The Silent Genocide and its Afterlives: Witnessing and Remembering Traumatic Histories in Rahul Varma’s State of Denial

Aamna Rashid*

Abstract

Against the backdrop of the dispossession of Armenians by Azerbaijan in 2023 and the contentious definition of genocide, my paper focuses on the theatre of genocide, looking specifically at Rahul Varma’s State of Denial regarding the Armenian genocide. I engage with questions of forced “un-belonging,” constructed state of exceptions under oppressive regimes, and the politics of memory to consider how these histories, denied as they were, should be memorialized. I utilize the play to demonstrate the importance of survivor testimonies and the ethical praxis necessary in documenting violent histories. The play and Varma’s dramaturgical practices, I argue and showcase fiction’s role in taking narrative beyond testimony and trauma.

Keywords; Rahul Varma, Armenian genocide, state of denial, trauma and testimony 

Recent developments in September 2023 against the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh—populated mainly by Armenians—with the launch of a military offensive by Azerbaijan, a Turkish ally, continue off the backs of the first Armenian genocide. The offensive resulted in the dispossession of 100,000 Armenians from the land despite Azerbaijan blocking the Lachin Corridor—the only connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh—since December 2022. Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (2003 to 2012), highlighted that “[b]y blocking the Lachin Corridor, Aliyev turned Nagorno-Karabakh into a vast concentration camp for 120,000 Armenians” (Washington Post) and emphasized the need for the world to call these crimes by its proper name: genocide.

The legal criminalization of genocide and the politics behind its application emerged in a turbulent atmosphere and, even now, remains wrought with demarcations of inclusivity, exclusivity, and gradations of atrocity to quantify it as a crime. Despite the affirmation of the first Armenian genocide (1915–23) by the international community historians and academic institutions on Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the Turkish government and its allies, including Azerbaijan and post-9/11 United States, continued to deny it en-masse. However, this act of denial is not unique to the Armenian case and has marred the history of the world. For example, during the Rwandan Genocide, between April and June 1994, officials of the U.S. and certain European countries, as well as representatives on the U.N. Security Council, refused to characterize the atrocities as genocide despite clear evidence that it fit the U.N.’s definition. As Marc Nichanian, a French-Armenian scholar, explains, “[t]here is no genocide without denial. More than that, the essence of genocide is denial” (Kazanjian and Nichanian 133).

As a consequence, communities subject to genocide rarely receive reparations, and the crime is “unremembered” due to the suppression of histories by state actors and the “fetishism of facts” (Trouillot 151) of Western historiography. Though Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s discussion predominantly concerned Holocaust denial and the West’s failure to recognize the Haitian slave revolt, it applies to the broader categorization of genocide. Its conflicting definitions dictate its applicability and beg the question: How many genocides go unnamed and exist outside memory? How many of these named the millions that were killed or disappeared in the process? And most importantly, what happens to people and societies that live through genocide?

My essay will explore these questions broadly and highlight the continued ramifications of silencing genocide and their intersection with questions of historisation—namely, in the case of the Armenian Genocide (1915–23). Central to the crux of the paper is the historical representation of these “contested” genocides and how, as Trouillot puts it, “to represent the ghost” (147) authentically. By focusing on Rahul Varma’s play, State of Denial, I will argue that Varma showcases the “state of exception” (Agamben) constructed by the Turkish state to emphasize the facticity of their violence, ultimately allowing the play to bear witness to the genocide. Through studying the intersection of Hirsh’s theory of “post-memory” with the effect of genocide on the characters Odette and Sahana, I highlight the significance of the pedagogy of witness and memory in countering genocide denial. Ultimately, I argue that the play and its hybrid fictionality provide a staunch attack on genocide denial and position it within archival memory.

The Armenian Genocide

The “silent genocide” of the Armenian community—a significant minority in the Ottoman Empire—was conducted by the Turks between 1915 and 1923 and is considered the first genocide of the twentieth century. Though considered to have begun in 1915, the violence built on existing Turkish-Armenian conflicts and was inflamed under the absolute rule of Abdul-Hamid II, the last of the Ottoman Sultans, under whom began an era of violent and often deadly repression of the Armenians. Under his regime, “between 1894 and 1896, 80,000–100,000 were killed in the eastern provinces in a series of sustained massacres” (Bloxham 149) in what is now known as the Hamidian Massacres—a foreshadowing of the genocide to come. The Sultan’s overthrow by the Young Turk Revolution (1908) began a new era in the country’s history with the rise of multi-party democracy and, ironically, an extreme nationalist movement promoting Pan-Turkism or “Turkey for the Turks” (Bisbee 47).

