Four generations of strong women and the saga of how their sewing skills helped them survive some of the darkest days of the 20th century shape the story on which Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss drapes her century-spanning trilogy, the first volume of which has just been published in Cyprus.
The half Armenian half British author describes “The Seamstress of Ourfa”, launched at a packed book-signing in the Centre of Visual Arts and Research in old Nicosia last week, as a “fictoir“.
“It’s a blend of memoir and fiction, full of lies, misquotes and dead people but all historically accurate,” the author smilingly assures.
The book introduces readers to the lost world of the Armenian community as life was lived in one of the ancient towns of the Ottoman Empire.
Today named Sanliurfa, Ourfa has been known by other names in the course of its rich and turbulent history. In ancient times, it was called Edessa, whereas Armenians knew it as Urha, while to Kurds it was Riha. Many consider it to have been the birthplace of Abraham, the biblical prophet.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, the town’s population was an almost equal division of Muslims and Armenian Christians with the addition of a smaller number of Assyrian Christians and Jews. But after the Armenian genocide of 1915, Ourfa became almost 100 per cent Muslim, recognised today as one of the most conservative towns in Turkey.
Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss’s family on her mother’s side was among the very few who survived the Armenian massacres that took place in Ourfa. They remained there up to 1922 just before the modern Republic of Turkey was formed.
“Many books have been written about the genocide and the death marches and those who survived,” says Harwood Butler-Sloss, pointing out how her book is different. “My book is the first about an Armenian family who stayed in Ourfa. And there were some. Indeed, some stayed until the 1950s, and there are Armenians living there until this day. The thing is, few write about it – it is such a difficult subject.”
“The Seamstress of Ourfa” and its two sequels in the Harwood Butler-Sloss trilogy all derive from stories told the author by female members from the Armenian side of her family.
“They were all wonderful storytellers,” the California-based writer recalls as we sit in the garden of her old family house, not far from the Presidential Palace in Nicosia.
“Actually they all had this ability to tell their stories in a very magical way. They would never say ‘somebody died of cirrhosis of the liver’. Rather, they would say ‘he died of a broken heart’. When relating these things in their own way the drama and the magic would really seem to happen… This always fascinated me because nowadays the nature of story-telling has changed so much… Now when we want to tell a story we tweet them… We are so very much matter of fact.”
Victoria smiles, remembering how she was always aware that the stories she was told would change depending on who the teller was.
“My grandmother had one version, my aunt, a different one, and my mother, yet another one. The same would happen with other members of the family. One common feature in all accounts was how whoever was telling me their version was somehow always at the centre of the story. Each time, it was a different perspective reflecting the teller’s point of view.”
Victoria, 57, talks with an emotional purity and with great love about her Nicosia childhood and the women who filled it with their laughter and tears. There’s her great-grandmother Khatoun Agha Boghos and her sister-in-law Ferida (Vartouhi Agha Boghos); her grandmother Alice Avakian (the wife of Nicosia’s then foremost shirt maker Haygaz Avakian), and her daughters, Takouhi and Verginia, respectively Victoria’s mother and aunt.
As she vividly describes them, it is as though they have gathered around us in the family garden. All of them, Victoria too, have been talented dressmakers and seamstresses, often drawing on their talents and needle skills to contribute to family income, and, on more than one occasion, saving the family from destitution.
“In the history of my family, sewing was always like the fire beneath the phoenix rising,” Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss explains simply.
“Everything else could go bad but if they had needle and thread and could start sewing again it would rectify the situation.”
The saga begins in 1895 with the engagement of Victoria’s great-grandmother Khatoun, then a petite 13-year-old, who, on turning 15, marries the much older, handsome Iskender Agha Bogos, and their unfolding life in Ourfa. It ends [in the as yet unpublished third volume] in 2000 after the author and her husband move from the UK to the United States where he is a successful commercials producer.
“Khatoun was a couturier. She designed and made clothes I would not dream of – wedding dresses, whole trousseaux, Western-style dresses for the wives of high-level Ottoman officials, even costumes for local cabaret girls,” says an admiring Victoria of her great-grandmother.
“The fact that her skills were appreciated by so many wives of Ottoman officials saved the family when the massacres started. The women just told their husbands ‘not to touch their dressmaker’,” she explains.
“After eventually leaving Ourfa, the family settled in Aleppo where Khatoun restarted her sewing business. It was in Aleppo that her daughter Alice met, fell in love with and married Haygaz, an orphan from Kartoup [Turkish Kharpout] who had served as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion.”
It soon became clear that Haygaz, something of an adventurer and quite the ladies’ man, needed to settle on a career and settle down. The resolute Khatoun stepped in, handed over some gold coins to send the couple on their way to Cyprus. From these modest beginnings and a strong sense of maternal concern was launched Nicosia’s famed shirt-making business. All of this is described in the second volume of the trilogy.
Alice, Victoria notes, adored Haygaz, but as a long-suffering wife, was to witness his repeated philandering.
“Alice was also a great dressmaker but her speciality was pattern making. Her patterns were simply amazing and she was sewing right up to the day she died. And of course she taught her daughters, my mother and my aunt, to sew as well and they, in turn, taught me and my brother. Yes, my brother as well! People often ask me when I learnt sewing and I tell them that I don’t remember the time I wasn’t sewing. My brother and I had these Cindy and Action Man toys and my mother would teach us how to make trousers and shirts for them when we were five or six and we would cut patterns and sew them on her sewing machine.”
Against this background so rich in storied and talented women, all of them creative, Victoria opted to train as an actress. Then, she and her husband William departed the UK for Los Angeles where he found work as a producer of commercials.
“I got married and when we moved there my husband had a working visa whereas mine was spouse only, meaning I couldn’t work but more or less would have to just stay at home and wash his socks. So I said ‘fine, we will start our family now and in between, I will write this book’.”
That was some 20 years ago. She decided to go back to her earlier notes on her family stories and so began the work of finally transforming the family saga into a book, well, a series of books.
After numerous rewrites, the finished work was submitted to and accepted for publication by the Cyprus-based Armida publishing house.
About this time, Victoria’s husband William, after a long and courageous battle with cancer, passed away. Distraught and grieving, she turned again to sewing to heal herself.
“Sewing is so mathematical…,” she says. “When William died he didn’t want to be buried in a box so we cremated him in a dark blue indigo linen shroud that I sewed. And then I used the rest of this bolt of cloth to sew some clothes for myself. I found it very calming – as though somehow he was still with me. So I bought more beautiful fabrics and also used lots of others that I have been collecting for years and kept on sewing telling myself ‘I am going on this book tour’ so I need new clothes’. Now I have this entirely new wardrobe I am wearing when talking about my book and feel as if William is here with me all the time.”
So ends and renews the beautifully stitched lifelines of a stream of seamstresses seamlessly joined in a richly patterned saga that promises more with each volume.
“The Seamstress of Ourfa” by Victora Harwood Butler-Sloss, published by Armida, 2018, available from Moufflon Bookshop in Nicosia, has been just launched both in Nicosia and London. There will be more meetings with the author in Cyprus throughout July. The two more volumes have been already written and await publication.