by Arpi Atabekyan
“Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect
for strength-in search of my mother's garden, I found my own.”
Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
Zabel Yesayan was one of the greatest Armenian feminist writers of the late 19th century Ottoman era. While she wrote mainly in Western Armenian, her works reached out to large masses of readers, appealing to both Western and Eastern Armenian societies. Even today, her novels draw a fine line between women’s struggles in the past and the present, transmitting and disseminating feminist ideas throughout the region for almost a century.
My trip to Zabel Yesayan’s neighborhood in Üsküdar during my stay in Istanbul led me to draw connections between womanhood in public spaces in the past and the present, as well as parallels between Zabel Yesayan and myself, an Armenian woman residing in Istanbul.
Zabel Yesayan (1878-1943) was born in Constantinople, in the neighborhood of Scutari. In her autobiographical novel “The Gardens of Silihdar,” Zabel remembers her childhood surrounded by her maternal relatives, including her aunts, uncles, grandmother, and mother. Due to her mother’s illness, their relationship was severely limited from a certain period of Zabel’s childhood. Her father Mgrdich, as she describes, was an educated, calm, and compassionate person who always supported Zabel in her endeavors.
Zabel was a rebellious child at school: class inequalities and teachers with regressive methods drove her indignant. In high school, she began to write short stories and organized a circle of young women writers with her friends. Her most important teacher was another famous Armenian feminist writer, Srbuhi Dussap. Following her example, Zabel Yesayan began to raise issues about gender inequality and the lack of education for women.
In 1895, Yesayan moved to Paris to study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne University. There, she started to publish her literary articles, essays, and translations. She stayed there for many years, got married, and had two children.
After the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, Zabel Yesayan returned to Constantinople. Until 1915, her socio-political activism resurfaced and she wrote prolifically. In 1909, her visit to Cilicia—and subsequent witnessing of the Adana massacres—led her to publish “In the Ruins,” a monumental account of this devastating prelude to the Armenian Genocide. She felt the urge to carry the news of Adana among Armenian communities in Constantinople and Anatolia. But the necessity of this task was also what made it especially difficult. Due to the lack of information and communication among central and provincial regions, the horrors of the rising Turkish nationalism were not fully exposed.
Zabel Yesayan was on the list of Armenian intellectuals to be exiled during the Armenian genocide, and she was the only female writer in it. As such, she was forced to leave Constantinople in 1915, escaping to Bulgaria and then to Soviet Armenia. Despite agreeing with socialism in principle and being excited to work in Soviet Armenia, she was further persecuted under Stalin’s regime. The circumstances of her death are still unknown.
Unfortunately, Zabel Yesayan’s biography has reached us with many interruptions due to her frequent travels in between different countries, the separation from her husband and one of the children, and her tragic death in Soviet Armenia. However, because of her short residence in Armenia, some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren reside in Armenia and contribute to the knowledge gaps.
Zabel Yesayan lived in one of the houses on this street together with her family. Presumably in the beginning of the 20th century The Gardens Of Silihdar was not the name of only one street, but a large part of the Üsküdar neighborhood.
Zabel’s Autobiography: The Gardens of Silihdar
Her autobiography, “The Gardens of Silihdar,” is named after the neighborhood where she grew up. In it, she describes the 19th century Scutari lifestyle, the many members of her family, familial relationships and her school life. These life narratives are embedded within the socio-political conditions of the Ottoman times and are told from the perspective of a growing child.
The extended family members are the central characters of the piece. Zabel Yesayan grew up with her maternal grandmother, mother, father, and mother’s sisters, and had a close relationship with her uncles. Seeing women with different life patterns, Yesayan started to develop a distinct form of feminism in her early childhood.
As a child, Zabel would spend long hours on the street and in the neighborhood. The more she discovered, the more she realized the contrast between private and public spaces. We read her discovery of social inequalities in the chapter “The Neighborhood Down the Hill,” as she describes how her aunt Yeranig would take her to the neighborhoods which were considered by the other family members as “underdeveloped.”
My Trip to the Gardens of Silihtar
As I was finishing my fellowship by Hrant Dink Foundation in June 2017, I had a huge list of places to visit in Istanbul. The chaotic spirit of the city caused me, as it does to all its inhabitants, to manage my time horribly. So, my list of places to visit was left on the desk, patiently waiting for their time to come.
It was the end of June and the last days of Ramazan. Hot, half-empty streets were not the most welcoming image for a research walk, but still, I wanted to find the street where my favorite writer had lived. It was getting hotter and hotter, the red dot of the google maps was north of Uskudar, my legs were dragging me back to the seashore, but on my mind, I had “the Gardens of Zabel, the Gardens of Zabel…”
The more I moved towards North, the fewer people I saw around me. I was anxious. The few people I met on the way did not know the names of the streets. I felt lost when all that was left around me were a couple of cats lying in the middle of the melting asphalt, absolutely indifferent to their surroundings.
But I not only learned about the melody and richness of Western Armenian and mesmerizing descriptions of urban and rural landscapes from Zabel Yesayan, but also belief, strength, and resistance—so I persevered.
