When I was asked to accompany my father on a trip to Turkey, I was struck with conflicting feelings: Should I visit a place that was responsible for the massacres of my family, as well as many other Armenian families? Should I spend money in a place that took money and valuables from the people I love? Should I visit a place that is bustling with individuals whose ancestors were responsible for the torture that countless Armenians endured? I soon came to realize that I made the right decision by answering yes.
Weeks leading up to the trip, my father spent much of his time—into the wee hours of the morning or the dead hours of the night—researching old Armenian villages and developing questions he wanted to answer while in Turkey. On the other hand, I spent those days contemplating which clothes to pack, only to have my father tell me they would be deemed inappropriate in some of the areas we were going to visit in Turkey and that I needed to pack more conservative clothing. As we took off on our first flight of three, I had no idea what I was in for.
Upon arrival, we spent the first day in Elazıg, a city in eastern Turkey, and visited numerous surrounding villages, such as Kharpert, Tadem, and Husenik. In more than one of these remote villages, we were met with hostile glances followed by prying questions. We had to be sure not to stay in one place too long for fear of drawing attention to ourselves, as if our American clothes and array of cameras did not already.
In one village, Kesserig, we stopped to talk to a local resident when a stocky-looking man approached one of my travel companions and asked, “Kurd?” My companion simply said no, but the man kept asking, “Kurd? Kurd?” with an edge in his voice that warned we did not want to cross him. I looked around and numerous villagers were watching from their porches and windows, too afraid to leave their property and approach us, as if we were actually threatening. We decided to continue on our journey to another village since, at that point, with the villagers too suspicious of our identity, there was no more valuable information to be gained.
Yet, remote villages were not the only place we encountered hostility. The big city of Diyarbakir brought about stares from almost every individual we passed. I could not tell if their stares were ones of interest, because we looked different, or ones of hostility, because we did not belong. But stares were not the only form of opposition we encountered. As we walked down the streets of Diyarbakir, one of my travel companions was slapped on the shoulder by a large lady, who muttered words that I could not understand. We concluded that it was because her shoulders were showing (i.e., showing too much skin). I was grateful I had listened to my father and brought more conservative clothes.
As I reflect back on these events, I cannot help but ask, “Do they have a right to be hostile towards us?” What reason do they have to be hostile? They took our land, they took our ancestors, they took our gold and treasures, and they refuse to recognize that any of this happened. If anything, we should be hostile towards them. Yet we are not. We greet them with warm smiles and a friendly handshake. Why, then, is this hostility present in Turkey? This is a question I have yet to answer.
Yet one thing was clear to me as we visited countless more villages: The Turks could not erase our history. In every village we visited, there were remnants of our existence, whether a church, graveyard, or even plates with Armenian inscriptions (which we found in a Turkish home). Armenians are everywhere. More than once we saw Turkish homes with Armenian inscriptions on the stones they used to build their homes. The Turks tried so hard to erase our existence, yet we are in the very foundation of their homes.
Without our stones their homes would not exist. These stones and other remnants are a daily reminder to them of the horrors they committed, of a history they tried to erase but failed to. They may have bulldozed our homes, they may have built new dwellings in their place, but our spirit and our stories remain.
This is why I made the right decision to go on the trip. Although returning to my great grandmother’s village only to find a beach made of bones and crushed stones from old homes was more difficult than words can describe, it was necessary. Necessary to keep our history alive. Necessary to understand and know where I came from. Necessary to educate future generations about a history that is slipping away.
It was difficult to reach some remote villages because the roads obstructed our progress. Years from now, it may be impossible to reach them. It was difficult to find Armenian churches that used to stand tall and packed with individuals, where only remnants remain today. Years from now the remnants of these old churches may just be rubble on the ground. This is why I am blessed to be able to document and witness these beautiful pieces of my history before they are gone—replaced by new Turkish homes or mosques in order to forget the past, in order to pretend it never happened.
Yes, I spent money in a land that does not deserve my money, and yes I met individuals whose ancestors may have been responsible for the genocide. But in doing so I gained something that outweighs the costs. I gained an experience that I can continue to use to educate others about a beautiful land, our land that will forever be in our hearts, whether it is in Turkey or Armenia.