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'Sold' to a stranger at 14: Finding Cyprus' forgotten brides

Fetine (right) with Serife. Photo was taken several days before she was travelled to Palestine. Source: Supplied

How an Australian woman's search for the lost aunt who was "sold" led to the discovery of a ripple-effect that stretched across communities, countries and cultures.

When most people delve into the hidden recesses of family trees, they usually need to do some digging before they can unearth a skeleton. For Pembe Mentesh, she barely needed to scrape the surface. 

Ms Mentesh was 19 years old when she first came across the story of her great aunt. She had been questioning her mother over their family history for a university assignment when her interest had been piqued by the name 'Fetine'. It was the same as her mother's. Who was Fetine? And why was her mother named after her? The answer shocked her. 

Fetine was her mother's great aunt who had been sold to an Arab merchant when she was 14 years old. 

"Sold? What do you mean?” she had asked her mother incredulously, "Why did your grandfather give your aunt away?”

Her mother told her he didn’t have a choice. It was the 1930s and Cyprus was impoverished. There was a drought, they had no money. There were five or six children and Fetine was the family's eldest daughter. 

Missing Fetine
Tetraktys Films

Shocked by the information she was only hearing for the first time at 19, Ms Mentesh had initially sought more answers from her mother about the aunt who was sold but met with resistance. 

"That’s just how it was in those days," her mother had told her. "Lots of girls went. There’s no point in looking for her now. I don’t know anything and your Dede (grandfather) does not talk about it.”

She was told not to bring the issue up with her elderly grandfather, as "it was very painful for him to have seen his sister leave and to have never seen her again", Ms Mentesh wrote on her blog 'Forgotten Brides'. 

All she was able to unearth from her family, aside from the fact they did not want to talk about Fetine, was that the 14-year-old girl had not wanted to marry and leave her family. 

Ms Mentesh could not shake her burning desire to know what became of her aunt Fetine, but with no written documents or birth certificate, no photos and a uncooperative family who preferred to forget the pain of the past, she had little to go on. 

Years later, after she had finished her studies in Sydney and moved overseas for her career, she came upon a book which reignited her search with the information she needed. 'Our Daughters Who Were Sold to Arabs' by Neriman Cahit revealed that her aunt hadn't been the only young Cypriot girl sold as a bride to a Palestinian man. From the 1920s until the 1940s when Cyrpus and Palestine were British Colonies and passage between the two was easy for Arab merchants, the practice was commonplace. According to the book's author who was a retired teacher, 4,000 Cypriot-Turkish girls were "sold"  to Arabs. 

Further research found that a shortage of men among the Turkish-Cypriot population made it quite common for Arab merchants to travel to Cyprus seeking “European-looking, blonde, blue eyed” Muslim brides. The dowry for a Cypriot bride was also reportedly much lower than for Palestinian brides.

Pembe Mentesh - Yeliz Shukri
Pembe Mentesh (left) with Yeliz Shukri

Through an interesting twist of fate, at this time Ms Mentesh's career had led her back to her mother's homeland of Cyprus for a United Nations Development Program job. There, she met another Australian woman, Melbourne-born Yeliz Shukri, a filmmaker.

After telling Ms Shukri her great aunt’s story, the two women decided to try to find her, and record their journey. The story of the documentary Missing Fetine subsequently began in 2011 when they decided to travel together to Palestine.

“I really felt bad for her. I really wanted to know where she went and whether she had a good life,” Ms Mentesh told SBS Turkish.

In Cyprus though, the pair encountered the same unwillingness to recount Fetine's story that Ms Mentesh had run into in Australia. 

“When I went to see my elderly family members they told me there is nothing about her. That was not true. That person existed. There is always information out there if there is a willingness to search," she said. 

“You need to ask questions that people don’t want to [answer]. This was the hardest part for me because it’s not something that's easy to talk about. It’s basically opening a closed wound in a way. If a family has kind of forgotten about something, and you dig it up again, you've got to be ready for all sorts of reactions."

However, despite the challenges and the years of roadblocks, she said the journey to uncover Fetine's story and her fate was the most rewarding thing she had ever done in her life. 

Slowly, one piece of information led to the next, taking the women to Palestine twice where they, often unwittingly, stirred up long-buried emotion and forgotten stories. It made them acutely aware of the far-reaching ripple effect that had stretched across communities, countries and oceans from the thousands of girls who were "sold". 

This documentary is not only my family’s story. It is many womens' story.

“What we had to understand was that while we were searching for one person; on the Palestinian side, they had never met anyone from their mother's side of the family," Ms Mentesh explained. 

"In Palestinian culture, the mother is the matriarch. The mother is so important. If you don’t know anybody from your mother's family it is felt as such a huge loss, terrible pain and trauma. And you realise, wow, this is not about one family and one person, but many families."

Pembe Mentesh
Pembe Mentesh

When Missing Fetine screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece in early March, 2018, it was sold out.

In attendance were many of the relatives of the Greek brides who were sent to the United States after World War II to marry Greek men, Ms Mentesh said, recalling audience members in tears following the screening. "They had the same experience."

It made her realise how much bigger the story was than Fetine and her own family: The practice of forced marriage stretched across cultures, religions and countries, and even in modern times, although far less acceptable, it still continues out of sight. 

"This documentary is not only my family’s story. It is many womens' story."

Missing Fetine is yet to be screened in Australia but more information about the film and its creators can be found on the Forgotten Brides Facebook page.