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dispatches slaughter of Anatolia’s Armenians in 1915 could expect ostracism, prosecution, or worse. But Çetin’s account of her grandmother’s true history became an immediate bestseller: it is estimated that as many as two million Turks have at least one Armenian grandparent.
It is partly thanks to My Grandmother that others have begun to speak about the secret Armenians in their own families. Over the past five years, Çetin and three others travelled all over Anatolia listening to their stories, and last October they published the 25 most striking interviews in Grandchildren. Like its predecessor, it is pushing at an open door. In its first month, it sold 4,000 copies, sparking off painful new debates about the national myths it so effectively demolishes.
Readers of My Grandmother are now well equipped to question what they were taught at school about Turkish identity. They know that presentday Turkey is made up of a multitude of ethnic groups, some of Asian origin and some of European, some Muslim and others non-Muslim. They know of the slaughter and displacement of peoples during the contraction of the Ottoman Empire and particularly during the turmoil of the First World War. They know that the Turk was more or less an invention of Atatürk – designed to bring to the disparate peoples of his new republic an identity of which they could be proud. But they also understand that his decision to underpin that concept with a white-washed history has been (and continues to be) hugely damaging, not just to those who have had to suppress their true origins to fit in with the state-imposed model, but also to Turkish society as a whole. They leave the book convinced that the only way forward is greater honesty.
Readers are convinced the only way forward is greater honesty
Grandchildren was conceived in much the same spirit, but its authors quickly found themselves stumbling onto disturbing new terrain. When deciding which grandchildren to include in this volume, they opted only for those who ‘opened new doors’ for them. Those discussing the book in the Turkish press have made much of the fact that all but two of those interviewed have chosen to use alibis.
18 secret histories – maureen freely
More than half of those included identify as Kurds – or they did until they found out, usually in adulthood, that they were part Armenian. It is well known that Kurdish tribes were encouraged and possibly paid to slaughter their Armenian neighbours in 1915, and that many did so believing that they would be rewarded with their own homeland. By and large they killed the men of fighting age, dispatching the rest – the women and children, the elderly and the infirm – on death marches. Some children were ‘saved’ along the way by kindly or well-rewarded neighbours. But many of the grandmothers and great-grandmothers remembered in this volume were women not saved but abducted. Forcibly converted to Islam, and forcibly married, they often entered Kurdish households as second wives. Robbed of their identity, their language and their religion, they nevertheless found other ways to assert themselves. Cleanliness continued to equal godliness. Unwilling converts sometimes found in Islam another way to God. Many put huge effort into encouraging children and grandchildren – both male and female – into bettering their lives through education. Some refused to defer to their husbands. However they behaved, most endured a lifetime of domestic violence – and had no choice but to endure it in silence.
So the grandchildren’s testimony forces readers to acknowledge that 1915 is not just about the Armenians but about the Kurds, not just about the histories and religions that divide them but about the patriarchal practices they share. As Çetin’s co-author Aysegül Altınay points out in her hardhitting afterword, even the best scholars of the Armenian diaspora have colluded with the genocide denialists of the Turkish state in writing off ‘those left behind’. Once these women entered Muslim society, they ceased to be counted as Armenians by either camp. And yet they could still pass on the stigma. This book is full of shocking accounts of the social ostracism and state-sponsored discrimination suffered even today by the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of Anatolia’s ‘converts’.
But the most haunting accounts are by those whose families somehow managed to cut the cord. One witness speaks of growing up in an Anatolian town with his mother, his father, and an ‘aunt who was not a blood relation’. It later emerged that the three were all children from the same Armenian village. They lived in perpetual fear of being ‘found out’. Another witness speaks of his shock upon going into the military and being told that he was good for nothing, on account of being descended from a convert. The ‘mark’ remained on his record, and when he returned to civilian life he continued to be barred from certain kinds of work. That this form of discrimination still continues is confirmed by a civil servant who now knows of his