By Katherine Garda
Turkey, 1915. In the town of Adana, Nazaret fell into a fitful sleep amid the dread that sat on him like a lead weight. His Turkish friend had given him a warning, with the same hushed tones and kind eyes as when they had first met. Back then it had been to do with ‘Kelenjian’, his surname. A name that meant ‘Sword Maker’ may be seen as too aggressive and so it was agreed as a silent term of employment that ‘Terzian’ would be safer – a ‘Tailor’. It had a harmless enough ring to it and would not cause this Armenian to raise suspicion amongst the Turkish workers at the local bank.
Adana was a flourishing agricultural town in southern Mediterranean Turkey. Nazaret’s family had been there for centuries as Christians living among Muslim neighbours. They owned land and a family restaurant business; however, during the violent massacres only six years ago they had left everything to save themselves. They had eventually, cautiously returned to their home unable to stay away or uproot, but fully aware of the thousands of Armenian bodies that had been poured into the Seyhan River or buried in mass graves around them.
So now his Turkish friend came to him again and shook the ‘Sword Maker’ turned ‘Tailor’ to the core with his words. Trouble was on its way and this time they would not be able to return; they must be ready to leave with everything they could carry. Shocked and in disbelief the warning landed like a sickening thump to the stomach. Nazaret yearned for his land, for all that his ancestors had built, for every tradition that surrounded their existence and made this place home. The unthinkable was upon them and there was little time. He and his wife worked into the night sewing gold into clothing to take with them, trying to steady the needle with shaking hands. Maybe ‘Tailor’ was the right name after all.
So as Nazaret finally slept he began to dream. He was standing in one of his barns in front of his faithful donkey, a patient and trusting creature. There was a familiar smell of damp hay and the stillness before the routine of the day. He looked behind his mule into the dark recesses of the barn, where something was lurking in the half-light. As he peered forward, there suddenly stood before him a hideous bat-like creature with a bull’s head and huge talons. To his horror it opened its mouth, threw back its head and let out a high pitch screech. The sound grew louder and louder until it was unbearable, as if it’s tormented craving intensified with every screech. Screaming wildly, the creature was filled with an insatiable lust for blood. It lunged out of the darkness, attacking the innocent, unaware donkey. In one swoop the creature devoured the mule’s neck and it folded to the ground, all life extinguished. Simultaneously, the most surprising of things happened. Nazaret had not noticed that to the side a Lion was watching this horror. As the mule fell its blood shot with such immediate force that it hit the Lion full in the face. The Lion winced and retracted His head, but remained rooted to the spot as if He was there deliberately to catch the lifeblood of the donkey. In the middle of this nightmare Nazaret could not take his eyes off the Lion. Somehow His presence meant everything. He had known what was coming and He was there to take the full force of the bloodshed. A warm sensation began to radiate through Nazaret. Wave after wave flooded his body and all fear drained from him.
He was wrenched from the dream by his young son Avedis tearfully crawling into his bed. The little ones know when something is wrong though he had tried so hard to hide it. Left with an impression of the huge mane of the Lion, a liquid warmth inside and the memory of a harrowing dream, he held Avedis in his arms, hoping that he would always be able to protect him and keep him safe.
As something insidious in the dark called for blood, Nazaret’s countrymen lay oblivious in their beds, unprepared for the death and suffering that was imminent. A call from the pit of a hellish heart was unfurling, big enough to engulf a nation.
On the south coast of England, it was 1983 and a wet, blustery night. Through a blur of tequila shots, a present somehow managed to reach Isobel at the right place at the right time. It was from her mother. Half-pleased and half-disgruntled she opened it to find a book; not the sort of glamorous gift she expected for this momentous occasion of arrival.
She was sitting in a dark corner of a friend’s party. They were both coming of age; both eighteen; both celebrating. She was grateful for being invited to share in the festivities, despite the loneliness that gnawed at her insides.
The book’s title was The Armenians. She groaned. Inside the mother’s inscription read ‘this is part of who you are’. Why labour this point of identity when there was such brokenness between them? Everything felt so dislocated in Isobel’s own existence. To even think about this painful ancestral history was more than she could bear. Maybe belonging to a broken nation begets a broken existence. Maybe the breaking continues until an antidote is administered. She could see that mending had to begin somewhere, but felt powerless to change and had no answers.
Isobel lay the book down with a sigh. The death of a nation; hundreds of thousands slaughtered with no regard, even for pregnant women; little ones thrown against rocks; senseless killing, brutal and inhumane. She had been told the potted history so that no one would forget the atrocities. Isobel’s gothic garb seemed a fitting shroud for such dark truths. To hear them was enough, but to read them was too much, too real. So for the next two decades the book remained firmly closed. The contents were indigestible and to be avoided. The memories of this sad time were locked away, preserved beneath a veneer of dust.
