Open Letter to Suzanne Khardalian, Filmmaker of “Grandma’s Tattoos”
Odette Bazil | 02.28.2012
The whole world, not just Armenians, is asking Turkey, "Why?"
I watched your wonderful documentary film on Al-Jazeera TV Channel’s “Witness” programme. It is a powerful statement made with everyday pictures of everyday lives, yet, in its simplicity it challenges and disturbs the mind, unchains deep emotions of empathy with the victim, of sorrow for her silent and constant agony and of repulsion and contempt for the beasts who have committed these atrocities.
Looking at the tattoo on your grandma’s face and fingers reminded me of an Armenian woman called Diguin Nazik who had arrived in Tehran (where I was born) with her husband and son, a few years after the Armenian genocide and was carrying the same marks on her face. I cannot remember if she had them on her hands too .She was an exquisitely beautiful woman with large, turquoise-blue colour eyes, exceptionally delicate features, long shiny hair with the same tattoo on her forehead and chin. My mother being a widow, our house was sort of a club for her girlfriends who were visiting her every day, while I was hiding under the table, not to miss any gossip!
Often Diguin Nazik would come and sit in our house, a scarf wrapped close to her chin as to hide its marks and would stroke my hair, humming a sad lullaby, her beautiful eyes filled with tears .One day my Mum asked her about these strange marks. Diguin Nazik, looking furtively around the room to make sure no one was listening said: “We, my 3 brothers, mother and father, lived in Van – Western Armenia - I was 13 years old when, with my cousins and girlfriends, we went to the “aghbuyr” - the source - to bring water home in our little urns; suddenly men on horses rode on us, one of them grabbed me, flanked me on his horse and took me away. I tried to scream but a blow to my head knocked me out. Hours later I opened my eyes and found myself in a strange dark room where four people, a young girl, an older woman, a young ugly man and a mullah were sitting on the carpet, around me. Immediately I realised they were Turks and I called out for my mother. The older woman slapped me on the mouth and told me to shut up as no Armenian was left alive in Turkey anymore to hear my cry. She said that my 3 brothers had been killed, my father and mother had been killed, all the Armenians in the world had been killed and I had to marry her son and become Muslim. She pulled my skirt up and revealed my thigh covered with blood and said “You are already his wife”. The mullah grabbed and pulled the gold chain and crucifix off my neck and threw it aside with insults and hatred then, opening a thick and dirty book, read many pages, mumbling strange words, then touched my head; the older woman told me that now I was a Muslim woman married to her son, that the young girl was my sister-in-law and that if I would ever try to escape, they would kill me. At this moment another man entered the room carrying some needles and small jars of paint on a tray, the older woman and the young girl held my arms, the ugly man held my face and immediately, like daggers of fire, sharp needles were piercing my forehead and my chin. I didn’t know what they were doing to me. In my shame, my despair, my pain and confusion I could only cry.
Every day, by dawn I was to sit in a large bucket and be lowered into the well, where no one could hear my cries. And every night, in my basement prison-room, the ugly man who was my husband now, was coming in, closing the doors and windows and raping me, ordering me to shut up.
It’s only after the birth of my son Mustapha that I was allowed to look at a mirror and could see my face: I tried to clean the marks, rubbing them with soap and water, even with a pumice-stone until my skin bled, but my mother-in-law told me that I could never erase them. She said: “We mark our cattle by branding them with sizzling hot metal rods and we tattoo the Turkish flag on our women’s faces and hands to show the world that they are Muslims and are Turkish”.
By now Mossik (she was calling her son Mustapha, Mossik, just to make it sound Armenian) was already 5 years old and my mother-in-law, secure in her mind that I had come to terms with the fact that no more Armenians were left alive in the world, was giving me some freedom to walk outside the door but only if I was supervised by my sister-in-law and only if Mossik would remain with her, kept away from me. Then one day, while my sister-in-law and I were walking by the garden wall, I heard people speaking to each other in Armenian. Before she could stop me I rushed to them, asked if they were Armenians and told them who my father and brothers were. While my sister-in-law was dragging me away, they asked me the name of my husband.
That night my brothers came to my husband’s house to liberate me. My husband shot my brother Vartan and they killed my husband but, before they could reach me, my mother-in-law came to the basement, in my prison-room, and told me that if I would go with them, I would never see my son again. She also told me that no Armenian man would ever accept me in his house as I was now a Muslim woman, a Muslim man’s wife and a Muslim man’s mother as Mossik had been circumcised at birth. I could not leave my child. I could not. I had to stay. Because of my son.
And that very night, again, the mullah, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and my brother-in-law came to my room, beat me ferociously and forced me to marry my brother-in-law. They said that Mustapha needed a father.
The next night, my new husband drugged me with the help of my mother-in-law and while I was asleep forced us – Mossik and myself - into a carriage which took us to Iran, where we are now”. A long silence followed. My mother too was crying.
Then Diguin Nazik said: “The Turks have killed my father and mother and my entire family, they have killed all the Armenians in my village and now some might think that I am lucky to have been left alive. But I am not alive. I too am dead. Dead inside. They have killed all that was innocent, young, pure, beautiful and hopeful in me. They have taken away from me my religion and my Faith, my self-worth, my self-respect, my identity, my freedom, my happiness, the love and support of my family, my dreams and my strength; they have used me as a toilet for their convenience and have left me feeling like a prostitute, like a woman with no importance, like one who doesn’t matter … They have branded me like cattle to remind me every day, for the rest of my life , what they have made of me , what I am now .”
She was sobbing, her head cradled in her arms, her shoulders shaking in frenzy, breathless and in tears .. then suddenly she lifted her face and shouted “ Why ? Why? Why? ”
My mother didn’t know the answer, I – surely – didn’t either, then, but You Dear Suzanne, when you visited the mass graves of Armenians in Turkey, when you touched with repulsion the bones and remains of the victims, when you spoke to the local people who were your guides, when you did your research – as little as you were allowed to do - did you find out why? Did you ask the Turks “Why?”
Surely it is too late for Diguin Nazik to receive any answer to her question now, but hopefully soon, very soon, the Turks will be made to explain why, will be made to acknowledge what their ancestors did and to apologise and repent because now, it is not only us Armenians who are asking “Why?”: the whole world is standing up, the whole world is pointing the finger of accusation at the Turks, the whole world is asking “Why?”
Some years later Diguin Nazik passed away but her son Mossik, returning from Switzerland where he had been sent to study, became a successful businessman, negotiated an agency of Swiss watches, opened a beautiful jewellers shop in Tehran and married an Armenian girl from a very good family. By a strange coincidence and twist of fate, my engagement ring and gold watch were purchased from his shop in 1959.
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To view the trailer for the documentary film, Grandma’s Tattoos, visit:
Photo caption: Grandma Khanum, the subject of the documentary film, "Grandma's Tattoos"