The other genocide

Avant-garde cinema and the Armenian genocide: on seeing her last documentary, Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian listens to Suzanne Khardalian tell her story


May 2, 2013
Source: Al-Ahram (Cairo)

By Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian

Grandma’s Tattoos is a mysterious documentary in which taboos are broken. In it the director, Suzanne Khardalian, struggles to put together the pieces of the puzzle of the story of her childhood and her cold relationship with her grandmother, whom she describes as wicked. No one wants to tell her the reason behind her grandma’s silence, no one is brave enough to speak the truth. Then again, only a few family members know much of the story. Khardalian has to find out for herself about Grandma Khanum’s mysterious tattoos – the secret behind those blue marks on her hands and face. It is her way of finding out about the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915. More than a million people died in a genocide that Turkey still denies. One aspect of the story that goes largely unrecorded is the fate of women survivors of the genocide who were deported out of Ottoman Turkey during World War I and released into the deserts of Syria to be forced into prostitution. This is the reason she embarked on the journey of this film, the story of her own family. On a recent visit to Egypt to prepare for a new documentary on the region, Khardalian attended an Aremenian-community screening of Grandma’s Tattoos.

The film opens in the Syrian desert, near Deir Al-Zor, where the journey following deportation ended. In the background is the voice of a sheikh saying his prayers. Lying about in the desert, Khardalian starts to dig into the sand to find human remains… “It’s here that my ancestors were buried,” she says. The scene shifts to the family house in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut, where she was born. “This is where I spent my childhood,” she goes on. “We used to live here, the seven of us.” The statement is followed by a close-up of her grandmother’s tattooed hands. “I was frightened by Grandma and by those signs on her hands, I disliked her” is intercut with the beautiful and warm voice of Lena Shammamian, the Syrian-Armenian singer, telling of the mountains separating Armenians from their homeland: “Sareri hovin mermen…” Khardalian says, “Strange questions bothered my head. Is there something my mother and sisters know that I don’t?” Now living in Sweden, Khardalian is on her way to Anjar, Lebanon to attend her nephew’s wedding. In the following scene, on arrival, she introduces us to her four sisters gathered in the kitchen for Armenian coffee and a chat about their grandmother’s life. They had little to say about their grandmother beyond stray impressions: “We never felt her presence”; “She didn’t like her husband, grandpa, she was even physically detached from him”; “I remember how she loved listening to Farid Al-Atrach’s love songs on the radio,” Khardalian says; “Grandpa got upset and shouted at her every time she listened to a Arabic songs,” one sister replies.

The next scene takes place in Los Angeles, where Khardalian goes to meet her grandma’s sister Lucia, knowing that she too had tattoos on her hands, but all Lucia has to say about it is the patently false story that there were marks made while playing as children. Suddenly we are back in Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates in Deir Al-Zor – a dark point on a dark map, called Red Run River by Armenians – where Armenians were thrown into the water and watched: if they did not drown they were shot as they struggled to swim to safety. The corpses are said to have floated down the river for months. The director is seen inside the Deir Al-Zor Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Church museum, inspecting the personal belongings of Armenians found en route to the desert, wondering if her grandmother’s belongings could be among them. On the road she meets Syrian women with tattoos on their hands and faces. Asked about them in Arabic, they say they symbolise the wheat harvest and were made using charcoal. Could it be that her grandma had the tattoos made so that she could hide her (religious) identity? “All I had in my mind were questions, unanswered questions…” Back in Beirut, she tries to answer them with her sisters. “We used to be rude to our grandma; we didn’t know she suffered that much, we never knew the details of her youth. Now we regret that, what if it had something to do with honour, with shame…” The sisters break down in tears. Invited to come along to Margadeh, Syria, they are either too busy, not interested or perhaps fearful of what they might discover. In the desert, she digs out human remains. “I have teeth in my hands,” she says.

Eventually she locates another tattooed genocide survivor, Mariam, 104, who lives in Armenia. In Yerevan, Mariam sits legs crossed on a sofa to recall how “the houses on our street were made into bordellos: the government used to come and take away the beautiful girls living in the district… and the girls never came back. I hate to remember this,” Mariam keeps weeping. But what about her tattoos? She never tells Khardalian. It is Khardalian’s aunt Mary who recalls how “your grandma hated any physical contact with her husband, they never had sex.” Grandma Khanum did her best to prevent the shame from spreading among the family, that’s why she was silent all through her lifetime. Suzanne Khardalian’s grandmother is believed to have appeared in Beirut in 1922 when she was 19 years old. She used to weave carpets and sell olive pickles. In the last scene we are taken to a beautiful village in Armenia where Khardalian feels secure among the apricot trees, drinking a toast with her friends while Shammamian continues to sing, “…Im yari boyin mernem, boyin mernem”. Suzanne was 25 when her grandmother passed away at the age of 88.

Suzanne Khardalian is an independent documentary filmmaker and writer, as well as a researcher at the Dramatiska Institute in Stockholm. Born in Lebanon, she studied journalism in Beirut and Paris. Khardalian holds a Masters degree in international law and diplomacy from Tuft’s University. Among the films she has directed are Back to Ararat (1988), Unsafe Ground (1993), The Lion from Gaza (1996), Her Armenian Prince (1997) and Words and Stones: Gaza (2000). In Egypt she explained the reason for her visit: “I am a documentary filmmaker and I usually work in the Middle East, and of course what’s happening in the Arab world is of the utmost importance. We’re planning to make a new documentary on the region and we’ve chosen a specific angle: it’s going to be through the eyes of a foreign correspondent and what is important for me in this case is how she is transmitting the message to the West and how the information is received there. She’s a very important radio journalist, every morning 800,000 people listen to her. It’s not a small number and in this way she’s shaping opinion so through her we’re going to present what’s happening in the Arab world. Today we’re in Egypt, tomorrow we may be going to Gaza or Libya – and hopefully we’ll be in Syria soon…”

Khardalian was told that her grandma’s father was a judge and her mum was a secondary school teacher – at that time in 1908-1909. But the family never cherished the fact, they tried to forget everything because the judge and the teacher’s daughter, Khardalian’s grandma, was illiterate, she never attended school. It was a big loss, and not the only one: several generations that were born after the genocide were robbed of the chance of education, of producing or realising themselves. The judge would probably have had children who would themselves become judges but that was never to be, it took three generations until the children started going to university again. The genocide did not stop it, it went on, they paid the price…

The 58-minute documentary was released in September, 2011 in Sweden. The Qatari channel Al-Jazeera bought the right to screen it for five years and up to the present it has been screened eight times. On YouTube, where it was posted, many comments in Turkish, Arabic and English were offensive – so much so that the option to comment is no longer available.
The film was shown in Sweden and Istanbul. Istanbul’s screening was during a festival, afterwards it was screened three times there. Grandma’s Tattoos documentary was translated into English, French, Spanish but not Arabic yet, something the filmmaker is looking forward to.

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“My grandma had the tattoos all the time but as children, because she was a very weird person, because she was a very cruel person, we had a weird relationship with her, we didn’t ask. She never hugged us and we never responded with love. It was reciprocal, we were even evil to her sometimes because when you see someone who doesn’t love you, you do the same. So her tattoos were there all the time but what was interesting to me to discover was that I didn’t see them until I actually discovered the photos at the archives of the Near East Real Foundation, and when I saw the photos of those young girls who had tattoos I said, ‘My God, I’ve seen them somewhere,’ and it took me a while to realize that my grandma had them. How come I have never even thought about them? All these questions of course just exploded when I saw these pictures. It was fascinating and very awkward to realise that the genocide had been so close to my family. It impacted us directly and I had no idea. It’s so different when you realise it happened to your own flesh…