As a result, the Armenians were further removed from citizenship and identity by the policy and through the enmity of World War I. Over the following years, The Committee of Union and Progress (the Young Turks) ordered a series of systematic deportations and mass executions along with intentional starvation, causing the deaths of more than one million Armenians. Their exclusionary policies began in February 1915 by removing Armenians serving in the Ottoman army from active duty and forcing them into labor battalions. However, the official “beginning” of the genocide is considered the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals by Turkish officials on April 24, 1915. The event sparked a series of consecutive measures. For example, Armenian deportation from the Empire’s eastern provinces, enforcement of the Turkish government’s right to confiscate Armenian properties as a wartime necessity, forced marches, massacres and the creation of concentration camps (Butt 136–49). As a result, “at least one and a half million Ottoman Armenians lost their lives in the deportations and massacres of 1915–16 as a ‘direct result of a carefully-laid plan’” (Dyer 100). There was a disproportionate increase in violence towards women, including mass rapes, forceful conversion, the sale of Armenian women and girls by Turkish gendarmes, abduction and forced marriage. By 1918, most of the Armenians who had resided in Turkey were dead or in the diaspora, left in a state of exile.

The Semantics of Genocide

In a world where massacres go unpunished under the quest for power, what is there to stop genocide? This question remains an essential one even as we witness a genocide in real time where the perpetrator has gone unpunished and the genocide unnamed despite abundant evidence to prove otherwise. It begs us to consider how the world defines genocide and when, under its ambit, the term is applied and showcases the ramifications when genocidal violence continues to be denied. While the “first” Armenian genocide (1915–1923) was considered the first non-colonial genocide of the twentieth century, no terminology existed to define it when it occurred. Instead, what remained was the memory of the impunity accorded to the Turkish government, which allowed the massacre to go undocumented and unpunished. Vahakn Norair Dadrian, in The History of the Armenian Genocide, addresses this and states, “One is faced here with the persistence of the dismal reality of impunity perversely functioning as a negative reward benefiting the camp of the perpetrators, past and present, and rendering the latter as remorseless as ever” (422). 

The Turks’ massacre of approximately 1.5 million Armenians was swept under the glorified killing at the behest of World War I without clear repercussions, leaving behind far-reaching consequences. It resulted in continuing violence against the Armenian population in contemporary imagining and the perpetuation of mass genocide globally, where the lack of accountability ceased to deter war crimes. The impunity accorded the Turkish perpetrators of genocide was utilized by Adolph Hitler during World War II to advance his expansion of the Reich and the impending invasion of Poland. In quoting historical examples of figures like Genghis Khan’s slaughter of millions of women and children, he commented on the violence of history writing wherein “History sees in him solely the founder of a state. . . . Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” (Hitler qtd. in Polonsky 361).

Such exemption from international law and accountability on crimes of genocide is evident through the lull of silence around the subject and the erasure of genocidal crimes from the mandates of history writing. Regarding the Armenian genocide, the crisis was additionally exacerbated by the fact that there had been no term to define it. In contemporary examples, however, the conflicting definitions of genocide and their selective application have aggravated brutality, ultimately impeding justice.

To go back, the term “genocide” was first coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish jurist, in 1943, from two words: genos (Greek: γένος for “family, clan, tribe, race, stock, kin”) and cide (Latin: –cīdium, “killing”). By studying the Holocaust and the Armenian example, he defined it as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves” (79). Following Lemkin’s definition, the term genocide entered the official semantics of language by the United States General Assembly, which stipulated:

Genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings; such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions represented by these human groups, and is contrary to moral law and the spirit and aims of the United Nations. (United Nations, The Crime of Genocide

While this definition was applied during the Nuremberg trials and resulted in the General Assembly declaring genocide a crime under international law, this did not mean there was a clear idea of its application. Instead, a new definition was constructed only two years later. On 9 December 1948, General Assembly Resolution 260(III)A unanimously adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article II of which defined genocide as:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (United Nations, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide)

The continuing evolution and interpretation of the definition has meant the term ‘‘genocide’’ has remained contested since Raphael Lemkin first advanced it. As such, a critique of narrow definitions of genocide has emerged, claiming they exclude numerous cases and render the protections of the U.N. Convention unavailable to many groups. The interplay of political agendas with the term’s application has furthered this critique and even shaped judgments issued by The International Criminal Court in The Hague in contemporary imagining. A seminal point of contention to deny claims of genocidal activities is the question of intent. Intent becomes difficult to prove due to its different interpretations, specifically as an inherently individual concept in genocide studies. To be constituted as genocide, there must be proven intent or dolus specialis (special intent) of the perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. In most definitions, cultural destruction is not sufficient. Case law further connects intent to State or organized plans even if definitions in international law do not, which only lay the seeds for genocide erasure and renders the crime invisible.

The issue of definition has been raised within the United Nations, particularly by the Whitaker Report (1985), which highlighted the following debated issues: the problem of intent, recognition of violence against a gender group as genocide, and inclusion of political groups as a target group. It further captures the differing perspectives adopted by scholars where some, such as Stephen Katz, even assert that genocide is the total physical destruction of a group and that, technically, only the Holocaust fits this definition. What this shows is that, historically, most cases of genocide meet with denial that they are, in fact, genocide. Explicitly denying the use of the term “genocide” allows for the “insinuat(ion) into the minds of outside parties a subtle fallacy: because what happened to Armenians is not marked by the word ‘genocide,’ it is not as bad as what is claimed and thus is not bad on an objective scale” (Theriault 438).

Henry C. Theriault, in Genocidal Mutation and the Challenge of Definition, highlights that “denial claims are made by either claiming (1) that the events being called genocide did not occur . . . or that (2) they were something other than genocide” (483). The typical approach is termed “definitional denial” or “definitionalism” (Charny qtd. In Theriault) in genocide studies and refers to the denial that the events even fit genocide’s definition.

Definitionalism can entail either the denial of past genocide—in this case, the Armenian Genocide—or the presentation of manipulated historical data against a standard definition of genocide. For instance, some deniers reject the veracity of historical documents related to the Young Turks or claim the events were localized massacres rather than planned mass extermination. By rejecting just a few documents, they get the perpetrators off on a technicality.

State of Denial: In Memories of Grandmothers Who Lived to Tell

Given the technical debates and political allegiances determining the international community’s definition and application of genocide, alternate forms of memorialization, remembrance, and the act of naming genocide become necessary and come into being. Theatre specifically has been utilized to bear witness to genocidal crimes wherein artists not only aimed to represent its realities but rather mandate a process of reconciliation. Montreal-based theatre company Teesri Dunya Theatre—a name that translates to “Third World Theatre” has reflected these values since it was founded in 1981 by immigrant artists from India, Rahul Varma and Rana Bose. Its mandate, as displayed in the “Mission” section on the official website, states that: “Our stage is a performative site where the struggle for human dignity and justice is enacted with the hope of transforming awareness into engagement addressing conditions that imprison people in poverty, injustice, and oppression” (Teesri Dunya Theatre).

The sentiment translates into their plays that draw on historical and political issues otherwise silenced. It is especially dominant within the play State of Denial, written by Rahul Varma—the artistic head of Teesri—in 2015, which aims to unsilence the discourse around the Armenian genocide and write it into the folds of history. The play emerged from Concordia University’s Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling project, “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations.” Inspired by his involvement in the project, Varma combines the play’s historical fiction genre with oral histories to document violent histories. The play focuses on the stories of Sahana, an old Turkish-Muslim woman who works to assist survivors of the Armenian genocide, and Odette, a Rwandan-Canadian filmmaker who travels to Turkey to document the genocide. Odette begins interviewing Sahana because of her humanitarian work protecting Armenian women and the stories she carried. As time progresses, Sahana’s oral history testifies to the reality of genocide and the gendered attacks on Armenian women. As the play progresses to its climax, Odette realizes that Sahana is, in fact, a survivor of the Armenian genocide.

State of Denial, Rahul Varma. Production, 2015. Left to Right: Liana Bdéwi as Sinam, Susan Bain as Miriam. Photo: Mateo Casis

Through flashbacks, documentarian practices, and Sahana’s oral recounting, Varma traces the narrative to her actual identity and name—Sinam—an Armenian forced to adopt a Muslim identity to survive. Sinam describes her dispossession from her home and identity, rape by Turkish gendarmes, and the disappearance of her baby, all in the second person (as Sahana) until she eventually breaks down and reveals the truth to Odette. Odette then takes charge and is determined to ensure Sinam’s story is no longer silenced, aiming to get her documentary to Canada and find Sinam’s daughter there. Throughout the play, Odette is opposed by the Turkish state in different forms, mainly by the character Hakan, who attempts to stop the documentary production at every step. He claims the documentary is “anti-Turkish propaganda” (Varma 15) and becomes fixated on protecting Turkey’s “honor,” a clear allusion to modern-day Turkey’s continued denial of the genocide. Accordingly, he sends people to search her belongings, denies access to government archives, destroys a copy of her film, and finally, forcefully deports her, all to ensure the documentary never comes to be. Varma’s play exemplifies the continued legacy of genocide denial within Turkey and harkens to the importance of memory in the face of such erasure. The documentary and Sinam’s story demonstrate the power of literature to document and witness atrocities in the face of enforced archival silences.

Genocide’s Reduction to Outside “Bare Life” and Necropolitics

While the act of genocide is rooted in eliminating a group as a consequence of the sovereign’s power to decide who lives or dies, it begins earlier through the construction of a “state of exception” (Agamben). Through his engagement with historical events that occurred during the Armenian genocide, Varma builds infallible evidence to demonstrate the act of genocide within the play. He signifies the legal and cultural forms of exclusion adopted by the Turkish government, which ultimately establishes “necropolitics” (Mbembe) within the region.

Achille Mbembe defined necropolitics as the ultimate expression of the sovereign to reign over life and death, a recurrent idea in genocidal states whose arbitrary power decides the future of entire races. He equates sovereignty with “the exercise (of) control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power” (26) and posits a significant connection between systems under a state of emergency and the interplay of politics, death, and fictionalized enemies (70).

Within the context of the Armenian genocide, the claimed emergency “necessitating” the absolute power of the Turkish government was the assumption that the Armenians had sided with Russia in WWI, as well as the overall devastation of the size and power of the Ottoman Empire. The “emergency,” ultimately, paved the way for a constructed separation between the Turkish and the Armenians through a deconstruction of humanity into “normal life” or “bare life,” as Giorgio Agamben explains in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. He defines “bare life” through bios (the way and sanctity of life) in opposition to zoe (the biological process of living) and its utilization by the sovereign to decide what constitutes the political body and what remains outside. Building on this, Agamben argues that these divisions result in a “state of exception,” a rule of governance created under the pretext of emergency, which subsequently suspends laws and rights for specific groups to protect state power.

Under these frameworks, Varma’s play showcases the exclusionary praxis adopted to construct binaries between one who is “normal” (Turk) and an Other opposing them (Armenian) and aims to expose genocidal intent, ultimately countering its denial. The play makes direct references to policies passed by the Turkish government prior to their massacres: passport denials, eviction, forceful land acquisition, as well as the brutal murders, looting, theft, and assault on women, through detailing the story of one survivor, Sinam. Despite the play’s fictionality, he draws from actual historical events in 1915 to showcase the state of exception’s emergence through its different stages: the State of Exile and Refuge, the State of Paradox, the State of Occupation and Siege, and finally, the State of Urbicide (Agamben). He exposed the expulsion of Armenian rights under the regime through the experiences of his characters. For example, in the flashback in Scene 12, Kazim shows Sinam a public notice on her house which states: “Leave all your belongings—your furniture, your beddings, your artifacts. Close your shops and businesses with everything inside. Your doors will be sealed with special stamps. On your return, you will get everything you left behind” (Varma 71).

The notice in the play is taken verbatim from signs posted on Armenian property by the Turks, specifically those placed on confiscated properties in Kayseri (Üngör and Polatel 58) during the genocide and signifies both the State of Exile and that of Occupation and Seige. Sinam’s loss of property represents both a loss of heritage and demarcates a clear division in time as before the aksor (deportation/exile) and after, signifying the permanent shift genocidal regimes cause to everyday realities. As Miriam states, “Before the aksor, Armenian meant someone with property, and the Turk meant without” (Varma 61).

Through drawing upon judicial policies imposed by the Turkish government, Varma unveils how the Turkish state rendered Armenians without home, land, and family and began to acquire formerly Armenian-owned properties themselves. In another vein, the play demonstrates the reduction of Armenian status and citizenship in showcasing through Sinam, and by default, Armenians were refused passports by the government. Here, the play draws directly from the denial of passports to the Armenian population under Turkish rule even after legislation formally authorizing their deportation was passed in May 1915. This de facto ensured that the Armenians had two choices: to be killed or to convert to Islam. Like Sinam, many were forced to renounce their identities and take on a different name—in her case, Sahana.

State of Denial, Rahul Varma. Production, 2015. Left to Right: Liana Bdéwi as Sinam, Jimmy Blais as Khatra, the Turkish gendarme. Photo: Mateo Casis

In Warrant for Genocide: Key Elements of Turko-Armenian Conflict, Vahakn Dadrian identifies three inseparable factors in the evolution of the Armenian-Turkish conflict; theocracy, power relations and demography, which heightened the inequalities. He explains how theocracy resulted in establishing a system of equities favoring Turkish Muslims that, in particular, affected and predetermined statistical outcomes by defining Muslims as a single, unified population category and, subsequently, reduced Armenians as “outside” (“Warrant for Genocide” 133-43).

