This is a sequel, long overdue, to my piece Mascots and Flags: Thoughts from a Genocide Amusement Park. That piece was written in a couple of hours, fueled by the raw horror of finding my family’s hometown turned into a dystopian tourist site. This one has taken so much longer because frustration is easy to express, but hope is much harder to find.
We never expected to find our family’s village. My great-aunt had recorded the old name, Gumish Madan, but that name was no longer on any maps. The closest thing I could find when I searched for it was a factory called Eti Gumus Maden about two hours away from where the village actually is. But my 16 year-old self was unwilling to accept defeat, so I spent hours on Google Earth exploring the wrong village.
It turns out that the information was all available in Turkish, so it was just a language barrier that separated us and our history. It only took some internet searching on the part of our Turkish-speaking Armenian tour guide to find it. The village’s name had been changed to an Armenian word, Keban, now that all the Armenians were gone and replaced with Kurds. Clearly something had been lost in translation.
The first thing I saw when we drove into Keban was a light brown, mud-brick ruin of a house. The house was on a slope overlooking the mountain road. The front wall was still intact, and its doorway, window and roof were open to the elements. I could imagine it as the house my family fled during the Hamidian Massacres. But then again, it could have been a much more recent house, abandoned simply to build a new one. Our house may have been burned down by the mobs, like so many other Armenian houses.
My family has a home of family legend, a two-story house with sleeping porches for hot summer nights, a tonir dug into the ground, and rugs on every floor. Nobody knows what happened to our family in the massacres, except that they lost their house, all of their possessions, and their youngest child, and that they fled from Gumish Madan to Kharberd, thinking they could find safety in a bigger urban center. From other Armenian stories I have read, I imagine angry mobs storming through the village, encouraged by the Turkish soldiers. I imagine the family hiding in the hills, peering over bushes, watching their house go up in flames. But then again, their house could have been one of the many still standing, painted beige or pink, with a Kurdish family resettled inside.
That knowledge (or lack thereof) made Keban seem surreal. Here it was–the physical village. Our ancestors could have walked on this street, gone to this store, looked at these arid mountains as they brought water back from the well. But at the same time, I didn’t know a single thing about the village now. I didn’t know the names of any of the residents, what the store was called, who the mayor was, or whose houses I was taking so many cell phone photos of. There was nothing remarkable about those houses, but that made each one an object of wonder. Each one could have been ours.
The old men sitting outside the shops must have thought we looked strange taking pictures of their houses and grocery stores. They struck up a conversation with our guide, and when they found out that we were Armenians, they said that the last Armenians in the village had died a couple of years ago. If we had come just a few years earlier we could have met them. Could they have been distant relatives?
Keban was full of absences. We were there for about an hour in the middle of the day on a weekday, so there weren’t many people on the streets. There were no Armenians, no historic preservation landmarks. But it was also not full of the Turkish flags and military checkpoints that proclaimed Turkey’s rule and continued ethnic discrimination in many of the Kurdish cities we visited.
After telling us about the last Armenians in the village, the men told us that the village’s Armenian church was still there and called the town’s mayor to open it up for us. The dark interior of the building was lit by the dry summer sun streaming through the open doorway and the window in the back of the church. The columns, niches, and stone arches were perfectly, miraculously intact. There were even remnants of the original frescoes on the walls. One was large and clear enough for me to make out the image of a white candlestick defined with black outlines. The other fragments had whites and reds and yellows, but mostly this deep, vivid midnight blue. The Kurdish mayor, an Armenian-looking man with dark hair and a mustache, told us that there were plans to turn it into a museum, and that we should come back in a couple years to see it.
Those frescoes were totally unexpected, and it felt surreal to think that our family members who had once prayed in this church would have seen those colors too. It was as if the paint had waited for us, giving a glimpse of a life we might have lived if the Turkish government of 1915 had not decided to found their nation on ethno-nationalism.
As we walked the aisles that our ancestors must have walked, my mom said, “Imagine what it would have been like if the Turkish government hadn’t committed genocide. It could be like…the Republic of Anatolia, with Turks and Armenians and Kurds and Greeks and Yazidis all living together. Just imagine what an amazing culture we could have had.”
Today, I am mourning the loss of that future. I am mourning the loss of 1.5 million of our ancestors, and the intergenerational traumas that have followed our families ever since. But I am also remembering my trip to Keban, and how impossible it felt to be standing in that church. How impossible it felt to see those colors preserved through all these years, and for the first time in my life, to be standing on soil that remembered the feet of my ancestors. I returned home with a shard of pottery I found on the ground, and a seed of my mother’s imaginary republic. It is a dream, seemingly impossible right now, but it lights the darkest moment of fighting and writing and speaking out for a better future. I take it as a call from the universe not to give up hope.
Note: This article features photography by Kristin Cass from her project Reparations of the Heart, which tells another story of this healing from intergenerational trauma.