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Violences et silences

Silence as Denial

Fethiye Çetin's Anneannem and the Secrets of Turkey’s Hidden Armenians
Le silence du déni : Anneannem de Fethiye Çetin et les Arméniens « cachés » de Turquie
Laurent Dissard
p. 52-61


Dans son livre Anneannem publié en 2004, Fethiye Çetin, avocate des droits de l’homme basée à Istanbul, révèle le secret de sa grand-mère, Heranuş/Seher, enlevée à sa famille arménienne et adoptée par une famille turque en 1915 pendant le génocide arménien. La « matrice de silence » de Heranuş/Seher n’a pas suffi à sa petite-fille pour comprendre le secret de sa grand-mère avant qu’il ne lui soit révélé en 1975. Fethiye Çetin garde alors le secret de sa grand-mère car comme elle, la petite fille se trouve également confrontée à l’habitus turc de déni post-génocidaire. La publication d’Anneannem est l’occasion pour Çetin de découvrir d’autres secrets et de briser d’autres silences dans son pays, notamment dans la ville natale de sa grand-mère, Habap/Ekinözü, lors de la rénovation architecturale de deux fontaines. La situation des Arméniens cachés reste fragile en Turquie et leurs secrets peuvent rapidement être à nouveau réduits au silence.

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Texte intégral

The author would like to thank H. Seçkinelgin, Y. Tolga Cora, Nazli T. Beyleryan, as well as V. Fidolini, N. Diasio, R. Schlagdenhauffen and the two anonymous reviewers.

Much of what we had thought to be true turned out to be false. (Çetin 2008: 62)


  • 1 These academic debates in Turkey take place within the ever-expanding, and very much interrelated, (...)

1Over the last few decades, historians have drawn upon archival documents and eyewitness accounts to reexamine the origins, events and impact of the Armenian Genocide and its role in the construction of a Turkish national identity (Kevorkian 2006; Akçam 2006, 2012; Dündar 2010; Göçek 2015; Suny 2015). A younger generation of scholars has undertaken micro-historical studies analyzing the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in the shift from empire to nation at the turn of last century (Üngör 2011; Üngör, Polatel 2011; Ekmekçioğlu 2016; Suciyan 2016; Kurt 2021; Mouradian 2021). Other researchers, meanwhile, question the country’s official historical discourses from the perspectives of Oral History (Öztürkmen 2003; Neyzi 2005, 2019; İlyasoğlu, Kayacan 2006) and Memory Studies (Özyürek 2007; Neyzi 2010, 2011; Biner 2020), thus filling important gaps in the archival record and helping to better comprehend the way the Armenian presence has been denied, memorialized, forgotten or remembered in present-day Turkey (Tuğal 2007; Neyzi, Kharatyan-Araqelyan 2010; Biner 2010; Üngör 2014; Çelik, Dinç 2015; Çelik 2016).1

  • 2 For a discussion on violence against women and adoption of children during the death march (Miller, (...)

2This research has helped to contextualize the life stories of ‘Islamized’ or ‘hidden’ Armenians (such as Heranuş Gadaryan) within a broader history of collective violence at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Heranuş Gadaryan was born in 1905 in an Armenian family from Habap, a village near the Upper Euphrates in the Ottoman East (Cora, Derderian, Sipahi 2016: 2). In 1915, the village was raided by the Ottoman national guards, and its adult male Armenian population killed. Soon after, the women and children were forcibly taken and made to undergo an agonizing death march towards the Syrian desert. Heranuş and the remaining members of her family reached the town of Çermik, where the young girl was abducted by the Ottoman commander of the Çermik gendarmes, after her mother was beaten trying to hold on to her. Heranuş was then adopted and given the name Seher by the corporal and his wife, and treated more as a servant than as a daughter.2 A few years later, Heranuş/Seher married a Muslim man from the nearby town of Maden in the newly founded Turkish Republic.

3More than fifty years later, in 1975, Heranuş/Seher began to share the details of her childhood, which up until then she had kept hidden, with her granddaughter Fethiye Çetin, a future activist, writer, and human-rights lawyer who represented the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, assassinated in Istanbul in January 2007. Çetin, who was only 25 years old at the time, came to realize that much of what she had thought to be true about her family turned out to be false, as she listened to her grandmother reveal her secrets. Heranuş/Seher passed away in 2000 at the age of 95. For her granddaughter, this marked “the beginning of the process of reckoning with a violent past and its ongoing effects” (Altınay 2013: 75). Çetin published her grandmother’s memoir four years later (2004) in a book entitled Anneannem (translated in English, in 2008, by Maureen Freely as My Grandmother: A Memoir), that chipped away at one of the country’s long-standing taboos.

