gently roll up one of the halves, wrap in a dish towel and put in the refrigerator.  Note: the phyllo is very fragile.  It dries out easily and can crack.  Work with one sheet at a time.  Place sheet on a flat surface, brush lightly with melted butter.

Place one rounded teaspoon of cheese mixture at the bottom center.

Next, fold over both lengthwise sides in thirds to cover the mixture. Then fold down the right side corner to create a triangle.  Continue folding like a flag until you get to the end and have a stuffed triangle.  Brush with a little melted butter to seal.

Repeat with each sheet.  It helps to separate each sheet gently by running one hand under.  At this point you can freeze them.  There is no need to defrost before baking.  Arrange triangles on a baking sheet.  Brush with melted butter.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes or until golden brown.  (Pay attention as ovens vary in temperature.)

Serves 6-8.

Author Dawn Anahid MacKeen

Dartmouth Professor Stephen Powell noted the historical value of the book as well as its present-day relevance when he arranged MacKeen’s visit, and had made The Hundred-Year Walk required reading for his Tuck Business School students. “At Tuck we have a vibrant relationship with Armenia,” he says. In fact, Dartmouth students have the unique opportunity to travel to Armenia as part of projects that aid in their preparation for global business. “When I read this book I was so moved…many books have been written about the Armenian Genocide, but this one is unique in that it tells the story of one man whose journals survived the catastrophic events of 1915-1917.”

The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen

AVAILABLE NOW – Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Purchasing MacKeen’s books helps spread the story and encourages major publishers to continue to publish and promote such works on Armenian history and topics.  Both the New York Post and Outside declared the book a “must read.”  It was awarded best biography by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and longlisted for the Chautauqua Prize.  It’s being taught in universities and high schools. “I’m so honored that many students and readers are learning about the Genocide for the first time through my grandfather’s story,” MacKeen said. “Education is the reason why I spent a decade on this book.”  MacKeen hopes that her book will reach more classrooms, and teach the next generation about this painful chapter in history. MacKeen is an award-winning journalist who spent nearly a decade on her grandfather’s story.  She covered health and social issues for Salon, SmartMoney, and Newsday. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Elle, the Sunday Times Magazine (London), the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.

“A century later, his journalist granddaughter found his firsthand accounts of his harrowing journey, and in an attempt to learn more about him, set out on her own journey to follow his route through Turkey and Syria. The result is a compelling new take on an important, too-little-understood chapter of history.” —The National Book Review

 “Part family heirloom, part history lesson, The Hundred-Year Walk is an emotionally poignant work, powerfully imagined and expertly crafted. The considerable archival scaffolding remains invisible as MacKeen carries her readers on an emotional journey full of heartache and hope.” — Aline Ohanesian, author of Orhan’s Inheritance— Aline Ohanesian, author of Orhan’s Inheritance.

References:

http://www.dawnmackeen.com/

http://www.dawnmackeen.com/the-hundred-year-walk

https://mirrorspectator.com/2017/09/14/armenian-genocide-book-shortlisted-dayton-literary-peace-prize/

https://www.npr.org/2016/01/14/463042483/long-after-armenian-genocide-retracing-a-grandfathers-steps-to-survival

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