Vergeen: the System of a Down

A couple of months ago my 14-year-old son asked me about the Armenian genocide that took place during the first World War. He was interested because of the band System of a Down, a really good thrash-metal outfit that often uses Middle Eastern musical themes and sings some songs about the Armenian people and their history (it’s amazing what a kid can learn from a good metal band).

I tried to find a good book, and I ended up ordering a first-person memoir called “Vergeen“. This story of a young teenage girl living through the total destruction of her family and community is in many ways a “Diary of Anne Frank” of the Armenian holocaust, the main difference being that Vergeen Meghrouni lived to tell the tale.

As in the Nazi massacre of the Jews and the Rwandan massacre of the Tutsis, the Armenians were systematically segregated, dehumanized, humiliated and finally destroyed by their own government, the Ottomans of Turkey. Vergeen (the name is translated as Virginia) is 13 years old when her entire village is ordered to give up everything they own and walk across the desert to Syria. Vergeen watches as every member of her family is killed. The last to die is her brave mother, who put Vergeen’s needs first and is the real hero of this story.

Vergeen survives by attaching herself to a Bedouin family, but she is brutally raped by the head of the family. The author is not a professional writer, and when she describes the rape with an aching and inarticulate “Oh GOD” her pain and anger are easy to feel.

Why isn’t this book better known? The Armenian holocaust took at least 1.5 million lives, but it’s somehow remained a quiet holocaust. I respect the band System of a Down for spreading awareness of this forgotten piece of world history.

It’s weird how some historical periods are well-represented by books, while others aren’t. I think there are about 1,473,629 World War II books published each year, and approximately 12 about World War I. Why is this? I guess it’s the same reason there are 2,337,810 books published each year about the Civil War and 3 about the American Revolution. And there has never been a book published about the Spanish-American War.

Okay, I’m exaggerating, and I made up these numbers. But I think my point stands: there are big incidents in world history that the publishing industry doesn’t cover. I don’t think there’s any censorship going on here; the major publishers simply follow successful formulas. The Civil War sells, and so do D-Day, Anne Frank and Iwo Jima. Armenia? Not a proven formula.

“Vergeen” is published by a small company called Atmus Press, and you’re not likely to find it in your local bookstore unless you specifically order it. I recommend doing so, or buying it on Amazon. “Vergeen” offers a unique first-person story you won’t forget.

12 Responses

  1. underground history lessonsMy
    underground history lessons

    My son likes System of a Down and he is learning the bass parts for some of their songs. He and a guitar player are trying to start a band. I’ll have to ask him if he is familiar with this and if he knows what it’s about.

  2. Yeah, about SOADSomewhat off
    Yeah, about SOAD

    Somewhat off topic but not entirely. . .

    Is this band serious? I can’t figure it out. If you listen to the song “BYOB” it’s both hard hitting and unintentionally, I think, funny.

    On the one hand, they go through this “why don’t presidents fight the wars? Why do they always send the poor?” stuff.

    And then they sing “everybody going to the party have a real good time.” Perhaps by trying to tear down the walls of economic injustice they hope to tear down the walls of grammar as well.

    And then there’s the occasional shrieking, for seemingly no apparant reason, in the songs. I always get a chuckle out of this.

    Ah, SOAD. Perhaps they are just as much a riddle as the genocide they purportedly sing about.

  3. I can’t say I know much about
    I can’t say I know much about SOAD, other than my son likes them a lot.

    Shrieking and noises in songs are an interesting thing. I too, don’t ‘get’ the shriek common in some bands today, however, my daughter doesn’t ‘get’ Janis Joplin’s non-verbal singing, either.

  4. Yes, this shrieking business
    Yes, this shrieking business is hard to pinpoint. I mean, for years there have been shouters, screamers, belters, and growlers, but a singing style usually means something. A Punk would shout angrily about unemployment in Great Britain in the 1970s. A screamer might be expressing lust or ecstacy. A growler, maybe they’ve been singing in honky tonks & drinking bourbon so long, they just growl. But some of the newer bands have a sound that’s like nothing I can relate to. Like maybe they are trying to sound like some monster or demon or something. My son and his friends stand around and try to imitate it. I told them I think some of that sound is attained by special effects that enhance the voice, but they say, “No, that dude can really sing like that. That’s what makes him so awesome!”

  5. I really don’t have a problem
    I really don’t have a problem with the shrieking. But I can’t find any rhyme or reason for it in the song “BYOB.” For example, they’re singing about oil or something and then all of the sudden the singer shrieks out “freedom!”

    Okay. But then they seem to be singing about some heavy stuff and then, completely out of left field, the singer sings “blast off, it’s party time!”

    So, I can’t figure out if they are trying to be serious or are just screwing around.

  6. Hey Malt — well, my son
    Hey Malt — well, my son Daniel could fill in a lot more details than I can, but I am pretty sure System is serious about it’s political stance. I take the “everybody’s going to the party” chant as sarcasm — since the next line is “dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine” I assume they are talking about the war in Iraq. They’ve done other songs about this. The songs about the Armenian genocide (apparently all the members of the band are Armenian-American) were from their first album.

    Musically, I think this band is pretty original. They change tempos a lot. The lead singer sort of reminds me of Frank Zappa crossed with Johnny Rotten.

  7. “Yes, this shrieking business
    “Yes, this shrieking business is hard to pinpoint. I mean, for years there have been shouters, screamers, belters, and growlers, but a singing style usually means something.”

    …and don

  8. I’m all for yodeling in
    I’m all for yodeling in music. Sinead O’Conner brought this to a new level, I think. Then there’s burping (David Byrne), whispering (Ying Yang Twins), gasping (The Cure) … it’s all good.

  9. I’m a pretty big “Down” fan,
    I’m a pretty big “Down” fan, and I think they try to throw in a bit of “party and have a good time” so as not to turn people off if they were too serious. I like that they talk about Armenian history and current events and “party and have a good time”. That’s a pretty good combo.

  10. Okay, you got me on yodeling.
    Okay, you got me on yodeling. I find no precedent in my index of human emotions to explain yodeling. But I’m not against it. I’ll concede that it’s all good. I actually like System of a Down, by the way. It’s Slipknot I can’t stand.

  11. Armenian genocideAnother good
    Armenian genocide

    Another good book about the Armenian genocide is Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian. It is a sign of the times that we receive all our information, influences, heroes, culture and the very direction of our thought from the media. If it were not for tv, cell phones, the internet and electronic games, well jesus, people might have some degree of education and Bush would be a footnote in American history, instead of president.

    Our country is now as corrupt as any tin pot dictatorship in Central America or central Africa for that matter. The reason we barely heard about the Balkan war, Somalia, Sudan is because they had little economic interest to the U.S. Our media and subsequently our very culture is controlled by the conservative dominant paradigm. The Democrats and the left are still running around like rats on a sinking ship.

    The Armenians! Where the heck is Armenia anyway? Ask any kid or adult where Armenia is on the map. I guarantee 90% of Americans have no clue where it is. Stalin’s evil makes Hitler’s genocide look positively second rate. There is no limit to an individual’s understanding and capacity for learning. It is as close as the nearest library.

    It is good that at least SOAD picqued your son’s curiosity about the Armenian genocide. I wish other bands would promote more awareness of the rising tide of fascism and this brand of hypocritical christian faith that has seized our once great nation like a cancer.

    Have your son also read Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States. Good sections on the genocides we have committed against Native Americans and other people of color.

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