Silencing the Past
While cleansing the Ottoman Empire of religious impurities in 1915, the Turks wiped out almost two-thirds of the Assyrian Christian population. No one knows how many Christians were martyred during World War I, but we do know the number is in the millions. Despite efforts by the Turks to silence the past, the memory of that genocide still lives on, kept alive for future generations by the children and the children’s children of the survivors. Both my parents were Assyrians, born in Persia in an area adjacent to Turkey on the very edge of the Fertile Crescent. When my mother left the Middle East after World War I, first to France and later to America, she left behind buried in the ruins of an ancient civilization many family members. For her, looking back was never easy.
I will always remember her bullet wound below her left breast. It was an ugly scar, a cruel reminder of what she had endured. To hide the scar and to escape its memories, she would cover herself with layers of clothes, even during the hot summers.
When I first saw the scar as a child, I was horrified and tried to escape its memory with mindless and childish activities. When I saw the scar again 25 years ago, while visiting her in a nursing home, I submitted to the emotions it evoked with adult strength.
My mother was in her early twenties when she married my father. She arrived in America with enough gold to start a new life and enough raw memories for several lifetimes. Their marriage was pre-arranged, planned by surviving family members, an arrangement which my mother never fully appreciated. As a result, the marriage was loveless in the beginning, but it grew into something quite special over the years because of their shared memories.
Although my mother found safety in America, she never completely escaped her war memories. Sometimes the demons from her past would unexpectedly surface without warning. One moment she would be calmly knitting or reading; the next moment she would be in tears, sorrowfully talking to herself in Syriac. What triggered her mood change was never clear to me; it could’ve been something she read, something I said, or some familiar object taking on a new and significant meaning.
No matter how hard I tried, I never could forget her private suffering, while growing up. The memory of it would often return for fleeting moments and leave me unsettled. Then on 9/11 that all changed for me, and the broken pieces from her past came together, dramatically with clarity.
Although I will never know exactly what my mother saw or experienced, I do know from recorded reports that it must have been horrifying. The Turks had a reputation for cruelty. It wasn’t unlike them to soak Christians in oil and burn them alive, or saw off their legs and arms, or gouge their eyes with knives, or chop babies into pieces, or even cut open the stomachs of pregnant women to remove their fetus.
In my mother’s article, “Call unto Me,” published in September 1949 (World-wide Courier Publications), she never attempted to discuss the details. She could only deal with the past with an abbreviated, tepid report: "In 1918, out of much sorrow, we became refugees from our country. My grandfather with many of my mother’s relatives was martyred. We didn’t know where to go, until (thank God) Great Britain opened her door, took us in and cared for us. (While on the run in search of safety), I was shot twice, and my arm paralyzed. Later I was lost in the desert for 48 hours… I was fifteen years old. My bed and pillow were the sand; I rested under a small tree. In the dark, alone, fear took hold of me. I called and called the names of the servants (there were about 10 to 15 servants in my father’s house), but no one answered. On the morning of the second day, the British soldiers came, searching for me. So I was found."
Although my mother spent a lifetime trying to forget the past, she never fully succeeded. Disturbing memories often surfaced while asleep and came alive in nightmares. To ease her through the troubled times, especially while her psychological wounds were healing, she sought comfort in Christianity. Her faith had become her strength for dealing with the past. I oftentimes wondered how she would deal with it today in view of the crisis in the Middle East. Would she still have remained silent?