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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.”

Three generations of women in present-day Turkey

(photography by Hanneke Geerdink)

They might be less modern than women in Istanbul, but still: three generations of women in an average village show how fast life in Turkey has changed. As described by journalist Fréderike Geerdink and her sister Hanneke, photographer.

Leave from the congested bus station in Istanbul and get off the bus twelve hours later in Ortahisar, a small, beautiful and quiet village in the middle of the Cappadocia region. The village is close to the tourist highlight Göreme but is itself hardly touristy: it lives on trade and storage of fruit in natural caves. Fruit is everywhere. On the street drinks made of apricots are prepared, lemon scent fills the air and grapes grow in vineyards and in backyards.
The Oyman family lives in a house on a hill, and from the balcony there is a panoramic view over the edge of town and the fairy tale red-yellow-orange landscape around it. Late friday afternoon only grandmother Ulviye, mother Birsen and daughter Aydan are at home. The rest of the family have gone to the hospital to pick up oldest daughter Alsi, who has just had a stomach operation.
The rest of the weekend is taken up by an intensive acquaintance with the Ouyman women. With Asli, an exuberant 24-year old who laughs a lot despite the pain in her stomach. With Aydan, one year younger and totally different: she quietly takes care of family and guests. With the twelve-year-old twins Beyza and Berna, who mainly wander around outside the house and now and then want to practice their beginner’s English but, to their frustration, can’t get beyond ‘you’ yet. With mother Birsen, who leaves the house early Saturday morning to take her driving exam, and with grandmother Ulviye, who says she is almost done with life but can at the same time be happy as a girl.

The lives of the women of the Oyman family illustrate the pace at which womens lives in Turkey have changed over the past decades. Grandmother was forced to marry by her brothers, while the youngest girls routinely preach the emancipation message from their mother and no doubt will live by it. Sure, in bigger cities like Istanbul and Ankara life is more modern and in the far east of the country women have far less opportunities than in Ortahisar. The stories of the Oyman women balance these two extremes.

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Ulviye Bolat (76) has been a widow for 27 years. She has five children, sixteen grand children and three great grandchildren. Ulviye lives on a state pension, supplemented by the revenues from her orchard.

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“I learned to love him”

Seventy days after their daughter got engaged, her husband died unexpectedly. “I could have remarried”, she says, “but I didn’t want that. I loved my husband and I thought my children wouldn’t benefit from a new marriage.” It was a good marriage. Her husband worked hard and respected her contribution. She took care of the children and the animals, she helped in the orchard and knotted countless carpets. It is all over. It makes her lonely, she says, but she doesn’t give the impression of being sad. Not when she is talking with other women in the small garden in front of her house, or when she is the centre of attention in her daughter’s home and makes jokes about men in general and her sons-in-law in particular, or when she discusses the news with her grandson.
The fields she spent so much time working in, are a few kilometres outside the village. She and her husband always walked there, with the children and later also their grandson in a reed basket on to the donkey’s back. “We had no family that could help us”, she says, “because both our parents died when we were children. It was hard, we did not always have enough to eat, but I have mostly warm memories of that time.”
Her parents’ death was in a way the overture to her marriage. There was a boy in class who was also an orphan. The teacher decided to place them next to each other in class. Ulviye didn’t like that at all: “I worked hard in school, he didn’t. I thought he was lazy.” A few years later this boy turned up on her doorstep as a grown man and asked for her hand. Ulviye refused: “I thought he was lazy and what good would a man be who wouldn’t work hard?” But her brothers were violently insistent, and in the end she agreed. She never thought she would learn to love her husband.
Their life followed the rhythm of the seasons in the orchard. And still the trees she once planted play an important role, in a very self-evident way. Whoever expects a complete answer as to why she recently dropped out off the Koran study course just a few weeks after starting it, will be disappointed: “Spring arrived, I had to take care of the trees.”
She is sad she sees less of her trees these last few months. Her health doesn’t allow it anymore. She suffers from headaches and faints now and then. But she can’t stop herself from going to the fields anyway now and then, which concerns her family, who urge her to take a mobile phone just in case something happens. But she doesn’t see the point in that. What happens, happens.

