Book Review: The Seamstress of Ourfa

The Seamstress of Ourfa
Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss
Armida Publications, 2018

Here, at last, is a book about strong Armenian women. Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss has written the story of her maternal family’s origins in Ourfa, a city and district in the Ottoman Empire, and given us a view of what it may have been to live through the time of the Hamidian Massacres and the 1915 Genocide; hanging on by the skin of one’s teeth, only to have to leave in 1922 when all hope of an Armenian recovery becomes an impossibility with the establishment of the Turkish Republic with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in command.

The story is that of Khatoun, a village girl from Garmuj, and Iskender, a relatively well-educated city man from Ourfa, who are Butler-Sloss’ great-grandparents. The different way of life in their two households is illustrated by interesting examples around mealtime: in the city they sit around a table, in the village they sit on the floor around a communal dish. Both families are well-to-do, but village life is markedly more traditional.

The book is a treasure trove of folklore and long-established practices which are painstakingly described, many of which were new to me. Though my family is from Aintab, which is only 200 miles to the west of Ourfa, a long way in those days, the traditions of the two places were very different. Both were Turkish-speaking, but it would seem that the Ourfatsi did not have the strong Protestant influence which the Aintabtsi had. The transliteration of Armenian words, also points to very different pronunciation in the two cities and with a vocabulary which is much different. Ourfa had about half the number of Armenians in 1915 as Aintab, so perhaps it had a closer-knit and more conservative community.

The description of the “deliverer”—midwife—and the semi-superstitious methods used in childbirth are interesting. Following the birth after much hocus pocus going on, the child was bathed in egg froth and rosewater (why?) and rubbed in fat before being swaddled. If the afterbirth was healthy, it was buried rather than cremated.

There is a nice paean to the onion, listing all the different things an onion is good for, one of which is its use as a countdown to the end of Lent.

Through every chapter there is the dread of bad news and massacres. When Khatoun and Iskender and family make the return journey to Ourfa from Aleppo (where they had tried to settle without success) in 1904,  the death marches of 1915 are presaged in this paragraph:

“In years to come this road will seep blood. The sun will rise and set and a nation will be extinguished with the light. Dusk and dawn will merge, sucked together into night. People will eat. People will sleep. The cities will shimmer with lamplight. The crickets will continue to sing. The clouds in the sky will scud by, the angels drifting apart and together gain. And in the burning hot sun of the Syrian Desert the birds will find their prey.”

The story is dominated by the diminutive Khatoun and the put-upon Ferida, who are the unassuming women who carry this family through—feckless husbands, secret lovers and all. So many women have no voice in Armenian history—they are mostly passive Madonnas, but these two carry the family and their troubles on their shoulders. If not lightly, then determinedly.

Khatoun’s determination not to let things just happen to her family, and to make her children witness unflinchingly all the frightful events unfolding outside their front door, is the definition of heroism. She manages to become a sought-after seamstress for the well-to-do Turkish ladies of the town, thus ensuring her family’s safety in this time of peril. She also rescues Armenian girls from horrible situations and brings them to work for her, saving them from death or worse. That they all survive seven years of horror and famine is a testament to Khatoun’s strong character.

The burning of the Armenian district of Ourfa is well-imagined as is the agony of starvation. There is a stomach-turning description of a butcher who sells rotten meat to the famine-stricken populace. What I could not quite reconcile with though, was that a woman such as Ferida would use such utterly foul language.

This is a book which will keep the reader’s attention through “thick and thin.” We go with the rhythms of the household—cooking and cleaning and surviving, the seamstress’ work, the clacking of the trusty Singer sewing machines, the sacrifices, the hopes and loves of the women (for this is a story essentially about women). The story ends with the exile of the family, and the ultimate destruction of the ancient Armenian community of Ourfa, and indeed the destruction of the Armenian race in Ottoman Turkey.

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R P Sevadjian is the author of In the Shadow of the Sultan and The Darker Shadow, historical coming of age novels set during the Hamidian Massacres of 1896 and the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Sevadjian is a third-generation Diasporan Armenian, whose family left Asia Minor in the 1800s and was scattered across the world, no members remaining in their ancestral homelands. Born and raised in Africa, she now lives in the UK where she is currently researching the Armenians of Ethiopia and the work of B A Sevadjian about whom she has written several articles for the Armenian Weekly. She is currently writing the final part of her Armenian Genocide Trilogy which will be published in 2020.
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