BY ANI HOVANNISIAN KEVORKIAN
“Go to hell,” was my gut, unuttered reaction when a man, who was surely a Turk, tried to make small talk with me while boarding an Istanbul-bound flight from New York’s JFK airport in June, 2012. I envisioned his grandfather murdering my people, though I suppose he could also have been one of those merciful ones who spared doomed Armenians by taking them in as servants or worse. It didn’t matter that it happened almost 100 years ago. It felt like now.
I was embarking on my first voyage to the lands and stories I had heard about all my life, to the homes (or absence of) of Babi Kaspar and Grandma Siroon, of Babi Hovakim and Mami Chnkuhi, to the real-life remains of our age-old history that my father and mother, Drs. Richard and Vartiter K. Hovannisian have breathed into us, since, well, ever since I can remember.
If one man’s smile and hello and nonsense could affect me so, how, I wondered, would I face a million of them? Odd, though, it is, that I’m the girl who has always seen the humanity and “we’re all the same” in people. That, too, has exceptions, and I was living that exception.
Arriving in Turkey, and walking along the pedestrian-only grand Beyoghlu-Istiklal Boulevard, overflowing with cosmopolitan stores and inviting restaurants and colorful markets and people, tens of thousands of them, I almost forgot where I was. Yet, I knew I was surrounded by Turks. My head was spinning as I looked at one, then another, and another. I was consumed by them, but realized that I was no one to them. I didn’t exist. I’ve lived my entire life obsessed with the Genocide, with loss, with writhing feelings towards Turks, with the need to tell the world and somehow make it better. But here, I realized, we, the Armenians, didn’t exist as even a passing thought to the endless stream of faces and bodies and laughter and conversation passing me by. These were families and friends and individuals living, as people do. I was invisible. We were invisible. Could I blame them?
I was glad to meet my fellow travelers, 24 in all, who, led by Armen Aroyan’s encyclopedic knowledge of the routes and their relevance, set out to discover what each of us had come in search of. Armen, with his unassuming mastery of the land and understanding of our need to find our place there, knew exactly where and how to go. He had already opened the door for more than 1,200 people, and by extension, their families, to a world that had been stripped away from them, almost a figment of their imagination, until he showed them that it was there and theirs to experience. And being with my father, who has walked this soil a thousand times over, if not physically, was the greatest treasure of all. On this NAASR-organized trip, rather than starting in the heart of Historic Western Armenia-Eastern Turkey, our group headed by van first toward Cilicia, along the south-west and central expanses of the country, where Armenian kingdoms had flourished from the 11th to 14th centuries.
En route, we stopped in several old Armenian towns that were never part of either Cilicia or Armenia proper. Bardizag, a hilltop village colored by flowers and trees and overlooking the Sea of Marmara, was known for its American Missionary Bythinia High School for Armenians, whose structure still stands. Fresh out of Istanbul, I found myself desperate to find signs of old Armenian life, albeit lost. It’s as if seeing a trace of something Armenian would make me and us visible again. It would validate us, make our history real again, as much as we wish it wasn’t. Armen took us to the location where he had last seen Armenian gravestones, but they were gone. Now, we had to find them. I, for one, could not leave this little, perhaps now insignificant, village without proving Armenians had been here. How I could rejoice when finally finding an uprooted, desecrated and dislocated Armenian tombstone in a nearby garden, and a piece of another, belonging to Ghazar, in a wall, I don’t know. But, I did.
As we headed south, then east along the Mediterranean Sea, toward the lands of Armenian kingdoms and dynasties and castles and fortresses, the stones turned up without frugality. They almost took on a life of their own. There were no Armenians left to talk to, but there were the stones.
Izmit, Menemen, Izmir, Sis, Adana, Dort Yol, Zeitoun, Marash, Aintab, Urfa, the Euphrates River… the stones in them came to life. They took me to the stories and the people I knew and had heard of, to village orchards and city streets and church bells and schoolchildren and camaraderie, and then to deprivation and nothingness. I became accustomed to seeing churches converted into dirt mounds or mosques. I searched for, found, welcomed and mourned the Armenian inscriptions in beautiful Armenian homes-turned-Turkish taverns, cafes, and museums. I wondered whose gravestones and what khatchkars I saw woven into the walls of Kurdish and Turkish village dwellings. But, I knew, and I thought, they must know, that they had been ours.
Haunting Inscription In Urfa
A breezy evening we spent at a rooftop restaurant and boutique-style hotel adjacent to the magnificent fortress of Urfa and across from a massive Armenian church-turned -mosque, has haunted me to this day. As I explored my surroundings, camera in hand, as I always do, I came across a note deeply carved into the wall of one of the guestrooms. I learned later that this had been the home of a wealthy Armenian before 1915, and a gathering place for Armenians seeking refuge and each other after the Genocide. While some Armenian residents escaped death and returned to their homes in Urfa, they were forced to depart, yet again and for good in 1922 as a result of Ataturk’s and the Turkish nationalists’ policy of expulsion.