  • 3 Founded in 1993, the Istanbul-based Aras Publishing also aims to maintain the deep-rooted Armenian (...)
  • 4 “Not only do Islamized Armenians blur the boundaries between the neatly defined “Turkish” and the “ (...)

4The anthropologist Ayşe Gül Altınay identifies a nine-decade long absence of hidden Armenians in both the scholarly and popular literature in Turkey, interrupted by the 2004 publication of Anneannem, and followed by other publications on hidden Armenians (Palalı 2005, Altınay and Çetin 2014), including academic articles on their presence/absence in Turkey today (Altınay 2006, 2013; Altınay, Türkyılmaz 2010; Beyleryan 2019). Established soon after the assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist in early 2007, the Hrant Dink Foundation published a series of volumes titled Sessizliğin Sesi (The Sounds of Silence) documenting the lives and memories of Armenians across Turkey (Balancar 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016; Küçükkırca 2018; Avcı, Pulatyan 2021a, 2021b).3 The ‘secrets’ of hidden Armenians are no longer as ‘silent’ as they once were in Turkey today. In spite of this relatively recent awareness, however, hidden Armenians remain “obscured, unknown and unthought” in the country of their birth (Hirsch 2012, Altınay 2013). Their presence in Turkey causes great unease, because acknowledging their existence would be a step towards officially recognizing that the Armenian Genocide happened.4

5This article offers a close reading of Fethiye Çetin’s Anneannem in order to think through some of the secrets of Turkey’s hidden Armenians and the deafening denial of their continued presence since 1915. It uses Anneannem, and the subsequent architectural restoration of two fountains in Heranuş/Seher’s birthplace, Habap/Ekinözü, as an entry point to examine how a secret evolves across generations, to identify various types of silence at the individual, community and national level, and to highlight some of the social, cultural and political processes behind secrecy as a means of denial. In the first part of this article I will explain why the grandmother, Heranuş/Seher, kept her childhood secret for more than 50 years and how her granddaughter, Fethiye Çetin, lacked the appropriate reference points to interpret the “matrix of silence” of her Armenian identity. In the second part, I will focus more specifically on the moment Heranuş/Seher chooses to reveal, both verbally and nonverbally, her secret, which then transformed into an emotional burden for the granddaughter who felt obliged to keep it hushed on her own. In the third part of the paper I will examine the architectural restoration project in Habap/Ekinözü to show how Çetin managed to untie tongues and heal wounds, and demonstrate how quickly such attempts aimed at revealing more secrets of Turkey’s hidden Armenians can once again be silenced.

A Secret that Never was (1915-1975)

6Heranuş/Seher spent most of her adult life in Maden, a small town halfway between Elazığ and Diyarbakır in eastern Turkey. Here she raised her five children but kept the secret of her own childhood to herself—her abduction from her Armenian family and her adoption by new Turkish parents. A secret, by definition, is always “betrayed” or “partially” known. That is, it has to be known to be a secret, in order for it to be a secret (Squire 2015). Heranuş/Seher’s secret is no exception, since many of her neighbors in Maden already knew bits and pieces of it. In Anneannem, Çetin’s mother explains to her that:

Your grandmother [Heranuş/Seher] didn’t tell us anything either, my girl. We found out from what other people told us, and in the course of events… When we were children, we’d sometimes get into fights with the other children in the neighbourhood. When they got mad at us, they’d call us “convert’s spawn”. When they called us this, your grandmother would be beside herself. Whenever she heard this, she would throw a scarf over her head and go straight to see the neighbours. (Çetin 2008: 79)

7Insults directed at anyone suspected of having ‘impure blood’ was common in Turkey, and still is, even though Çetin adds that the neighbours eventually stopped the insults. What is important to remember here is that the whole town probably knew the secret without really caring to know its horrific details. Rather, her mother explains that another version of the truth was known:

The story in the town was that our mother was Armenian and that her parents had gone to America and left her here. But whenever we brought this up inside the family, the subject was closed so quickly that we realised it was not to be discussed, and so we never talked about it. (Çetin 2008: 79)

8Note here that this alternative truth (which exposes the secret while hiding the details) places the blame on the victim, the Armenian mother who ‘abandoned’ her daughter, rather than on the perpetrator, the heroic Turkish corporal who ‘rescued’ her. The grandmother’s secret was also known by most of her relatives, but there was a collective understanding in the family to never talk about it. It is a secret characterized not by its complete absence, but by the continual effort to hide it when its presence is being felt. Again, it is a ‘betrayed’ or ‘partial’ secret, like all secrets, that needs to be hushed up. Çetin adds how:

With time, I realised that my mother and aunts knew most of this painful story. But she had never told them about the inhuman crimes she had witnessed; I was the only one who knew of them. It was with me that she shared the details that had most pained and affected her. I think she could no longer bear to keep them to herself. (Çetin 2008: 78)

  • 5 This was apparently not the case for Çetin’s grandmother, but genocide survivors can often oscillat (...)
  • 6 Bilal (2019) examines the manner in which children’s tales, in her case lullabies, not only create (...)

