‘Grandma’s Tatoos’ Shines Spotlight on the Female Victims of Genocide

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By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN, Mass. — Families are closest to one’s heart, or so goes conventional thinking. But what happens if there’s a member of the family who is so physically and emotionally detached that others either have no memories of their presence in family events or what memories there are, are bitter?

That is the starting point of documentary filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian. Her film, based on her own grandmother, “Grandma’s Tattoos,” shown at Watertown Middle School on December 14, was sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Boston Sardarabad Gomideh and the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA). She spoke and took questions after the showing.

Her paternal grandmother, Khanoum, lived in the apartment above her family’s. The camera captures the emotions of Khardalian, her sisters and their mother, who express their resentment of and dislike for the dour woman with the repulsive tattoos, who was incapable of displaying any love to her husband, children or grandchildren.

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The denouement, of course, brings tears to their eyes, when they see her with the eyes of adults, realizing her horrific childhood and its effect on her psyche.

Khanoum’s story is unraveled by the very same despised tattoos. Where did they come from?

Khardalian successfully merges the personal and the universal, with Khanoum as starting point. The filmmaker, by chance, saw some long-forgotten documents and photographs from the Near East Foundation on the fate of about 90,000 young Armenian girls kidnapped and forced into prostitution or sexual slavery during the Genocide. The girls had markings similar to her grandmother. A light bulb went on in her head and she decided to find out if her grandmother was one of those girls.

The film, which is recommended for audiences ages 13 and over, succeeds in taking us on a journey of understanding by the whole family as they come together for a relative’s engagement in Beirut. For a documentary on such a disturbing subject, there are many moments of lightness and the family members’ love for each other as well as tremendous honesty, as they gather from all corners of the earth, is apparent.

It is Khardalian’s mother, who through dribs and drabs, confirms the story of Khanoum, a woman who was broken, rendered incapable of loving. She was only 12 when she, her younger sister and mother, accepted the help of a man with a boat to escape certain death.

Unfortunately, the mother gave all their valuables to the man, in hopes that he would let them go. Sadly, his depraved reasons for helping the family become apparent all too soon. It would be several years before the sisters could escape. Khanoum eventually reaches an orphanage in Beirut and there she is coerced into marriage. Khardalian stresses that her grandmother could not open up to anyone and that marked women like her were looked down upon. Also, she noted that it is probable that her grandmother had given birth to several children and was forced to leave them before forming her family in Beirut.

Khardalian goes on a pilgrimage to the Syrian dessert to the area where most probably her grandmother was held captive, along with many others. There she runs into several people who say they have Armenian grandmothers, all probably women who were forcibly brought into their families.

All in all, Khardalian deftly connects her family’s story with a painful, still-hidden chapter of the Armenian Genocide, which is much like the fate of women in later genocides, including Rwanda, Darfur and even Congo today.

Denial and shame about these incidences have helped the issue remain hidden. She spoke about one tattooed Armenian woman whose experiences a cousin revealed to Khardalian in Fresno. When she arrived at her home to interview her, she was kicked out of the woman’s house by her son, who suggested that nothing of the sort had happened to his mother.

Closer to home, she speaks to her great-aunt in Los Angeles, also with similar tattoos, who denies ever being forced into sexual slavery and instead says that when she was little and played with little Turkish children, they suggested tattooing her fingers and she just went along with it, as part of a game.

One of the most touching scenes in the film was that of a 104-year-old survivor who now lives in Yerevan. As she tells her story, her tears roll down her face and she starts crying for her mother who was kidnapped along with her. The passage of time had clearly not made the memories any easier to live with.

Khardalian has made numerous other documentaries, including the first one on the Armenian Genocide, “Back to Ararat,” in 1988. She noted that the film is going to be released in DVD form in the near future.

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