‘Finding Zabel Yesayan’ In NYC


By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

Zabel Yesayan (center) in Istanbul with several literary figures, including Krikor Zohrab, far right, and Levon Shant between Zohrab and Yesayan

NEW YORK — Zabel Yesayan, a prominent writer, activist and feminist, observed and survived many of the calamities of the Ottoman Armenians before falling victim to the Stalinist regime in Armenia. She created a number of important literary works as well as nonfiction works of witnessing, but she fell into obscurity after her death, outside of small literary circles and some Diasporan Armenian-language schools. A 40-minute documentary made by Talin Suciyan and Lara Aharonian in Armenia from 2007 to 2008, called “Finding Zabel Yesayan,” seeks to remedy this situation.

The film was shown at the end of March and early this April at the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Alex and Marie Manoogian School of Southfield, Mich., sponsored by the school, the A r m e n i a n Research Center of the University of Michigan at Dearborn and the Cultural Society of Armenians from Istanbul; National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), with the cosponsorship of the Armenian International Women’s Association; St. Leon Armenian Church; New York University (NYU) with the sponsorship of NYU Armenian Hokee; the University of Pennsylvania, through the university’s Armenian Student Association and the AGBU Young Professionals of Philadelphia; Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute; and at the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Center of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. This US tour was made possible by the initiative of Dr. Ara Sanjian, head of the above-mentioned Armenian Research Center. Suciyan spoke about the film at each of these events, and her trip provided an opportunity to find out more about her work.

The idea for the film arose when Talin Suciyan, originally from Istanbul and a writer between January 2007 and October 2010 for the Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos, went to Yerevan in 2007 to participate in a three-month women’s creative writing workshop run by Nancy Agabian of New York. The workshop was organized by the Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan, led by Aharonian and the artists’ collective and non-governmental organization Utopiana. Aharonian, originally from Beirut, immigrated to Canada during the Lebanese Civil War, but for the last nine years has been living in Yerevan, where she founded together with Shushan Avagyan and Gohar Shahnazaryan, the Women’s Resource Center. Aharonian has studied psychology and comparative literature, while Suciyan in 2008 began her doctoral studies at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University’s Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies. She works at the Institute now as a teaching fellow, and is conducting her doctoral research on the Istanbul- Armenian press after World War II.

At the Yerevan workshop, Suciyan and Aharonian read excerpts from Averagnerun mech [Among the Ruins], Yesayan’s work about the 1909 Cilician massacres. Suciyan explained that they realized that as Western Armenians, “we knew certain parts of Zabel’s life, and our friends in the group, Armenians from Armenia, knew another part of Zabel’s life. Furthermore, we realized that according to ordinary public opinion, Zabel had no place in Armenia. Although she shared the same destiny as Charents or Bakunts [Eastern Armenian writers], she never became known in Armenia. This was a little weird for us…” Yesayan wrote in Western Armenian for most of her life, and this may have posed an obstacle for some Eastern Armenians to get familiar with her work. However, she wrote in Eastern Armenian after 1933.

The two women were moved to read more of Yesayan’s works and when they were informed by Artsvi Bakhchinyan that Zabel Yesayan had descendants living in Yerevan, they immediately went to see them. They met her grandson, Alexander Yesayan, and other family members and family friend Clara Terziyan. They read the memoirs of her daughter, Sofi Yesayan, and listened to sound recordings of Zabel’s son, Hrant Yesayan. The two researchers discovered that Zabel Yesayan’s personal belongings, manuscripts and photographs — and even some of her hair — were held at the Charents Museum of Literature and Arts, run by Artsvi’s father, Dr. Henrik Bakhchinyan, and found archival materials at Armenia’s National Archives pertaining to her lawsuit. All this material shed new light on the Soviet Armenian period of Yesayan’s life, and the pair decided that it was worthwhile to prepare a documentary.

Aharonian and Suciyan had personal motivations for the documentary too. For Aharonian, Yesayan and her writings played an important and liberating role in her life. Suciyan said, “From my perspective, her being from Istanbul and at the same time being diasporan reminds me of the diasporic nature of Istanbul Armenians, which today we are forcibly made to forget. And I think that almost 70 years after her death, Zabel Yesayan as a woman who witnessed two major catastrophes, the first being the Adana massacres, and the second, the Genocide, as a woman who believed in her ideals and struggled for them courageously, still is an inspiring figure.”

Suciyan added that Yesayan used the word “feminism” as early as 1914, in an article published in the Armenian newspaper Azadamard. She was an extremely independent woman for her time. Suciyan continued, “I think it is difficult to find an intellectual woman at the beginning of the century who travelled as much as Yesayan did and continued to produce and play a political role not only in Armenian world, but also was part of the societies in which she lived. For instance, she wrote a novel published in Mercure de France, where she dealt with the social inequalities of French society.”

The film starts out by showing that even people at Zabel Yesayan Street in the First District of Yerevan do not know who Yesayan was. Yesayan was arrested in 1937 as an “enemy of the people” in Soviet Armenia. The manner of her death or even its exact date remains unknown. Yesayan’s precocious start as a writer, her education in Istanbul and France, and her work of testimony on the 1909 Cilician massacres are related, as well as her escape in 1915 from the Ottoman roundup of Armenian intellectuals.

Literary critic Marc Nichanian noted in the film that Yesayan was the only woman in the list of intellectuals who were arrested on April 24 and the weeks followed. After crossing the Ottoman border and arriving in Bulgaria in 1915, she wrote of her experience of hiding three months in a hospital in Istanbul. Furthermore, she published one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the Genocide in 1917 in an Armenian journal, Kordz, in Baku. This 136- page-long testimony of Hayg Toroyan never was turned into a book. Yesayan spent two years in the Caucasus and in the Middle East collecting Armenian orphans. She sent articles to French newspapers in order to raise public awareness in Europe.

Nichanian declared that it was rare for someone escaping a dangerous situation like Yesayan to be able to write about it so quickly. Furthermore, Yesayan used to be close to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) before 1915, but radically shifted after the war to become its ferocious enemy. Nichanian stated that this led to ARF not speaking about her life or politics after she became pro- Soviet.

Art historian Vardan Azatyan said that Yesayan wrote Among the Ruins as if she was inside the events, but also distant in a way that allowed her to write about the disaster. In December 1932, Yesayan was invited to lecture at Yerevan State University. Azatyan thought that this became a safe place, or a utopian place of hope, which allowed her to write Silihdari bardeznere [Gardens of Silihdar] about the similarly safe place of her childhood.

Finding Zabel Yesayan was first screened in Yerevan in 2009 and then in Istanbul the same year. It also has been seen in various cities in Germany, London and Beirut (at Haigazian University). Armen Haroutiunian, a writer and patron of Armenian publications in Beirut has offered to sponsor the preparation and distribution of the film in DVD form to Armenian schools in Syria and Lebanon.

(Marc Mamigonian of NAASR facilitated the connections necessary for the preparation of this article.)