FETHIYE CETIN'S NEW MEMOIR HELPS TURKS, ARMENIANS EXPLORE THEIR IDENTITIES

epress.am
06.29.2011

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 Guardian.co.uk, 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.