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Writers in exile
10 min read

Scabs on the soul

PenOpp publishes a chapter from the Turkish author Barbaros Altuğ's novel Spiritual Wounds, which was published in Turkish last year. The novel's main character Derin, a Turkish journalist who grew up in Paris, is confronted with the truth behind the brutal Armenian genocide.

The author worked as an editor and critic in Turkey before he was forced to leave the country after the coup in 2016. He was a columnist at Taraf daily for two years. Altuğ spent a year in Paris between 2016-2017. During his stay in Paris, he wrote Spiritual Wounds, which takes place between Paris-Istanbul and Yerevan. The novel was awarded a travel scholarship to Armenia 2019 by the Hrant Dink Foundation. Spiritual wounds has been translated into German and published in Germany by Orlanda Verlag 2020. Barbaros Altuğ was granted a residence permit by Writers Unlimited in The Hague 2020. He lives in Berlin.

Credits Text: Barbaros Altuğ Translation from Turkish: Kenneth James Dakan Photo: Dilan Bozyel January 21 2022

Time Travel
As the plane climbed higher, I felt that same sense of relief. A blissful lightness, as though I would never come back down to earth. Clouds. Sleep.

We were in Nice. On holiday. Emmanuelle was being her joyous, dizzy, carefree self. For no reason, I was feeling a bit tense, unsettled, worried. Without knowing why. Not yet.

The three days we spent together in Nice were the best days of our lives, or so I thought at the time. Grabbing some towels from our cheap bed-and-breakfast we went down to the pebble beach and fell asleep there, arms and legs entangled. When we woke up a man and woman were smiling at us. The woman poured out two plastic cups of chilled pink wine and held them up to us with her age-spotted hands. “You’re the most beautiful couple here,” she said. We laughed and started chatting. She said they had been together for 37 years, but never got married. He looked into her eyes, patted her hand, and said, “Perhaps that is our secret.”

“And you?”

We looked at each other. Two years, Emmanuelle said. Then she hugged me. She rested her cheek against my chest, catlike, the way I love her best. We drank wine and talked until the sun went down. Walking back to our hotel, pinkies entwined, we were a little drunk and, oh, so happy.

I slipped away the next morning to catch a flight to Paris. The early summer sun had begun brightening the room; a beam of light stole through a gap in the pale curtains, landing on Emmanuelle’s sun-brown face. I leaned down, kissed her on the forehead and stroked the blonde hair spilling across her pillow. Darling. The memory of this moment would stay with me, even if I did not know it yet.

All dreams come to an end. My eyes fluttered open to the sight of a flight attendant lightly shaking me by the shoulder. “We’re descending for landing. Would you mind fastening your seat belt?” she said with a gentle smile. She was whispering, as though reluctant to fully awaken me.

Istanbul. So beautiful from a distance. As I looked out the window, it might have been the dream about Nice, or the memories of my father churned up by Istanbul, or Vahan, whose story had kept me awake all night. Whatever the reason, tears welled up in my eyes.

Vahan’s Story
After Emmanuel and her mother vanished, we sat across from each other in silence, our only commonality our glasses of champagne. Neither of us knew where to begin. “So, you’re going to Istanbul,” he finally said. He had a soothing voice. I nodded. “I’ve never been to Istanbul,” he continued. “My mother told me about it. Outings to the Bosphorus with my father; to Tatavla, where my aunts lived; to the Grand Bazaar.” He sighed. “I was going to go there once I started school. During my first summer recess. Dad promised. But going to school wasn’t my kismet.”

“Look, it isn’t my intention to upset you or to pick at your scabs, my girl. Please understand that.” He sighed, and in a softer voice added, “But Jacqueline absolutely insisted we meet.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice to a whisper. “You know what she’s like. Once she insists, death is the only escape. That’s what her husband chose. But I’ve only got a few more years to live, and I’d like to die a natural death.”

The champagne and the absurdity of the situation made us both burst into laughter. Something told me I was going to like this old man. I motioned for the waiter and said, “If we’re not going to die, we might as well drink.” Vahan held up his refilled glass and said, “That reminds me of the best line in Turkish literature: 'If we’re not going to kill ourselves, we might as well drink'.” We clinked glasses. I was warming to him even more. I was ready to listen to Dr. Vahan Marian and his story.