One evening near Christmas, the children were in bed, fairy lights glistened through the house and everything had that ‘frosty-outside’ and ‘cosy-inside’ feel. She was on the inside, safe and warm; there were no dark corners and no gnawing loneliness. Somewhere in her life, the mending had begun. She had slipped her hand inside the hand of her Maker and began to hold on. The tighter the grip, the greater the effect of the antidote running through the veins of her being, mending broken patterns and broken dreams that were destined to break her future.
That evening, an invitation arrived out of the blue; an opportunity to walk through the country of Turkey. The mention of the place made Isobel shudder but as she recoiled some of the dust which had waited so patiently on the book for 22 years, stirred slightly as if something had wafted past. She studied the proposed route and gasped as she read about the focus for the walk, mouthing aloud the words in disbelief: ‘The Genocide of the Armenians?’. Without breathing she glanced at the bookcase and back to the invite; more dust was shifting. Her heart began thumping her rib cage as if this uncomfortable moment had instantly grown fists and began pounding at the boundaries of her world. It beckoned for an unfolding of her Armenian heritage, maybe even a sequel to the revelation of her English heritage a year previously.
During that time she had found the English family she never knew; tracing her family tree she discovered that there was a part of her that was not Armenian, but was “forever England”. This would be a logical sequence of events, she mused. It was as though her little life was gradually making sense of itself and she inwardly braced herself for the next leg of the journey.
She was persuaded to go to Turkey because of her Armenian blood; yet that blood contained an ingrained repellent to that nation and she had feared she was incapable of dealing with the horror of ‘why’. At last the dust was brushed off like a sigh of relief as the forty-one year old finally opened the book and began to read the historical record of what took place almost a century ago.
1915 was the date of what has become known as the first holocaust. One and a half million people were wiped out in two years to solve the ‘Armenian problem’ – the ancient indigenous peoples that had lived peacefully as Christians amongst Muslims for centuries. With an imploding bureaucracy, the shrinking Ottoman Empire came under military dictatorship with a pan-Turk ideology. As East and West slavered for a piece of the pie, the First World War provided the perfect cover to begin a systematic ethnic cleansing, planned and executed to the highest degree.
Isobel read eyewitness accounts of horrific treatment of humans by humans, testifying as if they had stared into the jaws of hell and would never be able to recover from the sight. She checked the author again; it was an English professor who had sought to accurately document the genocide. She read late into the night, as if starvation from this information had in turn created an appetite to know and understand. The words carved the nightmare images that her mind had always feared. Yet somehow facing them made the truth less of a spectre. It was not about her anymore; it was about these people, a murdered and almost eradicated nation now a blood clot on the side of the globe. The words ‘This is part of who you are’ were coming home to roost; so she contacted her mother to repeat the family stories until Isobel comprehended their context.
‘Where are you walking from?’ her mother began.
‘Adana, near the Mediterranean,’ Isobel replied. ‘We’ll follow the coast round to Antioch and finish at the Syrian border.’ Her mother’s face had been one of disbelief as she fumbled with the maps, pointing at them with growing excitement. Grandfather had lived in Adana and his family had been there for generations. Incredibly, they still had the title deeds to the land they had owned stashed in the garage!
They all knew the family history. A Turkish official had saved their lives by giving a warning to Nazaret Terzian; with two days preparation, his family had sewn gold into their clothing and buried the rest of their wealth with an old relative, neither to be found again. All of their property and business was lost overnight as the family was forced to join the people trains being marched to the Syrian Desert.
Isobel’s walk would follow the same journey they had made, as they bribed their way to Damascus to somehow survive the massacres. Each night they would file past the Turkish soldiers, who would demand gold and play god with who they allowed to buy their way to the coast; the alternative being to continue their way to the death camps in the desert. This was aided by the removal of a hand if anyone hesitated to pay, so that the Armenians quickly learned to give them their valuables.
Isobel would be following them and remembering them. She would return to the land where the brokenness of her people began. Holding on to her Maker from whose hand the antidote poured, she prayed that as her feet touched the ground her mended existence would walk for recovery and healing.
Two months before Isobel was due to go, she had a daydream. She was standing in a river picking up two large stones from the riverbed and as she held them she knew that one represented ‘rightness’ and the other ‘justice’. She smashed them together, as if the sound announced these two entities joining forces; and with that, a double-edged sword formed in her hands covered in flames. (see Martyr)
The river disappeared and she was standing on a green landscape, the sword still in her hands. She stabbed with the blade, making an incision into the ground, and carved a line back and forth through the land until she was slicing it open. Having finished, she peered into the opening to see a gurgling pool of blood rising and spilling from the cut she had created.
