‘We were so happy we were going to live, we showered the officer with kisses. We showered his horse with kisses.’
By J.D. Lasica
‘Emmy” has never before told her story to an odar, the Armenian word for foreigner. There is a reason for this: She does not speak English.
Emmy — an English transliteration of the Arabic word for “mother” — is what everyone calls Haygouhi Shahinian.
At an even 5 feet tall, she is a slight, wiry woman of 86, with white hair and a high-pitched voice. Her son, George, translates, but she forges ahead with her story before he can get the words out.
“I remember when the troubles started,” she begins. “I was in the first grade, in Tarsus. One day my grandmother came and pulled me out of school. She was crying. We rushed home, and my father and uncle were standing with a gun at the window, looking at all the commotion in the streets.
“Finally, our whole family ran off to the fields on the outskirts of town. The Allewi (a Moslem sect) farmers were helping Armenians to hide there. We hid in the fields for three days, but the Turkish government declared that anyone helping Armenians would be put to death. So the farmers began to turn the people in the fields over to the soldiers.
“The Turkish soldiers began rounding us up in groups for firing squads. They were getting ready to shoot the next group of us when suddenly I saw an officer on a white horse come galloping, shouting in Turkish, ‘Do not cut (kill) the Armenians, they have been pardoned by the new government.’ We were so happy we were going to live, we showered the officer with kisses. We showered his horse with kisses.”
Emmy clasps her face, and she takes a deep breath. Her account, like the others’, meshes with the historical literature: The Ottoman government was overthrown briefly in April 1909; there were massacres in the Tarsus region at that time.
Emmy returns to her story: It is six years later, and her family has moved to Adana, a nearby city.
“In 1915, the Turkish government ordered all Armenians in our village to be deported into the Syrian desert,” she says. “The local mayor — he was Turk — tried to prevent, but he was told to follow orders. The gendarmes gathered us into a caravan, and we set off, a thousand of us. My parents bribed the officials to let us take two small mule-driven carts. Along the way, we had to bribe the guards for food and water.
“Halfway through our journey, at the town of Ghatma, we passed a death field. Bodies, death were everywhere.” An earlier caravan had passed this way.
“After 18 days, we reached Aleppo (a city in what is now Syria). They let some of us go, but we had nothing. We were forced to live like paupers on the street. My father supported us by working for the town — he used his wagon to pick up corpses, stacking them in the cart and hauling them to the city dump.’
When the massacres ended, the Armenians were not allowed to return to their homeland, so Emmy’s family remained in Aleppo. Life was better after that.
She married and raised six children. The youngest, George, came to this country in 1959 to attend college before settling with his family in Carmichael. Emmy followed in 1971.
GEORGE SHAHINIAN IS QUIET for a long time. This is the first time he has heard his mother’s story at length. Finally, he says quietly: “It was just a miracle that she escaped. For our whole family, there was a very thin thread between life and death.”
Shahinian, 55, is a short, soft-spoken man who wears bifocals and a kind expression. He works as a mechanical engineer with the state Air Resources Board.
Shahinian worries that his three children will not fully appreciate what the Armenians endured. “It’s important to remember who we are and where we came from,” he says.
One way the Shahinians tried to pass along a sense of ethnic identity to their children was through language.
Leon, at 22 the eldest, recalls: “Up until I was 4 or 5, we spoke only Armenian in the house. Then I went to kindergarten and picked up English after only a couple of weeks. Now, when I’m home, my parents still speak to me in Armenian, but I answer in English.”
Shahinian still worries about his children’s assimilation. “It’s weakening our culture. We don’t know how to stop it, and when it comes to our kids, I’m not sure, deep inside, we want to stop it.”