The sheikh who saved my family

In the harsh Syrian Desert, honouring the act of kindness that saved my grandad’s life.

June 19, 2017
Source: BBC

By Dawn Anahid MacKeen

Just off the road, the sandstorm twisted and spun like a top above the brown Syrian Desert. We were speeding eastward towards the city of Raqqa, my fixer Levon almost coy about whom we would find there. “I know someone,” he had said haltingly in English. “Maybe he can help you.”

Beside bluffs of rock, the Euphrates River flirted in and out of view. I pictured my skeletal grandfather Stepan a century earlier, walking alongside it on bloodied feet for months, driven by armed guards who galloped beside his caravan of deportees.

Of course, I was thinking about him. He was the one who had brought me there. Or, rather, his words had – since he had been dead for more than three decades. My family had recently discovered his notebooks, detailing his survival of the Armenian genocide, which Turkey still denies occurred. Now I was retracing his nearly 1,000-mile odyssey across present-day Turkey and Syria, once all part of the Ottoman Empire. I had lifted my itinerary directly from his pages, and I was trying to reach a hill near the Iraq border, where his caravan of thousands had been massacred. I opened up his account and re-read his words from 1916:

"I had become accustomed to hunger, having fasted three or four days a week, without a bit of food between my teeth. However, it was becoming impossible for me to endure."

My grandfather believed he had survived so that he could bear witness to this crime. Enormous darkness had transpired near this stretch where we now travelled, but there was also light, and that was partly why I had come. An Arab leader named Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh and his Muslim family had taken in my Christian grandfather after he had escaped from his doomed convoy, a chance encounter that changed my family’s fate.

We turned towards Raqqa, a once-medieval town that sits on the Euphrates River’s left bank. Levon explained that the man who lived there was a Bedouin sheikh. “He’s very powerful,” he said.

Men in swim trunks stood knee-deep in the Euphrates, and groups of boys splashed around on this hot day, the shore tangled with lush foliage. We crossed a bridge, and I reflected that in my grandfather’s time there hadn’t been an overpass here, only armed guards and boats ferrying the lucky ones across. Raqqa had been one of the few safe places along the road.

On the wide streets, our driver steered our sedan towards the sheikh’s home. Finally, Levon pointed to our destination. “Over there,” he said. On the corner stood a large two-storey home with an ornate front gate. “The sheikh commands around 20,000 Bedouins,” he added. I felt even more nervous and smoothed my wrinkled shirt. What if the sheikh is offended by my request? What if he refuses to help me?

A servant answered the door and ushered us into a formal meeting area, where I waited on plush floor cushions. At last, Sheikh Fayez al-Ghubein entered the room, his face long and serious. I fidgeted, not knowing the custom, then rose in deference.

An uncomfortable silence filled the space between us. “Why have you come?” he asked finally, in Arabic.

With Levon translating, I explained what had happened to my grandfather, this story that I hadn’t fully learned until I was an adult. How those dying had begged him to tell the world what had happened, should he survive. How I had to see this terrain where he had marched and where so many of his friends had perished.

He nodded. “My family took in Armenians, around 20,” he said, and he explained how the stories had been handed down from one generation to the next. He invited us to his private quarters and a servant brought a large platter filled with small bowls of dates, orange marmalade, flatbread and cups of sweet tea.

“Where are you staying?” Sheikh al-Ghubein asked, and invited us to stay with him. As Levon chatted in Arabic with him, I grew anxious about the passing time. I hadn’t yet brought up why we had sought him out.

Finally I gathered my courage. “During the massacres, my grandfather was about to die, but he was saved by a sheikh in the area. The sheikh took him in when he was hungry and thirsty,” I said. Then I began to speed up my words, as if to spit them out. “I want to find his family and thank them. If there is any way you could help me, I would be so grateful.”

Sheikh al-Ghubein studied my face and then asked the man’s name.

“Hammud al-Aekleh.”

He didn’t know of him. Of course, he didn’t: what were the chances? It was too difficult to reach through time, to this period from so long ago. Why had I even imagined that I could?

The moment lingered and then Sheikh al-Ghubein inquired if I knew the village’s location. I didn’t, until the previous evening, when I had studied every last detail of my grandfather’s escape from his caravan like a cartographer, mapping his every move: how he had dropped onto his hands and knees to sneak away from the guards, how he had been captured after making it to the Euphrates, how he had fled by squeezing into a crevice of a rock, then zigzagged in almost every direction. Finally, I had pinpointed the area, between two towns, which I shared now.

Sheikh al-Ghubein stood and dialled a phone number. I didn’t understand his brief conversation in Arabic, but intuited it when a tall man entered the house. With a mobile phone to one ear and a landline on the other, the newly arrived gentleman began canvassing the tribes of the region about the family of the sheikh whose name has been etched into my family’s history for generations.

Finally, he lowered one receiver and said, “There were two Hammud al-Aeklehs. Do you have any more information?”

“My grandfather said Hammud al-Aekleh was very powerful. His brother’s name was Ali. His son, too.”

The man continued in Arabic, then hung up. He turned to me. “This family did not have a brother named Ali.”

