Selected Love Letters by Hrand Asadour and Zabel Donelian

Translator’s Note

Glimpses into the intimate lives of both men and women are few and far between in the Armenian literary tradition. Long dominated by cultural attitudes that viewed discussions of sexuality and desire as shameful and indecent, the late-nineteenth-century Ottoman Armenian society in which the letters featured here were written essentially silenced such expression in the public sphere.

Conversations of this sort, however, certainly did take place in the private sphere, as we see in these love letters exchanged between two prominent Armenian writers in 1895 Constantinople: Hrand Asadour and Zabel Donelian (more widely known by her pen name Sibyl). At the time, Hrand was the co-editor of Masis, one of the most widely circulated Armenian newspapers in the Ottoman Empire, while Zabel had already earned a reputation for her poetry, fiction, and articles in the Armenian press. Hrand had long been an admirer of Zabel’s work from afar and, in 1892, they began working together on the literary supplement of Masis, giving way to a friendship that slowly blossomed into love.

Written at the very beginning of their romance, these letters allude to a powerful force that kept them apart, an ever-present source of anguish that loomed over them both. The problem was that, by this time, Zabel had been married for more than a decade and had a young daughter, Adriné, to whom she was entirely devoted. The letters show Zabel’s ambivalence toward her love for Hrand given her circumstances; Hrand’s melancholy passion for Zabel’s mind and body; and the hostile social climate the couple was forced to navigate together. But the intimacy of their intellectual friendship and the intensity of their longing for each other is made all the more poignant by these obstacles. The universality of the emotional turmoil they describe also has the pleasant effect of freeing these letters from any sense of time or place, allowing them to be read simply as the expression of two people in love anywhere in the world, past or present.

The precarity of Hrand and Zabel’s affair only lasted until her husband’s death in 1901. The couple married in the same year and later had a daughter, Emma. During their marriage, they continued to work together, including on a celebrated series of Western Armenian textbooks. The couple lived through the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the devastation of Ottoman Armenian intellectual life, nonetheless choosing to remain in the Republic of Turkey after its founding in 1923.

I am indebted to the late Grigor Hakobian for transcribing these letters—written in a kind of Armenian cursive that is notoriously difficult to decipher—and for publishing them, along with more than 40 others, in a 2001 volume entitled Սիրային նամակներ (Love Letters). I am also grateful to Arthur Hakobian for granting me permission to translate from his late brother’s transcriptions, to Vartan Matiossian for introducing me to this book, and to Daniel Ohanian for his comments on the translation.

– Jennifer Manoukian

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March 31, 1895

Dear Hrand,

This is the first time in my life that I am writing a love letter—a fact that confounds me given my age and the circumstances in which I find myself. Why didn’t I meet you earlier, when I had dreams of feeling and living, and when talking about the silliest and most intense desires of my heart would not have been wrong for me to do?

Now it is not the same, Hrand. In order to write to you about my love, I feel the need to first justify it. I strive to make small words contain this feeling that brings me such joy and troubles my soul, so that it does not appear too obvious to you. There is no need for you to know its magnitude; it is enough for you to understand its essence. I would like to keep one big part of it in a hidden fold of my heart, the only place in my inner being that you cannot enter, where I can love you freely and fearlessly without trembling as I feel your gaze on me and without fearing the impression I leave on you. I do not want you to measure the profound emotion in my heart, because it will terrify you, as it has terrified me when, for so many years, I have been alone with it, face to face with it, in the quiet hours of the night. I know that for you love is just a source of entertainment in your life. But for me, it is life itself. For you, it is one page in the story of your life, but it is the entire story of mine. For you, I am a beloved creature. But for me, you are the one ideal around which my dreams as a girl and all my love and affection as a woman come and converge. In my life, Hrand, I have not been loved or happy—not as a daughter, not as a sister, not as a wife and not as a mother. Whatever tenderness, warmth or fire my soul had was stamped out and buried under ashes beneath the breaths, now cold, that were responsible for bringing me to life. I resigned myself to everything. I yielded to all the whims of my fate, without straying from the path it showed me, not even for a moment.

