The Gost from the Desert
Por: Sona Van
Instead of an Autobiography
My mind leaps and I am there - walking with the human convoys marching to their death in the Der Zor desert. My breasts are heavy with the cold weight of a newborn child - there is no more milk left in them. I am panting like a young girl running from the sword. My words are charged with fury, my pen coils through the yellow memory of sand until it hits the first bone, the first skull, and halts.
I know nothing about the unutterable suffering, the beastly human abjection. The bone mocks my audacity, laughs at my attempt to understand. Still, I try to know it; I dare to translate this experience into my own lines. But no one has the right to touch this subject, except for the survivor, the witness. And so I tear my writing into pieces, and as if caught red-handed, I throw it in the garbage.
This attempt at an autobiography rooted in the Medz Eghern, or the Great Catastrophe, would have met a similar fate, if it was written to still my ranting muse. But instead, it is written to speak for the silence of the skulls, jaws filled with sand for a hundred years, unheard save for the murmuring river of their blood.
I was born in Yerevan, in the family of the physicist Anushavan Ter-Hovhannisian. My father was born in Van, and he was no more than two years old in 1915, when his family escaped to what is now Gavar, the town then called Nor Bayazed in Eastern Armenia. His father, Hovhannes Ter-Hovhannisian, was a priest in Van who had studied religion and philosophy in Germany. His mother, Mariam, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Adana.
They arrived in Nor Bayazed with their three children—my father, his brother Hrachya, then 7 or 8, and their eighteen-year-old sister, Pepronia. They had also brought with them two of their three servants, Mekhak, who had nowhere else to go and who had become part of their family, and Vahan, who was betrothed to Pepronia. Their other servant, Berfin, who was Turkish, stayed behind in my grandfather’s house and promised to look after the property until they returned.
When they lived in Van, my grandfather found Pepronia’s choice of husband unsuitable, but saw it was impossible to change her mind. So instead, he sent Vahan to Constantinople to study banking and accounting, and he was still there when the political persecutions began in Van.
My grandfather was one of the most authoritative men in the region and spoke many languages, and had many non-Armenian friends and followers. One was Mustafa, a Turkish mullah who was a frequent guest in my grandfather’s house. My grandfather mentions Mustafa in his diary, describing him as “a brilliant mind and a man of free thought, who had not lost his reason in an atmosphere of fanatics and had preserved his conscience among the beasts . . .” Mustafa grew up in a family of government officials and had powerful ties in the legal system. His son Said was studying at a German military academy.
Musafa warned my grandfather early, when all was still peaceful, and the Armenians still believed they were under the protection of the Turkish and German governments. Mustafa had learned about the Young Turk Party and their plans to get rid of minorities.
In turn, my grandfather tried to warn his people, but the government found out.
Mustafa wanted my grandfather safe, and recommended that he leave for Europe on the next ship. My grandfather refused. The idea of abandoning his people, even for the sake of saving his own life seemed like a betrayal to my grandfather.
“I couldn’t live with myself,” my grandfather wrote. He remembered the Adana massacres all too clearly. During them, his father, who was also a priest, his wife’s mother and her twin sisters, had been killed. He felt bound to protect his people.
Mustafa tried to persuade my grandfather that he couldn’t change the course of events and would lose his life and put his family at risk. Mustafa warned that thousands of criminals had been freed from the prison to form killing squads.
Soon after, a Turkish militiaman arrived at my grandfather’s house and found him in the corner of his big garden with a beekeeper’s net over his face. Beekeeping was one of my grandfather’s favorite pastimes. He believed that the beehive was the prototype of an ideal society.
The armed man was about to arrest my grandfather when he was attacked by bees. As my grandfather joked, “God has a thousand ways of saving a person if it is His will.”
The militiamen returned another time, however, but this time, they didn’t find my grandfather in the house. He had gone to the cemetery to pray. After searching the house, the youngest of the militiamen noticed my aunt’s wedding dress hanging on the wall and mocked her for having “an appetite for love, when the world is out for blood.”
