A journey to Kastamonu with flashes of memory

Arlene Voski Avakian, Head of University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, came to Turkey for the first time in 2009 for attending Workshop in memory of Hrant Dink. Last summer, she went to Kastamonu, which is her family's motherland, following the traces of her family. Avakian sincerely wrote what she had been feeling before this journey, what she felt while she was seeking for the traces of her family and her encounter with the locals of Kastamonu and experience in a government office.

On August 2015, I visited Kastamonu, where my grandparents Hampartzum and Elmas Tutuian met, spent 11 years of their marriage and had their children Arsenik, Aşot and, my mother, Bercuhi.

According to my grandmother Elmas, they had been leading a peaceful and happy life in Kastamonu, until my grandfather was conscripted (and they hadn't seen him again after that). After my grandfather's leaving, my grandmother, aunt and her children were forced to leave their home and taken to somewhere by oxcarts. They began to stay in a room in the house of two brothers whom my grandmother called “Aghas.” 

Later, military police took 8-years-old Aşot in order to “Turkicize” him. My grandmother left her other children Arsenik and Bercuhi with my aunt and began to walk along to mountains in order to reach Daday; it was told that Aşot is there. When she found him, she promised to come back for him and walked to Kastamonu for asking help from a police commissioner. This commissioner, who was a friend of my grandfather Hampartzum, warned my grandmother before, saying that terrible things will happen and she should convert to Islam. Refusing conversion at that time, my grandmother accepted to convert to Islam in order to bring Aşot and her family back to Kastamonu. When my grandmother told me this story, I was a teenager who was trying to adapt to the culture of the US during '50s and to avoid its stereotyping representations. 

At that time, I wasn't aware of the fact that my grandmother is a victim and survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Unlike other families who survived genocide or other traumatic incidents, my family had never spoken about their experiences in Turkey before and after 1915. No one in the family had talked about their homeland or wishes of visiting there; until my grandmother went to Istanbul for staying for 4 months in 1989, when she was 82 years old. 

The story that waits for its time

For decades, the story of my grandmother stayed hidden in my conscious. At the end of '70s, I was deeply influenced by newly developing women studies and its emphasis on the stories of women. So, I wanted to listen to my grandmother's story once again. During this period, I was beginning to realize how being an American Armenian with a heritage of genocide shaped my political stance and how I intensified my emphasis on the role of race/ethnicity in constituting the gender. In order to understand myself both politically and emotionally, I had to look at my grandmother's story and its influence on my life more deeply.

The interviews that I made with my grandmother, aunt and mother about their 1915 experiences was intense, but I had learned very little about their life in Kastamonu. And visiting Kastamonu or another place in Turkey had never crossed my mind at that time. 

First step to Turkey 

In 2009, I received an invitation for giving a talk on “Gender, Ethnicity and Nation-state in Ottoman Empire” as part of Workshops in  memory of Hrant Dink. I was very close to deleting the invitation mail, but then, I decided to attend the workshop. I wondered if Kastamonu is close to Istanbul, but I hadn't thought about going there. After all the suffering that my family went through there, visiting Kastamonu hadn't crossed my mind. And I was thinking that being in Istanbul would be hard enough for me. 

The conference was mind-blowing. I met a lot of people working on gender, race/ethnicity, class and sexuality from my perspective and I felt astounded by this. Since then, I came to this land many times, which had been both very familiar and intimidating before. However, it took 7 visits to Turkey before I decided to visit Kastamonu; my partner Martha and dear friend Ayşe Gül encouraged me to go there. We decided to go together and spent a night there. 

Even after making up my mind, I wasn't sure about this decision. What was the meaning of going to a city where my mother was born and I know nothing about? I was knowing only pieces of the story of my family. I was knowing that Elmas lost her mother at the age of 2; her older sister Turfanda, who was married to someone from the family, convinced their father to let Elmas live with them; and Donigyan family, who was living in Sivas, moved to Kastamonu before Elmas turned to 17. 

What a photograph told

In Kastamonu, my grandmother got married to Hampartzum Tutunia, who was a friend and neighbor of Tufanda's husband Arakel. Though I had very little information about my grandfather, I knew how he looked like, thanks to a photograph that my grandmother managed to keep. In this photograph, which was taken before 1915, Elmas stands on the right-side of  Hampartzum, who looks really handsome. Aşot and Bercuhi stand next to their father and their older children Arsenik stand on Elmas' right-side.

This photo was taken in front of a painted background, but I keep finding myself looking for a hint about their life, when I look at this a century-old photo. I know that Hampartzum was engaged in weaving, my family was living a house with garden and my grandmother had helps for laundry, cleaning and cooking. 

My aunt and uncle went to an Armenian school, but there weren't only Armenians where they had been living. I assumed that Armenians in Kastamonu were murdered or forced to leave in 1915, but I had no accurate information. Then I read Raymond Kevorkian's unsettling research that he released recently; he wrote that there were 10.000 Armenians in Kastamonu before 1914 and the few survivors were sent to Meskene, Der Zor and Abuharar. 

