Zabel and her tragedy. The history of one of the brightest Armenian women of the XX century
She was the only woman whose name “stood proudly” in the execution list of Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915. The first woman in the Ottoman Empire that studied abroad. Professor of literature and writer, who despite numerous accusations and criticism addressed to her, continued to work. She was the woman who fell victim to her faith in justice. This is all about Zabel Yesayan.
Zabel was born in 1878 in Constantinople (Istanbul) in the Asian neighborhood called “Gardens of Silahtar” Syuktari, where Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Turks lived side by side. In her autobiographical novels she often mentions the twilights and rays of the sunset, hovering her neighborhood, located across the sea shore: «...Far off one could see the blue shining strip of the Bosporus, and from there the silhouette of Istanbul. Lilac in the morning, golden during the day and in the evenings a shining fairytale earth covered with blue mist. My childish eyes were paralyzed from these rays, that descending to the gold covered domes of mosques, seemed to burn in the fire».
«At the age of 12 I already got to know the external world, through school with its contradictions, struggle, and its countless layers. The school was the mini picture of that adult life, that I was going to experience later».
Zabel’s father has played a big role in forming the strong - willed and determined character of the girl. He brought up Zabel in a different way in the conservative society of Constantinople of the late 19th century. He spent a lot of time with his daughter, talking about the importance of dignity and human rights, and these ideas can be often seen in her works. She was from the middle working class, where the family earned their daily bread through honest employment and from childhood Zabel disliked dissipate and idle, bourgeois way of life. In this society a woman was allotted a quiet certain role: to be a wife and a mother, when it came to work she had a very limited choice. A girl, with a writing talent could maximum become a teacher in the local Armenian school.
«You must work very hard; our society will not accept a woman writer»
This was not the case for Zabel at all. Before her eyes she had the example of the first Armenian woman writer Srboohi Kyusab, who in her works raised issues about rights of women to work and thereby caused a stir in the conservative society. Before leaving for Paris to study, Zabel paid a visit to Srboohi, who was already old. Srboohi said to her: «You must work hard; our society will not accept a woman writer. Your level of skills must be much higher than the average one, because an average man writer is accepted in our society, but if you are a woman writer, you should not be of middle level, because there is already too much criticism that the woman picked up the pen». These words have sunk deep in Zabel’s mind.
The trip to Paris was one of the most important stages of her life as the education at the University of Sorbonne and the French social life of the late 19th century had a serious impact on the development of the progressive and high-spirited personality of Zabel. Back at the time Paris was going through interesting social-political movements, and the press, in particular, the literature one was in its full swing. Zabel relished the opportunity to communicate with the students and the intellectuals, she wrote a lot: her articles, essays, lyrical and prosaic poems were published one after another. One can say that she soaked up the spirit of Paris of that time.
During 1900’s in that same Paris she met her love: an artist Tigran Yesayan, who was from Constantinople too. The union of two creative thinkers was distinctly different from the common marital relations: Zabel did not lose her freedom, she continued to work, live and travel.
In 1905 she returned to Constantinople, where she was engaged in teaching for a definite time, as she needed money. She always found activities to earn money; whether it is a small work, translations or publications in the press. In Constantinople she became part of the vivid intellectuals of the Armenian society and achieved fame. She often wrote articles about the role of women in the society.
But soon Zabel started to feel a permanent pressure. Apart from the traditional society of Constantinople, it also could be felt from the tense political situation in the country. Unlike the rest of the Armenian intellectuals Zabel did not believe in the constitutional changes in the country. While the members of the Armenian committee together with the members of “Unity and Progress” party outlined the ultimate picture of the conjoint future, Zabel knew that after the revolution everything will get worse. She worsened her image and condition in front of the authorities of Turkey by making public political statements and fighting openly against making Turkish the Armenian orphans. Consequently, she soon began to receive direct threats. She returned to Constantinople from Adana, where she wrote her story as a witness, published as “The Ruins”. Nowadays it is considered as one of the most important document- evidence of the genocide: «Under the generous and dazzling sun stretches the ruined city, like an endless grave...».
