May 4th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY What counts is who you have in your corner

EDITORIAL Political unrest over man-made drought in Murray-Darling Basin

FEDERAL ELECTION The ALP's climate policies will devastate our very way of life

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Labor to people traffickers: "We are open for business"

GENDER POLITICS Radical gender laws rushed through Tasmanian Parliament without Government backing

RURAL AFFAIRS Tiny PhD study used to assess live sheep trade

ENVIRONMENT Ocean is a brake on the climate

EUTHANASIA Helter skelter is already working full time

ART AND CULTURE Taipei preserves China's 5,000-year heritage

POLITICS AND SOCIETY What the future holds for the right side of history

HUMOUR This can't be right ... even in politics: The Shorten Run

MUSIC East West: Earthy sounds of Eastern liturgy

CINEMA Missing Link: Stop-start Victoriana

BOOK REVIEW Milligan's revised hit on Cardinal Pell

BOOK REVIEW Top secret history told from the inside

BOOK REVIEW Foretaste of a bloody century



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Foretaste of a bloody century

News Weekly, May 4, 2019

THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS: A Woman’s Record of the Armenian Massacre of 1909

by Helen Davenport Gibbons

Connor Court, Redland Bay, 2016 (first published in 1917; this edition with a new introduction and annotations)
Paperback: 130 pages
Price: AUD$19.95

Reviewed by Edward Fenton

The world heard of the “liberation” of Aleppo a few years ago from the hands of a God-forsaken “other”. This book is an account of another episode of mass upheaval and mob cruelty 100 odd years and 150 kilometres removed from that city, in the city of Saint Paul, Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. It focuses the mind on the utter barbarity that can be unleashed when order breaks down in the Near East, in particular, and in any society once the innate worth of every human being no longer resonates with the masses, who will quickly devolve into the mindless mob.

This story is all the more relevant today as present-day Turkish society seems to be swerving towards tumult again, under President Erdoğan, and the West to be disintegrating into tribal factions.

The Red Rugs of Tarsus is a series of letters detailing the massacre of Christian Armenians and other minority groups in the Adana province of what was then the Ottoman Empire in April and May of 1909. The letters where written by Helen Davenport Gibbons to her mother bet­ween December 2, 1908, and May 27, 1909. These minor pogroms presaged the mass genocide of 1.5 million Armenian Christians in 1915.

The 26-year-old Helen Davenport Gibbons was on missionary work in Tarsus in 1908–09 with her husband and Protestant Parson Herbert Gibbons. She was helping out at the St Paul’s Institute, a Congregationalist Protestant Mission school for boys.

Davenport Gibbons, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, University of Pennsylvania, was looking to gain “experience” in life after having completed her studies and married. She would reflect that she did indeed gain “experience” and it was “painful”.

Davenport Gibbons, who was pregnant throughout the period of the letters, and her Greek man servant, the 16-year-old Socrates, whose talent for languages was invaluable to the American housewife when conducting her daily errands, constitute the two main protagonists in the relative peace of the pre-pogrom letters as Pastor Davenport Gibbons was often away on duties outside Tarsus. Helen relays to her mother her respect and admiration for Socrates, whose intelligence and loyalty during the darker days of late April and May feature prominently in her letters.

In the early letters, Davenport Gibbons relays to the reader the stark beauty of the barren landscape, the delicious oriental food, the striking beauty of the turquoise mosques, the friendliness of the locals and the strength of community spirit that has been built up with the boys who attend the Saint Paul’s school.

In one episode Davenport Gibbons tells her mother how the boys put on a production of Hamlet, to which local dignitaries such as the Mufti, the Feriq (head of local military administration) and the Kaïmakam (head of the local civil administration) were invited.

Davenport Gibbons endears us to these characters by illustrating a scene of a full school hall on a hot and humid night, all parties struggling to stay engaged with the play but genuinely communing in a spirit of good will.

This is until, as if a portent of things to come, the local dignitaries rise and bristle at the fate of Claudius and, not being familiar with the Bard of Avon’s work, think that maybe the play is a contrivance to make a veiled threat against Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

Davenport Gibbons contemplates this later, and remembers how she laughed when a fellow teacher relayed to her the fact that he could not teach the boys at the school physics as the word “revolution” (as in the revolution of bodies in circular motion) was deemed too subversive for the authorities to tolerate.

She then remembers that the dignitaries had left the play with furrowed brows and clenched fists and hints at the fact that maybe this is not a matter for lighthearted dismissal.

This episode is contained in a letter written on April 7, 1909. It seems prescient as, in a letter dated a week later on April 14, Socrates informs her that violence has erupted within the Adana province and four Armenian women have been murdered.

As the letters that follow recount, the situation from here quickly deteriorates into harrowing violence and mayhem, interspersed with moments of almost miraculous good fortune. One such is when a local sheik leads a number of Armenians hiding in the swamps around Tarsus to Saint Paul’s School knowing they will be safe within its walls.

The sheik was roused to action out of a feeling of reciprocity for the kind actions of one of the missionaries when his son had died. He did, however, express an exasperating disposition of indifference towards those he had saved when he commented to the missionaries that he did not understand why they liked these people but, as they did, he was willing to lead them to safety.

In contrast to the sheik’s indifference, the hero of the letters, Socrates, proves to be a loyal and selfless protector of Davenport Gibbons. He refuses to flee to Mersina without her and stays as a guardian angel over mother and child.

The letters close with missionaries laying down their lives for the sake of their charges and the Sultan being deposed by his brother, Mohammed V.

Davenport Gibbons, Socrates and a contingent of boys from St Paul’s escape to Mersina, and Davenport Gibbons gives birth to a daughter, Christine (known as Scrappie). The eventual end to the bloodshed is chronicled after the intervention of foreign powers and the “Young Turk” brigades of Ottoman troops, who restore order in the wake of the changing political climate.

The book is a personal account of an outsider being swept up in the terror of a foreign persecution while also being the account of a member of the persecuted group given some level of protection by virtue of her alien status. These personal anecdotes bring home the gravity of mass murder to the reader and, although only a collection of letters that can become bogged down in personal minutiae, a short compendium well worth the reading.

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