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  • Apo Torosyan : Discovering My Father's Village

    "Discovering My Father's Village"

    By Apo Torosyan

    In the Beginning of the 20th Century, there were hundreds and hundreds. of Armenian named villages and towns spread all over Anatolia (Asia Minor). These peoples originated (mm the Eastern  part of the land almost 4,000 years ago. Their history included several periods of kingdoms and invasions. They lived on the crossroads of invaders: from the East, Mongols, Huns, Tahicks, Turks and Seljuks; from the South, Persians and Assyrians; from the North, Caucasians, Cherkez and Russians; from the West, Greeks and Romans. Somehow, from among several other tribes which disappeared throughout the centuries, the Armenians have survived and kept their identity.

    Living under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for over 600 ;years, the Armenians became productive, law abiding, educated and  somehow welt to4o Ottoman citizens. Their biggest mistake was in being "infidels" (non believers), because they had adopted Christianity. They were considered second class citizens. On the other hand, the Armenians' Christian identity had worked to help them keep their cultural identity intact, since they were always being discriminated against. They had defeated the odds against then by educating themselves, learning craft and mercantile skills. This had put them in powerful positions within the Empire, and some were well off.

    The Childhood - 1915

    My father Hrant was 5 years old. From what I understand, there was not much importance placed on children, except for education. Armenians in the beginning: of the 20th century were advanced in this area. My uncle Hovhannes was 17, and my aunt Repekah was 15, when my father was 5. If my father had a chance  for a childhood, of which he remembered very little, it was taken away from trim How could he imagine that he would end up losing both parents within a few months? .How could, he. imagine that the  ceiling of his bedroom would be replaced by the dark, cold,. starry sky of the night in the deserts of Mesopotamia? his uncles, aunts, grandfathers, grandmothers all dying silmultaneously buried by the side of the road, or left to tide vultures? How could he imagine that his big brother would disappear to a distant land, and his sister to another? Sometimes I used to question him about those events. He would comment, all he would say is "There is no God. If there was a God, what happened would not have happened!."

    My father was one of the "lucky" ones. He was not decapitated, he was not cut in half by swords,.he and his mother were not tied together with others and then thrown into a river to drown .He knew hunger but not enough to die from it What could my father teach me? Hate? No. He taught me love, tolerance, under. standing and forgiveness. He taught rive to share. He used to say, "if you eat out. doors, make sure you are really to share your food with others."

    How successful have I been with my-teaching to my American children? I don't know. I hope I am.

    I always give the example of one Palestinian and one Jewish child born in the Holy Land. Take the Palestinian child the day he was born and raise him in the Israeli house, and the reverse for the Israeli child. When they grow up, they will end up hating each other.

    Discovering My Father's Village - Edincik

    My old college friend Ruhi came from a very religious Muslim family. In all my years of friendship with him, I was never introduced to them. If I asked why, he would say, "They are not your kind of people. They are Sofu (which means fanatic). You won't like them," he would say. Ruhi knew my entire family and friends. He had a great love for our lifestyle, hospitality and family life. One thing for sure, he had a great respect for the elderly, which was a major pillar of the Muslim tradition.

    Former Armenian church, now garage.
    Former Armenian church, now a garage in Edincik.

    I remember once during college we had gone to Marmara Island for a month together. I had painted 33 canvases, had three solo shows in three different villages simultaneously, gave lectures to the villagers about art, measured and made lot maps for their court cases, and became friendly with most of them. Of course, I never revealed my true identity as a Christian and an Armenian.

    One time, Ruhi and I were walking toward our dilapidated residence, which was an old Creek house with no roof, when we saw this white-bearded old man dressed in white sitting on the side of the road. He was a "Haci," which meant that he had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I suggested that we go and ask him for his wisdom. So we went over. I asked him what was his experience in life, or his advice. He said, "If you kill one Gavur (infidel) you go to heaven. If you kill two Cavurs, 'Huris' (pretty girls) come to greet you."

    My friend Ruhi and I just looked at each other in stunned silence, then we thanked the old man for his wisdom and walked away. I could feel a chill up my spine.

    I have corresponded with Ruhi for almost 33 years. He is one of the few very talented artists who has been surviving with his art. A real crusader. Since my discoveries about my ancestors in the past several years, I have become more curious about my roots, my family story, and I have been writing to him about some of my ambitions. I had written to him that I wanted to visit my father's village and asked him to join me.

    He said yes, so after a long trip through the Greek Islands and the Aegean Coast of Turkey, I was back in Istanbul, my city.

    This visit was quite different from the first one, because I had a home to visit. Another college friend of mine, also Turkish, and her husband, had given me their house keys. Thanks to their hospitality, by this time I knew the baker, the grocer and some of the vendors on the street Finally after 32 years, after visiting old friends and relatives, Ruhi and I went to my father's village.

    The date was Wednesday, October 4, 2000, a bright sunny day. We were going to meet each other at our old art school in Istanbul. In our time, it was called "The Academy of Fine Arts." Now it was "Mimar Sinan School." Mimar (which means architect) was a "Devshirme," an Armenian converted from Christianity to Islam. He became the most important architect in the Ottoman Empire. His life-long goal was to compete with the size of the dome of Hagia Sofia Church (Saint Sophia). He succeeded by 1/2 a meter. The Blue Mosque ended up as one of the most impressive architectural works in Ottoman history. It was called "blue" because the interior is completely lined with blue tiles, handmade by Armenians.

    Armenians in the Ottoman Empire often held very important government positions because they were highly educated. Not too far from our school was another palace by the Bosphorous, called "Dolmahahce Palace," the architect of which was from the Balian family of successful Armenian architects.

    Ruhi and I were supposed to take the boat to Handirma, a port city on the southeastern part of Marmara. Then we were going to travel by bus to my father's village, Edincik. Ruhi was late, but thanks to the cab driver's acrobatic driving ability, we were at the port five minutes before departure.

    During those two hours of travel, we spoke about our past and recent memories. Ruhi was very interested in my recent study of Cretan civilizations, especially the Minoan civilization. Through the frosty salted double windows of the ship we could see a cloudless sky above the dark green waves of the Marmara Sea, with small white caps. 

    Toward the end of our journey, a petite young lady who had been sitting behind us joined our conversation about the Minoan civilization. She was an artist herself, showjng her works in Japan  and Turkey. When she found out that I was an Armenian, she told us that she had just returned from the new Art Biennial of Gumri in Armenia. I had read in the Istanbul Armenian newspaper Agos about this event.  She was telling us what a beautiful event it was. Artists from different cultures, especially Turkish and Armenian, were enjoying each other's creativity beyond politics. She was a graduate of the same school as Ruhi and I. When she found out the purpose and the destination of our trip, she offered us a ride in her car, which was parked at Bandirma harbor. She said Edincik was on her way. We were delighted and offered her tea and other goodies we had.

    When we landed at Bandirma harbor it was a typical hub-ub spot Cars and buses coming and going in every direction. From a distance, I could see commercial ships loading or unloading. Finally we found her car and were on our way.

    In the memoirs of my Uncle Hovhannes, who was 17 at the time of the Armenian Genocide, he wrote that the Armenians received a notice of deportation. They then had a few days to sell what they could for minimal money, load their bundles on a cart and load the elderly and children on as well. My father, who was 5, was included. My relatives then traveled through these roads, dirt at that time, to Bandirma. 

    The notice by the government was given to the Turkish-Armenian citizens of Edincik in the beginning of September 1915. They had three days to sell, pack and go. Some other villages had no notice at all. All Turkish-Armenian citizens were destined to go to the southeastern part of the Ottoman Empire, which was the Arabic peninsula (Mesopotamia). I could just visualize my ancestors walking through this path that we were traveling by car. We passed abandoned vineyards, vegetable fields, olive groves, mulberry trees. Some of these had belonged to these unfortunate people of the past.

    When we arrived at the center of the village, we thanked her, and she was gone in no time.

    At first I felt like a fish in a tank. All eyes were upon us. I had a backpack on, khaki pants, a short-sleeved shirt and American sneakers. I also had a telephoto-lensed camera, which my daughter had lent me for the trip. I looked very much like a foreigner or a reporter, Ruhi, with his untrimmed beard, Mongol bone structure and shoulder bag, looked like a cross between a revolutionary and a fundamentalist fanatic.

    We walked toward the cafe, which was shaded with natural vines, When we said "Merhaba" (hello in Turkish), there was a little relief on the part of our spectators, but the mistrust was still evident. Ruhi and I had had similar situations together in the past so we did the same by playing low-key, and satisfying the villagers' curiosity little by little. First we ordered some tea, and had a little chat with the owner of the cafe. We told him we had come from Istanbul to try to get some information about Edincik. We did not mention history, which would have created suspicion right away.

