Lawyer and writer Fethiye Çetin: ‘My identity has never been purely Turkish’

Turkish lawyer Fethiye Çetin wrote a book about the experiences of her grandmother, who witnessed the mass killings of Armenians during a death march of women and children in 1915 as a little girl. ‘My grandmother’ is now in its 7th re-print in Turkey.

On the 24th of April, Fethiye Çetin will again visit the grave of her grandmother. It is the day on which Armenians commemorate the fact that in 1915, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed or died during a forced march to what is now Syria. Fethiye’s grandmother Heranush survived the death march and afterwards lived her life as Turkish Seher. She never talked about her past until she felt the end of her life was near and she confided in her granddaughter. This granddaughter, lawyer Fethiye Çetin, wrote a book about what her grandmother told her: “My Grandmother”. Fethiye: “It is not a condemnatory, not a political book. I want to take the whole discussion about what happened then away from politics and back to human proportions.”
She succeeded. The book is a success: the seventh print is about to be distributed, and Fethiye knows that a lot of copies are being read by more people. Not only by Turks of Armenian descent, but also by ethnic Turks, even the most chauvinist among them. Fethiye: “For my grandmother it was a great relief to talk about the past, and so it is for Turks. Silence must be broken because it damages everybody.”

Break the silence

Fethiye’s book ‘My Grandmother’ – ‘Anneannem’ in Turkish – starts with grandmother’s funeral. It is at the time of the goodbye ritual, in which grandmother’s names must be mentioned. After the leader of the ritual asks the names of grandmother’s parents, there is silence among the women of the family. Then an aunt says: “Her father’s name was Hüseyin, her mother’s name was Esma.” Fethiye then feels compelled to break the silence that follows, and shouts out that these names are wrong. “Her mother’s name was not Esma, but Isquhi, and her father was not Hüseyin but Hovannes!” Now Fethiye says: “My grandmother gave me a strong sence of justice and fairness. How could I maintain the lies about her family, especially at that moment?”

Back to 1915. The First World War continues, the Ottoman Empire is about to collapse and loses more and more ground to Russia. The government feels threatened by the Christian Armenian minority in the country, which is protected by Russia. Armenian men are killed, women and children are sent on foot to Syria. A journey of hundreds of kilometres in the summer that gets hotter very day.

Death march

Fethiye Çetin writes about the events through the eyes of the women of the village where her grandmother, born in 1905, spent her youth among other Armenians. One day, the military police occupies the village, kills the chief of the village and takes all the men away. Nobody ever hears from them again. Heranush’s father is not there: he left to work in the United States five years before. After the deportation of the men, some of the women take their children and find refuge in a nearby village, among them Heranush’s mother with her son and two daughters. But that village is also attacked by the military police. Everybody is taken to a place nearby, where the throats of the men are slit. The women and children are banished and forced into a real death march towards Syria.
Heranush survives. She is forced out of the caravan and her mother’s arms by Hüseyin, a corporal of the military police. He takes Heranush into his house, gives her a new name, Seher, and gives her an Islamic upbringing. He treats Heranush well, considers her his daughter, but his wife Esma treats her as a house slave, even more after Hüseyin dies young. Heranush is not the only child that is taken away from the caravan: the same happens to thousands of boys and girls. Horen, Heranush’s little brother, also survives in that way.

Heranush’s mother Isquhi survives the death march and arrives in Aleppo, Syria. After the war, her husband returns from the United States to see if his family is still alive. He finds his wife, and together they try to find their kidnapped children. They work through intermediaries, find both Heranush and Horen and want to reunite the family. They succeed in getting Horen back, but not Heranush. She has got married in the meantime, and even though at first her husband agrees to visit the family in Syria, he changes his mind after he fears losing his wife and children. Heranush remains as Seher.

What was it like to write down the story of your grandmother?
“I didn’t sleep well in those days and cried a lot. I felt so sorry for my grandmother, a nine year old girl. Especially one memory kept haunting me: two of my grandmother’s nieces, whose father was killed and whose pregnant mother died during the journey, were thrown into a fast-flowing river by her grandmother because she saw no future for the girls. One of the girls sank immediately, the other one cameto the surface thrashing about and gasping for breath. Her grandmother pushed the girl underwater and after that jumped into the wild water herself. Heranush saw them drift off. Not much later, she was snatched from her mothers arms by a mounted policeman. I got desperate when I thought of these things.”

Your grandmother only confided in you about her past when she was over ninety years old. Why only then?
“I asked her the same question, just like I asked her why she never tried to get in touch with her parents and brother in the US. She always replied: ‘Ne bileyim?’, which means ‘How am I supposed to know?’ Her family even sent her money once to come and visit them, but then she had eye problems and her son went in her place. He got into a fight there and when he returned, he said he had lost the family’s address. She let it be that way.
Maybe it has to do with the big taboo that still surrounds this whole matter. Just after the war, about 1920, everybody knew what had happened and who the girls and boys were with Turkish names and Armenian roots, but after that, the silence began. And that silence had to do with the creation of modern Turkey. The Ottoman Emire was not a nation state with one people, whereas Atatürk wanted to transform Turkey into a nation state. But there was no such thing as a Turkish identity. It needed to be shaped, and therefore being Turkish was proclaimed to be the highest honour . As a result, not being Turkish became a taboo. Being Armenian turned into something to be ashamed of.”

You grew up in this nation state Turkey, with a Turkish identity. What does it do to your identity when you discover there is Armenian blood in the family?
“Not that much. Orrather, since I have known what my family history is really like, many things from my youth finally make sense and the gaps in my identity have been filled in. For example, my grandmother used to say that my musicality came from her side of the family. I never really understood what she meant, but I did know that Turks are not really known for their great musicality. Now I know this feeling for music is in my Armenian blood. I also remember that my grandmother on a certain day of the year would bake a special kind of cake, and that some women she knew did the same, and that they visited each other on that day. Now I know these were all women like my grandmother; they secretly celebrated Easter as they had done in their youth. So, my identity has never been purely Turkish. In Turkey, I feel connected to the faith of the Armenians and other minorities. My Turkish identity I feel strongly when I visit Germany, for example, and see the living conditions of many German Turks.”

Long talks

Seher kept her real identity hidden, but couldn’t keep that up to the end of her life. With one question she started many long talks with her granddaughter: about a year before she died, she asked Fethiye to go find her family in the United States. It was a short talk, after which Fethiye’s head was spinning with questions. Again and again she looked for opportunities to talk to her grandmother about her past, and again and again her grandmother seized the opportunity.

You didn’t manage to get her in touch with her family.
“No, I didn’t. I found them through a classified ad in an Armenian newspaper, and Horen turned out to be still alive. But he recently had a heart attack and died. I could tell my grandmother that he called his daughter Heranush. Of course, that made her feel good, she was now sure that she was never forgotten. Grandmother was too weak to travel to the United States and she died without ever seeing her Armenian family again.
I did meet them. I went there to celebrate the eightieth birthday of my grandmother’s sister, who was born in the United States. With a few family members we visited the grave of my grandmother’s parents. I put roses on it. And I apologized. For all the pain they suffered because of the way society, my society, handled the things that happened. The pain caused by the silence, and by the history books in schools that depict Armenians as enemies. The ‘enemy’ can be in your family and can therefore never be the enemy; we are all human beings, that is the message of my book.
I hope my apologies are accepted.”