[The following is an excerpt from Goodbye, Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide. The English translation, by Simon Beugekian, edited by Aram Goudsouzian, was published in 2015.]
At night, elderly Turkish women patrolled up and down the rows of beds, trying their best to make sure we were all asleep. Some of us slept four to a bed, others eight to a bed, covered by one single blanket, breathing into each other’s faces. On cold nights, boys sometimes pulled the blanket off the others, starting an argument. The commotion would wake up everyone in the dormitory, and the women would do their best to restore order.
Often, the boys cried out in their sleep, or they woke up from a nightmare. When that happened, the Turkish women took their hands, escorted them to the lavatories, washed away their tears, and brought them back to the beds.
I often dreamed of my mother. During these dreams, we had long conversations. I was told that I often whimpered and repeated the word “mother” in my sleep. Her nightly visits were essential to my sanity and survival.
When morning came, we couldn’t help but feel a little bit cheerful. The days were often bright, and out the windows we could see the peaks of mountains in the distance to the east. To the west, in the distance, was the glittering Mediterranean Sea. Around the orphanage were scenic greenery and the beautiful songs of the birds. Despite everything, we had not given up on life yet.
Another thing that lifted our spirits was the set of statues of saints located high on the roofs of the buildings; they seemed to be constantly blessing us. The orphanage had been Turkified, but this place had been a religious school for decades, and even the Turks could not erase every trace of its past. We felt like those statues had successfully fought off any attempts by the Turks to change their identities, and thus, every time we went out to the courtyard, our eyes were drawn to them.
One morning, we heard a terrible noise, and we saw that the Turks were finally destroying the statues. The saints had lost their battle against the orphanage administration.
It was difficult to destroy the statues. By the second day only a few of them had been removed. We saw two of them crash down into the courtyard and shatter into a million pieces. That day, every time the bell rang, we poured out of the classrooms and ran to the shattered pieces, picking them up and fretting about them as if they were true relics of the saints.
“I’ll miss them,” murmured one of the boys.
“They were so lifelike,” added another.
“One of them looked exactly like my grandfather—same height, same mustache,” said a third, picking up some of the rubble.
The boys kept circling the smashed statues. Nobody played in the courtyard that day. We found noses and ears, arms and legs, scattered all over the place. Mindless destruction. The orphanage staff didn’t even bother cleaning up the rubble—the orphans had to collect it all into pails and dispose of it outside the orphanage walls.
Only one statue survived. It was a heavy one, made of bronze, and stood on the altar of the small chapel. But the door of the chapel was always kept locked, so we had no chance of seeing it.
In the first days of our stay in Antoura, the chapel had been a consolation. In the winter it was warm, and in the summer it was cool and breezy. The stained glass windows, decorated with biblical scenes and likenesses of saints, kindled memories of home in our minds.
But the project of Turkification was reaching a new level of intensity. On a daily basis, we heard lectures about Islam, its victories, and the virtue it imparted to the faithful who followed the way of Allah. Some of the boys had succumbed to the pressure already, while the others were under constant assault from the staff and the headmaster.
The administration started locking the chapel doors. It saw the building as a threat to its mission to convert us to Islam.
The orphans cast furtive glances toward the locked doors. “When will they let us back into the chapel?” asked one boy.
“To pray? We can pray anywhere,” answered another. “Remember, boys, we can pray in our beds, in our rooms, or even here in the courtyard.”
“I know that, but I wish I could see the statues inside one more time,” a third added.
“We can’t break down the door, but there are other ways to get in,” insisted a boy named Murad. “I’ll find a way and I’ll let you in, just follow me!”
The bell rang. It was the end of recess, and we had to return to the classrooms. We formed rows and walked into class under the watchful gaze of the teachers. During history class, the teacher asked whether Muhammad traveled on the back of a camel or on the back of a donkey. One of the more daring boys stood up and replied: “Miss, we all know Muhammad traveled on the back of a camel, and he must have really struck a sorry figure. As for those statues, they were beautiful. What was the point of smashing them to pieces?”
The entire class burst into laughter.
“How dare you? What blasphemy!” cried out the teacher, and struck her desk with her ruler.
For the crime of insulting the prophet, the boy had to face the wall and stand on one leg until the end of the class. But the classroom was now out of control, with all the students making a terrible amount of noise.
That night, Murad, as promised, led a group toward the back of the chapel. There we found a tiny door that was unlocked. Once through it, we found ourselves in a secondary room full of drawers, closets, and other furniture, covered by a thick layer of dust. But that didn’t interest us. We crept into the main nave. It was completely dark, save for a glimmer of light peeking through the window. As we approached the altar, we spotted the statue—it was lying on the ground, on its back.
The Turks had managed to dislodge it from its plinth, but they had failed to destroy it. It had only a few nicks here and there. The metallic statue had been too strong for their hammers and anvils. The serene expression on the statue’s face was still the same. In the visage of this statue we found more beauty and dignity than ever.
We all sat solemnly around the fallen statue. There was a silent, holy conversation going on between it and us. We weren’t even quite sure who the statue was supposed to depict. But we knew it was another link to our pasts, another key to our memories.
[Excerpted from GOODBYE, ANTOURA: A MEMOIR OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE, by Karnig Panian, by permission of the publisher. (c) 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. Published by Stanford University Press in hardcover and digital formats. For more information, click here.]