I have always fled from false happiness and have never aspired to change the sorrow in my life. But love came to illuminate it. I did not look for it, Hrand, because I did not have the urge, or even the time. With my health at risk, my work frozen around me and my mind burdened by concerns, pain had worn down my heart by the time I had met you. I swear that I was searching for a way to kill myself—a secret way—that would not leave my poor daughter with a dishonored name. You kept me alive. My life is yours, my Hrand. Take it. It is your right. Do with it what you wish. There is only one thing I cannot give to you: the respectability of my name, which belongs to my daughter. Apart from this, my happiness is to be tormented for you and to be sacrificed for you, even if you do not love me, because, I must tell you again, I have not loved you out of a hope of being loved, but rather out of an uncontrollable propensity of my heart. Therefore, you are not obliged to nurture exactly the same feelings for me, or to even consider yourself bound to me. Keep all autonomy over your heart and life. But if you ever still have moments where you feel the need for a sincere, devoted heart, I will always be ready to accept you into my arms with all the tenderness and all the adoration of a mother, sister, or wife, as the case may be. Because the only charm, the only notion, the only purpose, and the only love in my life is you, my Hrand. I will suffer when you suffer, I will find happiness in your happiness. Think only about yourself, your enjoyment, and your wellbeing and you will have thought of me too. After reading this, please look into my eyes once again with your beautiful eyes and ask me if I will always love you. The things I say when I am with you do not make sense. You bewitch me to such a degree that I come out of myself and I do not know what I am saying. You will find the whole truth in my letters—or half the truth, because, as I said before, I am keeping one part of my love hidden from you.

Zabel

 

April 2, 1895

After leaving you last night, I came and threw myself onto my bed, perfumed by the scent of your body, my lips still moist from your impassioned kisses and my nerves depleted by a pleasant trembling, nerves that had always yearned to grow weary upon your breast. Sleep was subduing my eyes and mind—my poor mind which was overwhelmed by so much excitement that it no longer had the strength to function because of the ever-renewing sensations of your love that flooded my entire being. And yet there was your letter beside me—a piece of your heart on paper. I read it once, then I read it again, thinking about every line, analyzing every word. Nothing else I have read in my life has given me the rare, intense pleasure I felt upon reading your letter.

With such simplicity and such profound faith, you express your extraordinary tenderness and a sense of devotion and abnegation that makes people capable of sacrificing everything for the happiness of the ones they love. You lament the fact that we did not meet each other earlier. You talk about age and circumstance. You feel the need to justify your love. But do you realize that that is cursing fate? What if we had never met at all or if we had met twenty years from now . . .?

We are both still young, Zabel. We both have not yet loved. For both of us, this feeling is a rosebud blossoming in the summertime. It is the first word of a child who is late to speak, whose mind is late to awaken, but who soon acts with skill. Your age? But your body is a marvelous reservoir of love’s sensations. Your nerves have all the youth of a fifteen-year-old girl and the blaze in your eyes has all the flames and all the warmth of a newly kindled fire. Your circumstances? But is it possible that you are to blame if the conditions of impassive fate have thrown you into arms that are unable to press a loving chest against yours? Your justification? But is it wrong, after years of struggling, to give way to a warm emotion that comes to break down the vengeance of enduring deprivation and pour boundless affection into your soul thirsty for tenderness, under the caresses of a person who loves and is loved? If it is indeed wrong, what more eloquent justification is there, my Zabel, than your love, anointed and consecrated with my love, our mutual devotion, and the knowledge that we were born for each other, that we were predestined to meet each other, and that there are perhaps no two people in the world who understand each other as well as we do?

