“You know you exist when someone is there opposite you who acknowledges your presence and your narrative. Until what happened 100 years ago is fully acknowledged, there will be no reconciliation for that part of our history, no matter how many centuries pass,” says artist Arsinée Khanjian.
Khanjian loses her composure while telling the story of her family. Emotions turn to tears. Despite her courage in speaking of the unspeakable, she cannot overcome the fear of relating certain episodes. Her ancestors’ history follows her wherever she goes.
Arsinée Khanjian was born in Lebanon. Her family moved to Canada when she was 17. She studied foreign languages and graduated with a Masters in Political Science from University of Toronto. She chose her major at her mother’s urging, but her desire to pursue acting, which she had also studied, led her to perform at a community theater. It was there that she met her future husband, director Atom Egoyan.
Arsinée Khanjian and Atom Egoyan
During her career as an artist, Arsinée appeared in films by Egoyan and collaborated with the Taviani brothers, Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas and Fatih Akin, among others. She has produced several films and won the Genie and Gemini Awards. In 2002, Khanjian received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, awarded to people who have made a significant contribution to Canada, to mark the 50th anniversary of Her Majesty to the Throne. Khanjian is also the recipient of the 2005 Crystal Award for Creative Excellence by Women in Film and Television.
Arsinée’s gift in life is her son Arshile, now studying at the Institute of Political Science (Science Po) in Paris. He is also a prolific writer of short stories.
Arsinée Khanjian and Atom Egoyan with their son Arshile
A heavy silence
Arsinée’s paternal grandfather Mihran Khanjian and grandmother Nvart Aznavourian were both from Digranagerd (present-day Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey). Mihran’s original last name was Hagopian, but he changed it to Khanjian so as not to be confused with another local man of ill repute. “We don’t know much about why the name Khanjian was selected. The Turkish root is ‘khan’ or ‘han.’ I assume that his father owned a khan (inn). My grandparents really liked playing cards together. That’s how I remember them. They conversed in the Digranagerd dialect. They spoke very little about how they survived. And we asked them very little about it all,” says Arsinée.
Mihran was about 17 in 1915. He spoke Kurdish, Turkish and French, in addition to Armenian, and he sang at the St. Giragos Church. There is no record of how many siblings he had, but his entire family was killed in front of his eyes. It is not clear how he managed to escape. Eventually the Kurds took him in, but he didn’t want to convert and hide his identity. He ran away at the first opportunity, abandoning his young Kurdish bride,” says Arsinée.
While Arsinée tells her grandfather’s story, she insists that she isn’t capable of portraying it in full – she isn’t ready to do so. Her eyes fill with tears, as if she is caught in her ancestor’s story and can’t find a way out.
She wasn’t able to finish telling of her grandfather and his Kurdish wife, whom Mihran was forced to marry.
Although Mihran’s second wife Nvart was younger than him, she had been married before the massacres and had a child. Her husband had been drafted and killed, and their boy had died. She met Mihran in Aleppo, where she arrived with her sisters and brother.
“I know little about my grandmother Nvart. She didn’t say much about what happened to her during the deportations or about her sisters and family. I only clearly remember one story. One day, I sat down to play cards with her, and out of nowhere she told me that during the marches, a Turkish soldier approached and tried to take her younger sister away. My grandma started to yell at him in Turkish, even though she didn’t know it well. She pulled her sister aside. As she told the story she kept beating her chest and repeating, ‘This was how I saved my sister.’ She started to cry. ‘I have already passed,’ my grandmother later maintained matter-of-factly,” Khanjian remembers. “Years later I understood that she had saved her sister, but not herself.”
After Nvart and Mihran met in Aleppo, like many Armenians they relocated to Lebanon (1920-1921). Their four children – Hagop, Anahid, Arsen and Jean (Arsinée’s father) – were born there. All four attended Armenian schools. They all spoke, read and wrote Arabic. They remained in Lebanon until 1975, when civil war broke out and Arsinée’s family left for Canada.
