Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss (Eduardo Fierro photo)

‘Everything’s a Story:’ Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss’s The Seamstress of Ourfa

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“This is it, Iskender, efendi. The end,” Aram Bohjalian, an old friend of the Agha Boghos family, tells his buddy as the Turks capture the Armenian quarter in Ourfa and the whole city goes up in flames. “The one person who could save Ourfa is dead and our hopes have died with him,” adds Aram. One wonders if it can be anything but “the end” when the only home one has ever known is left behind, one’s entire possessions lost, family members and dear friends killed or disappeared. This sense of an ending is repeatedly evoked in Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss’s The Seamstress of Ourfa, (Armida Publications, 2018), a novel set in the later years of the Ottoman Empire, when the entire Armenian population living in what is present-day Turkey were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, deported into the desert, and massacred at the hands of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, labeled the “Red Sultan.”

Nonetheless, the novel ends with a new beginning for the eponymous seamstress Khatoun Agha Boghos and her family who, having crossed the border into Syria with the help of an Arab friend, arrive in Aleppo late one evening to start their “new life.” Khatoun leaves behind a flourishing sewing business and her dream house, with its many rooms and a patio filled with ferns “elegantly grouped around the stone fountain.” When she has difficulty falling asleep on the first night in her new home, “a room up a rickety staircase they were to sleep in,” she climbs to the rooftop, preferring to “enjoy the time awake rather than fret in bed.” “Halab. Alep. Aleppo. City of song. I am ready,” she sings out to the city with “the glorious skyline.”

The story centers around the character of Khatoun, a seamstress whose magic and generosity make life for her four children and all those around joyful. Khatoun rejoices in the newfound love of her daughter Alice and of young Sarkis, while Digin Tatou calls off the engagement as a “ridiculous fantasy,” breaking the hearts of two youngsters who, the woman who “sews stars into the world” knew, clearly loved each other. Her husband recognizes that it is his wife’s “small stitches that will keep us together.“ While he stays cloistered at home, smoking and drinking—“Her lover. Where did he go?”—the delicately built woman takes to the road to find material for coats and dresses to delight the Pasha’s wives. Digin Agha Boghos, whose insights “come from another place,” understands that if her husband’s presence were gone the house would be strange and empty.

Years later, in Nicosia, Cyprus, when Nene Khatoun puts her seven-year-old great-granddaughter Vicky to sleep, she comforts her with, “Don’t worry about us. We’ll all be here in the morning . . . and the next day, and the next and the next. And always.” Nestled into her heart, the little girl feels “the safest I have ever felt in my life.”

A dreamer like her great-grandma, Vicky describes her nene as “the rain….with me now and for always.” It is with her poetry and her images that Harwood Butler-Sloss conveys the reassuring presence of Nene Khatoun, who tells her great-granddaughter to “Open your eyes and you’ll always be able to hear me. I have many stories to tell.” The child knows Nene Khatoun tells her “important stuff.”

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But then again, there is the wisdom of Iskender’s practical sister Ferida, who will say it all as it is, “not twisted and turned into a story for later.”

Ferida is “sick of the stench of pain and injustice.” Why delay death for the “endless stream” of “living corpses,” she wonders, knowing “how painful it is to survive.” Notwithstanding, Ferida is the life force of the household, “Everyone’s Umme,” shuffling across the floors with her slippers, attending to every childbirth and to anyone that needs help. Umme is in charge of the kitchen, and “yells,” “spits,” “snaps” and “barks” orders. She is quick to hurl her slipper at anyone who dares protest her orders: “Arshalous, help me undress her. One of you, get me a clean nightdress. Hasmig, Manoush, sheets — rip them up. I need bandages . . . Oosht, all of you. Out! . . . Lolig, you finish the bread. Bzdig Shoushun, the children. Washed, dressed and fed. I made yoghurt. Look on the shelf, under the cloth. Hayde! Let’s get moving!”

The novel itself has its own distinct magic. The lives of female characters who sew, cook, and nurse, flow into each other and ensure the continuity of a centuries-old culture, even as their homeland burns to ashes. We too, miraculously survive the trauma and emerge unscathed, or almost. Rather than submit us to endless descriptions of the atrocities, Harwood evokes the horror with her subtle images. “A lone swallow sing[ing] somewhere — surprised by its solitude,” “an ocean of children who are now fatherless,” the Millet khan, “hearth and home to travelers for centuries,” silent now, and the rhythmic repetition of “Baby Alice should not have witnessed the deportations,” help her utter the unutterable. Short, often incomplete, sentences give it all poignancy: “Bodies have become barter. A hidden ring in a loose flap of skin. A pair of embroidered slippers. Rich, virgin hair in an easily sliced braid. The dead don’t care. For the most part they grin and are to be envied—they no longer feel hunger.”

Rather than lament the loss of a city known as the cradle of civilization, the Seamstress of Ourfa celebrates the power of storytelling. When her mother weeps into Khatoun’s lap with, “My heart cannot take this,” “It doesn’t matter who is alive now. We’ll all be dead soon — it’s just a matter of time,” retorts Aram. “I know,” Khatoun nods, “but some of us will survive. Someone will live to tell the story. May God grant it be one of us.” The novel is evidence the stories have survived. The family are all together, even if their lives are scattered.

In her Acknowledgements, Harwood thanks her family who “continue to give [her] life stories.” “Essentially, the book is about my family, beginning with my great-grandmother Khatoun’s story. She is the Seamstress of Ourfa,” stated the author in a recent interview. “There is always time to remember your family . . . Always time,” says Khatoun’s father when they are gathered to say goodbye. “There is no leaving home. Home lies within,” writes Harwood.

The Seamstress of Ourfa is the first book in a trilogy. Harwood is currently getting the final draft ready for the second book, tentatively called Love in Aleppo.

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