(This is an older article that I touched up and sent out to magazines for publication. I had to take it off my blog while it was in circulation--they said no, and it's important, so I am sticking it back up here.)
The Ghosts of Dersim, Lost and by the Wind Grieved
By Jeff Gibbs
|Waterfalls at Bağın|
The moon is full. That’s how you know you’re smack in the middle of Ramadan. It floats like a balloon in the daytime sky over the western walls of the canyon.
Here, down below on earth, the sun is white bright in the east and the temperature is over 90 degrees and climbing. Desert mountains. Mesopotamia. We are dancing the halay, sweating and sweating and sweating as we weave sunburned bodies around tables of kebab eaters, pushed along by the long-haired hippy DJ singing guerrilla songs into the microphone. There’s a gypsy drum and pipe (the davul and zurna). A few of the men are shirtless, the girls in tanktops and bathing suits. Everybody’s turning red. The kebabs on the tables are served on huge platters heaped with sizzling chicken, beef, and lamb, peppers, tomatoes, and spiced onions. A group of men play cards and drink beer after beer. Another group has a Turkish mahjong set (Okey) and are smoking so vigorously a small stormcloud whirls around their table. Gluttony and boozing and hedonism.
|Naughty Sin #1|
|Naughty Sin #2|
None of this should be happening in Ramadan. From the rowdy music, to the beer, to the cigarettes and skimpy clothing—it’s all haram, forbidden in the somber holy month of fasting and reflection. You’re not even supposed to swim for fear that a little water might slip between your lips. (There’s also no kissing or sex allowed for similar reasons—even a tongue is a no-no.)
But this is Tunceli, stronghold of the Alevi faith, and most of these people couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Ramadan. And they take pride in that irreverance, wearing it on their sleeves. Or in this case, their naked shoulders. Of course, the guerilla songs, while not against anyone’s religion, would certainly rile up any mainstream Turk who heard them back in Istanbul.
We are being naughty in every way imaginable in Atatürk’s Turkish Republic.
That morning, we awoke at six and boarded the only means of public transport in Conag, my wife’s Kurdish village—a minivan managed by cranky neighbor Şerafettin who, on a daily basis, rounds up all the travelers in the surrounding villages and takes them to Karakoçan—the nearest city at thirty-five miles south. There some go shopping (food, clothes, furniture—there are no shops in Conag), some go visiting, and some, like us, head farther afield toward one of the hot springs. We’re going to Bağın. Or Bagen, or Bagin, or Bağen. I’ve seen all four spellings on different signs and on different websites and God knows, in this very mix-and-match land of Zaza and Kurmanci Kurds, Turks and Islamicized Armenians, Sunnis and Alevis and hidden Christians, the uncertainty is understandable. Whose language do you use and whose letters do you use to spell it with? Who cares! Use all of them at the same time!
From Conag to Karakoçan, we have nearly twenty-two bodies rammed into a car built for a maximum of fifteen. Cousin Hussein rides up front sandwiched between the driver and the driver’s side door. But from Karakoçan to Bağın, it’s just the Mala Memli—the house of Memli, my grandfather in law, which today consists of my wife Delal, her sister Zelal, Hussein, me and of course, Dede (Grandfather). Just last year, this journey could have taken a couple of hours because between us and our destination were five army checkpoints where we would have had to stop, show our IDs, unpack our luggage, and undergo interrogation. These checkpoints have mysteriously been lifted despite the rise in guerrilla attacks and the more than five hundred arrests of Kurdish activists in the last six months.
Bağın is downstream from two dams that block the Peri River. It is a local-run resort with a restaurant, a picnic area, and a pool that teeter on the edge of a small canyon. The cliffs following the river look like the walls of a cave turned inside out, with stalagmites and stalactites and waxy formations of limestone melting into the water below. Water trickles off the red stone into the bright blue-green rapids. Mountain sheep climb the rocks, skipping across the precipice as if it were a flat grassy meadow. In short, the scenery is electrifying.
