Armenians waiting to be deported; most of them died in the process. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
At the age of five, Araxy Papazian Arshakian saw her family and her fellow Armenians massacred, forced to leave their homes and deported. It was 1915 and she too had to join hundreds of thousands of Armenians made to walk hundreds of miles out of Turkey and into the Middle East; many of them died along the way.
As Al Jazeera reports in a story headlined “How the Armenians came to live among Arabs”: “In 1915, the Ottoman Empire [in Turkey] made a desperate bid to preserve its territorial integrity. The Ottoman interior ministry issued orders to deport Armenians from eastern Anatolia, scapegoating the entire Armenian population there for the actions of a few who had helped Russian troops in the belief that they would gain independence for Armenia by doing so. But the authorities simultaneously issued secret extermination orders, making sure Armenians were systematically massacred, or killed and subjected to beatings, robberies and rapes on the way south ... Estimates vary, but between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were said to have been killed or died of exhaustion, starvation or disease on the brutal death marches through the Syrian desert”.
Arshakian, who was, until her death in July this year, the oldest living Armenian woman in Iraq, witnessed all this as a child. Most of her family died on this journey and when she crossed into Syria she was taken care of by a Syrian from the al-Juhaishat tribe living near the Rabia border crossing. The man thought she was a boy but when he realised his mistake, he gave her to an older woman who raised her, together with her own Arab daughters.
Her new guardian gave her an Arab name – Fatima – and taught her Arabic as well as other Bedouin traditions, including how to milk cows, tell stories and cook in a traditional way. Arshakian spoke Arabic until the day she died.
Before her death, Arshakian spoke often to her family about her life among the Arabs. “One day she decided she wanted to imitate the Arab girls and tattoo her face and arms the way the Bedouins did,” her daughter, Azadouhi Artin Arshakian, told NIQASH. “When her Arab mother found out about her plans she slapped her. She told my mother: 'I am responsible for you and you must keep your face and body clean as it was made, until I am able to return you to your people'.”
Arshakian's Arab mother wanted her new daughter to retain her links to her original culture and race. In fact she even refused to allow her to marry an Arab man and was not satisfied until she met a young Armenian man, who also survived. The couple married in 1924 and had eight children and now, many more grandchildren.
“Whenever I look at this picture,” Arshakian's daughter says, referring to a family portrait, “and see all the doctors, engineers and traders, I always wonder what would have happened to the Armenians if not for the genocide.”
In the Arshakian family's story, Iraq's Armenians see an example of how the Arab world took them in after the Turkish expelled them. That's why, even though the Middle East is going through a variety of different and dangerous conflicts, they still call for strong relations between themselves and their Arab neighbours of all kinds.
“History often repeats,” says Malkoun Melkonian, head of the administrative committee of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iraq. “A century ago the Armenian people were killed in ugly ways and now [the extremist group known as the] Islamic State is doing to others what the Turks did to us. Only the names of the killers and victims have changed, the situation is the same. As are the motives – they want to control the resources and the wealth of this region.”
The memory of the cruelties visited upon the Armenians by the Turks continues to play a central role in the identity of Armenian people everywhere. “Armenians from all around the world who come to visit Yerevan always visit the genocide memorial before they go anywhere else,” says Kivo Tamer Caldejan, an Armenian-Syrian taxi driver in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
This even applies to Iraq. Earlier this year Armenians in Baghdad staged their first ever protest in front of the Turkish embassy in Baghdad, during which they protested that it was their right to commemorate the Turkish massacre of Armenians and drew parallels between massacres in Iraq committed by the IS group.
And in April 2015, Iraqi Armenian clerics went to one of Iraq's holiest cities, Najaf, where many of the most senior Shiite Muslim clerics are located, to speak about the genocide. “The distinguished ayatollahs in Najaf all expressed their sympathy for Iraq's Armenians and we spoke about everything from the need to acknowledge the Armenian genocide to the possibility of granting Iraq's Armenians a special seat in Parliament,” says Afak Asadorian, the head of the Armenian Orthodox church in Iraq.
“Even after a century, the Armenians still have a wounded memory,” Asadorian continues. “And that is what pushes them to continue to make demands. There is a very important lesson we have learned and it is about denial. Denial keeps that memory fresh and it closes off the road toward any kind of reconciliation,” he says, referring to the fact that the Turkish government still won't describe what its predecessors did to the Armenians as a genocide.
A special seat in Parliament, the same as other minorities in Iraq are entitled to, would signify that local Armenians have their own culture and sect. No doubt Arshakian, and her long gone adopted Arab mother, would be proud.