Why Repeat These Sad Things?
I heard Sarkis Bey talk only twice about what happened to the Armenians. The first time was at Van Castle, in southeastern Turkey, where most of the Armenians had lived under the Ottoman Empire. The second time was much later.
At Van Castle we met a group of little boys. Sarkis Bey walked up to them and presented a pop quiz: Why were there three different kinds of stones in the castle walls?
“I know,” one of the boys said. “First it was Byzantine Turks. Then it was Seljuk Turks. Then it was Ottoman Turks.”
“What about the Armenians?” said Sarkis Bey.
“I don’t know.”
“Does anybody know what happened to the Armenians?” Sarkis Bey asked.
Another boy spoke up. “Yes. Half of them left, and half of them dropped into foreign lands.”
Sarkis Bey took aside this boy, a 10-year-old named Ridvan who had brown skin and brilliant green eyes, and told him that in fact the first layer of rocks was the work of the Urartians, who were the ancestors of the Armenians. The second layer was probably the work of the Armenians themselves, who lived here in great numbers during the Byzantine era and were known for their stonemasonry. He pointed out the site, in the distance, of the old Armenian quarter, and said that in 1915, to protect themselves from the advancing Ottoman army, the Armenians took refuge in this very castle where we stood. “Many, many Armenians were killed,” he added.
Then, one by one, the little boys sang us love songs in Kurdish and Turkish. Sarkis Bey put an arm around Ridvan. “This boy is especially bright,” he told me, and asked me to take their picture together.
I had never expected to end up in southeastern Turkey, an area the Kurds consider Kurdistan and the Armenians regard as the heart of Medz Hayk: Great Armenia. And it had been great, once—in the first century B.C., to be exact—when the Armenian Kingdom stretched from Syria to Azerbaijan. It’s a long story, but things went downhill from there. Two thousand years later, in the United States, I grew up surrounded by an unabashed hatred for Turkey and Turks. We referred to Turkish coffee, which we drank every day, as “Armenian coffee,” and we refused to buy products labeled “Made in Turkey.” My mother once spent weeks trying to buy a new bathrobe, but at store after store, every single robe declared its Turkish origins: the Turks had cornered the market on terrycloth. One evening, my mom returned home, exhausted, with a large bag from Sears. “Don’t tell anyone,” she warned me, and then held out her plush, pale yellow purchase.
My ancestors, though full-blooded Armenians, came from Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, where I was born. Nobody in my family was directly affected by the massacres of 1915 (which is probably why my mother was able to buy the bathrobe, in the end). Even so, I was immersed in anti-Turkish sentiment at Armenian school, Armenian church, and Armenian summer camp. In the woods just outside Boston, we’d line up in front of our cabins each morning and raise the Armenian flag while singing “Harach Nahadag,” an anthem of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the century-old political party whose youth branch ran the camp:
Forward, immortals of a martyred race!
Armored in six centuries of unforgotten vengeance,
Upon the far mountaintops of our fatherland
Let us go plant the tri-colored flag!
At least half of the kids didn’t speak Armenian—they were chanting memorized sound fragments day after day—but their zeal was no less for it. Those who did understand the words also understood that the “fatherland” in question was not merely the one currently delineated on the map as the Republic of Armenia. And I, it should be said, sang louder than anyone.
Until last year, I had encountered three Turks in my life. The first was a girl named Ellie, whose family lived down the street from mine when I was in elementary school in New Jersey. Ellie had blond hair and blue eyes, so I had no idea she was from the same part of the world as I, much less that she was Turkish, until one morning she arrived at the bus stop and announced, “My dad says your family is Armenian.”
“He says that seventy-five years ago we had your heads on sticks.”
I don’t remember how I answered this, but Ellie’s family moved away soon after.
The second time was during college, when one of my roommates went on a couple of dates with a Turkish guy. He stopped by our house one night, we made small talk for a few minutes, and then they left for dinner.
The third time took place five years ago in San Francisco, where I lived at the time. My then-boyfriend and I hailed a cab to go see a movie at the Opera Plaza Cinemas, which is located at the intersection of Van Ness Avenue and Turk Street. We were a little drunk, so when the cab driver asked whether we’d like to be dropped off on Van Ness or on Turk, my Irish-American boyfriend replied: “Van Ness, please. We don’t travel on Turk Street.”
We had never discussed Turk Street before, as such. In truth, I’m not sure I’d ever even made the connection. But the two of us collapsed into giggles, and I kissed him on the cheek for being such a loyal friend to the Armenians.
Then—in my memory this happens in slow motion—the driver turned around in his seat and faced us. He had thick black hair and a wide handlebar mustache that was pulled down at the edges by his frown. As I looked at his face, I somehow knew what was coming, even though it was impossible.
“I am a Turk,” he said.
Emboldened by alcohol and set loose by awkwardness, I didn’t let it end there. I said, “Do you realize that in 1915, your people massacred two-thirds of the Armenian population?”
I thought that his voice held more weariness than anger when he finally answered: “Things that happened such a long time ago should be left in the past.”
The problem was that, in Turkey, the Armenian genocide was left in the past almost before it ended. In 1923, which was the final year of the massacres, General Mustafa Kemal—later called Atatürk, “Father of all Turks”—came to power. He abolished the Caliphate and established the modern Republic of Turkey on a platform of Westernization and secularization—a platform for the future, he said. In 1928 he outlawed the Arabic alphabet, effectively putting into a foreign language all the records of Ottoman Turkey—including, of course, the contemporary evidence and accounts of the genocide. Atatürk’s ideas, which were embraced by a beleaguered population, came to be known as Kemalism. At the heart of Kemalism was a principle called milliyetçilik, or nationalism, based on the idea that in the wake of the multinational empire, the Republic of Turkey needed a unified national identity to protect itself against imperialist threats. In the story Turkey began to tell about itself, everybody was Turkish, and always had been.
In the story Armenians tell, one of Ottoman Turkey’s largest ethnic groups had faced genocide. On April 24, 1915, the army rounded up 235 of the leading Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople, held them for three days, and then exiled them to the country’s interior, where most were slaughtered. In the years that followed, even after the cessation of hostilities between the Ottomans and the Allies, province by province Armenian populations were ordered to leave their homes and join caravans, often on foot, into the desert. Men were usually rounded up first, and shot in groups outside of town. Women, children, and the elderly were considered a waste of bullets, so if they were not dismembered or burned by the Ottoman army, they arrived in camps where many starved to death. Between 1915 and 1923, approximately one million Armenians were murdered.
Ninety years later, Turkey has not acknowledged, much less apologized for, what happened. As a result, the quest for Turkish government recognition of the genocide has become an obsession for Armenians in the diaspora. Each year on April 24, Armenians gather in cities worldwide to review the progress: a city council in Oklahoma has passed a resolution calling it genocide; a newspaper in Italy has dropped its usage of the modifier alleged in describing the events. The climax of these rituals—Armenians will chant it backward in their sleep—is always the recitation of a quote from Hitler: “Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?”
After faithfully participating in the commemoration routines for many years, I started to feel ridiculous. It’s not that I doubted what happened—although I did occasionally find it strange that everybody from the Armenian grocer to the heavy metal band System of a Down felt themselves credible arbiters of history. But it was impossible to attend any Armenian event, no matter what the occasion, without encountering the same passion play. It was all we could talk about. I began to find it insincere, histrionic, and hateful.
