Marash: remembering anew

Marash: remembering anew

Turkish Review occasionally opens its doors to students from outside Turkey, inviting them to stay for brief internships at our journal. This summer we were joined by Nareg Seferian, a young Armenian of Marashtsi lineage (that is, with Armenian roots in Ottoman Maraş) who received his education in India, Armenia and the US, where his studies have focused on law and diplomacy. During his time with Turkish Review, Nareg visited his ancestral town of Marash/Maraş. This is his account of that journey.

Marash has one of the smallest airports I have ever come across. The conveyor belt for the luggage is not even a belt per se, just a conveyor that sort of stops mid-way. A man outside was laying paving just as we exited the building, like a cartoon where the character runs across a gorge and a bridge forms under his feet.

I am sent there with the generosity of Turkish Review. It was not something I was planning on, and it was a journey that I, in fact, did not want to make at first. My idea was to spend a month in İstanbul, perhaps more, to gain first-hand experience and immediate insight into politics and society in Turkey. Going to Marash was not on the agenda, at least not for this trip.

I knew, of course, that İstanbul was not all of Turkey. But I also figured that it was the heart, or at least the heartbeat, of the country. In truth, I had spent a little time in Turkey before, back in 2004 as part of a goodwill exchange trip with the Rotary Club. Coming to Turkey for a more in-depth experience this time around turned out to be much more emotional for me personally than I had anticipated. My ancestors come from Marash, from the Ottoman Empire, and I got to face aspects of my identity in what has become of the Ottoman Empire, in what has become of its capital, and in what has become of one of its provincial towns.

‘The transnational Armenian’

Many Armenians are associated with more than one place. I have heard of the stereotype of “the transnational Armenian,” and there is the complementary expression of “second diaspora” — or even “third diaspora” — to describe an Armenian family in Los Angeles, say, whose parents immigrated from France, themselves being children of Lebanese or Syrian Armenians from somewhere in Cilicia (Çukurova). My family is something like that. For the past three generations at least, no one in my immediate family has spoken only one language. But perhaps I am showing off. Such circumstances are increasingly becoming the norm in our globalized world, besides the fact that they were hardly a novelty to begin with, even if not commonplace.

Not too long before arriving in Turkey, I was given a book by a friend and was still in the process of reading it during the earlier part of my time in the country. “The Hare with Amber Eyes” is a family memoir by Edmund de Waal, a descendant of a prosperous, multinational European Jewish family, the Ephrussis. Although the language of the book was a little flowery at times, the story itself was rather fascinating. Here was a family who knew what it meant to be global, or at least “continental” — and that indeed was the norm for the more educated and wealthier classes before atrocities inspired by ethno-nationalism wrecked the wider European world. The Armenians were themselves very much victims of that wave, as the two great wars and the violence following the end of the communist era characterized the tragic course of massacres and deportations marking the 20th century.

That book made me think of my own family. I can say that it all started in Marash, but what, really, started there? And what remains in the erstwhile Ottoman Empire? I wanted İstanbul to give me a larger sense of anchoring, one that would transcend my own life in three countries and the lives of the generation or two before me in five or six more. I wanted to use the opportunity to retrace my roots from the Ottoman Empire and gain the broader understanding that would, I hoped, give me a more confident sense of identity.

Marash meetings

Marash is set in a valley, at the foot of some mountains toward which the city has only recently expanded. For a population of around 400,000, the place seems much smaller and much more boring, much more out-of-the-way than one might expect.

The week before my trip I had gone on a walking tour up the Golden Horn with the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT), based in İstanbul. The guide was a foreign professor, and the talk of history and archaeology turned on the sense of belonging, in particular how earlier generations of Byzantium, New Rome, Constantinople would claim art and artifacts of the area in building their pedigrees — creating them, really — in a new, growing city where opportunity was abundant. That account was also strikingly similar for the Ephrussi clan of de Waal’s memoir. I was looking at Marash the other way: I had nothing on me and instead was hoping that there was something for me there. I was hoping to be able to find something, something Armenian, to gaze at, to appreciate; something tangible at which to point and claim as an authentic sense of belonging both to me and to Marash — an established entitlement, a ready pedigree.

We met with an old man. He had some family memories associated with an Armenian. It was actually a sad story told in a funny way. I have the luxury of smiling at it now. We went to the mukhtar of the neighborhood where my family had lived. Nothing was really accomplished by either visit. Neither the old man nor the mukhtar had ever heard of my family. Why would they have?

