Secrets and Lies: Turkey Addresses Genocide
by Joy Stocke
Hamam Bathing Bowl
This morning, The New York Times published an article about one of the taboo stories of the 20th century – A Family Uprooted by a 60-Year-Old Secret – the Armenian Genocide which took place in Ottoman Turkey, and which, under the Presidency of Abdullah Gul is now being gingerly addressed.
In 2005, Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk made an off-the-record and subsequently published comment about the genocide, which caused a furor in Turkey. That year, in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, West Coast Editor Angie Brenner and I met an antique dealer who spoke about his own experience.
But first, he sold me the hamam, or bathing bowl, pictured above, made in the town of Van in the late 1800s by an Armenian craftsman. The fish is made of copper and jointed so that it swims when the bowl is filled with water, and the bird symbolizes our highest aspirations.
Osman sits behind his desk in the tiny antique shop he owns tucked into one of the labyrinthine streets of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. “Yes, it happened,” he says. “To my father and my grandparents near Erzincan in what was then eastern Anatolia.”
He speaks slowly and clearly, a British inflection threading through his perfect English. “My father was 6 and his brother was 4. When the soldiers came for my grandparents, two families of Alevi Turks — who follow the tradition of Shia Islam — hid my father and his brother. The soldiers gathered the people of the village and brought them to the fields in the shadow of the mountains, and slit their throats. For three years, the Alevis hid my father and his brother in the chimneys of their baking hearths. To protect the boys, they changed their Armenian Christian names to Muslim names.”
His son arrives with small cups of coffee, and then shuts the door. The air grows warm and stuffy, but Osman doesn’t seem to notice. “When my father and his brother were freed, they became separated. For the rest of his life, my father looked for him, visiting every town no matter how small, hoping that his brother would appear on the street or in a coffee house. When I was 12, my father died of a broken heart, I’m sure. But there is irony in my story, because the government had a special program for orphaned boys. They sent me to one of the best schools in Turkey.”
In that school, Osman met Nuri, a Muslim, who owns a carpet shop nearby. “All these years, Osman and I have been friends.” says Nuri, “brothers really, but we’ve never talked of this subject. He knows it happened. I know it happened. Why make problems between us?”
Nuri and Osman spoke these words, well aware that on April 24 many Western countries mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, the beginning of massacres and deportation of Armenians from a land where they had lived for more than 3,000 years.
Five years ago, most Turks wouldn’t speak openly about what they say is a “so-called genocide,” but with Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union, friends who once were afraid to voice their opinions about an event deleted from their history books are beginning to talk.
The Turkish government, at odds with many of its citizens, denies that systematic deportations and killings of Armenians occurred. Yet, if you travel to the eastern border of Turkey, you will find abandoned churches. And in travel posters and ads in most tourist offices, you will see a lone red brick church sitting on an island called Akdamar in the center of a lake called Van, named for a once-thriving metropolis of Armenian farmers, craftsmen, businessmen, and traders.
You begin to wonder: If a well-photographed Armenian church sits on an island — and in the nearby abandoned city of Ani sit hundreds more churches — where did the Armenians go?
Until the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was known for tolerance of its Christian minorities, but things changed when the Empire went into decline. In July 1908, a group of Turkish nationalists known as the Young Turks — junior officers in the Turkish Army — forced the Sultan to allow a constitutional government guaranteeing basic rights to Turkey’s citizens.
But in 1913, three leaders of the Young Turks seized control of the government, planning to expand the borders of Turkey into Central Asia, creating a new empire called Turan with one language and one religion. Armed roundups of Armenians — who, encouraged by the European powers and Russia, had considered establishing their own state — began on the evening of April 24, 1915. Three hundred Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, and clergy in Istanbul were jailed, tortured, then hanged or shot.
In the following three years, somewhere between 700,000 to more than 1 million Armenians were killed or died of starvation, thirst and disease, and deported to camps in the Syrian desert.
Osman finishes his coffee, gently setting the cup in its saucer. “You ask me what to call the murders of my family?” he says. “What good is a name if we can’t openly admit it happened?”
Joy E. Stocke is founder and Editor in Chief of Wild River Review. She is completing a travel memoir,Anatolian Days and Nights, co-written with Angie Brenner. You can visit the book’s website at: Anatolian Days and Nights.com.