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The first in a trilogy; a sweeping epic of love as a family forced into exile by genocide search for their new home.
Author: Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss more info
It is 1895, Ourfa, a thriving, cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire. Khatoun Khouri, a girl of thirteen, meets her future husband, Iskender Agha Boghos. Twice her age, a poet, philosopher and 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, culminating in the genocide of 1915.
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 love, lust 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 the Turkish Republic in 1923.
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.
Early praise for the book
‘An intimate and richly lyrical epic of Armenian life and tragedy.’ | Colin Thubron
‘The Seamstress of Ourfa is like a magical portal transporting readers to all corners of the globe, including Cyprus, England and the Ottoman Empire. But the real undertaking of this tender novel is a journey across the hills and valleys of the human heart. Butler Sloss delivers her readers into the careful, nurturing hands of her female characters who sew, cook, and nurse the broken hearts and minds inhabiting this moving novel.’ | Aline Ohanesian
‘Vividly imagined and realised down to the last stitch of a coat hem in the most gorgeous prose, The Seamstress of Ourfa is a story of a love upon which generations would one day be built. The voices, gentle laughter and sighs of Khatoun and Iskender echoed long after I finished reading their story. This is a work borne of a passion that resonates on every page, it is the passion of Khatoun which lives now in her great grand-daughter.’ | Aminatta Forna
‘You cannot help but fall under the spell this novel weaves. You forget that it is writing – it is that good – you are simply transported, via all the senses, to the rooms and courtyards, the mountain roads and town streets, and from these into the hopes and fears, and complex nature, of the people depicted.’ | Mark MayesRead Mark Mayes' review here
The Seamstress of Ourfa
I fell in love with this story, and most of all with the characters that inhabit it. From an utterly enticing prologue (a child – Vicky – meeting her family members in Cyprus, in 1968), we are taken back to 1895, when the Vicky’s great grandmother (Khatoun) is little more than a child herself, and is soon to meet her future husband, Iskender. The setting is Ourfa, in the Ottoman Empire.
And so the story moves forward, and we are introduced to a stunning array of characters, and learn much about the traditions and family life of this time and culture. Khatoun becomes a seamstress, and it is she that stitches this unforgettable and beautiful story together. Beautiful, but not without sadness, loss, and in respect of the Armenian genocide, which this novel depicts, terror. The beauty is in the characters’ resiliance to everything that is thrown at them, in their faithfulness to family and friends and long-held custom, in the courage to make a house a home and a haven, despite the growing threat from all around.
The scene where the beleaguered family climb to their roof and watch the many fires spreading across the town as the violence and persecution intensifies, struck me as one of the most powerful in the novel.
There is great charm and humour in this story, which comes naturally from the absurdities, ironies, and the joys of a life among a vibrant and soulful community, and within a large family network.
Khatoun, Iskender, and his unlucky-in-love sister, Ferida, are the principal characters, and I loved them all, and felt so drawn to them. For me, this novel is about the family being the bedrock of a rich and civilised life – and how a strong family unit can then offer help to friends or strangers in times of need and trouble. Iskender is a curious and delightful character, a romantic, I would say, a dreamer and not suited to business. Khatoun and Ferida embody different aspects of feminine strength, wisdom, and ingenuity – they seem necessary to each other, and to the novel as a whole.
Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss writes beautifully, with elegance and in a distinctly individual voice. The clarity and freshness of the descriptive passages is breathtaking, and the characterisation and dialogue is never less than compelling. In this novel, all the small and large eccentricities and foibles of an extended family ring true: the jealousies, the feuds and the making-up, the falling in love and out of it, all played out amid the growing horror that stalks beyond their doors and windows, and which threatens to engulf them all. You cannot help but fall under the spell this novel weaves. You forget that it is writing – it is that good – you are simply transported, via all the senses, to the rooms and courtyards, the mountain roads and town streets, and from these into the hopes and fears, and complex nature, of the people depicted.
Food and drink play a large part in conveying the warp and weft of these lives, and through these, and the traditions of hospitality so minutely observed, you are enriched. You read the book like dreaming it – it becomes something you half remember happening to yourself, or to those you may have known long ago. For me, this demonstrates a wonderfully poetic sensibility in the author, as well as great narrative skill.
Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss is a writer of outstanding talent; moreover, one of a rare kind of wisdom, laced with necessary humour, that conveys life in strands of countless colours – thereby creating the fabric of a life lived, of love having been given and received. You are left with a sense of wonder at the human will towards happiness, and of the transcendent nature of love, in all its forms. The idea that life is fundamentally about change is also a theme in this novel, and one most powerfully conveyed. Yet despite the implacable changes that life brings with it, something of each human spirit survives and is passed on, faithfully, to later generations, if they, like Vicky in the prologue, follow her wise great-grandmother’s advice: “Open your eyes and you’ll always be able to hear me.”
(Mark Mayes; author the Gift Maker)
——–Read the first CHAPTER
Who I Am
Nicosia, Cyprus, July 1968
She’s heading towards me at speed, her black plastic slippers slapping the tiled floor as she comes. I think she’s an adult but I’m not sure. Her face is wrinkly but she’s only a finger taller than I am and I’m seven. She must be Nene Khatoun, my great-grandma who is very, very old. As ancient as the hills, Mummy says, and everyone knows ancient things shrink. Here she comes, making a beeline for my corner. Luckily there are lots of people between us and she can’t get round them easily. She has to keep stopping to get her balance. Eyes quick, I search for someone to help me but everyone’s busy.
The room is full of people. My family I’m meeting for the first time. They live here in Cyprus and Mum, Rob and I came on an aeroplane across the sea from England to see them. Now we are drowning in them. In the middle of the room is an old man in a dressing gown and a blue crocheted hat and he’s crying. He’s got Robert stuffed under one arm and Billy under the other.
“Tvins! Tvins!” he’s screaming, even though they’re not. Robert is my brother and Billy is my cousin even though they do look alike.
Jumping up and down next to the old man is a lady with red hair and a film star dress. She’s kissing both boys and messing up Rob’s parting and singing a song, “Achoognered bidi oudem, kitignered bidi oudem.”
I know what she’s saying, even though it’s Armenian. I understand that much. She wants to eat Robert’s eyes and nose! Before I can warn him, before I can move, I am finally attacked. The midget great-granny has me locked in her arms. She smells of mothballs and onions and her lips turn in over her pink gums which hold no teeth. There’s a cave in her mouth that wants to suck me in. I don’t know if I want to cry, or faint, or have a comforting wee in my pants but as I look into her eyes, only inches above mine, she says my name and the whole world stops.
She winks at me, undoes the top button of her spotty dress and I climb in, crack open her ribcage and nestle into her heart. In here I feel the safest I have ever felt in my life. It’s my blue eiderdown and lentil soup and Fleur in ‘The Forsyte Saga’ after a hot bath in winter. It’s new, like a pomegranate split open, ready to eat. It’s the taste of milk and honey. The smell of lily-of-the-valley in our front garden in Bromley, especially after the rain. She is the rain. The rain that runs down the windowpane that I follow with my finger on long car journeys. She is with me now and for always, the angels sing. All ways.
“Always dreaming!” Mummy says, yanking at my arm. I’m in shock – being dragged back to earth so rudely. That’s parents for you – they teach you manners and then they don’t use them. Mummy wants to introduce me to all the people in the room. I look over at Nene Khatoun and she nods. Suddenly I can hear her voice even though it’s Mummy’s lips that are moving. Nene Khatoun can speak to me without opening her mouth just like they do on the telly, on magic shows. Telepathy, it’s called. Or ventrilolilolism, that thing with a creepy doll. I listen to Nene Khatoun’s voice inside my head, watching Mummy’s Coral Frost lipstick move, woowah woowah. Nene Khatoun is telling me important stuff.
“It won’t make any sense now but will in the future,” she says. “It’s about who you are.”
I listen hard. I know I may have to depend on these words one day. Mum pushes me in front of the red-haired lady in the lovely dress, wipes my eyebrows and tugs at my hem. The lady has stopped singing that song and is smiling at me. Colgate, three ways clean.
“This is Auntie Verginia, Mummy’s sister,” Nene Khatoun’s voice says. “She’ll show you her dzidzigs when she gets undressed. Look at them. Her body is not as loud as her laugh.”
Auntie Verginia does laugh a lot. She sticks her fist in her mouth and bites it and does a little dance. I wonder what her dzidzigs look like under her clothes. She smells like a film star. As soon as I have pecked her on the forehead someone else grabs my face and smooshes it together. I look like my favourite dolly after Robert squashed it with his chair leg.
