‘The Gardens of Silihdar’ an autobiography by Zabel Yessaian
Armenian News Network / Groong
June 29, 2022
By Eddie Arnavoudian
‘The Gardens of Silihdar’ by Zabel Yessaian
Zabel Yessaian (1878-1943) was one of the outstanding Armenian writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Possessed of literary ambitions, when but 12 years old, confident and audacious without prior arrangement she knocked at the door of well-established woman novelist Srbouhi Dussap. During what was to be a warm encounter Dussap warned that ‘the male writer can succeed even when mediocre, the woman cannot.’ Yessaian was not discouraged. She had both talent and a stubborn will and against all odds she secured a prominent place in the annals of Armenian literature.
Amidst Yessaian’s substantial output is the autobiographical ‘The Gardens of Silihdar’. Recalling her first 12 years it was the first part of an intended series that was never to be completed. Yessayan fell victim to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Nevertheless, though slim, ‘The Gardens of Silihdar’ is remarkable on many levels. In versatile, often poetic prose the narrative unfolds to skilfully render graspable those almost intangible processes of individual emotional, psychological and intellectual formation and development. Against a background of oppression and restraint Yessaian and her generation experienced, her reminiscences tell of those intricate stages of a child blooming into a free-spirited, daring, adventurous young woman preparing to resist and fight to live an emancipated life.
The social and national context of Zabel Yessaian’s early years was Istanbul’s substantial Armenian community where she was born. Here ‘The Gardens of Silihdar’ becomes simultaneously a critical reconstruction of Armenian-Istanbul prior to the 1915 genocide. Damning descriptions lay bare ugly truths of the community’s iniquitous class structure, of its arrogant and haughty elites, of its oppressive social and domestic life, and centrally of the subjugated position of women.
One recoils when reading of the Church establishment’s savagery as it buried recalcitrant individuals in dark underground dungeons. In a remarkable moment describing the appalling reality of schools in a community riven and corrupted by class inequality and humiliating poverty, Yessaian writes that ‘at the age of 12 I already knew the external world from within the world of school’. The accounts that follow are horrific and shocking. One recognises here the same world of Yeroukhan's short stories, and those too of Dikran Gamsaragan, Levon Pashalian and others that together are indictments of the rotten core of Istanbul’s Armenian community in which the immense majority suffered at the hands both of the Ottoman state and the Armenian elites.
But the reader is also exhilarated by tales of Zabel’s father and of her uncles and aunts who in one way or another defied and resisted both Ottoman oppression and social and class injustice. The young and impressionable Zabel is told stories of men rebelling against injustice and fleeing to the mountains to become freedom fighters. She absorbed accounts of plebeian smugglers opposing the Ottoman state’s granting of tobacco monopolies to French firms, a measure that destroyed the livelihood of local producers (p204-205). Images of contempt for the exploited poor run together with inspiring recollections of Zabel and her aunt receiving collective solidarity and generosity from the ‘lower’ classes, solidarity and generosity never extended by the better off (p257). All this no doubt fell on the fertile soil of Zabel Yessaian’s rebellious and generous personality.
Yessaian’s recollections of the plight and subjugation of women in her family and her neighborhood community are particularly commanding. Her mother was forced to marry at 14, in part to escape the attention of the savage Ottoman yenicheri soldiers. Yessaian still remembered times when Armenian women were almost prisoners in their home and not even allowed to go to Church. Against the restrictions she suffered and moved by her own radical dispositions, like many young women in similar circumstances Yessaian dreamt of ‘being a boy, a bandit, taking refuge in the mountains…fighting for justice (p235).
Here and throughout, she shows herself uncompromising in demands for women’s rights and in hatred for poverty, class exploitation and national oppression. And as she recounts incidents, feelings, and reactions she offers a universal radical and democratic feminism, one that fixes the aspiration for women's emancipation as part of the collective ambition of all oppressed nations and classes for emancipation from all injustice.
Growing up at the fluid intersection of different social classes Zabel Yessaian imbibed a remarkable range of early childhood impressions. Her family and upbringing brought together men and women from across the Armenian community’s class spectrum. The detail of these recollections reveals something of the symbiotic, dialectical relationship between the formation of individual personality and the 'spirit of the times', between the outlooks and ideas, the visions and hopes of an age and the stamp of individual personality, character, and ambition.
In beautiful clear prose rich with defining detail, one sees how the ‘spirit of the age’ is passed on and develops through a complex web of personal relations across families, extended families, and local communities, as well as relations between Armenian and Turkish communities. It is indeed part of the power of this volume that progressive or reactionary outlooks and attitudes, indeed the entirety of the socio-political realities of the day that it so brilliantly reproduces, emerge sharply as moments of intimate and emotional personal, individual experience.
Our times a century on are lit by little hope. But as Naguib Mahfouz reminds us ‘to despair is to insult the future’, that is to insult our children and our grandchildren. Yessaian’s literary legacy can help combat despair, can help us stand firm and have faith in a future that has been so rampantly endangered by the elites of today who are the offspring and of a type with the elites criticized in ‘The Gardens of Silihdar’.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.