A conversation with Elyse Semerdjian, author of “Remnants: Embodied Archives of the Armenian Genocide”

Elyse Semerdjian’s family

“This photograph was never meant to be a precious artifact.”

That is the first line in historian Elyse Semerdjian’s Remnants: Embodied Archives of the Armenian Genocide, a 300-page ground-breaking, corpse-gathering mission to re-member the dis-membered (her)stories of the Genocide. At its core, the book presents a nuanced understanding of the abducted, tattooed women, whose memories have been rooted in shame. 

But Semerdjian’s endeavor begins (and ends) with the author’s most personal fragment or “remnant”: a 1911 photograph of her Aintabtsi ancestors, whose skills as tailors both saved and implicated them in the Genocide. This complexity is presented outright. 

Through text — which, as Semerdjian elucidates, comes from the Latin root textere, meaning “to weave” — Semerdjian resumes the family profession by weaving together remnants, “the material body of survivors.” This, she says, is the historical archive — not the state holding in Ankara, the prison of “paper cadavers.” 

These images, originally captured by “the other” — the colonizer’s eye, the male gaze — are re-assembled and, perhaps for the first time ever, literalize the role of photography as “drawing the light” to the crime, which lives on — in the body, on the skin, out the bones. 

Gathering the photographs together, the human form becomes a clock where “memory is an embodied practice.” This is prosthetic memory, describes Semerdjian — the inheritance of unseen, but felt, limbs and lines, re-admitted into the record. 

Remnants collects the stories and markings of the human body with tactful ambiguity. In doing so, Semerdjian re-assigns them agency, and with it, a voice. “After all, tattoos are speaking scars,” she says. If a photograph says a thousand words, then an archive is a sensorial boom box. 

A hundred years later, a piece of bone still cries out to its holder. “I held the truth of 1915 in my hand,” writes Semerdjian. 

“Creating a new (old) archive”

I had caught Semerdjian in a period of transition — from one home and university to another, between speaking events. “My only talk today is at an Indian reservation,” she tells me, on boarding schools and femicide. It seemed fitting, then, to start with the complicated shadows cast over this history by colonialism. 

We begin with Karen Jeppe, the Danish missionary who ran the Rescue Home in Aleppo for the women and children who escaped the killing fields, as well as abduction and slavery. 

“Jeppe is very colonial in her outlook, and that makes people uncomfortable, because she’s the ‘Mother of Armenians’.” Semerdjian alludes to Keith Watenpaugh’s work, explaining that “the colonial powers were very interested in instrumentalizing the Armenians, which is why they were framed as white, as industrious, as useful to empire.” 

Ruben Herian

This is the start to part one of the book, “Body,” in which we follow along the sexual targeting during the Genocide and the laborious rescue efforts of figures like Jeppe and Ruben Herian, who was a central figure in the vorpahavak (“orphan collecting” initiative — returning Islamized Armenian children to the Armenian community). This, as we would later discuss, was a far more tangled process than the prevailing narrative would admit.

From there, Remnants exposes the ambiguity of the tattoos of Islamized Armenian women who were marked by Kurdish and Bedouin tribes. This is the meat of part two, “Skin,” which dissects how these tattoos were expressed, morphed and disfigured in the Armenian community’s consciousness. 

“Tattooing is a social death, but these were marks of inclusion that are read as violent acts of slavery,” says Semerdjian. “But slaves were never tattooed or branded in any way. It’s the American conception that was transferred to Armenians, likely through missionaries and American Near East Relief workers — people like Mabel Elliott, who treated a lot of Armenian women in Constantinople. She believed that tattoos were slave brandings, and these ideas were transmitted, helping to produce a strong sense of shame.”

Many women who re-integrated into the Armenian community carried that shame in their skin until the end of their days. The societal pressures were so intense that some chose to undergo dangerous and then-experimental tattoo removal surgeries.