They may be ignoring the most holy of Muslim months, but people are still on the conservative side here. To wit, the hot spring pool is segregated according to gender. From 8 to 10 it’s the women’s turn, from 10 to 12, the men’s. Thus, come ten o’clock, Hussein, Dede, and I mosy over to the baths with towel and shampoo (for washing the smelly ‘therapeutic’ minerals out of our hair). Both warn me repeatedly about how hot it’s going to be, but to be frank, with my expectations founded on the scalding volcanic springs of Japan (which sometimes can be used to boil eggs!), the water here feels like a slightly tepid bath. Probably a good thing considering the heat. The water is bubbly and reddish orange. Boys are doing cannon balls. Old men hog the spring jets.
After swimming, I pull one of the chaise lounge chairs over to the cliff edge and stretch out in the sun. I could easily spend the whole day just lying here and gazing out over this incredible scenery. If only they let beer in the pool area!
A rather hairy guy walks up to the fence just in front of me and looks out over the desert vista toward a gnarled mesa of red rock.
‘What do you think of the scenery?’ he asks.
‘It’s unbelievable,’ I say.
He nods at the cross around my neck and the Arabic tattoo on my back. His brow wrinkles.
‘Are you Christian?’
‘Well, yes, I guess.’
‘My brother is a Christian, too’ he says. ‘He converted a while back and now runs the evangelical church in Kadikoy, for converted Turks.’
‘I live in Kadıköy!’
‘Maybe you know the one I mean, then. Across from the Limon Cafe? Have you been?’
The Limon Cafe is where Delal and I met. The owner, the mutual friend who introduced us, is also from Dersim. We’d gone to the very church this guy was talking about last Christmas Eve and found a group of Turks in a circle singing ‘Silent Night’ in Turkish. I am liking this conversation so far—none of the usual yabancı stuff. No ‘Can you drink tea? Do you like Turkey? Are you a married?’
‘I know the church,’ I say. ‘Your brother converted? That’s...unusual.’
‘Not really. Our great-grandmother is half Armenian. Her mother had to convert to Islam but we always knew about our Armenian roots. I think it’s his way of getting back to that.’
‘Why not join an Armenian church then?’
‘Maybe he was afraid? You know how it is.’
He rocks back on his heels and then gestures out across the desert expanse.
‘Look at that castle over there, for example. It’s Armenian.’
I squint at what I thought was a gnarled mesa and make out doors and walls running along the ledges. How hadn’t I noticed them before?
‘This whole area used to be an Armenian city, I’m told, a long time ago. Then they got rid of them. Some of them were locked up in the old rooms of the castle and burned. They tied others together, shot one of them, and then let him drag the rest down into the river to drown. You know about the massacres.’
It’s not a question.
‘Yes, I know.’
I have read hundreds of stories about groups of Armenians marched out to remote places on the pretext of relocation and then murdered near a river. The government followed the same pattern when it came time for the Dersimlis themselves to go in ‘38. For one second, being on site of one of these massacres, I get a shiver. I can almost see the bodies flowing down the Peri’s blue waters, accumulating in places to form dams of dead (another phenomenon described in countless accounts).
‘When the Armenians left,’ he continues, ‘the Kurds came and built a village. You see the walls at the base of the mountain?’
‘That was the old Kurdish village. They burned it in the nineties. Now these Kurdish boys have built this resort here, but they get harassed too. On the crest of that hill over there are nine graves. They are relatives of the people who built this resort. They were shot by the gendarmes as a warning to the owners, though they accused them of terrorism or whatever excuse they needed to feel okay with what they’d done. But really they just want no trace of Kurdish life in this area, certainly not a flourishing business like this. Why do you think they built two dams up river?’
He frowns and then looks at me. ‘They want to flood us out of here.’
He grimaces and we are silent for a few minutes.
‘Do you like the music here? I saw you doing the halay. You’re really good!’
Meanwhile, back in the picnic area, Delal has been having a conversation with a woman who is apparently my guy’s mother. She was looking out over the river when bescarved Mom came up beside her and pointed up toward a line of watch towers on the cliffs above.
‘They got their gendarme station up there. It’s disgusting. Can you believe they’d put one in a place like this? Why are they watching us here? First they kill all the Armenians. My own grandmother was Armenian, you know. Yep, she converted and hid with a Kurdish family to save herself. Then in 1938, back the soldiers come again. You know what they did this time? They kidnapped a local girl and locked her up in a barn for ten days. That’s right. God knows what she went through, but when she was let out, she took her two children and hurled them in the river, then killed herself. Animals. That’s why I say never marry an outsider. Speaking of, my son is here and he’s single. He’s got a good job and doesn’t gamble. Let me introduce you.’
‘Actually I am married,’ Delal says quickly. ‘But look, my sister is right over there and she’s single!’
A circle of halay dancers is carrying the unsuspecting Zelal ever closer, and as the woman looks up, Delal makes her escape. From genocide to matchmaking in two minutes or less.
These topics are the small talk of this region. I hear or have one every day, sometimes more. The memories are part of daily life to a degree that would drive Turks back in Istanbul into a frothing rage. There, you deny even the existence of the Armenian church just across the sidewalk. Why that’s just a rather ornate souvenir shop that is open only on Sunday! In Istanbul, even your foreign friends married to Turks follow the official line of the military controlled governments that have been in power for decades. ‘Genocide? Millions of Armenians vanishing into the deserts? Silly you, it was just all part of a civil war, if it happened at all. There were never that many Armenians there anyway. But millions died just from the trauma of war. It certainly wasn’t organized, but if it was, they deserved it because they were rebelling.’ In my high school, the denial goes so far as to force units on a made-up Turkish genocide at the hands of the Armenians (though there were undoubtedly revenge massacres, a people without access to state power cannot use all the organs of government to murder a race). Or, as was in the Radikal newspaper this month, the Turkish government can issue orders to its ambassadors across the world to do everything in their power ‘to hinder or halt’ a proposed compilation of original documents of the genocide, and somehow not look ridiculous or sinister. The Armenian journalist Hrant Dink is assassinated for ‘insulting Turkey’ though he never once said the forbidden G word. Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak are sued in Federal courts for suggesting large massacres of Armenians (to my knowledge neither have said the G word either).
Yet here, the topic is a living part of every day conversation.
Here is my wife’s home region on the border of Bingöl and Tunceli (all of it the old defunct province of Dersim). I figure the people make no bones about it because the memories come down from first hand sources—their grandparents. Plus, the results of the killings are all around them. They literally live on the ruins. Not to mention, they’ve gone through a similar process of torment and denial themseives—in Dersim, several times. Holy Mt. Silbüs that looms over Conag like a guardian was a pilgrimage site for Armenians. Forty miles north, the city of Kiğı where Delal was born has an Armenian castle on a hilltop and the ruins of two Armenian churches. In at least eleven of the surrounding villages, and I stress ‘at least’, you can find churches dating back to the 14th century. ‘All so vividly preserved,’ boasts a locally published guidebook on Bingöl, ‘that you get the feeling they were just built!’ None of these ruins are tended or officially recognized. All are falling into ruin. (One in the village of Eskikavak is called ‘an architectural masterpiece known in its day as the second Aya Sofia!’) In other villages people have take the stones from the ruins and used them to constructs their own houses and stables. Crosses are carved haphazardly in kitchen walls.
Bağın has its Armenian ruins. Across the canyon from Conag is the village of Kilise (Church), bombed all to hell in the 90’s. It, too, was once Armenian and there are old Armenian graves in the village of Hasköy just down the road from Conag itself. The village of Herdif may still be Armenian—not impossible. Rakel, the wife of Hrant Dink, came from Varto, an entire village that pretended to be Kurdish to the point of forgetting Armenian. Her mother was named Delal, Kurdish for ‘Of great worth’.
