Ravished Armenia/Chapter 8

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Ravished Armenia by Aurora Mardiganian, translated by Henry Leyford Gates
Chapter VIII — In the Harem of Hadji Ghafour

CHAPTER VIII


IN THE HAREM OF HADJI GHAFOUR


After the massacre of the men all the exiles waiting in Malatia were told to prepare for the road again. We were assembled outside the city early one morning. Only women and some children, with here and there an old man, were left. We were told we were to be taken to Diyarbekir, a hundred miles across the country. Very few had hopes of surviving this stage of the journey, as the country was thickly dotted with Turkish, Circassian and Kurdish villages, and inhabited by most fanatical Moslems. Civilians were more cruel to the deportees along the roads between the larger cities, than the soldiers. Some of the treatment suffered by our people from these fanatical residents of small towns was such that I cannot even write of it.

When the column was formed, outside Malatia, it was made up of fifteen thousand women, young and old. Very few had any personal belongings. Few had food. Many had managed to hold onto money, however, and these were ready to share what they had with those who had none. Money was the only surety of enough food to sustain life on the long walk, and the only hope of protection against a zaptieh’s lust for killing.

The company of apostates which I had been permitted to join was placed at the head of the column, with a special guard of soldiers. Zaptiehs guarded the other companies, but there were very few assigned. Most of the zaptiehs in that district had been placed in the Mesopotamian armies. My party of apostates, of which there were about two hundred, was the best guarded. The others were wholly at the mercy of Kurds and villagers.

It was now late in June, and very hot. Scores of aged women dropped to the ground, prostrated by heat and famished for water, of which there was only that which we could beg from farmers along the way. The mother of two girls in my party, who, with her daughters, already had walked a hundred miles into Malatia, was beaten because she fell behind. She fell to the ground and could not get up. The soldiers would not let us revive her. Her two daughters could only give her a farewell kiss and leave her by the roadside.

One of these two girls was a bride—a widowed bride. She had seen her husband and father killed in the town of Kangai, on the Sivas road, and when the Kurds were about to kill her mother because she was old, she begged a Turkish officer, who was near by, to save her. The officer had asked her if she would renounce her religion to save her mother, and she consented—she and her younger sister.

The sisters walked on with their arms about each other. They dared not even look around to where their mother lay upon the ground. When we could hear the woman’s moans no longer I walked over to them and asked them to let me stay near them. I knew how they must feel. I wondered if my own mother and my little brothers and sisters had lived. A soldier in Malatia had told me exiles from Tchemesh-Gedzak had passed through there weeks before and had gone, as we were going, toward Diyarbekir. Perhaps, he said, they might still be there when we arrived—if we ever did.

A few hours outside the city we were halted. We were much concerned by this, as such incidents usually meant new troubles. This time was no exception. As soon as we stopped villagers flocked down upon us and began to rob us.

Just before sundown a loud cry went up. We looked to the east, where there was a wide pass through the hills, and saw a band of horsemen riding down upon us. They were Kurds, as we could tell from the way they rode. The villagers shouted—“It is Kerim Bey, the friend of Djebbar. It is well for us to scatter!” They then scrambled back into the hills, afraid, it seemed, the Kurd chieftain would not welcome their foraging among his prospective victims.

To say that Kerim Bey was “a friend of Djebbar” explained his coming with his band. Djebbar Effendi was the military commandant of the district, sent by the government at Constantinople to oppress Armenians during the deportations. His word was law, and always it was a cruel word. Kerim Bey was the most feared of the Kurd chiefs—he and Musa Bey. Both were of the Aghja Daghi Kurds. Kerim Bey and his band ruled the countryside, and frequently revolted against the Turks. To keep him as an ally Djebbar Effendi had given into his keeping many companies of exiled Armenians sent from Malatia to Diyarbekir and beyond.

There were hundreds of horsemen in Kerim’s band. They had ridden far and were tired, too tired to take up the march in the moonlight, but not too tired to begin at once the nightly revels which kept us terrorized for so many days after. Scarcely had they hobbled their horses in little groups that stretched along the side of the column when they began to collect their toll. Screams and cries for mercy and the groans of mothers and sisters filled the night.

I saw terrible things that night which I cannot tell. When I see them in my dreams now I scream, so even though I am safe in America, my nights are not peaceful. A group of these Kurds so cruelly tortured one young woman that women who were near by became crazed and rushed in a body at the men to save the girl from more misery. For a moment the Kurds were trampled under the feet of the maddened women, and the girl was hurried away.