You say that there is no need for me to know the magnitude of your love. Why, Zabel? Why only “half the truth” and not “the whole truth”? Why this deliberate silence, when you know that I want to enter all the most hidden folds of your heart, to know all your most secret thoughts and to be acquainted with all of your emotions? Will the impression you leave on me really inspire fear in you? But what kind of fear can the joy of a person who is loved inspire, when you sprinkle into his heart all the sparks of your love, not sparing him any of your light or warmth. No, my Zabel, I want you to surrender yourself to me and lay your soul bare, without hiding any of its depths from me. I want you to inspire horror, terror, and alarm in me. I want you to say that your love for me has shackled my heart, my freedom, and my life for eternity. Ah, perhaps you think that I want to keep my freedom. Then you still do not know me. You still do not realize quite what you are to me. You are the sun that rises after the glimmering stars, scattering the nocturnal darkness of my life. Only time will convince you that you are cherished with such infinite, endless love, and that it will be the eternal yoke that weighs upon you.

I was thinking about all of these things as I was reading your letter last night in the mystical solitude of my bed, having severed all ties with the outside world, in communion with only you, and feeling that my life can exist with only yours, that without your love, the world is a pit for me and I am a corpse that worms gnaw on.

Now, my Zabel, after reading this letter, please tell me again that your love is just a source of entertainment for me . . .

Hrand Asadour

 

April 23, 1895
Pera

What do they want from us, my Zabel? Why are they persecuting us like this? When I came to you the other day, you cannot imagine the kind of agony you put me through for a moment when, after asking so tenderly about my health, you suggested that we see each other less often. I thought you were serious, my Zabel, that that was what you wanted, and it felt like everything was collapsing around me. Later, when I understood the reason, my heart recovered somewhat, but I always think, my sweet Zabel, that those around us are jealous of our friendship, that they want to strip us of our happiness, that they want to pull us apart. Since Friday, you cannot imagine how much this idea has tormented me. I am sure of your profound love and feel that it is impossible for us to live apart any longer. It is only that I also feel that they are going to make many attempts to suffocate our love. They will rattle your sense of self. They will appeal to your sense of honor. They will want to defame me for being near you. I also have faith that you will spurn it all. Your love will ward off these base attempts. Those who are jealous of your love and those who are jealous of my love will be disappointed. But there is something that torments me. They will tarnish your pristine reputation and I will be the reason for it. Ah, my Zabel. What do these evil people want from us?

What they said to you the other day is entirely untrue. I assure you that no friend or family member of mine has said—or could say—such things. It was made up by diabolical creatures who suspect we are happy and want to pull us out of each other’s arms. Do not believe what they say to you, Zabel. They can still make up new things. I am even suspicious of your closest friend—especially her. Tell me whatever they say to you with your usual sincerity and we will figure everything out together. Let these dark souls rage and seethe at their futile efforts. We will always live through each other and nothing will be able to separate our hearts.

In your last letter, you say that you do not expect eternal love from me. But there is no need for me to think about a future where I could meet and fall in love with someone new. No, my sweet Zabel. I am in a state of mind now where such a thought seems outrageous to me. I must even confess—and this may perhaps seem crazy to you—that the fact that I had known other women in the past is now a source of genuine sorrow for me. I want to have known only you, my Zabel, to now offer you an untouched body and an inexperienced, naive soul that would blossom with the light and dew of your love. I want to have met you when I was still a boy, and to have had the first, unconscious desires of childhood be born within me for you. We would have played together in the grass. We would have run after each other in the fields. Our lips would have touched in an innocent kiss. Later, as a young man, I would have let out my first sighs of passion upon your breast. I would have felt my first intoxicating frissons on your lips and I would have known sublime nervous uproar through you. I would not have even looked at another woman with desire. All the women would be collapsed into your body. You would have been mine only and I would be not have been sullied by other hands. You cannot imagine what a source of profound grief this is in my heart, my Zabel: the memory of past, loveless thrills. It is sorrow over fresh vigor depleted in vain, regret over a youth squandered. I feel this regret just as intensely as physical pain, whenever I compare the delight of just one of your kisses to all the meaningless thrills of my past. I find it supremely sweet, despite my age, which weighs on me; despite my white hair, which is starting to appear; and despite my weary nerves, which I torment mercilessly.

