In 1915 Urfa, Ottoman Empire, my great-great grandfather Abkar Knadjian, a young Armenian man, escaped the Armenian Genocide with his wife, 7 children and a trunk full of his karagoz shadow puppets and ancient metal magic tricks — arriving to Aleppo to restart a life. He was a storyteller, a hakawati.
As a Syrian-Armenian with family from Aleppo, I’ve been acutely aware of devastating loss becoming the reality of a people. My great grandparents survived, or didn’t, the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Those that did, slowly rebuilt lives in Aleppo as refugees where their progeny lived for the last century. A century prior, Aleppo had welcomed and hosted the community of Armenians from the Genocide, like my Abkar dede.
In 2012 the current Syrian War once again brought catastrophic change to the landscape of my family’s life. Since then, I’ve witnessed aunts, uncles and cousins flee Aleppo as refugees. My grandmother refused to leave. She passed in Aleppo. The convergence of tragedy from a century ago and the one today has been too stark to ignore.
In the Spring of 2019 I spent three months in Aleppo, the first time in 8 years since the war. Aleppo is now ravaged in myriad ways. But I believe in our capacity to turn darkness into light, to alchemize pain, to sublimate trauma. Amidst the darkness of our empty home where my grandmother died and from where my relatives fled as refugees from the war, I discovered Abkar dede’s Karagoz puppets in our attic: they’d been living there for over a century since being salvaged from the Genocide.
I have come to understand viscerally that art, storytelling, can help us transcend tragedy, fortify our resilience by conecting us to each other. When the great Indian sage the Ramana Maharishi was asked, “How do we treat the other?” He simply replied, “There is no other.”
It is through this understanding that Hakawati was born.