My aunt retorted “Let people fight if they want to fight, and let people love if they want to love.” The militiaman crumpled the veil and kicked the family cat before leaving with the ominous promise that they would not to be so generous next time.
When my grandfather returned from the cemetery and learned about the incident, he realized how serious things had become. He hid his concerns with a joke about the timing of his visit to the cemetery, “I have been praying to the living God my whole life, but it was a stranger’s tomb that came to my rescue in this critical hour.”
When Mustafa heard about the visit, he again urged my grandfather to leave the country with his family. “We both know that this is not a time for philosophizing, but a time to save yourself and your family. Don’t wait to be saved a third time. Believe me, the worst is yet to come. And don’t think that it is easy for me to lose you; I can’t stand the thought of enduring the great loss of our friendship.”
My aunt also did not want to leave. Despite her initial scare, she was occupied with wistful longing for her fiancée, Vahan.
She spent days arranging and rearranging the wooden bureau her mother had given her as a present, an oval-shaped bureau crafted from expensive wood, which was later transported to Eastern Armenia. The piece is exhibited currently in the Gavar Museum as part of the exposition “Armenian Ancestral Homes in Van.”
But at the time, the bureau was an object that represented Pepronia’s coming marriage. She believed that Vahan would return from Constantinople any day, and nothing would stand in their way. But instead of Vahan’s return, it was the brutal militiamen who reappeared at the door.
The armed men forced themselves into the house, but my grandparents were not at home. My aunt was confronted by the same militiaman who had crumpled her veil.
He asked her derisively “Where is your wedding dress? Did they already cut the throat of your betrothed?”
She was confused, and honestly answered as if she were a good student in a class room. “My betrothed is not in town, and my wedding dress is in the wardrobe.”
The militiaman opened the wardrobe, lifted the edge of her dress with his gun, and ordered my aunt “Put it on.”
My aunt couldn’t comprehend what was happening. “Are you going to kill me?” she asked.
The militiaman swore insultingly. “The Sultan wouldn’t forgive me, you are a great item for the harem.”
He grabbed her and pushed her against the wall: “Put it on, I said!”
My aunt offered him her golden necklace if only he would leave. But gold was not what he was after. She screamed, hoping against hope that her family’s Turkish servant, Berfin, would come to her room and put a stop to the nightmare. But no. No. Trembling and terrified, she put on the dress. She closed her eyes as pain rippled through her body -
When Berfin came, Pepronia was crumpled on the floor, her chest bleeding from a wound, the wedding dress ripped open.
“Allah will punish you! You’ve spilled an innocent person’s blood!” Berfin shouted at the intruder.
She knelt beside my aunt.
“You’re the one who’ll be punished for bowing down to an infidel, you dog!” the man cursed.
He would’ve killed them both, but time was against him. The militiamen had orders to follow; they’d spent too much time at the home already.
So, the men stormed out again, leaving Berfin to revive my aunt, and bandage the deep wounds to her chest. When she’d made my aunt comfortable, she went to Mustafa to ask for help. *
He brought the family to his house and hid them there.
That same evening, the militiamen went to the church, where they found and arrested my grandfather. He was blacklisted and taken to prison, in their words, “for using the church as a gathering place for political meetings, for hiding weapons, and for preaching revolt.”
They covered his eyes, bound his arms and put him in a carriage. To stay alert, he tried to guess on which roads they were taking him. He knew it didn’t matter in the end. He’d linked his dignity and fate with the dignity and fate of his people, and was prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his flock.
When the journey ended, they pushed him into a cell and, after untying his hands and uncovering his eyes, they mocked him. “You are free now. Call on your God as much as you like.”
