- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
In 1926, Vartoohi Galezian — a 15-year-old refugee from the genocide in Armenia — arrived at the White House to pay a visit to President Calvin Coolidge. She had come to view the rug she and 1,400 other orphans living in Ghazir — then part of mandate Syria, now in Lebanon — had woven as a gift to the United States in thanks for the humanitarian assistance provided to the refugees of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians during World War I. In June 1995, the Ghazir rug, a huge, beautiful work exemplary of the Middle East’s legendary weaving traditions, was shown once more to Galezian and her family, but it’s now been more than 17 years since the White House has displayed what has come to be known as the Armenian orphan rug. Now it is unclear when the rug will ever be shown again.
That rug, seen in the photo above, is now caught in a tug-of-war with historians and Armenian advocates on one side pulling for the rug to be displayed and the White House on the other, which seems reticent to release the rug for an exhibit. Many suspect the White House of kowtowing to Turkey, which refuses to describe the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide and objects to the display of Armenian artifacts — and the implicit acknowledgement of Turkey’s responsibility in the 20th century’s first large-scale ethnic cleansing. But the rug has powerful supporters, who are now pushing a White House loathe to antagonise Turkey to put the rug on display.
As strange as it sounds, the memory of a nearly century-old genocide is now being litigated over the future fate of a rug.
For a time, it looked like the rug would be shown next month at a book launch event for a book about the rug’s history, but the White House declined to exhibit it. "We regret that it was not possible to loan it out for this event," Laura Lucas Magnuson, assistant press secretary for the National Security Council, told Foreign Policy. "Displaying the rug for only half a day in connection with a private book launch event, as proposed, would have been an inappropriate use of U.S. government property, would have required the White House to undertake the risk of transporting the rug for limited public exposure, and was not viewed as commensurate with the rug’s historical significance."
But some suspect the decision was motivated by political expediency as much as concerns about finding the right setting for the rug. The rug is a symbol of the expulsion of the collapsing Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population in 1915, which left 1.5 million dead and hundreds of thousands displaced — an event that most historians consider the first genocide of the modern era. The devastating effects of the deaths and displacement prompted the first concerted effort at U.S. international humanitarianism with the establishment of Near East Relief, an early precursor to USAID. But Turkey adamantly denies that the ethnic cleansing meets the legal definition of genocide, which requires that the effort to wipe out a population be "deliberate and systematic," claiming instead that the Armenians were victims of widespread upheaval in a country in turmoil. The use of the term "genocide" — and anything that draws attention to the deportations, massacres, and death marches — is a loaded political issue in relations with Turkey.
"It is very hard to believe that politics doesn’t have anything to do with the White House’s abrupt refusal to loan the carpet to the Smithsonian" for the book launch, said Keith Watenpaugh, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who has written extensively about U.S. humanitarianism among Armenian survivors. "This explanation strikes me as after the fact — and not terribly persuasive. Artifacts from official collections are brought out for special occasions all the time. It is not unusual for meaningful pieces of art or special documents to be displayed for short periods." Watenpaugh has started a petition asking for the White House to reconsider displaying the rug.
In a separate effort, 31 members of Congress have sent a letter to the White House urging it to "release this American treasure for exhibition" but have not received a response. "If the White House doesn’t release the rug to be shown at the Smithsonian, it’s my intention to put together an event on the Hill at which the rug could be shown," Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and a co-author of the letter, told FP by phone Thursday. That event, which Schiff said could be held as soon as January, would focus on U.S. humanitarian efforts and the "circumstances that led to the making of the rug." As to whether he thought the White House’s refusal to show the rug was motivated by concerns over Turkish sensitivities, Schiff noted that it would be evident if the White House changes its policy for future events. "We’ll see soon enough," he said.
Regardless of the terminology involved, the rug has a fascinating history. It was woven by a girls’ orphanage in the town of Ghazir, about 20 miles north of Beirut, that housed 1,400 girls and was funded through the sale of woven rugs and contributions from Near East Relief, a U.S. development charity that provided support to Armenian refugees. The sprawling rug — 11 by 18 feet — contains 4,404,206 knots and is intricately patterned with animals, plants, and arabesques. It was presented to President Coolidge on December 4, 1925, in advance of a Near East Relief donation drive. The rug stayed in the White House until Coolidge left office, at which point it went with him to Northampton, Mass. It was passed down through the family and given back to the White House collection in 1982.
"The Ghazir rug is a reminder of the close relationship between the peoples of Armenia and the United States," Lucas Magnuson wrote by email. It is also "a symbol of the immense generosity that the American people once demonstrated to the children of the Middle East," Watenpaugh told FP. "It is a superb work of art and a poignant reminder of a time when the relationship between America and the Middle East was much different from today and built around education, humanitarian relief, and cooperation. Today, as millions more children are suffering because of the war in Syria, we have the right to remember that history and an obligation to rekindle our tradition of compassion."
But, for now, that history will stay locked away.