Growing Up in a Rough Neighborhood
Early on I learned that my mother could write in a way that most people couldn’t read. Though I was young I knew that her handwriting plus her maiden name, Marjorie Abrahamian, marked her as an Armenian. She was writing letters to her mother in Beirut. When asked, my mother expressed little enthusiasm for her past life in the Middle East and said that she wanted to come to America in order to have her children grow up in an environment where hatred was not on display every single day. She was being honest about that. Though in an unguarded moment she might have involuntarily recoiled when presented with anything Turkish, she never spoke to me with anger against the people who destroyed her childhood and killed her father and relatives.
Many years later she took her grand-daughter, also named Marjorie, back to Turkey. Using the protection of US passports and married names they traveled to her birthplace. Present-day Konya is a medium-sized city located in the central Anatolian highlands. There my mother and niece found our family neighborhood.
A slight woman in her eighties with fair complexion, my mother often passed visually for a northern European. Even though buildings remained that she could identify in the former Armenian section of the city, the current Turkish residents insisted there had never been Armenians living there and that my mother’s memory was faulty. She was a phantom in her own birthplace.
“More difficult was the task of changing our psychological attitudes: Children struggling against the odds for mere survival had thought of life in terms of ‘I’ and ‘mine’; they now needed to relearn the concepts of ‘we’ and ‘ours.’ Rejection and isolation had been their greatest deprivation, and had struck them during the critical years of childhood growth. We yearned to belong.”
Marjorie Abrahamian Sa’adah, from Memories of a Refugee
I thought of my mother last week reading the account of a woman who stayed behind in her village in Turkey, the only Armenian left out of many thousands. My mother’s account is to the right, written near the end of her life. It explains some of the history behind the hatred that underpinned the genocide, as well as describing how a small group of Americans saved many women and children.
So it’s not been with total innocence that I’ve been watching the events in Taksim Square. Whether through news reports or the rawness of a neighborhood on fire, blogged by one of its residents, there’s an underlying violence that surfaces easily. Both Turkey and West have ambivalent attitudes towards each other. Part of the EU? Role in NATO?
Even now, it’s a rough place to be, and it has been for a long time.
No adult, and much less a child, can experience what my mother did and exit unscathed. The group of women and children she was part of were force-marched and railroaded to the coastline where American military boats picked them up for passage away from the conflict. Her transport ship left her and the group on the shore just north of Beirut, where the Arab population offered a sanctuary. Families, mine among them, were now comprised of women, girls, and young boys. My grandmother was different in that she had been able to conceal some gold pieces when she fled, and that wealth helped in establishing a new home when they eventually found their way to Alexandria, Egypt. Wherever they settled, however, it put Armenian women in the position of having to shelter and support families already deeply wounded from what they had been through, and facing an unknown future.