My mother’s dolls


15 small dolls of about 45 cm, and 5 human-sized dolls made with wood, fabric and traditional accessories.
Video entitled “Silent”.

Solo exhibition, Prometeo Galery, Milano, 2021. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)
Solo exhibition, Prometeo Galery, Milano, 2021. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)
Solo exhibition, Prometeo Galery, Milano, 2021. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Zehra Doğan
58:30 mn
Camera :
Zehra Doğan
Video edit: Naz Oke
Soulaymaniyah / Kurdistan


Armenian Women Coerced Into Islam

It all started with the war in the Dardanelles. Domestic tension surged up suddenly one night, following the poisoning of four thousand soldiers. Armenians were blamed for the crime and this  is how the first moments of the genocide began.

In my village, there were only nine people left, including my grandfather. As soon as the events started unfolding, they set off on the road. Their only guide in this journey of several months was the Morning Star. They followed it as they walked. Along the road, they used the boots  they took off the soldiers who had died of hunger along the way, and survived by eating the bits of bread they found in their knapsacks.

The genocide unfolded in phases. Our village was called Piran. My grandmother told me that soldiers came to the village to “hire” young men. They lied to the villagers: “We’re on the point of saving the country, we’re going to build palaces and buildings, we need young and strong young Armenian workers”, and they promised them double pay. Days later, it was the turn of little children and of their fathers, taken supposedly to clean up after the workers. This was right after the war of liberation, everyone was in deep poverty. Anyone would have accepted such work. They agreed. Then, the soldiers suddenly came into the villages and grouped all the remaining Armenian women together and led them toward Newala Piwaza. There, they separated the women, selected some and killed the others with firearms.

My grandmother Xanê is one of these women. In each home in our village, there was an Armenian “daughter-in-law”. They were sold by the soldiers and the merchants in the places where the genocide took place. I remember, all our neighbours were Armenians. And all of them were not from this region. For instance, there were women who had survived the Armenian convoys sent toward the Deir ez-Zor desert in Syria. Most of them did not speak Kurdish, but Turkish. All of those women were coerced into professing Islam then brought there as third, or fourth wife and considered as sexual slaves.

They told the Kurds “he who kills seven Armenians goes to paradise.” We had a neighbor by the name of Aro. Despite his conversion to Islam, he was decapitated by a Kurd who liked his shirt and who took his wife Hawê as a sexual slave. I knew Hawê, she cried all the time. All the women had grief etched on their face…All the houses were ransacked, objects taken. Years after the genocide, when there were marriage feasts, some men and women still showed up wearing clothing and jewelry they had stolen. As my grandmother said, these items were taken from the homes, or from the locations where the massacres took place, literally taken off the dead. Bloodied clothes were washed and then worn.

The fact you have blood links both with the killers and the victims creates a terrifying feeling. My grandmother Xanê always told me: “We were the hors-d’œuvre, the Kurds will be the main course.”

Fatikê, a head to cut off

Try to imagine for a moment that, with events taking place in your historical home, you suddenly become a stranger on your own lands. Fatikê’s painful sotry is but one among so many others, and her suffering begins when she is still in swaddling clothes. Fatikê was born on the day when the convoy of Armenians from the village of Piran in Mardin was massacred in the forest zone of Newala Pivaza. As part of this death convoy, in the arms of her mother, with her tiny newborn body, she was undoubtedly one of the “seven Armenians” to kill, for a Muslim dreaming of paradise.

Alerted by the soldiers who knocked on every door, saying “there are heads to cut off“, all the Muslim villagers grabbed their swords. As for the Armenians, hearing these words as a prelude to approaching death, they took a final look at the homes in which they were born and grew up, and set off on the road. Who knows what they felt of the destruction as they moved on in this death journey, walking the streets they had always known, walking in a single file in front of those waiting impatiently to grab their abandoned homes? Fatikê was one of these in the convoy, a baby who had not even received a name yet. But what need was there to name her? Weren’t the names changed on women enslaved and coerced into Islam ? Had her mother not quickly handed her newborn to her neighbor Eyno, saying “at least this one will live“, had she known everything Fatikê would then live through, would she have acted this way, nonetheless?

Thus begins Fatikê’s story, tiny Armenian girl whose real name is unknown and who will carry the name of Mohamed’s daughter.

