Translation: Nigoghos Sarafian’s The Princess
The following is a translation of the first chapter of a novel by Nigoghos Sarafian entitled The Princess. Originally written in Western Armenian, the novel was published in 1934 in Paris.
Between the wars, Paris replaced Constantinople as the center of Western Armenian intellectual life. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, France served as one of the largest havens for Armenians and its capital provided exiled Armenian writers and intellectuals, in particular, with a space to revive Armenian literary culture. This literary culture had been all but decimated in 1915 by the Armenian genocide, during which the intellectual leadership of the Ottoman Armenian community was almost entirely eliminated. Those writers who went on to initiate the literary revival in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s were of a younger generation that had experienced the genocide and its aftermath as young men. They had been educated in the Armenian schools of Constantinople during the Allied occupation between 1918 and 1922 by the few surviving writers of the old guard, before both teachers and students were forced to flee the advancing nationalist forces that would eventually claim Constantinople and establish the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Nigoghos Sarafian was one of the students who escaped to Paris in 1922 and became a major figure in this Western Armenian literary renaissance. Sarafian, born in 1902, lived a fascinating life that took him from his birthplace in Ottoman Bulgaria to post-war Constantinople, and finally to Paris where he lived and wrote until his death in 1972. In the 1930s, Sarafian belonged to an innovative group of young writers who called themselves the Menk (We) Generation and tried to make sense of the new diasporan condition of the Armenian people by exploring themes of assimilation and exile through their writing. For this group, the cultivation of Western Armenian as a literary language was of great importance; they anticipated the grave consequences that life in diaspora would ultimately have on the language. Attempting to delay the banalization and death of the language that inevitably comes with cultural assimilation, they began producing original works of literature in Western Armenian based on the new realities of the diaspora.
Sarafian is known mostly as a poet strongly influenced by the symbolist and surrealist movements; The Princess is the only work of prose in his extensive oeuvre. However, due to ideological differences with the mainstream Armenian diaspora and prejudices in the Republic of Armenia that have historically ignored literature written in the diaspora, Sarafian’s work has not been widely read outside of intellectual circles. But his work, particularly his novel “The Princess,” finds new relevance today in light of a growing interest in a phenomenon that has begun to intrigue both those in the Armenian diaspora and in Turkey: Turkified Armenian women.
During the genocide, young Armenian women were frequently abducted, converted to Islam and married into Turkish families. In many cases, these women were then forced to repress their Armenian identities, often keeping their ancestry hidden from their own children and grandchildren. In the past ten years, however, there has been a significant shift towards discussing the plight of these women. Since the 2004 publication of “My Grandmother,” a memoir by notable Turkish lawyer Fethiye Çetin, in which she reveals her grandmother’s Armenian ancestry, there has been a trend in certain segments of Turkish society towards reexamining the past to look for traces of Turkified Armenian women within their own families. Every year, more and more memoirs by notable and ordinary Turks alike are being published about their own Armenian grandmothers; these investigations have drawn attention to these women and opened up the discussion of a widespread phenomenon that has been a taboo topic for almost a century.
This taboo has existed in the Armenian diaspora as well. The intrinsic link between Christianity and Armenian identity can help explain the Armenian community’s silence with regard to Armenian women who had been converted to Islam and integrated into Turkish society. There was the idea that, as Muslims, they could no longer belong to the Armenian community, and were therefore almost entirely eliminated from the national narrative on the genocide.
Nigoghos Sarafian’s novel “The Princess” illustrates that a similar anxiety surrounding Turkified Armenian women existed the early years of the diaspora, when these women were still very much a part of the national consciousness. The novel is the story of Ayshé, a young woman married to a Turkish government official named Davud Pasha, who has raised her since she was a child. Ayshé can remember very little from before she was adopted, bearing only one physical trace of that period in the form of a letter on her shoulder. The novel takes place at a resort in northern France, where Ayshé has an affair with a young Armenian man named Aram. The story of his tragic past jogs her own memory and she comes to realize that she is, in fact, Aram’s sister, Araxie, the girl he describes as having been taken as a child by their father’s killer, Davud Pasha. The rest of the novel centers around Aram and Araxie/Ayshé’s drive to take revenge on Davud Pasha, and ultimately ends in tragedy.