9Çetin describes a series of clues that showed her grandmother’s difference. As a child, for example, Çetin had an aptitude for both music and school, which was often praised by her grandmother, who told her that she took after her “side of the family” (Çetin 2008: 32), a simple compliment that appeared to have a deeper meaning. Çetin recalled how the family used to play music together at home and sing Turkish folksongs. Her grandmother would never really join in, except by keeping tempo with her hand (Çetin 2008: 32).5 So, it took Çetin some time to realize that a tale her grandmother told her children, and later her grandchildren, and even her great-grandchildren, about a winged beetle called Sister Pizez, an Armenian word for flies with sheath wings, was one the grandmother had originally heard as a child in her Armenian family (Çetin 2008: 28-30).6

10Çetin started making sense of why her grandmother had a different relationship to Islam than the rest of her family (even though she writes that both her grandparents were, in fact, “good Muslims”) once the secret was revealed to her. When Heranuş/Seher was angry at her (Muslim) husband, Çetin remembers how she would often whisper “Oi, Müsürman,” placing the emphasis on the first syllable of this colloquial Turkish term for Muslim:

In the early days of his retirement, before [my grandfather] ran through his lump sum, he kept insisting that he was going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. But my grandmother never once gave him her approval for this plan. Every time he brought up the pilgrimage, she would say, ‘Oi, Müsürman, the pilgrimage is to your own door,’ and as she spoke she would give us a signal with her eyes. In the end my grandfather was unable to go to Mecca; his lump sum went on food, and was soon exhausted. (Çetin 2008: 23)

  • 7 Çetin does not specify whether her grandmother spoke Armenian or not during these moments, like the (...)

11Çetin understood only much later the meaning behind her grandmother making çörek (a traditional baked bread) with other Islamized Armenian women in town on particular days of the year.7 She writes how:

They might have hidden it from their children and grandchildren, but these women had carried on their traditions in secret; they’d not forgotten their holy days, and would visit their neighbours and celebrate together. It had taken until today to see this. (Çetin 2008: 102)

12Here, çörek is not only evidence of a cherished, hidden Armenian tradition within Turkish or Kurdish communities, but also a positive reminder for Çetin of her grandmother’s resilience and will to survive in spite of all that had happened to her. It operates like the tattooed number, the shoes and the soup spoon of Holocaust survivors interviewed by the anthropologist Carol A. Kidron (2009: 18), and described as the “living reminders of the enigmatic power of survival and human resilience, rather than merely eliciting emotive distress, mourning, or morbidity in the descendant generation.”

13On the one hand, Çetin is overcome with a sense of admiration for her grandmother who never completely gave up on or forgot who she was. On the other hand, she is puzzled and even deeply troubled by the fact that it took her so long to figure out the truth about her. It is only when she learned of her secret that she began to realize that her grandmother was expressing her (Armenian) difference ever so subtly at these moments. All of these missed clues that Çetin was not able to interpret, I argue, make up what Kidron calls a “matrix of silence,” that is an array of (non)verbal traces from a traumatic past that genocide survivors retain in their everyday lives.

Descendants [of Holocaust survivors] recounted the nonverbal and partially verbal traces of the Holocaust interwoven in everyday life. These traces form a vital experiential matrix of Holocaust presence in the private domain. The matrix entailed the following “media” of presence: silent survivor-descendant interaction with surviving artifacts of the death-world, descendant virtual interaction with ghosts of the Holocaust dead, survivor-descendant face/emotion work, practices of survival carried over from the Holocaust, and parent-child dialogic interaction in the form of dicta and fragments of mythic tales of survival. (Kidron 2009: 9)

14Kidron explains reaching a turning point in her ethnographic research when she stopped asking her informants, the (grand)children of Holocaust survivors, about what they knew of the Holocaust, but how the Holocaust was present in their homes, their everyday lives, their (grand)parents’ bodies, their quotidian exchanges and their mundane activities (Kidron 2009: 6). Silent embodied practices, quiet personal interactions, and other implicit traces inside a survivor’s home can sustain the family’s lived memory in a nonpathological way, she adds. This “matrix of silence” composed of various interactions, artifacts, gestures, nonverbal clues and bedtime stories, however, was never understood by Çetin (unlike some of Kidron’s descendants of Holocaust survivors) as anything else until her grandmother revealed her secret to her in 1975. What Heranuş/Seher left behind at these times—when she complimented her granddaughter, kept tempo with her hand, told bedtime stories, baked çörek or shouted at her husband—constituted a puzzle that her granddaughter was never able to piece together.