Fatikê grew up as Eyno and Sehmus’ adopted child. At the age of five, she was betrothed to their son Xeto, to be married a few years later. Fatikê and Xeto who had grown up as brother and sister, saw the end of their life as siblings and began preparing themselves for their roles as husband and wife. Fatikê was then brutally thrust out of her silence-filled childhood. The accomplishment of her seventh year brought the most painful days for her.   Sehmus, the father of her “cradle fiancé”, Xeto, abused of her sexually. Fatikê did not dare speak up. At the age of twelve, when the family wanted to marry her to Xeto, much before the legal age, Sehmus opposed the marriage. The marriage was thus delayed for three years but in the end, Xeto kidnapped Fatikê. She ended up confiding in her mother-in-law Eyno. Learning of the abuse, the latter took her from Xeto and married the little girl to her rapist, Sehmus.

Experincing no pride in having forced the child she had raised to marry her rapist, Eyno left the village, and all of her past behind, and took refuge in the Qesra Hesenê Qenco palace near Mardin. In a few years Eyno became famous as an alternative healer in the region, and bought up much land. At the end of the war of  liberation, the new Turkey was hit by a famine. Eyno took advantage of the difficulties experienced by Sehmus and took Fatikê back with her…

Xanê, the slave of the Deir ez-Zor convoy

Bêdo’s daughter Xanê, whose precise name was Xana Bêdo, was one of the women for sale in the Anatolian convoy headed toward the Deir ez-Zor desert in Syria, a great number of whom were assassinated near Mardin.

Xanê, bought by Hesen from the merchant of women or should I say “the vulture on Armenian corpses” submitted to him, conditional on her taking along her ten year-old brother. Xanê was sold to Sehmusê Heci of the Piran village and while she led a survival struggle as second wife, her brother’s name was changed to Muhammed. Xanê was attempting to learn the Kurdish language while facing both the discrimination from the other women and the suffering inflicted on her every night by the rapes from the man designated as a “husgand”. The villagers still speak of the beauty both of Xanê’s voice and of her appearance. She attempted to free herself from what she endured by singing Armenian songs. As for her little brother, he did his best to build a new life, with his new name and his new religion.

Gifted with his hands, Muhammed began to decorate precious objects at a young age and made a good livelihood. Even after many years, even nowadays, there is talk of his talent in the village, and his windmills made out of squash are on display. Muhammed was also the first one in the village to pursue studies. He is said to have become a plane mechanic and to have settled in Ankara. It is also said that the artist Neriman Güney would be the daughter of Muhammed, the Armenian child…

Zeynê, Fatma and Muhtar Fatma and Hawê

Also in the group fated to the Deir ez-Zor desert, there is the story of Zeynê who was born in Maras and took on a new life after the destruction of her own, and who killed herself after telling the whole story to her son.

In this same convoy, we find Fatma and her daughter Alis whose lives were confiscated by their neighbors, then sold to a father and his son.

The story of another Fatma – a name frequently chosen in coerced identity changes – an Armenian from Maras who, while carrying out her struggle as a woman, a woman sold in Kurdistan in the non-Turkish speaking part of Turkey, a region she did not know, where the locals spoke an unknown language, became muhtar1 of seven villages.

As for Hawê, daughter of Ego made prisoner on her own lands, after her forced marriage to Sex Ömer, a religious dignitary, she had to pray, learn the Coran, use the beads, and raise three sons as religious sages.

Traces of  Armenian women’s lives, among the ashes remaining from the genocide…

Fatma and her daughter Alis

Fatma and her daughter Alis were thus forced into the crowd of Armenians whose heads were “to be cut off” under the eyes of their families. The mother and daughter were bought by Mustafa, a friend of long standing of Fatma’s husband. Their house was ransacked by this same “friend”. Mustafa bought Alis for his son Resul. As if Fatma and Alis’ pain and suffering were not sufficient, they were subjected daily to physical violence by Mustafa’s children who could not stand them. Mother and daughter were exploited in the fields, in the prairies, even during the harsh winter days. And when they finished working, at night, they were raped by the men who had bought them.

