"Bastards of the Infidels"

Eric Nazarian

“Bastards,” “infidels,” “remains of the sword” were the derogatory words directed at Armenian survivors of the genocide in Turkey as well as their offspring. Under this same umbrella was another set of “bastards” who were Christian Armenians forcibly or willingly converted to Islam in the wake of the genocide.
This was one of the many topics covered over the course of three eye-opening days at the Hrant Dink Foundation’s Conference on “Islamized Armenians” on the Bogazici University campus in Istanbul. We heard lectures and panels comprised of international scholars presenting a myriad of oral and academic histories about forcibly Islamized Armenians, as well as the histories of the willingly converted that bridge and divide these communities. The conference was a platform for these unofficial minorities, a sort of “People’s History of Islamized Armenians,” to borrow half of Howard Zinn’s title. This percentage of the Turkish population is the resurfacing “remains of the sword.”
The conference began with a remarkable and open-hearted speech by Rakel Dink that echoed the humanist ideals of her late husband, Hrant. The president of the university then enthusiastically welcomed the attendees and made it clear she supported this conference. Hrant’s spirit hovered everywhere. The energy, respect, and openness of his legacy was palpable as we watched and listened to the mellifluous voice of Fethiye Cetin tell the story of how her grandmother had survived the genocide. And of a certain spot on a river where her grandmother had seen her own mother drowning two of her siblings during the marches, to prevent them from the terror that befell the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. When Fethiye was a child, her grandmother would take her to this river and say nothing of what she remembered except, “If only these mountains had eyes and could say what happened here.”
This was one of the countless stories that made it into the public consciousness thanks to Fethiye’s 2008 book, My Grandmother, one of the most important personal family histories of our time, as well as the follow-up book Grandchildren, which she wrote with Ayse Gul Altinay. We learned from the articulate opening panels how historians in the past had neglected the lives of women and children, who were seen as objects of a masculine nation and not subjects independent of themselves. There was a freedom and a deep earnestness in most of the presentations that was moving to experience. Nobody gave a damn for the most part about mincing words or reiterating euphemisms, and there were no gendarmes to stop or censor the free flow of ideas and the innumerable times “genocide” was used in the panels and discourse.
The conference unspooled snippets and overviews of oral histories and tales gathered from the field research of the scholars present, including Laurence Ritter, Umit Kurt, Helin Anahit, Avedis Hadjian, and Anoush Suni.
One of Suni’s stories was about an Armenian man who converted, was given the name Mehmet, married an Arabic woman, and had a son named Jemal who was taken in as a son by an “agha” after his father’s death. Through this and other stories we learned how the process of renaming the converted was a step in creating a new religious identity. There was also the presence of Turks who, over time, found out they were Kurds, who later found out they were Armenians.
The perception of Armenians in Kurdish novels; the 1915 Besni Armenian orphans who were Islamized; the issue of Kurdish complicity in the Armenian Genocide; as well as the current state of relations and possible methods of reconciliation were discussed at a panel entitled, “Memory, Ethnicity, Religion: Kurdish Identity.”
During the coffee breaks, there were occasional tears on the campus lawn, a genial warmth among most of the attendees, and something quite the sight for sore eyes, especially for a Diasporan—a stack of loudspeakers and a live-feed set on campus overlooking the Bosphorus echoing the word “Soykirim” (the Turkish word for “genocide”) openly during Taner Akcam’s presentation.
In this aura of minorities telling their layered and Byzantine stories, the familial taboos and ethnic histories braided and dovetailed into a very complicated and illuminating fresco of what it means to be an “Islamized Armenian.” This process of unveiling family secrets through the act of storytelling became a source of healing for the teller of these stories. As a filmmaker, this was a very touching and inspiring moment to witness. Stories have the power to heal and educate the public about the unsung and unheard experiences of uncharted histories. The questions from the audience were prescient and spoke to the resurfacing anger at a state that has shunned multi-ethnic identity and diversity instead of celebrating it. This small minority of the Dink generation took an intelligent and engaged stand by directly examining the traumas of the past and nurturing an aura of empathy and respect for the history of the oppressed wanting and deserving to be heard. This is the clearest ray of light in an otherwise still darkness in Turkey when it comes to the issue of acknowledging the far-reaching, multi-faceted immediate and long-term effects of the genocide.
Victor Hugo once said, “An invasion of armies can be resisted; an invasion of ideas cannot be resisted.” And at this conference, this “invasion” of ideas was certainly welcome and critically articulated.
I felt torn between hope and possibility that ebbed into the gnawing, perhaps unjustified, pessimism that all the analysis, research, and incredible hard work done by countless scholars loyal to these voices of history and the corroborate-able truth of the genocide still would change nothing for the ocean of bones in the sands of Der-Zor, which a hundred years ago were living, breathing families. We will never know their names or stories. We will never know their voices or what they might have been.
There will never be any panel capable of granting them justice for what they endured. They will remain the nameless and abandoned dead.
“How can we Armenians heal from this trauma?” is the first note I wrote in my notebook, inspired by the always warm and gracious Fethiye Cetin. I still don’t have a convincing answer, but maybe a large part of the healing lies in establishing ties with willing Turks and Kurds ready to face and discuss the past openly and empathetically. I remember the tale of the Turkish village “kasap” (butcher) who said he knew that most of the Armenian men in the village were heavily addicted to tobacco and nicotine, as their throats and esophagi were tar-yellow after the wholesale village beheadings he took part in. This, too, is part of the taboo history that affects the consciousness of those who live on the lands where the atrocities took place. As Cicero said, “The life of the dead is set in the memory of the living.”