The larger public bodies we went to, though, lent themselves to interesting conversations at least. We met with local officials of culture and tourism, and also spent time with some scholars at a local university. Those discussions turned out to be a little choppy due to the divergence of the historical narratives with which we were familiar (kudos to my translator for his worthy navigation). All the tensions were the Armenian diaspora’s fault; all the killings in the past were due to foreign interventions. If only the French hadn’t showed up, Armenians would still live here, they said. I think they would have all been massacred, I responded. The French, by the way, I let them know, ended their occupation of the city by sneaking away from Marash in the middle of the night, tying sackcloth to the hoofs of their horses, so no one would know. And now, 90 years later, they are trying to pass a law criminalizing the denial of genocides. Another sad and funny story, one at which I am sure someone will smile at some point in the future.

Our time in the local museum showcased some other details of the region’s history from antiquity on: Neolithic items, remains from Hittites and other Anatolian civilizations, Rome, Hellenistic times, Byzantium, and then the Arabs, Mongols, and the Turks showed up. There happens to have been the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia in the area between 1198 and 1375, but there was absolutely no mention of that in the museum. No artifacts from there, no coins, engravings, manuscripts, models of forts or churches. Nothing. That absence was simply sad. I pitied the inhabitants of Marash when I noticed that, more than feeling angry at the (probably purposeful) oversight. These people don’t have a full understanding of where they are — and of where they have been — and, what’s worse, it seems like they don’t care to.

The best meeting by far was with some young entrepreneurs who lived in the area. They were vibrant, enthusiastic and fun. It was wonderful to sense their energy and openness, giving hope for the future. There was a young person at the university meeting too, who was particularly pleased to interact with… well, an Armenian! I was a strange sight in Marash, after all, an unusual animal. Armenians go on tours all over Turkey, but they go to places with churches or their ruins and suchlike. Marash has nothing to draw them in, and it did nothing to attract me either. The whole city burned down during the war in the early ’20s, they said. Nothing remains.

Well, something can be created. A whole new pedigree is always ready to be forged, I have come to learn. A museum, even a tiny one, of the Armenian heritage of the area would be delightful. The bazaar has objects for sale that bear the legacy of Armenian masters of the past, I was told — coppersmiths, woodworkers, saddle-makers — all of which can be recognized and celebrated. There are plenty of old photographs, and other items can be brought in, or meaningful, sincere ones can always be made.

What might have been

Marash is a rather dull town, I conclude. I am so very glad that I was not born and raised there, as my great-grandparents were. Had the war, had massacres and deportations not occurred, I would not exist, in fact. My physical body would not exist, as my grandparents would probably have not married whom they did; it was their parents who had to flee Marash, after all. And my personality, my experiences, my education would be out of the question altogether. It would all have been different.

Would it have been better or worse? Well, I’d like to think that Marash would have been a more vibrant town — at least it would have been more cosmopolitan. Those many churches and schools would still exist. The culture and trade realized by the Armenians and other Christians would have developed, presumably, adding something more to the town with it. But these are speculations, impossible to verify in any way.

My father tells me that our ancestors were merchants and, in travelling often, gained the “Sefer” moniker (meaning travel). True to that name, we continue to travel in our family, with the difference that instead of moving from and to Marash, we trace our bearings from the four corners of the world to the four corners of the world. Something good out of something evil, my father says. We lost our homeland, we gained the world. Marash lost us, what did it gain?

What would Turkey as a whole have been like?

Questions impossible to answer, but that need to be thought about.

Feeling entitled to feel

Before going to Marash, I had in my mind the idea something was owed to me there, even that something or someone was expecting me there. I remember travelling by bus from Tehran to Yerevan some years ago. Iran has an old Armenian community, most of them descendants of the Armenians relocated by Shah Abbas in 1604 from the region of Jougha (in Nakhichevan and northwest Iran today) to the then-capital, Isfahan. One of the people on the bus was coming to Armenia for the first time, and he was loudly proclaiming that he had not been there for 400 years. I laughed at that man then, but now, going to Marash, I felt the same way, that I had not been there in almost a century.

I felt entitled to feel that I ought to have been born and raised there, even if I would not exist, even if it would not be “me” at all who would have existed in Marash today. Still, I held the hope to have the right to, for example, apply for Turkish citizenship as part of some reconciliation package. My great-grandfather was an Ottoman subject: Am I not his heir?

But now that I have been there the illusion has been shattered, along with some of the hope, and it makes me sad to think that even if the intention of a genocide was not fully carried out — the entire Armenian population was not annihilated — the idea of the uprooting of the people seems to have been quite successful.

It is as true within Turkey as outside it. I met an Armenian of İstanbul whose parents come from Sebastia (Sivas). He has never visited. It would indeed be difficult to make that trip. And as I say, I did not want to go to Marash at first myself. But I am glad I did. It put things into perspective for me personally, as well as in the larger setting of the affairs between these two peoples. However, I still cannot help feeling entitled to feel something. Just that expression — “feeling entitled to feel” — is so telling. There is yet no meaningful closure for it.