Çetin: The ‘Secret’ Known by All

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The following article was adapted from a presentation that Fethiye Çetin gave at the Gross Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies (GCHGS) at Ramapo College on Nov. 14. It was translated from the original Turkish by Nurhan A. Becidyan.

(L-R) Ani Tchaghlasian, advisory board member of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (GCHGS) at Ramapo College, Dr. Michael Riff, director of GGHGS, Fethiye Cetin, and Nurhan Becidyan

During one’s lifetime, there are important milestones and nothing seems to be the same after a milestone is behind you. For me, this milestone was when my grandmother shared with me her story about her Armenian past.

This was the story of a 9-year-old girl in 1915, when she faced persecution, violence, massacre, pillage, and terrible suffering. It was the heartbreaking life story which she had begun as the Armenian Heranoush and continued as the Muslim Seher.

She had paid for her survival at the cost of being forcefully grabbed from her mother, from the world that she knew and trusted, and thrown into the midst of those who had annihilated her family, her loved ones—of those who had observed and done nothing to stop the occurring violence. She had lost her language, her religion, her name, and her voice.

Until she told me her story I had no knowledge of the genocidal violence that had occured in our (Turkish) history.

What I learned that day created shock, anger, and a sense of rebellion in me, but as this issue was not discussed in public—not even revealed within private circles—I lacked both the political context and consciousness to be able to make any sense of this at the time.

In those days I was the defender of a socialist world view. I thought that the class struggle and the revolution that would follow would eliminate injustices. I had easy and cliché answers to difficult questions.

But my answers were not enough to explain the reason for my grandmother’s silence of all those long years. Her silence was the reason that I started to deal with these difficult questions.

My grandmother had been silent for years, but she had not forgotten the names of her mother, her father, her grandfather, and even that of the “moukhtar” (headman) of her village.

It was as though she had repeated all these things to herself during those “silence” years so that she could tell it one day. This was her struggle against forgetting.

I began to share what I had learned, initially with my relatives and also with my socialist friends. During those shared moments, I noticed that almost everyone seemed to have similar stories, and during these shared moments voices were hushed and turned into whispers. The silence was not only that of the grandmothers but the silence of the whole society.

(L-R) Cetin, Becidyan, and Tchaghlasian

However,we were theyoung generation claiming that another world order was possible and we were ready to face the consequences of such a change. In those days we were very much interested about what was happening in Chile,in Argentina,in Angola, and we were shoutingourslogans loudly.

However, when discussing what had happened in our own land, we were whispering in each other’s ears, even in confined spaces. Thus my first question was: “Why this silence?”

Why was this “secret” that everyone knew not being discussed? Why?

I began to share what I had learned, initially with my relatives and also with my socialist friends. During those shared moments, I noticed that almost everyone seemed to have similar stories, and during these shared moments voices were hushed and turned into whispers. The silence was not only that of the grandmothers but the silence of the whole society.

The atrocities and brutalities of 1915 were of such magnitude that it made things that would not be possible under normal conditions possible. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian women and children had been able to survive only by being Islamized. This apostasy and the wall of silence that was built around it was reason enough to show the horror and dimension of what had transpired.

I remember that I was very surprised when I learned that this silence was also on an international scale. None of the history texts mentioned the Heranoushes/Sehers—that is, there was no mention of the Islamized Armenians in any text.

Ignoring the Heranoushes/Sehers, not talking about them in public, was explainable in Turkey due to the government’s policies of denial and suppression of the truth. But I was unable to comprehend the reason why this issue was not discussed in the Armenian historical narrative. Moreover, the children and grandchildren of the Heranoushes/Sehers were everywhere but they were not included in any national historical narratives.

When my grandmother passed away in 2000, I had her obituary published in the Agos Daily. It was an ad that started with the words, “Her name was Heranoush,” and touched upon her story of being Islamized. I learned from Hrant Dink that this obituary had been the subject of a news item and a critical comment in the Haratch Armenian newspaper in France. Haratch was how I found my relatives who lived in the United States, via Archbishop Mesrop Ashjian who had read the obituary and the comment.

Apparently Archbishop Ashjian’s family also came from the same village as my grandmother. Thanks to the archbishop’s maternal Uncle Suren’s strong memory and his habit of writing down everything, my grandmother’s sister Margrit, my cousins Richard (who is among us here tonight), Nancy, and Deborah found me by contacting the Agos offices in Istanbul. We made our first communication via phone in Hrant’s office.

Srpazan Ashjian in his article in Haratch was questioning the paper’s approach: “this time it [as in, Haratch] closes the doors of hope in front of Fethiye Çetin.”