So when I actually visited Armenia for the first time, I was surprised, and a little relieved, to find that genocide recognition was not nearly the priority there that it was in the diaspora: the biggest issue was the economy, in particular the closed border with Turkey. There were various reasons for Turkey’s decision to seal the border; officially it was in protest of the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabagh, an enclave in Azerbaijan. But unofficially, according to some Armenian politicians I spoke with, the problem was that the Armenian diaspora had created a hostile climate by relentlessly vilifying Turkey.
So was the Armenian diaspora’s recognition campaign actually bad for the Armenians? When I wrote an essay in the Nation arguing that it was, a Turkish nationalist website—www.tallarmeniantale.com—hailed me as a “contra-Armenian”; my fellow diasporans sent me hate e-mails. By this time, I felt so alienated from the community that I had folders on my computer with labels like “EXAMPLES OF ANNOYING EMAILS FROM ARMENIANS” and “ARTICLES DEMONSTRATING OBNOXIOUS ARMENIAN RHETORIC.” I consoled myself by listening to a CD by a nihilistic Soviet-Armenian folk singer, over and over and over again. The folders grew. I wanted nothing more to do with any of it.
Then I learned about Müge. Fatma Müge Goçek (pronounced “meu-geh go-chek”), a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, was born and raised in Turkey but earned her doctorate at Princeton. She is 100 percent Turkish—the family fortune came from a flag-making factory her grandfather founded in 1919—but she had nonetheless come to the conclusion that the 1915 massacres were genocide. I had never heard of such a thing. Scholarship on this issue followed blood lines. A quick glance at the relevant shelf in any library showed that Armenian scholars called it the Armenian genocide, and Turkish scholars called it the Armenian question, the Armenian problem, or the Armenian propaganda.1
When I contacted her for an article I was writing, Müge explained to me that, growing up in Turkey in the 1960s, she’d understood that the Armenians had second-class status, but she hadn’t known why. “There was such control over the information that one never knew anything,” she said. “I got the best education Turkey had to offer, and I still didn’t know.”
That changed quickly when she came to the US. “Every time I mentioned that I was a Turk,” she said, “I had to account for why I had killed all of the Armenians!”
Now Müge’s work analyzing Turkish historiography was coming to life in a debate over minority issues that had just begun in Istanbul. Thanks in part to pressure from the European Union to improve treatment of minorities and guarantee freedom of speech, Turkey was changing. A handful of brave Turks were speaking out about the Armenian issue—what the radical Turkish historian Taner Akçam has called one of the five taboos on which the modern Turkish state was founded. Not surprisingly, those publicly challenging the state position on 1915 ran into trouble right away with the courts, which are known to be aligned with the nationalist “deep state,” the Turkish military.
Throughout 2005, various friends of Müge’s were sued for “insulting the Turkish judiciary”; many other Turkish citizens—most famously the novelist Orhan Pamuk—were sued for “insulting the Turkish nation.” Most of the offenses, like Pamuk’s, amounted to saying or writing anything that implied that the Armenians had been deliberately massacred. One of the more prominent defendants was a Turkish-Armenian named Hrant Dink, the editor of a little newspaper called Agos.
The paper, which was created in 1996, is at the heart of the minority-rights debate in Turkey. Unlike the two older Armenian papers in Istanbul, which mostly print wedding announcements and ads for Armenian dentists, Agos is explicitly political: its stated mission is to expose the problems of the 60,000 Armenians remaining in Turkey to the rest of Turkish society. Unlike the two other papers, it is published in Turkish, with only a small Armenian insert, and often read by the Turkish liberal intelligentsia. Now and then it is also read by Turkish ultra-nationalists, who like it so much they sometimes take piles of issues away from newsstands and once left a gift, a black wreath, outside the Agos office door.
The publisher of Agos, Sarkis Seropyan, a 70-year-old former refrigerator salesman, is a good friend of Müge’s. He is also an amateur archaeologist who for years has been collecting old maps, books, postcards, and photographs to help him track down and identify Armenian sites throughout Turkey. In reaction to the massive body of literature produced by the Turkish state to retell centuries of history with little if any mention of the Armenians, there has arisen a kind of volunteer brigade of enthusiasts working to record evidence of the former Armenian population. Their efforts are not exactly coordinated, but in his office at Agos, Sarkis Bey (Müge addressed him with the Turkish honorific) is the closest thing Turkey has to a one-man clearinghouse. People write to him with bits of information—the partial name of a village, or an old family letter in Armenian that they can’t read—and he writes back.
Müge, meanwhile, had been doing research for a scholarly book about what she calls “the silences in Turkish history.” Last year, she wanted to see the southeast of Turkey, the heart of historic Armenia, but there was no easy way to find the old Armenian sites: everything had been renamed. So she convinced Sarkis Bey to go exploring with her—he had been there once before, thirty years earlier—and during one of our long phone conversations, she asked me if I wanted to come. By then, I had mostly gotten over the strange exhilaration of talking on the phone with a Turk—not just that, but admiring and trusting her, considering her a friend—but to actually go to Turkey? Was it safe? Of course, said Müge. Could I bring a tape recorder? Bring a whole camera crew, she said. And what if they found out I was Armenian?
“So I understand you’re going to Istanbul,” an Armenian friend in New York said to me as I was preparing for the trip.
“I’ll start out in Istanbul, but then I’m going to Van,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said. “You mean you’re going to Western Armenia.”
“Actually,” I said to my friend, “Van is in Turkey.”
But then, she already knew that.
When I emailed Yavuz Bey, Müge’s travel agent, to purchase a ticket from Istanbul to Van, I received the following reply:
thy flight is confirmed.
we will issue e-ticket.
pls inform payment details (credit card).
I informed them of the payment details and immediately began to worry. Not about my card, or that I was going to enemy territory, but because I had learned my lesson about e-tickets the last time I went east of Frankfurt, when I spent hours in the airport in Yerevan trying to convince a bemused clerk that my ticket was “in the computer.” Only after tears and an expensive cell phone summons to Delta customer service had I been allowed on board. The same thing had happened in Moscow more than once.
Maybe e-tickets were part of Turkey’s EU reform package, I hoped. But the first thing I saw in Istanbul’s airport was a huge banner with the words “I ❤ THY.” Absurd signs in public places—this was too familiar. It did not bode well. I approached the check-in desk, ready to defend myself.
And then I learned my first Turkish: THY was not a biblical pronoun, but the acronym for Türk Hava Yollari, Turkish Airlines. And there was a good reason to “heart” THY: e-tickets were standard procedure, and I was whisked to my gate with a smile and a perfect “Have a nice trip, Miss Toumani.”
It had been my mistake to expect Turkey to be anything like Russia or Armenia, or for that matter like Iran or Georgia or any of its other Eastern neighbors that I knew and loved in spite of their decrepitude. Istanbul was glorious: a seaside city with hills and bridges and water everywhere. Evenings on roof decks with wine and meze, mornings in gardens with elaborate breakfasts, universities bustling with PhDs, heated conversations about global politics—in the Queen’s English if you needed it—and two or three newspapers in each person’s hands, it seemed.
I had arrived in Istanbul a few days earlier, so I could meet some friends of Müge’s before setting off for Van with her and Sarkis Bey. Müge’s friends, many of them outspoken critics of the Turkish government, received me with extraordinary warmth. I wasn’t prepared for that. I was less prepared still to fall for Istanbul. If this was the enemy, I thought, I would wave my white flag while riding a ferry across the Bosphorus at sunset.
