This article is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, osman selim, whose heroism at Çanakkale, though recognized at the time, was unsung to his closest relatives, then lost in the mists of time for close to a century.
Born and raised in Lebanon, I was always aware of our Turkish heritage through my grandfather. This was despite the fact that my grandfather was really a man of few words. When he talked, it was just to say what is necessary. Sadness seemed to haunt him. He rarely smiled and seldom laughed. In his old age, he would sit in front of his brazier (mangal) for hours on end, lost in thought. It’s only later that I understood that this sadness (hüzün) is part of the Turkish soul, which has known a lot of suffering, heroism and great sacrifices.
In the case of my grandfather this “hüzün” had a reason. He had only one brother, Mehmet Selim. Mehmet graduated from the Ottoman Military College in İstanbul on Aug. 13, 1910 (63rd class) as a distinguished (mümtaz) officer in the “Top 25, Binbaşı.” He fought in Turkey’s wars until he went missing in action. The loss of his only brother weighed heavily on my grandfather. This feeling was even more pronounced as my great grandmother was devastated by the loss of her son. She nearly lost her mind with grief and false hope that her son would yet return. She would keep her lost son’s military uniform until she died. My grandfather, in addition to taking care of his wife and kids, had to look after his mentally troubled mother.
As a young girl I remember a large picture of Mehmet, decorated in military uniform, in my grandfather’s room. I also remember that I loved spending time with my grandfather, and especially teasing him with a million questions. I was fascinated by stories of distant lands and people I had never met. Though he was a man of few words, he was a kind man, and he indulged his granddaughter’s curiosity. This is how I knew from my early childhood that we were of Turkish origin and that he had served in the Turkish army. I also knew that my family hailed from land west of the Bosporus near the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Even though I was 5 years old, these memories are alive in my head. If I could, I would ask my 5-year-old self to inquire about the name of the village my grandfather was born in. Having never asked him that question, the identity of our ancestral home, and a part of who I am, is now lost in the mists of time.
Time flies, especially when you live through two decades of civil war in Lebanon, raise a family and build a career. During that time, the question of who I was, my identity vis-à-vis the fabric of my ancestry, had to lay dormant, subordinate to the needs of the moment. Yet it was there, and several decades later, I set out to visit the lands of my grandfather. Setting foot in Turkey, I was amazed at the feelings of belonging that I had. The roots that had lain dormant were now awake, alive and for the first time in my life, well connected. I was home.
I have since made a point of visiting Turkey as many times as I can. I also started to look at old family effects. Not much survived the destruction of our house in Lebanon during the civil war, but I did manage to find my grandfather’s military record book (cüzdan numarası 307) and have it translated. It was then that I found out about my grandfather’s connection to the Çanakkale Savaşı. Osman Selim was a “Yüzbaşı” of the 73rd Infantry division, 2nd regiment, register of troop 25. He also fought in Çanakkale and was decorated on March 20, 1331 (Hegira calendar) “for his heroism” at Çanakkale. He was decorated again on June 14, 1333 under the number 854 by the commandant of Troop 6 “for his loyalty and competence.”
My grandfather had never told his family of his participation at Çanakkale or his decoration. Not even my father knew. My grandfather never tried to boast of his deeds. He had done his duty silently. This sense of duty, “à la turque” -- my father Selim Osman had it and he passed it down to us.
When I tried a few years ago to get a visa to Turkey, I had to submit my papers to a Lebanese functionary who asked for the reason of my visit. I was struck when I realized that to Turkey I am a foreigner. Recently the visa requirement was lifted between Lebanon and Turkey. I can today go to Turkey without a visa but always as a “yabancı” (foreigner).
This seems so inadequate considering the memory of my grandfather and his brother, or my grandfather’s service at Çanakkale. I would like to say that the blood which mingled with the air, sea and soil in Çanakkale also flows in my veins. How can a granddaughter of a Çanakkale veteran be a “yabancı” in the land of her ancestors?
Once I told a friend my story. She could not understand. She was Lebanese and her grandfather is Lebanese and yet she was given French citizenship solely on the basis that her grandfather had once served with the French Army. How come I -- who am of Turkish origin and whose grandfather and granduncle sacrificed so much for Turkey -- do not yet have Turkish citizenship?
I have been in Turkey many times to participate in university seminars as well as for touristic reasons. Each time I feel the need to go to Çanakkale, the land my grandfather fought on and fought for. The song of my ancestors’ lives is tied to this land… walking the land and smelling the air, I feel an echo of my grandfather and his brother, as well as of my father, who I lost a year ago.
But going there as a stranger (“yabancı gibi”) means for me that what my grandfather, Yüzbaşı Osman Selim, accomplished and the death of my granduncle, Binbaşı Mehmet Selim, are not recognized by Turkey. It is only as the daughter of my homeland that I want to go there, to breathe the same air that my grandfather did.
*Dr. Esma Chamly-Halwani is a professor at the department of French language and literature at Lebanese University.