Author Mardig Madenjian

Quest for A Ravished Paradise in Chepni: Book Review

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After the Armenian Genocide, books trying to encapsulate and memorialize life as remembered in the home village or town of refugees forced forever to leave their native lands multiplied. The authors, themselves often eyewitnesses to many fateful events and customs, provided historical, cultural and ethnographic information as well as updates on surviving members of their community now scattered around the world. The following generations, descendants of these people living abroad, can only pass down what they learned from their ancestors and if conditions permit, visit their Western Armenian homelands. Mardig Madenjian is one such person who put to writing what he was able to find out over many years of research.

Madenjian wrote a trilogy dedicated to his ancestral village of Chepni, on the northern banks of the Alis River (Kızıl Irmak or Halys) in the southern part of Sepasdia (Sivas) province, and to the lives of his parents. This review covers the third volume, Quest for Ravaged Paradise: Volume III of Ravished Paradise Trilogy (Pasadena, 2020, published by Armenian History Books). It was first published in Armenian in 2014 before being translated into English, and is a 304-page paperback.

The first volume, Ravaged Paradise: Forced March to Nothingness, encompasses the origins of Chepni and the events of modern Armenian history, including the Hamidian massacres and the Armenian Genocide. Madenjian possessed a 60-page handwritten memoir of his father and tape recordings of his mother, and interviewed a number of children of survivors of the genocide for source material in addition to extant printed sources.

The second volume, Reclaiming Ravaged Paradise: Aftermath [of the] Armenian Genocide, focuses on the survivors of Chepni in Syria and Lebanon and the attempts of the Armenians to call for justice.

The third volume primarily describes Madenjian’s 2007 trip back to Chepni, where he stays in the house of the local mayor, Hüseyin Erdal, and meets with many Turkish elders to find out what they know about the town and its previous Armenian residents. He intended to also travel the path of deportation of his parents.

He made a connection with the mayor of Chepni when he wrote to ask for a town map. In addition to a CD with fifty photos of the village and a flag of the municipality, Erdal wrote back with information about his family and children. He, his wife, and his children were all teachers. They began to correspond back and forth by email and eventually Madenjian told Erdal he planned to visit. Erdal’s son Utku offered to drive Madenjian to different historical places such as Akhtamar just for the cost of gas.

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Visit to Chepni

Madenjian, according to his own admission, was not an easy traveler in general, and was irritable and nervous. One can only imagine how motivated he was to see Chepni, because on top of the usual complications of travel, Madenjian would have to stay in the Erdal family home, the home of Turks whom he did not personally know. He himself notes that after he read that in Malatya three Turks and a German were killed with their necks cut like lambs in May prior to his 2007 trip, that this was a sign from God to postpone his trip — yet he still went. He went even though he considered the possibility that Utku and a friend who he said might accompany him and Madenjian on their driving trip might kill Madenjian as a gavur or infidel. He went even though he was elderly (69 years old) and needed a wheelchair at the Frankfurt airport and at arrival in Istanbul.

Madenjian does not shy from an emotional approach, as what he writes is personal for him. In the first volume, he states, “Many times, I wept, my pen unable to describe the atrocities. While I was writing, I lived their tortures and their agony.” He is definitely prejudiced against Turks in general, as he proves time and again in his third volume. For example, at a hotel airport in Istanbul, when he was told that the crews were working on fixing the air conditioning, he commented, “It was a Turkish lie like millions of others.” When he visits the city of Suruç, he recalls that charitable Muslims of the city provided bread and water to starving Armenian deportees during the genocide, and assumes therefore that the population must have been Arabs and not Turks.

Yet he became friends with the Chepni mayor, who came to pick him up from the Kayseri airport, roughly an hour distant from the village. Erdal surprised him when he offered raki, a Turkish alcoholic drink, with his meals. He explained to Madenjian that he was not a fanatic Muslim but rather a secularist social democrat and proponent of Mustafa Kemal, and he said that the villagers of Chepni were very liberal and democratic. He said he hoped that when Madenjian returned home he would talk about Chepni to his friends, who will also want to come and visit. He was very interested in the memoirs of Madenjian’s father Hovsep, which Madenjian brought with him.

Madenjian quotes liberally from these memoirs in this volume, providing many place names and descriptions of daily life before the Armenian Genocide. Relations according to the memoirs were good locally between Turks and Armenians, though the Ottoman Turkish authorities treated the Armenians badly, with discrimination.

The trip allowed Madenjian to physically connect the various parts of the village with his father’s memories. He saw the newer Armenian church, built at the start of the 19th century. The mayor told him he would like to restore it and keep it as a model of Armenian architecture, and maybe use it as a library or lecture hall. However, the district governor (kaymakam) was religious as was his government and got upset with the word church.

