Cover of Zabel Yessayan on the Threshold

To Be or Not To Be: Zabel Yessayan’s On The Threshold


The relevance of Zabel Yessayan’s words to the events unfolding in the homeland today is startling. Indeed, it is impossible to read Yessayan without the painful awareness of the precariousness of the situation of Armenians living in the homeland. The ongoing military operations, the humiliating treaties, the ultimatums and the false promises of peace, the “cleansing” of the indigenous Armenian population of Artsakh, all point to the closing of doors to the possibility of a peaceful existence for Armenians on their ancestral lands.

In “The New Bride,” a short story in On The Threshold: Key Texts on Armenians and Turks as Ottoman Subjects, the newly released compilation of a set of Yessayan’s “unread, misread or previously unknown” stories, translated and edited with an introduction by Dr. Nanor Kebranian (Gomidas Institute, 2023), Yessayan refers to the Muslim-Turkish murderers of the village population as “a horde of demons . . . of men raging with irreconcilable hatred and howling like beasts.” Commenting on the mood of “helplessness” and of “hopelessness” prevalent in Yessayan’s writing, “Armenians are and will continue to be perceived and treated as an alien race on their own native soil,” writes Kebranian. Indeed, to this day, the demons are running around, bloodier and more murderous than ever.

It is generally the oppressive customs and laws that impede Turkish women’s freedom that the stories expose. However, even when they deal with the massacres explicitly, they are, to borrow Kebranian’s words, “veiled expressions” of the conditions that deny humanity’s inalienable rights and the “many evils” that hinder progress in a despotic state. The Muslim woman is “a metaphor for the status of subjugated Ottoman subjects — notably, Armenians,” writes Kebranian.

“Is it possible to say that there is no great difference between the domestic, moral, public, etc., customs of Turkish women a hundred years ago and the ideas and practices of women today?” asks Yessayan in “The Namehram: Life as a Turkish Woman,” an essay that was first published in Azadamard Daily in Constantinople, in 1914. Yessayan’s words of indignation ring true today, more than a hundred years after they were written. They will probably ring true a hundred years from now as well, since the same tactics of terrorizing and of silencing are being implemented to wipe Armenia off the map. What for Yessayan was “a matter of urgency” is for Armenians today an existential threat.

Images of captivity abound in the stories and the essays assembled in the volume. Yessayan writes of “restrictions and torturous laws,” of women living in ”caged rooms” behind shadows and veils. In “The Wait,” Khalideh Hanum, one of the many women who have been released by their husbands, awaited the return of her beloved “in vain behind the bars of a locked cage . . . as [he] charged carefree through [his] life, encountering new joys along the way.” Likewise, Selimeh, “the new bride,” “paced around the confining cottage until she collapsed from exhaustion.” Her husband “terrifi[ed] her . . . She felt an urge to inflict harm,” writes Yessayan. Selimeh refuses to wear the diadem that had belonged to the adolescent Armenian bride her husband had killed, one of the “bleeding victims of those terrible events.” “The Turkish woman’s domestic life is replete with the most profound and hidden miseries,” writes Yessayan in “On The Question of Turkish Women’s Emancipation,” another essay originally published in 1914. “We must fling open the doors and windows to let the sunlight flood those caged rooms and dispel the remaining shadows and darkness and damp,” she adds in “The Namehram: Life as a Turkish Woman.”

The collection does in fact reveal Yessayan as a staunch advocate of a woman’s emancipation. The two essays cited above, “Namehram: Life as a Turkish Woman” and “On The Question of Turkish Women’s Emancipation,” read like feminist manifestos. Ironically however, the avid defender of women’s rights does not trust “feminism” as an ideology. “That poor word has become so laughable and is labeled with so many contradictory, meaningless, debatable, and, importantly, crude declarations and demands, that it is imperative to clarify just what we mean when we speak of women’s emancipation,” she writes. While the obvious goal remains the freeing of the female from subordination to the male, it also entails, in Yessayan’s words, “a broader social struggle.”

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Yessayan’s is a desire to dismantle a system of domination and subordination that harms both men and women. To paraphrase the words of Virginia Woolf, that other champion of justice for women, if women are locked out, men are locked in. Indeed, Yessayan believes male-female cooperation to be fundamental to women’s emancipation. Pitting one sex against the other would only perpetuate the existing hierarchies and exclusions. Her “feminism” transcends all models. A liberated woman herself, she has great respect for a woman’s traditional role as a mother, a notion some proponents of equal rights for women do not understand even today. “The great influence of mothers, sisters, and close female relatives enables the race to mold its young into magnanimous, noble and valiant men. It is not a demonstration of strength to trample upon all that is sacred; such a misconception is unique to tyrants,” Yessayan states boldly.

With her background in history, literature and law, Kebranian is uniquely positioned to make Yessayan’s writing available to us. Her Introduction, as well as the endnotes, make her effort worthwhile. Kebranian evaluates the existing scholarship honestly and fairly. She points out to inaccuracies and to misrepresentations of Yessayan’s work in past studies, without any condescension. She also comments insightfully on Yessayan’s “situated feminism,” recognizing that every woman’s struggle is unique, always local, always contextual. Kebranian’s is a voice we learn to trust.

The scholarship will go on and the efforts will be applauded. However, some will say that what we need to combat oppressive conditions is military prowess, not literature. Yessayan herself believed in militant self-defense, but to claim that a literary effort is a luxury we cannot afford, let alone deserve, would be “too dark altogether,” to borrow an expression from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, a novel that also deals with oppressive conditions. The hearts of the “horde of demons . . . [may have] run dry of human feelings,” “the wrong they did us” may be “irreparable,” “the evil done at their hands, irremediable,” yet the memories that they had “all lived like brothers and sisters with their neighbors of a foreign race,” cannot go away. It is those memories that the scholarship helps keep alive. As Kebranian notes, it is thanks to the scholarship that Yessayan, the most popular writer of her time, continues to be widely read in intellectual and progressive circles in Turkey and internationally.

The realization that her people are denied their fundamental human rights saddens Yessayan deeply. Her “Where are they now?” sounds like a knell, yet, no matter how “hopeless” the reality she had to confront, the human in her never ceased to oppose and to fight. Publishing stories that plead for justice and equality is a radical political act. It makes us rethink the way we all live together, and opens up the world for renewal — even if we cannot see ourselves, at least not yet, standing “at the threshold of a newly emerging world.”

I should add that Yessayan’s work has an ominous relevance to the ultranationalism and the authoritarianism prevalent in many countries today.

Zabel Yessayan on the Threshold: Key Texts on Armenians and Turks as Ottoman Subjects was published by Gomidas Institute in May 2023.