Arsinée’s paternal grandmother Nvart with her son Hagop
“It was a family of believers and the children attended church. Just five or six years ago my father (now 86) was forced to stop going to church in Montreal due to his age. Wherever he was, he attended church. He has a beautiful voice and his dream was to become an opera singer. In Lebanon, at the age of 40, he took opera classes to become an amateur singer. My father’s love of education was both a duty and a passion throughout his life. He would say – I will sell the shirt off my back for you to get a college education,” says Arsinée.
Arsinée’s paternal grandparents and family, including her father, Jean (left)
Recreating old family with new
Arsinée’s maternal grandfather Arisdages Goshgagarian and her grandmother Elmasd Mouradian met at a Lebanese Armenian orphanage, where Elmasd worked as a caretaker (mayrig).
Arisdages lost all of his family members in the massacres. On the road of deportation, Arisdages’s father fell to the ground exhausted. As punishment, the gendarme decapitated the father and forced five-year-old Arisdages to continue walking while carrying his father’s head. Arisdages reached Lebanon with other orphans. When it came to getting documents, local officials asked for his last name. Arisdages couldn’t remember. He was asked what his father’s occupation had been, but couldn’t remember that either. All he said was the word “leather.” Officials assumed that he made shoes from leather and named the boy Goshgagarian (“shoemaker” in Armenian).
Seventeen-year-old Arisdages married Elmasd at the orphanage. “The young boys were giving Elmasd a hard time. One day my grandfather found her hidden under a bed. He wanted to protect her from the boys and they got married. They had three children – Marie, Zabel, and Takouhie. Two weeks after delivering her fourth child, Elmasd fell ill with pneumonia and died with the child. Arisdages then married Adele Kaprielian from Sis,” Arsinée remembers.
Arisdages tried to recreate the family he lost by renaming his children.
Zabel was his mother’s name, and Marie and Takouhie were his sisters. He baptized the other children from his second marriage with the names of his father and brothers – Krikor, Nshan, Azadouhie and Ardemis. They lived in the Christian village of Bikfaya, Lebanon, until 1957. They later relocated to Beirut.
Arsinée’s maternal grandparents Arisdages and Elmasd
“I visited them with trepidation. My grandfather didn’t speak. He was always seated in his pajamas at the foot of his bed. He never moved. I would go close to him and stand next to him and he would place his hand on my head saying, “Abris, abris, medztsadz es” (“Brava, brava, you have grown up”). His gaze was fixed on a single point on the floor. That was the extent of his horizon. When I was really small he would apparently hold me and sing a song. But I don’t remember this and I don’t know what the song was,” Arsinée laments.
The anguish of children
Arsinée’s parents met in Bikfaya but lived in Beirut, where she and her sister Nvart Aida were born. “Even though my grandmother and grandfather survived the Genocide, I felt the torment from my mother, who was born in Lebanon. The pain of the children, the anguish, was greater. There was anger there. My mother was extremely patriotic,” says Arsinée, and recounts an incident from her childhood: “Until fifth grade, every Thursday after class, she would take me to the front of the cinema where they showed Turkish films. Most of the ticket buyers were Armenians who had survived the Genocide and who often only spoke Turkish. Standing on the sidewalk across from the ticket counter she would yell, ‘Shame on you. They killed us and destroyed our culture. They killed our hope as a nation. And now you are paying to watch a Turkish film?’ She wasn’t a mad woman, but was very angry. She did this crazy thing to make me realize that I had the duty to protect my culture and my language. There would be harsh punishment for even uttering one Turkish word in our home.”
Arsinée’s mother, Zabel, on her wedding day with her adoptive mother, Adele (right). Flower girls, Azadouhie and Ardemis (with hair bow), Arsinée’s aunts
“My mother was opposed to my becoming an artist. She expected me to serve the Armenian cause. She believed that I could raise certain issues and support our history by studying political science. I specialized in public administration and this served me well. I was the first new-Canadian to work at the Ministry of Culture, which I did for nine years, being in charge of developing artistic programs.”
Arsinée promised her mother that when she completed her studies and made enough money, she would take her to Armenia. She wasn’t able to make good on that promise. Her mother fell ill and passed away; however, a small amount of her remains now rests in the historical homeland.
