Sona Karakhanyan

Born in Exile: Sona Karakhanyan Tells Her Story in a New Book


LOS ANGELES — For more than 50 years, Sona Karakhanyan couldn’t remember anything about her own life as an exile in Siberia. She thinks that it was a trick that her brain played in order to protect her from the horror of the past. When her father, Abraham Karakhanyan was speaking about his experience, his recollections of her family’s life, she would listen and memorize them: but, somehow, these memories weren’t hers.

In 2007 Sona was watching a television show where a woman was familiarly wrapped in a shawl made of wool. That scene instantly took her back to her childhood when she was 4 or 5 years old, didn’t have warm clothes and her grandmother would wrap her in a similar shawl while taking her outside to the village inhabited by exiled families in the blue frost of Siberia.

She said, “I remembered everything, the house, people, their faces…I remember how they would give me raspberries gathered in the woods and placed in a folded paper bowl. I remember my cousin, who was in exile with us. Those were unpleasant memories. How can you remember that you didn’t have a shoe?”

Sona pauses for a second. I can see her eyes filling with tears and drifting far away from Los Angeles, from me, from our conversation. Then she is back. She remembers her grandmother who would squeeze her grandchildren to her chest and tell them tales from her past life filled with glory, and ardor, hope for salvation and better days ahead.

Abraham Karakhanyan was the son of Fr. Hovsep Karakhanyan, the priest at the Saint Gevorg Church in Charmahal province in Iran. He used to be a senior supervisor in the Armenian schools of Charmahal and also held a higher position at the English oil company IPEOC in the south of Iran. When the second wave of the big Repatriation started in 1946, Fr. Hovsep was in Bombay as a missionary, and Abraham decided to join thousands of Armenians in Iran who were granted the opportunity to build a new life in the homeland.

The Karakhanyan family — Abraham with his mother, wife, two daughters, son and a nephew — moved to Sisian, Armenia.

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Abraham was an active member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a fact that Sona thinks played a role in his future struggles.

A few years later, in June 14, 1949, Abraham and his family were convicted and forcefully sent to Altai region in Siberia to fulfill a life sentence on charges of treason to the homeland. They returned to Armenia only after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1955. Their case was dismissed in 1966 “due to lack of evidence” as it states the official court order.

In her new book, Apology, Sona Karakhanyan, who was born in the exile in Siberia and is the only Karakhanyan family member who doesn’t hold the status of a repressed person, vividly describes the village and the life of her exiled family recollected from her own memories and those of her sisters, mother and father. Her brother never talked about Siberia.

In a passage from the book, she describes the village: “The houses in the village were made of mud. They had wooden covers and roofs and were half-buried in the ground which helped to keep the houses warmer during winter frost and storm…. Oil lamps were the only source of light and oil was very hard to find. The homes were linked to one another with a rope as it helped people navigate during the typical white-out blizzards. When the snow melted in spring it was not uncommon to find the bodies of those who had frozen to death-those who had lost their way during the harsh winter.”

Sona asks me if she can show me a picture. She brings an old photo where her sister is wearing her father’s boots that are huge on her tiny feet, and Sona is barefoot, her feet wrapped in a fabric. “My legs were somehow crooked because of a vitamin deficiency,” adds Sona.

When Sona’s brother was 10 or 11, he suffered from a severe case of peritonitis and had to be rushed to the hospital. After finally getting permission from the commissioner (without which it was impossible to do anything) to take his son to the nearest hospital in the regional center which was 18 kilometers away, Abraham found a horse and a carriage. They arrived at the hospital, and the doctor who treated him eventually took all their money. The Karakhanyans took about 18 old rugs with them and traded them for half a sack of rotten potatoes with that same doctor who realized that they would do anything to avoid starvation. They would even cook and eat the potato skin. “We were one of the few families in Siberia who didn’t lose a member. And that was also because of the wealth we had and the inheritance that my father received after my grandfather’s death in 1952,” remembers Sona.

The author, at right

After returning to Armenia, Abraham Karakhanyan dedicated his life to collecting ethnographic data of Charmahal Province. His work is in the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. He also published a book called Armenian Dialect of Charmahal kept in the same Academy. In 1982 Abraham Karakhanyan started and directed an award-winning dance ensemble, named Charmahal.

In 1984 Abraham and his wife were granted an invitation to visit Iran where he could finally ask for forgiveness at the grave of his father. “My father was always saying that he has to go back to Iran and ask for an apology at the grave of his father. Every time in his dream Fr. Hovsep would come to him and wouldn’t forgive him for leaving Iran and taking his family away,” remembers Sona.

Apology takes the reader through the history of an entire family by exploring the depth of a guilt first experienced by Abraham towards his own father for leaving him. The theme of the apology evolves to the court hearings and comes to the culmination when Sona’s father forgives the Soviets for his exile, something her mother never did.

“Have you been able to forgive?” My last question makes Sona think out loud about all the deprivations and hardship that she went through. She remembers her mother who cried until her last days. “I did forgive,” her words come hesitantly. “Yes… I did. I did it to feel relieved. I forgave them while writing my first book and remembering all the details. I did it and I am happy,” now Sona  adds, sounding certain.

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