Ideological control and propaganda by the state maintained this notion of Armenians as “outsiders.” They implemented restrictive, exclusionary and ultimately, decimatory policies toward the entire community. Varma draws attention to the dehumanization and otherization typical of genocide by génocidaires describing its members as “resembling predatory or unclean animals” (Lingaas 1049) by the repetitive use of the word giavour (infidel) by Turkish officials to refer to Armenians across the play. The term and its subsequent variations facilitate the suppression of Armenians to a condition outside of “bare life”; for example, when Khatra, the Turkish gendarme, attacks Sinam and Zohrab, he calls Zohrab “stupid giavour” (Varma 54). In another scene, Varma utilizes the Chrous to depict soldiers monitoring the death march of the Armenians, claiming, “Yeah, now you look marvelous giavours. March, march giavours to the next city” (Varma 64), signifying the deportation and ultimate demise of the Armenians. Utilizing phrases such as giavour is a typical practice of genocidal regimes as they remove any human association with the Other and, subsequently, “make(s) the act of extermination intellectually comprehensible” (Lingaas 1050). It further highlights the state of exception predicated on the construction of dichotomies between zoe and bios: inclusion or exclusion, “Turkish or Armenian,” human and sub-human.

Through representing characters that are re-named, or, as I term it, “un-named,” Varma highlights another aspect of loss in Armenian heritage. He uses Sinam and her father to stand in for thousands of Armenians forced to give up their land and names to survive in 1915. Sinam’s adoption by Miriam and Kazim forces her to take on a Muslim name—Sahana—to ensure her survival. It forces her to give up her claim to her father’s property and distances her from her entire family. Through the character of Sinam, Varma thus signifies how these actions not only destroyed her identity as Armenian and, thereby, reduced the Armenian community but also destroyed Armenian family, community and identity structures, a recognized element or goal of genocide.

State of Denial, Rahul Varma. Production, 2015. Left to Right: Michaela Di Cesare as Ismat, Warona Setshwaelo as Odette; Victoria Barkoff as Sahana, and Susan Bain as Miriam. Photo: Mateo Casis

The erasure of culture and self provides categorical proof for the correlation between the state of exception and genocide, highlighting the collective dehumanization of a group, which not only damages the Armenian community but instead, results in a split identity. The pain of this erasure is represented by Varma through Sinam’s plaintive cries to Odette regarding her testimony, begging her, “Don’t let them bury me as someone I am not. . . . Don’t let them erase my Christian heritage. I survived as Sahana, I want to die as Sinam. I want to die as who I was born” (Varma 76). Her cries ring through the play and drive Odette’s fight against the Turkish government to bear witness to the plight of Armenians and prevent it from being silenced. While Sinam’s story receives the attention of the world in the play, her dialogue acts as a synecdoche for the countless losses experienced by Armenians who lived in the shadow of the un-named genocide.

After-Lives of Trauma

While much discourse has existed regarding the impact of genocidal violence on survivors, it is only within contemporary studies that a discussion of the afterlife of trauma or “postmemory” on both survivors and the “generation after” has come forth. Marianne Hirsch defines “postmemory” as the effect genocide and cultural trauma left on the generation after and how it elicits living connections between communities. She argues that while it “is not identical to memory . . . it approximates memory in its affective force and its psychic effects” (12). Varma’s play represents the insidious nature of genocide and its lasting effects not only on the survivors but on the generation after by highlighting the embodied trauma faced by the characters, Sinam and Odette. Through these, he ultimately emphasizes a pedagogy of witness and memory that staunchly counters genocide denial.

Hirsch’s utilization of “postmemory,” coupled with the distinction between active forgetting and remembering, identified by psychologists such as Marco Costanzi (Costanzi et al.) explains survivors’ different modes of remembering. Both Odette and Sinam have different ways of reconciling with the horror of their past, determined through their lived experiences. Their representation in the play showcases the continual effects of genocide. On the one hand, Odette’s position as a genocide survivor acts is reflected in two ways —it is both the driving force for her documentarian work and, simultaneously, a means to reduce her political agency. While filming Sinam’s funeral, she tries to bring attention to Sinam’s Armenian identity; however, Hakan, the Turkish official, verbally attacks her, claiming her “survivor’s guilt” drives her and that “instead of exposing your country’s shame, you seek to make it mine” (Varma 24). That Odette lives in Canada and not under the active haunting of the genocide in Rwanda allows her to keep her memories of the violence intact. However, Sinam is not afforded the same distance and has to remain associated with her adopted identity, given that her survival remains contingent on forgetting her Armenian heritage and the violence she experienced. Even in the contemporary setting of the play, she cannot go back because of Turkey’s continued violence against Armenians and denial of the genocide. Juxtaposed against Odette, Sinam represents the idea of forgetting as a coping mechanism and represents it as an active faculty to continue her survival. Varma demonstrates this in her conversation with Odette on the plight of Armenian women during the genocide. When Odette brings up her memories of the Rwandan genocide and the rape of her mother, sister and grandmother, Sinam replies, “Our hell happened way back. Those who died—died. Those who survived are scarred forever” and that “you have to forget” (35).

