Bring joy and good tidings to the people, do not repulse them,
Pave the way and do not make the road unduly arduous.
—The Prophet Muhammad
My grandmother held a place in my heart that was all her own. We had a special, secret language. My memory of her is fragmented and it is only now, as the pieces shift into place, that I see they form a whole. They come swarming into my brain, flitting through me. She was my Kadriye Nene, my raven. Of course, by the time I came to know her, my Nene’s hair had been gray for many years, but in the photos taken with my grandfather, her hair and her eyes gleamed, black as the bird itself.
I never knew my grandfather, Tahsin. He died two years before I was born, at an age that few would consider old. It was a heart attack. His sudden passing destroyed Kadriye Nene. She could no longer bear to live in that house where the memories pressed in on her. She moved in with us and helped raise me.
Even many years later, whenever conversation at family gatherings turned to the topic of my grandfather, her eyes would fill with tears. I sensed in her words a gratitude greater than her love for him. “My dear Tahsin never had a bad word to say about me,” she would say. “I hope he rests in peace.”
At this point, my uncle would interrupt, “No one has a bad word to say about you, Ana, do they?”
“Alhamdullilah,” would be her flustered reply, “No, thank God.”
She was a pious, prayerful woman. She prayed for her loved ones with sincerity and true reverence for God. On our street, everyone knew that Kadriye Nene’s prayers were always answered. Friends and family would come to ask her to pray for their wishes to come true. She spent the nights of Kandil and Kadir in prayer. She couldn’t bear to see loved ones separated. Catching wind of such partings, she would offer up a prayer to Allah, “Let them be safely reunited.”
Her voice was clear as crystal. In the evenings, we would switch off the television and ask her to sing for us. Kadriye Nene would sing beautiful ballads and folksongs. She did not refuse our requests but I never heard a single note from Erzurum or the East escape her lips. One evening, I wanted to insist, but my mother silenced me with a wave of her hand. “You know that I would do anything for you, my boy,” said my Nene after a painful pause. “Please don’t ask me to sing those songs,” she said. “Erzurum is a wound I carry inside me.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask why.
My grandmother and grandfather came from Erzurum. She was an orphan. My grandfather’s uncle had taken her in, a little girl with nothing and no one. Nene married my grandfather and came to Istanbul aged seventeen. She never spoke of her mother and father. She thought of her adopted parents as her family and spoke of them often. I decided to talk to my mother about it. “Have you never wondered about your grandparents? Don’t you want to know?” “No, it would only upset her,” she replied, eyes fixed on the washing-up. “She never knew her real parents. What else is there to ask?” My mother ran a clean jar under the water a second time.
When I was little, one of my great pleasures was to settle myself in a corner of the living room on the days when my grandmother would host her friends for tea. If I could be quiet and patient, and slip past the hordes of teyzes who descended on me crying “Ah, my little Pasha! Haven’t you grown?” I could eat as many kurabiye as I liked. They were such happy days. Curled up in the corner listening to the neighbors’ chatter, I would soon drift off to sleep. But one day, I couldn’t swallow a single bite. The usual chitchat and shrill laughter had given way to tense, suffocating silence. There was no question of falling asleep now. I stared at them in confusion.
One moment, everything was just as it should have been. There was laughter all around and plenty of biscuits. One of the women went to reach for her bag. It was far away, so she gestured to the woman next to her. The woman grabbed hold of the bag, hoisted it up, struggling a little, and passed it to its owner, saying “What on earth have you got in here? It’s heavier than a Christian’s corpse!”
The sound left the room all at once with a precision that seemed finely tuned. It was out of this paralyzing silence that the knife came flying, bright blade gleaming, and plunged into my Nene’s heart. I saw the knife, I heard the hiss as it slit the air. My grandmother leaped up and pressed her hands to her chest. I was quite sure that if she showed me her palms, they would be thick with blood. And yet, when her arms at last fell to her sides, there was no blood to be seen. “If you’ll excuse me . . . ” she said in a single sharp breath. Turning her back on the women’s glances, she withdrew into her room. “Let me get you some more tea,” said my mother and headed for the kitchen with the tea glasses rattling in their tray.
“Shame on you, Selma!” chided the eldest of the women, Hüsniye. “That was so stupid of you! How could you say such a thing in front of Kadriye?” Selma turned bright red. “I didn’t mean to, Hüsniye! It’s a saying, it just slipped out!” Hüsniye was about to continue when she realized that I was still in the room, gazing at them with wide eyes. She stopped. The women resumed their chatter all at once like soldiers receiving a secret command.
On the evening of that day, I saw Kadriye Nene with her head on my mother’s shoulder, crying. Their words had caused her to shrink into herself and now this mighty woman was crying on her daughter’s shoulder like a little child. Listening through a crack in the door, I heard my mother speak. “Your heart is so tender, Ana. Don’t torture yourself for the sake of one woman’s ignorance. Remember when I was little and my friends and I were playing outside making noise, remember how angry you got when one of the neighbors called me a convert’s child? Remember what you said? 'Wait till I come over there, I’ll turn you inside out!' That woman was so frightened she jumped right back from the window! You taught me how to be strong that day, Ana.” A wicked smile spread over my Nene’s face. I tiptoed off to my bedroom to the sound of them giggling together. Before I fell asleep, I imagined myself searching the dictionary, wiping away every word that hurt my Kadriye Nene. I didn’t know what the words meant, or why they so upset my Nene. None of that mattered. If they hurt her then they had to be destroyed. I pointed my water pistol at the pages. The water squirted out and the ink ran, leaving spotless, clean pages. Clean, white pages.
