This photograph was never meant to be a precious artifact. Simply mounted with glue on a piece of board and nailed to the wall of the Chekijian family home in the Armenian Quarter of Aintab, the nail holes on the upper-right and left-hand corners are scars of its earlier social life. A scratch down the face of my great-grandmother Vergine and a slash across the throat of the Chekijian daughter, Eliz, who didn’t survive, foreshadow the frenzy of mass killing soon to be unleashed in the Ottoman Empire. I learned only later that both my aunt and I were named in memory of her.1 Other scratches on the photograph trace decades of shuffling between homes across a newly created political border that would partition Turkey from Syria. Much like the community it represents, this photograph was not meant to survive a hundred years. Nor were the living bodies that sat for this studio portrait four years before the killing began.
Taken inside an Aintab photo studio around 1911, the photograph shows a little girl wearing a crisp white dress standing between her grandparents, seated in the front row and surrounded by their seven children. The child, my grandmother Hripsime, leans on her fez-wearing grandfather, who has a kemer wrapped around his waist, his money secured in the folds and held close to his slim frame. In contrast to the traditional Ottoman clothing of the family patriarch, the women wear black Victorian gowns, and their hair is coiffed in turn-of-the-century fashion. The brothers too are wearing Western-style suits: tradition and modernity are contained within a single frame.
The fez is out of place; it is Barthes’s punctum.2
I am drawn to my own great-great-grandfather Hagop, seated at right in the front row. He and his brothers were tailors for the Ottoman military, and his fez, headgear instituted nearly a century earlier as a uniform for all citizens—Muslim, Christian, and Jew—stood in stark contrast to the clothing laws that had historically color-coded Ottoman communities by religion and social class. The unifying intent of the fez would be undermined by forces of nationalism, imperialism, and sectarianism that plagued the late days of empire.
My grandmother Hripsime was but seven years old when the Armenian Genocide began in 1915. As a young child who survived the genocide, she couldn’t remember all that much. Maybe her lack of memory was a blessing, but for me, the historian of the family, it is an itch that I cannot scratch. The Ottoman military had relocated the four Chekijian brothers—tailors Hagop, Nazaret, Manuel, and Hovannes—from Kayseri to Aintab for the express purpose of making uniforms. The uniforms sewn by the hands of my great-great-grandfather and his brothers would be worn by the same men who would deport and kill Armenians throughout the empire. This memory collides into another of the Chekijian family being prepared for deportation. They were rounded up by Ottoman soldiers. Hagop came home to find his terrified family inside a horse-drawn cart about to be taken away. The soldiers, according to family legend, released the family when they recognized them as belonging to their very own tailor. Hagop’s family was saved because of his complicated relationship (dare I say complicitous?) with the same military that slaughtered his countrymen.
Eventually, by means we do not know, little Hripsime and her mother, Vergine, the one whose face is scratched but defiant, found their way to Aleppo. My grandmother never shared the name of her missing father with my father. My cousin Berjouhi fills in the gap where my father’s memory has been obliterated. She tells me that my great-grandfather’s name was Nazareth Seykeljian and that he was “very clever” (shad jarbig er). A newlywed with two small children, he was forcefully drafted into the Ottoman military at the outset of the Great War and, like so many other Armenian men drafted into the labor battalions, never seen again.
A photograph is the only possession I have documenting my family on the eve of the medz yeghern, “the great crime” as the Armenian Genocide is often referred to in Armenian.3 My own maternal family’s complicity with the Ottoman military is a particularly shameful detail, but I reconcile that with my paternal grandfather, Youssef Semerdjian, who had fought with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation against Turkish forces in Aintab until he was forced to retreat to Aleppo in exile. Never knowing when the next war would start, he buried the rifle he used to defend his hometown within the family courtyard in Azizieh, Aleppo, waiting for the next opportunity to use it. When the French withdrew from Syria in 1946, my grandfather dug up the gun just in case another war broke out, but by then it had rusted and its wooden stock fell apart in his hands.
