Ravished Armenia/Chapter 9
The women of the haremlik had retired, except the three who awaited our coming. These took us through a long, narrow corridor, lit only by a single lamp, to a separate wing of the house. Through a curtained doorway we entered a series of small stone-floored rooms, in which women were sleeping. At last we came to a wooden door, which one of the women opened, pushing us through. One of them lit a taper.
The room was barren, with not even a window. On the floor was a row of sleeping rugs, but there were neither cushions nor pillows. The women told us to remove our clothing, and took it from us as we obeyed. Without another word the women left us, taking the taper with them and locking the door.
Through the long night we waited—for what we did not know. We were afraid to sleep, even if we could.
We knew morning had come when we heard the faint call to prayer from some neighboring minaret. Soon the haremlik was astir. We trembled as we waited for the door to open.It was a big negro who finally swung it wide, letting
Armenians of a prosperous city assembled in front of a government building, by order of the authorities. They are waiting to be deported. Just outside the city they were massacred.
into the room the light from the windows that opened from the other rooms of the haremlik. One of the servant women who had received us the night before entered after him.
For each of us the woman brought an entareh, or Turkish house dress, and slippers and stockings. The dresses were of satin and linen, but very plain. Though I wanted something with which to cover myself, I could not help shrinking from the hated Turkish dresses. The woman saw me and seemed to understand.
“You will have prettier things after a while—after your betrothal!”
After my betrothal!
When we had dressed, with the aid of the woman, she ordered us to follow the negro. “What you will see now, according to the desire of Hadji Ghafour, will serve to guide your conduct in the haremlik,” the woman said.
The slave led us through a smaller room into a large chamber, in which were gathered many excited women crowded about a window.
At the window-sill the slave peered out and then ordered us to draw nearer. The window opened upon a wide court. Across the court were many small windows. For a moment I saw nothing but the bleak stone wall. Then my eyes lifted to a window higher up. I shrieked and recoiled. The dead body of the elder sister of the girl who had been beaten to death, the one who had been carried away when she defied Hadji Ghafour, was hanging by its feet from a rope attached to the window-sill. The girl's arms had been tied behind her back and now hung away from her body. Her hair was hanging from her swaying head. A bandage, still tied over her mouth, had muffled her screams.
One of the girls with me, Lusaper, who had cried all night, fell to her knees and became hysterical. The slave lifted her and tried to make her look again. When he saw she was half mad he carried her to a couch at the other side of the room and two little negro slave girls immediately began to comfort her. Other women crowded around her, too. The slave left us then, as did the woman servant who had been with us.
The women of the haremlik seemed to want to be very kind. The Turkish women were older than the apostate women. Hadji Ghafour’s two wives were not among them, as their apartments were elsewhere, and I do not know what the relationship of the other women to him was, whether as concubines or relatives. Nearly all the younger women were Armenian girls who had been stolen. They were very sorry for us.
Food was brought in this chamber, and we ate together. Already I had made up my mind to be as brave as I could and to hope and pray that I might be delivex“ed from that house.
All the Armenian girls in the haremlik had at one time passed through just such experiences as had been ours the night before in the presence of Hadji Ghafour. There were eight of them, and all had apostasized with the hope of saving relatives, only to be taken to Hadji Ghafour’s house upon their arrival at Geulik. Only one of them knew what had become of her family. This one had seen her mother killed and her sister taken by the Kurds on the road from Malatia.
Four days I remained in the haremlik without being summoned by Hadji Ghafour. On the third day one of the other of the “new” girls came back to us in the morning, quiet and ashamed, with her eyes downcast. That same day the harem slaves took away her plain entareh and gave her a richly embroidered dress. Such was the sign of her having been “betrothed.”
We were not allowed outside the haremlik. Each night we were compelled to say the Mohammedan prayers. I learned to say them aloud and translate them in my mind into the words of Christian prayers. The head servant of the haremlik, an elderly Turkish woman, who was as kind to us as she could be, took occasion every day to warn us that if we wished to live and be happy We must be pleasing to Hadji Ghafour. Other women told us of girls who had come into the harem, never to appear again after their “betrothal” to the master. When these things were spoken of we could not help thinking of the body we saw hanging from the window across the court—that was Hadji Ghafour’s way of teaching us to be submissive.
