While a young girl, Turkish lawyer Fethiye Çetin adored her grandmother, a Muslim matriarch named Seher. Then she learned that Seher was in fact Haranuş, an Armenian Christian. She had been seized from her mother by a Turkish gendarmerie corporal officiating over an Armenian death march during the First World War. My Grandmother is Çetin’s compelling account of the shock of this discovery. A bare narrative in which provincial banality contrasts with scenes of throat-slitting horror, her book offers few moral judgements. There are few dates, no maps, no politics. There is also no discussion of whether the bloody disaster in which Turkish and Kurdish Muslims cut down the Armenian Christians of Anatolia between 1890 and 1923 should be called genocide, massacre or civil war. Asked why it happened, her grandmother asks back, “What should I know?”
In its fast-selling Turkish original, the book is part of a genre in modern Turkish literature that tries to fill the gaping hole left by the Armenians in the country’s public history. The theme dominates Orhan Pamuk’s recent Snow and Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul. Çetin’s book is already required reading for students in progressive Turkish institutions like Sabanci University in Istanbul. Along with occasional recent exhibitions and conferences about the lost Armenians, these are Turkey’s first attempts at overcoming a legacy of fearful denial.
Eight other Armenian girls ended up in the small Turkish town where Çetin’s grandmother was taken by the corporal. Even her brother Horen survived to become known as a shepherd called Ahmet. Initially working as domestic servants, then as free wives and mothers, they kept alive customs like eating coloured candy-bread, which they shared at Easter without letting the children know why. Everyone in town knew they were Armenian, and they endured enough discrimination already. Although Muslims, their official papers listed them as “converts,” mocked in the streets as “converts’ sperm” or “leftovers of the sword.” Çetin’s family is convinced this was why one talented relative was unable to take a place in military school.
Translator Maureen Freely, in a valuable introduction, reckons there could be two million such descendants of Armenians among Turkey’s population of 75 million people today. More than 30 other ethnicities still survive, and this new proof of the impossibility of repressing an inherent multi-ethnicity helps explain the shrillness and sometimes schizophrenia of Turkey’s one-nation ideologues. As Çetin makes clear, all in Anatolia are of “impure blood.”
The pain of the Turkish Armenians is not over. As a lawyer, Çetin represents the family of Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who was murdered in January 2007 by a young man inspired by the same deep-rooted nationalism. As Çetin’s grandmother warns her children, telling them not to be afraid as they pass a cemetery, “Evil comes from the living, not the dead.”
Reviewer: Hugh Pope, former Wall Street Journal correspondent in Istanbul, is the author of Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World (Overlook Duckworth, 2005).