A warm breeze fanned Isobel’s face as she stared at this phenomenon. Suddenly, she heard the sounds of singing getting nearer and louder. It swirled up from the opened ground and she could clearly hear words of remembrance, forgiveness and mercy. The song wrapped around Isobel’s ears as if the singers walked right by her, tall, majestic, full of heavenly beauty and grace. For a passing moment a Lion’s face peered into her own with piercing eyes and then, as if drawn to the singing, He vanished.
With this she fell out of the daydream, scrambling for a pen to record the words of the song before it faded from her mind. Isobel was convinced this daydream was to do with Turkey and wondered what significance it might play whilst she was there.
A few weeks before the trip there was an incident that painfully echoed her dream. News came of two Turks and a German, who were murdered for their Christian faith, leaving loved ones without a husband or father. She read with tears as the widowed mother of four children expressed her forgiveness to the murderers. It was the song; the same song Isobel had heard in her dream was coming from the mouth of a bereaved Turkish woman. (See Martyr)
So it was that the great granddaughter of Nazaret returned to his hometown, walking with other prayerful travellers into the sprawling city of Adana. She was the only reminder to the city that the legacy of Nazaret was lying here, somewhere, like gold thread waiting to be picked up and weaved into her own story. For Isobel this thread was life, she was Alive! She stood in that place, feet firmly planted, and offered up thanks almost a century on from the day her family were forced from their home, alongside so many others that would perish on their journey.
Hadrian’s Great Stone Bridge of Adana still spans the Seyhan River; the oldest ‘used’ bridge in the world. This Roman construction was vital to the ancient trade routes from the east, and after crossing over the walking travellers prayerfully paused. As Isobel stood on the old bridge, her dream came rushing back to her as if it had lagged behind and had only just caught up. It was then she realised that it had been about this river, the Seyhan, once clogged with dead bodies. Now it ran freely, as if it had never witnessed such an atrocity and she was here. She could not simply walk on but slipped down to the bank, found two river stones and stood in the water. The light over the river was effervescent as Isobel spoke and enacted her dream; (see Martyr) the air seemed to shimmer in the morning sun as though angels danced on the surface. The peace of the moment engulfed her as she placed her feet in the water, squeezed the hand of her Creator and asked for an incision to be made to open up the land. She did not comprehend the fullness of what she was asking or the need to hold on tight because the next twenty-four hours would take her over some very rough terrain.
As the travellers walked on from Adana, Isobel looked back. The sun had gone behind the clouds, leaving a grey, gruesome hue on the landscape. An irritation began to ruffle the group as if something unpleasant was on its way but had not yet arrived. It did arrive three hours after crossing the Seyhan that morning. After lunch the men walked on while Isobel and her friend prepared to take the car ahead. The two women were stowing the belongings on board when the well-dressed Turkish man boldly approached the car. Isobel watched, immobilised with uncertainty as this wolf in sheep’s clothing came to take advantage of their vulnerability. Any attempt at a friendly greeting hastily became panic. All became slow motion as it dawned on them that they were not safe and were powerless to stop this predator. They were the sudden victims of a roadside robbery which left them with no form of identity, money or valuables.
All at once Isobel was with those that had been this way before; with her family on the road, easy pickings for any malevolent scavenger. She could have been dressed like them, as they stood by the side of the road with their horse and cart, her family belongings piled high, while a soldier took whatever he pleased.
With no passport and no money, she found herself back in Adana, as the travellers sought police assistance. They were placed in the hands of the military and found themselves in a bureaucratic swamp, being passed from official to official. As she sat in one commandant’s office, drinking yet another glass of tea, she shrank into her low chair, dwarfed by one of the many imposing desks they had encountered. She watched the officer on his raised seat and fear crawled across her. The feeling of powerlessness invaded her senses again. His face was perfectly chiselled, with beautiful eyes that any woman would wish for, but his coldness froze the air around him and Isobel could imagine this young man a hundred years ago, making decisions about whether she lived or died.
As a descendant of Nazaret the “Sword-Maker” with no knowledge of his suffering, she had stood in the Seyhan River and given words to a dream. Now Isobel sat in his city with no identity, no money and subject to the might of the Turkish military, as if those words and dreams had given way to a deeper empathy with her ancestor. To walk through this city was to walk with those that had lost everything and just for a while, in some small way, she walked with them; the dispossessed, the vulnerable and the powerless.
