Meeting Cousin Murat
When I was ten years old, my parents pulled my brothers and me into our family room and sat us down on its leather couches. They told us, “A cousin of ours will move in with us tomorrow.” Hoping that the cousin would be one of my favorites, I got excited and asked, “Which one? Davey? Bobby?” My parents shook their heads. “No, this is a cousin you have not met yet.”
I had no idea I had never met one of my cousins. I thought I knew them all. “Who is it, Mom?” I asked.
“Your cousin Murat*,” my father responded.
I didn’t know much, but I knew that Murat was neither American nor Armenian.
“Where is he coming from?” I asked.
“He is from the old country,” my father said.
My grandfather had immigrated to the US in the early 20th century with his mother who had been married to his father back in the village of Tadem on the outskirts of Kharpert years before. My great-grandfather, Yesayi, had come to this country to work in the steel mills. Apparently, he was a very vocal and nationalist Ramgavar and they feared for his life in that little village in the aftermath of the Hamidian massacres and sent him off the US as early as possible. But not before marrying him off to my great-grandmother (Prapeon) who gave birth to their first son, Gaspar, whilst Yesayi was already in Worcester, MA.
Prapeon never wanted to leave her homeland. But Yesayi told her that if she didn’t come to the US, he would find another wife. So, she made the long journey with her young son in tow. Family memory says he was about 4 when they made the trip.
She left the village before she saw her relatives slaughtered. She left the village before she saw her sister married to a Turk. She left before she saw her town change from a center of Armenian prosperity and culture (it had three churches and two schools, at least) to a wasteland of fields and emptiness.
She came to this country with Gaspar, my grandfather. She and Yesayi opened a store in Waukegan, IL. They had three more children, another boy and two girls. Their four children became successful beyond their imagination. The night my grandfather performed his first surgery, he took a $100 bill home to his father. Yesayi went to the agoump (Armenian club) and ate and drank. He came home, slept, woke up and ate some grapes at the kitchen table. That night, he died of a heart attack.
Meanwhile, in Kharpert, Prapeon’s sister Takouhi married a Turk. He was, apparently, a nice Turk. Family histories differ on this point. The Armenian side says that she married him because she was forced to. The Turkish side says that they were truly in love and they married in spite of the opposition of both families. If only Takouhi were still alive, I would ask her. But she’s not. All I have left are two sides of the story. And the rest …
Murat was Takouhi’s grandson. His father, who must remain unnamed, had already become important in Turkey. He was a member of the intellectual class and someone who was respected by the government. Murat’s coming to our home was uncomfortable for them. But Murat wanted to be in the US. And my grandfather and grandmother, when they had visited the village in 1969, had promised him that if he ever wanted to come to the US, they would help him.
So, Murat went to my grandfather’s house in 1985. And when, after three days he hadn’t found a job, my grandfather sent him to our house. Of course.
I grew up in between two Armenian communities: one that was Ramgavar, second generation, and dead (or on its way to dying) and another that was Tashnag and alive in every sense of the word. When I went to my Tashnag Armenian school and told a story about my cousin Murat, it was not a welcome story.
And I remember being confused, although young, about this entire situation. But I didn’t really grasp it. Murat was from over there. From where my family was from. We were in America. What did it really matter that he was Turk and we were Armenian? I was young, I didn’t get it … and my parents, while not hippies, were so open-minded that they didn’t make me understand why it was so different. Why that difference was so important.
Unfortunately, I only learned the significance of that difference years later, after birthdays and picnics and parties with my big cousin Murat. Unfortunately, I only learned the real significance of that difference when I went to Turkey.
As I prepared to go to Turkey for the first time, at the age of 26 or so, I visited my adviser. I trusted him, I looked up to him. As a graduate student, I had begun to understand the complications of the internal structure of Turkey. I knew that there was a big difference between Islamists and the military. And I knew that my Turkish relatives were more Islamist than they were military.
I went to him and I said, “I am going to Turkey. Do you think I shouldn’t tell people that Mehmet* is my relative? Maybe they will think bad things about me.” He looked me in the eye, in his office at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, and said, “Rachel, you think that you shouldn’t tell people you are related to him? Are you sure he wants you to tell people that he is related to you?” In retrospect, and knowing him, I can only imagine how difficult it was for him to say that. And in retrospect, I am so grateful that he did, as it prepared me for what was to come. But at that moment I was indignant, “What are you talking about?” He smiled and said, “Rachel, just try to think about it from his perspective.” And I couldn’t. I didn’t know enough to know what to think. A Turk would be embarrassed that he had an Armenian relative? To me, it was incomprehensible.
Months later, I found myself at a table in the hot kitchen of Mehmet’s house. He had turned on all of the appliances and opened the windows. He was sweating. In Turkish, he began his story. He told me that no one knew he was half Armenian. Not even his wife’s family. He told me that if they did, he could lose his job, his stature, his livelihood. He told me that he wanted me to be comfortable in his home. But that I was a guest (misafir), not a relative (akraba). He said he was grateful for all that my family had done for Murat (we had bought him a house, got him a job, he was a part of our family, yani.) But that he could not offer me the same in Turkey. The circumstances were different.
It was funny, because at that moment I felt so different from him and, yet, that same sort of pragmatism that he delivered was the very same my grandfather always did. (And, I have to admit that at that moment, years after my grandfather had passed away … I felt real fear in the only way I had ever known it, from my grandfather).
Forced into this strange situation, I accepted his terms. I wouldn’t tell anyone I was their relative. I would try to hide the fact that my last name ended in I-A-N. And I would say that Murat and my father were friends in the US, if anyone asked.
It was wrong, and I knew it was wrong, but I was trying to uphold the bonds of Prapeon and Takuhi who had written to each other until they died. I really had no other option. Or I didn’t see any other. And, as much as this situation was uncomfortable and denigrating, it was also fascinating. I was gaining insight into an entirely foreign world.
Days, weeks and months passed. We all ate breakfasts together, I went to my Turkish language classes, we had dinners together and talked late into the night eating watermelons and watching TV. We never talked about Armenian “stuff.” We never talked about our families. It was like a homestay with people I didn’t know.
Until one day, I was walking around the house with one of the daughters who wanted to show me some of the important artifacts in their house. She pulled out a pen set, with inlaid pearl, and inscribed in Armenian. She said, “My father brought this back from Russia.” I said, “That’s funny, because the writing is in Armenian. And the last name is ours.” She choked. And placed the pen set back on its shelf.
During those few months, I learned a lot about what it means to be a Turk. And even more about what it means to be an Armenian.
In the end, they loved me but couldn’t muster up the courage to admit to their family and friends that I was their relative.
When I left, I left them presents. But I never wanted to be close with them again. I couldn’t.
The last time I was in Istanbul, I went out with my cousins. They bought me books for my research. We sat in a café and talked. They were crying. They tried to explain. They tried to explain that they wanted to be my cousin, but that they couldn’t be related to an Armenian. I told them I understood, but that I couldn’t be in their lives.
Until now, I am not sure that we understand each other.
In spite of the deep pain that this relationship created for all of us, I am grateful to my relatives for making me understand just how difficult all of this is. All I know is that I wish it wasn’t.
*Author’s note: The names of many of the characters in this story have been changed.