As I sift through archival records about the Armenian Genocide, they feel like the rotten debris from my grandfather’s rifle; they barely resemble the vibrant, living community they represent. I have a sense that I may come across my grandmother’s name in the records of “half-orphans,” the children of widows collected in safe homes and orphanages in Syria. I feel butterflies every time I read the League of Nations intake records and orphan identity cards generated by European and American relief workers and come across a Semerdjian, a Chekijian, a Hripsime. An odd mix of dread and excitement overwhelms me when I consider the prospect of filling gaps to better understand how my own grandmother ended up in Aleppo—my own grandmother, a symbol, perhaps, for all the grandmothers lost and found. Grandmothers discovered after a century of hiding, those who whisper the truth about their pasts to their Muslim grandchildren in contemporary Turkey and Syria.
I have never found traces of my grandmother Hripsime in the archives; she exists only my family’s memory archive. But the Chekijian family portrait has continued to inspire me with what it can and cannot tell me about my own family’s history. I discovered the Chekijian family portrait in 2000 in an armoire belonging to my grandmother inside our family home in Aleppo. When my tantig (“little auntie”) Eliz, the first of us to be named after a relative who had died in Dayr al-Zur, opened that armoire, it smelled like the Aleppo olive oil soaps she used to pack her clothes in to keep the moths away. I asked tantig to give me the original photograph. A stubborn woman, she hesitated but some how she handed it to me. Ravaged by a decade of war, I consider how this photograph—the only material family heirloom in my possession to survive the Armenian Genocide and the Syrian War—could have been lost forever in yet another war had my stern aunt, with whom I rarely won an argument, considered me a less convincing custodian.
In 2019, I met a branch of my family that had left Aleppo in 1946 for Armenia. While thumbing through photographs with my relatives in Yerevan on a hot, sticky afternoon, feeling drowsy after a heavy meal of khashlama and kufta, I discovered that my cousins have a pristine copy of the Aintab portrait. Life delivers surprises! Their portrait, without nicks or tears, looks as fresh as the day it was taken. Through their stories, my cousins Seta and Ani were able to fill in some gaps in my memory. But after catastrophe, some gaps can never be filled; heartache lingers.
The irony of having so little historical documentation of my own family’s history is not lost on me—my profession is to reconstruct the history of everyday life and I have performed this act with the scant evidence left behind by marginalized women and non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. Analyzing this photograph with digital technology may reveal the dirt on the shoes of the family members, traces of the journey they took on an unpaved road to the photography studio in Aintab, but it cannot answer all the family mysteries that haunt me. There are not enough breadcrumbs to follow.4
My family, the Chekijians of Aintab, were tailors who sewed fabric together to make garments, including those worn by perpetrators who would murder their countrymen. I am a weaver of stories from the remnants they and others left behind. I follow in the footsteps of many other writers who have tried through fiction, art, music, and historical study to address the fragmentation of memory and traumatic silences of the past that Harry Harootunian has called “the unspoken as heritage.”5 Addressing this fracture requires radical acts of imagination because, for the survivor community, the violence of genocide is ongoing not only in the perpetrator’s denial but in the unspoken. My own fragmentary memory of genocide inspires me to explore the stresses and limits of the historical archive that preserves some traces of the past while overlooking or actively effacing others. It is not easy to acknowledge the extent to which my own personal history has been erased by the atrocities described in these pages. We are still grappling with remnants a century later.
1. On naming practices as “memory candles” see Carel Bertram, A House in the Homeland: Armenian Pilgrimages to Places of Ancestral Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022).
2. Barthes’s much-studied notion of the punctum is described as a detail in a photograph that “pricks,” “bruises,” or “wounds,” inciting the viewer to speak out the unspoken element in the photograph. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980, 2010), 27.
3. Vartan Matiossian, The Politics of Naming the Armenian Genocide: Language, History and ‘Medz Yeghern’ (London: I. B. Tauris, 2021).
4. Sato Moughalian mentions that a friend told her, “You know, you are one of the lucky ones. Your family left breadcrumbs behind.” Mougahalian has meticulously reconstructed a biography of her grandfather, David Ohannessian, in Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 11.
5. Harry Harootunian, The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 7. Examples of writers and artists who have engaged fragmentary memories creatively in their works include novelists Nancy Kricorian, Zabelle (New York: Grove Press, 2009); and Micheline Ahronian Marcom, Three Apples Fell from Heaven (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004); and the art of Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, including her project The Texture of Identity (https://www.silvina-der-meguerditchian.de/works/the-texture-of-identity-ongoing/), which weaves family photographs into tapestries to symbolically reunite dispersed Armenians into a more coherent single textile.