It was a particular brand of shame that did not exist for the (few) known Armenian boys and men who were tattooed. “Men’s tattoos are another fragment,” Semerdjian explains. “Because there is very little in the records.” 

Edward Racoubian

“Men were tattooed too, yet, we’re so obsessed with women’s tattoos,” she continues. Here, Semerdjian alludes to Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s work, saying “perhaps this is because women and children’s bodies are symbols of the nation.”

Among the most famous of these women is Aurora Mardiganian, the survivor-turned-Hollywood starlet who wrote a book and acted in a film that re-created her experience in the Genocide. Little discussed is Hollywood’s re-traumatization and, soon thereafter, discarding of her body. In the book, Semerdjian includes Mardiganian’s body as a remnant, titling it, “survival as a sideshow act.”

“Aurora’s remnant was based on freak show studies,” she explains. “We haven’t pushed it far enough yet — to problematize Aurora. We’re not going as deep as we can into that story to talk about her exploitation by Hollywood and what we’ve done with her legacy, making her into a Joan of Arc.”

Here, she talks about “creating a new archive” through critical fabulation — a way to creatively fill in the blanks of the historical record. Indeed, one gets the sense that the author tried to push the boundaries between academic and artistic media. 

The book’s nine “remnants” — composed of letters, poems and other documents — offer a textual mechanism that can be woven with extant photographs. Every remnant could be held in a different light and re-exhumed. 

But this structure was not the author’s first choice. “Originally, the book was meant to be a scrapbook with 30 chapters, interlaid with primary sources,” she says.

Semerdjian quotes Gemma Angel, a UCL-based tattoo anthropologist, who says, “tattoos are loquacious.” So loquacious, she cut out a hundred pages from the book, which featured a lot more about the techniques and meanings of the symbols — most of which, Semerdjian says, doesn’t exist in English. That work may soon find its way into another medium. 

Much of the research in Remnants was gathered before the League of Nations/United Nations digitized these archives during COVID. Semerdjian hopes that this will encourage people to seek out the stories and photographs, to complete the picture for themselves.

“People are constantly seeing decontextualized images and reading into them what isn’t there. All we can do is keep trying to guide people towards critically engaging the images that they see and keep asking more questions and ask for more context,” she says.

“The intention has always been to get people excited about engaging with the source material in smaller chunks, through shorter essays,” she continues.

To this end, Semerdjian says that she will assign her students the task of writing around one of these stories, such as the story of Vartanoush.

A dream from the rescue home

In the dream structure, there are four stages: N1, N2, N3 and REM, each leading to progressively deeper sleep. REM is a near-wakefulness state in which most dreams happen. The most vivid world (e)scapes are created on the boundary of lucidity. 

In my dream, I saw Vartanoush. Her silence in the photograph, screaming out through the duduk. In my lucid hours, I saw my grandmother. Waiting for her to break the silence and reach out to me.

“Vartanoush’s tattooed hands are testimony of her double survival, having survived the deportation and genocide and having defied death by crawling out of her own grave after being buried alive.” (Source: Remnants; reproduced with permission of Armenian Genocide Memorial Institute, Yerevan)

I wrote this excerpt after reading (and dreaming) about the harrowing life of Vartanoush, whose “tattooed hands are testimony to one of the most remarkable stories of survival and resistance recorded in the Rescue Home.” Through Jeppe’s image, Semerdjian’s text and the prosthetic memory of my own great-grandmother, these hands, once again, turned to flesh and bone.

Yet, the dream defies death. The vignettes of REM, the scrapbook of word and light, mirror the potency of memory. The strongest dreams are the closest to reality, and sometimes, they hover over the line. 

“These women’s images have been shown in such a decontextualized way, and their stories are even more remarkable than their images are,” encapsulates Semerdjian. “And a lot of them didn’t last long.”

Elias

Such as the story of Elias, another remarkable entry to the Rescue Home. 

“I call him my little bird, because he’s so fragile, with his ribs sticking out,” Semerdjian explains. “I had received the digital images of just the front page, so I thought that he had survived. But when I went to the archives and turned to page two, I started crying, because I realized that he didn’t make it. He had dysentery and was in the home for only four days. My grandfather had dysentery his whole life and, for a lot of people, it killed them.”

I want to ask whether Semerdjian saw her grandfather, who survived, in that little bird. The front page Elias — before page two. But the answer was already “written on the forehead,” chakatagir. Fated. Most survivors were front page Eliases. How do we re-member this?

“Memory is temporal, and it shifts temporally.” Here, Semerdjian references Melissa Bilal’s dissertation on how lullabies for children often became lamentations after the Genocide. A communal re-membering of rupture, processed through the child’s song. 

A makeshift sarcophagus that holds a Kleenex box filled with bones, archived at the Nubarian Library in Paris (Source: Remnants; photograph by author, 2019)

Like a walk in a desert graveyard — “feeling” an inherited ligament. 

Like the tissue, swathing the bones of genocide victims at the Nubarian Library.

Or, like REM, the fourth stage of sleep.

After all, prosthetic memory is interlaced in every crevice of the human archive. 

“Like what’s happening to little children now in Gaza, their bodies cannot stand having chronic diarrhea and not absorbing nutrients for long periods of time,” Semerdjian continues, from past to present horrors.

This is the other component of a temporal memory. It repeats.

Nursing a memory, from skin to stone

Spatially, as well as temporally, “Deir Zor is a memory that is very generated in the course of the Genocide,” says Semerdjian. It is the lieu de mémoire of the third component of the book — the “Bones” section. With few touristic or directional markers on the site — even pre-Syrian Civil War — Semerdjian describes “feeling” one’s way through the mass graveyard, like a phantom limb. 

And, at other times, coming across barely-buried century-old bones, now mixed with a fresh wave of corpses — of Yazidi women who, Semerdjian says, very well could have been the descendants of Islamized Armenian women who converted for safety in 1915. History is a cruel repeat-offender. To quote Elizabeth Dias, if “being alive is a collective experience,” then re-animating the dead is a deeply personal one — and one with no playbook.

Semerdjian at Deir Zor

Semerdjian discusses the conflicting viewpoints that Armenians have on whether or not to take a bone from the killing fields. One pilgrim, the filmmaker of “Grandma’s Tattoos,” Suzanne Khardalian, could not even take the sand “because it’s contaminated.” The dead have become a part of its biosphere, from mnatsort (“remnant”) to mnats vort (“the worm remains”).

Recently, a friend whose lineage dates back centuries to Karin Tak, the ethnically cleansed and razed-to-the-ground village in occupied Shushi, called her ancestral home “a land without a soul.” Conversely, Deir Zor is a waste-land of millions of discarded souls, whose memories are scattered across archives.

“People are narrating and crafting those narrations in real time, like the Deir Zor çöllerinde (‘in the deserts of Deir Zor’),” says Semerdjian. That lamentation is the ninth, and final, remnant in the book. “Not every story is going to fit the neat compact narrative that we all seek.”

One example is that of orphan survivor Elmast Boghosian, who was adopted by a childless Arab man. When the Armenian community tried to re-claim Elmast during the vorpahavak, she refused to leave her new father. 

“She was sad up until the end of her days. Her family were good people. For her, being torn apart by the vorpahavak was really traumatic. Not every story is the same. And the same with tattoos — not every interpretation is the same.”

There is an interesting dichotomy between the meanings that have endured about tattoos among Armenians versus other communities in the region. In the Kurdish context, in particular, deq tattooing is a deeply matrilineal way of connecting the body with spiritual and therapeutic practices that predate the Abrahamic religions. It is traditionally administered with the combination of breast milk (specifically from a mother nursing a female child) and soot. 

“There are Kurdish women trying to reactivate these processes as an intangible cultural practice which is dying out, in part, because of conservative religious practices,” explains Semerdjian. “And they’re doing that in light of cultural genocide. They’re trying to hold onto this as a symbol of cultural heritage, which is the flip side of what it is for Armenians.” 