15Why was Fethiye Çetin not able to interpret these moments earlier and understand her grandmother’s ‘otherness’? Why could she not read this “matrix of silence”? The answer is to be found in the way Turkey has denied the Armenian Genocide during its construction as a nation-state. Çetin certainly possessed a political consciousness growing up, but had no fathomable idea that secrets such as those of her grandmother could even exist, or even surround the events leading to the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Instead, Çetin grew up hearing of the country’s glorious past, for instance, at school:

I would remember the poems I recited for national holidays. Because I was one of the best students in the class, my teachers would ask me to read out heroic poems on every national holiday. I would recite these poems about our ‘glorious past’ at the top of my voice, and with such passion; but now I could not remember this without seeing the children’s eyes opened wide with terror, and their heads disappearing into the water, and the river that ran red with blood for days. (Çetin 2008: 66)

  • 8 The daughter of a Holocaust survivor tells Kidron how she figured out what her mother’s experience (...)

16The celebrations of national holidays (Öztürkmen 2001) and recitations of patriotic poems, in other words, had left no room in Çetin’s head for the terror of the death march endured by her grandmother. The granddaughter was never taught, in or out of her school, about the fate of this particular minority at the time of the demise of the Ottoman Empire. So she would not have been aware of the horrific complexities of her region’s immediate past, which would have allowed her to “pick up” the bits and pieces and “put together” the larger narrative of her grandmother’s secret childhood.8

A Secret’s Heavy Burden (1975-2004)

  • 9 The practice of searching for relatives lost after 1915 through ‘Looking For’ advertisements contin (...)

17Heranuş/Seher began revealing her secret to Fethiye Çetin in 1975, by first asking her for an intriguing favor. The grandmother started telling her granddaughter about her own mother, father and brother, who had supposedly been living in the United States for the past 50 years. Three of them had escaped the death march and found refuge much later in New York. Heranuş/Seher now wished to know their exact whereabouts and see them again, and thus requested that her granddaughter contact them.9 This made no sense to Çetin, who had always thought that her family came from Çermik (certainly not America), not knowing at the time that Çermik was in reality the town from where her grandmother had been abducted as a child. The two women remained silent the day the grandmother revealed her secret, even with the rest of the family present in the house, and later only talked when they found themselves alone.

We formed a special and very secret alliance. I sensed her longing to rid herself of the burden she had been carrying all these years—to open the curtains that hid her secret, to tell this story she had never shared with a soul—but I think she also knew that, having gone through life knowing none of it, I would find it deeply upsetting. She was protecting me. (Çetin 2008: 62)

18It is not rare to find genocide survivors unwilling to reveal their traumatic stories for fear of tormenting their own children or grandchildren (Kidron 2009). This sometimes constitutes the main reason for the silences in families about such horrors. Here, however, what the grandmother had witnessed as a child had certainly traumatized her, but not to the extent of muting her completely, and the “longing to rid herself of the burden” (Çetin 2008: 62) after so many years finally overcame the decision to keep her secret silent. It is during these “moments of virtual copresence in the past” that Heranuş/Seher and Fethiye Çetin synchronized their worlds, at both the narrational and emotional levels, thus allowing the granddaughter to encounter what made her grandmother who she was (Kidron 2009: 13).

  • 10 The generational “skip” from grandmother to granddaughter in Fethiye Çetin’s “postmemory” (Hirsch 1 (...)

19Çetin describes her grandmother as very smart and capable of remembering very well events that took place some fifty years before, later adding that it was only towards the end of her life that she began having difficulties with words. She depicts her grandmother telling the horror she witnessed very factually, almost casually, without ever really judging or blaming anyone, but also without ever verbally formulating her inner feelings. This does not mean that the transmission from grandmother to granddaughter10 was done in a straightforward way in the absence of affect. At one point during their exchange, the granddaughter realized how draining it was for her grandmother to talk about her secret. She offered her some coffee, but she was so entrenched in the story, and exhausted at the same time, that she wasn’t able to notice the cup. “What this woman had lived through defied belief and after burying these memories for so many years, it taxed her brain to put them into words, to tell the story.” (Çetin 2008: 64)

20One particularly traumatic story was so exhausting for her grandmother that it left her speechless every time she told it. During the death march, Heranuş/Seher explained how her own grandmother had to drown two of her grandchildren because they simply could not walk anymore, and how she then took her own life, there and then, in the same river.

Here my grandmother stopped. That this part of the story had affected her deeply was clear from the way she kept returning to it to tell it again. In the coming years, she would refer to this incident many times, and each time the story would end with a deep silence. (Çetin 2008: 64)

  • 11 For other stories of survivors from the death march, see Miller and Miller 1999, especially Chapter (...)