Projected images, be they photographic or cinematographic, have the power and capacity to trigger stories and ideas in the eye of the beholder. These knee-jerk ideas can evoke a realization or an inner epiphany that otherwise would not have been conjured. This unintended interpretation churning within the mind’s eye of the moviegoer has the capacity to hold up a mirror into our inner lives and show the need for quiet self-reflection.
The stream-of-consciousness images triggered by the panelists cast my memories back to Van and Bitlis in May of this year on my journey to Historic Armenia. Since the conference centered on “Islamized Armenians,” whose religious conversions can be broken down into a garden variety of sub-sets of the forced and the willingly converted, I couldn’t help but stray back to the churches and cemeteries we witnessed in Van, Edremit, and Bitlis that had undergone their own forced spatial conversions from places of ancient spiritual worship to barns where donkeys and livestock bred in villages off the map.
These seemingly irrelevant memories lingered in the back of my mind as I listened to tale after tale of survivalist horror, identity politics, and skeletons surfacing after generations of denial, self-censorship, and violent repression. I began to feel a very unpleasant certainty in my gut that the next time we returned to Van, Bitlis, and the ancient lands of our ancestors, we would still witness the neglect and plunder of the remains of our culture and faith. This was triggered by the projection of a black-and-white image of the Church of Surp Garabed in Dersim before it was bombed in the late 1930′s. And yet, the stones remain. They have an uncanny, almost supernatural way to stay rooted in some battered and ravaged form of quasi-existence. Perhaps its that Armenian stubbornness refusing to go away, refusing to stop fighting, refusing to be silenced, always wanting to be heard and acknowledged in the dark waters of those in power quietly silencing truth.
The more brazen the indignities of chameleonic politics that recognized the genocide over a generation ago during the time of Reagan, then flips to the official position of banning the now controversial “Armenian Orphan Rug” from public display to appease Ankara. Everything is indirectly or directly part and parcel of history’s ironic and cruel cycles. And all of the stories in this conference were in some shape or form tied to the tapestry of this region’s history and future. If everything is connected then nothing is irrelevant, especially in human rights and the silencing of crimes against humanity, including the discrimination today’s Islamized Armenians continue to face. This must change, and it will take one person at a time looking into their own conscience and respecting the right of the other to exist and be heard in the name of true, sincere human diplomacy, not meaningless photo-ops and fickle handshakes.
The common thematic denominators that I took away from the panels included the unsettling realization that very little is accepted on its own merits when it comes to a human being’s right to exist in the state of nature they were born into. This is the troubling and ugly truth. What I’ve gathered from people I’ve met over numerous travels to make a film in Bolis is that if you are not born into the ethnic and religious majority, then you will forever be subordinate and an object of oppression. This comes from most of the people I have spoken to that hail from Anatolia or from minority families living in Turkey: Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Kurd, or Chaldean, it does not matter. With the exception of the Kurdish people and their colorful ethnic and cultural traditions, the majority of these ancient cultures are gone from their ancestral land. This is nothing new, and the obvious sometimes needs to be reiterated in order not to be forgotten or neglected. Their pasts, their schools and neighborhoods, have been deleted the further east you go. But the cemeteries and the churches remain in various conditions of decay or damage through neglect. In the case of the Islamized Armenians, they are considered subordinates in the eyes of the converters, and religious traitors in the eyes of Christian Armenians. They are, in perpetuity, in a state of limbo. The roots of almost every family story told from Mush to Artvin to Sassoon traced back to this common denominator of Armenians and ethnic minorities tossed into the grinder of history and forced to accept belief systems and lifestyles in order to survive.
Will there be more of these conferences in the east and south of Turkey, and will they continue to convert ignorance into knowledge and knowledge into respect for all cultures and faiths? Is that too idealistic a notion to hope for given the irreversible magnitude of the bloody history that birthed this generation of minorities wanting to be given a place to stand, to be heard, and, more importantly, to be accepted on their own merits without precondition? Will there be another conference on the braided and inter-related histories of the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Genocides? Some day, in a possibly more democratic future, will these conferences be converted into the impetus to grant official civil and human rights to these people, and all remaining religious properties and foundations in Anatolia?
Will there come a time for the “others” culture, faith, and history to be respected, preserved, and taught in schools, instead of plundered by grave-robbers fancying themselves as treasure hunters of the fabled Armenian gold? Where will the commission be in the Kurdish areas to help stop this rampant and insulting quest for the so-called buried treasures that has dug hole after hole in our churches, spurring only more pillage? In the process of trying to form the building blocks of reconciliation through cultural diplomacy and meaningful dialogue, respect for cultural landmarks and touchstones are fundamental to the trust-building process.
This incredible conference was a much-needed gift in giving voice to the voiceless and unofficial histories of the Islamized Armenians. And through this first of what will hopefully be many conferences to come, the tangible results require time and will be measured in the long run. This region has a long way to go until it comes to grips with its own Civil Rights Movement on a massive national scale. But the important work of converting ignorance into beads of knowledge braided together into inspiration and the meaningful exchange of ideas has begun, and continues quite nobly thanks to the Hrant Dink Foundation.

"The Armenian Weekly," November 14, 2013

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