Then I went to see one of Müge’s old family friends, a man named Nihat Gökyiğit, the founder and president of the Tekfen construction company. After building a business empire, Nihat Bey had become a patron of the arts and created a multicultural music group called the Black Sea Orchestra. I would be going to Georgia in a few weeks to write about a music festival there, and I wanted to interview Nihat Bey for background. He had attended college in the US and spoke very good English. “I think you will find him very interesting,” said Müge.
Nihat Bey, who was nearing 80, had white hair, a white mustache, and bright blue eyes. We sat in his office, facing each other on velvet armchairs, with a large square coffee table between us. An assistant carried in cups of Turkish coffee on a tray, and Nihat Bey told me that his Black Sea Orchestra brought together Iranians and Iraqis, Greeks and Turks, Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
“Why should these civilizations, East and West, ever clash?” he said. “They can get together and share their talents! You see that painting?” He pointed to one of the forty or so canvases covering his walls. “I got that at the outdoor market in Yerevan.”
So Müge had told him that I was Armenian. It was a painting of Mount Ararat, the twin-peaked mountain that Armenians consider their national symbol. Mount Ararat, which Turks called Ağri, lies on the Turkish side of the border. I looked carefully at his painting. When one looks at the mountain from Armenia, the smaller peak is on the left. From Turkey, the smaller peak is on the right. Nihat Bey’s painting looked from Armenia. This seemed like a good sign, and so, though I hadn’t exactly planned to talk about politics with Nihat Bey, I suddenly found myself asking: “Do the Armenian and Turkish musicians ever discuss the Armenian issue?”
He looked at me for a moment.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he said.
“I came from the town called Artvin. About 1921, the Armenians started leaving for Batumi. My grandfather told me that he wanted to buy a store in town from an Armenian. He wanted it for his two sons. So he went to the Armenian and said, ‘I want to buy this store,’ and the Armenian said, ‘Sixty golds.’ My grandfather gave him the money. But later he thought about it and he said, ‘That was not the proper price for this store.’ It was not enough. Probably the Armenian wanted to be sure that he would sell it because he had to leave anyway. So he went back to the Armenian man and said, ‘I have changed my mind. I do not want to buy this store.’ ‘But why?’ the man said. And my grandfather said, ‘You did not ask for enough money. I do not want my two sons to live with this in their hearts. I have brought thirty more golds. If you take this, I will buy. Otherwise the deal is off.’ ”
Nihat Bey waited, to let his message sink in, then he asked me, “How could such people make harm to each other? Impossible!”
“That’s a nice story,” I said, but I was annoyed by it. His grandfather was the hero, and the Armenian guy was a poor schmuck. I tried again. “Did you know all your life that there was this question—this issue about what happened to the Armenians?”
“In my family it was not an issue,” said Nihat Bey. “We always talked about how good the Armenians were.”
“Really?” I said. “Do you believe that the Turkish government is being honest about the information they have?”
“It is my sincere belief,” he said.
“So, what do you think is motivating the Armenians who say that it was genocide and ask for recognition?”
“Why do you think that they need—I mean, want—”
Nihat Bey cut me off. “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. If they want to be friendly with their neighbors, they shouldn’t bring up old issues and go into every parliament in Europe and the United States and always try to push it. Why? I’m asking the question to you now. Why repeat these sad stories over and over? The Turkish side never makes an issue of this with the Armenians.
“It’s history,” he went on. “So what do the Armenians want to do? They want the Turkish government to accept that we have done such a terrible thing, and that we are going to pay for it? They will never have that.”
I didn’t say anything.
“They will never have that,” he repeated.
And then he told me about Armenian terrorists and Armenian assasins, and how there were two sides to every story.2
“So you are a bit mixed up now,” Nihat Bey concluded.
And I was. Walking out of his beautiful office, I was confronted with a country that had well-paved highways, innovative environmental projects, and a first-class tourism industry—a country that could remember that you had a ticket “in the computer,” but could not remember that it had murdered a million Armenians. While the 70 million citizens of Turkey went about their business, across a sealed border the 3 million citizens of Armenia counted their pennies for bread. Their diaspora, meanwhile, 5 million strong, chanted in public squares worldwide about genocide recognition.
At the gate for our flight to Van stood my group, none of whom I’d ever met. Müge had said it would be easy to spot them, and she was right. They were four Armenian men and a woman who looked ethnically Turkish but carried herself like an American: it was Müge, who spoke loudly, laughed even more loudly, and—unlike the other women heading to Van—didn’t wear anything over her head.
Müge had invited along two other diaspora Armenians, both middle-aged men whom she’d met at an academic conference. Leo was an orthopedic surgeon from Boston, and Ara was a human-rights-policy analyst from Canada. They were grandchildren of genocide survivors, and their fathers had been active in the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, but now both were politically moderate and kept up with liberal Armenian intellectual circles.
I didn’t need to be told who the other two men were; I’d been looking forward to meeting them for months. The younger one was a tall, awkward guy in his mid-thirties, with a huge, kinky beard of the sort worn by Orthodox priests. This was Sarkis Bey’s son, Vagharshak, who was a deacon—a priest in training—at the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul.
And then there was Sarkis Bey himself. He was shorter than his son and more round. He wore a Michigan T-shirt (a gift from Müge) and a Yankees cap over his thinning gray hair. He held an unlit pipe in his mouth. He and Vagharshak sported matching fanny packs around their bellies. Perhaps I had expected a saintly man, a Gandhi? At the very least, I thought he would carry a cane. But here was Sarkis Bey. After we’d all introduced ourselves, he pulled out a box of cookies and offered them around. A few minutes later he handed me the entire box and said, in Armenian, “Müge doesn’t need any more cookies, but you should eat some.” This comment would have been our little secret had he not then gestured toward Müge—she was standing next to me—and used both hands to indicate a large pair of hips.
The city of Van is the capital of the Van region, near Turkey’s border with Iraq, Iran, and Russia. Armenians were a majority there before the genocide. That, and its proximity to the Russian border, meant that if Armenians were inclined to side with Russia, as the Ottoman government had feared, this was where they’d do it. In April and May of 1915, the Armenians of Van, supported by Russian forces, withstood a six-week-long siege by the Ottoman army before capitulating. As a result, Turkish denialists point to Van as evidence that the Armenians were rebels who got what they deserved.3
Now Van is a dismal place, with high unemployment, crowded streets, and poor infrastructure. We’d been there about ten minutes when a young man, Suat Atan, showed up at our hotel looking for Sarkis Bey. Suat was the son of the mayor of the Gürpınar district and was creating a website to track down Armenian sites in the area. I didn’t understand why he was doing this, as he was Kurdish, but he was, and Sarkis Bey was helping him.
It went on like this all day, Sarkis Bey holding court with people he’d been corresponding with from Istanbul: a local journalist who was following EU developments; a kilim designer who had explored the mountains of Van in search of authentic rug designs. Each of these people possessed a few key pieces of information, like the location of a specific Armenian church or the Kurdish translation for a particular Armenian name. Nor was Sarkis Bey empty-handed. For the young webmaster, he deciphered some Armenian inscriptions. For the reporter, he offered a business card and a promise to run one of his stories in Istanbul. And to the kilim maker, Sarkis Bey delivered a photocopy of an entire book about kilims—in Russian, which neither man could read.
At his kilim studio, Enver Bey, who was also a Kurd, offered suggestions for our stay in Van. “Be sure you go to our local historical museum,” he said, and winked. “You will learn about how the Armenians massacred us,” he added, and winked again.