21This long pause at the end of the story conveyed how difficult this particular memory was for her grandmother.11 Çetin describes another moment when the horrors her grandmother endured were transmitted, not through words, but through a minute hand movement:

My grandmother would not look me in the eye, that instead she fixed her eyes on a point on the carpet; that while she held my left hand tight she kept making the same movement with her right hand, passing over her thigh, as if she were ironing her dress, smoothing out the wrinkles, over and over, without realising she was doing so. (Çetin 2008: 63-64)

22It goes without saying that the absence of speech does not necessarily mean the absence of communication. A wide range of hidden feelings are conveyed here corporeally instead. Emotions can be passed on through a seemingly benign and silent gesture, repeated “over and over,” unconsciously, albeit intensely. With time, a kind of silent communication was established between the two women, not always narrative in nature but always emotive in character. It is this silence that becomes a strong vector of transmission of meaning, stronger than words in some instances (Altınay 2006: 117).

23Heranuş/Seher had not just revealed the bits and pieces already circulating in the town and in her family, but all the atrocities in their excruciating detail that she had endured as a child. Çetin not only had to deal with the effects of “transmitted trauma” upon hearing the secret, but with the experience of a “sudden void” constituted by the absent presence of a genocide distant in time but ever so near in the secret revealed (Kidron 2009; Kidron et al. 2019). She alone had to slowly put the pieces of her family’s puzzle together and later pondered, alone again, about what to do with such a secret. She struggled, for instance, with the possible consequences of revealing the story, which had now transformed into her burden, to the rest of her family. For a long time Çetin was never able to share her grandmother’s secret with anyone else.

I, too, hid what I was hearing from all others: my world had been turned upside down, my distress ran very deep, and I was trying to pull through it alone. (Çetin 2008: 62)

24Something else defied belief for Çetin. When she asked her grandmother why she didn’t follow her mother, father and brother to the United States when she had the opportunity to do so later in life, she answered “Ne bileyim?,” which can be translated as “How should I know?” or as “Whatever!” when used to reject the question itself. Her answer, for Çetin, also meant “How could have I done so?” (Çetin 2008: 76) That is, the grandmother certainly knew she could escape abroad but was never able to put the thought into practice. The secret had tied her grandmother to the place she lived and to the life she had been forced to accept. Escaping would have meant disclosing it. Çetin’s grandmother, she explains, had faced death as a child and was never afraid of anyone as an adult. Nonetheless, she was terrified that one day her secret might somehow be revealed. Çetin asks:

So why, when it came to the question of her true identity, did she feel so helpless? Why could she not defend her identity, or the family into which she had been born? Why couldn’t she stand by her own wishes? (Çetin 2008: 78)

25Why then was the grandmother so fearful and reluctant of disclosing her Armenian past? Collective violence against Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire continued in different forms under the subsequent Republic of Turkey, which expedited the extinction of Armenian cultural and social life well into the 1950s when a number of them were still living in the provinces (Suciyan 2016: 200). Heranuş/Seher had to contend with the ordinary, banal reality of what the historian Talin Suciyan calls the post-genocidal habitus of denial composed of “a set of created values, daily practices, and mechanisms denying the experience of the survivor” (Suciyan 2016: 18). She explains how:

denial has been established as the core mechanism of sociation and individuation, at the expense of the survivor with all his or her being, including his or her experiences, language, told or untold histories, and knowledge. (Suciyan 2016: 18)

26This familial and societal pressure emanating from the “core mechanism” of denial, responsible for silencing hundreds of thousands of hidden Armenians, later fell on the shoulders of one of their descendants, Fethiye Çetin, even though she herself had never directly witnessed what her grandmother had lived through as a child or as an adult. State coercion on the topic of the Armenian Genocide is so strong in Turkey that the taboo has been internalized by the majority of the population who continues to act as if nothing happened (Copeaux 2020, 2021: 10). Ultimately, it was what Taner Akçam describes as “a shared secret of society… based on a silent consensus” (Akcam 2012: xxvi), experienced by the grandmother albeit at a different time and in a different context, which also prompted the granddaughter to keep her secret as quiet as possible... until the publication of Anneannem in 2004.