When the passions of my past leave this kind of impression on me, do you think that I could still love another woman in the future? No, my sweet Zabel, do not think that this is the impulsivity of a twenty-year-old’s first love. At that age, people say something casually and the illusion of the future quickly makes them forget their promises. No, this feeling is a very conscious feeling within me, the irrevocable decision of an experienced soul, the unshakable faith of a person who knows life.

Do you think that later the enduring love that has been kept in our hearts for so long—like a flammable material, like a love that is quickly set aflame—will quickly go out in us? At least for me, my Zabel, I feel that from now on I cannot love anyone else. My heart gave you all of the strength, ardor, and blood it had. Even my muscles and nerves are calluses that feel nothing for others. Is there a woman in the world who is as smart as you, as sincere as you, as gentle as you, or as delicate as you? Is there a pair of eyes under the sun that is as beautiful as yours? Could I ever see your enchanting expression on another face? No, my sweet Zabel, this is impossible and my mind is unable to fathom it. After this, should I marry? Have a wife? Have a child? But are you crazy, Zabel? From now on, the roof over all of my affection, my family, and my home is beneath your breast.

[…] In your friendship, though, there was a certain allure, the knowledge that you are the only woman in the world who understands me. Besides your devotion, which I found to be just as great in you as in my mother and sister, you brought me a soul that was a match for my own, an intellectual brotherhood that bound me to you. I felt so close to you that I wondered with bitter sorrow why you were not born my sister. Sometimes I even wondered why I had not met you before you married, so that I could have come to offer you my hand, so that we could have merged our fates and so that we could have lived together under the same roof as companions for life. Later, once I was convinced that what I felt for you was something more than friendship, that allure kept growing. I thought that perhaps you loved me too, but that you did not want to profess your love to me. That thought debilitated me and made me shy, although there was always a vague hope in my heart that I would one day be loved by you, be loved passionately by you, that I would be intoxicated by the fragrance of your body and that I would enjoy in your arms all the thrills of having you. Since then, I have clung to life with more zeal and that hope became the only refuge for all of my sorrows. When you opened your arms to me, when you allowed me to rest my weary head upon your breast, when you offered your body to my lips and when you earnestly surrendered to my brazen love, you also showed my soul the allure of life, my Zabel, with all of its power, by acquainting me with the great secret of nature and by bringing a purpose to my purposeless existence. And still you think that one day I could love someone else . . .

Hrand Asadour

 

May 13, 1895
Saturday night

You have written such things to me, Hrand. It was even brave of you to give them to me to read. I seem to love less than you do and you more than I do. Do you believe this [?] Study the depths of your soul and tell me sincerely.

Love is one of the habits of your heart, Hrand, or perhaps one of its needs. The desire to be loved perhaps has a comforting quality for someone as sensitive as you are. But it is not like that for me. Mine is a life that ended before being lived; it is a soul that withered before falling away, a soul that is reborn through you and lives only for you. I feel that I have come to an end within you. I love you not to be comforted, but rather to suffer. I have already said that I have seriously considered death, if need be. This is not a sacrifice, but rather a source of happiness. You know that your concerns about name and honor are not for my sake, because I feel far from everyone and my desire to sever ties with them all torments me. But I love you so much and sacrificing everything for you comes so easily to me that I consider it an extreme form of selfishness to give into that inclination of mine.

I beg you, my Hrand, do not think of me like you think of other women and do not say that I have been freed from the intoxication of my passion. You still have not seen and cannot even imagine the fiery ardor that burns for you in the depths of my soul. I still have not been able to have the kind of great closeness with you that I need in order to be freer when I am with you. But I do not dare. Believe me, Hrand, when I say that you are the first man to whom I have ever uttered sweet nothings and whose lips I have ever dared approach with my own, always fearing that I am doing something improper, always ashamed that I am being too forward. Was this not the reason that I was so hurt when one night you found me too overeager? It is true that we have become very close in these past two months, but the cruel days that separate our visits lay me to waste. I am much more passionate than you think, Hrand. My icy appearance and my icy behavior—occasionally feigned—are often the products of sadness and fatigue, which I lose entirely in your arms. Know only that a fleeting look of boredom or dissatisfaction from you devastates me. I derive all my strength from you and, when you no longer offer it, I will wither away. These are not empty words; they are the sincere confessions of my heart, which perhaps I should not make, but since you are pressing me. . . Now that I have started, I will tell you everything.