Who would believe it? A Turkish woman plowing through the North Sea on a wooden surfboard. On it, she was standing naked, like a storybook heroine on a magic carpet. Grasping the rope that tied the board to the boat, she drew a giant circle in the sea. The boat cleaved the water, and left an agitated, foamy wake in its path. One wave came and enveloped her legs, splashing pearls and crystals onto her skin as she glided over the frothy wake behind the boat. The water was like liquid glass, like a blue field through which the sun looked like it was pulling a needle. She was engulfed by the wind, which embraced her like a precious commodity. The expanse before her filled her soul with joy and relaxed her body. She turned into light, into fire, into a statue of polished ivory. Her arms, covered with water and glistening in the sun, stretched towards the sky. The princess’s soul, normally an abyss, rose and expanded. A smile appeared on her pale face, and her eyes burned with a fierce intensity. Her straw-colored hair flowed behind her as she looked into the distance, into a field of diamonds and crystals. She heard the hum of people on the shore and the murmur of the water and the wind.
Her fine, delicate nostrils swelled to breathe in the scent of the open sea, much in the same way the Python had breathed centuries ago when an intoxicating smoke was rising from the earth. Around her, Ayshé heard the sound of a thousand rivers and a thousand caverns. The sea vibrated with the whisper and luminous sprouting of exotic plants. The waves opened like mouths, twisting and grinding the thoughts in the princess’s troubled soul. They scaled her inner walls and overcame her. Dreams rushed in like waves of satin. In that moment, the sea and her soul were indistinguishable to Ayshé, who was foolishly trying to separate them. The sea turned into a memory, and through a muddled dream, the princess remembered a straw crown.
She felt that sensation that comes from deep within, that inherited longing for destruction. And every time the sea opened up, every time a wave grew into a crest, she laughed with both fear and joy.
Sometimes, a strong wave would swell from the depths of the sea and overturn the surfboard. The woman would fall into the water, and bubbles would cover her. Gleeful and intoxicated by her surroundings, she would pull herself to the surface, but only after momentarily experiencing that strange, silent underwater world. She would swim around until the boat arrived. Then, she would take hold of the rope once more and start gliding, a giant peacock tail spreading out once again in her wake.
There were other women and girls around her, all of them almost naked, but with a kind of nakedness that was nobler than clothing and reminded her of the sculptures in a Greek temple. That scene did not belong to this century, or even to centuries past, in that the women took great pride in their bodies and exhibited them freely.
This distinctive transformation linked them to the larger context of this sinful story where the balance of body and soul was born out of a big ordeal. What a majestic sight they were, those sinewy women. They passed like young goddesses emerging from the depths of centuries past, one wobbling on a surfboard, another sitting in a rowboat. New circumstances had carved them differently from those ancient, fleshy women and gave them an air of power: short hair; thin, worn, but sensitive, faces that wisely hinted at the anxieties of life and their abilities to overcome them cleverly and with a smile; straight shoulders; flat chests; and muscular, almost masculine, legs. After this scene of pure wonder, it was painful to see them clothed with somber expressions that would betray their feminine instincts and the lightness of their mind and soul.
Out of the water, they turned into women with red claws and dazzling teeth who made pretentious displays of their clothes and jewelry, which, many times, were given to them as payment. It was painful to see that the age that had created them would also degrade them like this.
That is what Ayshé was thinking as she passed through a crowd of them, sympathizing with their beauty. Their flesh, which the sun had given the color of tobacco and the sheen of bronze, was as sleek as a candle. But she distanced herself from them, and was completely alone out on the open sea where she encountered it, an unexpected adventure that made her heart beat wildly.
What seemed more daunting to her than the sea or perhaps even all of her misfortunes was the head of the young man with whom she had come face to face as she rose to the surface of the water. Her face was immediately transformed by fear. After recovering from her panic, she shouted in the direction of the boat.
