Dawn Anahid MacKeen grew up in Los Angeles, the granddaughter of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. She is also an investigative journalist. Combing her vocation with her passion seemed like a natural thing.
That is how the idea for her new book, The Hundred Year Walk, An Armenian Odyssey, was born.
“I wanted to look at [the Genocide] from a reporter’s perspective,” she said during a recent interview from her home in Los Angeles.
MacKeen was thrilled to find out that her grandfather, Stepan Miskjian had kept meticulous journals.
“I grew up with the story of my grandfather. But I only knew part of it,” she said.
The family believes, MacKeen said, that he did not write his journals during the Genocide, as he was barely surviving from one day to the next. Instead, they think he started in 1930.
Some of his journals, he said, were published in the 1960s in Armenian.
In the past decade, MacKeen began the effort to collect all of them and have them all put into order and then translated.
MacKeen, who is Scottish on her father’s side, grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Los Feliz. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and her master’s from Northwestern.
She worked at several prestigious news outlets, including Salon, Newsday and SmartMoney.
“I knew I had to do something. I had been investigating assisted living facilities for eight or nine months,” she said. “We ended up changing the state law. There were parallels to my grandfather’s story. Its focus was on elderly with dementia and making promises that they were not keeping,” she noted, “parallel to the Armenians,” who had suffered after false promises by the Ottoman authorities.
The title of the book comes from the fateful decision she made to actually walk the path that her grandfather did, from his town of Adabazar to his march through Deir Zor, all the way through Syria, where he was ultimately saved by an Arab sheik. She was ready for a change at that time, in 2007, as she had already moved back to the West Coast from New York and was searching for something to sink her teeth into.
Little did MacKeen know that her book would not only bring to life this journey from 100 years ago for her, but would capture ordinary life in Syria before the country’s devolution into chaos.
As any good reporter knows — and MacKeen is one — gathering information about your subject is the first step. She quizzed all her relatives in the US and France about him.
The next step is to “be there” for the story to get closer to one’s subject.
“That was my goal, to see the environment that he was in. The desert was their prison.
The highs and lows in her book are thrilling, as they compare and contrast the life of a man in the Ottoman Empire struggling from one moment to another in order to survive, as well as his American granddaughter who makes this journey, albeit with as many modern comforts as possible. The linking of the two is the centerpiece of the book as MacKeen is able to viscerally experience the memories imparted from her grandfather.
Her grandfather, Stepan Miskjian, had died in 1974 but his words were still there.
“He lived very close to us. We would go to their house and I was always at his knee,” she recalled.
Stepan’s journey started in the town of Adabazar, in Western Armenia. He was yanked away from his family and survived — against unbelievable odds — imprisonment, starvation, forced labor and a lengthy march through the desert — which ended up in Syria, and ended up in the US.
While the story she traces is one of survival, she insists that to regard Stepan as solely a survivor would be to short-change him.
“My grandfather was very funny and very health conscious,” she recalled, with a knack for playing tricks on friends and family.
It is amazing to consider that Stepan Miskjian lived on the verge of death for years, from about 1914 to 1919. The backbreaking labor, the depravation, the thirst and the murderous heat of the desert all took their toll on him, both physically and mentally. Though he was jovial later in life, he had his struggles. “He would tell her [his daughter, Dawn’s mother, Anahid] every year that he was going to die next year. My mom thinks that it was like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”
As MacKeen found out, Stepan had a “very strong constitution and will to live.”
Stepan, before the hellish time of the Genocide, had had to test his mettle in order to survive. His family went through a change of fortune and he had to leave school and take to the streets eventually as an “emanetji,” a sort of courier service for delivering goods for merchants.
Because of this job, in which he was very successful, “he was dealing with a lot of people and adapting, which helped him later on.”
“He survived the Deir Zor massacres. It was really important for him to bear witness. So many people asked him that if he survived it, to tell our story. He was a very good storyteller,” MacKeen said. “He would just get up and tell stories.”
Part of Stepan’s story is being rescued by a pious Muslim family in what is now Syria. “This Arab sheik saved my grandfather despite the rhetoric that the Armenians were dangerous people,” she said. “I really feel it is important to speak to that.”
Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, a relatively prosperous landowner with many heads of cattle, took him in after he crossed into Syria and nursed him back to health.
The sheikh himself died in the 1930s at age 70 or so.
Now, she said, “his descents are suffering under war and they need refuge.”
The story of how she finds and meets them is charmingly put in the book. She arrives, with her driver and guide, and assumes that there is a big religious holiday going on, as so many cars and people have gathered. Little did she know that they had all arrived to meet her. She receives a hero’s welcome and is treated to a lavish banquet.
“It is their custom. It kind of shows what kind of people there are. It is absolutely heartbreaking” to think the fate that has befallen them.
And they are not the only ones to be displaced. The Armenians who ended up putting down roots in Syria after the Genocide are all displaced yet again. She recalls going to Raqqa, where the Genocide survivors had built a church.
“What happened to these people [again] sickens me,” MacKeen said.
“I believe my grandfather’s story needed to be told. I am so heartened that people are reading and commenting on what he endured,” she said. “especially non-Armenians. I always wanted to educate people through my story.
“I got to know him. It has been such a gift,” she said.
Aram Arkun, the assistant editor at the Mirror-Spectator, served as a consultant for the book.
By Alin K. Gregorian