Book Review: Hadjian’s ‘Secret Nation’

Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey
Avedis Hadjian

I.B. Tauris, 2018
592 pages

Avedis Hadjian’s writing is so beautiful and touching that reading the introduction to his new book “Secret Nation” brought tears to my eyes. “It was Genocide by other means continued, before my eyes,” Hadjian writes. One cannot get away from it. The feeling of fear everywhere is pervasive, and the disfigurement of all vestiges of Armenian culture ongoing.

His description of a cowed and frightened people is so vivid that, in just a few words, he not only tells us how they look, but offers a good idea of how they feel. The feelings are mostly various degrees of fear.

Hadjian is very aware that many of the ‘hidden Armenians’ could or could not be Armenians at all. In Turkey, every despised person, be they Assyrian, Alevi, Kurdish, is now called Armenian whether it is on the basis of race or religion. This kind of discriminatory classification makes the matter very complicated indeed.

Hrant Dink’s true claim that Sabiha Gökçen, that paragon of Turkish heroism, was an Armenian, cost him his life. Based on these brutalities, it is entirely understandable why Armenians who have been hidden for some time are not so forthcoming about their origins.

“Turkey has proved extremely sensitive to any perceived threat to its state and territory, even if unfounded.” This is perhaps one of the most important sentences in the introduction—especially for those who may not have a good idea of how fascist the Turkish state is. Again and again, Hadjian makes the important distinction between state and government in Turkey. Anyone who has traveled there should have felt the tyranny of the state (and its functionaries).

Hadjian warns against outing Armenians in Turkey—especially in the provinces. The fear of the little girl in the mountains of Sasun spoke volumes. Being known to be Armenian can often result in dire consequences, so those who do not want to be known should not be censured for not immediately coming out and proclaiming themselves as Armenians. I couldn’t agree more. I have seen that fear myself.

Hadjian says his “initial introduction would have finished with the following line: ‘There is nothing for you to fear, little Sasun girl. You are not alone.’ These fine-sounding words are, at best, nothing else if not irresponsible.”

The fear and paranoia ever-present in these people’s lives is horrible. The two most repeated descriptions in the book are: ‘fear’ and ‘pejorative.’

The chapter about Bitlis immediately reminded me of my visit there. Apart from the general hostility which we encountered, there was a gendarme who realized that one of our group members spoke Turkish. He offered to bring a shovel to dig up ‘the gold.’ Everywhere we traveled, the Turks were sure there had to be gold, and that we were concealing treasure maps containing the keys to where it was buried.

We, too, met with the child-like desire of Kurds to hear our eternal thanks and brotherly love for them which Hadjian mentions encountering. They are proud of their newly discovered zeal for atonement for their deeds during the Genocide and their ‘cherry-picked historical facts.’

Hadjian says that nowhere did he encounter fear like that at Adana which is how I felt there too. The aggressive stance of the many young men who wanted to know what we were doing there, and repeatedly using the word ‘giavour,’ jostled us—they knew what they were saying.

The account of the Patriarchate in Constantinople rebuffing a man’s attempts to find out about his Armenian family before the Genocide did not surprise me at all. I asked then acting Patriarch too, about Aintab, and he was dismissive to the point of rudeness and hostility. I can well believe how some of the unkibar people from the provinces might be treated based on my own experience.

Antap, or Aintab as I prefer it, is the chapter I enjoyed most, perhaps because that was the city I paid the closest attention to while visiting all the places mentioned by Hadjian. The once great mansions turned into ‘museums’ of nothing, the garish cafes and hotels and the Armenian writing on the walls now described as ‘ancient Turkish’ make one want to laugh—or maybe cry. I even had some pakhlava at Abuśoglu, and yes, the name is very proudly displayed.

Hadjian captures this sentiment of continued violence and destruction in his book, making it a very important work, not just for Armenians, but for anyone studying the after-effects of Genocide.

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R P Sevadjian is the author of In the Shadow of the Sultan and The Darker Shadow, historical coming of age novels set during the Hamidian Massacres of 1896 and the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Sevadjian is a third-generation Diasporan Armenian, whose family left Asia Minor in the 1800s and was scattered across the world, no members remaining in their ancestral homelands. Born and raised in Africa, she now lives in the UK where she is currently researching the Armenians of Ethiopia and the work of B A Sevadjian about whom she has written several articles for the Armenian Weekly. She is currently writing the final part of her Armenian Genocide Trilogy which will be published in 2020.

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