The travellers were shocked at the turn of events and having extricated themselves from the military’s laborious maze of officialdom, drove through the night towards the military capital of Ankara. New identity papers must be sought immediately. Adana had stopped them in their tracks and now they had to traverse the country, heading for the centre and the heart of the nation, three hundred miles off course from their planned route.
Isobel was in a daze, and jumped every time she recalled her own inability to stop the thief. As the car ploughed into the night her mind saw awful things, as if it was locked in front of a terrible film. Monsters feasted on fleeing people, grey bodies washed up on riverbanks and children were mown down by an invisible force; the mental montage did not pause until they arrived, exhausted, in Ankara at four in the morning.
After two hours sleep and much form filling, they stood on the little patch of ground that, for them, was England. They arrived at the British embassy to regain their proof of identity and right of passage home. In three days their passports would be reinstated.
In the home of some Korean friends they found an oasis of calm, where they could gather their thoughts before they made their next move. Do they return to Adana to pick up the walk after all that has happened? Isobel simply sat as tired tears washed her face. The flashing images would not go away and she felt besieged. The travellers sat together and prayerfully spoke to their Maker, disarmed of confidence and direction. In her despair, she silently called out to the Maker, too. A hot air began to touch her head and face; the hair was stroked off her forehead and she could hear unspoken words explaining. ‘You cannot stand for something and not touch it. It’s okay. It is a small price to pay and you have only brushed their suffering’.
On hearing this explanation all Isobel’s fear dissipated and the dark reverie was dispelled as she suddenly understood the connection between the events of the previous day. Her discomfort meant she was tracking with the Maker’s plan; it was part of something far bigger than being robbed and losing money. She was awed by this new perspective and her whole demeanour changed.
She stared at the map, which was open on the table. Gradually, Isobel began to see a different purpose in their diversion to Ankara. If they returned to Adana, they would return to the place where their detour had begun, where the incision was made only the morning before. Could it be that their journey between Adana and Ankara was the land cut open in the dream? The slicing open that liberates mercy and forgiveness to walk across this land? Could it be that they would be making this journey between the two cities not only for the sake of their own identity papers, but also for the sake of Turkey’s identity? If this was so then the mugging was worth such an adventure!
Knowing they were on course, albeit a different one the travellers decided to boldly return to Adana and continue to walk. Driving to Adana, Isobel trusted that the sword of justice and rightness was like a blade hacking through Turkey’s epidermis. This time there were no awful death scenes in her head, but rather a heavy peace that smelt like honey and poured into her being. They seemed to fly south and soon picked up the trail along the coast around the Mediterranean towards the Syrian border. Isobel walked conscious that she was amongst those who had gone before; their presence was symbolised by the poppies covering the sides of the road, as if the bright red flowers represented each life lost and where it fell. Some were in clumps and some on their own. Families, brothers, sisters; these red head stones had no inscription to read. Her job was to remember them as she passed their unmarked graves and whisper that they were not forgotten. The Maker padded beside her on velvet paws, breathing warm breath on her lest she felt the chill of the death she walked through.
When the time came for the journey once more from Adana back to Ankara, it felt an age away from the turmoil of three days before; what had begun as a disturbing diversion had actually given the travellers a confidence that they were in the right place and on time as they sped back inland, ‘slicing’ through to the heart of the nation.
In Ankara with a sigh of relief and new passports in hand they hastened to return to Adana to complete their walk and fly home. It was not long before they found themselves brought to a halt by miles of lorries lined up on the road like a herd of elephants, nose to tail. Isobel sat in the car, simultaneously colliding with an internal roadblock. It had begun as an uncomfortable insecurity and now it was evolving into a foreboding fear that what she had dared to initiate might not be complete. It had been easy in the dream, in the river, and since the Maker had revealed the way forward. But the last journey between these two cities felt like a critical test for Isobel. The moment seemed to pivot on her. How deep would she go and how much would she give of herself to ensure the final cut was deep enough?
Her internal pressure intensified and it felt like she was sliding into a dark place where old familiar walls went up around her; a mechanical shut-down and shut-out. The isolation of the Armenian comes from a deep wound. It has the power to turn a friend into a foe and grip a reasoning mind with irrational fear. It had the power to leave her feeling alone, despite sitting in a car full of people and swallow her into a subterranean place. Alone in what felt crucial, involuntary tears spurted from her eyes for hours. She could not stop them or understand them but they flowed like the river she had stood in. In this deep, dark place Isobel poured out her soul, soaking it with her desperation, overcome with the knowledge of her own weaknesses and inadequacies. She implored her Maker to intervene in the depths of her heart and the heart of this nation. The mending has to start in the core and at the root; so that is where she went.
