A few days after her birth in 1879 in the Cilician town of Tarsus, in what is now considered to be part of southern Turkey, Mariam’s father walked to the local government building to record the event. Her parents wanted everything in order before they moved to the Ottoman city of Kars with their infant daughter. They had decided to leave their small town for there were no opportunities in Tarsus at that time and many of their formally friendly neighbors were grumbling that Armenians were to blame.
Mariam’s father was known to the government official in charge of name keeping and the issuing of birth certificates.
“Ah, it is you, Yeghishe, what can I do for you?” the official asked.
“Help me celebrate my very good news,” her father said. “I wish to report and record the birth of my daughter. She is to be called Mariamna.” Mariamna being the Russian version of the Armenian name, Miriam.
“Mariamna?” asked the official in disbelief. “No, no. Mariamna is no good.”
Her father had not anticipated any objection to the name he and his wife had chosen. It was, though, an old maxim of the Armenians of Tarsus never to question Muslim officials without understanding what was expected of them first. Her father stayed silent and waited.
The official said, “You are going to relocate to Kars, he, Yeghishe?” There were no secrets in their town. Naturally, the Armenians knew everything about each other. It was curious, too, that their Muslims neighbors always seemed to know about the business of the Armenians as well.
“You see? there is no sense in burdening your daughter with a Russian name. What Turk would do that? No, no. Use Meryem instead. That’s a proper Turkish name and she won’t be so despised when she grows. Yes, yes, Meryem. Your daughter will be better off,” the town’s official said, presenting the startled father with a document bearing witness that one Shahani, wife of Yeghishe Zildjian, had given birth to a daughter, Meryem Zildjian, on October 30, 1879.
The story of Mariam’s forced name conversion soon became part of their family lore, and before her first birthday the three of them left Tarsus for Kars. By then, Mariam had evolved into Mare, a nickname that her parents and friends all called her, ignoring the Meryem decreed by the funny little man in a red fez.
Mariam was a good name, it suited her nature well, for it was ancient and meant “the rebellious one” and in a world that was about to be torn apart in war and fire only the rebellious shall survive.