“This is my little girl, my daughter, Alice. Your Grandmum. Same person, just different names. Listen to her when you can’t hear me. She saw things at your age that a child cannot unsee.” Nene Khatoun’s voice is like a whisper in my ear.
Grandmum Alice has so many lines on her face, I can’t imagine her ever having been a little girl or a daughter, but I know she must have been, once. That’s the way of the world. We’re born wrinkly and then we go smooth for a while and then we go wrinkly again and our heart – which is really a clock – stops and we’re dead.
After some cheek pinching Grandmum Alice lets go of my face, pokes around in her pocket and hands me some toffees. She leans down to kiss me and when she pulls away we’re attached by a curtain of hair – mine – caught in the row of needles pinned under her collar. She gently unpicks me then pushes me back so she can see the travelling outfit Mummy made me for this trip.
This is the grooviest thing my mother ever sewed. A lime-green mini with stars and moons and planets on it. I’m still wearing the matching coat on top even though I’m boiling. The coat is not fastened with buttons, nor with hooks, but by a chunky zip with a huge Go-Go-girl ring on the end.
I strike a pose then do my special ‘Top of The Pops’ dance for them. They clap as I dance, Grandmum Alice and Auntie Verginia, who is now doing the squashy face thing to me and singing her “I’m going to eat your eyes and nose!” song again. When I finish, they drag me towards the sofa. Towards the old man in the crocheted hat. I stare at his feet in blue flip-flops. His toenails are yellow and the big toes are hairy.
“This is your Grandad Haygaz.” Nene Khatoun’s voice, Mummy’s lips. “An orphan with no ties to bind him. We became his family and he carried us here.” When I look up at his hands I see that he could easily carry me in just one of them. Mum tells me to do the dance again.
When you’re alone and life is making you lonely,
You can always go – downtown!
I sing as I shimmy and twist.
Forget all your troubles! Forget all your cares! And go
Downtown! Lala lala lala, Downtown! Lala lala lala laaaaaaah!
I sing as loud as I can, hoping that Grandad Haygaz will stop crying. Instead, he lunges at me and buries me in his arms. Old Spice. I know that smell.
“Downtown, downtown,” he croaks, “Downtown!”
Mummy sits next to him on the sofa and perches me on his knee. He inhales my hair and we sit facing the door opposite as he sobs down my back. I’ve never seen a grown man cry so much – usually they shout.
“He’s happy,” Mummy whispers. “He’s crying because he’s happy.” I’m not sure I believe her. Parents lie sometimes, and I already know he’s an orphan and they’re always sad, even if they get given another spoonful of gruel. Anyway, I move away as soon as I can, thankful that it’s Robert’s turn to display his travel outfit now. Maybe he can use the hanky he wasn’t allowed to blow his nose on to dry Grandad’s tears.
I look away and there, in the doorway, is another person I’ve never seen before, her long face watching me. Where do they all come from, this family of mine? Nene Khatoun’s voice follows me.
“That’s Umme Ferida, my sister-in-law. Your great-great-aunt. Eat her food and watch the slippers on her feet. They’ll fly off and bite you if you behave badly.”
Umme Ferida tuts and disappears back into the shadows. I can hear kitchen noises and then someone pokes me in the back with a gun, just where they should be careful because it’s my kidney and that’s a delicate organ.
“Dungulugh!” Auntie Verginia says, slapping Billy across the head in a waft of perfume.
“Your cousin. Billy. Almost your brother. Never fight amongst yourselves. Blood and water, blood and water, remember that.” Nene Khatoun looks at me as if what she’s saying (or really, the voice in my head) makes any sense. Does it? Billy aims at my skull, blows it apart and kicks my brains under the table.
“Oi! Behave!” Uncle Jack yells from the balcony. He’s Billy’s daddy who picked us up at the airport when we arrived. He’s got ginger hair and a moustache and is wearing nothing but shorts.
“Seaside tomorrow?” he asks. I nod eagerly. He blows a smoke ring at me and turns back to watch the telly which is on the other side of the balcony. That’s possible because it never rains in Cyprus – Mummy told me – so no problems like getting electrocuted and dying in the middle of I Love Lucy. Billy whoops like an Indian and runs off. A gentle hand lands on my shoulder.