The whole area around Conag, before 1915, was said to have 19, 859 Armenians, 45 churches, and 5 monasteries according to census records at the time. Walk through the mountains and you stumble on crosses carved into rocks. Kurds and Turks alike search them out and dig for the legendary buried gold. That Bingöl guidebook stops to condemn treasure hunting—‘Every sort of historical artifact has been plundered here. Hunters after gold and jewels and money have broken walls and dug up foundations until nothing remains. The presence of Armenian gold in the hills is simply taken for granted. There’s so much of it and everyone knows.
And everyone has a secret Armenian relative, including Delal, whose uncle’s grandmother, Makrik, escaped from under a pile of dead with her sister and made her way to the nearby village of Zenan to hide among sympathetic Kurds. As a memorial, her cousin was named for Makrik’s sister, herself shot during their flight to Zenan. Many Kurds today are rebuilding new village houses from the bombed out rubble of the old. So our uncle was rebuilding his ancestry with the old names. Of course, the name had to be Turkified for public consumption. It could not rouse the suspicions of the Turkish government. A kılım hand woven by Makrik still lies on the floor of our uncle’s bedroom in Istanbul.
Conag itself has its own famous Armenian shrine—Ziyaret (Kurmanci Kurdish for ‘The Visit’).
On our first few days in Conag, Delal is swamped with housework, and feeling cooped up, I embark with cousin Hussein on a tour of the village. On a winding dirt path downhill, we stumble, literally, into a square of broken foundation stones. The side facing the downward slope has a pile of blocks burned black with soot. Half melted candles are stuck in the sand at their base. What startles me are the carvings, an ornate cross entwined with vines and several smaller crosses radiating outward. Husein bends down and touches his forehead three times to the crucifix and kisses it. Then, he takes a pinch of sand from where the candles sit and eats it. Finally, he leaves a few coins. It’s an extraordinary ritual—a Muslim Kurd kissing the cross and then eating dirt.
‘Okay Hussein,’ I ask. ‘What’s the deal here?’
He explains, as best he can, for no one seems entirely sure what the Ziyaret was. Its past is a murk of legend and speculation, a crumbling symbol of what’s been lost.
‘The Armenians were smart,’ Hussein says, ‘And the Muslims around them superstitious. When they were taken away, they buried their gold and jewels to keep the soldiers from stealing them. They thought they would come back for it one day. To scare off any Muslim treasure hunters, they piled all these religious stones wherever their money was buried. They thought people would be too afraid to touch them, but they were wrong. People have dug up a lot of gold here, but I know there’s still more buried under those rocks. I know.’
This is the refrain I hear from all the young men. They come sometimes and roam the hills with metal detectors. It’s still there, if only. But Dede says that he remembers seeing the last of the gold plundered decades before.
‘Even so,’ Husein says, ‘There’s treasure everywhere in these mountains. You see rocks out in the middle of nowhere marked with crosses. A Turkish officer came here to the Ziyaret one night and started digging. He made off with a ton of gold. There are soldiers digging everywhere in these mountains.’
If this is true (and why wouldn’t it be? The stones are out in the open and the stories widely known) then it reveals the official line for the cynical bullshit that it is. Basically if you don’t believe your government tried to wipe them out, then don’t go digging for the evidence just because you think it might make you rich.
The Ziyaret is not unusual in the Dersim region. Hüseyin Aygun, an expert on the Dersim massacres of 1938, says that Kurds and Armenians had long shared each other’s holy sites. ‘In the village of Vank near Dersim City,’ he writes, ‘both Kizilbash Kurds and Armenians made pilgrimages to the church there. The Kurds revered it so much that they took their sick there for miracle cures. Sick children would wash themselves in the water of a fountain found at the church called ‘Mezele Tor’. The old people even believed that the fingers of the Imam Hussein (grandson of the prophet Ali sacred to Alevis) were on the hands of the monks.’ There was a monastery on the western edge of Dersim (now Kayseri) called Surp Garabet—and it was one of the most important centers of pilgrimage sites in the Ottoman Empire, rumored to house the relics of Saint John the Baptist. I found a description of the Monastery written by a 19th century Armenian traveler. ‘People made donations to the monastery each according to his means. Those having made vows or pledges also brought gifts, such as silver items. ‘Madagh,’ the Divine Liturgy, and various services were held. Candles were lit on the grave of Soorp Garabed and lame, blind and crippled persons, as well as those suffering from other afflictions, would kiss the ground, hoping for miraculous cures.’