What the ‘Sword Maker’ cuts deep to rend, ‘The Tailor’ sews tears to mend;and both were imperative on the last journey back to Adana.
That night Isobel seeped tears as she slept and when she awoke they continued to spill out from an unknown source. She was aware that, in some way, she was joining a lament that had lasted for decades. Only when she tugged at her Maker did she slowly lift out of this place, like a deep-sea diver ready to return to the surface. Gradually the lament subsided as the sunlight poured into her room, drawing her into its warmth and the promise of a new day.
She had a sense that she was reaching the finishing line. She was completing the course that Adana had set her on and had managed to clear every hurdle in her way. She searched for the medal her mother had given her before the trip. It belonged to Avedis, a top hurdle racer in his youth. It was gone; it would be left in Adana with a thief, who had no idea of what he had set in motion. Isobel smiled. If the medal were lying in the dust somewhere in Adana, she would leave it behind as a sign to that city that the ‘Kelenjian/ Terzian’ trophy was here to stay.
Now every thread that connected her to Adana was firmly woven into her heart and Isobel had no doubt that it was Nazaret’s legacy that had been her real passport.
Nazaret and his family had used their gold to remain on the coastal road and arrived in Damascus as refugees with just two other families. They had been amazed every time a soldier had taken a bribe and sent them the right way when they could have tricked them with ease. Other refugees were pouring into Damascus and with the War there was barely a living to be made. Daily, Nazaret wheeled a barrow through the narrow market streets of the souqs, selling meagre provisions and anything else he could lay his hands on. This old city seemed to welcome trading strangers to find a home or at least a place to rest for a while before moving on.
However, there was little food and Avedis, Nazaret’s eldest, was constantly hungry. He and his friend would attempt to find supplies, making secret excursions into the British army post. One of these would prove fatal. The boys were caught in cross-fire and found themselves unable to move from their hiding place. Bullets ricocheted all around them as the fighting intensified. With no way of escape, a bullet skimmed the top of Avedis’ knee and buried itself in his friend, instantly taking his life. Somehow Avedis survived, remaining motionless beside his fallen companion for many hours until it was safe to creep home. Nazaret held Avedis in his arms until he slept. It was a miracle they had survived thus far, but Nazaret still felt plagued by the need to protect his family and to keep them safe.
After six years of living in Damascus they were still not safe. As the Turks retreated from the battlefront they arrived in Damascus, ransacking the city as they swept through. They found the Armenian quarter and began rounding up the men from every household to take them as slaves back to Turkey. Once again Nazaret was spared as the soldiers came running through his house; he jumped on to the roof of his Syrian neighbours, who kept him for six days until the coast was clear. Many men were taken and never seen again.
Nazaret knew now that it was time to move on and find his family a safe home and a place of rest. As they sailed to the island of Cyprus, Nazaret watched the coastline of his homeland with an aching heart. He felt torn and severed. The furthest he would go would be the island; his home was always in sight. He would never give up hope that one day he would return.
It would take three generations for him to do so. His body was buried, but his heart’s desire survived. And so it was that his great granddaughter, Isobel, went back to Adana and discovered his legacy waiting for her. She hoped that his heart finally found its way home as she picked up his gold thread, his sword, and continued his story with her own.
Fact File: Adana and the Armenian Genocide
Massacres in the city of Adana (Cilicia); around 30,000 Armenians slaughtered.
Before the beginning of World War I, more than two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire.
1915 – 1922
1.5 million Armenians perished by violence or hardships. In Bitlis, 15 000 Armenians perished in a single day.
Of one convoy of 18 000 Armenians from Sivas and Kharput, only 150 survivors reached Aleppo, Syria.
Out of 86 000 Armenians living in Eastern Cilicia it is estimated that only 12 000 survived in exile
Half a million Armenians were refugees in foreign lands. 50 000 remained in Istanbul in deplorable conditions
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk expelled all the remaining Armenians in Anatolia and the Armenian population virtually disappeared.
Bedoukian, Kerop (1978) The Urchin, London, UK: John Murray
Kerr, Stanley. E. (1973) The Lions of Marash, Albany, USA: State University of New York Press
Lang, David Marshall (1981) The Armenians, A People in Exile, London, UK: George Allen & Unwin Ltd
Nogales, Rafael de (1926) Four years Beneath the Crescent, London, UK: Sterndale Classics
www.armenian-genocide.org, accessed February 2008
www.armeniapedia.org, accessed February 2008
www.ourararat.com, accessed February 2008