    They had no food at the cafe, so Ruhi went to find some food for us while I was talking to the villagers. With their permission, I was photographing them. The center of town was a three-way cobblestone intersection, with a little stone monument with flowers around it. Across the street was a mosque, and farther down another cafe. The mild, warm October sun on top of us was reflecting on the cobblestones of the street.

    Ruhi came back with a delicious toasted "sucuk" (Turkish pepperoni) in pita bread with melting cheese in between. The combination with the cay (tea) was superb. He had gathered some more information for us. He had heard about an official whose expertise was the history of Edincik village. After our late lunch and chitchat with the villagers, we decided to walk through the town. By now we were accepted by them as 'reporters from Istanbul." When we went to his office, they told us he was in Erdek, another town close by, that day, but he was going to be around the following day. We saw a framed photo of an Armenian monastery above his desk on the wall.

    We decided to walk around on our own. Right away I could see the old Armenian houses, as my father and uncle used to describe them. They were two-story wooden buildings. Most of them were dilapidated, and the ones still in use only had people on the first floor. It was the same as I have seen in other Christian villages.

    There were no people on the streets, not even children. Where were they? When I was young, I was too busy making a living, giving my family the best I could, enjoying my parents around my family, but not thinking about why we had emigrated to America.

    We could see some collapsed homes with the colorful interiors exposed. The brick oven in the wall, turquoise walls, lavender walls. Some of the inhabited homes had marble steps with an iron railing going up to the mezzanine floor. This meant they had basement floors too. Some of the doors were painted with bright blue or green colors. The woodwork was skillfully ornamented.

    On our way, we could see a marble fountain, painted white. It was a Byzantine fountain, still in working condition. When we approached the second square in the village, I could see another cafe. This one had no vine, but a large oak tree. I could feel shivers up my spine. Was this grandfather Dikran's cafe that had burned down? There was a historic oak tree right across from the cafe, with a plaque saying "In 1367 Suleyman Pasha, who was the son of Orhan Gazi, tied his horse to this plain tree while he was passing to Rumeli (on the European side)."

    I could visualize my grandfather shaving his customers under that tree. Behind the cafe house, he used to have a beautiful garden, as my uncle says in his memoirs, with a pool in the middle that was used for watering the garden. He had small trees which were green 12 months of the year. On one side of the garden were rose bushes, which would flower 11 months of the year. Even though I could not see a garden, I could just imagine my father playing in this yard, picking vegetables and looking at his father's beautiful garden. Probably, that is why my father had the most beautiful gardens in his homes, including our home in America.
    We said "Merhaba" to the villagers at the cafe and continued walking toward the edge of the village which was less than 10 minutes from the center. We saw an old church, possibly Armenian, which was turned into an auto repair shop. I could tell from the ornamentation of the marble that it had been a church. When we arrived at the end of the street, there was a mosque and a cemetery. From the side of the cemetery wall we could see the mulberry trees close by and fruit fields and olive trees in the distance.

    In the cemetery, next to the mosque, there was an old unusually-shaped cedar tree. It looked like the antlers of a moose in some parts, defying gravity with curls downward, and tumorous growths in several locations of the naked trunk. It looked very old. Then suddenly I wondered if my father saw this same tree, was it growing in his time?

    When we were walking through the narrow street looking at the old Armenian homes, I wondered again, which house was my father's house. He used to tell us that he played on the street; which one?

    Just at that moment Ezan (Muslim religious chant) started through the loudspeaker I was lucky that under my sunglasses no one could see the tears in my eyes. We stood there for some time looking at those lush green fields. Nature was so forgiving.

    When we came back to the cafe under the tall oak tree, by now the villagers knew the purpose of our visit, as "reporters.' They introduced us to an 82-year-old man, "Emmi-Dede." He had probably been born just after the "events."

    We followed him to another part of the village. He wanted to show us a Muslim holy ground. Of course on the way, we saw several other Armenian homes, which I was photographing, sometimes with "Emmi-Dede' in them.

    He brought us to what seemed to me to be another church, but which according to him was a Muslim holy place. When we walked inside, I could see the altar. The walls were typically Uyzantine, with brick and stone rows finished with ornamented marble stones. We could see other Byzantine stones in several other corners of the village.

