Armenians peel back the layers of a painful past

Memoir helps Turks and Armenians explore their identities and the legacy of the 1915 genocide.

June 28, 2011
Source: Guardian Weekly (London)

By Guillaume Perrier

In 2004, when the lawyer Fethiyé Cetin published My Grandmother: A Memoir, she breached the wall of silence in Turkey. The book tells the story of her Armenian ancestor Heranouch, who was renamed Seher. She was kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam at the time of the 1915 genocide carried out by the Turkish nationalist party (CUP). Her granddaughter, a human rights campaigner and counsel for the family of Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist murdered in 2007, was one of the first to publicise her Armenian origins, in defiance of the taboo that still paralyses much of Turkey.

Hundreds of similar stories have since surfaced, revealing facts that had conveniently been forgotten. Scattered all over the country were Armenian descendants, who had survived the slaughter but at the price of being converted to Islam and losing their identity. They are still commonly known as the "remains of the sword".

From grandmothers Cetin has turned her attention, in partnership with sociologist Ayse Gül Altinay, to their descendants, all those who two generations later are gradually uncovering their past and questioning official accounts and the silence imposed on their lives. "Where are the converted Armenians?" Altinay writes in the afterword to Les Petits-Enfants. "You may pass them in schools, in the corridors of the National Assembly, in hospitals and factories, in the fields, in the office of a police chiefs or in a mosque. They could be driving your bus, or the nurse who took your blood sample, a journalist whose column you like, the engineer who installed your computer [...] or the imam at your neighbourhood mosque," she adds. The authors discovered dozens of such people, but only a few were prepared to tell their story, and even fewer agreed to reveal their identity. The book contains 24 personal accounts, portraits of families that all have a hidden Armenian side.

Yildiz Önen, another human rights campaigner, agreed to come out and tell her story in her own name. She was born in Derik, a small town in the Kurdish region of eastern Turkey and "brought up as a Kurd". The story of her grandmother, the daughter of a rich Armenian trader who survived the genocide with one of his sons, "resembles that of thousands of other women". She was kidnapped by a Kurd, married and forcibly converted. "My father was born of this union," Önen says. "My grandmother raised two sons, one in keeping with Armenian tradition, the other as a Kurd. So my father, a conservative Muslim, had an Armenian brother."

As in other cases Dink's murder prompted a reappraisal of her hidden identity. "At that point I started thinking I too should feel Armenian," she says. Feeling Armenian also means being seen differently, even by her own family. "Some cousins are open-minded, others less so," she adds.

After the genocide the second generation of survivors, regardless of whether they stayed in Turkey or emigrated, was brought up in a state of denial, the better to fit in and to stifle painful memories. "As if our difference was a stain, a taboo, a source of shame," says Gülsad, who found out by chance when he was about 15 that his grandmother Satinik was Armenian.

Now some grandchildren are demanding an explanation. Cetin estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of Turks with at least one Armenian ancestor. Their identity is often "hybrid", a mixture of Turkish, Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian and other origins. Some stayed Armenian, despite converting to Islam. Others say they are Kurds but are converting back to Christianity.

"There is an incredible diversity in the way people define themselves," the lawyer says. For almost a century the existence of these hidden survivors was not only hushed up by the Turkish government, but forgotten by the Armenian community. The grandchildren's memories are resurrecting forgotten victims of the 20th century's first genocide. This account lifts a taboo as part of a historic process of reconciliation. By investigating family and village history, Turkish intellectuals may have found the means to counter the official revisionism that whitewashes the Armenian question.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde.