Bittersweet Tale: A Bedouin Sheikh Saved an Armenian Family

Bedouin sheikh saves Armenian family

I recently read The Lions of Marash, a memoir by NER worker Stanley Kerr about his time in the Ottoman Empire 1919-22. He was assigned to Aleppo at the end of WWI. One day he was asked by John Dunaway, a co-worker, to go with him to a town where he’d heard many Armenian women and children were living. The British had convinced the new Ottoman government, and Feisal, the Arab emir (and future ruler of the promised Arab state), to issue a proclamation ordering the return of Armenians, living in Turks’ or Arabs’ homes, to their own people. Stanley and John were going to investigate the many statements by Armenian refugees that they had left their children in the care of Arabs in and near the town of Bab. This particular tale is bittersweet. Sweet because a Bedouin sheikh and his family had taken in five Armenian children, and bitter because, it seems to me, bureaucracy interfered with the happiness of everyone.

Off to Bab

Stanley and John set off from Aleppo in a three-quarter-ton Reo truck driven by NER chauffeur Chris Graeber. Accompanying them were Rose Shayb, an American Red Cross nurse who spoke fluent Arabic, an interpreter, and an Arab gendarme. They were headed for Bab (now Al-Bab), a town about 40 km northeast. Along the way they picked up an elderly man who, as it turned out, was going home to Bab. They chatted him up in a friendly manner and he (unintentionally) told them of the households where Armenian children were living—including his own. Stanley wrote rather amusingly of visiting the houses and, in the beginning, finding them empty. He quickly learned that the families and the children thought that the Americans were there to steal the children. Some Arab families had taken in children out of the goodness of their hearts, and some had seen them as cheap labour. In any case, no one—including the children themselves—wanted them to be carted off again. Once it was made clear that Feisal had issued the order, and that the purpose was reunification, the NER personnel were able to find many children.

In the Sheikh’s Household

They heard that a Bedouin sheikh in a nearby village had five Armenians in his household. They went to see him. After observing the usual pleasantries and drinking the offered coffee, Stanley and John explained the purpose of their visit. The sheikh admitted that five Armenian children were living with him. “They are part of my family,” he said. “Let me tell you how they came to be here.”

Stanley Kerr

Stanley Kerr (cropped from a photo in an article about him in Armenian Weekly)

When he had lived in Aintab, about 100 km north of Bab, he had been well acquainted with the Armenian family. When he heard of the deportations, “I went there and searched for them. The father and mother had already been killed,” he said, “so I brought all five of the children—three boys and two girls—here to be members of my family.” He called into the room the now-young-women and the boys, and instructed the NER interpreter to question them as to his veracity. Stanley noted that “it was quite obvious that his story was correct, and that the children loved this man as a father.” But the sheikh hadn’t finished his story.

When the kaimakam (district governor) saw the girls, he wanted to take them for himself. This was a common occurrence during the deportation, usually resulting in either forced marriages or rape. “‘My brother and I fought him,’ said the sheikh. ‘Here are my wounds from that fight!’ He opened his robe and showed [the NER workers] four bullet wounds in his abdomen and thigh. ‘Now are you going to take these children from me, after I have protected them during the past four years?’” Reluctantly, Stanley told him that it was an order from Feisal; that there was no other option. The sheikh sadly told the children they must go.

Everyone was heartbroken by the news. The young women “threw themselves” on the couch and wept. The sheikh asked if he could go with them to Aleppo to ensure for himself they were going to be cared for. “Of course” the NER group consented. “The entire village came to say goodbye. . . . As we drove from the village the entire population ran beside the car shouting farewells and weeping.” The interpreter and the gendarme were “moved emotionally by the grief of the children and their friends.” Stanley later wrote that he had allowed his “sense of duty to override sentiment,” but he didn’t anticipate the Greco-Turkish War that was about to start. “If I could have foreseen the future for the Armenians of Aintab I would have decided immediately to leave these children where they were loved.”

As I said, it’s a bittersweet tale.

Al-Bab

I located Al-Bab on a map. As of today, according to the Syrian civil war map, it’s now in ISIS-held territory. I wonder who is caring for the children living there. And if they are loved.

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About the main photo:  I combined a photo of Bedouins taken by Bonfils c1890s with a public-domain photo of a camel caravan and sand dune.

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