There was something that had bothered me with Haratch’s approach. For example, if they had criticized me by asking, “Where were you until now? Why didn’t you speak until now?”, there was nothing I could say. But by stating that “all doors should be shut in my face,” I felt that those words were directed towards the Heranoushes/Sehers, and I was left with a sour taste in my mouth.

I had published the obituary to make a truth, which was known to most but that was kept under wraps, visible. To discuss 1915 and to open a new and humane door in the genocide debate by telling our Islamized grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ stories. While expecting resistance from the Turkish public, the resistance had now come from an unexpected source. I had thought that Haratch’s publishers did not want to hear my grandmother’s story. But why were they shutting their ears, and why were they shutting the doors?

In fact, these women and children were the living witnesses of the Armenian Genocide. They were the living proof of the statement, “The past is in today.” They were the victims of the genocide who made it possible to question the official history narrative.

Why and how did they become Muslims? Why are they alone? Where is their family? What happened to them? Even asking these questions would make 1915 discussable, so why this silence?

Of course, there will always be people who change their religious beliefs, but was there any possibility of freewill under the conditions that existed in 1915?

Some did it just to stay alive; others to save the lives of their children or their siblings; and still others were kidnapped and forcefully coverted to Islam. And if the subject is children like Heranoush, could there be any discussion of freewill? They were children, they were grabbed forcefully from the world they knew and thrusted and thrown into an alien environment. Some were forced to live under the same roof with the murderers and rapists of their loved ones. There were those who resisted becoming a Muslim, some who faked it. Still others, just to be able to save their children from discriminatory and exclusionary practices, acted like the devoutest of Muslims by praying five times a day and not coming out of mosques.

These people who carried in their minds the images of savagery and terror also had the burden of living in this savage space by feeling the wind of violence and death on their backs. Without being able to tell in a loud voice what they had seen, without being able to mourn their lost ones, they disappeard from this world one by one. The doors of the society they belonged to were also shut in their faces. Which caused them to live in loneliness and shame. But none of them forgot their Armenian origin and past; a lot of them whispered it into the ears of their loved ones, others told it on their death beds, and almost all of them wrote a story that challenged history.

Some in spite of the heavy torture they faced never removed their crosses from around their necks, they did not remove the Bible from their chests, did not perform the ritual prayers of Islam.

Some prayed and lit candles in the ruined churches.

Some performed the ritual Muslim prayers and went to mosque regularly, but also baked and distributed to their neigbours the Easter “choereg”; they dyed eggs with onion skins and distributed them to the children. There were also others who on certain days tied two spoons into the shape of a cross and threw them into the lake or river nearby, and then gave 25 kurush (cents) as rewards to their children and grandchildren who jumped in with their hands tied behind their backs and recovered those crosses made of spoons.

Some families lived as Muslims during the day, but as Christians at night.

Some others, in order to protect their children from segregation, tried to forget their past, tried to become the best Muslim, the best Turk!

But neither they, nor their Muslim neighbors, forgot. Furthermore the state, by utilizing its segregtationist policies that was trying to make people forget 1915, only reminded them of their past.

No matter how strong a Muslim they were, in the social image they were all outsiders. No matter how hard they tried to forget, in the social memory they were called such denigrating names as “converts” (dönme), “remnants of the sword” (kılıç artığı), “fille” (a Kurdish word for Armenians), “infidel” (gavur). This denigration and exclusion also continued to cover the children and grandchildren of the Islamized Armenians.

The grandchidren were now expressing themselves as follows:

One grandchild coming from a Kurdish province explained: “They treat us like sour milk and shun us. Muslims will not pray standing behind me. I am the other of the other (Ötekinin de ötekisiyim).

Another one said: “They never make us forget who we are and remind us frequently. I grew a beard, and walk around with a Koran in my hand, but still no one would pray behind me in the mosque.”1

The state, while pursuing a policy of erasing 1915 from memories, was at the same time reminding Islamized Armenians and their children of their roots by its discriminatory and exclusionary practices.

For example, my mother’s brother was not accepted to the military academy because his mother was a convert (mühtedi). These children and grandchildren were not allowed to become officers, policemen, judges, or prosecuters. Not only they, but their spouses, were also subjected to security clearance issues. This was a state that coded its citizens with an “ethnicity code”; it did not trust them!

Cetin signs copies of her books following the N.J. event

Yusuf Halaçoğlu, one of the past heads of the Turkish Historical Society, made some claims about these people, whom he called them “Crypto Armenians,” saying that they were enemy agents and a threat to state security.

