Woman filmmaker reveals secret slavery of Armenian women

Lisa A. Phillips – WNN Reviews

U.S. sponsored Armenian refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria in the 1920s.
A U.S. sponsored refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria in the 1920s shows women and child survivors of the Armenian genocide. Image: AGBU archives/Vartan Derunian

(WNN) Stockholm, SWEDEN: Armenian filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian has done much to reveal the horrors of the Armenian genocide under the Ottoman government’s systematic decimation of Armenian citizens that began before World War I and lasted until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

Originally stretching across a large region that now includes 38 separate countries from Sudan to Israel, Jordan to Russia, the Ottoman Empire saw the rise of  extremism in the political party called the Committee of Unity and Progress (CUP) lead by what was known as the ‘Young Turks’ in 1913. Party members sided against Russia with Germany during World War I. During this time a systematic program to ‘rid’ the region of Christian Armenians as well as ethnic Muslim Armenians ensued. Part of the crimes against humanity aimed to destroy Armenians who sided with Russia during World War I.

It is estimated by Armenians around the world today that over one and a half million people perished during the years in the Ottoman Empire that spanned 1915 to 1923. This figure is still not recognized though by the Republic of Turkey who continues to be at bureaucratic odds with any global stories linking the mention of genocide to Turkey. They also state a ‘more accurate’ death toll is closer to 300,000. In 1913 those known as the ‘Young Turks’ took over the region now known as Turkey via a government coup-de-tat, From 1919-1920 they were charged with crimes that linked them directly to propaganda, mass murder and atrocity.

“…Everybody thinks that the way to deal with it is just to forget it. If you forget it it will go away, and of course it doesn’t go away,” said Khardalian during a January 2011 interview with the independent Armenian publication Ianyan mag.  The irony of Khardalian’s efforts to document the Armenian genocide is that she didn’t realize until quite recently, close to home, her own grandmother was one of the genocide’s personal victims.

In mapping a subject that has been taboo among many Armenian families, Khardalian’s new film documentary, “Grandma’s Tattoos,” turns the camera on herself, her extended family and her late grandmother whose face and fingers were marked with mysterious blue Turkish tattoos. Khardalian’s 1988 documentary “Back to Ararat” was the first feature length documentary on the subject. Several subsequent films have peered into the lives of survivors in Gaza.

“Grandma Khanoum,” as the family called her, was a grim woman whose only pleasure in life was listening to the 1940s Arab pop star and music celebrity Farid al-Atrash, as he sang his romantic songs on the radio. Her husband, Grandma Khanoum had married in her attempt in part to escape exploitation by Turkish men, hated her infatuation with the singer. “We never understood that this was grandma’s way of looking for love and affection,” Khardalian realizes as she begins to wonder about her grandmother’s past.

Living today in Sweden and but raised in Beirut, filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian admits that as a girl she did not like Grandma Khanoum. With her “suffocating presence” she paced hauntingly up and down the stairs of their apartment building in the Armenian quarter of Beirut.

One worrisome trait of Grandma Khanoum was that she was not affectionate and didn’t like to be touched, shares Khardalian.

The subject of the Armenian genocide is an important global one but the driving question of the film focuses with determination on its women: What happened to Grandma Khanoum? What is her secret? As Khardalian seeks to find answers, her grandmother’s story becomes emblematic of a much larger and insidious silence.

As in so many historical accounts of war, terror and genocide, the stories of women and girls who lived through the Armenian genocide have remained largely untold. Thousands were abducted, raped and forced to become prostitutes and concubines.

Khardalian discovers that the blue tattoos were not, as she had thought as a girl, “devilish signs,” but marks of Islamic tribal culture: dots, crescents, and small x’s. The tattoos were believed to provide protection, strength and fertility. But in the case of the marked Armenian women the tattoos were a mark of their subjugation.

Gradually Khardalian puts together the pieces of her grandmother’s story. At first no one will give her details. Her mother is vague about what she knows. Her grandmother’s 98-year-old sister, her great Aunt Lucia who lives in Los Angeles, insists the tattoos are something that the young girls wanted to have.

Grandma shows her hands with her tattoos, from the film "Grandma's Tattoos"
Suzanne Khardalian’s Grandma shows the tattoos on her hands that go back to her own suffering during the Armenian Genocide. Image: PeA Holmquist Film production

But Khardalian’s mother hints at a darker story describing how her grandmother had smeared her then 12-year-old sister’s face in mud to make her ugly. Then there was the boatman who helped them escape a worse fate: a Kurd who “became our master.”

