When the first guests of the “Climbing the Mountain” project -- theater artist Arsine Khanjian and lawyer Fethiye Cetin -- appeared on stage in Yerevan, their faces reflected not only the sadnesses of the past, but also the pride of being able to speak.
A joint project by the Armenian Civilitas Foundation and the Anatolian Cultural Center from Turkey, “Climbing the Mountain” arrived in Yerevan after appearances in Berlin and İstanbul.
Çetin, who wrote the book “Anneannem” (My Grandmother), and was the family lawyer for the Dink family in the Hrant Dink case, told Yerevan residents all about Turkey, her personal struggles, people like herself and, most significantly, her own grandmother. “On the day when she first began recalling to us what had happened, her eyes became fixed on one point in the room as she spoke, and her hand moved over and over as though cleaning some spot of dirt off her skirt that we couldn’t see, over and over, repeating the same thing, let those days be gone, never to return again.”
Young Heranuş, whose name was later changed to Seher, was forcibly removed from her mother’s arms by soldiers and raised as a Muslim girl. She was married off, had children and later grandchildren. Seher buried the memories of Heranuş very deep, but talked about the latter with one of her grandchildren -- Çetin. Çetin said, “I have often thought, and still ponder, why it is she told me. She had other grandchildren, other children. ... I had been accepted to law school, had always talked loudly about how I would do whatever it took to honor the law; I was full of opposition, a protestor, and a woman, and she chose me.”
So saying, Çetin also notes she observed methods that her grandmother developed in order to be able to live with this pain. She recalls: “She was not able to talk about what had happened, and it was so difficult to live with the pain, so the first thing she would do would be to talk for hours in a closed-off room with other women like herself. We never knew what they were talking about in there, but now I understand they were remembering the past, and trying to find some peace. This was their secret. In the last years of her life, she developed a different strategy, she admitted everything, she no longer wished to carry around the pain and the secret. She wanted to be rid of it, to leave this world without it.”
History collapsing before your eyes
Çetin notes, “When they recounted the truth of the past, it was always to other women, to female grandchildren, as only other women could really understand the pain, and besides, any men who were told would probably press these elderly women with questions like, ‘Where was the gold buried?’” She also asserts that in listening to these individual memories from the past, the officially acknowledged history begins to collapse before your very eyes. Khanjiyan played a main role in “Ararat,” a film not granted screening permission in Turkey. She was born in Lebanon, and says that at first, she had not intended to go to either Berlin or İstanbul to prove anything to anyone. “I know history, and what I wanted was not to convince others or be persuaded myself, but rather to talk, to talk with people on all sides of this issue. I always felt the denial, and my life was spent with the weight of knowing I wanted to illuminate this topic, and then during a meeting in Berlin, I realized something. When the meeting was over, a man in a suit came and tried to persuade Fethiye, in fact he argued with Fethiye, and later I learned he had come from the Turkish Embassy. I realized then that Turkey had begun to argue within itself, that some things had begun to change there.”
Khanjiyan had always lived with the dream of climbing a “mountain.” She explains: “I say ‘mountain’ because for me there is just one mountain, and that is Ararat. And for us, it is making a pilgrimage, being able to climb the mountain. When we got to Ararat, I went and walked around the streets, and someone who realized I was Armenian came up to me and said, ‘My grandmother was also Armenian,’ which surprised me, but then another person came and said something similar, and another, and another. And when more than 10 people had said similar things to me, I couldn’t stand it any more, and asked, ‘All right, but are you yourself Armenian?’ to which the response was a sharp ‘No.’ So I said, ‘All right, but then why are you telling me, and have you ever thought about why it is that your grandmother and not your grandfather was Armenian?’”
At the end of the meeting, Salpi Ghazarian, the director of the Civilitas Foundation, who is also a grandchild of Western Armenians, was no longer able to hide tears as he said to Çetin: “I also tried to find a way to return to Fethiye, to be able to return to those days. I tried to relieve some of the pain of our elders, looked for some sort of path or bridge, but was unable to find it. … How did you do it, what did you do? Did you never become afraid in a country where being a Turk is considered such an honor?”
