Each time when with a leap of imagination I begin walking with the human convoys marching to their death in the Der Zor desert, or with the activation of my sensory ability my breasts feel the cold weight of a newborn child because there is no more milk left in them, or due to my emotional memory I start panting like a virgin girl running away from the sword, my complacent pen, charged with fury, coils through the yellow memory of sand until it hits the first bone and halts. That is when a skull inside of me cackles loudly, mocking my audacity that I might know anything about the beastly form of human abjection and the deviant measure of this unutterable suffering, and that I might know it all so well that I might dare to translate this experience into concrete lines and forms. And because I strongly believe that nobody has the right to touch this subject except for the survivor who has witnessed the event, I tear my writing into pieces and throw it in the garbage can like someone caught red-handed. I am certain that this attempt at an autobiography rooted in the Medz Eghern (Great Catastrophe) would have a similar fate if its recipients were my pretentious imagination or my ranting muse and not the silence of the jaws filled with sand for a hundred years, the alarming reality and the impaired, synthetic murmur of the river of blood.
I was born in Yerevan, in the family of the physicist Anushavan Ter-Hovhannisian. My father was born in Van and he must have been one or two years old in 1915 when his family escaped to the town called Nor Bayazed (present-day Gavar) in Eastern Armenia. His father, Hovhannes Ter-Hovhannisian, was a priest in Van who had studied religion and philosophy in Germany. His mother, Mariam, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Adana. They arrived in Nor Bayazed with their three children—my father, his brother, Hrachya, who was seven or eight years old, and their eighteen-year-old sister, Pepronia. They had also brought with them two of their three servants, Mekhak, who had nowhere else to go and who had become part of their family, and Vahan, with whom Pepronia had fallen in love and to whom she was betrothed. The other servant, Berfin, who was Turkish, had stayed behind in my grandfather’s house and promised to look after the property till their return. Seeing that it was impossible to change my aunt’s decision, in terms of the unsuitability of her choice of a husband, my grandfather had sent Vahan to Constantinople to study banking and accounting, and he was still there when the political persecutions began. After the third house search, my grandfather, who had been blacklisted, was taken to prison “for using the church as a gathering place for political meetings, for hiding weapons, and for preaching revolt.” As an intellectual who knew many languages and who was one of the most authoritative men in the region, my grandfather had many non-Armenian friends and followers, one of whom was a Turkish mullah named Mustafa, who was a frequent guest in my grandfather’s house. My grandfather mentions Mustafa in his diary, describing him as “a brilliant mind and a man of free thought, who had not lost his reason in an atmosphere of fanatics and had preserved his conscience among the beasts . . .” Mustafa grew up in a family of government officials and had powerful ties in the legal system. At the time, his son, Said, was studying at a German military academy. Knowing about the plan of the Young Turk Party “to get rid of minorities,” the mullah had warned my grandfather a while back, but the atmosphere had seemed peaceful then and the Armenians believed they were under the protection of the Turkish and German governments. There was a rise in social and cultural activism and that also seemed suspicious to my grandfather, so he tried to warn his people, tell them that something horrible was happening on the other side of the curtain. The government found out about his actions and my grandfather became an unwanted element. Mustafa was also aware of the situation and he was asking my grandfather “to leave for Europe on the next ship.” The idea of abandoning his people for the sake of saving his own life was a betrayal for my grandfather: “I couldn’t live with myself.” He had not yet recovered from the Adana massacres during which his father, who was also a priest, had been killed on the threshold of his church. His wife’s mother and her twin sisters had also been killed during those massacres. Mustafa was trying to persuade my grandfather that he couldn’t change the course of events and would lose his life and put his family at risk. Mustafa warned my grandfather that thousands of criminals had been freed from the prison to form killing squads. Soon after, one of those Turkish militiamen arrived at my grandfather’s house and found him in the corner of his big garden with a beekeeper’s net over his face. (Beekeeping was one of my grandfather’s favorite pastimes. He believed that the beehive was the prototype of an ideal society. He had brought two books with him from Germany, a guide for beekeepers and a book on theology and ethics, which my physicist father called “the anatomy of sin.”) The armed man was about to arrest my grandfather when he was attacked by bees. As my grandfather joked, “God has a thousand ways of saving a person if it is His will.” During their next visit, the militiamen didn’t find my grandfather in the house. He had gone to the cemetery to pray. After searching the house and not finding anything, the youngest of the militiamen noticed my aunt’s wedding dress hanging on the wall and mocked her for having “an appetite for love, when the world is out for blood.” “Let people fight if they want to fight, and let people love if they want to love,” my aunt retorted spontaneously as though speaking to herself. The militiaman crumpled the veil and kicking the household cat left with a promise not to be so generous next time.
