Special for the Armenian Weekly
‘Sometimes we have to be like a riverbank, twisting and turning along with the earth, withstanding swells and currents. Enduring.’
By Aline Ohanesian
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, (April 7, 2015)
340 pp., with 38 chapters
This April marks the 100th year of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, which Turkey continues to deny. Armenians still suffer an undying grief. Coupled with this sorrow, however, is a spirit of survival and resilience. The novel Orhan’s Inhertiance by Aline Ohanesian, loosely based on the author’s great-grandmother’s life, is further proof that the voices of the descendants of survivors of the genocide are both haunted and empowered by their ancestors.
The story begins when Orhan Turkoglu, a 29-year-old former photographer from Istanbul, discovers the death of his grandfather, Kemal, who left his long-standing rug business to Orhan, and their family home to an elderly Armenian woman in a Los Angeles nursing home. Orhan travels to Los Angeles to uncover the mystery behind this woman and her newfound inheritance. Written from the point of view of a narrator who travels into the minds of almost all of the characters, including Armenians, Turks, and Kurds, the book gives a unique perspective on the genocide that is not as linear as may be expected. Through descriptive language and skillful movement of time from the last years of the Ottoman Empire to the 1990’s, the reader is taken on a deeply emotional and transformative journey. By delving into the lives of diverse, multi-dimensional characters, Ohanesian beautifully portrays both the loss and restoration of faith, strength, identity, and humanity.
By delving into the lives of diverse, multi-dimensional characters, Ohanesian beautifully portrays both the loss and restoration of faith, strength, identity, and humanity.
One of the predominant conflicts experienced in this novel is the one with God. Lucine, the main character, her sister, Anush, and two brothers, Aram and Bedros, live with their Mairig (mother) and Hairig (father) in the village of Karod in Turkey when the genocide begins in 1915. Similar to many Armenian families, they are deeply religious, believing that God will protect them from harm. Hairig instructs 15-year-old Lucine to stay away from Kemal, her Turkish friend, because it is “a sin against God.” Although Lucine is strong-willed and resolute, she obeys her father’s wishes that conflict with her own. At first glance, the potential for a romance between a young Armenian girl and a Turkish boy seems shocking, but Ohanesian shows us the innocence and playfulness of their friendship before the war has a chance to taint all. At only 15- and 18-years-old, Lucine and Kemal are too young and naive to know that religion has the power to tear families and communities apart. As the Turkish army wages war in the name of God, Lucine’s family members disappear one by one.
Armenian Christians, viewed as an internal threat and morally inferior, are kicked out of their homes and marched into the Syrian desert, beaten, slaughtered, and raped on the way. Some of these vivid descriptions of genocide victims include a pair of falcons pulling at the intestines of a woman, Turks launching insults and stones at Armenians, village women stripping a fallen deportee of her clothing, young girls being pulled away by their braids in the middle of the night, and a Turkish gendarme forcing a pregnant woman to give birth, only to push her back on the ground and pierce her stomach with his bayonet.
The narrator further describes the deportees: “They marched through town like the walking dead, clothed in rags, stinking so badly that the old woman put carbolic acid on the windowsill to keep the stench away. Dogs and birds followed them wherever they went, tracking the scent of death. Bodies were carted away in the darkness, buried, their possessions burned or stolen. The people of Malatya looked on in horror or hate, feeling better about their own lot. A few risked their lives to save a child here, feed a mother there, but soon they returned to the business of their own survival.”
Ohanesian makes us question what is more important—our own survival, or our moral compass.
Many Turks, including Kemal, were being forced to fight in the war by taking an Oath of Martyrdom on the Koran; they were beaten if they disobeyed commands, and often starved themselves. However, many felt it was worth it: “What’s a little hunger when you are doing God’s work?” a soldier told Kemal. “Soon the Prophet himself will open the gates of heaven and present us with 72 virgins.” However, Kemal could not help but feel sick to his stomach at “the sight of this collection of displaced humanity…of vacant eyes looking for death or mercy.” Every time Kemal would experience a guilty conscience, a Turkish gendarme would try to bring him around, claiming that Armenians are revolutionaries siding with the Russians to kill Turks: “They are celebrating every time we lose a battle” and “shedding Muslim blood on our streets.” Although Kemal does fight for his own survival, it is hard to deny the truth when it is staring him in the face. Armenian women and children “huddled together…their backs hunched under bundles” made him realize they were more like “burdened mules.” We clearly see Kemal’s internal conflict: Should he betray his country and his religion? Should he stay true to himself?
Another character struggling to hold onto her identity and faith is Mairig. From the beginning of the novel, as soon as tragedy hits close to home, she becomes distant and unresponsive, even to her own children. Although she tries to hold herself together, the author shows how irreparable and traumatic loss can be through this character who was once a loving mother and wife. Lucine remarkably rises up to the challenge of taking care of her three siblings. Ironically, however, she gains strength by letting go of her faith, blaming God for her losses.
The novel also asks where God is through all of this. At first glance, the God that Armenians hold so highly seems nowhere to be found amidst the dying, forgotten bodies on the land that was once their home. We witness God, however, in the spirit of those who try to help the Armenians: a Kurdish prostitute named Fatma, Kemal, and a schoolteacher.
All throughout the novel, Ohanesian reveals that in order to survive, some characters try to forget their identities. Kemal is simultaneously “Eagle Eye,” a nickname he was given for skillfully targeting people from far away, as well as “soft and gentle, fragile even,” as Lucine describes him. Which side of him won his internal battle? Can someone stay gentle in the face of such brutality? And how?
Ohanesian makes sure the strength of the Armenian spirit illuminates the pages of her book. Lucine remembers what her father told her: “Sometimes we have to be like a riverbank, twisting and turning along with the earth, withstanding swells and currents. Enduring.”
Orhan’s journey begins when he inherits his grandfather’s rug business and cannot understand why an Armenian woman nobody knew about had inherited his family home. Yet, it is through the long-ranging generations of Armenians that Orhan meets, whose stories he hears, whose pain he witnesses, that he comes to learn he has inherited a much more valuable commodity—the truth of himself as an individual, his people as a race, and the responsibility of righting a wrong.
Orhan’s Inheritance is a testament to the power of words and stories to give voice to the past and change the future. The author tells a story of the Armenian Genocide that is not so black and white. Many times, these stories linger in gray, ambiguous corners of abandoned villages and people’s memories where they fear shame and another type of exile, one from the Armenian community.
The author tells a story of the Armenian Genocide that is not so black and white. Many times, these stories linger in gray, ambiguous corners of abandoned villages and people’s memories where they fear shame and another type of exile, one from the Armenian community.
Armenians have for the most part suffered silently. As one character observes, “The Armenians bore their losses alone. They tucked it away, like something precious, in every syllable of the language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs. In the breath of children.” Through Orhan’s Inheritance, we do not bear these losses alone; we bear them with each other and with a diverse group of people. This story is shared with a much larger audience in mind—an audience not only of Armenians and Turks, but also readers all over the world. This audience may not relate to the history of the Armenian Genocide, but they could very well understand the deep-rooted suffering that comes from loss. However, as much as readers may empathize with this story, as one character notes, “Sometimes empathy is not enough, sometimes empathy needs to be followed by action.”