‘My Grandmother’ by Fethiye Çetin

'My Grandmother' by Fetiye Çetin, translated by Maureen Freely
‘My Grandmother’ by Fethiye Çetin, translated by Maureen Freely
By Dr. Rubina Peroomian

 

I want to start this blog with the question posed to me after I delivered the keynote speech at the AIEA (Association internationale des études armeniénnes) Conference, last week, held in Oxford UK (my topic was “The Diasporan Armenian Literature Entering the Second Century of the Continuing Effects of the Genocide”).

A distinguished European Armenologist asked me at the end, “What impact do you think this literature, especially those written in English would have in Turkey and the issue of the recognition of the Genocide?”

My response was that if you had asked this question years ago, I would decisively tell you that the Diasporan Armenian literature depicting the traumatic experience of the massacres and deportations of Armenians during the trying years of WWI, together with those coming from Turkish authors will eventually impact the public opinion in Turkey. I firmly believed that under the pressure of the gradually shaping public opinion and the influence of Turkish progressive and open-minded intelligentsia the Turkish government would cave in and face the past with a determination to acknowledge and correct the committed and still ongoing injustice. Turkey would explode from within, I believed, and pace toward democracy, ethnic and religious freedom, and equal rights and justice for all. Today, with the volatile situation in Turkey, I have no answer.

Indeed, I was fascinated by Turkish writers such as Kemal Yalçin and Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk and others for their courage to confront the past for the sake of democracy and justice to prevail in their beloved homeland. I was astounded to read Fethiye Çetin’s ‘Anneanem’ (‘My Grandmother,’ 2004) and her honest confession to her Armenian ancestry  which she knew would bring her nothing but pain and obstacles to get ahead in the Turkish society, obstacles hindering the Armenian minority and everyone in Turkey with a trace of Armenian blood in his/her identity.
Fetiye Çetin
Fethiye Çetin

Fethiye’s grandmother Seher/Heranoush represented thousands of Armenian women who suffered in silence, never daring to disclose their past. They chose to stay with the children they conceived from their abductors and “serve” them faithfully.

Anneanem’ (‘My Grandmother’) tells us that Heranoush’s brother discovered her and wanted to take her with him to the United States, but she refused to leave her children behind. Her brother maintained contact and even invited her to visit the family in the U.S. But she had no proper papers, so her son Mahmoud went instead.

However, characteristically, as a young Turkish citizen with nationalistic upbringing, Mahmoud could not face the truth about the Armenian past that was revealed to him in the United States. He could not accept the stories of the past that were, whether he liked it or not, his own past. He severed his and his mother’s relation with them. He tried and somehow also succeeded, to erase these memories, as many of the generation born to the Armenian survivors did. Seher’s children tried hard to keep the secret and fight with the sense of shame and fear their Armenian roots caused them. A family friend who worked in the registrar’s office had been able to help them to bury the past by erasing the word muhtedi’ from Seher’s ID card. The evidence in the official annals was erased but the memory of the past lingered in the neighborhood, in society.

When Seher’s children got older, marriage became a problem. The suitor’s family did not want them in order “not to dirty, not to corrupt the race” (Fethiye Çetin, ‘AnneAnnem.’All the references are to the Armenian translation of this book, ‘Mets mayrs,’ RubenMelkonian tr. Yerevan: Paruyr Sevak Press, 2006, p. 76). But a bigger problem was the fact that in the words of Methiye, the wife of a Turkish acquaintance of the family whose mother too was Armenian, “You want me to tell you the truth? In our region, there is hardly a family whose roots aren’t from that ‘corrupt race.’ There is no one whose race has remained unspoiled” (p. 77). Seher’s children, typical of the generation born to the Armenian girls in Turkish or Kurdish homes, tried not to share their past or the history of their ancestry, about which they themselves did not care to find out more.

It would take the third generation more distanced from the dreadful past to face the past and deal with it. But that was not easy, not for the third generation in Turkey brought up as true Turks, ignorant of the family story and negligent of the pre-Republican history.

Fethiye belonged to that generation, and she was the chosen one in the family, the sacrificial lamb to bear the torrent of emotions and incredible stories her grandmother dumped on her, or better said, trusted her to rid herself of the lifelong burden, to attain tranquility of soul and conscience. Grandmother Seher’s stories made an initial shocking effect and took time to sink in Fethiye’s mind. Fethiye pondered on each one of them, and through them she began to know her grandmother she did not know before. She began to interpret her words of admonishment. Was she thinking of what she had gone through when she said ”Children, don’t be afraid of the dead; they can not harm you. Evil comes from the living”? (p. 63). That was grandmother Seher’s favorite and often repeated advice. Now, Fethiye knew what she meant by that.