The next day, Khardalian eventually learns the truth after interviewing her aging mother in Beirut a second time. What was discovered reveals: the boatman raped her grandmother, abducted her and kept her as his concubine, what is known in Turkish as a female slave, a ‘cariye.’

“Grandma’s Tattoos” is not only a film documentary about Khardalian’s grandmother, but also a look into the extended family and history of those who hail from Armenian heritage in a centuries old story of discrimination, death and suffering. The film underscores how enduring the fixed silence around atrocity and her grandmother’s past has been. Her relatives, reunited in Beirut for a nephew’s engagement, are affectionate and open as Khardalian gently and thoughtfully urges them to talk about Grandma Khanoum’s isolation and unhappiness.

When the truth comes out the family members are all devastated – not only because Grandma Khanoum had suffered – but also because they had not been able to offer her comfort or understanding while she was still alive. One of Khardalian’s four sisters shared her thoughts on the genocide and how – before the secret of their grandmother had been revealed – her view of the Armenian suffering had been “all intellectual, in the mind.”

Now Khardalian’s sister knows the trauma of her ancestors in a very personal way. Survivor’s guilt, it becomes clear, can be a multi-generational experience even after nearly a century.

Some of Khardalian’s use of the photos of tattooed Armenian women across the Syrian desert site of a mass grave seem forced in “Grandma’s Tattoos,” making a stilted visual connection between those who died in the genocide and the women who were sexually abused and exploited. The photographs are much more powerful elsewhere in the film as they are shown one at a time, close up, as a narrator reads who each woman is from a government dossier.

Suzanne Khardalian, who has written on human rights as a journalist with a master’s degree in International Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at tufts University, has a presence in front of the camera which is at times both awkward and self-conscious. In one scene, she clutches her large purse in the Syrian desert like a lost tourist as she speaks to the keepers of a mass grave. In another scene she stands bundled against the snow in her adopted country of Stockholm, Sweden with a dramatically ponderous look on her face as her voiceover wonders about her family mystery.

The most unforgettable moment in the film comes near the end when she interviews Maria, a 104-year-old genocide survivor in Armenia. At first Maria, an endearing figure in a polka dotted dress and a black knit cap who sits cross-legged on her couch, insists that she remembers only “ten percent” of what happened. She describes the abduction of a beautiful neighbor girl and how the town had been “turned into a brothel.” But at the end of the interview she weeps, “I can’t forget!”

Maria’s son tells Khardalian, as the interview begins, that he had not heard about any atrocities against women. His parents had only wanted him to hear about the “heroes” of this dark time.

When he takes his elderly mother into his arms as she cries the moment is deeply moving. He has the chance so late in his mother’s life to do what Khardalian’s family couldn’t do for Grandma Khanoum: acknowledge her silent pain and suffering to give her comfort.

The story of Grandma Khanoum and her haunting tattoos raises another important question: Why is it that the stories of female victims are so often the ones that are revealed last? Particularly when, as Khardalian points out well, the women are the ones who “had to carry the heaviest burden of all. They had to regenerate life.”

“I wanted to show that people are not willing to talk about this. But yet I think we have to talk about it,” outlines Khardalian.


This documentary film trailer for “Grandma’s Tattoos” shows the secret fate of numerous Armenian women during what has been known as ‘the genocide.’ Filmed in Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, United States and Sweden it has been directed by filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian, and produced by HB PeÅ Holmquist Film. In the past six months this documentary has traveled throughout the world for screenings. It was also released in full online on Al Jazeera news television show ‘WITNESS’ to regions that may not be able to easily show or get the film. This video is a 2:29 min December 1, 2011 YouTube release by PEAHfilm.


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WNN reviewer Lisa A. Phillips is a freelance writer, journalist, and the author of “Public Radio: Behind the Voices.” She’s written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time Out New York Kids and other publications. A former award-winning radio reporter, she has also done audio production work for The New York Times online multimedia. Phillips currently contributes film and book reviews for a nationally syndicated women’s issues show and has reported stories for NPR – National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Marketplace.” She teaches journalism and radio reporting at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

©2012 WNN – Women News Network
Re-issue of this material granted only by permissions of WNN, Lisa A. Phillips and PEAH Films. All rights reserved.