THE GREAT MAN OF ARMENIA

“We do not believe in benevolent friends, the inevitable triumph of justice, or covertly and cleverly manipulating the superpowers. If we are to achieve national self-determination, then we ourselves, the Armenian people, will have to fight for it. We believe in the power of organized masses and in the capacity of our people to determine their own future. We believe in revolution.”
~ Monte Melkonian.

There was a man that most Kurds don’t know but probably should. His name was Monte Melkonian. He was born in California in the latter half of the 1950s to Armenian-American parents and was educated at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978, he left the US for Iran where he taught English and joined with others to overthrow the Shah. In August 1979, Monte heard rumors of a Kurdish rebellion in East Kurdistan:

Since leaving Berkeley, Monte had tried to surmount his distrust towards Kurds. He had read somewhere that the Kurds who had taken part in the genocide were from clans led by men who owed their allegiance not to their own people, but to Turkish leaders in Istanbul. After betraying their Armenian cousins, these leaders betrayed their own brothers and sisters by siding with the Turkish army that massacred and deported Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s. Since then, even Kurds from the offending clans had come to view Armenians as fellow victims of their mutual Turkish enemy.

If the rumors of the Kurdish rebellion turned out to be true, exhilarating questions would follow: had the Kurds in Iran succeeded in establishing their own government? And if so, what were the chances that their insurrection would spill over the border to the 12 million Kurds on the Turkish side? And if those prospects were good, could Armenian recruits form their own group and join the insurrection?

It was time to visit Kurdistan. (My Brother’s Road, p. 59)

Monte left for East (Iranian) Kurdistan with a group of Armenian friends, all of whom sought to fight alongside the Kurds:

After four or five days at Haftvan, it was time to continue the journey south to Mahabad. The entourage announced their arrival to rebel leader Ghani Booloorian, who had recently emerged from twenty-eight years in one of the Shah’s dungeons. They also introduced themselves to Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the highest-ranking leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Iran. With some 15,000 men in arms and eleven tanks, the KDP was the most powerful organization in Iranian Kurdistan. Ghassemlou’s tie and suit jacket did not impress Monte, though, nor did his claim that Kurds were “true Europeans” surrounded by Asiatics. It was the long-lost European story again–the same old story he had heard from Armenians and Lebanese Maronites. Vahig told Ghassemlou that he and his friends wanted to go to the front, but when he mentioned that one of his friends was from the United States, the Kurdish leader’s smile disappeared and he snapped, “We don’t need any more fighters at the front.”

Monte and his entourage enjoyed a better reception from Komala, an organization dedicated to autonomy in Iranian Kurdistan. The leader of Komala, a fifty-seven-year-old Sunni religious scholar named Sheikh Ezzedin Hosseini, invited the youths to sit with him on the floor around a tray of tea. The sheikh spoke in sincere generalities about Armenian-Kurdish relations and offered to provide arms and training to his Armenian brothers, if they so wished. Monte took an instant liking to the sheikh, with his white turban, horn-rimmed glasses, green robe, and graying beard. For years after meeting him, Monte would greet comrades with a temmenah, touching fingers of the right hand to the forehead and then placing the open hand on the heart. (My Brother’s Road, pp. 60 – 61)

In 1978, Monte went to Beirut. By 1980, he had joined ASALA and received military training from the Palestinians. But Armenians and Palestinians weren’t the only groups to receive military training in Lebanon in the early 1980s; the PKK was also part of Monte’s Lebanese milieu. Monte trained with the PKK and here’s what he had to say about them:

At night, the Kurds actually dreamt about their suffering motherland, and as soon as they awoke they charged off to the drill ground. They dug foxholes with gusto and shouted Thaura! Thaura! “Revolution!” during assault practice, instead of the usual Allahu Akbar! “God is Great!” When they picked the odd quince, they left coins for the farmer at the foot of the tree, and when a Druze farmer came to harvest olives at a nearby orchard they climbed the trees with buckets to help. Once, when the Kurd Suleiman broke a banana in half and absent-mindedly landed Comrade Hassan the smaller of the two pieces, his PKK comrade Terjuman demanded a round of criticism and self-criticism. Suleiman came clean with a self-criticism and a solemn oath never again to engage in such unseemly behavior.

After their initial amusement wore off, the scruffy, swearing, cigarette-smoking Arabs and Armenians at the camp began to feel self-conscious in the presence of the abstemious Kurds, with their internationalist songs, their allusions to German classical philosophy, and their constant focus on revolution. But Monte loved these goings-on. “These guys are like gold!” he effused.

Their enthusiasm was contagious. One by one, the smokers started tossing aside their cigarette rations after returning from the morning jog. All the comrades grimly huddled around the radio for news about the September 12, 1980 military coup in Turkey. Arab recruits volunteered to shoot Turkish diplomats. Before long, they were all stomping shoulder to shoulder under the sun, shouting in Arabic, Kurdish, and Armenian: “Return to the homeland!” “Struggle until victory!” and “We are fedayees!”

At Yanta [Lebanon], Monte felt that expansive feeling that comes with living and fighting together for a common purpose. It was a feeling for which the word “solidarity” is entirely too tepid. The simplest activities–squatting around a tray of lentils; tearing bread and handing it out; donating blood; passing the overcoat at the change of the guard–each of these gestures formed part of a daily liturgy that had nothing to do with egoism or altruism. Quite apart from the question of whether their goals were realizable, the new comrades had moved, if only for a few days or weeks, beyond the plodding mediocrity of shopkeepers and the crushing cynicism of Beirut. This was the way a revolutionary movement–a struggle, as Monte would say–was supposed to feel. (My Brother’s Road, pp. 85 – 87)

There are those who claim that Monte was a “terrorist”, but “terrorism” is not so simple and it’s a term that’s generally used by those who seek to enforce a self-beneficial status quo, as we have all seen so clearly in the last eight years. Reality is always different, as Monte himself wrote in 1988:

“Exploitation and oppression are in themselves forms of violence, and to defend myself and others I will leave all my options open, including violent options. This is natural, and the way things go. I don’t care whether someone has been born into a position of oppression or if he has “worked” his way there. If he oppresses, he oppresses. If he refuses to correct his behavior the easy way, then we’ll just have to do things the hard way. It’s as simple as that.”

Monte was no “terrorist”; he was a lover and defender of justice. So much so, in fact, that he came to the point of criticizing ASALA and urging a surprising option:

In a series of prison essays, Melkonian cited failings of the Armenian Secret Army and called on Armenian revolutionaries to join Kurdish and Turkish rebels to establish a guerrilla force in eastern Turkey.

“Pens are pens and guns are guns,” he wrote. “Right now we have a greater need for guns than pens.”

My Brother’s Road, written by Monte’s brother, Markar Melkonian, is not the only book available about Monte Melkonian. The Right to Struggle: Selected Writings of Monte Melkonian on the Armenian National Question are Monte’s own words on the issue, and should provide the reader with plenty of meat to enjoy a discussion on the right to struggle with the great man himself. In fact, this would be the only opportunity to discuss anything with Monte; sadly, he died in 1993 while defending the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

There is much more information available online about Monte Melkonian than there was when I first learned of him. He has a Wikipedia page and there is information about him at the Monte Melkonian Fund, including a photo gallery and a page of quotes. Go, now, and learn.

May our old friend rest in peace.

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