When my grandfather returned from the cemetery and learned about the incident, he realized how serious things had become, although he hid his anxiety by making a joke: “I have been praying to the living God my whole life, but it was a stranger’s tomb that came to my rescue in this critical hour.” When his friend Mustafa heard about the visit, he urged my grandfather again to leave the country with his family: “We both know that this is not a time for philosophizing but a time to save yourself and your family. Don’t wait to be saved a third time. Believe me, the worst is yet to come. And don’t think that it is easy for me to lose you; I can’t stand the thought of enduring the great loss of our friendship,” Mustafa said with great emotion. My aunt, on the other hand, was completely unperturbed by the visit of the militiamen and after the initial scare went back to her wistful state of anticipation, arranging and rearranging the wooden bureau her mother had given her as a present (this is the same oval-shaped bureau made of expensive wood that my grandfather managed to transport along with other family belongings, such as carpets and books, to Eastern Armenia where it is currently exhibited in the Gavar Museum as part of the exposition “Armenian Ancestral Homes in Van”). “Soon Vahan will return from Constantinople and nothing will stand between us and perfect happiness,” my aunt thought. But her time for love, beauty and happiness had coincided with the bloody games of the world powers. Jumping up at every approaching footstep, she waited in vain for her beloved to come with flowers in his hands.
Instead, the door was kicked open by militiamen. The armed men forced themselves into the house, but my grandparents were not at home. My aunt was engaged in her morning toilette. One of the men went to search in the other wings of the house, while the younger man, whom my aunt recognized from the last visit, stayed with her in the room. “Where is your wedding dress,” the man had asked with derision looking at the veil. “Did they already cut the throat of your betrothed?” “My betrothed is not in town, and my wedding dress is in the wardrobe,” my aunt answered like a good student, feeling confused and not really understanding the connection between the weapons they were searching and the wedding dress. The criminal opened the wardrobe and lifting the dress with his gun, said to my aunt: “Put it on.” Not understanding what was going on, my aunt asked him naively: “Are you going to kill me?” The militiaman mumbled retorts coupled with insulting swears, “The Sultan wouldn’t forgive me, you are a great item for the harem.” He then pushed her against the wall: “Put it on, I said!” Finally realizing what was going on, my aunt tried to free herself by offering the criminal her golden necklace, hoping that the Turkish servant, Berfin, would enter the room with a tray of tea and this whole nightmare would come to an end. But when Berfin entered the room after hearing Pepronia’s loud screams, it was already too late: my aunt was on the floor, the wedding dress on her was all ripped and she was lying on the carpet with an open bleeding chest, nearly passed out. “Allah will punish you! You’ve spilled an innocent person’s blood!” Berfin shouted in anger and knelt beside my aunt. “You’re the one who’ll be punished for bowing down to an infidel, you dog!” Looking at their watches, the militiamen left, as Berfin was trying to bring my aunt back to her senses. After bandaging her chest, Berfin went to see Mustafa to ask for some help.*
When Mustafa learned about the attack, he brought the family to his house and hid them there. That same evening two militiamen had gone to the church, and found and arrested my grandfather. They tied his eyes and arms and put him in a carriage. All the while, he was trying to guess by which roads they were taking him in order to stay alert. Although in the end it didn’t really matter where they were taking him or what kind of hell they had prepared for him. My grandfather, who had linked his dignity and fate with the dignity and fate of his people, and who was prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his flock, cared little about his final destination.