The inscription, concealed behind a curtain, read, in Armenian:
“ I wrote these words in 1922, at this home of Nishan … I came and stayed here for 25 days. I am leaving now. Farewell, my friends. May whoever reads this, remember me.”
All I could make out of his name engraved in capital letters was the “IAN”, until I later showed the photo to my young children, who gave identity back to this man. His name, they deciphered, appeared to be Bedros Der Mselian… Bedros, who searched, hid, and hoped to find someone; Bedros, who 25 days later, left his mark, and fled yet again, to an unknown destiny.
99-Year-Old Baron Avedis In Musa Dagh
Stones led to actual people, Armenians, in Musa Dagh. Discovering them and their simple existence was, for me, as miraculous as their legendary defense of their mountain and people almost 100 years earlier, which was made famous by Franz Werfel’s novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” Vakif, the only remaining Armenian village on the proud mountain, and as far as I know, in all of Historic Armenia and present-day Turkey, is home to 140 Armenians, descendants of the brave defenders who warded off the Turks for more than 40 days in 1915, and returned to live on their native soils even after forced eviction. The people here speak Armenian, have a working church, a running stream, benches alive with conversation and tavloo matches, and a shop stocked with hand-made soaps and foods from Vakif’s orchards.
Here, 99-year-old Avedis Demirjian, born in 1914, lay on a cot on his front porch, with what looked like an olive branch resting on his torso. Here, I touched and kissed a living Armenian, blessed and cursed with the life and memory of our people. Feeble, flat on his back, but strong of mind, Baron Avedis proudly recounted how he had been born on the great mountain, how there used to be six Armenian villages, how they fought to protect their villages against the Turks, how the Ottoman government pushed them out, and how this is the only Armenian village that remains. When I asked him whether the current residents of the other villages know whose houses they live in, he responded, “Of course they know. They came and settled in ready homes. Who made those homes? They know.” He taught me that many of the hearths in the Armenian villages leading up to Vakif had been destroyed, but here, more than half had survived.
“Remember us,” he said, “that there is such a village on Musa Ler. There is no other. We are all Armenians here.” As I left reluctantly, Baron Avedis uttered words for me to carry and echo to the world beyond Musa Ler. “Armenians are becoming fewer and fewer,” he said. “We must remain Armenian,” I finished his thought. His firm “Ayo” sealed our pact. I recently learned that Baron Avedis passed away, but, the echo of his “badkam,” did not.
“My Grandpa Was Armenian,” Dilan In Dikranagerd
Leaving Cilicia and heading toward the heart of our historic lands, it had become unusually normal to come face to face with the previously unfathomable. I walked down the murky streets of Dikranagerd with my adventurous co-travelers, Elaine and Claire. We had decided to use our hour of rest-time to explore the city streets alone, against the better judgment of Armen, who always had our safety in mind. Dikranagerd, he knew, was not a place for us to venture out on our own. But, we did.
Out of nowhere, a spirited girl with telling dark eyebrows and big brown eyes stopped us in the middle of the sidewalk, and asked, “Do you speak English?” “Yes,” we answered. I asked what nationality she is. “My Grandpa,” she said, “was Armenian.” Startled, I responded, ” We are Armenian.” “We are sisters, then,” she exclaimed. “Maybe we are a little bit Turkish, a little bit Kurdish, but we are the same. That is important.” The chance meeting on the street led to a conversation over Turkish, or Armenian, coffee in an open- air café inside the bazaar. 20-year-old Dilan’s surprised parents, her mother, a Kurd, and her father, a 3/4 Kurd and 1/4 Armenian, were unsuspecting participants in this encounter. I’m not sure they would have chosen to join the exchange, but their daughter gave them little choice. As I asked questions, probably questions that no one had ever asked them before, she turned to her parents for answers. A piece of them wanted her and us to know the truth. A piece of them didn’t. This was, after all, their home. They had gone on with life.
Dilan learned that day, as did we, that her great-grandfather Mustafa’s Armenian name had been ‘”Ardzou,” perhaps “Ardziv,” I thought. She learned that his father, mother, sister and uncle had been killed in Mush, and that he had escaped. He had ‘turned’ from Christian to Muslim, from Ardzou to Mustafa, from one person to another, in order to survive. And so Dilan, with at least a branch of an Armenian blood-line, was born and grew up as a Muslim, a Kurd, as did how many others?
When I asked Dilan if and when she learned the word, ‘genocide,’ she looked upward and thought for a moment, then responded, “They don’t say we did it, and we know they did. We don’t talk about that, or our life will be hard. We live here. This is their country and their stage.” As I told her that in Armenian, we say, “Menk Hai enk,” she repeated those words meaning “We are Armenian.” Bidding farewell, Dilan said, “I very love you, sisters.” And so it goes, lost, found, and I can’t help but believe, lost again.
