By Vahe H. Apelian, Ohio, 9 January 2014
“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
Many, I bet most, English-speaking Armenians have seen William Saroyan’s quote. Some may have also bought an inscription of the quote on a plaque. I was no exception. In fact, I ordered the larger size and hung it on a wall in our house. Saroyan looms larger than life, especially for Armenians. His image may have helped to bolster the impression. He was a bear of man with an oversized and impressive mustache. That is how he remains etched in my memory.
Obviously, I had found the quote impressionable; otherwise I would not have done what I did. I would read the quote every now and then with some sense of comfort that our growing sons may read it, too, and over time establish some understanding as to who we are and where do we come from. Over time I established a familiarity with it. When novelty gives way to familiarity so do feelings give way to reason of varying degree. It is then that it occurred to me to ask myself: “What is this quote really saying?”
First and foremost I saw a pervasive paranoia in the quote: “I should see any power destroy this race”. “Go ahead, destroy Armenia, etc. etc. etc”. Surely we have had and have our share of enemies but I bet more people on this planet do not know us to ever bother to think of harming us.
Destroy, but who?
Destroy “this small tribe of unimportant people”. Is that what we are? Is this what I want our children to read growing up…that we come from “a tribe of unimportant people”? How would my son’s teacher and friends react, I thought, if my son took the plaque to school for a morning class show-and-tell? I felt aghast.
On further thought, I realized that there is more in the quote that kills the spirit than uplifts it. After all, we are speaking of a people “whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered”. Gosh, imagine trying to explain this to a child you are raising to be proud of his or her heritage.
Granted, that there are affirmative statements in the quote about Armenians coming together, laughing, singing and creating a new Armenia. All that is good and well, but offers little solace after all the paranoia, doom and gloom.
Eventually it occurred to me that the plaque did not cite the source of the quote. Internet search-engines were of no help. I started having doubts whether Saroyan had really said it.
Sometime later I came across a discussion in Armenian media which alleged that Saroyan’s quote is a sanitized version of his utterance. The writer said that Saroyan started it with an obscene expression. If I were to use it in an article, more likely than not, editors will censor it. The commentator said that the original quote contains the word ‘mother’ but not as in the “Holy Mother of God” expression. It would not surprise me that Saroyan would use a foul expression. As I said, he loomed larger than life and had his way when it came to words.
I still don’t know for sure if a foul expression precedes the quote. However, it makes more sense to me that it does. Saroyan, more likely than not, said what he said in rage. We are not supposed to sound rational when angry. Our rage is an outlet to express our frustration more so than to make sense. Surely what we say in our rage in not meant to be educational.
For all those who would like to display the quote in their homes, I suggest them to have it inscribed in verbatim and indicate the source once they find it. It’s the right thing to do. After all, words, even foul expressions, make sense and may even sound less offensive if they are used in context. Otherwise, one may consider doing what I did with its sanitized version: I tucked it away.