By the time the waiter brought us bread and cheese, we were both completely at ease. “Like I said,” he began, “I’ve only got a few more years left to live. I’m an historic relic, little miss.” I remembered my father calling me that. Little miss. “I’m even older than your grandfather. Would you believe I was born in 1910? In Ovacık. My father was a farmer. Along with my grandfather and two uncles. My mother was 15 when they got married. He was over 30. She gave birth to three daughters, one after another. Then I came along, the baby of the family. I was the only boy, you see, so I had a future as a farmer. I practically grew up in those fields. Sometimes at night I dream the five-year-old me is running through fields of sunflowers again. He rubbed at his hand. “I haven’t seen or touched them since, but I’ve never forgotten the feel of a prickly sunflower stem.”

He lifted his eyes from his hands and readjusted his glasses, which had slipped down his nose. Then he looked me in the eye. “I haven’t talked about this to anyone since I came to France. Jacqueline knows only the barest outline. And even that was too much for her. The others understand neither your pain nor mine, my girl. I am going to tell you a little of my story. You can stop me whenever you want. But I want you to listen to me before you go to Istanbul. The young man lying on the ground there, the one whose funeral you will be attending, is also a piece of our homeland. Right now, his family’s pain is our pain.”

Keeping his eyes on me, he fell silent. As though awaiting permission to continue. When I smiled encouragement, he heaved another sigh, fell silent again for a moment, and finally began in the somber tones reserved for the recounting of memories that are always fresh and never not painful.

“One day, as I was running through those sunflower fields in the summer heat, screams broke out in the distance. I was barely six and my family was my whole world. I started running home. My mother, father, uncles and their families were all there, surrounded by soldiers. Mom, I yelled. She was crying. I try to go over to her. A soldier grabs me by the arm and says, is this yours? Mom says, he’s my son, let him come to me. I run over and wrap my arms around her legs. I can’t get any words out. Then they put us all in an oxcart and dad was asking the driver and the soldiers: why? Either they did not know, or they were under orders not to say. We came to a wide plain and got out of the oxcart. I still do not where that place is. You’re continuing on foot, they said. We were each carrying a small bundle. It was there in that plain that we learned we were not the only ones. They had rounded up Armenians from every district, village and town. Each of them carrying a small bundle. How much of your life can you squeeze into a bundle?” He stopped talking and bowed his head. Taking off his glasses, he wiped them with a white handkerchief. I looked away so he could dry his eyes.

“It went on for months. Four months, five months. We asked the people joining the caravan the names of the places we were passing through. Afyon, and then Konya… Then, in a place I later learned was outside Tarsus, we were surrounded by armed men. They started shooting any of the men trying to protect the women. They tore the bundles from the women’s hands. What’s gone is gone, we said. I lost track of my parents in all the commotion. We found out later that those armed gangs had killed them. The others didn’t tell us because they wanted us to keep going.”

He took a sip from his glass, wetting his throat. “We, the ones who were left, kept going. Bandits came now and again. They molested the women and pulled out the men’s gold teeth. I was a boy scared of mice. Now I was carrying water to men and woman with bloody noses and mouths. You overcome the fear.”

“How did you get to France?” I asked. “By becoming fewer,” he said. “In my family, the only ones left were my mother, my youngest sister and me.” He took a deep breath. “My sister never forgave us for leaving her behind. She wouldn’t talk to us or let her children see us.” He looked over at me. “I never saw those kids, but you’re going to.” So that was the reason Jacqueline had arranged for us to meet.

Life goes on
As the plane circled lower, Vahan’s story crept into my thoughts.

The atrocities he witnessed at a young age. The rape of his sister. Women’s hands cut off for their gold bracelets.

I already knew some of these accounts from the books my father left me. Or, more accurately, from the books I read in secret after discovering where my mother had hidden them. Hearing about those horrors directly from an eyewitness was different, though.

Vahan’s sole surviving sister, Haygunoush, had been left behind long before they reached Aleppo. Fearing she would be raped and killed, their mother had given her in marriage to a Turkish merchant who was wealthy, if middle-aged. The others had clapped their hands over Vahan’s ears to muffle his sister’s cries, but he heard them. “I have been unable to forget,” he explained, “but I have succeeded in not remembering every detail. To this day, though, my sister’s screams still haunt my dreams.”

Although Haygunoush had been dead for many years, Vahan finally tracked her descendants down to Istanbul. His one wish in life was to see his relatives, to get to know them, to talk to them. And that is why Jacqueline, who relishes the role of problem solver and granter of wishes, had invited me to the restaurant. She knew I was going to Istanbul to attend the funeral of Hrant Dink and to interview some of the writers at Agos, the Turkish-Armenian newspaper where he was editor-in-chief. As it happened, Vahan’s great-niece was also a writer there.

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