“When I first started to ask about it, people said they were for beauty. Today tattoos are accepted, everybody can have tottoos, so if you look at them in today’s context you see it as something nice. But the thing is that we’re talking about another time, when tattoos more often had a function. In the context of my research I came to realise that these tattoos were ownership marks: at the end of the genocide the survivors were dispersed and forced into the desert, and in the desert there are Turkish, Kurdish and Arab tribes where it is common to tattoo women, because traditionally these tribes were fighting each other and, since kidnapping women is a very common thing – that’s the first thing you do, you take the women of the enemy – by marking women you can see permanently who they belong to. So when the Armenian women were taken from the desert because they were there – they had no one to take care of them, people could just come and pick them up, nobody would say anything; you could choose, you could take her home, use her and sell her again, like any commodity – they were marked so that nobody could take them away. So that’s what happened: they took my grandma, they marked her, forced her to be part of that society. And this genocidal process is something that we’ll never talk about, we only talk about the killing but we never talk about the living people, the survivors, what price they paid, how that they were forcibly taken from one national group to another. Nobody was asking their permission to tattoo them and for me that means nothing but slavery.

“I have to admit it’s very difficult to find tattooed women because it’s been so long, it will be 100 years soon, and many who were let’s say 15 will be 115 years old now. They’re not alive any more but what is stunning is that I waited until now, that all those people who came before me waited until now; how come we never thought about these questions, about these women. So my guess is that if I was not interested in women’s issues I probably wouldn’t look at the question in this way, because the tattooing is one aspect of what happened to the women and it happened to my grandma. It wasn’t one or two or five or six cases, it was thousands upon thousands of women, but it was very difficult to find the women themselves. There are very funny stories, many of these women who were rescued, actually ended up in California, Frezno, a very well known place for Armenians. These women were so common in Frezno at the time when they arrived that the Americans started calling them ‘the blue-lips’ because of the blue colour of the tattoo, it was that common. I’ve met their children and their grandchildren and it is amazing to see how the trauma is just transmitted from one generation to the next, there’s no stop to it. Maybe we should wonder why, that’s another question, but how this was transmitted and how you as a person growing up in the shadow of these tattooed women became someone else. I actually met a well known journalist in Sacramento, who was in her seventies, and I was told that her mum was one of those tattooed women. Everybody knew her, so people advised me to talk to her to hear her mum’s story, and when we went to see her, she was so hostile that when I asked her to tell me the story of her mum’s tattoos, she said, ‘Who told you that my mum was tattooed? My mother was never tattooed.’ Such denial in so many ways saddens me. The same happened with Lucy, she simply denied it… She probably thought, ‘For God’s sake, why should I tell this, what’s the use telling it now.’ She certainly had those traumas. How would you continue your life? You have to find a way of survival, so either it’s denial or you find a nice story to tell instead, a less painful story. What I find funny is how denial is shared by the victim and the perpetrator: just as the Turks are denying they did it, so too are we denying that it was done to us. Because it hurts so much.

“Both tattooed and non-tattooed women were raped, according to the archives. The woman I interviewed in Armenia, Mariam, who was 104 years old, was kept as a prostitute until 1937, when she finally escaped to Aleppo and back to Armenia. Actually when she went to Aleppo she brought with her two embroideries that belonged to the Armenian church in Malatia and donated them to the church in Aleppo so those two are still there, that was the only thing she could hang onto for a sense of identity, that this is what I am, pieces of clothing are my pass, that’s where my identity is. There are very heartbreaking stories like that, where women tried to make it, and also you’re only a human being, there’s so much demanded from you, you were raped, you have children, not once, not twice, you give to this man three or four children sometimes, but you haven’t chosen him, they’ve taken you, and in the end these are your children. It’s heartbreaking to see how these women were put in a situation, do I stay with my children or do I leave and go back to Armenia? What a choice to make. Those who died, those who were murdered, they were murdered. But those who stayed alive were being killed everyday, each and every day in their lives.