Every time I see you, Hrand, I find myself in such a state, in such a condition. My first desire, my first act is to embrace you and to press you to my heart. Then comes a very intense feeling, so intense that it drives me crazy: the feeling that I would rather stay there, die there and end everything there than part with you. Look and you will see that when you say hello to me, at first I am unable to say anything in return. It is as if my voice disappears into my throat and my breath runs out in my chest. I was gradually enlivened by your voice, by your gaze. I was bound to them, I was lulled by them. And yet think about how I am always the one saying that you should leave. Ah, you cannot imagine what it is like to bid farewell to such happiness, to be deprived of the intoxication of savoring such allure. After having you in front of me; after having the ability to take your hands; kiss and embrace you; and offer you all kinds of tenderness, how could I be apart from you? There is always that fear in your heart that one day all of it will certainly be impossible. Ah, my Hrand, you cannot imagine the suffering I endure when I am away from you, because you do not love as I love. Enter the world of my happiness and tranquility. Only know that all of it is you: it is your gaze, it is your heart, it is your presence. Do not tell me things that are untrue. If sometimes you see that I am indifferent to your love, you must understand that it is only not to pester you. I do not want my love to be a chain around your neck. I have always wanted to hide the intensity of my feelings from you so that you are free; so that, when you do not love me, you do not shy away from me; so that when you love someone else, you confess it to me, so that at least I can be your friend for eternity. Just do not leave me. Ah, my Hrand, I cannot bear this idea. Look, I am starting to cry again. Such a powerful feeling this love is, Hrand, and how crazy it makes people, turning all of their decisions upside down and all of their thoughts inside out. I am a stranger to myself, now and whenever I am near you. My heart comes and joins yours and my being, which I do not recognize, becomes secondary. I really do want to give in to all of your wishes, because they are my wishes too and fighting against them is like tearing my heart into pieces with my own two hands.

[…] When I said that “my own love is enough for me,” it was not a lie. But alas, now there is something that is not enough for me. All my dreams, all my desires come and are realized in only one way, which I have mentioned a thousand times: for me to have you entirely to myself for a week; for you to be entirely mine in heart, in mind and in body; for you not to go anywhere; for you not to look at anyone else; for you not to think about anything else; for you not to feel anything else; and then for me to die with my lips against yours. There is such an inexplicable thrill in this idea that, each time I think about it, it sends a long, deep shiver through my entire being, as if it were the very first taste of the boundless joy I have imagined. But I am being quite demanding, am I not? To ask for a whole week . . .

Zabel

 

May 21, 1895
Pera

I will see you in an hour, my Zabel, and you cannot imagine the anguish with which I await the moment I can enjoy your sweet company once again. I was going to spend that hour thinking of you, Zabel, as I do whenever my mind is not preoccupied with work. But I am writing these lines to convey my thoughts to you instead.

In your last letter, you wrote that you do not have friends anymore. In the moment you had that idea, you certainly believed it. Perhaps you no longer do, but since you may once again have such thoughts, allow me to explain what that idea of yours inspired in me.