Despite the dreams of my childhood world, the things that upset my Nene went far beyond the confines of a dictionary. On one occasion when I was six or seven, we had gone out to the shops. She held my hand tightly as usual. Plastic bags rustled in our free hands. Nene had proved herself to be my most faithful listener and I was busy telling her all about one of my neverending adventures. At that moment, a deep boom sounded nearby. My grandmother froze. The plastic bag in her hand had fallen onto the ground but she gazed past it emptily, her eyes fixed elsewhere. I pulled away and picked the bag up off the ground, but she didn’t notice. I took her hand again—it was icy cold. Trying to understand what was wrong, I trained my eyes on the building that held her gaze. I couldn’t work out what it was. It wasn’t a house. It wasn’t a shop either. But Kadriye Nene was bewitched, she had forgotten all about me. She stared blankly as if it wasn’t a lifeless old building at all, but a group of friends she hadn’t seen for years. “Where are we, Anneanne?” I asked. When she heard my voice, she surfaced, as if from a dream, and looked at me and the bags in my hand. “Give them to me, my boy.” Taking the bags, she pulled me to her side and carried on. The world was as it had been. But I was still agitated. “What is this place, Anneanne?” I asked again. “It’s an Armenian church,” said Kadriye Nene quietly. “You know how we worship at the mosque? Well, they worship in churches.”
In another scene that is never far from my mind’s eye, I am a teenager studying at the lycée, huffing and puffing over a project on the revolution. My grandmother had helped me with my studies since primary school and would appear at my door, a glass of orange juice in her hand. “What are you working on, Hakan?” I looked at the title of the chapter: “The Armenian Question and the War with the Armenians.” Something told me I shouldn’t tell her. “It’s just history, Anneanne, it’s so boring!” I replied. It was at that moment that my meddling little sister decided to pipe up, “I can read it to you, Anneanne!” She snatched the book from me and began to read eagerly:
“As the Russians advanced in Eastern Anatolia in the early years of the First World War, the Armenians were presented with the opportunity for rebellion. Having made preparations before the war began, the Armenian gangs joined sides with the Russians. The first insurrection occurred in Zeytun (Süleymanlı) on 17 August 1914. The Armenian soldiers in Maraş took up their weapons and joined them, and began attacking Turkish villages, murdering their inhabitants. In April 1915, the rebelling Armenians in Van slaughtered the area’s Turkish population. In response to this, the Ottoman government made the decision that the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia would be made to migrate to Syria, which was not at threat of war at that time (The Law of Tehcir, 14 May 1915). The Armenians’ objective was to claim Kilikya (Çukurova), Maraş, Erzurum, Bitlis, Van, Harput and Diyarbakır and form a state of their own. The Armenians have not abandoned this aim to this day. In their drive to realize this, they continue to support acts of terrorism which threaten the unity of our country.”
While my sister read, I sat with my head on my chest. I couldn’t bring myself to meet my Nene’s gaze, no doubt filled with tears. My little sister had been so stupid. But moments later, I was startled to hear Elvan ask, “Why are you laughing, Anneanne?” She was right; a smile had spread across my Nene’s face. It wasn’t a happy smile. It made me think of the Mona Lisa, a smile of resignation in the face of suffering. “Is that what they’ve been writing?” she asked. She gazed past us, speaking to another, invisible, presence. “We had many Armenian neighbors in Erzurum. They were good, hard-working people. I never saw any hint of ‘terror’ in them then and I don’t see it in the Armenians we know now. Is that really what they’ve been writing?” She got up and went to her room, distracted.
Years later, when the days came when the television and the newspapers screamed with reports of “Armenian terror organizations,” my grandmother could no longer understand them. The doctors didn’t see any need to intervene. Still at home, Nene quietly set off on her long journey, free of suffering. In her final days, she often talked in her sleep, but I couldn’t understand a word she said. At first, I thought that there was no meaning in her murmuring, that she was confused, her tongue now struggling to form sounds, but when I listened a little more carefully, I noticed foreign words, a language which flowed like water and sounded like a song. There are some questions that are ready to be asked and some answers that are ready to be heard. That evening, I was ready. “Is Kadriye Nene speaking Armenian?” I asked my mother. She wasn’t surprised, nor did she hesitate in answering: “Yes.” “Did she ever tell you her story?” I asked. My mother stroked Nene’s hand lovingly, knowing she would soon be gone. “Only once. She spoke as if it hadn’t happened to her, as if she had only witnessed it. She told me about her relatives, orchards, crops, home-baked bread, how she would roll her mattress out freshly every night. Then the blood, all the blood, and the screaming, taking refuge with neighbors and leaving forever, knowing she would never go back.”
“What’s Kadriye Nene’s Armenian name, Anne?” I asked. A smile lit up my mother’s sweet face, her eyes filled with light. Quietly and carefully, she spoke it, like a secret password, saying clearly, “Garine. She is your Garine Yaya.” “Garine,” I repeated, looking at Nene; her body was with us but her soul was already far away. My mother spoke again: “In Armenian, Garine means Erzurum."
Two days later, Kadriye Nene died. After the midday namaz, she was taken from Şişli mosque to the family plot at Zincirlikuyu and buried next to her beloved husband. After the funeral, I went to the Armenian church where she had stood all those years ago, too afraid to go inside. I lit a large candle for my Garine Yaya, for her mother and father, her siblings and all the loved ones she lost, and I prayed for a long time. As I was making to leave, an old Armenian woman came into the church with a friend, speaking that same language that flowed like water. And her eyes. Her eyes were just like my Nene’s eyes. I smiled and greeted her with a nod. She acknowledged me politely and her beautiful smile brought out all her wrinkles.
Garine Yaya had seen me, her spirit had caressed me. I took a deep breath.
From Can Kırıkları. © 2002 by Karin Karakaşlı. Published 2002 by Doğan Kitap. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Ayça Türkoğlu. All rights reserved.