A Little Hope amidst the Monastery Debris

The other day I watched an eight-year-old boy named Ulash (pronounced Oo-lush) spontaneously take a white plastic grocery bag and fill it with potato chip wrappers, cigarette butts, and crushed plastic water bottles.

This was newsworthy not simply because small boys are not known for their fastidiousness or their desire to make the world a cleaner place.

This moment mattered to me because the boy was Kurdish and he was cleaning the litter from the rubble of an ancient Armenian monastery in south-central Turkey.

(photo by Victoria Blewer)
(photo by Victoria Blewer)

Most Armenian church ruins in Turkey are littered with garbage. The monasteries often have fire pits, where people have smoked or kept warm while drinking. Sometimes the floors have been sledgehammered and the ground dug up in search of gold.

One time, Khatchig Mouradian, for years the editor of the Armenian Weekly and now a professor at Rutgers, and George Aghjayan, a frequent contributor to the Weekly, found a human skull—a monk most likely—that had been exhumed from a crypt and left on the floor like a soccer ball.

Invariably there is toxic graffiti on the medieval walls.

But then there is a boy like Ulash and the sort of moment that can give us all a little reason to smile.

It was another scorching hot August morning and a group of eight of us had just arrived in Chunkush, a town on the road between Kharpert and Diyarbakir that once had 10,000 Armenians and now has but one: 99-year-old Asiya, a hidden Armenian I wrote about last year for the Washington Post. Asiya’s mother had been present at the Dudan crevasse when almost all of the Armenians had been slaughtered by Turkish gendarmes and a Kurdish killing party in 1915. One of the Kurds pulled Asiya’s mother from the line at the edge of the ravine because he thought she was pretty, and decided he’d marry her. And so she was spared—one of the very few Armenians who were saved that cataclysmic summer day 99 years ago.

This morning we were back in Chunkush to visit Asiya. Four of us in the group had met her in 2013 and four had not.

Prior to dropping by, however, we went to see the ruins of a medieval Armenian monastery on the edge of the town. There we were greeted by Asiya’s son-in-law, Recai, who had first insisted we meet his remarkable mother-in-law in 2013 and now was coordinating our second visit.

All of us stood inside the sanctuary watching the light pour in through the gaping holes in the walls. We surveyed the columns, looked at the compasses on our cell phones to find east and confirm where the altar had once stood, and tried not to step in the garbage that covered the dirt and stones like fallen leaves in September.

I’m honestly not sure who first reached down with his or her bare hands and picked up a piece of garbage. But the first person I noticed was Recai: He was plucking a once-white cigarette pack, now the color of dirty snow, from the floor and looking around for a place to put it.

Soon all of us were picking at the debris, doing what we could to return a measure of dignity to this once majestic monastery.

And that’s when Ulash appeared with the plastic grocery bag—what, a moment earlier, had merely been more litter. He opened it for Recai. Then he started gathering more trash, working with the relentless energy of any eight-year-old child.

(Photo by Victoria Blewer)
(Photo by Victoria Blewer)

That boy, of course, was Recai’s son, which was why my soul exhaled for a moment and let in a little sunlight. He was Asiya’s grandson.

We will never know precisely what role that boy’s very direct ancestors may have played in the execution of the Armenians at the Dudan crevasse, but we know that the Kurd who pulled Asiya’s mother from the edge of the ravine and then raised Asiya as his daughter obviously was there.

And so the fact that Recai and his son cleaned the monastery with us that day was one of those unexpected moments that provide a measure of healing. A dram of hope. A reminder that wonder is still possible.

* * *

This column appeared originally in the Armenian Weekly.  Bohjalian’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published in July.

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.