The Seamstress of Ourfa

Written by Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss
Review by Janet Hancock

This beautiful book is the first of a trilogy focussing on four generations of Armenian women. The author has based the story on that of her own family, beginning in the Ottoman Empire of 1895. The eponymous seamstress, Khatoun, is married at 15 to Iskender, the match arranged by the families. The frightened girl blossoms into the mainstay of the family, her skills with a needle providing more income than does Iskender, a dreamy, melancholic poet. His unmarried sister, Ferida, lives with them, cooking sumptuous feasts for the growing family and the girls they adopt.

Armenians throughout the Empire live with the threat of massacre, although some co-exist peacefully with Turkish neighbours. In 1915, ostensibly for Armenians’ safety yet no doubt fearful of their collaboration with fellow-Christian Russians, the Ottoman authorities force all Armenians in the northern cities: Sivas, Erzinjan, Kharpert, Trebizond, to walk south. Robbed of the few belongings they are allowed to take, they are pushed as far as the desert of present-day Syria and Iraq. Ourfa is in the south. Khatoun takes her four children to witness the remnants – naked, sick, bleeding – straggling through the town, a life lesson for them, she insists, to family disapproval. She and a friend are able to rescue several girls from a holding camp and offer them a home and work in the sewing room. Her family survive WW1, but growing Turkish nationalism forces a new move.

The author has hand-drawn chapter heading motifs and a map of Ourfa, infusing the book with love and the importance of family and community. Home is wherever they settle.