What to remember and what to forget

Traumatic dates usually intensify the emotional effects of the memory places, but I was knowing so little about my family's life in Kastamonu that I was afraid of feeling nothing or feeling unnatural among the feelings that I was supposed to feel. With these thoughts, I took the plane for heading to Kastamonu. And what I was feeling during the next 24 hours were like a series of flashes; emotional sparkles coming and disappearing instantly. Instant flashes that caused me to feel that my family had been living there, walking around those streets, trading in those bazaars and buying things from those shops in my bones. 

I experienced the first flash, as the plane was landing. The steep mountains that I saw from the window brought back my grandmother's voice that I heard during the interviews we made over 30 years ago. I heard the Armenian words that she used while she was talking about her experiences on the road to Daday in order to get Aşot back: “I was alone on those mountains, can you hear me? Darkness. No road. Nothing. I was alone. Do you understand?” When I saw those mountains, I felt my grandmother walking there; afraid but determined to get her son back. Then, the plane had landed and it was announced that we arrived at Kastamonu. As I was walking toward the small terminal, the presence of my grandmother had disappeared. 

We began to walk on the streets of this beautiful, small city; there was a river flowing through it and hills that surround it. As we expected, there were few people who speak English and we were communicating through Ayşe Gül. 

Ayşe Gül talked to workers in the hotel and learned that Kastamonu is famous for its textile products and the places where those products are sold. We came to a street where there are shops that display beige tablecloths, carpets and aprons with black patterns on them. I hadn't seen these kinds of things before and when I held the corner of a tablecloth, I remembered my aunt telling me that her father invented a machine for printing on the cloth and I shuddered. I learned the few things that I knew about Hampartzum from my aunt. 

My grandmother was talking about my grandfather once in a while, but she was always saying the same things: he was the most perfect and intelligent man on earth. She kept saying this. But when I was surrounded by the printed cloths of Kastamonu, I wondered if they are using the machine for printing that he invented. Is it possible that he was the one who made Kastamonu famous for these special textile products? We bought tablecloths for ourselves and our friends and I left there feeling a small bond between myself and Hampartzum. 

The hand that I shook

We went to Archaeological Museum after we ate pita with pastrami for lunch; my grandmother called this “bread with meat” though she had never put pastrami in it. The museum keeper was proudly sharing his rich knowledge about the interesting collection and Ayşe Gül interrupted him and asked why there is nothing about Armenians. He said that there is no Armenian in Kastamonu. He knew only 2 Armenians living in Kastamonu: the best car mechanic and a shoemaker who is an “excellent person”. 

Ayşe Gül told him that my grandmother was living in Kastamonu in 1915 and he wanted to shake my hand without hesitating. He held my hand with his huge hands and looked me in the eye. The fact that the keeper is unaware of the death of 10.000 Armenins who had been living in Kastamonu somewhat relieved the anger and pain that I felt about the annihilation of my people there. Maybe he hadn't have a personal relationship with an Armenian and because of that, like many people in Anatolia, he had no reason to question the assumption that there were no Armenians who had been living in those villages, towns or cities.  

Fear of government offices

Our next stop was a government office. When Ayşe Gül was trying to convince me to go to Kastamonu, she also mentioned that we might get more information about my family from civil registry. Armed with the papers that shows Elmas Tutuian is my grandmother,  I was approaching to the building guarded by watchmen with automatic weapons and I encountered with the representations of Turkish state; the fear that I felt when I visited Turkey for the first time came back to me.

I was about to ask information about my Armenian family from the officials of Turkish state. I felt a cramp in my stomach and I wanted to run away from there as quickly as possible, but I climbed upstairs wrapped up by Ayşe Gül and Martha. 

We were referred to man sitting behind a computer and we sat across him. Ayşe Gül started to ask questions about my family and when I heard her saying Arlene Avakian and Elmas Tutuian, I realized that my hands holding the papers are cold and sticky. As the man said that there is no paper  that is dated before '40s, he turned to me and looked me in the eye. All the papers were transferred to Ankara. He advised us to go to Ankara or ask for information from the consulate in the US. I relaxed my hands and smiled back at him. 

At the end of the evening, we went back to hotel and began to listen to the part of my interview with my grandmother in 1969, where she was talking about her walk to Daday. My grandmother's voice was echoing in the hotel room, which is an old Kastamonu house and it was an intense end to my meaningful journey, which I went on despite all my concerns.

Now, I want to go and explore

However, being in Kastamonu and walking the streets there are just small pieces. Probably, I will never be sure how my grandparents' life was like when they posed for that photograph, before their life was shuttered. I will never know how Hampartzum had died. I will never know why my family was transported with a oxcart instead being forced to walk and placed in a home. I will never know how long Turks kept my uncle and how this experience affected his life. I will never know what happened to my mother and aunt when my grandmother left and how this separation during a traumatic time shaped their life. Nevertheless, I experienced the city which was their homeland once and I am still under the influence of those instant flashes.

For years, I had been hesitating to visit Kastamonu and now, I want to go there again and explore the places where Armenians might have been living and their churches and schools were located. I want to find other Armenians who lived in Kastamonu and bring our pieces together. In this way, maybe we will be able to fill the gap that is caused by the absence of Armenians in Kastamonu. 

If you are from Kastamonu and want to contact to another person from Kastamonu, please write to Arlene Avakian via avakian@wost.umass.edu 

For writing in Turkish, you can contact to Ayşe Gül Altınay via altinay@sabanciuniv.edu