They pushed him into a cell and, after untying his hands and eyes, mocked him: “You are free now. Call on your God as much as you like.” “There was only one chair, a small rug for praying, a metal washbasin clumsily attached to the wall, and a disproportionately large and dirty mirror,” my grandfather wrote in his diary. They took off his clerical frock and other garments, cut his hair and shaved his beard, using the frock as a barber’s cape, and gave him a prisoner’s uniform. Then they threw the hair-covered frock onto the floor, next to my grandfather’s cross and Bible, which a soldier had taken before tying his hands. “When they left the cell I approached the dirty mirror and looked at myself—a different man was staring back at me. I didn’t recognize him. I was there, strewn on the floor under the frock. I had become invisible. The thought terrified me at first, then it excited me. Being invisible was liberating . . . It’s so good that I am not this man. That these things are not happening to me.” This is how my grandfather tried to construe the terrible loss of his identity. Then he heard the accusations of his keepers, who shouted: “You are charged with political treason. Not even your God hanging from the cross will be able to save you from punishment.”
Next day everything changed: “If they only could, they would glue my beard and hair back into place,” wrote my grandfather, certain that his friend Mustafa had interceded on his behalf. They moved him into a bigger cell with more light, where there were not only a table and a bed but also books, journals, backgammon and chess. They even offered him special food considering his stomach ulcer, which confirmed his guess that it was Mustafa’s doing. The first five weeks of his imprisonment were described as “being at a health spa,” and five weeks later, “weeks that coincided with the killings of Armenian intellectuals and the defense of Van,” my grandfather was freed and allowed to join his terrified family members hiding in Mustafa’s house. Kept in the dark while in prison, my grandfather learned belatedly about the deaths of much-loved writers and intellectuals, and heroes who had died defending his city, the city of Van, while he had been “sheltered in a place where [he] was able to keep a diet and read books.” They didn’t tell him about the incident with his daughter, that the Turkish barbarian had given her such incurable wounds with his knife and equally sharp teeth that the poor girl would never be able to overcome the trauma even after reaching the seemingly safe shore of the River Arax. My grandfather, who had been immersed in philosophy and theology, and who hadn’t even noticed that his beautiful daughter, his lovely child, had become a young lady and was in love, he didn’t known that she wouldn’t be able to breastfeed her child, wouldn’t experience the joys of her own body, its perfection, its miracle, which she had been anticipating with such a thrill and for which she was ready to relinquish everything and leave her ancestral land.
After their escape to Eastern Armenia, my aunt lost her firstborn, Narek, due to her chest injury. Having already once lost his identity in the Turkish prison, my grandfather mourned the emptiness and shame of the coming days, losing his faith in the possibility of following certain creeds or philosophies, and caring for his family at the same time. His diary is filled with desolate statements signaling the anguish and pain that he carried with him till the last days of his life: “A man who follows an idea has no right to form a family.” Also: “An idea ends where your child’s pain begins.” Or: “Those who perish are called dead, those who fall are called heroes, but what do they call those who live and feel ashamed for their existence?” he writes in a bitter tone. My grandfather, who was a lively conversant, who liked to read and was always cheerful, becomes reclusive in his new home and avoids all kinds of meetings, and calls everything empty, filled with air like a balloon, saying that ideas can only exist in books. He never wished to recover his priestly appearance or to keep a beard, he even rejected the prefix “Ter,” which indicates one’s service to the Lord: “Ter was left in that cell, on the floor, under my beard-strewn frock, between the cross and the Bible. Ter is someone who died on the cross. My father is a true Ter-Hovhannisian, he died under the cross with his people. What Ter-Hovhannisian am I?” He was overcome with despair: “There are many ways of not being, and being dead is the most painless of all.” Although the family had the means to travel to Europe, my grandfather chose to stay in Eastern Armenia, which was closer to their ancestral homeland, where he hoped to return. Mustafa had helped them get across to the border safely, escorting them in person and sparing nothing to make their passage comfortable. When parting, they hoped to see each other again in the future. Leaving their prosperous life behind, the family members embraced the difficult reality of exile. Life nevertheless continued.
It would seem that after their escape from Van the family would find security and a possibility for a dignified life on the other shore of the River Arax, but “the ghost of the barbarians,” who had authored many tangible and intangible wounds, had crossed the border with them hidden in the folds of their memory. Each member of the family had to wrestle individually with this horrific ghost until the very end of his or her life.
People continue to experience the Catastrophe in their individual lives. As my grandfather wrote in his typically laconic style: “. . . I got my share of the catastrophe in the form of salvation.”
Sona Van Translated by Shushan Avagyan
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