Heranoush continued her harrowing life story for days, whenever she was alone with her favorite granddaughter. And “the long and deathly journey began.” (p. 52). Thinking that she had reached the end of her road in this life, she had chosen to speak, to reveal an identity that refused to remain suppressed and concealed, albeit an identity that had acquired new elements of ethnic characteristics from decades of intimate coexistence with the “other.” Analyzing the process, I had the following to say in my book: “The metamorphosis, therefore, from the time of a forced adoption of an alien identity to the great revelation is marked by hidden yearnings, suffering from the persistence of nightmarish memories of genocide, a subconscious decision to cling to them all her life and a naturally occurring acculturation that brings with it elements of ethnicity from the side of the ‘other.’”
Heranoush was telling a story that had been silenced and buried alive in her mind for almost sixty years. Now that she was pouring it out, she needed the words to carry the burden. She was aware of the inadequacy of language and was trying to compensate that by repeating passages and episodes to emphasize their impact. And now, after her grandmother was gone, Fethiye was asking herself, “This woman with such strong willpower to protect her children and to fight all the obstacles on their way, why would become so helpless when it concerned her true identity.” (p. 71). As to Fethiye herself, that suddenly revealed secret, that hidden identity, causing a paralyzing shock, a sense of shame, and a yearning for truth at the beginning (p. 59), had gradually implanted in her the will and determination to look for her grandmother’s relatives, her cousins in the United States. By doing that, Fethiye was searching for her own roots and the hitherto hidden components of her own identity. And then came the act of writing the book, a written testimony of a painful experience that refused to subside, a personal story that was the story of thousands in Turkey, and finally, a catharsis for the writer herself exorcising the nightmarish images, the soul-consuming sorrow, anger, and frustration that was her grandmother’s and became hers to bear.
By telling her story to her granddaughter, Seher/Heranoush had transmitted the burden of memory onto an innocent descendant of hers. With that memory, a confusing and shocking, an obscure identity was passed on that challenged the recipient to confront and deal with. Fethiye Çetin’s discovery was painful. She struggled to digest the memories of her grandmother that were hers now.
I could hardly resist running out in the streets and crying out loud. If it weren’t my own grandmother telling all this, I would not believe it. What I heard was contrary to what I knew. My knowledge of things was being turned upside down. Confronted with the things I heard, my values were being crushed into pieces. My brain was hurting, bursting with the horrifying chaos within. I was scared. All the things accumulated within me seemed to want to gush out and flood away everything and everyone. . . . The exhilarating poems about the “glorious past” that I recited with such excitement, were being crushed against the eyes of terrified children, the heads of children drowned in water, the river flowing blood for days. (pp. 62-63).
These images were enough to leave her astounded for years, until the birth of her
masterpiece memoir-novel, Anneannem,’ (My Grandmother) and a transformed self-perception as not totally Armenian, or Kurd, or Turk, but a Melez. But she had courage. She knew that “admitting the Armenian ancestry means losing your social status,” as she confessed in a television interview titled “Turkey’s hidden Armenians” (“France 24 Reports,” broadcasted on April 27, 2007). Not many can find the courage to come forward and confess to the secret identity they have tried to bury for decades or one they have just discovered.
Çetin declares her book to be a challenge to the Muslim identity of the Turkish nation. Indeed, she is the exemplary case in Turkish society today. The secret is out for many, and many are caught in that shock and confusion called an obscured identity discovered.
She and thousands of others like her with Armenian ancestry need to rehash the elements and make-up of their identity and reformulate it through personal choices and calculations. Will today’s Turkish societal and political atmosphere allow that to happen?
Hrant Dink was assassinated for his campaign encouraging Turks to discover their
Armenian ancestry. He believed that while there are about 70,000 Turkish citizens who identify themselves as Armenians, there exist more than a million others with Armenian roots, an Armenian grandparent or great-grandparent. This was a challenge to the presumably homogeneous make-up of Turkish society that could not be tolerated. If numbers count in voicing the multiplicity of ethnic identities and cultural diversities in Turkey, the revived and growing interest to seek one’s roots and return to them may drastically change the current picture of homogeneity.
As these stories surface, would any Turk, those with Armenian ancestry and others
belonging to the “pure race,” have the courage to come out and express regret for the past as Fethiye Çetin did? “As I was putting flowers on the grave [of my great-grandparents], I asked forgiveness from them and from my grandmother on behalf of myself and all those who caused this unimaginable suffering” (p. 125). I believe that day would come.
Bibliographic Information:
‘My Grandmother’ by Fetiye Çetin, translated by Maureen Freely
Publisher: Verso Books
Publication Date: 2012
128 pages
ISBN: 978-1844678679

Fethiye Çetin is a Turkish lawyer, writer and human rights activist. As a lawyer, Çetin has been representing the family of the murdered Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink. She is the author of ‘My Grandmother: An Armenian-Turkish Memoir.’

 

Maureen Freely is an American journalist, novelist, professor, and translator. Born in New Jersey, Freely grew up in Turkey and now lives in England, where she lectures at the University of Warwick. She is the current President of English PEN, the founding center for PEN International. 

Rubina Peroomian
Rubina Peroomian

Rubina Peroomian was born in Tabriz, Iran. She received a BS in Civil Engineering, 1960, Tehran University, an MA in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, specializing in Armenian Studies, 1983, University of California, Los Angeles and a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, specializing in Armenian Studies, 1989, University of California, Los Angeles.

Her publications include:

Literary Responses to Catastrophe: A Comparison of the Armenian and the Jewish Experience (1993);

Armenia in the Web of the ARF-Bolshevik Relationship, 1917-1921 (1997), in the Armenian language, also translated and published in Russian;

And those who Continued Living in Turkey after 1915, The Metamorphoses of the Post-Genocide Armenian Identity as Reflected in Artistic Literature (2008 and 2012);

The Armenian Genocide in Literature, Perceptions of Those who Lived through the Years of Calamity (2012, 2014);

The Armenian Genocide in Literature, The Second Generation Responds (2015).

 

 

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