Fehtiye Çetin – My Grandmother, A Memoir

Fehtiye Çetin, My Grandmother, A Memoir (NY: Verso, 2008)  viii-x

Translator’s Preface

Maureen Freely

When victorious generals sit down to dictate history, their greatest privilege is to choose what to leave out. Thus, Europeans know little or nothing about the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which, had it been ratified, would have carved up most of what was left of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One. Izmir and the Aegean coast would have passed to the Greeks; a large part of eastern Anatolia might have become part of an independent Armenia, leaving only Istanbul and northern Anatolia in Ottoman hands. But since much of this region was under Allied occupation in 1920, it, too, had taken on the aspect of a European colony. And so it might have remained, if Mustafa Kemal’s armies had not risen up to reclaim the lands that now define the Republic of Turkey.

But in 1927, when Kemal sat down to write the official history of its birth, Sevres still cast a long shadow. It was the future that might have been, had Europe and Anatolia’s Christian minorities had their way. It is through this prism that four generations of Turkish schoolchildren have been taught to view the catastrophes of the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when Anatolia was between one quarter and one third Christian. They are not told that the .triumvirate then in charge of the empire wished to ‘Turkify’ Anatolia by reducing that population to a level that would render it politically insignificant. Nor are they told that the same cadre aimed to relocate and resettle Anatolia’s many Muslim minorities — Kurdish, Arab, Circassian, Georgian, Laz, Albanian, Bulgarian, amongst others — with a view to assimilating them. Instead they are told that that the Armenians were fighting alongside the Russians, in the process killing many Muslim Turks. They are also told that the deportations and massacres of 1915 were in response to this treachery, and that diaspora claims that as many as 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives are grossly inflated and motivated mainly by a desire for money and territory.

For the past eighty years, Turkey’s powerful army and state bureaucracies have guarded the official history with the greatest zeal. Its penal codes are laden with laws severely curbing free expression, ensuring that most Turks have had little or no access to any information that might challenge or complicate the official line. The break with the past was greatly aided by Ataturk’s Alphabet Revolution (which moved Turkey from the Arabic to a Latinate script, thereby making it impossible for later generations to read anything published before 1928) and also by the Language Revolution that followed: although reformers did not in the end rid Turkish of all words of Arabic or Persian origin, they did manage to excise almost two-thirds of its vocabulary. Offered a single and unchanging version of the past, Turkey’s school¬children are to this day encouraged not to dwell on it, and to think instead about the great and prosperous nation that Turkey might one day become if all its patriotic citizens forget their tangled Ottoman roots and work together. But as the Republic travels through its ninth decade, it has found itself under growing pressure to democratise, with many of those most in favour of EU accession arguing that Turkey will only truly prosper if it respects the human rights of all its diverse peoples.

To this end, a loose-knit network of grassroots, legal, and academic groups have been arguing for a new definition of Turkishness. In the place of the word ‘Turk’, which has racial overtones, they have proposed the word Tiirkiyeli, which, because it means ‘person of Turkey’, would allow its citizens to expressethnic, cultural and/or religious difference while still asserting their allegiance to the nation. While this remains a controversial proposal, there has in recent years been a real and widespread renewal of interest in the Ottoman past, particularly in the area of family history. But even the most superficial investigation, motivated by nothing more than a simple desire to honour one’s ancestors, can lead quickly into areas marked taboo.

There are, by some estimates, as many as two million Turks who have at least one grandparent of Armenian extraction. Fethiye Cetin is one of them. She was born in the south-eastern province of Elazig, in the town of Maden, which straddles the shores of the Tigris River. In Ottoman times Elazig was one of the empire’s six Armenian provinces; today it is home to Azeri and Kurdish as well as ethnic Turks. Fethiye’s father worked as a manager at the town’s copper works; after his early death, she moved with her mother and siblings into the home of her maternal grandparents. It was only many years later, when she was a law student in Ankara, that her beloved grandmother revealed to her that her real name was not Seher but Heranus, that she was Armenian by birth, and that she had been plucked from the death march (grabbed from her mother’s arms) by the Turkish gen¬darme who had gone on to raise her as a Muslim. Her story contradicted everything Fethiye knew about her family, her history, and her country. She had assumed herself to be a Muslim Turk; she now discovered a second legacy that threatened to unravel her received identity forever.  Her great achievement in this memoir, written after more than two decades of reflection, is to have cut right through the bitter politics of genocide recognition and denial to tell the human story: to bear witness. Her aim was to ‘reconcile us with our history; but also to reconcile us with ourselves’. She wanted to bear witness, to honour, to grieve for all those who lost their lives, their families, and their homes, and to make common cause with all those who wish to make sure that those ‘dark days’ never return.  She wrote it first and foremost for Turkish readers, challenging the distor¬tions of the official history that they all learned as children, and appealing to their common humanity. In this she was far more successful than she could have dreamed. From the day of publication she received, and still receives, numerous calls from people with similar stories, and also from people who simply express their grief. Since its first publication in Turkey in 2004 it has been reprinted seven times. It has also been translated into French, Italian, Eastern and Western Armenian and will soon be available in other languages, including Greek.

Heranus’ mother survived the death march and went on to join her husband in New York, where they started a new family. When Heranu§ sat down with her grand-daughter to tell her the truth, her dream was to find the American sister she had never met. She died before that dream could be realised. It was only after Fethiye published her grandmother’s death notice in the Istanbul-based Turkish-Armenian weekly, Agos, that a reunion became possible.

The editor of Agos was Hrant Dink, who, like Heranus, dreamed of a day when Turks and Armenians, having faced and mourned their history together, might become good neigh¬bours. When he was prosecuted for insulting Turkishness, Fethiye Cetin acted as his lawyer. On 19 January 2007, after receiving hundreds of death threats but no police protection, Hrant Dink was gunned down outside his office by a young ultranationalist. His murder provoked horror and grief at levels that took the country and indeed the world by surprise. More than 100,000 people turned out for his funeral. Since his death, and despite continuing intimidation, Agos has refused to shut down.

Though it retains its Turkish-Armenian focus, it has come to represent all those in Turkey who wish to see an end to unchecked militarism and the ultranationalism that sustains it, and in its place, a democratic society in which diversity is respected and free expression championed. Fethiye Cetin has continued to represent the family, who are still being prosecuted. A member of the Istanbul Bar Association and the Committee to Promote Human Rights, and formerly a spokesperson for the Minority Rights Working Group, she is one of the democracy movement’s most courageous advocates. Despite the dangers it faces from what she has called ‘obscure forces’, she remains confident that democra-tisation, though slow, jagged and dangerous, cannot be checked. In life, as in this book, her first aim is to give voice to those whom history has silenced. It has been an honour to translate her.