The early 20th century had lots of significant events happening simultaneously. It is no surprise that when thinking of the era of the First World War and the gradual introduction of electricity, the birth of modern civilization can be traced all the way back to its roots there. Though there was an impressive array of milestones achieved, this doesn’t mean that there was an adequate means of reporting every type of situation ordinary men crossed paths with during their lifetimes.
Among the lessons the two consecutive world wars can teach us is the journey one must take to uncover bits and pieces of undiscovered treasures, stories which are buried in silence. These stories include those of people like my great-grandfather, who managed to save his life, regardless of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon. My hand skims over a page of my notebook as I intently listen to the tape recorder blurting out my great-grandfather’s rusty voice. He is speaking a language I can’t comprehend — Turkish — as my father, who sits opposite me, partakes in translating what appears to be an interview he conducted with his grandfather about four decades ago. I am holding a pencil, vigorously writing down occurrences highlighted by my father’s approximate translation of the words being spoken. The words teleport me to a time and place my mind could only fathom dreaming of.
The Ottoman Empire, 1915
The occupied streets unfold before me as I navigate my way through the shattered pieces of marble and brick that kiss the ground. There is a general distaste arising from the faces observed around the neighborhood. They are screaming at me, the invisible me: “Leave… leave…”
No one has anything left here anymore.
I track a youthful representation of Yeghia Der Arakelian, my great-grandfather, which I have come to identify from his ancient photos, and begin to follow his fast-paced figure. He is headed to work in Adana (a city in Cilicia). The walk feels like it is dragging almost an hour before he approaches his stopping point, a maintenance shop that specializes in making and applying upholstery into carriages.
I sit on a distant chair, observing his tending to a carriage that has been parked by the shop’s front porch. He completes his task of refurbishing its upholstery as the neighing of horses is heard approaching our vicinity, the frantic tapping of their shoes louder by the second.
The customer has arrived. He attaches a horse to the carriage that has just completed its renovation and proceeds to salute my great-grandfather in satisfaction.
Two days later, I am sitting at the same chair in the same dusty walled room. My great-grandfather is consumed in replacing the upholstery of a similar carriage before he expects a visitor to knock on his front door. It is the same man who had come to fetch the carriage a few days ago. Only this time he has no carriage to fetch.
It is my great-grandfather he is looking for. He lets him know that the owner of the carriage has been incredibly impressed by his work and would like to see him to personally thank him at his house. My great-grandfather is flattered; he blushes before complying with what appears to be a request to which he has little choice.
He makes it safely into the house of the mysterious owner. The only thing noticeable about him so far is his wealth, indicated by his lavish exhibition of furniture and paintings costing a fortune. He has his assistant, the man who was responsible to pick up his carriage, lead my great-grandfather around the mansion until they enter an office. A few minutes later, he is at the disposal of my honored great-grandfather. He conducts some small talk with him, praises him for a job well done, and thanks him for having saved him the trouble of purchasing a new carriage.
My great-grandfather is able to leave.
The office’s doors shut behind him as he begins to unsurely navigate the way to exit the mansion. The owner’s assistant figured he should have learned the way by now. Besides, he could use an extra word with the owner in private. Upon involuntarily committing a detour around the house, my great-grandfather finds himself back at the office. He is eager to start the path towards the outside again, but the loud utterances of a conversation between the two men within the room grabs his attention. He cannot help but listen. The owner of the carriage is speaking, a man whose identity would soon reveal itself when sparing my great-grandfather’s life.
“Who would’ve thought that an Armenian could be so hardworking, so efficiently productive and so intelligent as to perform such beautiful work?” These words come out of the owner’s mouth flowingly as my great-grandfather decides to abandon the premises full of confusion.