Madenjian was introduced to various Turkish elders, some of whom remembered fragments of information about Armenians of the village, the names of various Armenian families which owned certain properties, and even about various family members of Madenjian. One or two were suspicious. It turned out that one was the son of someone called “Bloody Man,” who had participated in the killings of Armenians. Some, even the mayor, wanted to know if he knew about where Armenians left their wealth and gold. Many mentioned that the Armenians were very hardworking.

Erdal said that he was told that the Armenians and Turks lived in harmony, and the Armenians even donated one of their churches to be used as a mosque (later Madenjian found out the church dated from 1526 or 1536). However, they eventually left to save their lives, and very few remained, he said, without saying why they had to leave. He and others noted that after the departure of the Armenians, the trees of the forests and vines all died and even the water of the rivulets dried up. The reason, he said, is that the people left there were lazy unlike the hardworking Armenians, and second, the “blessing/Bereket also passed” when the Armenians left. However, Erdal never mentioned why the Armenians left. Only once did Madenjian press the issue with Erdal and Utku but they remained silent.

Madenjian remained conflicted throughout his trip. On the one hand, he was proud of his ancestral village. He said, “It looked like a Swiss or Italian village with red roof tiles sand green trees in some places,” and he remembered his father describing the village as an earthly paradise. He saw things built by his ancestors, which even his parents had not mentioned to him, such as the spring of the Kalpaks. As he stood on the land his father, grandfather and grandmother worked and lived, he said, “It seemed to me that I could feel their breath on my skin.” However, he also saw sites connected with tragic events, such as the slaughter of Armenians in the Keklijek Valley.

When he went to formerly Armenian towns whose names were changed, he became upset. At Saimbeyli, the former Hajin, he loudly yelled Hajin, “so that the mountains could once again hear an Armenian voice,” he explained. At that moment, he said, “I felt much anger towards those barbarians, and one of them was next to me, although Utku was a nice young man. I liked him. He was kind and he respected me. He called me Amca (Amja), which means uncle.” Yet, he continued, “I wondered, if he had the opportunity, would he try to kill me.”

Retracing Deportation Routes

The second reason for Madenjian’s trip to Turkey, aside from visiting Chepni, was to get a sense of the harshness of the deportation trip of his parents in July-September. However, he was able to do this from the comfort of an airconditioned modern car driven by Utku. The two stopped in infamous gathering places for the deportations such as Kangal, or Hasan Chelebi, where the local population was harsh and unscrupulous with the Armenian deportees. They saw the site of the infamous Kırk Göz bridge on the Tohma River, which had been submerged after the Kara Kaya dam was built in 1986. Here according to one eyewitness huge numbers of Armenians were killed. Both Madenjian’s mother and another Chepni deportee talked about that place. Many children were left behind alone by their families, who were tricked by the false promise that they would be placed into orphanages and taken care of.

On the road trip, they also visited historic cities like Urfa, Aintab and Sis, and Madenjian unfailingly provides the historical background of all such significant places along with incidents connected with the genocide and earlier massacres. This portion of the book has less original material than the part about Chepni but still has some interesting anecdotes. Madenjian takes soil from various places to give to Armenians from those towns now living in the US.

Periodically, Madenjian gives excerpts from various oral histories of Armenians from the villages he visits, primarily in the Chepni area.

When Madenjian finally leaves Chepni, he declares to Erdal, “I came here like a tourist. I am leaving against my will. I found that this is where I belong, the country of my parents. I hope to return some day.” In return, Erdal says that if Madenjian returns, he would build a house for Madenjian and his wife in his garden, and added that anyone who came in his name is welcome in Chepni. Madenjian described his departure at the Kayseri airport, finally convinced in the sincerity of the Erdal family’s affection for him despite his mistrust of Turks in general: “Even many years later, I will always remember how they stood with me until I boarded the airplane. It was an emotional separation between a Turk and an Armenian, both hugging each other. Was their desire to wait to the last minute for my security or just politeness? I am sure it was for my safety among Turkish passengers in Kayseri…They knew the Kayseri Turk was fanatic.”

At the very end of the book, Madenjian relates a story told by Erdal about his great-grandfather, Ömer Kaa. It is unclear whether this was related during or after Madenjian’s trip, but it makes clearer the root of Erdal’s affection towards Armenians. Ömer Kaa was hired to guard a caravan of Armenian deportees from Chepni in 1915 and opposed an attack by local thugs to kidnap young Armenian girls. The thugs, learning of this, beat up Ömer badly on the second day of the march. It took him a long time to recover, but when he did, he went to find his aggressors and beat them up one by one. When he finished, he said, “Thanks to Allah, I took my revenge and that of the Armenians.”

While this book contains a fair number of typographical errors and linguistic infelicities, and is written in a colloquial tone, it holds the reader’s interest and is a useful source of information on local Armenian and Turkish history. There are some interesting photographs but, at least in this reviewer’s copy, the quality of their reproduction was not high.

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