On Aril 24, 1915 the prediction of Zabel came true; the vigorous arrests of the Armenian intellectuals had commenced, she was one of them on the list. Amazingly she manages to escape; at first as a Turkish woman, then as a Greek woman she hid in the hospital while making false documents. Zabel crossed the border to Bulgaria, where she stayed for a while and tried to mobilize the western press around the Armenian issue and massacres of the intellectuals, she constantly published materials and generally everything that is in her power to help people somehow. At the same time there was outpouring of criticism against her from the Armenian intellectuals of Bulgaria, given that the Armenian woman is so actively represented in various public venues. E.g. Kostan Zaryan famous for his conservative views wrote that Zabel does not take care of herself and smokes too much.
When Bulgaria joined WWI Zabel went to Tiflis and from there in 1917 she left for Baku, where she lived two years. There in the newspaper “The Worker” she published her first evidence of the Armenian Genocide “The agony of the nation” based on the information provided by Hayk Toroyan. The evidence is written in the first person: «...what I witnessed, – is beyond all the imagination. It is hard for me to give the sense of what was going on there, the usual words cannot express the terrible, indescribable events that my eyes witnessed».
In 1920 Zabel was invited to Paris to a peaceful conference, where for the first time she publicly presented the condition of Armenian women during the war, showing details on how they were kidnapped for harems, how these women were used for different purposes through committing psychological and physical violence. This report is also an important document for the Genocide. In 1920 she wrote: «The entire Armenian nation is at threat and the main issue is the preservation of the physical presence of this nation. I undertake to save the orphans and the refugees».
For a while she stayed in Paris and was the editor of the newspaper “Yerevan”, but her mind was more and more in Armenia which was already part of the Soviet Union. Zabel had the opportunity to meet and communicate with Soviet delegates, that were in France with speeches. In 1927 she went to Yerevan for the first time upon an invitation. In the letters addressed to her daughter she wrote: «Can you imagine I found a territory where I don’t have to think about everyday life, about how to earn for life, and can take to literature and write books. This country provides the opportunity for it». Her sympathy towards the Soviet Union was also influenced by the left-wing forces in Paris who considered Soviet world something perfect. Zabel firmly decided that she should move to Armenia and make her own contribution to the formation of the new Armenian nation, new society in lieu of the nation completely ruined by the genocide. She was one of the rare Western Armenian intellectuals who was actively calling of all the Armenians to return to their homeland; to Soviet Armenia.
Shall we say that the sympathy of the representative of Western Armenians for Soviet Armenia was sharply criticized by the “Dashnaktsutyun” party, she was the member of this party, although for a short period of time. The Dashnaks called Yesayan a traitress. However, nothing could change Zabel’s firm decision to emigrate to the USSR.
In 1933 she received the sacred invitation and went to Armenia together with the children. She immediately became the member of the Writers’ Union of Armenia and resumed her literary activities and at the same time she lectured at the Yerevan State University Western European and Western Armenian literature. She immediately became the favorite lecturer among her students: unusual, willful, she entered the audience, sat on the chair, lit a cigarette and started her interesting lectures, by discussing different literature topics without scruple. It was a very unusual phenomenon for the Soviet society.
«Back then we were not prepared to see a smoking woman. However, we were strongly fallen under her spell: whatever she did was right and perfect for us».
Two years later, in 1935 she published one of her most famous novels: “Gardens of Silihtar” where she described her childhood in the Constantinople neighborhood, the life of the Armenian girl during the difficult time of Ottoman Empire.
This novel was the last one in her life. In 1937 she became one of the victims of Great Purge committed by Stalin aimed at destroying the “foreign elements” of the Soviet system. Most probably the system pushed back against her after she started to actively defend the repressed Armenian writers, like Eghishe Charents, Vahan Totovents, Aksel Bakunts, Mkrtich Armen.
She wrote letters to her relatives from the exile. To the last day she could not believe that she would be really exiled and killed. To the last day she believed that it was a mistake, that she would be sent back home, and she would return to her work. The last news about Zabel Yesayan is the letter dated 1943 from the prison of Baku. Until now her location and circumstances of death remain unknown.
Illustration: Anaïs Chagankerian