Once on the surfboard, she turned around to look once again for that silent, smiling face. The swimmer—calm and self-assured—came up behind her.
His audacity surprised Ayshé. She saw him again miles away. His pursuit of her felt stubborn. He surprised her not only with his boldness, but with his strong arms. Ayshé did not know why she suddenly resisted. She sensed that his face was both common and unique.
Davud Pasha’s heart was like butter in his wife’s hands. He was incapable of depriving her of anything. Ayshé got everything she wanted from him without any effort, without any coaxing, and without even thanking him.
Every time he bought her something, he became even more worthless in her eyes. It was a big sacrifice when she surrendered her body to him, something from which she derived no mental or physical pleasure. It was the woman’s wish to stay in Istanbul. Thinking of her happiness before all else, the pasha accepted her request without objection. She had been tense, insufferable, and dissatisfied with everything for some time. The Turk had planned this big trip (it was the first time he had left the country) with the hope of improving Ayshé’s morale. He had rented an entire one-story summerhouse, just as the princess had requested, so that she would not have to endure the noise of a hotel.
Ayshé was lying down alone in a room that looked out onto the sea in one direction and onto a forest in the other. She would spend her nights sitting in front of the window and listening to the sound of the waves as they crashed onto the large rocks along the shoreline. On the other side was the garden pond of a count on which swans would glide, pecking at the heart-shaped leaves that had fallen. She breathed in the cool scent of the forest and listened to the overpowering trembling of the leaves.
In the dark, the headlights of passing cars seemed to set the trees ablaze. Like exotic animals, they stood tall against the flood of light pouring over them. Ayshé listened to their whistling and panting. The light slipped over the branches like a thin veil and ran across them with the speed of a fairy, as if countless, invisible watchdogs were chasing it.
Ayshé was still sitting and listening to the croaking of the frogs and the flapping wings of birds terrified by the headlights, which mingling with the sounds of the cars, became like talking cicadas, when she heard the sound of music coming from a big dance hall on the shore. Sticking her head out the window slightly, she saw the reflection of a lighthouse, which, for a moment, lengthened to look like a giant horn on the water. In the morning, the sea fled for miles. Lying down, Ayshé saw the stretch of bright amber-colored sand on which wet clumps of grass had accumulated. After a stormy night, that was the image that calmed her soul.
Inside the house, the princess was having removed from the walls all the old, worn pictures depicting the old glories of a Breton town. Those small boats, pirates and sea battles were taken down and carried to the adjoining room where the pasha was laying. The princess had gotten rid of most of the furniture in the house, keeping only a wide divan and an oak table. To sit, she took a chaise lounge, unfolded it to her liking, and stretched out on it.
She had a new closet for her clothes with a large mirror. Next to it, there was a small table covered with books for sleepless nights. On one side of the room, across from the bed, was the bathroom door. In front of the bathroom mirror was a glass shelf on which a variety of bottles, soaps, powders and creams were arranged. In the mirror, the princess’s blue bathing suit and sandals could be seen.
This was how the princess lived. But you cannot possibly know why for so long she was frightened by this calm, leisurely life with all its lavishness and formalities.
The pressures on her heart were many, much too many to name. She had been suffering for some time with the trace of a wound that had been weighing on her since childhood. Neither her husband nor the people around her wanted to give her an explanation for it, and that particular silence had become heavy. The princess’s interest in her past had gradually awoken with age. She had heard just a few words about it from one of her husband’s wives, but the next day, that woman had been removed from the house as punishment for her jealous divulgence. It was from her that Ayshé realized it was a letter. It was indeed a foreign letter in the shape of an Ա like a scar from a vaccination. The princess often undressed when she was alone and stood in front of the mirror.
—“It’s horrible, just horrible,” she would whisper.
She would immediately sink into a deep silence. Her father’s murder was an inconceivable thing for her, as inconceivable as that foreign letter he had seared into her flesh with a blazing hot iron. She did not see any relationship between him and the letter, yet there was no doubt in her mind that, with it, her father had wanted to impose his will.
Oh, if she could only remember, if she could only slip back into her childhood. All of the mysteries were there.