When they recovered, the Kurds drew their long, sharp knives and set upon the brave women and killed them all. I think there must have been fifty of them. They piled their bodies together and set fire to their clothes. While some fanned the blaze others searched for the girl who had been rescued, but they could not find her. So, baffled in this, they caught another girl and carried her to the flaming pile and threw her upon it. When she tried to escape they threw her back until she was burned to death.

When the Kurds approached my party of apostates, the soldiers with us turned them away. “You may do as you wish with the others—these are protected,” said the Turkish officer in charge. But this same officer was not content to be only a spectator while the Kurds were reveling.

Five soldiers came from his tent and sought a young woman they thought would please their chief. They tore aside the veils of women whose forms suggested they might be young, until they came upon a girl from the town of Derenda, toward Sivas. She was very pretty, but one of the soldiers, when they were dragging her off, recognized her. “Kah!” he grunted to his comrades. “This one will not do. She is no longer a maid!” They pushed her aside and sought further. But each girl they laid their hands on after that cried to them, “I, too, am not a virgin!” Each one was given a blow and thrust aside when she claimed to have been already shamed.

Soon the soldiers saw they were being cheated of the choicest prey. They turned upon some older women and seized three. One of them they forced to her knees and two of the soldiers held her head back between their hands until her face was turned to the stars. Another soldier pressed his thumbs upon her eyeballs, and said:

“If there be no virgin among you, then by Allah’s will this woman’s eyes come out!”

There was a cry of horror, then a shriek. A girl who must have been of my own age, and whom I had often noticed because her hair was so much lighter than that of nearly all Armenian girls, threw herself, screaming, upon the ground at the soldiers’ feet. Winding her hands about the legs of the soldier whose thumbs were pressing against the woman’s eyes, she cried:

“My mother! my mother! Spare her—here I am—I am still a maid!”

The soldiers seized the girl, guffawing loudly at the success of their plan. As they lifted her between them she flung out her hands toward the woman, who had fallen in a heap when the soldiers released her. “Mother,” the girl screamed, “kiss me—kiss me!”

The poor woman struggled to her feet and reached out her arms, but her eyes were hurt and she could not see. The girl begged the soldiers to carry her to her mother. “I will go—I will go, and be willing—but let me kiss my mother!” she cried. But the soldiers hurried her away.

The mother stood, leaning on those who crowded close to comfort her. Then, suddenly, she drooped and sank to the ground. When we bent over her she was dead. We sat by the body until the daughter came back—after the moon had crossed the sky, and it must have been midnight. The girl hid her face when she came near, until she could bury it in her mother’s shawl. She sat by the body until morning, when we took up our march again.

Every night such things happened.

Other parties along that road had fared the same. Sometimes I counted the bodies of exiles who had preceded us until I could count no longer. They lay at the roadside, where their guards had left them, for miles.

On the eleventh day we came to Shiro, the Turkish city where caravans for Damascus spend the night in a large khan and then turn southward. There are even more caravans now than there used to be, for now they travel only to the Damascus railway and then return. Shiro is the home of many Turks, who profit from traders, or who have retired from posts of power and profit at Constantinople. It is not a large town, but more a settlement of wealthy aghas.

We camped outside this little city. Early the next morning military officers came out. Kerim Bey met them, and there was a short conference. Then the Kurds began to gather the prettiest girls. They tore them from their relatives and half dragged, half carried them to where guards were placed to take charge of them.

All morning the Kurds carried young women away until more than a hundred had been accepted by the officer from the city. Then the apostates were ordered to join these weeping girls, and we were marched into the town.

The narrow streets were crowded with Turks and Arabs. They hooted at us, and made cruel jests as we passed. Among the apostates were many old women, whose daughters had sworn to be Mohammedans to save them. When the crowds saw these they laughed with ridicule. Once the citizens swooped down upon the party and, unhindered by our guards, seized four of the older women, stripped off their clothing and carried them away on their shoulders, shouting in great glee. We never heard what became of these. I think they were just tossed about by the crowd until they died.

We were taken to a house which we soon learned was the residence of Hadji Ghafour, one of the largest houses in the city. Only devout Moslems who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca may be called “Hadji.” Hadji Ghafour was looked up to as one of the most religious of men.

In the house of Hadji Ghafour we were crowded into a large room, with bare stone walls, where camels and dromedaries were often quartered over night.

Hadji Ghafour came into the room, accompanied by soldiers. We of the apostate party had been put into one corner with Kurds to watch us. Hadji Ghafour gave an order to his servants and they separated the most pleasing girls and younger women from the others. Of these, with me among them, there were only thirty. We were taken out of the room and into another, not so large, on another floor of the house. The fate of those who were not satisfactory to Hadji Ghafour I never learned. A soldier told one of us they were allowed to rejoin the deportation parties.

