Finding Zabel Yessayan–and losing her

Photo: denisdonikian.blog.lemonde.fr

Zabel Yessayan–the mere utterance of the name echoes with what Marc Nichanian describes, in Western Armenian, as հմայք, whose closest English equivalent would be allure. Nichanian’s chapter on Yessayan in his Writers of Disaster makes for a devastating reading–her tumultuous personal life, her eyewitness accounts of the 1909 Adana massacres, her escape to Bulgaria, and her embrace of Soviet Armenia where she settled in  1933. It was also in the Soviet Union that her fate was sealed and where she disappeared, a victim of the Stalinist purges.  She had bravely defended her fellow Soviet Armenian writers who were the target of the Stalinist persecutions, and in the end she shared their fate at the age of 55. Her grave is unknown.

Hers is a monumental life, shaped by the two major events of twentieth century Armenian history–the Aghed and Sovietization. It is also a life of many passages–from Istanbul to Paris, back to Istanbul, to Bulgaria to flee the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, and finally to the Caucasus.  Today, more than six decades after her death, Yessayan is a figure hovering between the two worlds of the Armenian collective memory.  She is known but not known, her works (mostly in Armenian) are not widely read.

It is this quality of being known and not being known which forms the impulse behind the 40-minute documentary, Finding Zabel Yessayan, by two Armenian women, Talin Suciyan and Lara Aharonian.  The film opens with a scene where the film-makers are looking for the street that bears her name in Yerevan. No one seems to have the foggiest idea who she is. For the two film makers, finding Yessayan means introducing the world to an important literary figure, and as such it is a nobel project. But as with all such larger-than-life personages, the film is no equal to the life portrayed, but more so to the issues which her life and her writings bring to the foreground: Who is to claim Zabel Yessayan?  Where to situate her, this woman who crossed national, ideological, and personal boundaries?  In feminism?  In Soviet Armenian history?  In the Aghed?  In the literature of Armenian Istanbul?

The Q and A which followed the screening of the film here in Boston was telling for the way in which the framing leaned toward feminism but barely touched the point that Nichanian makes in the film: that her crossing to Soviet Armenia–physically and metaphorically–contributed to the chasm between the two wings of the Armenian nation. And which language should lay claim to her?  The Istanbul Armenian dialect of her years in that city and of her writings?  The Eastern Armenian of her ideological choice?  Or the English language which was the medium through which she came to life, so to speak, in the discussion after the film?  She belongs to all these languages, and must belong to all of them.  Reducing her to one language, one frame, one claim impoverishes not only her work and her life; it also destroys the possibility of these languages being enriched by her presence in them.

To honor this remarkable woman is to open her life and her writings to the processes of thinking about her in all these ways, in all these languages.  To enage in a conversation with her, to “find” her  means losing her to the multiplicity of meanings which her tragic life holds, a life imbued and bracketed by idealism and its other–disillusionment. For it is a restless life of constant movement, constant search, constant need to, in Nichanian’s words again, write the testimony of what she saw, not only in Adana but also in Cilicia, in Cairo, and finally in the prisons of Baku and Yerevan. She is for the generations and for the many worlds she inhabited.

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About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
This entry was posted in Armenians, Cities and towns, Those we Love and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Finding Zabel Yessayan–and losing her

  1. Neery Melkonian says:

    Thank you dear Talin for your astute and probing observations. I first saw this modest yet significant film in Istanbul during the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop three yrs ago (where I also presented a curatorial project, still in progress, dealing with Armenian women artists called ‘Accented Feminism’). So I am pleased to learn that the film is finally being shown in North America, which makes one wonder how provincial the United States has become culturally and where does this durational reality position ‘our’ institutions… but that’s another topic. Regardless of such customary ‘belatedness’ though I wanted to take a moment and second your call for a further search in ‘locating’ Zabel, and by extension the many other lost Zabels … perhaps because I’m now reading Armineh Galents’s memoir in Armenian – another ‘minor’ figure marginalized by multiple if not ‘monumental’ shadows, who nevertheless can be found by those handful that care.

    • Thank you, Neery, for taking the time to write and write generously. Tell me, where does Armineh Galents hail from? The last name is so familiar, most likely mentioned in our family when I was growing up–as was Zabel Yessayan whose name came up many, many times.
      Of course, these marginalized individuals must be read, the first time around, in their own language, in the language of their intimacies. Besides, I doubt there’s much of translated material about her. As a community, we are not interested in translation, both from and to Armenian. I think they are equally important though sometimes when I hear how awkward our Western Armenian sounds, I think we need to inoculate our impoverished native tongue with the strange blood of other languages.

  2. Neery Melkonian says:

    Galents (or Kalents) was her renowned modernist painter-husband Harutioun’s family name (which he translated/revised from the Turkish Gharmantayan). He was a genocide survivor born in 1910 in Gyurin village of Sepastia. Armineh Baronian was born in 1920 Damascus, her parents were exiled refugees from AdaBazar who returned to Turkey when she was an infant, and after escaping the burning of Izmir the family settled in Bolis for a while, then like many others fled to Aleppo where she received her primary education, first in Armenian then in French and Italian catholic schools. She became the only woman artist/painter of her generation in Syria. Her love for art took her to Italy at a young age, and because her mother was a teacher who traveled wherever there was better employment Armineh also got to live in Jerusalem and Alexandria. Later she pursued private painting instructions for five years with Galents in Beirut where the two led a bohemian life before their marriage in 1943, and expatriation to Armenia in 1946. Aside from her memoir (published in 2004, Yerevan) in 1997 she wrote a biography of her husband entitled “Forgive Me Harutioun” which is more about their life together, including encounters with people and places that recall rich mosaic fragments. Beautifully written, her pen is very visual and would make a great film. Combined, the two books give us wonderful insights about Arab, Armenian and European intellectual as well as artistic life in Syria and Lebanon at the time. And of course later of Soviet, even post Soviet Armenia. She lived a long life, traveled a lot after 1965, back to Mid East also to Japan, Canada and Bulgaria. Her style is a-linear and crosses, as you note about Zabel, several boundaries, linguistic and national, at the same time sketches an amazing, daring/risk taking woman whose passion for art and an artist were intertwined, if not turbulent. As you may know much of modern Armenian art/cultural histories, too few to begin with, have been written from male perspectives, reading her feels like a fresh breeze. Last but not least her contribution as an artist has yet to be addressed, even though before her passing she made sure that her husband’s art would be remembered by beginning to convert their studio-home into a museum to honor his legacy. Their son Saro and his wife Larisa recently completed the renovation where they dedicate a gallery to her paintings. I have no doubt that a translation of her books into English would make a timely and worthy addition to many libraries…

    • I think this is the same Galents (the husband) who was mentioned at home when I was growing up, Neery.
      There is, as you say, great wealth of material for all sorts of cultural/artistic projects in our community. There is, to be sure…Let’s leave it at that.
      Thansk for all your information.

  3. Ara Manoogian says:

    I remember hearing that Zabel had been in contact with my grandfather Shahan Natalie and learned of this from a historian a few years ago. I’ll have to see if there is any mention of her in his archive. I do remember the historian talking about her playing so significant role in something they were both involved in.

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