Armenian Identity Islamized Armenian Women (Chapter Six)

  • by Western Armenia, April 12, 2023 in Society

Among the works written on the subject of Islamized Armenian women is Gyulchichek Gyunel Tekin's documentary book "Black Shroud", which brings together the stories of several Armenian women who were Islamized. The subtitle of the book is very meaningful: "The Drama of Islamized Armenian Women".  

Many of the stories in the book have some thematic commonalities, so we would like to mention some of them. The story of Varter Tumadjanyan from the village of Khulvenk in Kharberd is particularly striking: Shortly before the genocide, shortly before ARMENOSID, Varter's older brother fled to Russia and from there to America, where the entire Varterin family and their caravan were massacred near the river called Hizol. During the deportation, Varter was saved from death by a Kurdish soldier from Dersim, Cafer Tan, who was accompanying the Armenian caravans. Cafer Tan married Varter, converted her religion and changed her name to Zeynep. It is particularly noteworthy that Varter and her husband soon settled in Varter's father's house, which had been quite prosperous before the genocide, and Varter took ownership of the garden and fields, as she was the sole legal heir of the Tumadjanyan family. For the Islamized Varter, however, returning to and living in his hometown and village was both a small relief and, under the circumstances, a preferred ordeal. On the one hand, it reminded him of the family he had lost, and on the other, it gave him an opportunity to make amends. He later told this to his daughter Şirin Tan: "In every field, under every tree, in every spring, in every stream, there were traces of my mother, my father, my siblings. Every time I entered the house, I used to imagine my mother, father and siblings, as if I could see them, as if their voices were ringing in my ears."

However, after a while, Varter is forced to leave his father's village and his home, and experiences the second trauma. Like the other protagonists, Varter was in contact with Armenian women who suffered the same fate, and what united them was undoubtedly the memories of their past and the horrors they experienced. According to Şirin Tan, her mother was friends with Melek, an Armenian woman who had converted to Islam: "Sometimes they would cry when we talked. It never even crossed my mind to ask why they were crying."

Varter Tan tried to preserve some elements of Armenian Christian customs, even in secret, hiding them from her children and husband. One such custom was to make a secret sign of the cross on the dough when baking bread. One day, however, when her husband stumbled upon this, he became angry and beat her, saying: "Armenian girl, years have passed and you still haven't renounced your Armenianness."

Years later, in 1955, Varter's older brother, who had settled in Chicago, USA, tracked down his sister and sent her a letter. For Varter, those letters become a prized possession, a "source of indescribable happiness" and a thin bridge connecting him with his old family. They start exchanging letters and Varter's brother, expressing his hope, invites her to the United States until she meets death: "I will cover all your expenses, as long as you come, I will see you at least once before I die," he writes. His wife, however, strongly opposes Varter's visit to the United States and forbids him. This was another serious trauma for Varter, reigniting her previous traumas. Apparently, her husband feared that Varter would never return after visiting the US and reuniting with her relatives. Some time later, however, Varter's brother died and she lost contact with her family.

Years later, Varter's loneliness, misunderstood and locked up in an inner world of his own making caused pain to his children, who felt the guilt of not understanding him, not caring for him, not sharing his pain. As her daughter Şirin said, "We never understood her, we never shared her pain, my mother was always alone and suffering and no one cared about her pain." 

At the end of her life, as a testimony to her suffering, Varter said the following, and before her death she strictly demanded of her children: "I had no day and no sun, my days were always dark. I have always suffered, my life is black. When I die, let my shroud also be black. And don't build a grave for me, let it be flat earth." 

The black shroud, which became the title of the book, symbolizes not only Varter's life, but also the lives of many Muslimized Armenian women who shared the same fate.

To be continued...

Ashkhen Virabyan

journalist-analyst westernarmeniatv