“I didn’t go to Turkey in 2010. I went to Ararat. In my mind, Ararat and Turkey aren’t the same. I took the Digranagerd wedding photo of my grandfather and grandmother with me, and the photo of my other grandparents from Kharpert and Erzurum, along with my mother’s gloves, a lock of hair, and a picture of her. I buried them atop Ararat,” says Arsinée, giving up on her efforts to hold back tears.
“When I met Atom I was living in the heart of the Montreal Armenian community. I felt Armenian in every sense. But my meeting with Atom wasn’t an encounter of two Armenian identities as such. It was an artistic encounter. I believed, like one believes in miracles, that this young man had talent and the ability to mark the world,” says Arsinée. “And he happened to be Armenian.” From then on the two young people’s identities became complimentary.
“To serve my Armenian heritage I had to come out of the closed Armenian environment in which I was brought up. It was as if Armenians were inside a circle, like on an island, and while standing on the edges of that circle, I was looking inward and Atom was looking outward. When we met, we exchanged places. We encouraged each other to force a change of perspective,” says Arsinée.
Atom Egoyan’s films were starting garnering praise in the 1980s, winning awards at various film festivals. Arsinée and Atom first visited Armenia in 1991. The country was going through a rough patch after the earthquake and just before independence. Atom’s film “The Adjuster” had been entered in the Moscow Film Festival and the couple jumped at the chance to make a side trip to Yerevan.
“We boarded the plane in Moscow, but instead of heading to Yerevan, we circled the forest around the airport for four hours and made an emergency landing. We wrote our wills for the first time and placed them in my metal eyeglass case. We confessed that if we were to die, this was the best way to go…on the way to Armenia. We finally landed at a dark Yerevan airport at 5:30 a.m. by a second plane. I had reached ‘Hayasdan yergir terakhdavayr’ (‘Armenia, land of paradise’) carrying the life-long dream of my parents. We stayed for three days. Atom’s film won the first prize and one million rubles in Moscow that year, an amount we had to spend on making a movie in Armenia. The following year, when we visited Armenia to make the movie ‘Calendar,’ we stayed for ten days,” recounts Arsinée.
A still from the Taviani brothers’ 2007 film “La Masseria Delle Allodole” (“The Lark Farm”), featuring Arsinée Khanjian (centrer right)
The Canadian couple made their mark in filmmaking and received invitations from around the world to participate in international film festivals. “When, in the 1980s and 1990s we received invitations to attend the Istanbul film festival, we’d write back to thank the organizers, say we wanted to come, but only if the organization publicly recognized our identity and acknowledged our history. Of course, there was never a response!” says Arsinée. After years of refusing to visit Turkey, it was an incident with her then 15-year-old son Arshile that forced Arsinée to go.
We are still here
“I was on a Mediterranean cruise with my son. We were scheduled to visit several cities, one of which was in Turkey. I didn’t want to set foot there. In my mind, it was a country of pain, crime and hate. We had agreed not to get off the ship at Kusadasi. On the day we docked, however, Arshile wanted to join the group of friends (non-Armenians) with whom we were traveling. I couldn’t convince him not to go. I said, ‘You’re violating my life’s rule. But I’m your mother and I can’t leave you alone.’ I lost my composure for a few days after that. A very important precept of my life had been violated,” says Arsinée. “I hadn’t raised Arshile like I was raised, but he knew well the history. That day, for the first time, he understood that he too bears an obligation.”
After that first difficult visit, Arsinée has been invited to Istanbul several other times and has participated in public events addressing identity issues with human rights activist and lawyer Fethiye Çetin, author of “My Grandmother.” “I decided that I had to be in Istanbul on April 24, on the 100th anniversary of the Genocide.
Four generations and 100 years later, we had to return to Turkey and simply say that we are still here.
And every time I go back, I know that I am standing on my ancestral land. It’s not easy, but it gets easier with every visit because I feel that my presence is a way of reclaiming my history and my identity. It is my right of return, a basic human right both sacred and inalienable,” says Arsinée.