Müge and I laughed, but Sarkis Bey did not. This was my first clue that in the great Armenian-versus-Turk matchup, there is a third party, performing what is known in psychoanalysis as triangulation: the Kurds might be counted as friends or enemies by either side, depending on the circumstances. During the genocide, they were encouraged by Turkish soldiers to rape and steal from the Armenian deportees. But many of them also saved Armenians from death, often by marrying the women or adopting the children.
The Kurds in the southeast had huge problems of their own with Turkish authorities, so it seemed to me that there should be a kind of fellowship of suffering between us. But Sarkis Bey’s manner with the Kurds we met was awkward at best, icy at worst. As we got up to leave, Enver Bey urged us to stay for lunch, but Sarkis Bey shook his head. “We have work to do,” he said.
We spent the rest of that day hunting down a handful of sites with Armenian significance: the monastery of Surp Bartoghomyos, the Urartian fortress of Çavuştepe, the ruins of Narek, and Van Castle, where Sarkis Bey gave the little boys a history lesson. Most of these sites, abandoned with no signs and no explanations, were located near tiny mountain villages overlooking Lake Van, a stunning volcanic lake. Often, there were piles of broken pottery or other artifacts strewn around, untended and ignored. As part of our getting-to-know-you ritual, Sarkis Bey kept handing me choice fragments of the pottery, until I had to refuse. It was like collecting seashells at the beach; after a while, you’re not sure what to do with them. Except unlike seashells, these ignored relics would, upon inspection at any airport, gain the status of antiquities and require a steep penalty.
Everywhere, there were Armenian inscriptions, written in classical Armenian script, which only religious people can read. (We had Vagharshak to help us.) The region was like a giant open-air museum.
The actual museum—the Van Historical Museum, which Enver Bey had recommended—was another story. It was small, unembellished, tucked away on a side street. In a corner of a room upstairs, a huge yellow and black sign hanging from the ceiling bore the words “KATLIAM SEKSIYONU”—Massacre Section.
By this was meant: the massacre of the Turks. A display case presented books with titles like The Massacres Committed by the Armenians and Setting the Record Straight on Armenian Propaganda Against Turkey, written by Turkish government officials. Another case, containing some bones, was labeled “IN 1915 BURNED AND MASSACRED OF TURKS SKELETONS.” It included a long report about an aborted archaeological dig where, it said, the remains of Turkish women and children were found.
We took turns entering and exiting the massacre section. I read notices into my tape recorder and photographed the display cases. Leo, suddenly very clinical, made his rounds from skeleton to skeleton and mumbled about the shapes of the bones and their characteristics. Sarkis Bey didn’t say anything at all. He took a quick glance around, then waited in the courtyard out front while the rest of us finished.
In our hotel room that night, Müge and I slept with the window open so that we could hear the gentle sound of Lake Van lapping against the shore just a few feet away. But I was woken around sunrise by the most awful, unpleasant crowing sound I had ever heard. I couldn’t imagine what hideous birds were making this noise, and my reaction was not annoyance so much as disgust. I knew something really twisted was happening in my mind when, caught between dreaming and waking, I registered a thought that would have made me groan if I’d heard it from anybody else: that this must have been the way Armenians sounded to the Turks.
That day, we were headed to an island in Lake Van called Akdamar (Akhtamar in Armenian), which is home to a 10th-century Armenian church, Surp Khatch, or the Church of the Holy Cross. Surp Khatch had recently become a big political issue in Turkey. For the first time ever, the Turkish government—under pressure from the EU—had agreed to work with the Turkish-Armenian community to restore an Armenian historical site. Sarkis Bey had arranged a meeting with the architect who was managing the reconstruction.
Besides being the name of the island, Akhtamar is also the name of an epic poem by Hovhannes Toumanian, the Armenian author from whom my grandfather borrowed our last name. In Toumanian’s poem, a beautiful maiden named Tamar lives on this island. Each night, she lights a lantern and carries it to the edge of the shore, so that her true love, a strong young man who lives on the mainland, can swim across the lake and find her. But then the stars and the waves gossip about Tamar’s sins, so the young men on the island find out about these late-night meetings and extinguish Tamar’s flame. That night, her suitor swims and swims to reach her but can’t see any light. As he drowns in the waves, he calls for her: “Akh, Tamar! Akh, Tamar!”
My mother used to read me this story when I was a child, and each time she reached the part where the stars start to whisper about Tamar’s transgressions, she would sob so dramatically that she couldn’t finish. For years I never really understood what happened to Tamar’s love affair. I only knew that this island, this Akhtamar, meant something large and important to us.4
A Turkish flag waved on the mast of the small, rusty boat that would carry us across Lake Van to the island—a bit of a taunt, I had to admit. But we were immediately distracted by something much more surprising: a group of about ten people were already on the boat, and they were speaking Armenian—Eastern Armenian. They were from Yerevan.
Traveling to Turkey from Armenia is a bit like traveling to Cuba from the US: the border between the two countries is sealed, diplomatic relations do not exist, and you generally need to take a roundabout route through the mountain roads of Georgia. Weekly flights between Istanbul and Yerevan were instituted recently, but they serve foreigners and businesspeople more than ordinary tourists.
So I was delighted by this chance encounter with the group from Yerevan: after being surrounded by Turkish and Western Armenian for several days, I could speak to them in my own dialect.
“Vordegh’its ek?” they exclaimed when we greeted them. “Vor-degh’its ek?” Technically this means “Where are you from?” but I knew in a situation like this it meant much more: Where were your grandparents from, why are you here, what is your political affiliation? And, are you married?
It was easy to explain that Ara was from Canada by way of Kessab, Syria; that Leo came from Boston via Beirut; that Sarkis (I didn’t make the mistake of adding “Bey” then) and Vagharshak were Bolsa-hye, Armenians from Istanbul. As for me, my accent was evidence enough that I was an Iranian-Armenian from America. But what about Müge?
I couldn’t figure out a way to explain who Müge was without using the word Turk—which sounds like “toork” in Armenian. I didn’t want to use it, because in Armenian, the word is less an indication of nationality than it is an all-purpose insult, applied liberally to describe liars, penny-pinchers, and people with dirty kitchens. So I geared up with a big smile and some acrobatics of the eyebrows, which I hoped would convey that there was a good, deep, important reason why we had a Turk with us.
“Yev eenkuh Toork-eh,” was all I needed to say—“And as for her, she’s Turkish.” But I was nervous that as soon as Müge heard the word “toork” she would know that I was talking about her. I watched Müge reclining in the sun on the bench across from us, and wondered what to do.
But Müge is perceptive. She saved me from my bumbling explanation by stating firmly, with a smile, “I’m Turkish.” And then she got up and went to the other end of the boat.
Now that they knew Müge was Turkish, I had to explain how it had transpired that we, a group of Armenians, were traveling with her. My Armenian is OK—it’s something like talking to a precocious child, or an enthusiastic peasant—but sometimes I can’t achieve the nuance I need. And so: “Well, Müge is a friend of ours from America. She is a professor at a very good university there, and she is a very interesting, very unusual person. She has done a lot of work on the Armenian issue,” I said, “and she is friends with a lot of Armenians.”
I was trying to figure out how to convey the point without saying, plainly, “Don’t worry, she believes it was genocide!” But I could tell they thought I was crazy, so I gave up and joined the rest of my group at the front of the boat. Sarkis Bey had been there all along; he seemed to want nothing to do with the Yerevan’tsis.