But as taboo as these tattoos were for Armenians, Semerdjian explains that no such shame existed if the markings were “a portable souvenir” from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These pilgrimage tattoos were called mahdesi (from “mah” meaning “death” and “desi” meaning “I saw”). 

“We don’t know exactly what they looked like historically,” she explains. “But there are these wooden blocks with motifs on it, which get stamped on the skin, so you’re stamped just like a piece of textile. Some of those blocks are actually Armenian.” Here, again, the threading and weaving motif recurs.

Semerdjian’s research also encompasses the field of death studies. “It’s one way to get students engaged in thinking about memory and genocide. Talking about death is hard in American culture. We don’t talk to the dead, and we don’t talk about the dead.” 

I ask her about the tradition of engraving the deceased’s photograph onto their tombstone, a common practice in the Republic of Armenia. “You do see this in the Armenian cemeteries of Syria. We have family crypts in Aleppo,” she explains. “From a death studies standpoint, engraving the photograph on the tombstone emulates the memento mori and eternalizes it in the form of stone. It attempts to give longevity to an image that is ephemeral. That’s what relics are, as well.” 

Giving an image to the words of Eugène Ionesco: “Only the ephemeral is of lasting value.”

“Bone and stone in a box”

In the book, Semerdjian describes a piece of bone that her Turkish friend, Amberin Zaman, collected at a mass grave at Al-Busayra near Deir Zor and gifted to her in a cafe in Istanbul. I ask whether she still has the bone.

“I wanted to release the bones, not collect them. But I found myself unable to get rid of them. When I saw Amberin in D.C., she gave me this beautiful jewelry box that used to belong to an Armenian woman. If you remove the felt, behind it is her photograph and a little letter. Amberin picked it up in an antique store, and she started to look for pieces of an Armenian past, because she wanted to help create a museum for Armenians in Diyarbakir. So, she was buying back artifacts.”

“In the absence of a state, people will create their own rituals. Over the years, whenever I traveled, I’d pick up pieces of stone I liked from Western Armenia and I placed them in the box, so it’s bone and stone in a box. I found myself collecting parts of my people and my land and putting them in a box in my bedroom.” (photo by Tara J. Graves)

However, when the political situation in Turkey became untenable, the friend told Semerdjian that she should put the bones in this box. 

“I know this is morbid, but I think we all try to come up with our own ways of healing,” she explains. “I liked how other people narrated the bones. Suzanne Khardalian is a very tactile person. She talks about things in terms of texture. That’s just how she thinks. And other people are more closed down and get defensive when you ask about the bones. Some people collected bones, and they don’t even know where they are today!”

Before we end our chat, Semerdjian again mentions the ongoing genocide in Gaza — the dis-integration of family, of body, of memory.

“It’s the futurity that is being targeted. That’s why we can’t talk about genocide without the politics and political economy of reproduction.” 

Indeed, her Turkish friend gifted her the bones, because Semerdjian has a child. A small assurance that her line will continue — to pass on the legacy when she passes.

“That was not the reason I was expecting, but I like being given the unexpected answer,” she says.

And for other questions, there are no answers. Unlike the lives exhumed in this book, other archives, like that of Semerdjian’s own grandparents, remain buried. They are the final photograph — the last remnant — in the book.

“Some stories are too painful to pass on,” she ends.

Semerdjian’s grandparents

Elyse Semerdjian is the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair of Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. She is the author of Remnants: Embodied Archives of the Armenian Genocide, as well as “Off the Straight Path”: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo (2008).

To purchase Remnants, please visit https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=29963

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Her writing focuses on the confluence of identity, diaspora and language – especially within the global Armenian communities. She has a master’s degree in Human Rights from University College London and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Boston University, where she served on the ASA Executive Board. She is currently working on her inaugural poetry collection.

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