Iraqi novelist Layla Qasrany traveled to Turkey to commemorate the Armenian genocide and visit sites that had appeared in her most recent novel. A side-trip into northern Iraq, where she visited a Yazidi shrine, brought depressing and hopeful news of ISIS:
We say in Arabic that there are five benefits to travel. No one seems to know just what these are, but I derived many benefits from a trip I took recently. The journey began with my arrival in southern Turkey to attend the commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian genocide, in which we paid tribute to the million-plus souls deported from Diyarbakkir who consequently died in the desert of Syria. One benefit was that I got to walk in the path of the caravan I depicted in my latest Arabic novel.
The first thing I did on the 23rd of April was to make a pilgrimage to the Armenian church of Sourp Giragos, in Turkey. The first person I noticed there was Gafur Turkay, who was sitting in the church’s courtyard with some French men and women and some Kurds who had discovered that their grandparents were Armenians and had then converted to their people’s Christian faith. Although the Kardashians were flashing the tinselly glamor of their Armenianism over in Yerevan, Gafur was the only star in our centennial gathering in Diyarbakkir.
It was a gloomy, chilly afternoon when I walked to see the exhibition of the French Armenian photographer Antoine Agoudjian, “They Cry of Silence,” in the Keci Burcu gallery, where in ancient times a Zoroastrian temple stood. Among his work, the artist displayed a video of footage of the genocide; a skinny old Armenian woman was weeping in the video, begging the Turks to recognize their sins: “If all the trees in the world became paper, it wouldn’t be enough to write of what the Turks have done to us…” Her dramatic screams caught the attention of five teenage girls who were having fun among themselves and laughing; suddenly their faces transformed, and I saw horror and confusion as they sat watching the rest of the short film.
After this I visited the Syriac Church of St. Mary, which was once the Patriarch’s seat, built in 384 AD. Today only a handful of members attend the church for Sunday service, including the priest, Father Yousif, and his family, along with his helper Shamasha (Decan) Saliba, who showed me around the ancient site. The marble pillars and altar stones are all that remain of the original temple, dedicated to the Roman Sun god.
That same evening, I went back to the Armenian church to attend a concert conducted by the pianist Raffi Bedrousyan. He played about 10 pieces, including some old love songs, a traditional hymn from the city of Zaitoun, and “The Fishermen from Lake Sevan.”
To my surprise, most in the audience were Kurds from Diyarbakkir, along with many Armenians who had flown in from Europe, especially France, and from other parts of the globe.
After the concert I ran into some old friends, who invited me to go with them to drink wine at the house of a Syriac silversmith and winemaker. In his house, located in a part of Old Diyarbakkir once called “the infidel neighborhood,” we drank his excellent homemade wine and passed a very good time; at midnight, we made a toast to the survival of the city’s inhabitants and to days of reconciliation, peace and love to come.
Because the small Armenian congregation in Diyarbakkir doesn’t have a priest, the memorial service was held at the Syriac church of St. Mary, in the morning of the 24th of April.
Father Yousif conducted the mass and we took part in the communion. Later, the church bell rang 100 times; we stood around in silence and lit candles as it continued to rain outside. At 1:30, we gathered near the walls of Diyarbakkir, near the “Mardine Gate.”
The city officials and the Wali (Mayor) of Diyarbakkir attended the solemn commemoration as we marched towards the ruins of the Armenian church of St. Sarkis — used as a weapons depot by the Ottomans during WWI. We positioned ourselves in front of the church to bring attention to the need for a restoration of the church.
When the official speeches were over, we gathered under the ruins where the holy altar once stood. Some Armenian women and men formed a spontaneous choir and sang the Armenian composer Gomidas’ hymn: “Der Voghormia,” or “Lord Have Mercy.” This may have been the first time in over 100 years that a prayer had gone up from this place.
That evening, I found myself exhausted both physically and mentally. But there was one place I still had to visit, an old pedestrian bridge that I describe in my novel. I thought I would spend some quiet time there, but a wedding was being celebrated on the bridge’s top. The ten- arched bridge, “On Guzlu Copry,” was built by the bishop of Diyarbakkir, Yohanna Z’oro, late in the 4th century, so his parish could cross to the other bank of the Tigris and access the Church of 40 Martyrs. I found to my surprise — and dismay — that a plaque placed on the side of the bridge when it was renovated in 2010 claimed it as the first “Islamic” bridge in Anatolia!
I had left my options for the rest of the trip mostly open, but I did want to take the train to Georgia and from there go to Armenia. Finding myself near Iraq, however, which is my native land, I decided instead to visit cousins and friends in the country’s northern region.
ISIS and clarified butter
Although it had not occurred to me that my relatives might have been affected directly by ISIS, this is exactly what I learned when I arrived in Duhok. There I spoke to my cousin’s mother-in-law, who had lived in Ayn Zala, an oil-refinery city, but had to flee when it was occupied by ISIS last summer.
After ISIS was finally pushed out of Ayn Zala, some members of her family went back. They found that a group of the army’s thugs had lodged in their house, and had, perhaps predictably, ransacked it. Everything that could be eaten or appropriated had been; the furniture was damaged, and all the electronics and appliances had been shot up. But worst of all was that even their personal pictures had been destroyed: defaced and torn to shreds. Except, that is, for photos featuring attractive females: these were taped to the wall in the bathroom, right at eye-level for depraved soldiers asquat on the toilet.
They had also worn the nightgowns of the home’s matriarch — I suppose because they were clean. When she learned of this further outrage, she instructed her sons to look for a big jar of clarified sheep’s butter she had made, and if it had survived, to bring it back to her. To their surprise, the sons found the jar intact! “They didn’t even know what it was!” said the woman. Against the wishes of her sons, who thought it must have been adulterated, she proceeded to enjoy a taste.
People forced to flee the villages and towns around Mosul filled church basements and social clubs in Duhok; almost every house of friends I visited had hosted a family at some point in the previous nine months. Some children missed the school year entirely, while others tried to keep up by attending classes held from 5 to 9, six evenings a week! Many of these poor people had already been displaced once, having been driven out of Baghdad to the valley of Nineveh after the sectarian conflict of 2006.
Finally, I made an excursion to the holy valley of Lalish, where the Yazidi temple and shrines are situated — this fascinating minority’s holiest site. Unlike Sinjar, where ISIS had attacked Yazidis in August of 2014, Lalish had remained at peace. But the people were broken-hearted; they told me of atrocities carried out in the town of Kojo and lamented the tragedy of the nearly 200 women abducted by ISIS. They never give up hope for the women’s safe return.
As I was leaving Lalish’s temple, I saw some colorful pieces of cloth hanging on a wall. A young man told me that if I would make a knot of one of these and then undo it, my wish would come true. I did this — now I await its fulfillment. That these women be released soon from their savage captivity — that was my only wish as I departed from the the valley of Lalish.
Also by Qasrany: