Author Dawn Anahid MacKeen grew up on stories of her grandfather’s escape from the Armenian genocide. As a young girl, the garish story of how he grew desperate enough in the desert to drink his own urine stuck with her, as she wondered how he was brought to that point. However, it wasn’t until she returned home at 35 that she and her family discovered detailed journals explaining the horrors of a genocide which still goes unrecognized by the Turkish government.
Reading excerpts from her book “The Hundred Year Walk” on Monday, Oct. 10 in the crowded Alumni Room in Old Main, MacKeen shared with Knox professors and students part of the story of how her grandfather escaped death in the Ottoman Empire’s genocide against the Armenian people during World War I.
Prior to the event, MacKeen attended two classes, Assistant Professor of Journalism James Dyer’s Newswriting and Reporting and Associate Professor of History Emre Sencers World War I course. Many students from those classes also attended the event.
In her presentation, MacKeen explained how, after spending most of her career as a journalist learning about others stories, she spent 10 years delving into her personal history.
Reading his writing decades after his death, she explained how she had to rediscover who her grandfather was beyond the label of a genocide survivor. Earlier in her life, that label had “erased the rest of him.” The process helped her find her grandfather to be a funny, complex man who was more than a victim.
“Most survivors struggle to recount their story of what happened to them,” MacKeen said. For her grandfather, it seemed to serve as a way to purge the memories from his mind.
As a journalist, MacKeen normally removes herself from the narrative. However, retracing her grandfather’s steps, she found the town in modern-day Syria where the Arab sheikh who gave her grandfather shelter despite him being Armenian had lived. There, the town greeted her with open arms and held a feast in her honor. This moment led her to include her own journey of rediscovery alongside his story of hardship, which allowed her to make modern connections to events which occurred 100 years ago.
It doesn’t take much to draw connections between his time and the present. The town which welcomed her with open arms now stands in the midst of warfare. The memorial at Deir ez-Zor for the Armenian genocide victims, which MacKeen visited on her trek, has now come under attack from ISIL.
Healing from the atrocities of the genocide takes different forms for different people. One family she knows found their family home and wants that land restored to them.
When asked about what helps her heal, MacKeen said education is the most important to her, in Turkey and abroad. She described how people would approach her and say, “‘I never knew about this. I thought I knew my history.’” Whenever she is able to educate someone about the genocide, MacKeen feels that she honors her family.
Sencer, who is Turkish, explained that some change is slowly occurring in Turkey from no mentions of the genocide to conversations on it in the media.
After the long period of working on this personal story, MacKeen thinks she may return to journalism.