Dr. Peter Balakian at NAASR (Ken Martin Photo)

Balakian’s Siamanto Program at NAASR Focuses on Importance of Humanities in Medicine


BELMONT, Mass. — On April 27, poetry, medicine and the Armenian Genocide converged at a program at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) featuring Peter Balakian speaking about his classic translations of the devastating poems by Siamanto.

Bloody News from My Friend: Poems by Siamanto, translated by Balakian and Nevart Yaghlian, was published by Wayne State University Press in 1996. The book contains works by one of the most famous modern Armenian poets who with his words captured the horrors of the Adana Massacres of 1909 before he himself was rounded up and executed by the Ottoman forces in 1915.

The poems he wrote about the Adana events were a reaction to the letters he had received from his friend, Balakian’s grandfather, Dr. Diran Balakian, who had been a witness to the calamity.

The stunned Diran Balakian had poured his heart out in letters to his friend, Adom Yarjanian, whose pen name was Siamanto, about the gruesome sights he had seen.

“In Adana, my grandfather wrote back a group of letters to his family and his friend, Siamanto,” he recalled. “Siamanto was obsessed and riveted by them. He used them to write a cycle of 13 poems.” The poems were published in Armenian in 1911 in Constantinople.

Dr. Peter Balakian at NAASR (Ken Martin Photo)

The letters themselves are lost, Balakian said.

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The poet Balakian, a professor at Hamilton College, and the winner of numerous awards for his works, from the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for the Art of the Memoir (Black Dog of Fate) to the Pulitzer (Ozone Journal), recalled his family history, in which medicine figured highly; both his father and grandfather were physicians.

Balakian explored the friendship between the doctor and the poet in 1909, and of the former’s eventual fleeing from the cosmopolitan circles in Constantinople and Vienna to Indiana in the aftermath of the Genocide.

“Adana is horrific, shocking,” he said. “You’ve lived through the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, you have seen this moment of 1908 and the declaration of the velvet revolution of overthrowing the Sultan and the celebration of the new age and multiculturism and you are thinking, ‘maybe the nightmare is over.’ Not even a year has passed when the explosion of Adana happens to the Armenians of the city and the surrounding areas,” he said. The key, he said, was the “backlash” against the gains of the rights for the Christian minority.

“It really was a canary in a mine for 1915,” he said. “Ethnic minorities are not going to become free and even limitedly equal,” for Christians, Jews, or other “gavours,” or even Arabs and Kurds, who happened to be Muslim as well.

“The ruins, the accounts of massacre, pillaging and looting, so much as we know in the genocidal paradigm and the morphology of genocide can be connected to avarice and booty and theft of wealth and property. And that certainly happened in Adana. Armenians were prosperous as were Greeks. A small bourgeoisie that was bitterly resented by the Muslim underclass that were often rural and agrarian,” he added.

A Young Doctor

Diran Balakian was born in Tokat. He got a scholarship to study at the Echmiadzin academy. “He did very well in his Echmiadzin studies and got a scholarship to the Nersisian College in Tiflis,” Balakian noted. From there, he went to Leipzig, Germany to attend medical school and became an ophthalmologist.

At one point, Balakian said, his grandfather worked on a dig in Ani with Georgian archeologist Nikolai Marr. In fact, he was probably there with his cousin, Grigoris Balakian, the translation of whose memoirs, Armenian Golgotha, the younger Balakian and Aris Sevag published in 2010.

Diran Balakian, after his studies in Vienna, eventually came back to Constantinople to work. Soon after, the Adana Massacres took place in April 1909, and the Armenian patriarchate “rounded up a group of Armenians to do rescue and relief work,” including author Zabel Yesayan. “She and my grandfather were in that same group that went from Bolis to Adana,” Peter Balakian observed.

“After Adana, he went back to Constantinople where he married my grandmother, Koharik Panossian, who was the daughter of a wealthy Bolis family. Her father, Moorad Panossian, owned coal mines and they had a big mining enterprise. They lost everything as most families did, during the Genocide,” Balakian recalled.

“He was conscripted into the Ottoman Army as all Ottoman physicians were. He was given the rank of captain. He was put in a military base in Soma, on the western Turkish coast. That’s just the ghoulish kind of Shakespearean drama in my head: what did it mean to work for the Ottoman army while the Ottoman government was massacring, murdering, raping your entire ethnic group,” Balakian said. His grandfather left little information about that.

In 1922, the family fled Turkey for good, while his father was 2. “My grandfather somehow managed to land in Indianapolis, at a hospital, where he was accepted as an attending, pending the passing of the medical board.” He was 46 at that time.