Just when I thought that this was an extraordinary experience… the young man working at the hotel’s front desk and then the bellman, everyone, it seemed, had an Armenian grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother or father. This generation of youth seemed to hold a piece or two of the puzzle, just enough to not want to have or know more, just close enough to keep it far away. After less-than-comfortable prodding, the front desk clerk who described himself as “half Turkish, half Kurdish, we are in the middle,” verbalized his internal conflict.
“I’m not curious about our history… These aren’t sweet memories, in the way that I don’t want to learn anything about it.” When I asked what aren’t sweet memories, he responded, “Many Armenian people killed by other people. I know that, and they fired Armenian people’s homes. When I talk, I feel something different, in a way that I don’t want to talk about it.” “How does it make you feel?” I asked. “Now, I feel emotional. If I can request, could we cut this video?” I did.
“Khateri Hamar,” Degeen Baydzar
I had asked if there were any full Armenians left. My encounters with the young led me to the oldest and one of the only living Armenians left in Dikranagerd. Early the next morning, before our group was to leave for Kharpert, I and two others went in search of the Assyrian Church, where, I had been told, an Armenian lives. My knocks on the massive door to the church grounds were met by a small, Armenian-looking woman who welcomed us in, and called herself Baydzar Alata. She, and her husband, Sarkis, had been living in the courtyard of the Assyrian church for 25 years. When I saw her, it was as if I had found my grandmother. But, I had never lost my grandmother. She, on the other hand, had lost almost everything. In broken Armenian, she said that there is no one left to talk to, so she has forgotten much of the language. “The Turks did what they did,” she said. She embraced us as her own, while the resident cat vied for her attention. Sitting in the shade of the garden, and then taking us inside her humble abode, Degeen Baydzar shared what was left of her life and past; stories, a few photographs, and shawls she had knitted, which she put on our shoulders with love, saying “Khateri hamar.” Degeen Baydzar also confirmed what I had already experienced. “There are many,” she explained, “whose parents and grandparents were Armenian, but they died, were killed, forgot. Now, their children have turned into Turks. There are very many like that.” I wasn’t ready to leave, but had to. “Parov yeger ek, parov katseek, Ghourban eh,” were Degeen Baydzar‘s parting words of goodwill. So I left Degeen Baydzar and Dikranagerd, with yet another layer of understanding, pain, and unanswerable questions. Whose, of those countless eyes I looked into, were Armenian eyes?
Babi Yev Mami
Here is where I had planned to start this entry, as I set foot on the soil I had heard about all my life, Babi Kaspar’s Bazmashen and Grandma Siroon’s Kesserig in Kharpert, Babi Hovakim’s Dzitogh in Erzerum, and Mami Chnkuhi’s Ordu on the Black Sea. I thought I’d write about the devastation that overcame me when I laid eyes on the thoroughly flattened village of Bazmashen, now nothing more than an empty field with a pile of rubble where Sourp (Saint) Mariam Asdvadzadzin used to stand, and a lone donkey, a donkey with whom I had a conversation, and a covered woman who appeared out of nowhere and told me that the Armenians used to live here, as she led me to the outdoor fountain of her house in “New Bazmashen,” saying “This is left from the Armenians.” I thought I’d write of the moment when my father, walking ten feet in front of me, bent over and picked up a rock, and signaled to me that we were standing in front of Babi Hovakim’s house in Dzitogh, the village he had left as a teenager to avoid conscription into the Ottoman Army, and had returned to as an Armenian defense volunteer with Generals Antranig and Keri, as had Babi Kaspar, to find that no one remained in his village, none of the 3,000 residents, none of his eight siblings, parents…. no one. I thought I’d write of the cow and chickens that lived in the house where Babi had spent his childhood, and from where I let one of the chickens fly the coop, releasing it to freedom. How silly it sounds, but how good it felt to save a chicken, if only in my mind. I thought I’d write about Grandma Siroon’s Kesserig, where I saw my shadow on the empty plot where the church used to stand, and where I searched for the legendary cabbage she used to speak of, but which I never found. I thought I’d write of Mami Chnkuhi’s Ordu overlooking the Black Sea, the most picturesque of all the towns, where I couldn’t contain myself as I stood under a tree, gazing at the stately three-storied stone building that used to be the Armenian school thriving with vibrant children before it turned into the orphanage where my beautiful Mami, lost from her childhood and family, lived as a seven-year-old girl. These stories, these people, my grandparents, have no beginning and no end. So, I neither begin nor end with their stories. They live in me, in their children, 22 grandchildren, 62 great-grandchildren, 5 great-great grandchildren, and in those who chose to remember.