Anna Gazmarian
  


Interview with Manoushag Paulian Boyajian:
(My Great Grandmother)
October 1988
Tape One

Forward

I wonder if her voice will be high-pitched, the way my viola turns with tightened strings from summer heat, sorrowful like its fallen bridge, resting near fine tuners. Maybe her story is like the villanelle I never finished. Rehearsed, clichés, rhymes and repetition—misplaced.

Pause

“I am Ruth Gazmararian, Manoushag’s daughter. I will try to guide her through her memories with her family and relatives through the times of the Turkish Massacres.”

Play

“As it comes to you, describe your childhood home.”
Instead, she describes her mother’s complexion —its lightness against her father’s. Maybe her mother’s face—its imperfect symmetry, crows’ feet and olive skin tone became her home. She describes her mother’s plump figure compared to her father’s scrawny frame, thin like the nails Manoushag’s uncle forged from wrought iron.

Play

“Do you remember the first time you saw the Turkish soldiers?”
In Efkereh, we were ordered to decorate our city and homes to celebrate their arrival. Families placed flowers on porches and windowsills. It was like a parade and we welcomed them.

Play

As Manoushag describes the parade, I think of Sultan Abdul-Hamid’s soldiers marching into Efkereh before she was born. Before the Young Turks took power.

Dancers kicked, bent forward, moved to the rhythm of the drums. Then the screaming began. The dancing stopped, the drumming faded as a baby was caught on the tip of a saber.
Play

She fears streams rushing through water mills, the faces of camels, and steep stairs with open doorways.

Rewind

I rewind each time Manoushag mentions a town.
Meren, Physsynn, Lyttes.
I drag my fingers across maps, unsure of their coordinates, which lines are longitude and which are latitude. But I cannot find the towns and villages. Some were rebuilt, renamed—others burned to the ground. Apartment buildings and high rises stand in their place.

Pause

The Young Turks dreamt of a new empire with one race, language, and religion. Armenians in their villages and towns threatened their pure land, and had, for centuries.
“If this purge is not general and final, it will inevitably lead to problems.
Therefore it is absolutely necessary to eliminate the Armenian people in its entirety, so that there is no further Armenian on this earth and the very concept of Armenia is extinguished. We are now at war. We shall never have a more suitable
opportunity than this…”
—Nazim Bay Community of Union and Progress, February 1915
Over the voices on the cassette my grandmother handed me resides a consistent static. It’s Ruth, my grandmother, her pen tapping against the chair the way she does while filling in crossword puzzles or Sudoku grids. Its ticking is nervous and determined and curious, all at once.

Play

“When did you realize something was going wrong?”
Manoushag’s home sat next to a jailhouse. Her kitchen walls became conch shells as her parents pressed their ears against the concrete, hoping for a faint whisper.
The Turks received telegrams from soldiers in the middle of the night. Slowly, my parents realized that they were planning the genocide.
Slowly, extermination and eradication replace words like deportation. Soon their home, sidled up to the jailhouse, funnel of whispers, would burn to the ground.

Play

In the same sentence as her father’s hands tied with rope, she describes the taste of Turkish coffee. My mother didn’t sleep for days. She kept dreaming of my father’s torture. Were his fingernails removed one by one with wood dipped in boiling sulfur? Was his chest branded with a hot horseshoe, one that was hammered into horses’ hooves? Was he tortured like the priests of Sivas? His body handled like corpse, placed upside down, beaten until he bled. Boiled eggs placed under his armpits. After they burned his body, did his wife comb through the ashes, for metal buttons from his work uniform, for something that would live longer than dust?

Pause

Harhim Yessaian’s memoir is the only account I can find from Manoushag’s village. After the genocide, the village was erased. He wrote to his brother in Detroit, describing his visit to their hometown during the massacres:
“As I approached, there were bodies rotting along the wayside. The village was as quiet as a cemetery. The Armenian quarter was empty…Turkish troops came one day to the village before the sun had risen. They searched the Armenian homes and dragged out the men from age fourteen to fifty. The soldiers then swarmed into their homes like hungry locusts…announcing that the remaining Armenians, the old men, women, and children were going to be ‘relocated’ The next morning they were forcibly marched off down the road…Only God knows what will become of them.”

Play

Manoushag says deportation, a rough word in her mouth, like a stone grinding through a tumbler. The Young Turks exterminated anyone seen as a threat. It was a death warrant to an entire race.
Every town we went through, Turkish people threw stones at us. They hated us. They knew we were Armenian.
Was it hair darker than ash that gave them away? Or furrowed brows deciphering Arabic and Turkish spoken on street corners in small villages and towns? Maybe her journey was no different than those taken by the women of Harput, who traveled East of Diabeker as thermometers read 115 degrees. After dark, Kurds took the prettiest women to be auctioned like cattle. Those left were stripped of clothing. They walked for days with bare breasts and thighs, skin blistering and peeling. American Consul J.B. Jackson described these women with “hair flowing in the air like wild beasts.”

Pause

Families were deported in groups. If Manoushag had been forced from her home weeks later, would she have been like the children I read about from Osmanie? Families gathered in a church for safety and prayer as soldiers set the steeple on fire. Their bodies transformed into candlewicks until their organs shrank like dried fruit, turning into ash.