The kiss, the candles, the coins. Just like Hussein at the Ziyaret. Was this the grave of an Armenian saint?
‘The earth is supposed to have certain powers,’ Husein explains. ‘You eat it for blessings. It’s perfectly clean and is delicious. Really.’
I bend down, touch my head to the stones, kiss the sooty surface and take a pinch of dirt. It certainly tastes clean.
‘Sometimes people sleep here. It’s supposed to cure mental illnesses. One time, the daughter of one of the villagers went mad. For weeks, she would run out of the house and roam around naked, tearing at her hair and shrieking and jumping at people. No one could do a thing with her. Then one night she fell asleep here at the foot of the Ziyaret. I don’t know what dreams she had, but when she awoke the next morning, she stumbled up the hill trying to cover herself—actually ashamed that she was nüde! She was calm for the first time in months. There are spirits here, really. Something really holy.’
According to Dede, the Ziyaret had been a religious school for the training of priests. Some say it was a monastery, others just a church. Whatever it was, when we visit the fabled Akdamar church in Van a few weeks later, I see the same carvings on stones over the entrance to the sanctuary. But we’ll probably never know for sure. Ghosts are the only thing that walk here now, and they don’t give interviews or pose for cameras.
We walk back up the hill toward Dede’s house, plucking mulberries off trees as we go. There’s a white-stone house to the left and Huseyn points.
‘That used to be the shop of an Armenian guy, the last in the village.’
Husein himself doesn’t know the story so I ask that repository of stories, Dede.
‘There was a store there,’ he confirms. ‘That was back when Conag was the center of this whole region. We had a police station, shops, everything. He was the last Armenian in Conag. One day the gendarmes came and told him that a letter had come from his brother. He had to travel with them to Kiğı to pick it up. Now this was back in the day when letters came once a year and only in emergencies, and why did he need the gendarmes to escort him? When they told him to make sure he packed all his gold and jewels, but to leave his store as it was, he was sure what they were up to. They led him off, and as they were crossing the Peri River, he told the guards, ‘I know why you’ve brought me here, but if you shoot me, you’ll never get my gold. I’ll jump in the river and it’ll be lost forever.’ They started to take out their guns and the Armenian jumped. His body was lost in the river and he was never seen again.’
I hear the same story from all the older men (maybe because they all get it from Dede) but it raises as many questions as it answers. Could there really have been only one Armenian in a village that sported a religious school? Where were the others and why was this one allowed to remain? How does anyone know his fate after he left the village? It has the air of apocrypha—a legend forged from phantoms of a bigger truth that the authorities have stamped out. But that story told at Bağın, of people being lead away on some pretense or another and then shot at rivers is so widespread that perhaps for the villagers his fate was a foregone conclusion. They knew because it was happening everywhere.
According to the cranky minibus driver, Şeraffetin, there were seventeen Armenians in Conag before the genocide. They were lead away in a kafile (a ‘file’) in 1915 and never seen again. People here refer to this period as the sefalet, the time of Wretched Poverty.
We have stopped at Şerafettin’s house for tea. His pet sheep is trying to nibble at his pants legs and belt buckle. Şerafettin has served us fresh cucumbers from the garden and to placate the ravenous animal, he collects the peels into a bowl and sets them on the floor. Voila, the sheep is distracted momentarily. Munch munch munch.
The topic, at first, is how things ain’t what they used to be. The beekeepers, these days, are feeding sugar to their bees for a quick yield, but cheap flavor.