We were not put in the dark, windowless room again. Once one of Hadji Ghafour’s wives came into the harem to see us. She was middle-aged, and from Bagdad. She once had been very beautiful, I think, but seemed to be cruel and without affection. She had us brought before her and questioned each one of us about our experiences in the deportations. She seemed to want to trap us into admissions that we had not truly become Mohammedans.
Among the Armenian girls in the harem was one who came from Perri, a village between my own city and Harpout. During the nights she told me of the massacres in her village, and how the Turks had spared her because she accepted Islam, until they reached Malatia. There she had been stolen, taken first to the home of a bey and then sent with other Armenian girls to Geulik. She, too, had been taken straight to the house of Hadji Ghafour. She had gone through with her “betrothal,” and had found some favor in the eyes of the Turk.
This little girl was Arousiag Vartessarian, whose father, Ohannes, had owned much land. She had been educated at Constantinople. In Constantinople she learned of the American, Mr. Cleveland Dodge, of New York, who has done so much for education in Turkey. Since I have come to America I have learned that this same Mr. Cleveland Dodge is the best friend the Armenians have in all the world.
Arousiag was secretly Christian still. But she did not hope ever to escape from the harem. She told me Hadji Ghafour kept Armenian girls only until he had tired of them or until prettier ones were available. Then he sent them to his friends, or to be sold to Turkish farmers. She had tried to please him, so she would not be sold into an even worse state, for sometimes a girl who falls into the slave market will be sold into a public house for soldiers and zaptiehs.
On the evening of the fifth day my heart sank and my knees grew weak when a little negro slave girl came to tell me Hadji Ghafour had sent for me.
The servant women gathered around me, each professing not to understand why I was not elated. Only when my tears fell did they cease their jesting at the arrival—“at last,” they said, of the hour of my supreme torture—my “good fortune” they called it.
While I was being dressed I closed my eyes and prayed—not to be saved, for that was too late, but for strength and for the joy of knowing that God would be watching over me. One of the harem women walked with me down the narrow corridor and through the door I had not passed since I left Hadji Ghafour’s presence five days before.
The lights of many lamps glowed in the room. Just inside the door the big negro was waiting. Across, on his cushions, with his nargilleh on the floor beside him, sat Hadji Ghafour. His eyes were full upon me when I stopped at the sound of the door closing behind me.
He motioned for me to approach and sit upon a cushion at his feet. Involuntarily I shrank back and threw my hands before my eyes. An instant later I felt the negro’s hand gripping my arm. I tried to hold back and I tried to gather courage to go forward—I knew my hopes of a happier future depended upon my submission.
The negro tightened his grip. Under his breath he murmured, “Be a good little one. You will be the better for it.” I could not look up, but I went and sat upon the cushion at Hadji Ghafour’s feet!
It is needless to say more of that terrible night!
To Arousiag I confided the next day that I must, somehow, escape from Hadji Ghafour’s house. To remain meant more tortures and lessened such chance as there might be that I would find my mother at Diyarbekir, where refugees with money were allowed by the Vali to remain just outside the city—provided they paid liberally for the privilege. When their money was gone they were sent away with other exiles into the Syrian desert.
I had tried to coax Hadji Ghafour to send messengers to Diyarbekir to rescue my family if they could be found there, or to learn what had become of them. He would not grant me this favor. “You are a Turkish girl now,” he said, “and you must forget all past associations with unbelievers.”
Arousiag feared for me the consequences of my being caught in an attempt to escape. Captives who had tried to run away before had been sold into the public houses, where they soon died. When I had made her understand, though, that I would risk anything rather than remain in Hadji Ghafour’s house, she promised to help me. It was then she told me, when we were alone in our couches that night, that to the west, across the plains, toward the Euphrates, was a monastery, founded ages ago by Roman Catholic Dominican Fathers, who came into Armenia as missionaries. During all the centuries Armenian religious refugees had been received in this monastery, Arousiag told me, and from there many teachers were sent into Syria and even to Kurdistan.