Play

When my second cousin became pregnant, she asked herself:
“What am I? A priest’s daughter, pregnant with a Turkish man’s child?
I wait for a method of suicide, but Manoushag never says it. I imagine her name on the list of young mothers who joined suicide packs to escape being taken by the soldiers. Who can blame them? They threw their bodies into the Euphrates. Did the river run red like an Egyptian plague?

Pause

“All I can say is that at this time there are no Armenians left alive left alive in Efkereh.
I must end this letter now. My mind is numb with grief.
May God comfort you in your time of sorrow.”
—Harshim
If the Yessians learned of Teskilati Mahsusa, the “butcher battalions” formed of criminals released from prison, this is what they would never learn to put into words: the Efkereh families were told that they were being relocated. Like the Israelites being led out of Egypt, the idea of a new land gave Efkereh families hope. Instead, they walked for days. Most of them died along the way. The others were led into the desert between Deir ez-Zor and Jerablus and left to die.

Pause

I think of them, grains of sand touching their lips, scraping the insides of their eyelids.

Pause

Choukorian, Kondakjian, Vahratian, Pelavanian, Toolvalian, Isuidbashian. I write their last names phonetically on bar napkins and math homework. I whisper them in coffee lines airports, library basements, doughnut shops I am a tourist of a country I’ve never visited. My family tree compiled by my grandmother is more complex than the New York subway system I could never memorize.

Play

The soldiers separated the men and said they were going to cultivate the wheat at the farms. My brother went with them. Days later, we found he was taken to the desert.

Pause

At the Holocaust Museum in DC, sneakers collected from concentration camps are stacked like a pile belonging in a city dump; the room smells of burnt rubber. One room over contains an exhibit with muted photos of groups targeted by Nazis—gypsies, political opponents, institutionalized adults, Armenians. A display case is filled with blown-up photos taken by reporters, one of a young girl who looks into the camera lens and straight at me. Her hair is whipped to the side from the wind; her nose is flat, round, shaped like mine. I am weighted with one question: why her and not me? Next to the exhibit, a plaque glued to the wall reads,
“Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of Armenians?”
—Adolf Hitler

Play

Some children were collected on their journey to the desert by missionaries and orphanages. Manoushag was one of them.

Pause

My grandmother sends Xerox copies of articles and magazine clippings filled with quotes by historians and government officials. She underlines statistics:
“1.5 million Armenians were killed.”
“75 percent of those on death marches perished.”
I draw a star next to a quote written by British ethnographer William Ramsay, describing his visit to the Ottoman Empire:
“The Armenians were dogs and pigs…to be spat upon, if their shadow darkened a Turk, to be outraged, to be the mats on which he wiped the mud from his feet.”

Play

We fell asleep to the sound of bombs going off, shooting from one town to another. I woke up each morning, sheets saturated with sweat and urine. I asked myself,
Why did they take me?
Why did they take me?
Why did they take me?

Play

The orphanage shaved her head to prevent lice. Did she tell herself that the sound of snipping craft scissors was a sign of renewal, of change? Were the falling strands as hopeless as her father’s wrists wrapped with rope?

Play

“When you left Symyra and came to America with your sister, cousins and aunt, do you remember feeling afraid? Were you happy?”
I remember not having any feeling.
Our ship ran out of regular water during the middle of our trip. We were given ocean water. All day, we threw up all day on the bottom of the ship.
When we arrived a month later, Ellis Island was like a heaven for us.
On land deemed holy, she waited to be poked and prodded by doctors. In line, I imagine her shuffling her feet, wondering if the doctor will see the weight of father and brother pressing down on her—deeper than the ship’s anchor against the ocean floor of a land she’d never seen before.

Pause

I spend an hour looking for Manoushag’s immigration records on Ellis Island’s website. I enter her name into search bars and scroll through lists of ship passengers. “No record is found.” For a moment, it’s as if her narrative is a lie or legend. Maybe that’s what I want. I don’t know how to grieve the loss of these people or carry their weight. Did Manoushag ever learn? I look at the photos of ships that brought immigrants to Ellis Island and wonder which one carried Manoushag. Was it taken to a shipbreaking yard? All faded photos of ships look the same to me. I never pay attention to the design of the sails. I only notice how their hulls press into waves with something like ease.

Pause

My grandmother calls and explains that the record keeper spelled Manoushag’s name wrong. They never asked her to spell her name letter by letter. Instead, they went by sound:
Name: Kadusouzian, Manouchak
Date of Arrival: November 1st, 1920
Age at Arrival: 12y
Passenger ID: 1053440125
Line Number:5
Nationality: Turkey, Armenian

Pause

I dream of Manoushag pacing through my library’s basement. Dim fluorescents, windowless, claustrophobic rows, Dewey Decimal numbers on shelves, and plastered walls painted the color of desert sand. She searches for textbooks, research, memoirs on her homeland. She looks for checkout stickers, stamps, and due dates. She can find none. One textbook offers this:
“Let me stress… that the Turkish people firmly believe that what happened to the Armenians was not genocide. It was relocation to other pans of the Ottoman Empire…Turks have never harbored any anti-Armenianism.”
—Ambassador Gunduz Atktan, September 14, 2000

Play

Oh, Manoushag says into the tape recorder, and waits. Well, she says to Ruth, to herself, to me, I wish I could remember more.

Forward

Her words are written on notecards, taped to the ceiling above my bed. I want the diction to haunt me. To wake up to her placing her mother’s complexion into words—the subconscious search for home—how sugar cubes dissolve on the tip of her tongue.

 
 

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Anna Gazmarian lives and writes in North Carolina.