I didn’t understand Sarkis Bey—and not just because we spoke two different dialects of Armenian. He was the publisher of a confrontational Armenian newspaper, but as we entered one formerly Armenian village after another, he never seemed interested in confronting anyone. He was taking us to church after church, and his son was pursuing the priesthood, but I had it on good authority—Müge’s—that Sarkis Bey, an old socialist, was having a hard time dealing with Vagharshak’s decision. Müge said that Sarkis Bey had told the Patriarch that if he ordained his son, Sarkis Bey personally would convert to Islam.
He had spent seventy years living quietly in a place he was supposed to have been erased from, and it had left its mark. One day, when a village guard in the town of Muş asked him why we were interested in seeing a structure—it was a church converted to a mosque—Sarkis Bey snapped: “Who are you that you need to know? I’ve got as much right to be here as you have, by my lineage.” But he never, ever said what that lineage was.
As for the Yerevan’tsis on the boat, I wondered if Sarkis Bey resented the unspoken assumption that they were somehow more Armenian than he. The Armenians of Istanbul had suffered considerable hostility from Armenia proper as well as from the diaspora, where younger generations bristled at hearing them speaking in Turkish or using Turkish names. Their loyalties were mixed: they were Turkish citizens, after all, and it was a pretty nice country if you managed to stay out of trouble.
Akhtamar came into view as a green mass on the lake with a domed, stone church perched on its edge. As we pulled up to the shore, Sarkis Bey got off the boat first, and standing on a large boulder, bowed and said, to nobody in particular, “Hametsek”—which is how, in Armenian, you welcome somebody to your home or to your table.
The Yerevan group scattered up the hill to get as close as possible to the church, which was completely fenced off to visitors, and I wandered around for a few minutes until I found Sarkis Bey sitting on a low, square wooden stool under an almond tree. He handed me a little branch holding a cluster of three almond pods. “Take this to your mother. Tell her they are almonds from Akhtamar,” he said.
Oh, how we understand each other, we Armenians. My mother collects things in threes, especially things relating to pomegranates, figs, apricots, and almonds—the symbolic bounty of Armenian soil—in the form of paintings, figurines, Christmas tree ornaments, you name it. These are talismans for the fertility of her three daughters.
Then Sarkis Bey told me to sit down and keep a low profile, because once the Yerevan’tsis had their fill and got back on the boat, the architect, who was expecting us, would unlock the gate and take us into the church.
Cahit Bey, the architect, turned out to be an extremely charming, handsome man. He was also, he told us, a Kurd. This was no longer surprising information. At the start of the trip, I had asked Müge about the ethnicity of every person we met in Van (Turkish? Kurdish? Assyrian, maybe?), but then I stopped asking. Everyone we met—everyone—was Kurdish. Every village that had been occupied by Armenians was now populated by Kurds. Cahit Bey told us he was a fellow minority as a kind of reassurance; it seemed he wanted the newspaper publisher from Istanbul to feel that the church was in good hands. That didn’t work, though, and finally Cahit Bey obliged Sarkis Bey in a lengthy discussion about hydraulic lye, the proper spacing of stones, and the difference in materials used over the centuries.
On the boat ride back to the mainland, their diplomatic summit concluded, the two men shared a cigar. Sarkis Bey examined the burn pattern for a long time, and then announced, “You’ll go on a journey.” He meant himself.
High on a hillside, the words VATAN BÖLÜNMEZ were carved into the brown grass. “The motherland cannot be divided.” For a moment, this was confusing: we were in Kurdish territory, so was this a protest from the Kurds against the state? Müge told me the words were a quote from Atatürk, a standard message from the government. Kurds, I later realized, would have written it in their own language, although it was against the law to use Kurdish in public demonstrations. A court recently fined twenty people in the city of Siirt 100 lira each for holding up signs at a Kurdish New Year celebration containing the letters q and w, which are not a part of the Turkish alphabet.
The motherland cannot be divided, except that it is. I thought of all the words I’d been seeing on storefronts throughout Van, words that explained the names of Armenians I had known: a tailor, terzi, for Sandy Terzian, a girl from summer camp; a jeweler, kuyumcu, for Dickran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian professor I had at Berkeley. Kassabian, Ekmekjian, Momjian: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—I knew them all.
We continued touring the region. The white van we drove around in like an Armenian indie rock band was hot, and dirty, even though poor Refik, our driver, washed it down every day, and the floor was covered with our empty water bottles. At first we would just kick them toward the back, but pretty soon the entire thing was water bottles, two or three deep. This was bad enough, but then we’d pass by a spring or a fountain of some sort, and Refik or Sarkis Bey would start filling up the bottles, to drink from, after we’d been kicking them around for a few days already. And then I didn’t dare complain about being thirsty, because somebody would try to hand me a beaten-up, refilled bottle that had been rolling around in the sun for God knows how long, and I’d be a real jerk to refuse it.
We drove from Van to Tatvan, where we stayed in a dismal hotel for a night, and then moved on to Kahramanmaraș (formerly Marash), where instead of Armenian churches we were seeking the famous Marash ice cream, so thick the vendors sometimes hung it from hooks outside. We found ancient villages, like Çangli, where elaborate Armenian tombstones were placed sideways or upside down in the walls of Kurdish houses, rode boats to still more distant outposts like Altınsaç, and, in the mountain town of Suleymanlı (formerly Zeitun), we found a village guard who told us he’d written a poem about the Armenians. (“Oh, it wasn’t interesting,” Sarkis Bey dismissed it when I asked for a translation.)
Strange things happened to us in the places we visited, but more often they happened on the road. A couple times a day we were stopped at checkpoints to make sure we weren’t carrying any bombs or trying to smuggle petroleum from Iran. Once, a solider pulled us over and, seeing that we carried nothing suspicious, asked if we knew the time. In a similar vein, we were given directions to a village by a man in a donkey cart who said it was “just one cigarette away,” prompting a lengthy anthropological debate, when we did not soon find the village, as to whether he meant one cigarette walking, or driving, or riding the donkey cart, and what kind of cigarette anyway? Another day, a man chased us down after we stopped to photograph a sign for a church, on which the word church had been scratched out. He asked us to come to his village and translate an Armenian inscription on a stone above his stable door. It turned out the stable had been a chapel. The man, who was the head of the local prison, was pleased by this news and told us that there were still a few very old people in the village who were said to have Armenian blood. “Does everybody know who is who?” Müge asked him. “We don’t distinguish very much,” he answered. “We live near the road, so we are more civilized than most.”
In the van that we climbed out of every hour or so, I wanted to sit next to Sarkis Bey, and also I didn’t. On the one hand, he wasn’t a typical Armenian man of his generation, the kind I found intimidating: he endured teasing from Müge, who had been charged, by his wife, to keep him from eating or smoking too much, and he also let Müge handle all the money and most of the arrangements. And he had a daughter just about my age who had moved to Switzerland with her husband, and he spoke of her often. On the other hand, our Armenian dialects were pretty far apart, so it was exhausting to communicate. On the back of his business card for Agos, Sarkis Bey had written down all three of his personal phone numbers for me. The first two were followed by the words, in Armenian, summer house and winter house. The third number was followed by one word, in English: “hand.” If you count it, “hand” was the only conversation that Sarkis Bey and I ever had in English.