After long hours of wandering under the burning sun, I finally entered the Gardens of Silihdar. From the very first step into the neighborhood, I could see old, small, overly painted houses, a mosque, a church in the backstreet, and two stored wooden, empty houses.
While wandering in the neighborhood, I made comparisons between Zabel’s admiring descriptions and my surroundings. Even nowadays, there are traces of the former richness of the neighborhood’s nature, especially in comparison with other parts of Istanbul. “Silahdar Bahçe” street is visibly greener. Zabel Yesayan talks with admiration especially about the neighborhood memory of those legendary gardens:
“What amazed me most about these old houses were the vast gardens that everyone used to describe with such admiration. In these gardens, there were exotic trees that bore unusual flowers and fruit as well as ponds on a series of stepped terraces from which jets of water would shoot into the air in bursts and trickle from one pond down into the next. For engagements and weddings, the gardens would be illuminated, and fireworks would adorn the sky. Dressed in muslin and Venetian velvet, beautiful women used to stroll through those legendary gardens, but by the time I was born, everything had withered, dried up and died. Their lofty, crumbling ramparts were covered with patches of moss and lichen, and weeds strangled the trunks of trees that had once been such spectacular sights to see.”
It is hard to say which one of the wooden houses belonged to the family of Zabel Yesayan, as there is no precise information in the book, except the description of the facades. However, her description of the neighborhood is so topographic that a reader can navigate in there with the book, even without the need of a map.
While I was looking at the wooden houses situated on both sides of the way, in my mind I was revisiting the pages of the neighborhood description of Zabel Yesayan:
“I was born in a typical, two-story wooden house that had been painted red. The windows looking out onto the street had curtains that were almost always closed, because, just in front of our house was a Greek grocery that doubled as a tavern. The members of my family would spend the day in the rooms towards the back of the house, where the windows opened out onto a series of groves. Beyond those groves lay the Turkish neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods were magnificent mosques whose slim, white minarets joined black cypress trees on the skyline. From a distance, the glistening blue Bosphorus looked like a ribbon and the silhouette of Stamboul—shrouded in a pink mist in the morning, a golden mist during the day and a blue mist in the evening—looked like a colorful, ever-changing, ethereal wonderland”.
Of course, the fact that I had read the book years ago and later on over and over before arriving to the neighborhood had a huge impact on my approach to the place. As I wandered in the streets of the Gardens of Silihdar, I could see her everywhere and feel her presence in the neighborhood. Her work makes the readers travel back to the 19th century Constantinople, to walk back and forth in the neighborhood, get acquainted with the neighbors, go to work with merchants and become a part of the author’s early life.
Zabel Yesayan is a true inspiring role model for young feminists and feminist literary critics living in Armenia, the place that had been her last asylum. Her thoughts and ambitions were ahead of her time, so much so that, today, among the Armenian feminists, she is one of the most referred and beloved authors as well as a true a role model for our generation. From an academic point of view, she is a great example of a writer that can be examined within the Armenian-Turkish scholarship.
Zabel Yesayan’s writings are universal; women of many different backgrounds can find themselves in there. I searched for Zabel Yesayan’s garden on the hills of Scutari and found peace for myself there. And that is what a truly good feminist writing stands for and reminds of—that we are all together in our victories and failures, in our struggles and despair. We do not ever stand alone, but next to one another and hand in hand. After 100 years we are still “in search of our mothers’ gardens”, and no matter our nationalities and backgrounds, we as women struggle every day for ourselves and our companions.
The author would like to thank Sevan Degirmenjiyan for preliminary information on the neighborhood (http://www.musicamoviles.com/-ZSzuth65IM/) and Jennifer Manoukian for the English translation of “The Gardens of Silihdar.”
About the Author: Arpi Atabekyan
Born in Yerevan in 1989, Arpi graduated from Yerevan State University, Department of Oriental Studies, Chair of Turkish Studies (B.A.). In 2011 received Arpi received DAAD (Der Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst e. V.) and Humboldt University academic excellence scholarship and studied Social Sciences in German-Turkish MA program (GeT MA) in Middle East Technical University (Ankara) and at Humboldt University (Berlin).
Arpi has worked at the Center of Oriental Studies in Berlin (ZMO) and the Berlin Institute of Social Sciences (WZB), as well as participating in international conferences (INALCO Institute, conference ‘Choosing one’s language’, 2013, Paris, France; International Conference on Language, Literature & Community 2015, Bhubaneshwar, India, "Focus Caucasia 2.0 Narrating, Imagining and Crafting ‘Modernities’ in the Caucasus", Friedrich Schiller University, Jena). Arpi's academic interests include modern Turkish literature, literary sociology, urban sociology, social anthropology, feminism in Turkey and Armenia.
Translations from Turkish: E. Shafak „The Bastard of Istanbul“, novel, «Antares» Publishing House, Yerevan, 2012, A. Hamdi Tanpinar „Mind on Peace“, novel, «Antares» Publishing House, Yerevan, 2013, O. Pamuk „My Name is Red“, novel, «Antares» Publishing House, Yerevan, 2014, A.Umit „A Momento for Istanbul“, novel, «Antares» Publishing House, Yerevan, 2015.
Dissertation topic: “Mapping women's exclusion: the private, the public and the production of gendered spaces in urban Yerevan”.