Armenian News Network / Groong
September 22, 2011
By Bedros Afeyan
That eventual silence of a burgeoning civilization is what Suzanne Khardalian tried to reverse, in her hauntingly sparse and moving documentary, Grandma's Tattoos. Primitive, husk and superstition laden blue tattoos involuntarily branding her grandmother's generation of concubine Christian Armenian young girls raped and abducted by Turks, Kurds and Arabs in the Ottoman Empire in modern day Turkey and Syria, while a genocide was perpetrated by the Turkish authorities, is the backdrop of this intense, century old saga. Suzanne wants to unearth their truth, their rape and their permanent branding, not bury it and drown its sounds under patriotic songs and hymns of heroes who did little, impotent as they were before, during and after the genocide. They sang of N'jdeh and Antranig, while the nation was rebuilt, as Suzanne says in her documentary movie, by these women and through their reproductive organs, ones already driven round the block by force, by the other. Quiet victims of mass violence, and this is just the saga of the minority who survived. Many, many more perished outright or took their own lives.
Suzanne wants to relive and understand the why of the dispersion and hovering trauma of her Armenian people. Why Lebanon, why Syria, why Sweden, why Glendale, why? What about tiny little Armenia today? What memories survive in that enclave, a sliver of the old glorious civilization that was ours for millennia, much before nomadic hordes of Turks ingloriously set foot in Asia minor and their horses' hooves stomped over our nation and choked the life out of our world for six centuries before the final land and property grab and full scale genocide in 1915.
Little fragments of bones still protruding the earth's crust in the Syrian desert at Der El Zor, the Euphrates trip her grandmother, when she was 12, took with her 5 year old sister and mother, to safety, which turned out to be a trip to five years of subjugation, rape and servitude, set the initial stages of this documentary. `He is putting wood inside my bottom,' she cried out, inside the boat, before the mother yanked her away. He is shoving wood up my bottom, were the words with which this little girl of twelve, who would avoid all physical contact with her eventual Armenian husband in Lebanon or her children and grandchildren, first became introduced to sex and the reproductive rituals of humankind.
Under the guise of helping them escape by boat, the shooting rifles of the Turkish soldiers, they were never allowed to cross the river and were kept as concubines for five years. They were also branded by blue ink, pagan signs of husks, Crescent Moons and a Star and even Christian Crosses. It meant they were no longer pure, no longer masters of their own destinies. They were beasts of burden and thus they were grazed and kept alive. But what about 1919, five years hence, what could Suzanne's grandmother have done then, when let go? Did she work as a prostitute to eke out a living in some other village or city? Three years of that, probably, before settling in Lebanon and starting a new life, once again with Armenians, once again, for something other than be choked by `the other' abusing their values and destroying their honor and stifling their will and pride with irreversible and irremediable consequences.
As Suzanne says in My Grandma's Tattoos, that cold fierce lady was her father's mother who lived in the apartment just above theirs in Bourj Hammoud. They were five sisters living in a tiny apartment with their parents. The father drove a gasoline refueling truck, her mother worked very hard while this grandmother lorded over them and cussed and threw fits whenever she pleased, never with a smile, never with a kind word, never with a glimpse of hope or joy in her heart. She had a blue streak on the ready every morning at seven, cursing her own son if her allowance was not given on time. She would throw the whole building into a state of panic that would last and last. How does the daughter of a judge turn into this, becomes the question?
To find answers, Suzanne begins with meticulously assembled documents from the Near East Relief Society, League of Nations archives. Branding spotted photos, Armenian women in Turkish Muslim garb, detailed case files of the ones who were eventually rescued exist. Names, ages, conditions, village names, faces and a symphony of anguish come rushing forth. Thousands of Armenian women were abducted and taken in as concubines, branded, forced to become Muslims and then released after the First World War ended and reprisals from the occupying English and French authorities were feared, resources were thin and the future uncertain. A crumbled empire is a dicey place for slaves and servants to find many options for survival.
But it must be said that details are by and large lost. The dragon Lady's seven years younger sister lives in Glendale. When asked gently to relive and retell the story of those days, when she was five, she resorts to making up palliative stories and will not confide in Suzanne. She hides the past as a way of coping, as the only way out. On the other hand, a hundred and four year old woman in Armenia starts to speak of the horrors, of those near and dear to her she saw slaughtered, as a child. Her mother, Sentought, being dragged off because she was such a beauty and their village becoming a whorehouse. That is how the Turks used it, she says. All day and all night prostitution for the soldiers, for the men, not one Armenian man in sight.