‘Ah when the Armenians were here, it was different,’ Şerafettin says wistfully. ‘They were a clever people, educated and cultured. We had seventeen here until they rounded them up during the sefalet.’ He pauses and shakes his shaggy head. ‘When they left, one of the mothers had two baby boys. She gave them secretly to a woman who lived a few houses down that way,’ he points, ‘to save them from the killings. The woman adopted them as her own, and they grew up here in the village. One day, when they were older, they were out in the fields playing with some other village boys. They had a pellet gun, and one of the Armenian boys accidentally shot a Kurdish boy in the leg. They were all afraid of getting into trouble so they agreed not to tell anyone, but when the Kurdish boy got home, his father noticed and demanded to know who’d done it. So the father marched to the gendarme station and demanded something be done. The police went to the woman’s house and asked for the ID of the two brothers. No one had bothered to change their ID cards. We were in a remote village, who needed to bother? The woman started to cry, ‘Please!’ she said. ‘Take me! I’m the one who committed the crime! I hid these boys!’ The gendarme seemed to agree. He told the two boys to run. They left the house and took off across the field. Then, before they got too far, he raised his gun and murdered them both.’
He scowls. ‘These were Kurds that did this! Kurds!’ And I’m not sure if he’s talking about the woman who adopted the infants or the man who turned the boys in. Is it shame or is it frustration at a foiled good deed? And like the other story, it has a lot of strange implications. If the boys had grown up a bit, for instance, then this happened long after the 1915 genocide—and shows that killing Armenians was still a priority years later.
Another story floats around. One of the villagers tells about Armenians hiding in caves on Mt. Silbüs from murdering soldiers and then being killed by the bombs of the Turkish airforce. This, he says, was in 1938, at the time of the Dersim massacre. ‘Are you sure?’ I ask. ‘Armenians? Not Kurds?’ ‘Armenians,’ he insists. By some estimates, over 40,000 were sheltered in Dersim during the genocide. The mountains had made it nearly impassable for Ottoman forces to get at them. Aygün says that part of the government’s motive for destroying the Dersimlis was to punish them for saving Armenians—just twenty years after the fact, there could have been many still living there. I imagine they would have seen the writing on the wall when the soldiers came and told them they were being ‘relocated’. There are even some stories of Dersim men being made to prove they had been circumcised—as if the soldiers were hunting for Christians.
But again, this story of Silbüs’s caves just kind of floats untethered to any past. Names? Dates? It’s all a mystery. Just enough to tantalize. Years and years of censorship and suppression consign it to a perpetual legend. The Holocaust researcher William Schulman describes denial as a way of killing a people twice. First you take their lives and then you take the memories of them. Here in Turkey the memory of the Armenians (and the Kurds who followed) has almost been wiped clean, the second murder nearly complete. But clearly memory cannot truly be stamped out. It pops back up as local legends, told to neighbors and friends, kept alive in the oral tradition.
Nothing can make up for the sin of denial. But perhaps the stories I have heard occupy a niche in this history. This is a land of unparalleled natural beauty and cultural richness, but it is also one of unremembered loss—by Kurds and Armenians alike. The tale of the Armenian merchant who took his gold into the Peri River. Of the Armenians who dodged the first genocide only to wander into another one—slaughtered finally on a mountain holy to both them and the Kurds. These are the new myths, perhaps, that help define a people and how they are feeling today—abused, ruined, but tough and not easily rooted out or forgotten. And above all, bound to this land, to the rocks and mountains and rivers. So much so that they eat its body in a different kind of Communion.
Far away in Istanbul lives one of our aunts. She never returns to Conag because she has to stay in her inlaws’ house instead of her childhood home, and it’s unpleasant apparently. Yet she misses the village profoundly. Mentioning Conag can make her cry. I filled a Ziploc bag with Ziyaret sand and brought it to her the other night on a dinner visit. She took the bag,’hugged my neck’ as we Southerners say, and held on tight. ‘Ay canım benim!’ Oh my dear one!
I like to think that some of the resilience and loss buried in that sand, some of the healing magic, can comfort a little a soul that longs unceasingly for home. The Armenian musician and poet, Komitas, wrote:
Flower and bud
The merry stream,
Where did you leave all these?
I see a lost look on our aunt’s face. Maybe she asks herself that last question, away from Conag, an exile here in Istanbul. Maybe all of Conag’s exiles ask themselves the same.