“What a soft life I’ve had, compared to what these people went through,” he said, with awe. He added that his grandfather had to pass his boards in English — his fifth language — in his mid-40s.

“My grandfather got us here by virtue of his studying, his education and his professional life,” he added.

Dr. Armineh Mirzabegian at the NAASR program (Ken Martin Photo)

Bright Star

Balakian was able to find out more about Siamanto’s connections though his great-aunt Verjin.

“My auntie Verjin … remembered how popular he was. He was a sensation,” Balakian said, likening his popularity to that of the Beat Poets of the 1950s, or the Slam poets more recently. “The Armenian cultural scene was undergoing a marvelous revival from the last decade of the 19th century to the first decade and a half of the 20th century, before the Ottoman government arrested 250 intellectuals on April 24, at one of the beginnings of what became the Armenia Genocide. Why were they targeted? Because they were effective, they were the voice of the people. … They had a following. They had impact. It reminds us of the power  of literature at any time, especially in a pre-screen age.”

Siamanto, he said, had been a bardic poem, who often recited his poems. In a way, Balakian explained, he was like William Butler Yeats in Ireland, Walt Whitman in the US, Pablo Neruda in Chile, poets who “saw themselves as embodying the people of the nation.”

“Siamanto was one of them,” he added.

Before writing the Genocide, he explained, Siamanto was tackling the myths and mythology of Armenian identity.

The singular “brutality, killing, blood, beheading, and particular focus on brutality done to women,” changed Siamanto forever. “These poems were witnessing the barbarism of the ottoman state.”

With Adana, Siamanto broke his literary streak of romanticism with the evils and horrors of the Genocide, Balakian noted.

“He is engaged in probing the tortured human body and that’s because my grandfather, the physician, was witnessing and writing,” he said, adding he assumed his grandfather must have been a good writer. “The power of those depictions and representations gave rise to these poems.”

Peter Balakian read his translation of one of the most famous of Siamanto’s poem, “The Dance,” which features a graphic description of the torture and killing of 20 brides by Ottoman soldiers.

“You can see the poems veer away from anything romantic,” he said.

The imagery was vivid, shocking and visceral, about whipping, dousing with kerosene, crucifixions.

Asked about family lore regarding the Siamanto poems and the family connection, he referred to another of his books, The Black Dog of Fate, in which he wrote about his coming to terms with and understanding the Armenian Genocide. “When I am scratching my head about why there is so much silence in my family about the events of 1915. I understand a level of it, concealing trauma from children,” he said, “I understand there can be some repression, but later on in life, I go on to become a writer and an academic and two of my aunts became scholars and I wonder why.”

The Balakians, he said, never talked about the family history but only about their grandfather’s achievements. “I don’t think fathers were ‘parenting’ in the early part of the 20th century,” he said. “As an Armenian-American friend said, ‘we didn’t have dads; we had fathers.”

Dr. David Hatem at NAASR (Ken Martin Photo)

Medical Ties

The NAASR program was co-sponsored by the Armenian American Medical Association (AAMA) of Boston. Dr. Armineh Mirzabegian, who is a member of both the Board of Directors of the AAMA as well as that of NAASR, offered opening statements about the importance of art for medical professionals. Also speaking was Dr. Rosalynn Nazarian, the president of the AAMA, who in turn introduced Dr. Elizabeth Gaufberg, Associate Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Professional and Academic Development, about the role of humanities in medicine.

Gaufberg spoke about how Balakian had introduced Mirzabegian to her, knowing that she had an interest in the humanities as well.

Also speaking was Lisa Wong, a musician and pediatrician at the Massachusetts General Hospital, who works with Gaufberg, and is a strong advocate for incorporating the arts into medicine. “As I was listening to the very difficult and painful poetry, I thought not only does art document for us, but it captures an emotion for us,” Wong said.

“We as physicians have the privilege and opportunity to be with people at their most joyful, but also their most painful and vulnerable times. As we walk the journey with them, I think what a privilege,” she noted.

Another speaker was Dr. David Hatem of the UMass Chan Medical School, co-chair of the humanities in medicine committee at the UMass medical school. He said, “We do tell them, is professional identity formation, how you turn people from laypersons into doctors. What we tell them is we admit humans to medical school and we want to make sure we graduate humans who retain their humanity. And that’s not always the way medical education is.”

One of his students, Lori Sahakian, also offered her comments about Hatem’s humanities course.

Bloody News from My Friend is available at NAASR, Amazon and other bookstores.

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