“I will not make guesses but I have numbers, the archives that I found: a compilation of girls who were rescued, or somehow brought back to decent homes or to orphanages. There were at least 2,000 names documented already. But there are documents that talk about 97,000 other women, either tattooed or kidnapped. The phenomenon of women as a commodity in war time, during the genocide, how women become the target of the genocidal process. Usually if you look to Rwanda or Darfur today, or even what happened in Yugoslavia, what you do to the women first of all is you rape them, it’s such a horrible thing they do, they take your dignity away, rape you and then make you nothing, you become nothing, they crush you in that way. And often these women were raped in front of their children, in front of their husband, in front of their father or mother, it was even more humiliating. If your children see you being raped, I don’t know what to do, how do you look into their eyes again? Of course, we have to treat these women as heroes, they were doing heroic things, just surviving and giving birth to children. We shouldn’t blame them, all of us in the whole diaspora, we are the children of these women, they were the ones who gave birth to you – grandparents, parents. If they weren’t there we wouldn’t be here today, so thanks to them we have an Armenian nation again but at the same time we have tried to close our eyes and pushed them away, but even when we accepted them we never looked into the details. Only as a professional in my work did I have to pose all those questions.

“I was looking at the archives, let’s take 1919 as an example: I found photos of women carrying babies in their hands. Who were those babies? The husbands of these women were killed four-five years before. Somebody made them pregnant, right? Who? Not their husbands. So these were the children of the raped, and it’s the same if you look around today, women who live with the product of the rape, it’s their child, whatever they do to you, we never pose that question: who are these babies they’re carrying? That’s us, we have to remember, it’s hard to accept, it’s a very harsh reality. And I think if you’re not a woman you don’t pose that question, I don’t think an Armenian man would look at it that way. When I was planning for the film I met a very educated Armenian gentleman with a high position and when I told him about the film he said, ‘No, you cannot make this film, you shouldn’t make this film.’ And when I asked why he said. ‘How can you? It’s so disgraceful, what about us? The men? We couldn’t protect them, it’s so degrading for us.’ So I understand their position as well, but I want to tell the world about this, because it is not only my grandma, it’s happening today, it’s happening everywhere, keeping silent will not help. If I don’t personalise my grandma I will never reach your heart, in this way I talked to your heart and mind, because I am building my story on real evidence. At the same time I want to bring up the emotional part of it, how these women could handle the situation. It’s so sad, if you’re hungry and you want a piece of bread for yourself, for your mum, son or daughter, just to make them survive, as life is precious, and if I have to live and survive by prostitution, I will do it.

“Look around us, women are doing their utmost so that they can stay alive, feed their children and maybe in that way they’re hanging onto life. So I don’t blame them, I am proud of them, I am more proud of them than those who jumped off the bridge and committed suicide during the genocide, those were more egoistic by thinking of themselves: I will not make my enemy win, it’s either me or them, and I am going to win. In this respect, maybe people would not share my view, these women with their harsh attitude made us win and continue having an Armenian life. Of course my family was the biggest obstacle, because as I said in almost all Armenian families the majority never talked about it, it’s a sensitive issue. Instead of keeping this killing underwater, I prefer to bring it to the surface, talk about it. It will embolden us as women, it will make us prouder of who we are and today it makes me walk with a greater sense of security. This feeling of insecurity that I had all my life which I inherited from the family is something that I wanted to get rid of and I think I have done that, because I know who I am, and I am not ashamed of what I inherited, this is part of my identity. When I started shooting the film my family members kept telling me what are you doing? Why are you doing this? You always come up with strange and problematic ideas. They didn’t want to be part of it, my mum as the film shows was never cooperative. My sisters too always tried to avoid me, but I insisted, it took a while but when they understood what was going on they finally accepted it.”

And still many questions remain unanswered for the filmmaker and for the Armenian nation in general.