State of Denial, Rahul Varma. Production, 2015. Left to Right: Warona Setshwaelo as Odette, Michaela Di Cesare as Ismat. Photo: Mateo Casis

While conscious, Sinam espouses active forgetting. However, through her waking nightmares and flashes of memory, Varma showcases the continuation of trauma and its afterlife. The contrast between her active forgetting and nightmares containing memories of the violence allows for their conflation to what Hirsh defines as “‘not memories’ [and] become ‘transmitted’ through ‘the language of the body'” (Hirsch 106). It suggests that the body keeps a score even when the mind cannot recognize it. While being interviewed about Armenian survivors, Sinam suddenly falls to the ground, distraught, crying, “There is no one left, they are all dead. They killed him. He is no more. They took all the pretty girls, Eva, Sophia, Aram, Gretal, Effendi, Ester. They took all the Sinams. I want them back. I want Sinam. I want my Sinam back” (Varma 42). Though in earlier testimonies, she kept a distance from the stories she recounted, this scene marks a fracture that lets her actual history slip out. The definition of the flashback as “not memories” aligns them with the postmemory of trauma and its predetermined return, providing a clear framework with which to read Sinam’s nightmares and flashbacks.

Sinam’s “un-naming” represents another split in the “before” and “after” genocide, wherein the name Sahana is the Muslim alter-ego that has adopted active forgetting. In contrast, Sinam is her history and legacy as the “daughter of war, daughter of a nation that has blood on its hands” (Varma 64). The disjunct between the two demarcates an apparent fragmentation between her two selves as a survival mechanism. It serves as a clear indictment of the genocidal state as it continues to devastate her. It further showcases her mediation between forgetting and active remembrance—of “residual” and “ghostly” memory (Trouillot) where, even though she is no longer Sinam to the collective, her memory of Sinam remains ever-present in her continual nightmares and, significantly, in her desire to be buried as herself. Varma encapsulates an element of hope with her desire for the reclamation of her identity, where, even as the play marks the inability to return to “before” genocide, her recorded testimony as Sinam serves to comment on the echoes of cultural survival rooted in any survivor. 

State of Denial, Rahul Varma. Production, 2015. Left to Right: Liana Bdéwi as Sinam, Jimmy Blais as Khatra, the Turkish gendarme, Saro Saroyan as Zohrab. Photo: Mateo Casis

According to Hirsch, the affective element is essential to constructing post-memory and manifests itself throughout the play in how it affects both Sinam and others who hear her testimony. Though Odette and Sinam are from different nations and generations apart, Sinam’s testimony and memory substantially affect Odette. She continues her work on the film, smuggles it out of the country at her own cost, and even, once back in Canada, attempts to find Sinam’s lost child, demonstrating “the ‘living connection’ between proximate generations and accounts for the complex lines of transmission encompassed in the inter-and transgenerational umbrella term ‘memory’” (Hirsch 105). Varma’s depiction of the two survivors’ connection appears to bridge cultural and racial divides and signifies the shared nature of postmemory within the collective legacy and history of trauma. It posits a methodology of understanding and empathy between survivors where each bears witness to the other’s testimony and works to ensure “never again.”

Bearing Witness Through Hybrid Fictionality

Ethical, artistic representations of violent histories necessitate an active engagement with the history where the event’s gravity remains central by situating oneself within the play, whether as a spectator or performer. Varma’s artistic and political goal in writing the play stemmed from his intent “to scrutinize [historical events] to reveal the truth behind those facts, as well as to spotlight the factors that made those facts occur” (Varma 31) by adopting “a combination of verbatim and self-authored material” (52). Akin to Robert Skloot’s discussion on dramaturgical innovations to represent genocide ethically, Varma utilizes both the nature and effectiveness of empathy or, rather, witnessing and the artistic use of historical events for theatrical, humane purposes (Skloot 5), adopting a hybrid fictionality. In writing the genocide into history, he creates a play that counters denial and historical censorship by utilizing different oral, visual and textual practices, which exemplify fiction’s role in taking narrative beyond testimony and trauma.