But Sarkis Bey and I had the bond of journalists, and in his way he understood that I needed facts. Many of our interactions consisted of Sarkis Bey turning toward me in the van and saying two names in succession: the name of a village in Turkish, and then the original name, in Armenian: “Hașköy, Hatsik!” or “Pertek, Pertag!” Now and then, when he could find it, he threw in the Kurdish name, too, and his eyes lit up, like he’d hit three cherries on the slots.5)
And when we got to Muș, which is 200 kilometers west of Van and hasn’t changed its name, Sarkis Bey announced our arrival by launching into “Zartir La-o,” a song about the woes of the Armenians of Muș. It’s one of the most forceful Armenian nationalistic songs there is—I don’t know if it’s the aggressive marching rhythm that does it, or the fact that the word “Turk” appears in almost every verse, instead of euphemisms like “evil one” or “our enemy”—either way, Ara, Leo, and I joined Sarkis Bey exuberantly.
But then I became worried that Müge would feel hurt by our Armenian-bonding sing-along. We were getting sloppy about maintaining our previously admirable Armenian-Turkish goodwill. So, to make her feel included, I began to translate. “The mob of patriots has gathered,” I said, “come to surround the battlefield of Muș. The sultan wants to erase us!”
The second verse was worse:
The poor Mus’etsi died crying,
Wandering around in foreign lands;
He died paying taxes to the Turk!
Müge nodded with interest; it was all sociology to her. I recalled the day we’d seen the horrible Van Historical Museum, and had gotten back in the van afterward, depressed. At that moment, it had taken some self-control for a carload of recovering nationalists to avoid saying something inappropriate. Müge had saved us then: “Look what I bought at the gift shop!” she said. She handed Sarkis Bey a necklace bead, about an inch long. Sarkis Bey studied it and then his shoulders shook in a deep, rhythmic laugh. “It’s a reproduction of a typical Urartian design,” she grinned. The drawing depicted one Urartian taking another Urartian from behind.
I also remembered the story she had told me a few days earlier, about the first trip she had taken with Sarkis Bey, two summers ago, to a town called Kemaliye (Agn in Armenian), where both of their ancestors had lived. “We found exactly where my relatives had lived,” Müge told me. “It was easy: the names, the information, it was all there. But we couldn’t find any trace of Sarkis Bey’s family.” Eventually they found a tombstone with some Armenian writing on it, in a dumpster. It was the only evidence they saw that Armenians had lived in Kemaliye. We were lying in the dark in adjacent twin beds in our hotel room as she told me about it. “History belongs to the victors,” Müge concluded, and we nodded off to sleep.
And then things got really strange. On the way to a village that the Turks call Yedi Kilise and that the Armenians call Varakavank, we wound our way into the mountains, farther and farther from the lake. Yedi Kilise means “Seven Churches” in Turkish, while Varakavank is the Armenian name for the monastery, or vank, which comprised those churches and was the seat of the Armenian Patriarch in the 10th century.
In the distance, another minivan headed toward us. It was identical to ours—the angular shape, the off-white paint dusted in brown, probably a mountain of water bottles in the back. We hadn’t seen anything but donkey carts in hours, so when the van pulled up alongside us it was natural for the two drivers to lean out their windows and greet each other.
Suddenly a man in the passenger seat of the other van called out, in Turkish, “Is there a priest among you?”
Then several things happened at once.
Vagharshak, sitting in the middle section of the van, sat up straight. His hand went to his wannabe-priest beard.
“Dook hye ek?” Sarkis Bey called back in Armenian. Are you Armenian?
And Ara, who had been squinting through the two layers of tinted windows, shouted, “Gavin! Is that you?”
The passengers of both vans climbed out to get to the bottom of all this. I started talking with a guy named Paul, 24 years old, who explained to me that they were members of the youth branch of the Dashnakstutiun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, from Los Angeles. “We’ve been here in Western Armenia for about a week now,” Paul said.
I couldn’t believe it. These were the people who ran my childhood summer camp and made me sing those songs of Armenian liberation. I wanted to know what they were doing here, but also I had to be careful, because I didn’t want to explain to Paul that I considered his group a borderline terrorist organization.
But Paul seemed to trust that the very fact that we were Armenian and we were here meant that our mission was the same as theirs. He told me that they had spent months researching the sites they wanted to find. “We figured it was important to know what these places look like, if we’re ever going to get them back.”
Ara introduced me to Gavin, not an Armenian at all, but a full-blooded Scottish Armenophile who had hitched a ride with Paul’s group on the road to Yedi Kilise. Ara had met Gavin in London once, through friends. For the past ten years, Gavin had sought out Armenian sites all over Turkey and taken photographs of every single cross, inscription, corner, ceiling, whatever. His pet project was the ruins of Ani, the medieval Armenian citadel outside of Kars, and to that end he’d created a remarkable website, VirtualANI, which stood in stark contrast to the state-issued Ani guides.6
Meanwhile Paul had learned that Ara was from Canada. “Oh,” he said to Ara, “did you see our play?”
“In 1989 our group went to Toronto and did a play about Karekin Njdeh,” Paul said, referring to one of the dead heroes of the Armenian nationalist movement.
“Uh, no, I guess I missed that,” said Ara.
As we concluded this summit, Paul told me he wanted to invite me to one of his group’s meetings in Los Angeles, so that I could see “what we’re all about.” I thanked him politely, but he asked me to promise that I would come.
So I said I would. I wanted very much to understand how he and his comrades—that is what they call one another in the organization—had come to believe that it was their destiny to one day leave Los Angeles and reclaim southeastern Turkey as their own.
“I want to give you something to hold you to your promise,” Paul said. He removed a bracelet from his wrist and handed it to me. It was a black rubber band engraved with the words “NEVER AGAIN.”
He told me that he and his friends had them made for Armenian-genocide recognition. He really wanted me to have it. “You can give it back to me when you come to LA to see us,” he said. “I just need you to promise that.”
Müge and Ara watched me. I should have refused the bracelet; I hated this bracelet. But there Paul stood, a sweet Armenian boy, the kind I never spoke to anymore, and finally I took it and thanked him and told him I would see him in LA.
“There’s just one more thing you have to promise,” he said. “You can’t take it off your wrist until I see you.” So I promised that, too, and Paul gave me a big hug good-bye.
When we finally reached Yedi Kilise, we found an old Kurdish man who seemed to be some kind of self-appointed proprietor of the Armenian monastery, a cluster of ancient stone buildings with fallen ceilings and crumbling walls. He was immediately annoyed by our presence. “I think I’m going to tear this down,” he said.
Refik, our driver, who occasionally acted as an ambassador of sorts since none of us spoke Kurdish, asked him why.
“It costs money to maintain it,” he said. “Give me some money so I can maintain it, then.”
“Hold me back so I don’t hit this guy,” Sarkis Bey said to us. He put his hands behind his head like he’d just finished running.
Later, I learned why the proprietor had been hostile. Paul’s group from Los Angeles had been returning from Yedi Kilise when we ran into them, and they’d had a fight with the same old man. Apparently the whole group of them had strolled right into the main church, set up a portable stereo playing Armenian hymns, and lit candles all around. Then Paul had read out loud from Saint Grikor Narekatsi’s 10th-century Book of Lamentations. They had been performing this routine at churches all over Eastern Turkey, and they’d even made it onto Turkish CNN after one of their vigils was broken up by the police.
