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Fethiye Cetin's New Memoir Helps Turks, Armenians Explore Their Iden

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  • Fethiye Cetin's New Memoir Helps Turks, Armenians Explore Their Iden


    In 2004, when the lawyer Fethiye 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
    Armenian Genocide. Her granddaughter, a human rights campaigner and
    counsel for the family of Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist murdered
    in Istanbul in 2007, was one of the first to publicize her Armenian
    origins, in defiance of the taboo that still paralyses much of Turkey,
    reports, citing an article originally published in
    Le Monde.

    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 Gul 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 Onen, 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," Onen
    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 Gulsad,
    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.

    From: Baghdasarian