Herkan. She had one of those special names I had never heard before... It must be one of those old Armenian names, like the ones which I had only come across in the mid-19th century archival documents. She was the mother of four children and my admiration of her started when I got to know her one and only daughter. I had first met her daughter more than 25 years ago, when I was 16 and she was 48. We lost tracks of each other until reconnecting recently all these years later. I had not remembered her name, I had not remembered where I first met her, but I remembered how much I loved her. A heart full of love, which she inherited from her mother Fatma-Herkan. Now on the occasion of the 8th of March, I write to bring Herkan’s legacy into the present, as it whispers a long-lost song into our ears, one that we all recognize.
Herkan was born in 1919 in Dersim’s Kızılkilise (Red/Crimson Church) village. In those years the village still had five churches, and its name has since been changed twice; to Nazımiye and Haydari. There were no schools in her village, and if there had been, it would not have been possible for her to attend. She had a sister she hardly knew, as they had been separated when Herkan was a baby. This sister Filor had been taken by their aunt when she left Turkey to seek refuge in Argentina. The sisters had to wait most of their lives until they were finally reunited there in 1961, where Herkan later settled and is buried.
Shortly after Fatma-Herkan was born, her village suffered a massacre. Herkan’s mother found a baby, Minas, still alive under the corpses. His parents had been killed, and so she breastfed him along with her own child. Once they were 15, Herkan’s parents did not have options for who to marry them to, so they were married to each other. There was no legal marriage in the village, so they were simply together and Herkan had their first child Yusuf-Arturo at the age of 16. A second son Mustafa later adopted the name of his father Minas. Herkan and her husband were together for 4 years until he died of hepatitis.
As Herkan’s father and husband were dead, she was in need of a male guardian and so needed to be remarried. She was sent to Kütahya with her two sons to meet the man who was to be her second husband, Ibrahim-Khoren, who had recently lost his wife with whom he had six children, three male and three female. He was an Armenian who had been exiled with his family from their hometown of Halvori in Dersim in 1938 after the massacres. They resettled in the villages of Küthaya, earning a living there through agriculture and animal husbandry. Khoren needed a wife to help care for his children. So were Herkan and Khoren married, this time legally.
Some of Khoren’s children were adults at this point, and his oldest son was just three years younger than his new step-mother. Herkan gave birth to two children with Khoren, making them a family of ten children. Ibrahim-Khoren worked in many trades, and was known as “şapigci Khoren” (Khoren the weaver”) as well as “ironsmith Khoren”, a name still familiar to the Armenian families of Dersim. According to his daughter he was a brave, fearless man, and the villagers were afraid of him. He sent his three daughters to the school, which meant accompanying them back and forth every day in order to protect them from kidnapping. History repeated itself as Khoren too died at an early age. Thus, after a total of 13 years of marriage between two husbands, Herkan again found herself a widow at the age of 33, this time with ten children in the midst of a Turkish village with no relatives.
In 1956 she gathered the entire family and brought them to Istanbul, to that Istanbul of dire poverty for these kaghtagan (1) families. There Fatma-Herkan released the burden of the secret she had been carrying for decades, telling her many children the truth of their origins. She revealed that they were Armenians, believing that amongst their fellow Armenians in the district of Gedikpaşa they were finally safe. But were they really?
Back in the village the division had been clear: They were the “infidels,” those who ate with pitchforks (as meals in the village were eaten with a wooden spoon rather than the steel forks Herkan’s family used), and were taunted as “Kurds with tails” (kuyruklu Kürtler); dehumanizing labels the children never understood why they were called. Upon arrival to the big city, everything changed. The family had never had a shortage of income in the village, as they produced and sold butter, yoghurt, milk, eggs, and chickens and they had plenty of them. The urban landscape of Istanbul swallowed the tight-knit village family. Herkan had the four youngest children to care for while the older ones had their own families and houses. Her youngest son attended the Turkish school and the rest had jobs, including herself. Gedikpaşa Armenians were not welcoming towards the kaghtagan Armenians, who felt alien to them because they were Islamicized, had Turkish names and did not speak Armenian. It was not easy for Herkan to marry her children with Armenians, to send her son to Armenian school or to be part of Armenian life in Istanbul.
Yet somehow she managed to do it all. She found a job in a Turkish school cleaning it and serving the students, where she was given a room of just 10 square meters to stay with her four children. She took care of all her childrens’ dowries, including those of her step-children. During the weekends she helped her relatives who worked as servants at the Joghovaran boarding school in Gedikpaşa, which was attended by orphaned Armenian children coming from the provinces. In 1961 Herkan discovered her sister Filor living in Buenos Aires, where she moved in 1968 and lived until her death in 1993. Three of her sons also emigrated to Buenos Aires and thus for the last 25 years of her life she took care of her grandchildren. She spent the week with her grandchildren and on weekends would go to the Buenos Aires Armenian old age home, helping the nurses and accompanying the elderly Armenians, her fellow countrymen.
Herkan never attended a school, and probably thanks to that lack of formal education she was able to adapt herself to any condition that she found herself in: from Kızılkilise in Dersim to the villages of Kütahya, from Kütahya to Istanbul’s Gedikpaşa, and from Istanbul to Buenos Aires, she established a life and kept it going in environments completely unfamiliar to her. While doing that, she was still able to keep an eagle eye on her children and grandchildren, checking on their safety, security and happiness.
She cherished her one and only daughter, always watching over her. Out of all the children, she fed only her with the raw milk’s rich cream, and she never permitted her to kiss anybody’s hands, as elderly people expected young girls to do. Herkan provided her with a childhood that gave her the strength to face life’s trials, and while this daughter did not have an easy life either, she has continued to find inspiration from her mother’s legacy to endure those difficulties. When the daughter’s husband passed away at an early age, from her deathbed Herkan asked her to promise she would not remain alone, but to find another partner to share her life with. And so she did.
Herkan had a wholesome, satisfying and affectionate life. The strength she found in herself must have been that of an indigenous woman. She had the rare “luck” to be born and raised where her parents had been; a destiny deprived of many Armenians in those days. She worked the soil of her ancestral homeland, and must have shared her happiness with the mountains, her sorrow with the rivers. The skill she learned, everything she took in with her heart and with her senses, all the experiences she drew from home, all prepared her to keep herself, her children, and her grandchildren alive, even when spread all over the world. We all have that part within ourselves, that particular part we shall yet re-awaken.
(1)Armenian survivors of the provinces, who had to be displaced innumerable times and ended up in shelters (kaghtagayan) and orphanages in Istanbul.
(The English version of this piece is first published in Mirror Spectator. For original version in Turkish: Herkan: İçimizdeki yerli kadınını hatırlamak )