A Secret Silenced Again (2004-2011)

27Fethiye Çetin’s Anneannem was published four years after her grandmother passed away. The book attracted attention first in Turkey and, later, internationally, by being translated into at least eleven different languages (Altınay 2013: 77). It did not, however, make its way immediately to Heranuş/Seher’s birthplace, Habap, known today as Ekinözü, a small village between the eastern and northern branches of the Euphrates River in rural eastern Turkey. A group of villagers contacted Çetin in the hope of obtaining a copy of the book and the author soon after accepted the invitation to visit the village, where she came face to face with the ruined houses, schools and churches of her grandmother’s childhood. During her first trip, Çetin learned of two decaying fountains. Water had stopped flowing long ago, some of the stones had been removed, and the inscription “1634” written in Armenian numbers on top of one of the ruins was barely visible. Çetin realized that if these fountains were not carefully looked after, they would quickly disappear and take with them a part of her deceased grandmother.

28In August 2011, Çetin convened a team of architects, artists and students from around the world to launch a renovation project. In the documentary film Habap Çeşmeleri: Bir Restorasyonun Öyküsü (Habap Fountains: The Story of a Restoration), directed by Dilek Aydin (2012), one of the student volunteers explains his hope of bringing history in the region alive again through his participation. As for Çetin, she also believes that the restoration will help to soothe the souls of all these people brutally murdered and uprooted from their homeland, including the soul of her own grandmother.

The process of renovation of the fountains also heals people… This is a healing work. People get healed slowly by working here, watching this happening, contacting us. They try to get rid of their sickness related to their past. It’s like this for all of us, for me, maybe for you too. (Habap Çeşmeleri: Bir Restorasyonun Öyküsü)

29Çetin was not regarded as a foreigner by the villagers who immediately agreed that repairing the fountains would be beneficial. Her presence also encouraged those to talk who remembered what Habap was like in the first half of the 20th century. As it turned out, Ekinözü was full of secrets similar to the one kept by Heranuş/Seher for so many years. Çetin was not only able to reconnect with her grandmother’s secret, but also untie people’s tongues about their own families’ hidden Armenian past. Villagers started telling her about other converts who stayed in the village and thus avoided the death march in 1915. One of them explained:

We have many Armenian women here, who got married, they had children and then grandchildren... in the upper neighborhood, and in the houses close to the road… There’s Hatun, Mehmed Şerif’s mother… and there was Fatma in the upper neighborhood. There was her son Hacı Bekir who died recently. (Habap Çeşmeleri: Bir Restorasyonun Öyküsü)

30Another scene shows an older woman telling Çetin the (Armenian) names of her uncle (Evanis), grandfather (Minas), grandmother (Altun) and aunt (Ayganosh), who were all part of the large Papazian family. Later, a man from a nearby town wanted to see Çetin to tell her about his own Armenian grandmother, Zarman. According to him, his grandmother was very young when she was taken under the protection of his grandfather’s father, a man who later forced her to marry his son when she was 13 or 14. Her husband pressured Zarman to pray and fast, but this courageous woman, “a real Armenian” according to her grandson, never did really convert. Finally, another woman in tears also came to share her grandmother’s story with Çetin:

My grandmother used to say there were two fountains. One in the upper neighborhood, the other in the lower neighborhood… She used to say it constantly... She said, ‘We escaped when they started shooting. All my sisters and brothers were shot. They took my daughter away’. We were kids, we all heard her talking. Whenever I came here, I feel very bad… She said we had a house in the upper neighborhood. She used to say if you go to Habap, there is a pool, if you see the pool, it was our house. We came, but there was no pool, or anything. Nothing was left… She said we had a monastery, watermill… (Habap Çeşmeleri: Bir Restorasyonun Öyküsü)

31The restoration of the fountains itself enabled the healing to take place, according to Çetin, as if the simple fact of the water starting to flow in them again made possible a renewed flow of words in the village. The debilitated fountains and other traces of a past Armenian presence constituted the opportunity to unearth more hidden secrets and provided Çetin hope for future cross-border collaboration, understanding, reconciliation and friendship. In the film Çetin takes time to describe the final moment of the renovation:

We removed the stoppers and hoses, the water started to shoot out. At that moment, that sound, the sound of the water, finally drowned out all the desperate cries, wailings and sobs that were echoing in the back of my head since my first visit to the village. I stood up in front of the fountain, we cried out of happiness. They washed the fountains and the platform all clean with the flowing water. I lit a cigarette, and commemorated all the Heranushes, Ishkuhis and especially Hrant. (Habap Çeşmeleri: Bir Restorasyonun Öyküsü)

32The two monuments had been silenced for years, very much like the country’s hidden Armenians, but their renovation provided them with a voice of their own, which disrupted, at least momentarily, the village quietude and allowed unspoken truths to be told. It not only allowed Çetin to reconnect with her grandmother’s secret, but also encouraged the villagers to talk about their own families’ silences. More than her presence in the village, it was her active involvement and everyday engagement in the restoration of its fountains that broke some of these taboos. Again, according to Çetin, it helped soothe the souls of the deceased and enabled people to reconcile with their past—a way for her country to heal some of its wounds caused by the Armenian Genocide a century ago. Moreover, Çetin had hoped that the project would reveal other secrets in other places. Indeed, her restoration project, and even more importantly before that, the publication of Anneannem, did help the process of reconciliation amongst Turks, Kurds and Armenians (Altınay 2006: 127-129).

