Thursday, December 15, 2005

In a 'more relaxed' Turkey, descendants of converted Armenians seek rootsSat Dec 3, 4:33 PM ET - AFP

Constantinople (AFP) - The descendants of Armenians who converted to Islam to escape the World War I massacres of their kinsmen by the Ottomans are now emerging from the shadows and seeking their roots, thanks to falling social taboos and a more relaxed attitude in Turkish society.

ADVERTISMENT The catalyst was "My Grandmother," a 2004 memoir in which Istanbul lawyer Fethiye Cetin told the tragic tale of her Armenian grandmother Heranush,born in a village in the eastern Turkish province of Elazig.The biography is based on Heranush's memories, kept secret until the veryend of her life, of how the men of her village were massacred and the women deported from 1915 onwards, and how she was adopted by a Turkish Muslimfamily who converted her to Islam.The book sold 12,000 copies -- a more than honorable performance for an on-fiction book in Turkey -- and is about to go into a seventh printing."What really counts," Cetin told AFP, "is that many people who were in the same situation called me up to say, 'My grandmother too...' "She said that since the publication of her book, she received hundreds of letters telling similar tales, "always against a backdrop of suffering." "I hope my book opened the gates," she said. "Before, there was fear, thesubject was taboo. The Armenians were the baddies, it was an insult to be called an Armenian..."But now," she said, "an entire process of self-questioning has begun."After "My Grandmother" was released, many people, including the popular newspaper columnist Bekir Coskun, publicly revealed at least partia lArmenian origins; many began to probe their sometimes blurry family pasts.One of them was film director Berke Bas, who went back to seek traces of her great-grandmother in the eastern Black Sea port of Ordu."A lot of people talked to me," she said, "people who very clearly remembered their old neighbors."The people of Ordu remember those times (of coexistence) with sorrow, asif they were missing something," she said.The young woman, who found out about her Armenian origins only after reaching adulthood, said Turks are now "more relaxed" about facing theirpast."There are now several versions of history, instead of the just oneofficial version we knew so far," she told AFP.Open debate on the killings that occurred between 1915 and 1917 has become almost common place here in recent months, thanks in great part toTurkey's bid to join the European Union with which it opened accession talks on October 4. Still, the government maintains its decades old official position on the issue and refuses to describe the killings as "genocide".The official Turkish version says 300,000 Armenians and "at least as manyTurks" died in the "tragic events" that accompanied the crumbling of theOttoman Empire during World War I; the Armenians say at least 1.5 million of their kinsmen were victims of "genocide."In the name of freedom of expression, the government nonetheless recently encouraged -- after one of its members first strongly opposed -- the first academic conference on the Armenian question to be held by opponents of the official history. During the September conference at an Istanbul university, participants stressed the need to investigate the cases of Armenians -- mostly childrenand young women -- who converted to Islam to escape the killings. Some participants in the forum put their number at 100,000 to 200,000 "If you ask me, half of Turkey is discovering that it has Armenia norigins," joked Luiz Bakar, an attorney with the Armenian Patriarchate inIstanbul, citing the cases of peop le who came forward to tell her of theirorigins.She said about 20 people a year come to the Patriarchate to be baptized, most of them "people who lived as Muslims" and want to reconvert to theiroriginal religion before dying.

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