Birsen Oyman (45) has been married for 27 years. She has five children: son Hakky (27), and daughters Asli (24), Aydan (23), Berna en Beyza (12).

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“My expectations have grown”

On the day of the interview she passed her driving exam. After six months of lessons she passed the first time. Now there’s time for the other courses she has in mind: English and a computer course, and if everything turns out the way she wants it to, she will have her secondary school-diploma in three years. “I grew up in this small village”, she says, “and that’s why I used to have small expectations. But the last few years, my expectations have grown.”
She doesn’t blame her parents that she didn’t get the chance to finish her secondary school. There was not enough money to send all five children to school and her brother took precedence because he would have to support a family as a man. The teacher came to talk to her father because the girls were smart, but it didn’t help. Her helping hands were needed in the restaurant that her father ran to complete the income from the orchard.
When she thinks back on that time, it was in fact a good part of her life. Much better in any case then the first fifteen years of her marriage, in which she had little freedom. She lived with her parents-in-law and had to live by their rules. Opposing them was bound to fail. Her youth, the nice family she grew up in, the experiences in the house of her family-in-law, taught her what is really important: freedom. “Freedom gives happiness”, she says. Her marriage was arranged and although she had no problem with that, she wants her son and daughters to make their own choice. But especially for her daughters freedom goes further than that. She always encouraged them to study, and she succeeded. The eldest, Asli, studied economy and has a good job now. The second, Aydan, became a pharmacy assistant. Beyza dreams of becoming a maths teacher, Berna fancies a future as a doctor. Birsen: “In my time it was not normal for a woman to have her own income. That’s different now and that’s good, even more so because a lot of marriages end in divorce and in that case as a woman you have to be able to support yourself.”
The women of her age have found a stunningly simple and effective way to give themselves some financial freedom. Every month a group of women come together in one of their houses, every woman bringing the equivalent of around a hundred dollars. All the money goes to the hostess, who can buy something important with the money: a washing machine, a car, furniture. Every eighteen months the money comes Birsen’s way. These are savings no husband can touch. The women know each other from the village, but also from the womens organisation that Birsen helped to found and which helps girls practically and financially in their education. Birsen’s convictions go beyond her own family.
Birsen’s husband accepts that his wife needs to develop herself. He has no choice: it’s always five against one. Birsen: “When I want something, like the driving lessons, first I call my children to ask their opinion about it. They always support me, my son even paid for my driving lessons. Only afterwards do I ask my husband. What can he do when the whole family supports me?”

Asli Oyman (24) studied economics. She lives by herself in the southern Turkish city of Mersin, where she works as a sales representative for a big cosmetics firm.

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“My mother will always be most important to me”

She will eat less Adana kebab. She will have breakfast and eat fruits and vegetables. Less stress, a little bit more relaxed life. Asli just came back from hospital. She was operated on for a stomach perforation, which was a complication of a gastric ulcer. Whether or not this was caused by her lifestyle is not clear, but getting sick was quite a shock.
She walks around in a red tracksuit and presses her hand against her stomach regularly. When she has to laugh – which is often – she tries not to use her abdominal muscles, but she is not very successful. She whispers with her mother, sister and brother, she makes jokes with grandma, she laughs with the visitors that come to see her. She has pain, but shines at the same time. She loves being with her family.
And, by the way: she’s in love. This summer, she saw him again. A Turk from Germany. She doesn’t let her mobile phone out of sight, text messages come and go all the time. “I am sure my family will respect my choice”, she says. But, also important, her future husband has to accept her family as a part of her existence. Asli: “My mother is the most important person in my life, after that omes the rest of my family and only after that my boyfriend.”
If she marries and moves to Germany, she wants to return to Turkey at least once a year. Apart from that, she hasn’t really thought about a possible life with this man. Her eyes shine when she talks about marriage and children, but she also admits she’s just a bit too romantic. Flowers, wine, candles, walks on the beach, she just can’t get enough of it and in her dreams she happily sacrifices her working ambitions for it.
But when she talks about her carreer plans, her eyes shine too. Her biggest wish is to have her own cosmetics business in cosmetics. Asli: “The next few years I want to gain more commercial experience, and after that owning my own company would be great.” She is grateful to her father for his encouragement and example: “He is a businessman and I learned a lot from his way of working.” She smiles: things have changed between her and her father. Before, both their strong characters clashed every so often, now she also sees the value of his vision.
All in all: everything is up in the air. Whether she will ever have her own business, whether the German Turk will be The One. Whether she will emigrate to Germany or stay in Turkey, whether she will have children and if so, when. And how she will bring all these dreams together. But she has no doubt that everything will turn out fine. She is looking forward to the future: “Life can only get even better.”