One of the fountains restored by Fethiye Çetin's team in 2011 in her grandmother's village, Habap/Ekinözü in present-day Eastern Turkey. Photography: © Laurent Dissard, August 2014.

33Towards the end of the film, Selçuk Aslan, the District Governor (kaymakam) of Kovancılar, the largest town near Habap/Ekinözü, is shown giving a speech during the inauguration of the two renovated fountains. He is seen rejoicing about the end result and thanking everyone from the bottom of his heart for all their efforts:

We are sharing a really happy day today. It has been three years since I started my position here. Whenever I visited the Ekinözü village, I was always saddened by seeing the sight, especially that of the Upper Fountain. This fountain looked so unhappy, as a few of its arches were broken down. One of the fountains was half-functioning, but filled with mud during every flood. Today our sadness turns into joy. At this point, I would like to thank Fethiye Hanım from the bottom of my heart. She had told us that her grandmother was from this village. She had not been to this village until a few years back. Now she is the one who travelled here from Istanbul, the one who took the biggest initiative; she assumed the biggest responsibility in all this. By doing this, she has actually shamed us as the administrators of the district and the villagers. God willing, this will be only a first step. (Habap Çeşmeleri: Bir Restorasyonun Öyküsü)

  • 12 Similarly, Çetin also explains in Anneannem that her grandmother’s funeral ceremony made no mention (...)

34Here, the District Governor omits to mention the reason why Çetin launched the project in the first place. He does not acknowledge the secret of her Armenian grandmother and excludes any discussion of Habap/Ekinözü’s traumatic past. His few words meant to thank Fethiye Çetin, ironically, wiped away almost all of her efforts and once again silenced her grandmother’s childhood.12 We do not know if the District Governor left out these key details consciously, that is if he wrote the speech beforehand deliberately deleting anything too controversial (in this case too Armenian), but the end result is the same. His few words of gratitude were enough to put the grandmother’s secret back in her grave and allow everyone to carry on pretending as they once did. We do not know either how much of the crowd actually noticed the omission, but what transpires is the fact that no one makes Selçuk Aslan aware of his own “epistemic harm” (Oranlı 2021, Fricker 2007). Again, this official government representative’s truth (which exposes the secret while hiding the details) overlooks the reason why Çetin is present in the first place and the crowd once again is seen contending with Turkey’s post-genocidal habitus of denial.

35More than anything else, the speech demonstrates how fragile Çetin’s hope to untie tongues and heal wounds remains, how quickly the stories she gave voice to can be silenced, and how much work remains to be done before the secrets of hidden Armenians are no longer silent in Turkey. I am not writing here that the documentary depicts a simple black-and-white picture of Habap/Ekinözü where the District Governor is averse to Fethiye Çetin or where Turks and Kurds are opposed to Armenians. Instead, Habap Çeşmeleri: Bir Restorasyonun Öyküsü delves into the many complexities of this specific village in eastern Turkey as it faces the episodes of its traumatic past. Here, silence as survival meets silence as denial, the fervid refutation from the top encounters the desire to heal at the bottom, and the grandmother’s secret is neither entirely accepted nor completely silenced by the state. The film also illustrates some of the contradictions behind memorializing the Armenian Genocide, on the one side, and denying it, on the other side. Both of these practices operate in a dialectic of presence and absence, devastation and healing, pain and hope, knowledge and secret, expression and silence, etc. The concepts I have borrowed in this article, such as “matrix of silence” to explain why Fethiye Çetin was not able to “put together” her grandmother’s secret, or post-genocidal habitus of denial to clarify why both grandmother and granddaughter kept silent for so long also serve as useful reminders of the complexities behind the manner in which the presence of hidden Armenians is accepted or denied, as well as remembered and forgotten, in present-day Turkey.


36A secret can evolve with time, follow different rhythms, adapt to various contexts and represent different things for different people. Here, we can use Fethiye Çetin’s Anneannem to establish a non-exhaustive typology of secrecy that might include Heranuş/Seher’s secret as survival, Fethiye Çetin’s secret as liberation, and Turkey’s secret as denial. Heranuş/Seher’s secret was first ‘partial’ and ‘betrayed’ in Maden, but kept silent nonetheless so that her family might lead a normal life. Their identity was based on secret as survival and a will to assimilate under new social and political norms. Acknowledging their Armenian past would have been done at a high price for the children and grandchildren. Once transmitted to the granddaughter some fifty years later, the grandmother’s secret is again hushed as Çetin is now forced to contend with her country’s post-genocidal habitus of denial. Under Turkey’s ethno-nationalist policies, then and now, the cost of remembering for hidden Armenians and their descendants remains elevated. All in all, revealing your secret means identifying with a disadvantaged group and distancing yourself socially from a majority position. Thus, hidden Armenians occupy a particularly negative place in the Turkish public psyche. Silencing remains the most efficient survival strategy in a society where denial is the norm and acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide is considered an offense against the Republic.