A man from Albustan, who really was an Armenian Derder, or priest, but who was disguised as a Turk and making his way to the Caucasus, where he hoped to get aid for the exiles from the Russians, had told Arousiag of the monastery while she was being kept in Malatia. Many Armenian girls had found safety there, the Derder had said, as the Fathers in the monastery had not been molested, and their refuge was far off the track of the companies of deported Christians. Many years ago, the Derder told Arousiag, the monastery Fathers had saved the life of a famous chieftain, and there were legends about it which kept the Kurds from attacking the monastery. For some reasons the Turks had not molested it, either.
Arousiag confided to me that she had often planned to escape from the house and try to go alone to the monastery. There, she was sure, there would be safety—for a time at least. But each time her courage deserted her. Now she was willing to make the effort, since I, too, would rather risk everything than remain a victim of Hadji Ghafour.
The windows of the sleeping apartments were high, and were not barred, as they opened only into a courtyard. Arousiag knew of a passageway from the courtyard into the divan-khane, or reception chamber, which opened onto the street. Often the servants of the haremlik went into the street through this passageway.
A night came when Hadji Ghafour sent early for the girl he desired. It was long before the haremlik’s retiring hour. Arousiag and I slipped away and let ourselves down from a window into the courtyard. We hurried through the divan-khane and into the streets. We had veiled ourselves, and, with Turkish slippers, we were mistaken for Turkish girls or harem slaves hurrying home to escape a scolding.
When we came to the gates of the city we were frightened lest we be stopped—but the Turkish soldiers guarding the gate had stolen for themselves some Armenian girls from refugees camped near the city, and were too busy amusing themselves with these girls to notice us. Soon we were beyond the city, alone in the night. The sands cut through our thin slippers, and we were afraid that every shadow was that of a lurking Kurd.
It was twenty miles or more, Arousiag believed, to the monastery. For three days we traveled, hiding most of the days in the sand for fear of wandering villagers or Kurds, and walking as far as we could at night. We had no bread or other food, and only late at night, when the dogs in the villages were asleep, could we dare to approach a village well for water.
Arousiag suffered much from thirst on the fourth day. She was so famished for water, of which we had none the night before, that when I cried she moistened her tongue with my tears. At last she could go no further and sank to the earth. In the distance was an Arab village. The Arabs are not like the Kurds—they are very fierce sometimes, and do not like the Armenians, but unless they are in the pay of Turkish pashas they are not always cruel. To save Arousiag’s life I left her and went into the village.
The Arab women gathered around me, and to them I appealed for food and water, as best I could. The women pitied me, and when the Arab men came to inspect me they, too, felt sorry. They brought a gourd of cool water, and bread, and some of the women went with me to where Arousiag lay. The water revived and strengthened her, and it gave me strength too. Our clothes were mostly torn away, and the Arab women gave us other garments and sandals for our feet. The monastery, they said, was but a few miles further on, and they showed us the nearest way. An Arab boy went with us to tell the men of other villages that we must not be harmed. Also the boy guided us away from a Circassian village, where we would have been made captives.
When the gray stone walls of the consent rose before us in the distance Arousiag and I knelt down on the earth and thanked our Savior. The Arab boy turned and ran back when he saw we were praying to the Christ of the “unbelievers.” But we were very grateful to him.
It was almost evening, and the monks were at prayer. We stood at the gate until some of them heard our call, and then they let us in. The monks were very kind. They gathered around us and listened to our story. Then they took us into their little chapel and knelt down around us, while the prior chanted a prayer of thankfulness. When the prayer was finished a monk led us to a part of the monastery separated from the main buildings. Here we were astonished to find more than half a hundred Armenian girls and widowed brides, who, like us, had found refuge among the monks. Nearly all these girls and young women were from Van, the largest of the Armenian cities, or from districts near by. Some were from Bitlis, where thousands of my people had been killed in a single hour, only the girls and brides being left alive for the pleasure of the Turks. Some had escaped from Diyarbekir.
All had been directed to the monastery as a refuge by friendly Arabs or Armenian Derders. One by one or in groups of two and three they had applied at the monastery gates just as had Arousiag and I, and the monks had taken them in, disregarding the great danger to themselves.
