Following journalist and writer Avedis Hadjian across the mountains of eastern Turkey, through the snows and winds and those high villages which clasp to the rock of what was western Armenia before the Armenian genocide, is a bit like roaming the lands of Ninevah if Isis had won. Imagine the converted Christians clinging to their land under the clothes of Islam if Isis had not been destroyed, the Yezidi sex slaves sold into marriage but still passing on to their future children and grandchildren the fragments of a past life and an ancient language. For what was discovered by Hadjian in the fastness of Mush and Bitlis and Urfa and Erzerum and Marash was the bottom of the pond of history: the very last Armenians to survive in the land of massacre.
So deep is the pond that the author of this newly published book – “Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey” – sometimes appears out of breath, exhausted by his attempts to find his people’s ancestors and descendants, sometimes bravely failing because they will not talk or because they have just died. Perhaps it is because the light in the depths of the pond is of such cathedral-like gloom that historians have largely ignored Hadjian’s work; scarcely a review of this book has been published in Europe or America. Like the Armenia of the killing fields, it is as if it has never been.
In truth, we in the West have known of these “secret Armenians” for at least a decade, ever since Fethiye Cetin wrote of her Armenian-Turkish grandmother – inevitably the old lady was given a Muslim funeral for she was, as a Turk, a Muslim – and we all remember Hrant Dink, assassinated outside his newspaper office in Istanbul in 2007 because he remembered the Armenian genocide rather too much. But what Hadjian has done is to climb the tired old roads to the ancient villages of an unknown Turkey – to Garin, Van and Cilicia, where the survivors of the survivors, so to speak, of the first genocide of the twentieth century still exist.
They speak a kind of Armenian, those who remember the language of their race, and one of them even writes down the sounds of Arabic in Armenian script – he is quoting the Koran – which he does not understand. There may be up to two million of these souls, their identity as complex as their nationality; for who knows what identity is. Your religion? Your race? Your customs? Geography? A Turkish girl climbing a Christian Armenian holy mountain, Mount Maruta, frightened because her bag has flipped open to reveal an embroidered Armenian cross? Hadjian includes a coloured photograph of the girl in her long skirt, but with her light brown hair uncovered, the ghost of a lost people.
I’m still not quite sure why Hadjian, an Aleppo-born Armenian who has been an Argentinian Armenian since the age of two, traipsed up so many mountainsides. The Palestinians may dream of returning to lost lands, but the comparatively wealthy, cosmopolitan Armenian diaspora – most of the 11 million Armenians who are alive, descendants of those who survived the genocide of one and a half million of their people at the hands of the Turks (and of the Kurds, let us remember) – have no desire to re-settle in the old killing fields. For the places of massacre are well known to those forlorn people who still live there but who sometimes have only the memory of grandparents speaking in “a strange language” to hint at their family history.
In most cases, of course, it was the women who survived. And we know why. They were raped by Turks or Kurds or sold into marriage to Turks or Kurds or Arabs. The men were butchered with knives, roped together and thrown into rivers, tossed into gorges. So there is the mist of ancient dishonour over womanhood, although Hadjian does not speak of this in so many words. He finds a Muslim Imam of Armenian origin whose grandfather was killed in the genocide but whose uncle, a seminarian, converted to Islam. The imam speaks Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic but no Armenian, although he knows his history and claims he was not forcibly converted.
“The descendants of the people who massacred our family are still around,” he tells Hadjian. “We know them. We know the descendants of the people who murdered our grandfather Sahin. We lived among them. I would see them every day. We would see a dishonourable man like the one who killed Sahin every day. And yet, there was nothing we could do.”
Yet although he understood no Armenian, the imam knew the name of Sahin’s killer: Divan Erat.
At Argat, Hadjian visits the Ermeni Deresi, the “Armenians Gorge”, which is what it sounds like: the crevasse in which Armenians had been thrown to their deaths in 1915. There are no bones left. But there are memories of the dead, and Ibrahim, as he walks up the gorge, recalls what his parents said of his great-grandmother Zara, who was five when “she saw bandits decapitate her parents and her seven siblings”. Zara then fled through the mountains – a five-year old child, remember – to the village of Bahro, “seeing huge piles of corpses along the way.” Yet the descendants of the dead are kaleidoscopic. One family Hadjian meets are Armenian by ethnicity, Assyrian Orthodox Christians or Sunni Muslims by religion, Turkish by citizenship. Like the onion, he says, “peeling it to the end leaves you with nothing, for it is the aggregate of layers that makes the whole.”
Hadjian even finds one village, high in the sierras, where the enmity between Armenian-origin villagers and their neighbours continued into the 1960s with occasional shooting battles, even killings, completing a genocide that lasted – for them – half a century.
Hadjian has no final conclusions for his readers in this book, save for the observation that the survivors – including the frightened young Armenian girl on Mount Maruta – are not alone.
I’m not sure what that means. Survival keeps history alive, but I’m not sure it guarantees life in the future.