Following his lecture “Ecocide: The War on Nature,” David Barsamian offered The Cascade some perspective on how his personal background and travel has affected his work as an activist and writer.
What had the biggest influence on you as a radio broadcaster and writer? My family background. My parents were refugees, escaping the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915. In 1921, they met in Beirut and got married, coming to New York right after that. I was born there in 1945. Growing up, in the background, there were horrible things that happened to them. They lost everything. They lost their parents, their land, their memories, their brothers, their sisters. There was this huge hole in the family psyche; the shadow of the past was very strong. I always wanted to know what happened [and] why did it happen. My parents, like the other Armenians I knew in New York, were rural people; they were country bumpkins. They didn’t go to school. They didn’t have a geopolitical understanding of why the Turkish state targeted the Armenian minority for extermination. I wanted to know those things because I couldn’t get any answers from my parents or the people around them. They would just say, “The Turks, they hated us,” and [I would think], “Okay, they hated you. Anything else? Is there any history there? Did the Armenians do anything? What were the circumstances?” Not having that filled out left this vacuum that I wanted to fill, so I started reading and asking questions, and educated myself about not just the genocide of the Armenians, but history in general. You’ve been to many countries around the world.
What’s been your favourite country so far? I have a particular attachment to India, even though I’m banned from travelling there. I love the music, I study the sitar, I love raga, I love Urdu poetry. I love the openness of the people. I have a lot more friends in India than I do in the United States because friendships are deeper. If you bond with someone, it’s not a 36-hour thing. Just today, I got an email from someone I haven’t seen in five years saying, “We’re missing you, we’re thinking about you.” I don’t get those emails from Americans. The first time I went was in 1966 and I’ve been to India about 20 to 24 times. I lived in Delhi with my teacher in the late ‘60s, from 1967 to 1970. Some of my best friends were refugees from West Punjab and Sialkot. I remember one of my dear friends, he lived across the street in a gulley, and he was a tailor. Baldev Singh from Sialkot. He would talk about Punjab the way my parents and relatives talked about Armenia. It was this magical place people were happy, the water was so pure. The air was so clear, the fruit was so sweet, the flowers were so fragrant. Everything was like heaven, and it really reminded me of the atmosphere I grew up in. I noticed that refugees recreate their homeland and transform it into something that it wasn’t. It becomes this precious memory of wonder, of awe. I met a lot of people from West Punjab, from Lahore, Pindi, Peshawar, from Multan. They were all in Delhi; millions of Sikhs and Hindus went to “true India,” and a lot of them went to Delhi. I would hear all of these stories about how great the reetha was, and the corn, and the pomegranates that grew so sweet like sugar, and the grapes. It’s like a magic land.
Having visited so many countries and explored so many cultures, what are your thoughts on religion? I consider myself a spiritual person, but non-religious. The dharma is the Earth. We have to save the Earth, we have to protect her; she is in great danger.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity