The return of an Ottoman-Armenian feminist: ‘Zabel’ by BGST

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Alin Ozinian

First staged in 2015 “Zabel,” a play about Ottoman-Armenian author and feminist Zabel Yesayan, returned to audiences last week. Written by Aysel Yıldırım and Duygu Dalyanoğlu and staged by the Boğaziçi Performing Arts Ensemble (BGST), one of the leading theater groups in Istanbul that work on feminist drama, “Zabel” tells the life journey of Yesayan.

Yesayan’s story was this time performed online on Feb. 19 and won the acclaim of theatergoers in this difficult time, when Turkey’s theaters have been hard hit by the coronavirus. COVID-19 has also taken a heavy toll on the art world in Turkey in terms of closed venues and canceled events as in other parts of the world. Like many, BGST is trying to adapt to the new circumstances and staged the play online, adding English subtitles in an attempt to attract English-speakers.

“Zabel,” the latest play in the company’s feminist theater series, concentrates on Istanbul-born Yesayan’s life story based on her books – “Silihdari Bardeznerı” (Gardens of Silihdar), “Hokis Aksoryal” (My Soul in Exile) and “Averagnerun Mech” (In the Ruins) — and her letters. The play was written, directed, designed and performed by women artists.

Co-writers Dalyanoğlu and Yıldırım started working on “Zabel” in 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. While collaborating on the play the two women started to read and discuss details of Yesayan’s life with academics who have studied her at length.

“At that time, we [graduates] along with students who were members of the Boğaziçi University Women’s Studies Club began to conduct some research. The whole team worked carefully; we concentrated on Yesayan’s autobiography – ‘Gardens of Silihdar,’ where she describes her childhood and youth in Üsküdar, Istanbul. On March 8, 2015 we did a trial staging that focused on these memories, which afterward became the first act of the current play,” said co-writer Dalyanoğlu in an e-mail interview.

The most famous female representative of Armenian feminism and literature, Zabel Yesayan (1878-1943) played an exceptional role in establishing a new paradigm for Armenian society. She was well educated largely due to her father’s belief in the importance of education, an uncommon position at the time concerning girls.

In 1895 she moved to Paris where she studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne. She worked on articles and short stories for French and Armenian magazines and started her writing career. Yesayan returned to Istanbul at the age of 30, after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which gave great hope to Armenians for freedom and equality. She enjoyed an active literary life and was well recognized for her talent.

Yesayan was the only woman on the Young Turk list of Armenians to be deported and killed on April 24, a prime indicator of her influence as a writer and an intellectual. As the Ottoman government arrested and murdered hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders on April 24, 1915, the day is considered the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

In 1915 she succeeded in fleeing to Bulgaria and from there managed to reach the Caucasus, where she documented much of the atrocities taking place. In 1918 she went to Egypt and then to Paris. During this time she cared for Armenian women and orphans and also promoted Armenian literature in Europe.

Co-writer of “Zabel” Dalyanoğlu began her theater career in 2004 at the Boğaziçi University Theater Club. She has been working as a professional performer, director and playwright at BGST since 2009.

“Why is ‘Zabel’ important to me personally? The most important thing that makes Zabel’s story striking is that Zabel was an intellectual who was never at peace with power and authority. I wanted to tell the life story of such a person – a woman who does not give up, even if she is tired of fighting to defend her truth. The life stories of women like Zabel should become more widespread,” said Dalyanoğlu.

The first play attracted huge attention in 2015, and BGST decided to stage a new play in which they aimed to tell Yesayan’s entire life story. Two years later “Zabel” premiered on March 8, 2017. Since then BGST has performed in many cities including Ankara, Bursa, Diyarbakır, Istanbul and Izmir in Turkey, and also Stuttgart and Vienna in Europe. Its live screening on Feb. 19, 2021 was watched from many cities around the world.

Dalyanoğlu underlines that they received mainly positive reactions after the play. “A strong female figure like Zabel, who struggled for justice throughout her life, impressed our audience. In some cases, people found parallels between her struggle and their own today. Additionally many in the audience after seeing the play started to research Zabel’s life and read her books, translated into Turkish, by Aras Publishing. This makes us more than happy,” she said.

Yıldırım and Dalyanoğlu were named Best Playwright of the Year 2018 by the Turkish Theater Critics and the Üstün Akmen Theater. Yıldırım (who plays Zabel) was also recognized as the Best Actress in a Leading Role 2018 by Direklerarası and the Sadri Alışık Theater and Cinema Acting Awards.

“Our greatest wish is to continue to perform the play in different cities around the world. One of our biggest dreams is to follow in Yesayan’s footsteps and play in the cities where she lived, such as Yerevan, Paris and Adana. In addition we are working on translating ‘Zabel’ into different languages and publishing it. It will come out in France soon. It’s gratifying to see that her story is also being staged in other countries,” said Dalyanoğlu.

The life of Yesayan, who breathed new life into Armenian literature at the beginning of the 20th century, was also unique because she was involved in the most important stages of the “Armenian new history.” The writer survived the Cilician massacres and the 1915 Armenian genocide and witnessed the birth of the first Armenian Republic and the formation of the Armenian Diaspora.

In 1933 Yesayan settled in Yerevan and began teaching French and Armenian literature at Yerevan State University. She was able to escape death during the Armenian genocide, but another evil would subdue her in 1937, when she became a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge. Like many of her contemporaries, she was accused of simply having a connection to those who had already been proclaimed the “people’s enemy” or were suspected of spying, arrested and died in unknown circumstances.

Nowadays Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University is under tremendous state pressure. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s appointment of an outside rector to Boğaziçi has led to weeks of demonstrations, hundreds of arrests and one of the most sustained protests in recent years against the autocratic rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Melih Bulu, the new rector, said he has no plans to resign and that he expects the protests to end in six months.

Dalyanoğlu, who also performs the role of Srpuhi Düsap, another Armenian woman writer, in “Zabel,” thinks the situation is unacceptable and that the rector should be determined by the university stakeholders — such as professors, staff, students and alumni. “Everyone in the cast started their career at Boğaziçi University’s theater club, which was a ‘second school’ for us. Boğaziçi University was the place where I learned critical and feminist thinking in a free environment. It is not difficult but also more meaningful for us to play Zabel in these circumstances because we are telling the story of female characters who resisted pressure throughout their lives. While playing the role of Srpuhi Düsap, who teaches the young Zabel the life-long struggle of an intellectual, I was experiencing the same feelings and the similarities between our lives and those of these women,” said Dalyanoğlu.

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