The Eruh Raid of the PKK in 1984 was reported in the media as “the Armenians came back to claim their land.” The ınterior minister of the time labeled the PKK leader Abdullah Öçalan as “Ermeni dölü” (a deragotary term meaning “Armenian offspring”).

During the early 2000’s, when Hrant Dink had become a target of attacks, all of the intelligence units of the state started a “Crypto Armenian” hunt in Anatolia. In the Ergenoken court files there is quite a lot of information on this subject. In fact, there are notes and conversations connecting the fact that my grandmother was Armenian to why I had accepted to represent Hrant Dink.

What this means is that their children and grandchildren lived and are living facing double exclusions, labeled as untrustworthy, rootless, vagrants.

Lately, first maternal/paternal grandmother stories and then discussions about Islamized families, villages, and even tribes have been started, leading to major fractures in the century of silence.

The interest created in the community from my first book, My Grandmother,2 was the reason the book Grandchildren,3 which I co-authored with Ayşe Gül Altınay, was written. We conducted our first interviews in 2005 and used pseudonyms for the grandchildren that we interviewed.

When the book was published in 2009, in spite of the use of only pseudonyms, one of the grandchildren pulled back his story. But we can say that this fear and uneasiness is diminishing lately. Books and articles are being published; documentaries are being filmed; verbal history studies, TV interviews, and discussion programs are being made. Even though they were late, academics are not ignoring the subject matter any more, and the debate occuring in the collegiate environment consisting of young academics is very lively, and gives me hope and excitement.

On the other hand, the process of being questioned over where they belonged and the barriers of identification made the Islamized Armenians feel as if they were stuck in limbo.4 This was the period when they felt they were being squeezed between two groups.

One grandchild who participated in the Islamized Armenians Conference explained this condition: “For years we felt as though we were in Purgatory. The Muslims were excluding us. For years we waited for the Christian Armenians to accept us. But they called us Dajig, and they also did not accept us among them.”

Another one said: “The media and diaspora approach us as merchandise, but disappear when their job is over.”

Yet another one said: “Their attitude was condescending, their questions were insulting.”

There were others who called themselves “Muslim Armenians” and demanded that this identity be accepted. There were some who did not deny their Armenian roots, but described themselves as a “Turk” or a “Kurd,” or accepted their multi identities.

Those who were baptized or went to the Armenian Patriarchate to be baptized were faced with the obligatory six-month-long courses, and reported that it was very difficult to come from Anatolia and have to attend those courses for six months.

A grandchild that protested to this situation said: “All I want is to get back what was taken from me forcefully. Why are they creating such difficulties?”

Another asked: “Whether we want it or not, we are Armenians. In order to understand us you have to live the life we have led. Our choices were: ‘Should I die or should I become a Muslim?’ I had to choose either death or Islam. Who is going to decide about my Armenianness? You or the Patriarchate or I, who has faced vast difficulties during the past 100 years?”5

There were those who were baptized in Etchmiadzin, but there have been rumors lately that Etchmiadzin is refusing the baptismal requests of Turkish citizens, saying that they should be baptized in Turkey.

Their converted Islamic identities are not enough to make them full Muslims, and their historical experiences are found lacking for them to remain as Armenians.

Because the identity- and belonging-molds are coded in such a manner that we are unable to fit them into any of the molds in our minds.

This group, which today numbers in the millions, does not fit either into the Armenian mold identified by Christianity, nor the Turkish or Kurdish mold identified by Islam.

Because the stories and lives that are floating to the surface complicates and challenges identity limits, and in a way goes beyond the ordinary.

Another [grandchild] asked: Whether we want it or not, we are Armenians. In order to understand us you have to live the life we have led. Our choices were: ‘Should I die or should I become a Muslim?’ I had to choose either death or Islam. Who is going to decide about my Armenianness? You or the Patriarchate or I, who has faced vast difficulties during the past 100 years?

The Muslim Armenian category, even without being identified as a collective identity, comes up as a new definition by forcing the redefinition of the Armenian identity that has been identified with Christianity.6

The conference organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation at the Bosphorus University turned out to be a very important one, where such subjects as Muslim Armenians, identities, the definition of belonging, and the reasons for the silences were discussed.

During the conference, Ronald Grigor Suny said: “Armenian history studies have, for the past 100 years, almost ignored the problem of the Islamized Armenian issue. We should all respect them and refrain from imposing our subjective personal identity on others. Ethnic and national identity, just as religious identity, is objective and is not a matter of blood or origin. The sense of identity is based on history and experience, [it] is a human trait; ultimately a matter of preference.”7

Vahe Tachjian’s view was that, after 1915 “with the hope of recreating the nation, these women, that were the remnants of the Armenian people, were attempted to be re-assembled but soon it was realized that this was an extremely complex issue.”