She wanted to picture her parents, who the household had worked hard to convince her were Laz. Oh, how she wanted to dispel the lies the pasha had said about them. But no one knew that this was deep in her soul, except for her husband, his wives, and the household servants. Ayshé’s childhood was very sheltered; it was as if she had grown up in a cage. She only remembered the prison across from the house, which had made a profound impression on her.
Past the trees in the garden was a high, stone building that loomed over the smaller, poorer houses around it. In the evening, its windows were illuminated and heads appeared behind the iron bars. In her sleep, Ayshé could hear the horrifying shrieks that rose up out of that prison. She knew that they beat bad people in there. Every morning, they would fill up a wagon to move the prisoners and make room for the new ones they were bringing in. Many times, Ayshé would stop to watch, unable to grasp the concept of imprisonment. Many times, she would see Davud Pasha in front of the prison door with a whip in his hand, his eyes filled with a astounding, horrifying fierceness.
The criminals would bend down in front of him as they passed and scream under his blows. Their cries were exceptionally genuine.
There was a large gap in the princess’s memory. She could not arrange anything chronologically. She thinks that she might have taken a trip around that time, and remembers dilapidated houses and deserted villages. Ayshé thinks that she might have contracted an illness on this trip, and retained in her mind the hallucinations she had had during it. That is how she could explain the corpses she remembers seeing strewn out on the fields, and being huddled in one corner of a wagon, shivering, while a woman tended to her.
The princess moved closer and closer to the mirror to look for the gaze of an unknown father in her large, velvety eyes. All that effort illuminated an inner tension. She moved even closer, and put her fingers on the glass, wanting to embrace her reflection. Her heart pounded. Her lips trembled, and her face flushed. Her smile melted, as did that perpetual, enchanting sweetness that had such a bewitching effect on everyone around her. Now there was nothing left but her and her fleshy, well-groomed body. Alone, her pain made her feel hopeless in that moment. She remembered trembling in the corner of the wagon and consoling herself.
She had always been able to find the love she never received through other means. Undressing entirely, the princess pressed her cheek to the glass and kissed her reflection. For her, there was a profound longing in that kiss. After imagining it, she wanted to feel it on her flesh. She took her breasts in her palms, in the same way she would have wanted a young man to hold them. She panted drunkenly. Her chest swelled like a swan being pushed by the wind. Her sunburned flesh, swelling and stretching, shook with profound feeling. It was as if her body were the strings of an unknown instrument, as if it were a sea of ringing and vibrating dreams. Her body stiffened and turned into armor. The woman felt a sense of fearlessness run from her long, noble legs all the way up to her head. She kissed herself like a stranger, with an extraordinary, delirious pleasure that spread like a vine and twisted up her body. Her own hand became foreign; it became the hand of a person in a dream, which slid down her neck, where unfamiliar cries and pants were building up. Through her half-closed eyelids, she saw a lustful glance in the mirror, intimate and unfamiliar at the same time.
Through her half-closed eyelids, she examined her own beauty. She lifted her arms, exposing hairy depressions, whose warmth released a sweet scent that was intoxicating to many. Her breasts rose with her arms and with her long, supple swan’s neck. Her skin suddenly stretched from her wide back to her navel. The light shifted. Her pelvis melted. In that moment, her whole body, bathed in an immortal light, became a full pitcher, a boundless world. Her entire upper body became heavy. After looking at herself like this for a while, she fell onto the bed, preferring to have a blanket over her legs and a pillow under her arms than to have the pasha.
At one time, when suspicions about her husband had not yet begun to gnaw at her, she had been miserable, skipping meals and feeling depressed every time she allowed her husband to come near her. She has despised him since then. She always ridiculed him and angered easily, so much so that the pasha began to fear her and shy away from her. He had not dared touch her for months. The princess had refused him pleasure by threatening to leave him. And the pasha has never tried to force her. He sensed the justice in this punishment.
*Main photo: Class of 1923 at the famous Getronagan Armenian High School in Istanbul, Turkey. Nigoghos Sarafian is in the middle and to the left of the principal. The photo is taken in 1921/ Creative Commons*