One by one, my traveling companions had revealed their idiosyncrasies—most, though not all, endearing ones. Ara was witty and cheerful, though when we neared the border, and the Syrian town of Kessab, where he’d grown up, he became very nervous because, it turned out, he’d never fulfilled his military requirement. “I want to see it,” he said when we suggested a quick visit, “but that doesn’t mean I want to stay.” Leo, though magnanimous and enlightened, hated Kurds: he considered them unscrupulous freeloaders and often said so. Vagharshak was silent, especially with me; he seldom spoke except to translate religious inscriptions, and often, while we explored various ruins, he’d wander off alone, quietly humming old church hymns. Müge, I thought, could do anything. She cracked jokes, translated, and expounded on political theory, and her cell phone rang constantly as friends, family, and colleagues called her to check in. The only remaining mystery—not including Sarkis Bey, that is—was Refik, our driver. We knew almost nothing about him. Besides the minivan itself—and the creaky tapes of Kurdish pop music that he blasted in it—Refik hadn’t brought anything with him on this trip. At night, when Müge and I would retreat to our hotel room to wash off the day’s grime with our sweet shampoos and expensive lotions, Refik would walk silently a few steps behind Sarkis Bey and Vagharshak into their room, and take off his shoes, and sleep on the floor.
So when Refik invited us to visit his family, who lived in a village near Yedi Kilise, we enthusiastically agreed, even though Sarkis Bey considered it, as always, a waste of time.
In the two-room mud house of Refik’s family, we sat on kilims while his nieces spread out a large vinyl tablecloth on the ground. They brought us cold barley soup, goat meat stew, rice with bits of noodles, and ayran, a yogurt drink.
Refik’s uncle, Izzettin Bey, a tiny man with brown skin and perfect posture, wore a tasseled fez over his white hair. He told us that his grandfather bought this village in 1945, which led Müge to ask whose village it had been before that.
“Before that, the state owned it.”
“And before that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was it the Armenians?”
“Well, I guess that’s right. Now that you mention it, it makes sense. No wonder there are all those churches up the hill.”
Refik’s uncle had an elementary school education and did not speak any Turkish until he joined the military. He had five sons and six daughters. As we started to eat, he asked us a question.
“So, how does it work with your group?” he said. “Do the two of you”—nodding toward me and Müge—“cook for the four of them?”
There was another reason for inviting us to lunch, we discovered. Izzettin Bey’s wife, an old woman with a smooth, pale face, was escorted into the room, bent over a knobby tree branch for a cane. She had some kind of medical problem and they hoped that we might be able to help. “Because you are learned people,” said Izzettin Bey.
Leo finished eating and moved across the room to sit closer to the woman. He spoke Turkish, but not quite enough to conduct an accurate medical examination, so there ensued a game of telephone—Leo speaking in English, Müge translating to Turkish, Refik translating to Kurdish, and then Izzettin Bey repeating Refik’s words to his wife—as Leo inquired about her energy, her breathing, her appetite, and so on.
“It is not a neurological problem, and I think her lungs are clean,” Leo eventually said. He needed to take her pulse, so he bowed slightly toward Izzettin Bey and asked, “May I touch her wrist?”
Two small girls spied from the doorway. It was impossible not to stare. The woman herself turned away while Leo took her hand, looked at his watch, and counted to himself. Then, as if he hadn’t already stripped her naked with the pulse count, he asked Izzettin Bey if he could see her ankles, to know whether they were swollen. Slowly she moved aside several layers of skirts while Leo inquired about her age.
“I am more than 70,” said Izzettin Bey. “Her age we don’t know, but we have been married forever!” He gazed at his wife.
Leo asked whether she had taken any medication, and somebody came into the room with a large plastic bag filled with tubes and bottles. “Aspirin, gingko biloba, antibiotic ointment,” Leo read them aloud one by one. An admirable collection, he said. But there was nothing that looked relevant to this case.
“It could be a lack of sugar,” said Leo, “or bad circulation. Or something to do with progestin and menopause.” The woman watched as he wrote a series of explanations on a piece of paper, which Müge rewrote in Turkish. “They should take the note to a pharmacy in town,” he said.
As we drove away, I thought about something that had happened the night before at dinner. We had been guests of a Kurdish member of parliament, and Leo had spent the meal ranting to me about how much he distrusted the Kurds. Yet he had just treated this Kurdish woman so tenderly.
“You know,” Sarkis Bey said suddenly, “my mother’s father was a doctor.”
Sarkis Bey had been quiet throughout the medical examination. Now he nodded, as if confirming to himself the truth of what he’d just said.
“He was a military doctor from Izmit, near the Black Sea. He married my grandmother when she was 15. They had a horse and two servants, and he was stationed in Gümüshane, where he was a high-ranking colonel and a surgeon.
“In 1915, when they gathered up the men, they also gathered my grandfather. He had some tension with the mayor of Gümüshane. So you see, even though during the deportation, all the Armenian doctors were spared so that they could treat wounded Turkish soldiers, they slit my grandfather’s throat right away. They didn’t even bother to send him into exile.
“Zarouhi, my grandmother, had a 15-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter, a 3-year-old daughter, and an infant daughter. They were all sent to Der Zor, to the desert. My grandfather’s aunt and mother had been visiting the family when the deportation orders came, so they had to go, too. But my grandfather’s aunt couldn’t walk anymore, so she jumped from a bridge into the Euphrates.
“She was like a water lily, with her dress floating up around her. The 3-year-old thought she was swimming.
“Then my great-grandmother asked a soldier to shoot her, and he said that the bullets would cost her money. He shot her from behind, and my grandmother told the children not to look back.
“When the caravan reached Agn, halfway to Der Zor, my grandmother had the idea to pretend that she was Greek. A cable was sent back to Izmit, asking, Is the doctor’s wife Greek? Izmit had been a Greek city, Nikomedia, during the Roman Empire. My grandmother had learned Greek growing up in order to communicate with the shopkeepers. The answer came back from Izmit that nobody was sure of her origin, but that she was known, for sure, to be fluent in Greek.
“So she and her children—my mother was 7 at the time—stayed in Agn, and then moved on to Malatya, where the two girls were accepted in an orphanage and my grandmother became the orphanage nanny. Her son, who was 15, was sent to Yerevan. They never spoke to him again.”
Sarkis Bey told the entire story from the front seat, looking straight ahead. Now he turned his body around to face us, and said, “My grandmother and my mother each told me this story on their own, but I didn’t want to believe it.”
So in 1965, he decided to go to Yerevan for the first time in his life. There, he found his uncle, the one who had left Malatya as a 15-year-old boy and had not been heard from since.
“We sat down together, and he told me the exact same story.”
It had taken this long for Sarkis Bey to tell his family’s story, and there it was. It’s not that I hadn’t asked him before. But after hearing variations on the same story since I was ten, eight, five years old—I used to read and re-read them as bedtime stories, and cry—it was surprisingly awkward, just as it should be, to ask Sarkis Bey to tell me how his relatives had suffered. Each time I asked him to tell me what had happened, he’d put me off somehow. He liked to blackmail me by insisting that I write an article for Agos about what I had learned on this trip. If I tell you, he’d say in any number of situations—if I tell you about this village, this church, if I tell you about my family—you have to write me that article about your impressions of Van. And I kept saying I would, though I knew I wouldn’t. Now, hearing his story, I knew exactly why. I didn’t really care what village we were in, or what had happened there, and I wasn’t filled with some sense of wonder at the sight of the ancestral homeland. I had come to Turkey because I wanted to find out what Turks said about the genocide. I didn’t expect them to say much. But it was the reticence of an Armenian, Sarkis Bey, that had been the real surprise. How could I write in Agos that what I had discovered on this trip was him? So I didn’t say anything when Sarkis Bey finished telling us what happened to his family in 1915. I only asked him how to spell Gümüshane, and what year they had made it to Malatya.
