The Heroic Struggle of an Assyrian in the Wake of Genocide

by Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE on January 31, 2019

in Featured, Featured News, News

Ashur Yousuf's widow Arshaluys in Aleppo with her five adult children. Standing from the left: Mary, Alice (author of the book), Sella. Sitting; Sargon, Arshaluys, George. Elder son Rasin is absent because he was living in Armenia under the name Tigran Hovsepyan.

Ashur Yousuf’s widow Arshaluys in Aleppo with her five adult children. Standing from the left: Mary, Alice (author of the book), Sella. Sitting; Sargon, Arshaluys, George. Elder son Rasin is absent because he was living in Armenia under the name Tigran Hovsepyan.

AINA – 31/1/19

Publisher: Nineveh Press 2018
Order: here

(AINA) — The horrors that Seyfo (genocide) brought are described in a new book about the Assyrian national hero Ashur Yousuf and his widow Arshaluys. It is a poignant story of a family’s tragic destiny and a testimony of the strong will and sacrifice that Arshaluys Yousuf demonstrated during her 80 years. At the same time, it depicts the attempts to eradicate the area’s two indigenous peoples, Assyrians and Armenians, writes author and journalist Augin Kurt Haninke.

The book bears the title Bloodied, but Unbowed (Nineveh Press 2018). Its first part is about Arshaluys’s tribulations and struggle for survival after her husband Ashur Yousuf was murdered under Seyfo. He was arrested on May 1, 1915, with a group of other intellectuals. According to the information we were provided with up to now, he was hanged in prison. But according to contributor “French” in a tribute to Ashur Yousuf that the Assyrian Five Association in the United States published in 1919, the prisoners were driven into a death march towards Urfa/Urhoy. There, a bunch of hired Kurds would have massacred the prisoners to death on June 22, 1915. Ashur Yousuf was 57 years and his remains were never found. They lay probably in an unknown mass grave. His widow Arshaluys wrote a letter of thanks to the Assyrian Five Association, published in Babylon magazine on March 1920, and asked the contributor “French” to tell her where he had seen her dear husband being killed, because she wanted to be buried next to him.

From her letter, it appears that Ashur Yousuf’s arrest was not on April 19, which we have been taught for all years, but on May 1. The source of the incorrect date was an article by George D. Sefer in the United States, published as an undated brochure by the New Assyria Publishing Company, the publisher of the New Assyria magazine (September 1916-June 1919). It is not known when the brochure was published, but the story is placed three years after the war, which could be 1921–22. In George Sefer’s story, entitled “A Dream of a Long Journey,” he reproduces a letter that Ashur Yousuf is said to have written on April 20, 1915 and smuggled out by his brother Donabed. While Sefer’s article contains accurate information about certain family members, it is at the same time fictitious. Therefore, the letter that Sefer describes as Ashur Yousuf’s letter must be seen as a fictional story, writes the book’s editor, Ashur Yousuf’s great-granddaughter. Arshaluys Yousuf’s information is, of course, a first-hand testimony. However, she does not write if her husband had been moved to the prison in Diyarbakir.

Related: The Assyrian Genocide

Previously, Ashur Yousuf had been called to interrogation by Turkish police and released. When he was picked up that fatal day in May, Arshaluys wondered why he willingly followed them. He had of course no chance of fleeing at that time, but she may have meant on the time before. Ashur Yousuf calmed down his wife with the words; “Do not worry. I’ll tell them what they want to hear. Then they will send me home again.” In her letter to Assyrian Five, Arshaluys also says that when the Turkish police arrested her husband, he told her; “Farewell, Arshaluys! Don’t be sad. God is merciful.” But he never returned and left six children fatherless: Rasin (later called Tigran Hovsepyan in Armenia); Sella who lost her first husband in the genocide; George who died in Aleppo in his mother’s arms after being burned severely in a fire; Sargon who had heart disease and died in Yerevan 45 years old – also in his mother’s arms; Mary who was born three months after her father’s death; and Alice who is the author of this book.

Alice Nazarian was Ashur Yousuf’s second youngest child and wrote the book in 1965. She was born in Kharput in 1910, grew up in Aleppo and died in 1976 in the United States. Her son, John Nazarian, has now sponsored the translation and publication of the book from the Armenian original. This was done to enable a wider audience, not least the descendants of the family in the West who cannot read Armenian, writes her granddaughter Arda Darakjian Clark, the editor of the book.

The Yousuf family certainly experienced accident after accident while they had to move between Kharput, Diyarbakir, Beirut, Aleppo, Homs. Finally some ended up in Armenia and some in the US. But their outstanding mother Arshaluys stood firm in her faith and conviction that the best way to retrieve new power and move forward, was to help others affected, especially Armenian orphans. She taught at various schools in Diyarbakir, Beirut, Aleppo, and Homs, where the orphan pupils often saw her as their own mother.

Arshaluys was a devoted academician and regarded education as the primary means of moving forward. Education and intellectual character were so important to her that she refused to let her daughters marry Armenian young men despite the strong love of the young to each other. Her daughter Alice’s prospective husband Nazar Nazarian was an enterprising young man but lacked higher education because the genocide had displaced thousands of families in the Middle East and forced them into a life of seeking their livelihood. In the end, Nazar had to take correspondence courses to get Arshaluys’s consent to marry Alice. He was regularly interrogated by Arshaluys about what he learned in his correspondence courses.

Arshaluys Yousuf was the daughter of Hagop Oghgassian, an Armenian Protestant minister. She was born in 1876 in the village of Hoghe outside Kharput and studied at The Euphrates College in Kharput, where her future husband Ashur Yousuf was a teacher. The college was founded by American missionaries in 1852 and was primarily intended to educate Armenian ministers. But there was also secular higher education. Ashur Yousuf taught Armenian language and linguistics, as well as religion and psychology. He was also talented in calligraphy and formed many of the signs of the shops in the city. He was fluent in Armenian, Turkish, and English. He taught in both Assyrian and Armenian schools. He married Arshaluys when she was 19 and he himself 32 years. They were both Protestants.

They lived a poor but intellectually rich life. She took care of their home and children while Ashur used his modest teacher’s salary not only to feed his family, but also to travel around Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Urhoy in order to create a national awakening among Assyrians. In Kharput, Diyarbakir, and Urhoy, the Assyrians spoke Turkish and Armenian. Ashur Yousuf was unable to read or write Assyrian until his 50s when he began publishing the journal Murshid Athuryon (The Guide of the Assyrians) from 1909 until 1914 when WWI broke out. The magazine was published in Turkish with Assyrian letters. Today, only the first four years of the magazine have been found in the original with the grandchildren of his old student Nshan Koyoun in the United States. These volumes have in recent years been digitized by Modern Assyrian Research Archive (MARA). Ashur Yousuf also participated extensively as a columnist in several Armenian newspapers. Unfortunately, he was not mentioned at all when Armenian organizations published a list of Armenian scholars who fell victim to the genocide, according to his friends in the booklet the Assyrian Five Association published in 1919. We find the contents of the booklet (obituaries and tributes to Ashur Yousuf) at end of the book.

Armenian intellectuals and politicians have for more than a hundred years designated the first genocide of the 20th century as “The Armenian Genocide,” thus excluding the Assyrians and Greeks. When the so-called Blue Book was published for the second time in Lebanon in 1970, 100 pages were removed containing testimonies regarding the Assyrian Seyfo. There were eyewitness accounts collected by Englishman James Bryce’s assistant Arnold Tonybee. Only in the third edition in recent years has genocide researcher Ara Sarafian from the Gomidas Insitute added back the pages relating to the Assyrians.

“Ashur Yousuf’s journalistic work was complemented by his prodigious literary output. His poems, tragedies, and other fictional works have established him as one of the leading lights of Assyrian literature”, we can read in the booklet of Assyrian Five 1919. Ashur Yousuf’s highest wish was to strengthen his own people’s national consciousness. He tried to explain the factors that made the national morale so low. In a famous article from October 1914, eight months before his death, he lined up the root causes of the Assyrians’ backwardness — from being the people who enlightened the world to being in total darkness. In his article “What Is Behind the Cultural Stagnation of the Assyrians?” he identified the following main factors:

  • Political military loss when the Assyrian Empire fell
  • Internal sectarian disputes
  • Loss of language
  • Ignorance of the priesthood
  • Church impotence or “death”
  • The negligence of duty by the family and the school
  • The environment, surrounded by underdeveloped tribes and peoples
  • Lack of a higher ideal, which is the basis for a nation-building

The article is annexed to the book along with Ashur Yousuf’s poems and prose which escaped destruction by the Turks when he was arrested. In October 1992, I gave a lecture in the Assyrian association in Norrköping, Sweden, based on this article, which also is found in Swedish as an attachment to my book Om vi söker… It is an analytical text that stands still today more than a hundred years later. He criticized the profound ignorance that prevailed among the Assyrian clergy, which hindered the Assyrian nation’s recovery and development. Probably inspired by Ashur Yousuf, Bishop Mor Yuhanon Dolabani (1885–1969) wrote his famous poem Athlite (Heroes) when he was a teacher at the Assyrian School and Orphanage in Adana 1919–21. The third and last verse of the poem reads:

My legs will find peace in my grave When Mother Assyria experiences her liberation May my grave be surrounded by free and proud Nations And of Assyria’s troops and enlightened priests

Ashur Yousuf, who lived intimately with the Armenians, was deeply concerned about the fact that the Assyrians were missing intellectual leaders. He saw the low level of education among the leadership as an obstacle to the development of Assyrian people in comparison to the Armenians. Admittedly, in his writings he often responded to the condescending views of the Armenian intellectuals on the Assyrians, but it was a fact that the Armenians were politically well-organized, unlike the Assyrians who were controlled by the arbitrariness of their priests. Unfortunately, the Assyrians are still at the mercy of the arbitrariness of the priesthood, even though they have formed civil and political organizations nowadays.

At one of life’s darkest moments, Ashur Yousuf showed his indignation over the backwardness of the Assyrians as he wrote, “I weep, for we missed our chance. There is no return, no solution, I am afraid”. One of his old students, Nshan B. Koyoun, described in 1919 Ashur Yousuf’s pioneer efforts for Assyrian awakening as priceless and immortal. Koyoun writes:

“Ah, I don’t know how fair you were being to yourself when you wrote those words, in view of the tireless, relentless, and invaluable work you have carried out for the betterment of your nation. It’s so very true that your desires and wishes for your people remained unfulfilled and left you frustrated, as you often stated. Indeed, your writings were the faithful mirrors of your life. Your unequaled heart, boundless love, selflessness and sincere and exemplary patriotism endeared you to your people. Ashur, you became the leader and dazzling editorial star that illuminated the horizons of the forgotten literature of the Assyrians. With your mercurial intellectual stature, you laid the foundations of an unprecedented tradition of publishing Assyrian periodicals, thus becoming a fragrant violet that sprouted in desolate places.”

A better description is difficult to find in what has been written about Ashur Yousuf. What strikes me is that the Yousuf family seemed to have selflessness and concern for their fellow human beings as their guiding principle. They were deep believers and found comfort in their Christian faith. Ashur Yousuf’s grandfather Hovsep Yousuf was an educated, pious and patriotic man who belonged to Kharput’s affluent Assyrians. He had a sewing studio with several employees and his home was always open for the needy. But one day he was fooled by an employee of the company and thus became destitute. This also affected the family of his only child Mariam — Ashur Yousuf’s mother.

Mariam was betrothed to Sahag (Isaac), the son of a poor family, when she was twelve. Already as a young woman she was independent and outspoken. She liked to kick ball with her friends but that was frowned upon when she was soon to be a bride. Then she said to Sahag: “I don’t want a fiancé who stands in the way of my game”. They married two years later with financial assistance from her father Hovsep. It was customary for girls to get married at an early age, often in order to minimize the risk of being abducted by surrounding Kurds. Mariam gave birth to four boys; Ashur, Yakub, Donabed and Garabed , as well as two daughters; Anna and Margaret (Markrit). Sahag became the foreman of the in-laws’ sewing room and was able to support his family without any problems. When his father-in-law lost his business, Sahag and Mariam were faced with major financial pressures. But Mariam was a proud and independent woman who refused to admit to poverty. There were periods when her children lacked food for the day, but she gathered firewood and lit the stove with a pan containing only water. In this way, she allowed the neighbors to believe that the smoke in the chimney came from cooking. She was a dominant woman reminiscent of my own grandmother — an authority in our home village of Anhel in Turabdin. My grandmother had also experienced grief in losing her husband, her father-in-law and her only son. All three were 27 years old. Three black-dressed widows were forced to take care of four small children in my family.

Eventually, Mariam Yousuf’s children grew up and were able to contribute to the family’s livelihood. Ashur was talented and wanted to invest in higher education but had to move around teaching in cities like Malatya, Izmir, Amasya and Urhoy to secure his livelihood. Eventually he ended up at Euphrates College, where he met his wife Arshaluys. When he was murdered in 1915, she was left alone with fear for her children and responsible for the family’s livelihood. The entire Armenian and Assyrian community in the area had been smashed. The men were murdered or driven on marches to labor camps that often ended with death. Many women and children became slaves to Kurdish families who also enriched themselves by confiscating Christian property. Arshaluys and her children were spared and she was determined not to give way to the grief. She rolled up her sleeves to get food and security for her six children.

She asked her aunt in Mezre, an hour’s walk from Kharput, to accompany her to surrounding Kurdish villages to exchange household items for food. But it was a risky journey and she barely managed to escape death. Arshaluys and her aunt had met two Kurdish women in a village who befriended them and accompanied them on their way back. The Kurdish women even insisted that Arshaluys and her aunt stop by their home whenever they went past the area. When they left the village together, her aunt had to go home to Mezre. One Kurdish woman claimed that she had a job to do in Kharput and followed the same route as Arshaluys, while her aunt and the other woman turned away on another road. Just when Arshaluys and the woman sat down to rest on the roadside, she heard a deep voice in the distance. She turned around and said to herself that it must be a daydream. When the voice was heard again, Arshaluys ran towards where it came from. Suddenly, the exhausted aunt fell in Arshaluys’s arms. She told her that the other Kurdish woman she had been with had had a pang of conscience and revealed that Arshaluys’s companion had a plan to throw Arshaluys over the bridge into the river to steal her Belongings. When I read these chapters in the book, I had to put it away for the rest of the day, because they are so gripping.