Years went by this way… Mustafa’s children fed their hatred against Fatma, caught her out in the field one day, crushed in her head with stones and hid her body under the henhouse. They said nothing to their father and Mustafa searched for her in vain. Fatma’s body was found months later. The children admitted the crime and Mustafa took his revenge through Alis…He “confiscated” the girl he had bought for his son Resul and married her in a religious ceremony. Alis’ horrific life story thus carried on in its normal course, with nothing but a change of torturers…

Zeynê’s life as merchandise

Zeynê’s life is not much different from that of the other Armenians of Maras in the Deir ez-Zor convoy. Zeynê was sold by the merchant of women Heciyê Merdini to Eminê Misto, from Piran a village linked to Mazidagi in the Mardin disrict. Zeynê had trouble learning the Kurdish language and was made fun of by everyone. As she teased her son who spoke very quickly by calling this speech automatic, the villagers nicknamed her Zeynê the automatic. Taking advantage of the fact the villagers did not speak Turkish, she taught this language to her son Ali and then told him everything she had lived through. An Armenian woman, Seynê told her son about the long march of the convoy, the days of thirst and hunger, the massacre of her whole family before her eyes, the raped children, the pillaging, even the bloodied clothes of the dead. Then, she killed herself.

The first woman muhtar of Turkey

Among the Armenians assembled in Maras who arived in single file near Mardin, there was also a Fatma whose real name will forever be unknown to us…She was among the men and women of the Zeir ez-Zor who answered the question “Islam or death?” with  the word “Death” and fell under the bullets. Fatma received her share of them. But, even if one can wonder if staying alive was really luck, considering all she lived through, she did survive.

For a whole day, Fatma remained unconscious among the corpses. She regained consciousness in the evening at the sound of the pillaging vultures. But she was afraid to call for help. A woman approached her. With pleading eyes and with a hand over her mouth, she beged the woman to be silent. The woman then turned Fatma over on her belly so no one could see her face.

Fatma took advantage of the night to shove out from under the lifeless bodies piled up on her and began to walk. But the pillaging ones were still around doing their work and thus, Fatma was caught in the net of Heciyê Merdini, merchant of women, a new trade born of the  genocide…She was held for some twenty days at Heciyê Merdini’s place with a goup of other woman, all of them crammed together like sardines. Every fine day, this house would fill up with customers and, one after the other, the women were sold off – still in their bloodied clothes. Fatma was bought by Ebo, a good for nothing from the village of Tezne. He had heard about the sale of women and showed up with money he had borrowed left and right and couldn’t afford to repay. Fatma was married off to him and thus began this intelligent woman’s new life. 

Walking behind Ebo, Fatma arrived in his village which had formerly been inhabited by Armenians and Kurds. She found herself in a place where, following the sudden disappearance of the Armenian population, her language had also disappeared and there was no one in the village with whom she could communicate.

Years went by. Fatma who also spoke Turkish, learned Kurdish. In the meantime, the Turkish Republic was created. It became mandatory to have a muhtar as first-level representative for the State. So soldiers went around, knocking on every door, searching for candidates. But in the Mazidagi disrict of Mardin, no one spoke Turkish, except for Fatma…She was thus elected as the first woman muhtar, and designated to represent seven villages. Apart for the change of name, she never made any concessions concerning her culture, her religion. And the words she kept repeating “The Armenians were the hors-d’œuvre, the Kurds will be the main course” turned out to be true, years later.  The wheel turned, things changed, but Fatma never took a single step backward and was among the influential people against the burning of Kurdish villages and hid members of the Kurdish Movement in her home.

Hawê suddenly finds herself in Islam…

One final story of an identity destroyed on its own lands… Hawê, Ego’s’s youngest daughter witnessed the assassination of her entire family, including her father. She was forced to become Sex Ömer’s third wife, despite the fact he had promised her father he would protect her.

Still a child, yet married, Hawê suddenly found herself transformed into a woman wearing a hijab, and carrying out the daily obligations of prayer, and fasting during Ramadan. She held her first son in her arms at the age of fifteen and had to teach the religion to her three sons. Raised in Islam, they became religious sages, who knew the Coran by heart and preached in the mosque.

The fact Hawê was Armenian became the village’s secret, like a “black spot”, ancient, known but kept quiet She is said to have died at 95 pronouncing the chahada2 with her last breth.

1 Muhtar: neighborhood/village State representative.

2 Chahada: Essential profession of faith in Islam, the first of the five pillars defining the Muslim faith. “I attest there is no other divinity outside Allah and I attest that Muhammed is Allah’s Messenger. “

English translation by Lucie Bourges

Text pdf: English – French