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29.6.13

An Armenian Named Talaat

Khatchig Mouradian
 
Talaat is the son of an Armenian Genocide survivor.
I first met him on a cold January day in Lice (pronounced Leejeh), a district near Diyarbakir perched on layer upon layer of violence—first against the Armenians, then the Kurds.
It was a day before my scheduled speech at a conference in Ankara.
His family gave us a warm welcome. After all, I was friends with Talaat’s brother, who had recently changed his Muslim name to Armen, and was taking Armenian language courses in nearby Diyarbakir.
I do not remember how long I sat on the sofa in their quaint living room, at loss with words, sipping my tea, and thinking about identity, while my friends conversed with the family, diluting the awkwardness of my silence.
Talaat’s father, Hovsep, was born in 1910 in an Armenian village in Lice. His family was butchered during the genocide when he was five, but somehow, he survived, and was taken in by a Muslim family, which renamed him Bekir.
Bekir grew up as a devout Muslim, twice doing the pilgrimage to Mecca. He had five sons, and even named one of them Talaat— the name of Ottoman Turkey’s Minister of the Interior at the time of the Armenian genocide, and widely seen as the mastermind of this crime.
And now, Talaat, Armen’s brother, was sitting across from me, most likely wondering why I had fallen silent after a few minutes of small talk.

***
I grew up learning that a genocide survivor was someone who made it: escaped the miasma of massacre, disease, and starvation, and rebuilt their life either in Soviet Armenia or in the newly emerging Armenian communities in foreign lands. These survivors often shared the same roof with my generation.
But my encounters with hundreds of “hidden Armenians” in Turkey, most of whom, like me, are children and grandchildren of genocide survivors, drove home the realization of how incomplete that definition is.
The tens of thousands of Armenian women and children who converted to Islam forcibly, or to escape death, were genocide survivors too. Often, they were the siblings of the men and women who escaped, and whom we now remember in Armenia or the Diaspora as our dear grandmother or grandfather.
What made one in our eyes a Turk or a Kurd, sometimes an Arab, and the other an Armenian Genocide survivor, was fate—or, simply, luck.
Many of these “hidden Armenians” yearned to meet other, “certified Armenians.” Some went out of their way to show documents proving their identity, seeking some kind of validation of identity from the latter. And many wanted a hug.
***
Talaat’s grandnephew, barely two years old, was the center of everyone’s attention that day. His dark, expressive eyes reminded me of Armen and Talaat. I wondered what kind of Turkey he would grow up in. I wondered what he would learn about the fate of his great-grandfather Hovsep who turned into Bekir, and his great uncles Armen and Talaat. I wondered what he would name his child: Talaat or Zohrab?
I hugged Talaat that day. He then asked my Kurdish friend to take a picture of the two of us. “What can I do,” he said. “My blood is calling.”
We returned to Diyarbakir that evening to catch my flight to Ankara. Within hours, I was scheduled to deliver a talk, and I only had some incomplete notes. But I wasn’t worried; I knew exactly what I was going to say, and what language I was going to say it in.
That night in Ankara, I wrote down my speech in Turkish. Two friends I was staying with, Bilgin and Şebnem, made sure the language was impeccable.
The next morning, as I faced the audience from the podium, I was thinking of my grandparents. But mostly, I was thinking of Talaat.

Author’s note: Talaat’s story has been gestating in my mind since January 2013. I hoped I would be able to write it down after I visited him again in May with a group of friends, but all I could come up with was the title of the essay. Finally, upon reading news of police violence in Lice on June 28, I sat down and wrote it. Perhaps one day, Turkey will discover the strata of violent history in that region.

"The Armenian Weekly," June 29, 2013

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