Another story in the book that I want to relate here is about the remaining teenagers in the neighborhood who were about to be conscripted to Turkish military. Arshaluys’s oldest son, Rasin, was arrested by the police and taken away under threat and violence. He was only 16 years old. Mom feared he would face the same fate as his father, but he returned home unharmed. Rasin and ten other boys felt compelled to escape out of Turkey by being smuggled by Kurds who demanded good pay. The next day, the police knocked on and fetched the boys’ mothers to court. Arshaluys, an intellectual woman, became the representative for the eleven women. She courageously turned the table by accusing the authorities of having abducted the boys. On behalf of the mothers, she demanded that they be returned to their families as soon as possible. The judge saw that he could not prove the women’s guilt and released them. The one who had informed the police about the boys was an Assyrian priest who testified in court that he had seen them the day before and that suddenly they were gone the next day. Arshaluys scolded the clergyman for being corrupt and for informing on the boys for personal benefits.

Arshaluys Yousuf’s 80-year life was continuous struggle for survival, lined with one tragedy after another. Financial difficulties may seem prohibitive, but there is nothing worse for parents than burying their own children. Arshaluys buried two of her dear sons as she constantly struggled to get bread for the day for her children and fatherless grandchildren. But she stood straight up and never bowed to the misery. Her Christian faith was firm as a mountain and she always relied on the Lord’s help in difficult times. At one point, she was robbed of her small savings in Beirut. In addition, some gold coins disappeared which she kept for a couple of students at the girls orphanage. She was accused of selling the gold coins and her honesty was questioned. She was dismissed from her position as principal of the orphanage. She did not mourn so much the loss of the $100 note that relatives in the United States had sent, as her good reputation. The loss of her job and her small income put the whole family in a precarious situation. But her prayers were heard and her reputation was restored when a relative proved that the thief was in fact a dishonest neighbor who had come to be considered almost a member of the Yousuf family.

The book also contains a chapter on Dr. Abraham Yousuf, an Assyrian patriot who did his utmost for Assyrian self-determination during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919–20, but whose heart was crushed when all hopes were shattered. Four years later, he died in a heart attack in his clinic in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, where he selflessly helped poor patients with free care and medication. He was resentful that all his efforts for his poor Assyrian people had been in vain in the eyes of the great powers. Altruism and a genuine feel for the Assyrian nation were characteristics of the cousins Ashur and Abraham Yousuf. (Their fathers were brothers). Dr. Abraham had previously sent money to Arshaluys’s family. But just as she was about to ask him for a financial contribution after being robbed in Beirut and when her son’s business was failing, the announcement came that he had died — yet another tragedy of the family.

Arshaluys was regarded as a mother by traumatized Armenian children in various orphanages in Diyarbakir, Beirut, Aleppo, and Homs. She also wrote many dramas that the students set. In 1946, the first wave of repatriation of Armenians from Syria to Armenia began. She was delighted to be able to gather her family in the land of her ancestors. Unfortunately, she could only bring a small part of the family to Armenia. She died, shortly before she was about to complete 80, of a heart attack when her son and grandson had been exiled to Sibera. Before that, she gave her five orphaned grandchildren who followed her to Armenia and her son Rasin’s children who already lived there, a good upbringing.

She became both mother and father to her children and guided them through the tribulations of exile and the whims of life to the best of her ability. Her daughter Alice writes that Arshaluys imprinted on her children awareness of and pride in their Assyrian identity, despite the fact that the family lived among Armenians throughout their lives and married Armenians. In short; Arshaluys was a wonderful personality who demonstrated her strength in life’s most difficult moments.

Title: Bloodied, but Unbowed: A Memoir of the Ashur & Arshaluys Yousuf Family, 426 p.
Author: Alice Nazarian
Translation: Ishkhan Jinbashian
Publisher: Nineveh Press 2018
Order: here

The book’s original title in Armenian would be literally translated as The Bloody Smile, but Arda Darakjian Clark, the author’s grand-daughter and editor of the English translation, thought that a title inspired by a line in a poem by William Ernest Henly — “My head is bloody, but unbowed” — would more accurately convey the meaning of the Armenian title. The title alludes to the main character’s indomitable will and strength to overcome countless tragedies in her life.

© 2019 Assyrian International News Agency .

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