Those of us who had been chosen were taken to the hamman, or bath chamber, and garments were brought for those whose clothes were frayed or, as it was with some, who had almost none at all. Turkish women and negro slave girls watched us in the bath and locked us up again.

At the end of an hour we heard steps. The door was opened and a huge black slave, with other negroes behind him, summoned us. Frightened and too cowed to ask questions or hold back, we followed the slave through halls and up stairways, until wre came to a huge rug-strewn chamber, brilliantly lighted with lamps and candles. On divans heavy with cushions, at one side of the room, sat Hadji Ghafour and a group of other Turks who were of his class, all middle aged or older, none with a kindly face.

Those of us who had been taken from the apostasized party stood to one side, while a servant said, to the others:

“It is the will of Hadji Ghafour, whose house has given you refuge, that you repay his kindness in saving you from the dangers that confront your people by repenting of your unbelief and accept the grace of Islam.”

The Turks made sounds of approval, and a turbanned Khateeb, or priest of the mosque, entered the chamber, with an attendant who carried the prayer rug. Behind him was a negro servant carrying a whip of bull’s hide. The prayer rug was spread, and the Khateeb waited.

The Turks pointed to a shrinking girl and the servants pulled her out. “What say you?” the officer asked. “I belong to Christ—in His keeping I must remain,” the girl replied. The negro’s whip fell across her shoulders. When she screamed for mercy the Khateeb bared his feet, stepped upon the prayer rug and turned to Mecca. “Allah is most great; there is no God but Allah!” his voice droned. The negro flung the girl onto the carpet. He held his cruel whip ready to strike again if she did not quickly kneel. Her face also turned to Mecca as she stumbled to her knees. Her flesh already was torn and bleeding. Terror of the whip was in her heart. To escape it she could only say the rek’ah—“There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”

Wrhen the last one had recited the sacrilegious creed the Khateeb folded the prayer rug and left the room. Hadji Ghafour, smiling now, ordered us all to stand before his guests again. All were apostates now except me, whom the Turks thought had previously taken the oath, else I would not have been in the party which I had joined. The law as well as Hadji Ghafour’s piousness allowed them to do with us now as they chose.

One by one they selected us, according to their fancies—Hadji Ghafour first, and then his guests. How they had arranged the order of choice I do not know, but they had agreed among themselves. There were five or six girls for each of the Turks. I was among those ordered aside for Hadji Ghafour, who had also chosen the two daughters who had been compelled to leave their mother dying on the Sivas road.

The two sisters had been very quiet all that day. They had spoken but little to any of the rest of us since we were taken into the house of Hadji Ghafour. Nor had they cried—afterwards I remembered how their faces that day seemed to be bright with a great courage.

The girls chosen by the guests of Hadji Ghafour were taken away in separate groups to the houses of those who claimed their bodies. When these guests and their captives had gone Hadji Ghafour again summoned us. It was one of the sisters, the elder, to whom he spoke first. His words were terrible. He asked her, oh, so cruelly low and soft, if she were willing to belong to him, body and soul, to live contented in his house, to be obedient and—affectionate in her submission.

The girl waited not an instant. “I had renounced my God to save my mother, but it availed me nothing. Her life was taken. I have given myself to God—and I will not betray Him again!”

Hadji Ghafour motioned to his negro slave, who caught the girl in his arms and carried her out of the room. Her sister had been standing near her. Hadji Ghafour’s eyes fell upon her next.

“And you, my little one,” he said, just as low and soft. And he repeated the questions to her he had spoken to her sister. She spoke softly, too—softer than had her sister, yet just as firmly. “She was my sister. With her I saw my mother die, and now you have taken her. You may kill me also, but I will never submit to you.”

Those of us who watched looked with terror at Hadji Ghafour. This time his eyes narrowed and glittered. “You have spoken well, my little one,” he said, still so gently he might have been speaking to a beloved daughter. “Perhaps I had better kill you as a warning to my other little ones.”

The negro with the whip stood near. Hadji Ghafour did not even speak to him—just motioned with his hands. Two other servants sprang forward. Quickly they stripped the girl of her clothes. And then the whip fell upon her naked body.

I shut my eyes so I could not see, but I could not shut out the sound of the whip cutting into the flesh, again and again, until I lost count. Even when the girl screamed no more and her moans died away the whip did not stop for a long time. Then suddenly I realized the blows had ceased. I opened my eyes and saw one of the servants lifting the girl’s body from the floor. He held her by the waist, and her arms and bleeding legs hung limp. She was dead.

None of us had courage after that. We gave Hadji Ghafour our promises. We were taken out another door, this time to the women’s apartments, where women of the household were waiting to receive us.