While Varma studied books and biographies of survivors from Armenia, Rwanda, South Asia and the Balkans and, through testimonies of their descendants now residing in Canada to research the play and ensure historical authenticity, in an interview with Sinj Karan, he explains:

I prefer to imagine a play rather than just use historical authenticity. Imagination takes us beyond facts and has a higher possibility of acceptance. The dramatic craft of imagination allows audiences to be affected and changed by what they see and hear. Truth is multifold, and historical authenticity sacrifices the aesthetic and prevents complexity, nuances, and multiple points of entry for a wider discussion.

Varma qtd. in Karan

His decision to fictionalize the characters and parts of the plot allowed him to create a different point of entry, where Canada becomes the “meeting ground for two events that happened a hundred years apart” (Varma qtd. in Sarkhanian). In doing so, Varma was able to go beyond showcasing genocide’s impact on the affected community and, instead, emphasized its position as a world-historical event with dire consequences globally. His concern with the interconnected nature of solidarity and global relations manifests itself in his artistic oeuvre as he explains, “Stories have to be created in a manner where all the competing political forces can be brought together to manifest themselves in a dramatic way” (Varma qtd. in Carsignol), signifying a new dramaturgy for the future. With State of Denial, he thus intended to reduce the Canadian audience’s distance from the genocide and, more broadly, events in the Global South to elicit an interculturalism of sympathy that condemns the past’s violence and its continuing legacies today.

State of Denial, Rahul Varma. Production, 2015. Left to Right: Liana Bdéwi as Sinam, Saro Saroyan as Zohrab. Photo: Mateo Casis

Varma’s conscious decision to combine fiction with biography to construct Sinam’s character allowed him to “tell not one personal story but a composite of stories based on life experiences of characters that differed in their nationality, ethnicity, religion, history, culture, and age” (Varma 32). Her story is detailed across the play through her oral testimony and Odette’s documentary. It draws on Steven High’s—the project lead for Montreal Life Stories—praxis for recording oral histories that consider both the “before” and “after” of genocide. High’s practicum seemingly stems from the limitation of oral history interviews of genocide survivors which tell stories that “begin and end with violence” (High) without considering other aspects of their personality. Varma’s inclusion of Sinam’s history, her lover and her advocation of the rights of Armenian girls in the present opposes this reduction. Instead, it posits a methodology that allows for representing genocide survivors’ lives in each stage—their past, their life during the genocide and their future—and an understanding of their complete identity. In choosing to represent her testimony as oral history, Varma mirrored the inclusion of both the before and after and, in doing so, signified a space for the survivor.

Given oral histories’ seminal role in countering war narratives and state-mandated histories by documenting individual histories, this decision consciously lets the reader bear witness to life under siege. Sinam’s narrative offers “glimpses into the lived interior of forced displacements and its aftermaths” (High 9) and her position as a survivor. Her account describes the violence in the second person as she distances herself as Sahana; however, the distance eventually unravels, and the truth comes out that she is, in fact, Sinam. Her account began when tensions had exacerbated in Turkey, and Armenians were aware of their specifically gendered attacks, beginning with its effects on her and her family. Though fictional, it draws on Varma’s conversation with his friend, Armenian scholar Hourig Attarian, about Fethiya Çetin’s memoir about her grandmother, who only revealed that she had survived the genocide years after the fact, much like Sinam. By centering the narrative on Sinam’s voice, Varma posits a strong attack on the mandates of history writing and, as she powerfully puts it, a “stand against men who deny history. When those men write history, their privilege is what they choose to ignore. There are hundreds of girls like me living in silence hiding who they are” (Varma 76). Her testimony further provides a critique against Hakan’s claims denying any existence of genocide. Their contrasting narratives act as a synecdoche to survivor testimonies of Armenians and the continued state-mandated denial of the genocide in Turkey, whereby the genocide remains a “non-event” (Trouillot) in their historiography even today. Varma’s engagement with historical facticity and direct references to policies passed by the Turkish state throughout the play ensures an authentic representation of history and historicity.

By interspersing fiction and fact throughout the play, Varma engages individuals as witnesses, actors and commentators (Trouillot 151) and does not allow the play merely to become “a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge” (149). Rather, he intends to elicit a response from the listeners, both those listening to Sinam’s testimony in the world of the play, those reading the play, and the audience members watching the play in real time. His writing demonstrates the practices of ethical listening necessary for hearing testimonies of violence through different listeners in the play. They take many forms: Odette as she hears Sinam’s story, Cooper as he watches the documentary and, finally, the audience member watching the play as Sinam’s testimony unfolds. In demonstrating their listening praxis, he demonstrates the necessity of compassionate listening wherein “the listener, therefore, has to be at the same time a witness to the trauma and a witness to himself. . . .[T]hrough his simultaneous awareness [they] . . . become the enabler of the testimony—the one who triggers its initiation, as well as the guardian of its process and of its momentum” (Laub 58).