Çetin replied: “I was both Armenian and Turkish, with one side of me victim, the other side perpetrator. In fact, we were all perpetrators, perhaps no blood on our hands, but we hid things, we remained silent, we systematically denied. Anyone who was at all involved in these events, even those who might have carried off just one small glass to their home from Armenian houses that were looted, all of these people were partners in this. But this is not a role I wanted, I did not want to leave this load on my shoulders for later generations.
“After hearing my grandmother’s story, I looked around me at all the other stories I was hearing, and realized they didn’t fit with the official history, and that what my grandmother had told me confirmed all I was seeing around me. They wish to see the traces of history erased from those lands, because the politics of denial carries on. In the town of Pali in the province of Elazığ, there is the village of Havav, the Kağtsrahayatsk monastery. There are churches on the outskirts of the mountains here. My grandmother lived here until she was 9 years old. The past was wonderful in the villages here, but now there are just dried up fountains. Stones were carried away from these fountains, everything was overturned, there were digs to look for gold. There were a few arches left in these fountains, but their water had long dried up.
“I tried to restore these fountains. This was to be a different sort of restoration. This was to be an activity of commemoration, with Turks and Kurds working to try and fix the mistakes of the past, seeing just how these structures were destroyed. We began restoring the fountains in 2009. Last year, I stayed there for four months. People came from Armenia to help. We lived and worked together for a while. We cried and laughed together. In the end, we finished up the restoration, and now water flows from the fountains.
“We did all of this for the people who were chased out of those villages, and for those who lost their lives in massacres there. So that the grandchildren of those people could return, and quench their thirst with water from those fountains. I went and found the traces of my grandmother’s former home. We planted trees, and named them after the youth, after ourselves. As we planted the trees, we kept hitting old stones from former walls with our shovels. I knew that some of these stones were from the walls of the home where my grandmother would play as a child, but still, we kept digging. It was as though pain were springing forth from the ground. But we kept on digging.”
Çetin describes all this, underscoring that fear was not a factor for her. She states: “What was the worst that could happen? I could be killed. But living under this heavy load or losing my life, I did not see a difference. No one had the courage to strike against me for telling the story of my grandmother’s life. When you tell a personal story, no one else can deny it.”
Staying alive -- as Armenians
The basic goal of Armenians, who spread out in all directions following the events of 1915, was to stay alive, but as Armenians. In countries that welcomed them, they built schools and churches. Protecting their Armenian status was to protect their language, their history, their memories and their religion. Syria and Lebanon became the most important countries in terms of allowing the Armenian identity to live on. And so while Armenians were able to survive the start of the 20th century, there was a mourning they were undergoing, as well as the pride of still being alive. They knew about Armenians who had survived by changing their religion, but as they saw it, these were people who had ultimately denied their own roots to stay alive. But what they didn’t think about at all was those very young children, the vast majority of whom were girls, who were literally forced to change their religion, and who could barely remember their own names when they were taken from their parents. Perhaps Çetin’s mother was one of the lucky ones; she had been nine when she was taken, and was thus able to remember her family’s past.
Hidden truths and the pain of living with secrets cause heaviness, even embarrassment. Saying “Actually, I am Armenian” in a country where being Turkish elicits such great praise is very difficult. It is especially difficult if the truth has been hidden for so long. But there are women who take this task upon themselves, overcoming the difficulty by telling the truth after so many long years. The truth is whispered in our ears, memorized. History is thus illuminated through a series of personal recollections and hidden memories.
But what can an orphaned girl forced to keep her secret, a girl whose only tool in hand is the kitchen, really do? What can a girl who is not even able to tell her own offspring “I am Armenian,” a girl unable to say “But that is not really my name,” tell her own children? One way to deal with this all has been kitchen politics; making dishes with strange names, or even Easter breads, thus raising question marks in their own children’s minds. And when the grandchildren of these women finally understand the real meaning behind phrases heard from their grandmothers, such as, “Don’t be afraid of those in the graveyards, run instead from the living,” or, “May those days be gone and never come again,” everything will be different from then onwards for those grandchildren. They are now grandchildren destined to question the “history” taught in schools, and to realize that the history taught elsewhere as belonging to the state is in fact the history of the childhoods and of their grandparents. And perhaps, as Çetin has done, they will research and learn much more about their history.
*Alin Ozinian is an independent analyst.