In terms of the surviving women, there were two basic approaches accepted among the prominent Armenians: Accroding to the first view, a “Red Line” had been crossed. These women had violated the national code of ethics, and therefore did not deserve to be accepted among the Armenian people. The second view saw these women as the victims of the massive violence. They needed support, protection, and direction. Shelters for them should be built.

What if there were illegitimate children? The majority was against accepting these children into the Armenian community. These children were from the enemy, and therefore they could not be accepted as Armenian. The women were left with only one choice: “Leave your children and come among us!”8

This complex problem, because it was never discussed, never questioned, was abandoned with the hope that it would be forgotten.

But this reality was not forgotten and it almost blew up. And this explosion caught every sector unprepared.

Islamized Armenians, facing the problem of not being accepted by either community, have started to have meetings amongst themselves and created associations to overcome these shortcomings.

The Diyarbekir Sourp Giragos Church has become the meeting place for those that do not deny their Armenian roots but identify themselves in different manners, such as Turkish, Kurdish, Muslim, Alevi, or atheist. On Sundays there are banquet tables set up in the church’s courtyard. Also every passing day more people are attending the Armenian classes being offered by the Diyarbekir-Sur municipality. The locations where these classes are conducted have become other meeting places.

Those who wish to return to Christianity by accepting their Armenian roots are trying to overcome the problem by establishing associations amongst themselves, caused by the cold shoulder shown by the Armenian community and the Patriarchate.

For example, the Dersim Armenian Association, the Bitlis Armenians Association, the Sasun and Mutki Armenians Solidarity Association, and the Malatya Armenians Association were all born because of this necessity. These people, because they are unable to express themselves in the Armenian community, are searching venues where they can express themselves.

These last few years quite a few Islamized Armenians have approached the Patriarcahte in order to be baptized. It seems that both the Patriarchate and the community was cought unprepared for this eventuality. Therefore they are trying to stretch the reality by not granting their baptismal requests immediately and demanding that they take six-month-long courses before being accepted for baptism.

Or they are asking them to change the religious affiliation section on their identity cards from “Islam” to “Christian.” This is problematic for these people who want to convert, especially those that are government employees, and people are refusing this because it might cause them to lose their jobs.

The state has stopped using the “ethnicity code,” but for parents who want to register their children in Armenian day schools problems still exist. Because of the barriers the Patriarchate has created for baptisms, the children of unbaptized parents are not being accepted to the Armenian day schools.

These parents are saying: “We were able to force the state to accept our right to send out children to Armenian day schools, but still we are unable to make the Patriarchate accept our wishes.”

Nira Yuval Davis says that “belonging is tied to the emotional commitment, of feeling himself to be home.”9 Islamized Armenians, on the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide, still feel homeless and without a nest.

We must hear their cry of: “My only wish is to take back what was forcefully taken away from me!” This rebellion and wish today is still waiting to be heard and to be thought about, and for a solution.



 [1] Ziflioglu, Vercihan, Araftaki Ermenilerin Hikayesi, Iletisim Yayinlari, 2015.

2 Çetin, Fethiye, Anneannem, Metis Yayinevi, 2004.

3 Altinay, Ayse Gül & Çetin, Fethiye, Torunlar, Metis Yayinevi, 2009.

4 Türkyilmaz, Zeynep, Müslümanlas(tiril)mis Ermeniler Konferansi Tebligleri, Kasim 2013, Hrant Dink Vakfi Yayinlari.

5 Ziflioglu, op.cit.

6 Hadjian, Avedis, Müslümanlas(tiril)mis Ermeniler Konferansi Tebligleri, Kasim 2013, Hrant Dink Vakfi Yayinlari.

7 Suny, Ronald Grigor, Müslümanlas(tiril)mis Ermeniler Konferansi Tebligleri, Kasim 2013, Hrant Dink Vakfi Yayinlari.

8 Tachjian, Vahé, Müslümanlas(tiril)mis Ermeniler Konferansi Tebligleri, Kasim 2013, Hrant Dink Vakfi Yayinlari.

9 Yuval-Davis, Nira, transmitted by Beyinli, Gökçen, Müslümanlas(tiril)mis Ermeniler Konferansi Tebligleri, Kasim 2013, Hrant Dink Vakfi Yayinlari.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Çetin: The ‘Secret’ Known by All