What is friendship, Zabel? An altruistic emotion that binds two people to each other; a profound devotion to each other; similar thoughts and feelings that overlap even in dreams; a perpetual urge to see each other, to tell each other everything, to ask each other for advice, to share pain and joy, to help when you are needed, and to ask for help when you need it. You do not quite agree with me on this last point, but you are wrong, because in moments of despair, people can only rely on their friends. The hope that they will help you is certainly not what gives rise to friendship, but it is one of its integral components, more as a result of the bond than as a reason for it. This is friendship. Now, Zabel, can you tell me that we do not have these feelings for each other? Did our love rip them out of our hearts all the way down to the root? Do you think that destroying the hidden, mystical bond that unites us can weaken the strength of our friendship? If you think it can, let us try to just be friends for a while. Forbid me from touching even the tip of your finger and you will see whether or not I have stopped being your friend. Just do not deprive me of seeing you. I can be deprived of your kisses for months, Zabel—all you have to do is give the order. I am prepared to make this heroic sacrifice for you, provided you believe that the love I have for you it not only sensual; it is also a love that emanates from the mind and the heart, a love that could only end if my life were to end with it.

I have told you these things many times in different ways, but since the opportunity has presented itself again, allow me to dwell a bit more on this point. It is true that sensual love is a strong emotion, my Zabel, an emotion that drives the power of our nerves. But as long as that love manifests through desire, that power folds in on itself, grows, develops, and becomes a formidable force. The emotion becomes kindling, it becomes a fire, it becomes a blaze. But pleasure and thrills waste that power. By uncovering physical charms, intense desires transform into lukewarm feelings; the mystery vanishes; and if love still lasts, it is the male, it is the animal that acts, spurred by his physical needs. One day new desires lead passion to other places; curiosity about the secrets of new beauty dawns; people run after new sensations until the new grows old and withers away, in turn giving way to newer desires. This kind of love only lasts for a few months or a few years at best, never an entire lifetime. This love is not our love, Zabel. What leads me to you is not only my desire for your body. It is also the allure of your grace and perfection and the desire to enjoy the beauty of your mind and soul—an ever-renewing pleasure I feel whenever you express your feelings and thoughts, rescuing my heart from boredom by arranging in it new bouquets of happiness with new and different flowers each day and by always keeping, after the impulsivity of passion passes, the same excitement that you are mine, the same affection and the same admiration in the depths of my soul. That emotion, Zabel, stands the test of time. It does not wane, it does not wear away. Kisses and caresses are not what keeps it alive, but rather the voice, the gaze, and the heart of the person who loves you. A sense of friendship occupies a prominent place in it and acts of physical intimacy are less important elements in its preservation. Shall I go on? Our love, my Zabel, can live within us, always as powerful as days gone by, even if our bodies are lovelessly surrendered to others. This paradox may perhaps seem strange to you, but I am convinced of it. Suppose that one day I fall ill and a chronic illness prevents us from caressing each other. Suppose that you must turn to someone else to meet your physical needs. Do you think that you could love that person like you love me and could continue to love him until your dying day? (Let me say in parentheses that this is just hypothetical and that you should not be hurt by it, because I know that your devotion can allow you to endure every kind of deprivation to avoid hurting me.) I have this faith in our love. Therefore, I am surprised that you wrote to me and said that you do not have any friends. I swear to you, my Zabel, that I have never felt more a friend to you than on those days when more than all else I have felt the beating of a heart burning with passion in my chest.

[…] Eternally devoted to you,

Hrand Asadour

Bios

Hrand Asadour and Zabel Donelian

Hrand Asadour (1862-1928) and Zabel Donelian (1863-1934) were two prominent Armenian intellectuals in late Ottoman Constantinople. Asadour was a teacher, writer, and editor of the influential Ottoman Armenian newspaper Masis. Donelian—also known by her pen name Sibyl, by her maiden name Khanjian, and by Hrand’s name Asadour after their marriage—was a poet, teacher, and co-founder of the Patriotic Armenian Women’s Society, which opened schools for Armenian girls outside the Ottoman capital in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Jennifer Manoukian

Jennifer Manoukian is a translator of Western Armenian literature. Her book-length translations include The Gardens of Silihdar by Zabel Yessayan (2014) and The Candidate by Zareh Vorpouni (2016), a co-translation with Ishkhan Jinbashian. She is also a doctoral student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. She can be reached at [email protected]

Armenian transcription copyright (c) Grigor Hakobian, 2001. English translation copyright (c) Jennifer Manoukian, 2019.