I was crestfallen; the other one probably wouldn’t, either. Maybe my grandfather didn’t write the name correctly, or the clan had moved elsewhere, many clans having been semi-nomadic during that time.

Sheikh al-Ghubein’s friend picked up his mobile to dial the second family. I watched his expression as he spoke quickly in Arabic. It remained steely, revealing no hint of the words exchanged. The conversation went on, his face unchanging. My heart sank.

After what seemed like an eternity, his eyes met mine, and he smiled. He had found them.

That evening, Sheikh al-Ghubein held a dinner in my honour. Pink, yellow, blue and green lanterns lit the bustling open-air restaurant on the banks of the Euphrates. The dark sky stretched above and the river coursed just beside us, infinite in the night. He had invited a local Armenian couple to join us as we gathered around a table, a dozen of us from different faiths and ethnicities, breaking flatbread together.

The feast spread across the long table: a tomato-cucumber salad, baba ganoush, hummus and tabouli. As the sheikh piled yet more food on my plate, I pantomimed that my stomach was full. “This is just the beginning!” he exclaimed. Out came more dishes stacked high with grilled kebabs of beef and chicken, along with kofta balls of ground beef.

Later that night, in the dimmed light of the sheikh’s daughter’s room, I took out my grandfather’s memoir and reviewed the moment he had first heard of Sheikh al-Aekleh’s ‘gentle’ and ‘influential’ nature, and decided to approach him. To conceal his Armenian identity, Stepan had worn local dress and changed his name to Mustafa. But the sheikh was not tricked, and knew my grandfather’s true ethnicity. Instead of turning him into the gendarmes, however, the sheikh did something else: He offered him refuge with his clan. The sheikh then made eye contact with his servants, who immediately dispersed. One returned with a wooden table and set it down in front of Stepan. The other carried over pekmez, a local grape syrup, and a large piece of wheat bread. Stepan recounted this change of circumstance in his journals:

"I wondered how many people would sit with me at table to eat, and waited for them to come. There was nobody… And I said to myself, ‘What a miracle, my God!’ …I ate and ate and ate and could not finish it. In all the days of my deportation I had never eaten this well."

At last, my grandfather could breathe. Someone had seen him as human and not as a ‘dog’, as he had been called. Someone had wanted to help, not harm him.

I thought about that the next day as we left Raqqa. As we entered Sheikh al-Aekleh’s village, a crowd of 300 milled about, and I guessed that service must have just ended at the mosque nearby. But when I opened the car door, people began to surge towards me, the men smiling and the women extending their arms, soon hugging and kissing me on both cheeks.

One lady in her late 40s reached for my hand. She was Sheikh al-Aekleh’s granddaughter, I learned, and she led me into the house. There she and her daughters opened a cabinet brimming with colourful dresses and carefully selected a beautiful burgundy one, heavy with delicate beading. They slid it over me and wrapped a yellow scarf around my head. Then they ushered me into an adjacent rectangular room where the walls were lined with people leaning on armrests, with legs crossed. All eyes were on me.

“Salaam!” I said, using one of the few Arabic words I knew. After learning that everyone in the room – hundreds of people – were all descendants of Sheikh al-Aekleh, I told them why I had travelled there from my home in Los Angeles: how I had always wondered about the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s survival, and then had finally understood more when I read about the sheikh. Still, I wanted to find out what had compelled that brave man to save my grandfather during a time when Ottoman propaganda had demonized all Armenians as dangerous. What had made him look past that, and their differences?

“It is the teaching of Islam to be generous,” explained one of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh’s grandsons.

I read to them from my grandfather’s journals, revisiting that very moment when the sheikh had taken him in, warmed him by the fire and made him rest, despite my grandfather’s pleas to help work the land. Because of that fateful meeting, my grandfather’s life had transformed from fighting for each scrap to eat to becoming a trusted member of the sheikh’s family.

Gone were the days of watching his friends die in the camps, one by one. From that time on, discussion swirled around marriage, as local women would approach my grandfather singing – some even stealing his clothes while he swam in the river – to be returned in exchange for a kiss. The clan’s men would ask him to ghost-write love poems for them, as a real-life Cyrano de Bergerac.

Every so often as I spoke, Sheikh al-Aekleh’s family would interrupt me. Yes, they would say, they had heard that before, the stories had been passed down the generations.

With this clan, my grandfather found his strength again. His time with the sheikh gifted him the next 58 years of his life, the chance to have a wife and children and the ability to live to write it all down. It also gave him back his dignity, and at last I could thank them. I paused, looking at all the smiling faces in the room, then read the two simple sentences he had written after first finding this wonderful family: My joy was limitless. Was there anyone happier than me?

Tears welled in my eyes. His sentiment reflected my own, nearly a century later, upon meeting them and encountering the kind Raqqa sheikh who had led me there.

Dawn Anahid MacKeen is the author of The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, which recounts her grandfather’s survival of genocide and her quest to tell his story. Based on a decade of research, the book was awarded best biography from the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Previously she was a staff writer at Salon, Newsday and SmartMoney. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, The Sunday Times Magazine and elsewhere.