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Recovering hidden history along Armenia-Turkey border: NYT

Recovering hidden history along Armenia-Turkey border: NYT

PanARMENIAN.Net - The New York Times has unveiled a feature about a touching photo story about two female photographers — one Armenian, one Turkish — who worked together to document life on both sides of the border, focusing on Armenians living in hiding.

In a handful of villages along the Turkish side of the border with Armenia, neighbors reported a strange occurrence in 2015. Like an apparition, an unlikely pair of women — Anahit Hayrapetyan, an Armenian Christian, and Serra Akcan, a Muslim from Turkey, traveled through the region without men but with cameras, dredging up uncomfortable century-old secrets, the article says.

The women were searching for “hidden Armenians”, whose Christian ancestors survived what historians consider to be a Genocide by the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1915, in which nearly 1.5 million Armenians died.

The two wives of a Muslim Armenian man whose father was a survivor of the genocide. The woman on the left is Armenian, and the woman on the right is Arab. Turkey, 2015.CreditAnahit Hayrapetyan/4Plus

These hidden Armenians whom the photographers sought are descendants of survivors, who were mostly women and children taken in by local Kurdish, Turkish and Arab families, and converted to Islam. In some of the more remote villages in Turkey that Hayrapetyan and Akcan visited, the ethnic and religious background of these Armenians were concealed out of fear of reprisal from their neighbors. Parents rarely informed children of their Armenian heritage, with many even avoiding the spoken language so children would not pick it up and discover their ancestry.

Akcan and Hayrapetyan met in 2006 when they participated in a project between Armenian and Turkish photographers and found that they had much in common. As two female photographers trying to work in patriarchal societies, they became close friends and often leaned on each other for emotional support in their careers.

Local residents in the village of Gomk, in Sasun. Their family is one of the few in Sasun who are still Christian. 2015.CreditAnahit Hayrapetyan/4Plus

“We are doing this project because we want to change the single most accepted thing in Armenia and Turkey — that the Armenian and Turkish people are enemies,” Akcan said. “So by working together, people start to see that we can be friends — that we can be sisters.”

When they started the project about life on both sides of the border they did not know much about the Armenians living in hiding in the Kurdish and Arab villages on the Turkish side, but as they worked they began to hear more about them. So in 2015, Akcan and Hayrapetyan turned to finding, interviewing and photographing them.

Their experiences varied, often village by village. In Kurdish areas it was often easier for the Armenians to talk, Hayrapetyan said, because the Kurdish people “are going through their own difficult times with the government,” and “facing the past, saying that they had a role in the Genocide too, and apologizing.”

Many of the hidden Armenians said they did not know of their background until recently. One man described to them secretly following his grandmother after she said she was going to pick herbs in nearby hills. He discovered her praying in the ruins of an Armenian Christian church in a language he did not understand.

Kismet is a Muslim Armenian whose grandfather survived the genocide. Turkey, 2015.CreditAnahit Hayrapetyan/4Plus

It was a story with particular resonance for Akcan, because when she was 30 she learned she had a secret connection to the genocide, which her father never told her. Her father’s grandmother was an Armenian, and was discovered hiding in a family garden in eastern Turkey in 1915 or 1916 when she was a teenager. She was taken in by the family and converted to Islam, later falling in love and marrying the oldest son. A few years later, Akcan’s grandfather was born.

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