    I asked him whether there had formerly been any other people here. His answer was, "There were Armenians here. They had olive trees and were silk makers. The olive business was a very profitable business in this part of the country, the same with silkmaking," he said. He was giv. ing us some statistics and history of olive making, when I was thinking of my interview with my relative, who was 86.

    In 1922, my relative was 7.years.old. The survivors of the 1915 death march were back from Mesopotamia, trying to reestablish their lives. She was telling me that in Edincik they had a beautiful church. The entire floor of the church was covered with Oriental carpets. They had olive groves, and every two years, the young boys of the village (14-18) would go and dig under the trees so the roots would get nourishment. It was in fall of 1922 that the 19 youngsters had not returned from the olive groves. The Armenian villagers were suspicious.

    A few days later, two of the youngsters, her cousins Artin and Yervont, crawled into the village in the dark. Their story was that while they were working under the olive trees, Kurdish 'Chetes' (brigands) surrounded them, ordered the "Gavurs" to separate themselves from the others and dug a ditch. They then shot them, one by one. These two brothers pretended to be dead, spent the night with the dead or dying. They escaped to tell the story.

    My relative was telling me with her trembling old voice, 'The Armenian villagers went to the field, dug up the corpses, brought them to the church and put them in caskets. They were lined up around the church walls before they were buried." She said that an American- Armenian took photographs of the event. The remaining two youngsters died later from tuberculosis. They all had to flee the village for the last time.

    Was that the garage, the car repair shop that she mentioned, the old Armenian Church? I was thinking that some of the people that I was seeing at that moment witnessed all of these events, including my ancestors. They were the connections to the past. Those walls, those dilapidated houses, once had had happy Armenian families.

    In my Uncle Hovhannes' memoirs, he talks about education, and says: "The Turks were behind us Armenians in advancement. Like all the surrounding Armenian villages, they did not like us. In our village, they looked at us as an enemy. If there was a holiday of the Turkish government, for example the birthday of the Sultan, they would have festivities at the governor's mansion. All the students from the village would gather at the mansion's yard.

    "In the town there was no place for fun or entertainment The children used to play with each other. Most homes had a horse or a don. key. For the children, riding them was great fun. But on the other side, school and home behavior of the children was very important for the parents. Especially after the events of 1908 Ittihad(revolt), they gave even more importance to education than ever before.

    "Before that, under the rule of Sultan Abduihamid, teaching had limitations. There was no Armenian history in schools. But after 1908 it was just the opposite. The schools started teaching Armenian history. After a certain class level they started teaching a second language. The Armenian public was awakening. They paid attention to educating children at every level." What happened to all of that, six years later?

    Even though I was listening with respect to this elderly man in Edincik, my mind was traveling in time. I couldn't ask him, what happened to these Armenians? Why were they uprooted and removed from their villages and their homes? Killed, murdered, drowned, burned, raped?

    I remember my godfather who was related on my grandmother's side. He knew how to find his home in Edincik and had visited the village years later. He had gone to his home as a traveler, never revealing his identity, and the villagers were telling him that "All these Armenian homes had treasures in them." They had found gold and jewelry buried in several places, without realizing that they were talking to the owner of the property.

    There is an old Turkish saying: Kurunun Yanrnda Yas da Yarzar — "The wet wood burns next to the dry wood. Even though I have great respect for old Turkish sayings, this one is one of those exceptions as a metaphor for humanity. There is no excuse for a crime against humanity.

    Yes, in history the Armenians, the old citizens of Turkey, might have had a few "wet ones' within who dared to seek independence, self-determination and human rights.
    They had looked for independence, like any other being. Who would choose the opposite? How could they be happy paying "neck tax"? This meant "if your head is connected to your body with your neck, you are very lucky, so pay your neck tax!" This double taxation was only for non-Muslim citizens, especially Armenians.

    At the center of the village under the oak tree, we had a second serving of tea. We were getting more information from "Emmi Dede." He had given us fruit from his garden as a gift of his hospitality. The coffee shop owner (where my grandfather's shop was) would not accept payment for our tea. On the dusty road to the harbor, I could imagine my ancestors' piled-up belongings on an ox cart walking silently toward sunset, thinking of what was left behind, and what lay ahead. There was a 5-year-old boy on top of the pile on the cart, wondering...