The clock strikes past six o’clock in the afternoon. My great-grandfather is just about done with his job for the day as he decides to head out of the shop. The silence that once enveloped our area is now replaced with the shudders and yelps of distant inhabitants. They don’t remain distant. Their heart-wrenching screams are heard coming closer and closer. They are soon accompanied by the sound of the rush of horses speeding their way across the square, which stop by the shop.
A brief entrance of three government soldiers and their conversation with my great-grandfather lasts no more than two minutes before they ask him to follow them outside. They claim there is an important arrangement to be made that would require his presence at a specific place.
The four exit the space towards the moonlit landscape of demolished infrastructure as I am moved by the sight of the soldiers leading my great-grandfather onto the carriage. I follow them along as they embark on a journey towards the promised place of arranging the matter. After what felt like an eternity on the road, the carriage pulls off at the heart of a vacant plot of land near Tarsus. The soldiers step out of the carriage, ordering my great-grandfather to jump off the carriage.
Their tone has changed, and their weapons have made their appearance. My great-grandfather complies, being forced to stand alongside a queue of victims who had already been placed in the trap beforehand. Some of their faces possess a look of disappointment whilst others are filled with looks of contentment, eager to get it over with. All of the men present are ordered to place their hands behind their heads as a line of soldiers stand meters apart from them. Their guns arch upwards as they stare at the collection of bodies prepared to surrender their lives at their command.
“And, fire…” one of the guards proclaims. But the fire does not ignite yet.
Instead, it is brought to a halt by the incoming rush of a carriage. It is traveling at the speed of light. Before the soldiers are able to formulate an expression, it has reached our proximity and parked at the corner of the lined-up executioners. A hyper soldier steps out of the carriage, holding a piece of paper in his hand as he confusedly discovers the words written on it. His hand is raised to signal the will to intervene in the occasion.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Hold on a second there,” his lips mutter. “If you hear your name, please step backwards.”
He proceeds to initiate a reading of names, one of which happens to be my great-grandfather’s, “Der Arakelian…”
In response, my great-grandfather shakily withdraws his hands from the back of his head and steps backwards. The speaker approaches him and kindly asks him to join him in entering the carriage. He does as he is told, and as the carriage sets off, shots are heard being fired at the rest of the ill-fated men. From the pool of blood sinking into the golden sand, only two souls are fortunate enough to escape that evening. One belonging to my great-grandfather, and the other to an acquaintance of his who has been lucky in hiding under the name of a dead man.
The other man was to visit my great-grandfather at his workplace in the coming days, where he told him about how he survived, having had to pretend that he was shot by the firing squad. Soon enough, the small-scale murders of minorities in the Ottoman suburbs and towns turned into widespread genocides, among them being the Armenian Genocide.
My great-grandfather came to realize that the sparer of his life was the same man who had owned the carriage and profoundly thanked him for his magnificent job in his own house. The man also went by the title of Marshal of the Ottoman Army and soon-to-be president of Turkey: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In other words, the same person who would soon be connected with the massacres of Armenians during the establishment of Turkey following the First World War had chosen to avoid having my great-grandfather killed, the only viable explanation being the incredibly positive impression that he had of him concerning the treatment of his carriage’s upholstery.
Meeting Fate in the Eye
I am back in the 21st century, marveling at the tape recorder that has just finished broadcasting my great-grandfather’s voice.
I guess the saying that nothing happens by coincidence hits the nail on the head when thinking of incidents with positive results such as this one. After escaping his ordeal, my great-grandfather found refuge in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where he would come to be involved in the creation of the nation’s first taxi service.
I also often think that had it not been for his survival, I wouldn’t have been born in a relatively safe, warless environment, writing about his story. Most of my privilege has been thanks to this sequence of events, which, if they never happened, would have probably prevented my existence along with that of millions of others, those who were lucky enough to be descendants of survivors. Others, however, were not so lucky. And I often think about how different the world would be had it included descendants of all the victims, the lives that were silently terminated.
That is the only certain conclusion to be made in a world that is based on inexplicable occurrences.