They took off his clerical frock and other garments, cut his hair and shaved his beard, using the frock as a barber’s cape. They gave him a prisoner’s uniform to wear, and threw the hair-covered frock onto the floor, along with my grandfather’s cross and Bible, which had been taken from him when he was captured. “When they left the cell, I approached the dirty mirror and looked at myself—a different man was staring back at me. I didn’t recognize him. I was there, strewn on the floor under the frock. I had become invisible. The thought terrified me at first, then it excited me. Being invisible was liberating . . . It’s so good that I am not this man. That these things are not happening to me,” my grandfather wrote in his diary. And of the room, he said “There was only one chair, a small rug for praying, a metal washbasin clumsily attached to the wall, and a disproportionately large and dirty mirror.”
As he tried to maintain his composure, he heard the accusations of his keepers, who shouted “You are charged with political treason. Not even your God hanging from the cross will be able to save you from punishment.”
But the next day, everything changed: “If they only could, they would glue my beard and hair back into place,” wrote my grandfather, certain that his friend Mustafa had interceded on his behalf. They moved him into a bigger cell with more light, where there was more than a table and a bed; there were books, journals, backgammon and chess. They even offered him special food in consideration of his stomach ulcer. Their knowledge of his health, confirmed my grandfather’s guess that the improved treatment was Mustafa’s doing.
My grandfather described the first five weeks of his imprisonment as “being at a health spa,” and when they ended, “weeks that coincided with the killings of Armenian intellectuals and the defense of Van,” my grandfather was freed and allowed to join his terrified family members hiding in Mustafa’s house.
He’d had no news in prison, and learned belatedly about the deaths of much-loved writers and intellectuals, and of the heroes who had died defending the city of Van. My grandfather was kept totally in the dark, and was horrified to hear what had occurred while he was “sheltered in a place where [he] was able to keep a diet and read books.”
They didn’t tell him about Pepronia and the barbaric Turkish militiaman who’d given her terrible wounds with his knife and his teeth, as well as emotional wounds that she found almost impossible to overcome. My grandfather did not know then that she wouldn’t be able to breastfeed her child, wouldn’t experience the joy of her own body.
Mustafa helped them safely cross the border to Eastern Armenia, escorting them in person and sparing nothing to make their passage comfortable. Parting, my grandfather and Mustafa hoped to see each other again. But for now, the family’s exile had begun. My grandfather brought only two books with him, a guide for beekeepers and a book on theology and ethics, which my physicist father later called “the anatomy of sin.”
Leaving their prosperous life behind, the family members embraced a difficult new reality.
Even after their escape and her marriage, my aunt continued to suffer. She lost her firstborn, Narek, due to complications from her vicious chest injury.
My grandfather’s diary was filled with desolation as he mourned in emptiness and shame. Experiencing a loss of faith, he wrote “A man who follows an idea has no right to form a family…An idea ends where your child’s pain begins…“Those who perish are called dead, those who fall are called heroes, but what do they call those who live and feel ashamed for their existence?”
He became reclusive in his new home, avoiding meetings, lost in an emptiness that caused him to believe ideas can only exist in books. He never wished to recover his priestly appearance or keep a beard. He even rejected the prefix “Ter,” which indicates one’s service to the Lord. “Ter was left in that cell, on the floor, under my beard-strewn frock, between the cross and the Bible. Ter is someone who died on the cross. My father is a true Ter-Hovhannisian, he died under the cross with his people. What Ter-Hovhannisian am I?” Overcome with despair, he wrote “There are many ways of not being, and being dead is the most painless of all.”
Although the family had the means to travel to Europe, my grandfather chose to stay in Eastern Armenia. It was closer to their ancestral homeland, where he still hoped to one day return. Life continued, though so much had changed.
After their escape from Van, it seemed the family would find security and the possibility for a dignified life on the other shore of the River Arax, but “the ghost of the barbarians,” had authored many tangible and intangible wounds. These wounds had crossed the border with them, hidden in the folds of their memories. Each member of my family had to wrestle with this horrific ghost their entire lives.
To this day, people continue to experience the Catastrophe. As my grandfather wrote “. . . I got my share of the catastrophe in the form of salvation.”
* I plan to write a more complete version of this story, a portrait of my aunt Pepronia as the woman who has inspired me the most, and reconstruct my family’s history of the Great Catastrophe as seen through the colorful personality of my aunt.