Aydan Oyman (23) works as a pharmacist’s assistant. She is not in a relationship and lives with her parents.

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“Thinking of myself feels selfish”

When her brother lights a cigarette, she gives him an ashtray. When visitors arrive, a minute later she serves fresh tea. When a guest wants to help her do the dishes, she sends her out of the kitchen. If someone walks around the house for two minutes on bare feet, he is offered warm slippers. And when she sits down for a second, her two sisters cuddle up against her.
For two more days her family can enjoy her attentiveness. Monday Aydan starts a new job. “I have been unemployed for two months”, she says, “and I want to get started again.” The new job turns out to be her old job. She worked in the pharmacy in a nearby village before, but she was not happy there. She switched to a drugstore, but soon regretted the move. “I had no freedom at all”, she explains. “The work schedule was tight, I had to do exactly what the boss told me to do.” She quit and before she knew it, she was the subject of a competition between two bosses: her old boss wanted her back in the pharmacy, and the drugstore boss offered her more money. She chose the first. “Looking back, this job was not so bad.”
She understands why she is sought after as a worker: at work, she is like she is at home. She goes out of her way to please others. That is not only nice for the boss and for customers, but also for herself, she says: “Some time ago a customer said she would pray for me because I gave such good service.” Okay: sometimes, she admits, she feels mixed up about her character: “I always come second”, she says. “I know it would not be so bad to think of myself a little bit more. To get some balance in this. But, well, this caring is in my character. It feels so selfish to think of myself.”
Aydan doesn’t see too much of her friends anymore. One by one they get married and after marriage they see less of their friends. But even if she had unmarried friends, she would still spend a lot of time with her sisters Berna and Beyza: they always had a strong connection and the girls see Aydan as their second mother. “I often tell them to study hard at school”, Aydan says, “so they can go to university. English is especially important. Tourism is growing and there’s plenty of business. I sometimes miss English in my work: I cannot help foreign customers. She herself, by the way, made a joke to the secondary school teacher who asked her if she wanted to go to university. “I said, girls from this town don’t study, they get married.”
She wants to get married. She had a relationship, but it didn’t last and there’s no new candidate yet. What demands does she have? “He cannot be too tall”, she says with a smile on her face. “He doesn’t need to be rich. The most important thing is that he appreciates my family.”

Berna en Beyza Oyman (12) started secondary school in September.

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“We can do the same things as boys”

The biggest wish of the youngest Oymans causes quite a lot of discussion in the family: both girls want a bike. Too dangerous, think mom and dad: drivers don’t pay attention to bikers, and anyway the girls would probably ride recklessly and cause accidents. Luckily for Berna and Beyza, they can use the bike of a friend sometimes. The wounds on their chins and knees are testimony to their reck. More precisely: the wounds on Berna’s chin and knee. Beyza is quieter, more serious than Berna.
The girls already take after their sisters, brother and mother: they both want to get married and have a family, but first they want an education and a job. Berna says that they as girls have as many rights as boys: “We can do the same things.” Beyza talks about her dream of becoming a teacher, Berna wants to be a doctor. So they want to go to university, just like brother Hakky and sister Asli. They are proud of their brother and eldest sister, but in terms of character they take Aydan as an example. “She is most important to us”, says Beyza also on Berna’s acount. “She always has time and concern for us. She is patient and never gets angry.”

Thanks to Fatma Altuner (interpreter) and Hakky Oyman.
Published in womens magazine ‘esta’, July 2005