“I feel like a cell phone that must be charged every night. If I don’t visit Armenia once a month, I don’t get recharged and cannot live here in Istanbul,” Dikran says.
The long road to Turkey
Altun’s family hails from central Anatolia. His father’s side is from the Yozgat village of Burunkshla (Burunkişla) and his mother’s – from the village of Tomarza in the Kayseri/Gesaria region. Until 1915 Burunkshla’s entire population was Armenian. It had two churches and a school. “In 1915 my grandmother Srpouhie had two children and was married to her first husband. She lost him in the massacres. Leaving their two children at an American orphanage, she went to Kayseri, where she met and later married my grandfather Dikran Altun,” Dikran junior explains. The couple had two sons and two daughters in Kayseri – including Nazar, Dikran Altun’s father.
The elder Dikran Altun originally bore the last name Altunian, but it was changed in 1934 when Turkey passed its “surname law,” requiring all citizens to adopt a hereditary, fixed family name. The legislation also required everyone to take on a Turkish language name.
“When my grandfather went to register his last name, he said ‘Altunian.’ The official said that Altun would be sufficient, and that’s what he wrote in the log,” Dikran remembers.
Dikran’s grandfather, a mason, died at a young age. Altun’s father Nazar, then just 12 years old, relocated to Istanbul with his family. “My father was only able to attend school up till the second grade in Kayseri. When the family – his mother, two sisters and a brother – moved to Istanbul, he had to start taking care of them.”
Dikran Altun’s mother Vartouhie was born in the Kayseri village of Tomarza. Her father, Nigoghos Barutian, fell victim to the Genocide. In 1915, before the massacres began, his father and uncle left for America. Soon after, Nigoghos, his mother and two sisters were exiled to Deir ez-Zor along with thousands of other Armenians. First they had to walk and were then herded onto a train.
Dikran describes his grandfather’s journey as if it happened yesterday: “Every morning, the train would stop. The dead were removed, the wagons washed and cleaned. One day, in the stony desert, everyone got off the train so that it could be cleaned. He was just a child and started to play with the stones. He turned around and saw that the train had gone. Most likely, his mother deliberately left him there because one sister had already died on the train.”
Master lives in the desert
An Arab found Nigoghos in the desert and took him to work in his home. Later on, foreign soldiers came to round up all Armenian children in the village. The Arab denied that he was taking care of Nigoghos. But the boy overheard the soldiers – who were probably members of the Armenian Legion of the French army – speaking Armenian among themselves. The soldiers took Nigoghos to an orphanage in Aleppo. Months later, in the orphanage, Nigoghos met a horse rider who said he was going to Tomarza. Nigoghos joined the horseman and first resettled in Hadjin (present-day Saimbeyli). He later made it all the way back to Tomarza. When he arrived, he was taken in by one of the Armenian families that had stayed and later married one of their daughters. “They would ask, ‘where did you learn Arabic?’ He would answer: ‘I learned it from my master.’ Who was his master? He didn’t remember. Where did he live? ‘The desert.’”
A matter of principle
When Dikran Altun’s father moved to Istanbul, he began working as a dental assistant. In time, he set up his own dental practice. Years later, in search of better work, he moved to Erzurum with his wife Vartouhie. That’s where the couple’s middle child, Dikran, was born.