Finding Zabel Yesayan, Finding Ourselves
At the beginning of the fine documentary Finding Zabel Yesayan, directors Lara Aharonian and Talin Suciyan attempt to track down the Yerevan street named after the famed writer — not an easy task. In fact, the taxi dispatcher interviewed claims that no one has ever requested it before. When the two filmmakers finally locate an old lady who resides on Zabel Yesayan Street, the latter exclaims in frustration: “They should have named this street after a great leader or hero! Who is Zabel Yesayan? No one knows who she is around here.”
Born in Istanbul in 1878, Yesayan attended local Armenian schools and was later educated in Paris. In 1909, at the behest of the Armenian Patriarchate, she traveled to Adana in order to report on the Turkish massacres against the Armenian civilian population which led to over 30,000 deaths. (Interestingly, in her now classic account of the killings, Amidst the Ruins, Yesayan addressed “her compatriots” — both Armenian and Turkish.) Yesayan — the only woman on Ittihad ve Terraki’s black list of intellectuals — escaped the 1915 deportations by hiding in the Ottoman capital’s hospitals before fleeing to France again and later to the Caucasus. She sat for months in Tbilisi and Baku, transcribing memories of the atrocities dictated to her by survivors of the Aghet, before finally repatriating with her children to Yerevan. There, along with writers such as Yeghishe Charents and Gourgen Mahari, Yesayan was branded an “enemy of the people” by the Communist Party, repeatedly imprisoned and eventually murdered, although neither the exact circumstances of her death nor her body were ever uncovered.
Sadly, Yesayan suffered the fate of many Armenian writers forgotten on both sides of the Armenian border, excerpted in schoolbook texts but otherwise relatively unread. Yesayan, has, in fact, faced a triple erasure. She was erased in the diaspora partly because she turned violently against the Tashnag party before repatriating to Armenia. Erased in Armenia as well because time, lack of interest and perhaps the fact that she was a diasporan led to people gradually forgetting about her. And finally erased because she was a woman and faced the same marginalization that many female writers and artists face, regardless of time and place.
Given the dearth of information about Yesayan, Aharonian and Suciyan have creatively pieced together an informative primer on the great writer. Using archival footage and interviews with leading Armenian intellectuals, the filmmakers cover the main details and themes in both the writer’s writing and life. In a roundtable discussion among Suciyan, Aharonian, and the art historian Vardan Azatyan, each person finds a personal entry point into Yesayan’s work.
For Aharonian, Yesayan served as a missing feminist-Armenian link that granted her a sense of intellectual freedom hitherto unknown when reading Western writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and George Sand. For Suciyan, Yesayan’s love for her native Silihdar gardens evokes parallels in her own (diasporan) search for home/origins. Finally Azatyan seems most fascinated by the fact that Yesayan found in Soviet Armenia a utopian space where she felt free to create and to bring out her innermost self. Silihdari Bardezneruh, as Marc Nichanian points out in the film, was written in Yerevan, not in Constantinople or Beirut or another diasporan city. But as Nichanian quite correctly states elsewhere in an analysis of Daniel Varoujan, the homeland (utopian or not) could also be deadly.
In Yerevan, Yesayan was no doubt in some way trying to psychologically expunge the horrors that she had both witnessed and transcribed onto paper — hence Soviet Armenia took on the role of a utopian space, artistically and otherwise. While she was nominally part of the School of Paris, along with Nigoghos Sarafian and Kostan Zarian, Yesayan abandoned the French capital in order to help rebuild her (new) homeland. Sarafian, who led the life of a double exile within the safety of his Parisian existence (exiled from Ottoman Armenian existence but also exiled linguistically from his own native tongue), found in the Bois de Vincennes (a large park near his home) another utopian space, one where he could live and also relive and retell the history of his people and of the century that he had witnessed. Sarafian always felt caught between opposites: the title of his last great work, “Mediterranean,” etymologically means between two shores, and speaks to this duality. Yesayan, however, seemed to have a remarkable sense of self and direction. As we learn in this new documentary, she was known for being both beautiful and charming, and for managing to keep her equanimity even when her jailers came to take her away to her eventual death.
“Finding Zabel Yesayan” is an important, if barebones, type of film that does its best with the materials at hand and what one imagines to have been a threadbare budget. There is a sense throughout the documentary that the narration is perhaps more accessible to Armenian, rather than non-Armenian, audiences, but this is a trifle — anyone with an interest in literature or history will find this pieced-together life fascinating to watch.
Forgotten by many today, murdered in uncertain circumstances, at least thrice erased from collective memory … And yet, and yet … Yesayan’s ten books and many letters have survived. Like all great writers, Yesayan endures, reminding us that it is the work that counts. Work, in this case, as charming and enduring as the figure of Zabel Yesayan herself, a writer who testified about her own people’s martyrdom before being ironically and tragically martyred by her own people.
A selection of Zabel Yesayan’s books (in Armenian) can be found here: www.abrilbooks.com/artists/1765.html