We all were cautioned not to show ourselves outside the smaller building which the monks had given over to us, lest wandering Kurds or soldiers chance to see us and thus discover that the monastery was the retreat of escaped refugees. The monks prayed with us twice every day and nursed back to health those who were ill. Little Arousiag became very glad when the prior assured her that God had understood, when she renounced Him, that in her heart she was still loyal to Him. When the aged prior knelt with her alone and prayed especially that God forgive her every biasphemos prayer she had made to Allah while under the eyes of the watchful harem women in the house of Hadji Ghafour, she was happy again.
For two weeks we were safe in the monastery. Then, suddenly, our peace was ended. One night, long after every one in the monastery had gone to sleep, we were awakened by a great shouting and pounding at the gates. From our windows we could look into the yard, but we could not see the gate itself. While we huddled together in fright we saw the little company of monks, hastily robed, led by their aged prior, carrying a lighted candle, move slowly across the yard. When they had passed out of our sight toward the gate the shouting suddenly stopped, and we heard voices demanding that the gate be opened.
I think the monks refused. The shouting began again, and we saw the monks retreating across the yard. An instant later a horde of strange figures, which we recognized as those of Tchetchens, or Circassian bandits, pushed across the yard to the monastery doors. When the monks refused to open the iron gates they had climbed the walls.
Tchetchens are even more cruel and wicked than the Kurds. They are constantly at war, either with the Kurds and Arabs, or the Turks themselves. During the massacres the Turks had propitiated them by giving them permission to prey upon the bands of Armenian exiles in their district and to steal as many Christian girls as they wished. Always in the past it has been the Tchetchens who have brought to the harems of the pashas their prettiest girls, as they do not hesitate to steal the daughters of their own people, the Circassians, for the slave markets of Constantinople and Smyrna.
The monks tried to barricade themselves in their chapel. The prior pleaded through the iron barred windows with the Tchetchen leader, appealing to him for the same consideration even the Kurds had always given the monastery. But the Tchetchen chief had learned in some manner that Armenian girls had been concealed in the monastery, and he demanded that we be surrendered as the price of mercy for the monks.
The monks refused to open their chapel doors or to reveal our hiding place. But the chapel doors were of wood—they gave way when the Tchetchens rushed against them. We heard the shrieks of our friends, the monks. There were cries for mercy, prayers to God and brutal shouts from the Tchetchens. In a little while there were no more screams, no more prayers—just the shouting of the bandits.
There was no escape for us. The Tchetchens were swarming about the yard below and through the chambers of the monastery proper. The only way out of the buildings the monks had set aside for us was through passages or windows leading directly into the yard. We heard one band of Tchetchens breaking in the door that opened into the rooms on the floor below us. We crowded into a corner and waited, trembling, too frightened even to pray.
The Tchetchens climbed the stone stairway. They were cursing their ill fortune at not having found us. One of them pushed in the door of the room in which we had gathered. The moon was shining through the windows and the bandits saw us. Then the spell of our silent fear was broken—we screamed. In an instant the Tchetchen band came pouring into the room.
They called terrible jests to each other. Arousiag and I were kneeling, with our arms around each other. A Tchetchen caught my hair in one hand and that of Arousiag in the other and dragged us down the stairway. The others were either dragged out in the same way or carried into the yard tossed across a Tchetchen’s shoulder.
About the steps of the chapel we saw the bodies of the monks. All had been driven out of the chapel into the moonlight and then killed. The Tchetchens dragged us outside the monastery gate. They then gathered up their horses and drove them into the yard, where they could be left for the night. Then the Tchetchens returned to us.
Each claimed the girl or girls he had captured and dragged through the yard. Those who were not satisfied with their prizes, in comparing their beauty with those who had fallen to the lot of others, quarreled. Little Arousiag’s arm was broken when one Tchetchen, seeing that the bandit who had captured us had two girls, pulled her away from him. Her captor paid no attention to her screams of pain. He subdued her by twisting her broken arm until she was unconscious.
When daylight came and the Tchetchens could see our faces more plainly they selected those whom they considered the prettiest, and killed the rest. They killed Arousiag because of her broken arm. Then they lifted us onto their horses and took us to Diyarbekir.