Odette’s character represents this development wherein it is her questioning that ultimately uncovers Sinam’s truth. Once uncovered, she takes on the responsibility to ensure it reaches a global audience, protecting her promise to Sinam.

State of Denial, Rahul Varma. Production, 2015. Left to Right: Eric Hausknost as Colonel Kazim, Susan Bain as Miriam and Liana Bdéwi as Sinam. Photo: Mateo Casis

Odette’s characterization demonstrates a second model of listening: collaborative witnessing. Ellis and Rawicki define it as a “form of relational autoethnography that allows researchers to focus on and evocatively tell the lives of others in shared storytelling and conversation” (Ellis and Rawicki 376). As Odette and Sinam converse, they share stories and memories of their respective experiences of genocide and become active listeners and witnesses to each other’s trauma. Varma explicates the impact of collaborative listening through Odette’s attempts to document, remember and counter the genocide in numerous ways: the documentary, a postcard campaign and archival forays in Canada and Turkey. After hearing Sinam’s story, Odette’s sense of urgency to complete the documentary and ensure Sinam’s testimony reaches the world exacerbates despite threats from the Turkish state. By ensuring she smuggles the documentary to Canada in Cooper’s briefcase and reaches out to Sinam’s daughter in Canada, Odette’s character represents a significant consequence of such witnessing, emphasizing the “bonding, the intimate and total presence of an other—in the position of one who hears” (Laub 72) as a consequence of the sustained connection. Through this, Varma strongly counters claims of genocide deniers that the violence does not affect them; rather, he emphasizes the transnational nature of suffering. As Odette states on hearing Sinam’s testimony, “We have stories. We listen and tell stories, and they connect us” (Varma 20).

Conclusion

Varma’s play remains as pertinent today as when it was first published, as we witness the continuation of genocidal practices against the Armenians even today. The Azerbaijani government, supported by Turkey, has stated its intent to “drive [Armenians] away like dogs” (Becker) and mandated the complete elimination of the Armenians. Their continued utilization of genocidal rhetoric and reduction of the Armenians to a “cancer tumor” and a “disease” highlights the long-term effects of the first genocide and is a testament to how a lack of repercussions and accountability ensures an escalation of the violence. Calling genocide by the correct name and ending the discourse of genocide denial has only become more essential across the years; where though each Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins with the declaration “never again,” history, through time immemorial, remains marked with the specter and reality of genocide.

Despite the declaration putting forward an international commitment to prevent genocide, it has been invoked far too often. Barbara Harff, on the “recurrent” nature of genocide, explains that since 1945, “nearly 50 such events have happened . . . cost[ing] the lives of at least 12 million and as many as 22 million noncombatants” (57). More recently, these genocides have become more visible to audiences through 24/7 news cycles and reels and yet proceed to be faced with denial. The stories, photographs and videos coming through resound worldwide and beg the question: How can these crimes against humanity be stopped? 

Within the play, Varma addresses this question and the plague of genocide denial by centering his narrative on survivor testimonies, emphasizing literature’s ability to counter archival silences. As seen, he signifies methodologies of documentation and remembering, whether as individual listeners to testimonies or as social actors evoking the audience’s conscience. His ideology ultimately stresses theatre as not merely a question of representation but of redressal by combining his politically motivated plays with Teesri Dunya Theatre’s community engagement. Hosting post-play discussions, public meetings in the Armenian church in Laval, and remounting the play for the 100th anniversary of the genocide represent the intention to ensure the events are never forgotten and continue to affect the audience. As Varma claims, “We are looking for the audience to come not just as a ticket buyer but to become engaged with the politics, with the social issues” (Varma qtd. In Jones 14).

These measures transform the narratorial plot beyond fiction, instead becoming an attempt to bridge the gap between fiction and real life and showcase fiction’s role in taking narrative beyond testimony and trauma.


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*Aamna Rashid (she/her) is a graduate student in the Department of English Literature at McGill University, Montréal. Her research focuses on the intersections between post-colonial studies, gender studies, and questions of identity and resistance, specifically, the Global South. She combines methods in literary studies, performance, and history to examine vernacular and resistance literatures. Her artistic and curatorial ambitions evoke the same themes for example an exhibit at McGill Rare Books and Special Collections titled “Anxieties of Imperialism: Representing India in Punch and the Oudh Punch.” She currently serves on the Editorial Board of Caret, a student-run Graduate English Journal, and in the English Graduate Student Association, McGill as co-Masters President.

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