Writing the Seamstress of Ourfa by Victoria Butler-Sloss

The Seamstress of Ourfa is the first book in a trilogy about my family. It begins in 1895, Ourfa, a thriving, cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire, filled with Turks, Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Maronites and Jews. A city where the fez mixed easily with straw boaters, the veil with abundant, loose hair. Khatoun Khouri (right, with her sewing machine in 1970), a girl of thirteen, meets her husband, Iskender Agha Boghos. Twice her age; a poet, philosopher and a dreamer, he adores her but cannot express it in words. Around them, the Ottoman Empire is crumbling, the world heading towards war and the Armenian minority subjected to increasing repression at the hands of Sultan Abdul Hamid, culminating in the genocide of 1915.

Khatoun Khouri with her sewing machine, 1970

Khatoun Khouri with her sewing machine, 1970

As Iskender retreats into his books and alcohol, losing land, money and business, Khatoun holds their family together by sewing for the wives of the men who persecute them; her creations inciting, lust, love and fertility. The family joins the resistance and evades the death marches to the Syrian Desert only to lose everything when exiled by Mustafa Kemal and the birth of his new Turkish Republic. What follows is a tale of love, loss and redemption in the diaspora told by four generations of women, each becoming the guardian angel of the next. Through stories that unfold in magical reality, letters, memories, and poetry, Seamstress tells of the universal desire to belong.

As Iskender retreats into his books and alcohol, losing land, money and business, Khatoun holds their family together by sewing for the wives of the men who persecute them; her creations inciting, lust, love and fertility. The family joins the resistance and evades the death marches to the Syrian Desert only to lose everything when exiled by Mustafa Kemal and the birth of his new Turkish Republic. What follows is a tale of love, loss and redemption in the diaspora told by four generations of women, each becoming the guardian angel of the next. Through stories that unfold in magical reality, letters, memories, and poetry, Seamstress tells of the universal desire to belong.

Agha Boghos family: left to right; Alice, Umme Ferida, a cousin Fehime, Iskender, Solomon, Khatoun and Voghbed

Agha Boghos family: left to right; Alice, Umme Ferida, a cousin Fehime, Iskender, Solomon, Khatoun and Voghbed

The two questions people ask me all the time are, “What made you write this book?” and “How long did it take you?” To me that’s like asking how long a piece of string is. The answer to both questions is “I was always writing it. It’s been in my head ever since I was born.”

I grew up, as many people of my generation, hearing family stories. They began as soon as I was old enough to balance on a knee and continue today. In my family, days are spent sitting and talking. We talk over food, over chores, while sitting with our dusty feet up in the heat of the afternoon. Sometimes there are long silences that tell a story too.

The two questions people ask me all the time are, “What made you write this book?” and “How long did it take you?” To me that’s like asking how long a piece of string is. The answer to both questions is “I was always writing it. It’s been in my head ever since I was born.”

I grew up, as many people of my generation, hearing family stories. They began as soon as I was old enough to balance on a knee and continue today. In my family, days are spent sitting and talking. We talk over food, over chores, while sitting with our dusty feet up in the heat of the afternoon. Sometimes there are long silences that tell a story too.

Pool of Abraham, Ourfa

Pool of Abraham, Ourfa

My grandmother was the main teller of the dark tales.  Her husband’s infidelities had left her committed to God and once she learned to read, she spent her time reading the Bible and comparing the gospels to the tragedies that were unfolding on the news each night. I grew up believing Armageddon was coming. My grandmother nodded with certainty every night as she heard about earthquakes and calamities, one finger hooked in the page of her Bible. She was also the one who talked about the past. My mother and aunt talked about everything, but there was enough current gossip to keep them occupied. It was my grandmother who repeated certain stories over and over like a mantra. She was the one who gave me the material.

Ledra Street, Nicosia

Ledra Street, Nicosia

In the late eighties I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and one of my teachers encouraged us to write everything down as fuel for the mind. That summer, when I went to Cyprus, I began to write down my grandmother’s stories. She would talk and I would take notes then translate them into my diary. I’d always heard the tales but now I was writing them. Of course, they were different to my mother’s recollections - part memory, part story passed down, a degree of embroidery involved by each storyteller. I became intrigued by several things at once.

First of all, the truth of the story. For each person it is different. Everyone has a different perspective - usually starring themselves. The storyteller becomes the central player in the tale. Secondly, the way stories were told. The older the stories, the more magical the telling. People died of broken hearts, “I heard it shatter, like glass,” and, “He vanished over the rooftops,” or someone inadvertently cursed someone who suddenly died.

I wanted to explore storytelling and how it is many layered, part fiction, part fact, part memory, a bit of ego. I was also struck by the fact that my family continued to live in the Empire for a long time, despite watching 1.5 million people file past their door and die. They stayed there until they were finally kicked out in 1922 when they moved to Cyprus, living alongside the people that persecuted them and, later, helped them to safety.

When my husband and I moved to America in 1999, he had the work visa and I didn’t. I decided to work on the book – going over the stories I’d translated and turning them into chapters.

I wrote everything down, starting with the year 1895 and kept going up to the year 2000, following my great grandmother’s stories with my grandmothers, mother and aunt’s and mine. The earliest chapters, the one’s in Seamstress, were the most difficult because I only had stories and scraps of stories and I had so much homework to do. Every time someone walked into a room I had to research if they would light a lamp, strike a match or flick a switch. Most of the people I would try and corroborate dates and events with were already dead or very old. There was little information on the internet. That’s all changed now; everything is easily found on the web. Much faster.

Photos courtesy of Victoria Butler-Sloss

Photos courtesy of Victoria Butler-Sloss

But then again, I loved research.  Finding photos, discovering nuggets that confirm facts in a dusty book in a library or bookshop. You can go down a wormhole on any subject; food, medicine, sewing, drugs, sex, war. Love. Family.

Seamstress. A tale of love, loss and redemption; of friendship between enemies and a family of extraordinary women who survive against all odds, living alongside their oppressors. My family.

 

The Seamstress of Ourfa richly recreates the culture of the Armenian community in Ourfa at the tail end of the Ottoman Empire.  The eponymous seamstress, Khatoun, creates beautiful dresses that leave her customers husbands dizzy with desire, while her sister-in–law Ferida cooks sumptuous feasts to sustain a growing and lovingly described group of relatives and the waifs and strays they adopt.

The book is available from the Armenian Institute shop.