“And this, of course, is Nene Khatoun,” Mummy says.
“That’s me,” says my great-grandma, smiling her pink smile. “Open your eyes and you’ll always be able to hear me. I have many stories to tell.”
Mummy is looking at me and Nene suspiciously, so I salute like a Brownie and Nene winks again before disappearing slip-slop, slip-slop into another room, her head bobbing like one of those toy dogs in a car.
As she leaves, Umme Ferida comes in with a tray. They almost collide in the doorway and Umme Ferida hisses. She’s got funny legs that poke out the bottom of her skirt, very wide apart. She’s wearing her slippers and I can see they are good for smacking. The back is folded down and the heel is slim enough to fit the palm of her hand. She’s bringing us drinks in bottles. There are pretty glasses on the tray and a plate of powdery biscuits. Umme Ferida puts the tray on a little wooden table that has holes carved in the legs like lace and pearly white flowers set in the wood. She pulls up a string that’s tied around her waist and separates a large key from the bunch. She uses this to open the bottle caps. I’ve never seen this before. She does it like flicking a coin, dropping the caps in the tray afterwards. I pick one up. The edges are pretty zigzags and inside there’s a bit of cork which smells sweet. The top has a dent in it, where the key bent it back. I put it in my pocket. Umme Ferida sees me and raises one eyebrow. I’m sure I see her slipper itching to fly off her foot but instead she hands me the other two caps and tries a smile. She picks up a glass and pours a drink in it. Sideways. ‘Coca-Cola’ the bottle says in loopy writing. We drink lemon squash at home and Lucozade when we’re ill. This is different. This is black velvet lit with sparkler fire. I watch the Coca-Cola fill up behind a hula-hula dancer on a Hawaiian beach. Umme Ferida hands me the glass. I look over at Mummy to see if it’s all right to accept this gift, but she’s too busy with Auntie Verginia, so I take it. I don’t know whether to drink it or save it forever in its lovely glass, so I sip it two bubbles at a time.
I’m getting tired. I don’t want to meet family any more – they are too many, too much. I feel a bit sick. Homesick. Time to become invisible. I slip off my coat and let my hair fall over my face. Now that I can’t be seen, I feel better. I wonder how Daddy is, all alone back in England holding the fork. He’s probably asleep. Is it late there like it is here? I can smell mothballs. Nene Khatoun is back, followed by Billy. She’s holding something behind her dress.
“It’s a bed!” Billy shouts, ignoring the fact that I am invisible. “We made it together!” They place a small wooden doll’s bed in my hands. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
“I banged it in with a hammer. Look.” Billy shows me the nails underneath. The headboard has a pattern drawn in pencil then traced over with something sharp. A milky blue marble is glued on each corner.
“China blues. They’re rare,” Billy says. “I had three and I won the other one yesterday. Piyoong!” He flicks his finger and thumb with one eye shut and runs off to get his collection.
My legs are beginning to feel wobbly. Nene Khatoun sits me on the floor and crouches down next to me so we can explore the bed together. There are little sheets tucked in, the top one embroidered at the edge with blue and yellow flowers. The same embroidery is on the pillowcase and in the middle of the pale blue blanket. The mattress is covered in stripes the same as the pillow. Nene Khatoun says it is stuffed with real hair.
“Our hair,” she says, pointing her finger around the room.
Everyone is still wandering around us, legs and feet, legs and feet. Their voices come and go. The television laughs. At least Grandad has stopped crying. He’s playing with beads now. Clickclickclick. He counts them on their string, sitting on the sofa, looking exhausted. My eyes are itching so I rub at them like I know I shouldn’t.
Nene Khatoun reaches out and strokes my face, “Go to sleep,” she says. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll all be here in the morning.” She puts her arm around my shoulder. “And the next day, and the next, and the next. And always.”
And then she crumples me up, gently, like a tissue until I am small enough to fit in my new bed. She tucks me in, singing a lullaby, and I can smell the fresh cut wood as the sheets cover me in a cobweb of sleep. I am falling. Falling, falling, falling.
The night is black velvet lit with sparkler fire. My family are old – ancient as angels – and they live near the sea and smell of onions and mothballs and cry when they’re happy. They wear keys and loose slippers, smoke cigarettes and drink Coca-Cola and pin us to their hearts with our hair.
My family, my family, my family and me.
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