37Heranuş/Seher’s secret is then made public by her granddaughter in 2004. Çetin makes use of the revelation in an effort to untie tongues, heal wounds and soothe souls in her country, as well as uncover more secrets in her grandmother’s birthplace. Known to all, the secret remains fragile nonetheless. It is silenced again with just a few words uttered by a government official who omits the details of Heranuş/Seher’s life and Fethiye Çetin’s motives for restoring the fountains in Habap/Ekinözü. Over the last couple of decades, the (grand)children of hidden Armenians have become more and more interested in learning about their roots, but they remain vulnerable to societal pressure and threatened by their possible exposure (Üngör 2014: 163). A secret continues to be a secret even after it is revealed most often because we do not accept that it can be anything else. To continue pretending a secret is a secret, while knowing very well it is not and ignoring its concealed truth, is called denial. Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide is not just the state trying to protect its nation’s integrity, but also the multiple ways people are educated, persuaded, encouraged and silenced into different ways of thinking that it never happened. The silence of hidden Armenians, in the end, remains necessary to support the country’s denial of its past.

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1 These academic debates in Turkey take place within the ever-expanding, and very much interrelated, fields of Memory Studies (Nora 1989; Connerton 2008; Erll, Nünning, 2008) and Genocide Studies (Jacobs 2010, Stone 2013 for the Holocaust; Burnet 2012, Longman 2017 for Rwanda; Caswell 2014, Tyner 2017 for Cambodia).

2 For a discussion on violence against women and adoption of children during the death march (Miller, Miller 1992; Sarafian 2001; Dadrian 2003; Derderian 2005; Bjørnlund 2009).

3 Founded in 1993, the Istanbul-based Aras Publishing also aims to maintain the deep-rooted Armenian publishing tradition in Turkey with books on Armenian literature, biographies, history, arts and cuisine in both Turkish and Armenian.

4 “Not only do Islamized Armenians blur the boundaries between the neatly defined “Turkish” and the “Armenian side,” but… their presence also creates anxieties in view of Article 2 of the Genocide Convention which refers to forcibly transferring children of one group to another group as a genocidal act” (Altınay 2013: 84).

5 This was apparently not the case for Çetin’s grandmother, but genocide survivors can often oscillate between playful moments and somber thoughts along the border of life and death, sometimes never able to truly connect with their families (Kidron 2009: 12-13).

6 Bilal (2019) examines the manner in which children’s tales, in her case lullabies, not only create and transmit affect, but also contain the experience of displacement and loss in the case of Armenians in Turkey.

7 Çetin does not specify whether her grandmother spoke Armenian or not during these moments, like the Armenians of Gürün, a small town near Malatya, described by Beyleryan (2019: 69) who shared secrets among themselves in Armenian. See also Üngör 2014: 162.

8 The daughter of a Holocaust survivor tells Kidron how she figured out what her mother’s experience might have been like in the past: “Now it wasn’t that my mother sat down and told me what had happened to her. I think I just picked up on all sorts of things that floated in the home… I guess I just put things together” (Kidron 2009: 13-14).

9 The practice of searching for relatives lost after 1915 through ‘Looking For’ advertisements continues to this day (Suciyan 2016: 5).

10 The generational “skip” from grandmother to granddaughter in Fethiye Çetin’s “postmemory” (Hirsch 1997, 2012) is not uncommon within the families of genocide survivors (Kidron 2009: 5).

11 For other stories of survivors from the death march, see Miller and Miller 1999, especially Chapter 5: The Experience of Women and Children.

12 Similarly, Çetin also explains in Anneannem that her grandmother’s funeral ceremony made no mention of her hidden Armenian identity and that everyone attending it had to simply carry on pretending (Çetin 2004: 2-3, Altınay 2013: 75).

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Légende One of the fountains restored by Fethiye Çetin's team in 2011 in her grandmother's village, Habap/Ekinözü in present-day Eastern Turkey. Photography: © Laurent Dissard, August 2014.
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Laurent Dissard, « Silence as Denial »Revue des sciences sociales [En ligne], 66 | 2021, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2021, consulté le 05 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Dissard

Université de Pau et des Pays de l'Adour
EA 3002, ITEM (Identités, Territoires, Expressions, Mobilités)

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