Suzanne's story is much richer than the chronicle of one five year period, however calamitous, of our collective history. It involves four generations of Khardalian women. There is the Dragon Lady, her son Koko's wife, Marie, still there in Lebanon, living in that old apartment her mother in law used to occupy, the one who ends up speaking the unspeakable of what she was hiding, was ashamed of. All five daughters have assembled for an engagement party with Suzanne's half Swedish daughter present and learning from her cousins and aunts and uncles the strange ways of this loving family in Beirut and Anjar, as well as in a village outside Yerevan under the shadow of apricot trees, as poetic in texture and taste as any ever seen, living it up, Armenian style. The story is the story of women. Their historical dependence on men, on fate, on history, on the tidal forces that unite them and tear them apart, swirl this tapestry forward. The instinct to survive severely tested in their blood, the kind they have to spit out, the kind they have to let flow down their legs when sodomized, the kind that transfers their dreams to their sons and daughters on continents oh so far apart...
Markada and Der El Zor, the Syrian desert, is where the evidence still echoes through the night. This is our Auschwitz, says Suzanne. The people lying under the sand are not silent, nor are they few in number. The whole world wants to forget it, she fears. It is called Markada from Markhad, Slaughterhouse... This whole field of dunes and hills is a massive grave, say the local Arab guides. Everything, the whole mountain, they collected the dead remains, the Arabs did, and made mass graves of them all. That is just below the earth now. You are walking on it. Everybody here knows the story, what the Turks did. All the Arabs know, even our youth is told. My grandmother, one of them says, was an Armenian. She was from Merdin. But all those caves are full of Armenian bones, all of them.
`Men write down history,' Suzanne is heard saying in voiceover. `There is no room for women. They were tainted, impure and despised. Yet they were the ones who suffered most. They had to carry the heaviest burden. They had to regenerate life.' But the subjugation of the women, the insults and shame, was never talked about.
Khanem, the Dragon Lady, eventually married, she had children. Her soul was stolen. She was alive but she was a walking corpse. Six of her seven children passed away before she did. She was only close to her mother. She was completely disinterested in sex. They always had trouble, she and her husband. She would not put out. Grandma did everything not to pass on the shame to us. But I know, it will never go away, says Suzanne. And then there are the apricots and Fareed al Atrash (a Syrian crooner of great renown)... `An hour with my lover'... Her favorite song wafting from her old vacuum tube radio. A dream world, unrelated to her reality, unrelated to sex or human contact, a pure, distant, abstract melodic love which touched what was otherwise a thundering nightmare of a lady terrorizing all who were near and dear to her.
Suzanne managed to have her sisters first talk of what they remembered, the idiosyncrasies, the absurdities, the calcified memories and their analysis, followed by her mother telling them all what Khanem had actually gone through, making them feel so much pain and shame and fury and disgust and forgiveness for the Dragon Lady. A true cathartic bonding between wonderful sisters is captured on film, and a saint of a mother who has suffered so much with so much quiet dignity, Marie. Hers was not the cussing and fussing ways of her in-law. Just giving in and absorbing pain and blows till her true spirit sored while others froze their stares at less important heights.
Suzanne gives us a perfumed bouquet for her mother, an all embracing and accepting hug for her sisters, a lesson to her daughter and a blessing for her exhausted-soul Grandma whose tattoos used to keep them up at night with fear and nightmares of untold stories, evil spirits, and a taste for true evil that permeates the world usually shielded from children, at least from a while.
It is also a fiercely feminist tract. A stark picture of what happens to the vaginas that witness abduction and rape and childbearing in nomadic tribes and villages as well as church going, often black wearing old ladies in pews praying for absolution of the sins of the men who wage war, who perpetrate genocide, all in the name of testosterone and a rancid sense of pride, honor and other mirages of humiliation that is man's fate until his brain does more of the thinking once in a while.
What is identity? What is a Swede, an Armenian, a Kurd, a Sheitan (devil)? Suzanne is unafraid to use her camera and her pen as a digging tool and forge truth out of lost fragments of sawed off memories that would be hopeless for any lesser filmmaker to take on. I like this film dearly and so will you, all 59 minutes of its impact, hard to recover from, without a gained respect for the fragility of the rules and principles of life we think we live by.
Bedros Afeyan 9-17-11 Hilton Arc de Triomphe Paris, France -- Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found on the web by clicking on his personal web pages at: http://126.96.36.199/
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