On the last night of our trip, after everybody had gone to bed, I stayed up and had one more raki on the rooftop with Sarkis Bey. In eight days we had gone from Van to Muș, Marash to Zeitun, Elazığ to Antakya, and to about thirty towns and villages in between. I asked Sarkis Bey if he was happy with the trip.
He told me a couple of discoveries we’d made had meant a lot to him: a monastery near a village that used to be called Gandzak, which had been almost impossible to find, and a chapel he called Garni, which he hadn’t known existed. “You can’t know how happy I was,” said Sarkis Bey, and he was right about that. He’d given no indication.
He told me he’d planned our journey based on the novels of the great Armenian writer Khachik Dashtents, who was born in a village in the mountains between Van and Muș, and who fled during the genocide. When he was 25 years old, Sarkis Bey read Khodedan, in which Dashtents wrote about life in the Armenian villages of this region. He wrote with a level of topographical detail that was almost incantatory in its reverence for each hill, each tree. Ever since Sarkis Bey read about these places, he wanted to see them for himself. “If you can’t recognize your homeland, you can’t love it,” he said.
If you can’t recognize your homeland you can’t love it. Sarkis Bey sounded exactly like Paul, from Los Angeles—and yet utterly unlike Paul at the same time.
“Baron Sarkis,” I began. (I traded bey for baron, the Armenian honorific, now and then when we were alone. Sarkis had been my grandfather’s name, and my dad had always addressed him this way.) “What do you think of the fact that some Armenians around the world believe they have the right to take back these lands?”
Sarkis Bey put down his drink and leaned forward. “Let me ask you a question,” he said.
“Would you go live in Varakavank?” He used the Armenian name for the broken-down village of Yedi Kilise, where Paul’s group had held their candlelight vigil.
“Come!” he called out, beckoning grandly with his arms. “Please, come live on this land!” He was talking to all of them—to all the Armenians in the diaspora, the ones who hate Turkey, who have never been to Turkey, who—when they think about them at all—feel that the Istanbul Armenians have sold out the Cause by living quietly among the enemy.
“Don’t tell me you want them to give back Kars, or Ardahan, or Van. Don’t tell me you want them back unless you’re ready to get up and go live there,” he said.
“First, we just wanted an independent Armenia. Now we have that country, that flag, and so? Nobody wants to stay there. All the Armenian girls are prostitutes in Trabzon.
“Don’t misunderstand me, OK? I love Van more than you and more than any of them. But I’m not looking to take it back. I only wish they would open up the borders so that an Armenian from Yerevan might be able to open up a shop here and earn some money.”
For the next few weeks, I enjoyed the Istanbul high life, staying out late at clubs with American expats, visiting Sarkis Bey’s summer house and meeting his wife, talking to the Agos staff in their unmarked marble office building. Then it was time to leave Turkey, and, as it happened, I did so by taking a boat from Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast, to Russia. Sarkis Bey was right: there were a lot of prostitutes—although, since all of them had dyed yellow or orange hair, it was hard to tell which ones were Armenian.
A few months after that, on a weekend trip to Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding, I called Paul. I still had his “NEVER AGAIN” bracelet, and it was time to give it back. We met near the pier in Santa Monica, on a clear, sunny day not unlike the one when we’d first bumped into each other—except that now we were looking at the Pacific instead of Lake Van, and instead of donkeys and sheep we were surrounded by people with J. Crew shopping bags.
Over lunch at a Greek restaurant, Paul told me there had been a big change in his life since our encounter in the summer. After nine years, he had stepped down from his post as the head of the local chapter of the Armenian Youth Federation. In fact, he’d left the group entirely. There were personal differences, he said. Besides, he was busy, working full time as a loan officer and finishing his master’s degree in finance.
Would he go back to Van? I asked him. “No,” he said. “Now I’ve seen it, and I know I can’t do anything.” He had decided to focus on Armenia itself, he told me, and had contacted various government ministries in Yerevan to see if they needed an intern. They did not.
On Christmas day, I got bad news from Turkey. The courts had opened a new lawsuit against Hrant Dink, the editor-in-chief of Agos, because he’d written an editorial criticizing the court decision to cancel an academic conference about the Armenian massacres. As the publisher of the paper, Sarkis Bey was also named in the suit. If found guilty, he could face up to four and a half years in prison.
I e-mailed Sarkis Bey expressing my concern about the lawsuit; it was impossible to imagine such a thing. “Please send good news,” I wrote. He wrote back and didn’t mention the charges at all. He told me he had just returned from Switzerland, where he had visited his daughter and her husband and their brand-new baby—a boy. “Finally, we are grandparents,” he said. He also asked me why I’d never written that article for Agos that I promised him. “Get ready for this year’s trip,” he signed off.
A month later, the lawsuit against Orhan Pamuk was dropped, after a massive international campaign on his behalf. But the suit against Agos was not. Hrant Dink, Sarkis Bey, and two colleagues will be tried in May.
The main exception to this rule, until very recently, was a Turkish historian named Taner Akçam, one of Müge’s close colleagues, based at the University of Minnesota. ↩
In the 1970s and ’80s, a terrorist group called the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia carried out a series of attacks against Turkish targets, especially diplomats, in Europe and the Middle East, killing about fifty people, and wounding another couple of hundred. A comparatively milder group, the Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide, also attacked Turkish targets during this period. For many Turks, the activities of ASALA and JCAG, still in recent memory, are a reference point with which all Armenian diaspora agitations are conflated. ↩
There were indeed incidents, along the Eastern Front, where Armenian armed bands, sometimes working with Russian troops, raided Muslim villages killing Turks and Kurds. But for the most part, the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian subjects remained loyal, and many fought for the Ottoman Army. ↩
So important that decades after the Armenians were expelled from the Van region, some enterprising patriots turned their attention to Lake Sevan, in Armenia proper, and renamed an island there Akhtamar; it was home to its own old church, Surp Karapet, whose silhouette bore an uncanny resemblance to the church on the real Akhtamar Island. But the fantasy was soon fouled: thanks to an ill-conceived drainage plan designed by the Armenian Supreme Soviet, water levels in Lake Sevan dropped so low that Akhtamar II revealed itself to be a peninsula. Tamar’s young lover would simply have walked. ↩
When we approached the town of “Harput, Kharpert!” which had been an intellectual center for Ottoman Armenians, Sarkis Bey sounded his call, and Vagharshak woke abruptly from a nap. He said hopefully, “Karpuz?” which is not the name of a town, but the Turkish word for watermelon. Unfazed, Sarkis Bey explained that, as it happened, an Armenian was responsible for bringing melons to Europe and the rest of the world. This couldn’t be true, I was certain; Armenians believe Armenians invented everything. In my notebook, I wrote “Papa Cantalupe, 17th C., Italy,” and tried not to laugh out loud. And when we got back to Istanbul, I entered “cantaloupe” into Wikipedia: “Cantaloupe was named after the commune Cantalupo in Sabina, in the Sabine Hills near Tivoli, Italy, a summer residence of the Pope. It was originally cultivated about the year 1700 from seeds brought from Armenia, part of the homeland of melons.” What do you know? (Then again, Wikipedia entries can be written by anyone, even an Armenian. Is there something suspicious in the misplaced zeal of those final words, “homeland of melons”? ↩
If you would like to see this website, go to www.virtualani.freeserve.co.uk. Whatever you do, don’t go to www.virtualani.com, especially if you’re at work. ↩