Inga & Anush - Armenian Reporter

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Inga & Anush - Armenian Reporter

February 21, 2009

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Inga & Anush

On their way to Eurovision 2009

See page C3

Sisters Inga and Anush Arshakyan performing at the Karen Demirchyan Sport and Concert Complex. Photo: Photolure.


Nigoghos Sarafian’s definition of wealth

by Lory

Bedikian

The economy, here in the U.S. and around

the world, has been on everyone’s mind

for quite some time. We hear phrases

such as “recession,” we hear about or experience

the loss of homes to foreclosures,

the loss of jobs, and we listen to the news

to see if there is any hope in sight.

Money issues may be in the forefront

for the general population of

this country now, but they have been

an ongoing struggle for others across

the globe for generations. Sometimes

I think about the fact that suddenly

we hear so much about the amount of

losses and all their repercussions, but

other populations in other countries

are probably thinking that it’s nothing

new to them.

I have to admit I don’t know much

about economics. I only know that poverty

upsets me, and need saddens me.

Sometimes I have to put my surroundings

on hold and really think about my

own riches, whether they reside in poems,

or just in the fact that I was able to

have three meals in one day.

Everyone has their own definition of

abundance and each person has their

own way of determining what they are

blessed with. Since money – or the lack

of it – has been on the minds of so many

of us, I’ve been looking for poems that

may touch upon this subject. I found a

few about money or suffering and much

of what we can expect, but it was a poem

by Nigoghos Sarafian that caught my attention.

Sarafian writes a poem, “Wealth,” and

although the title suggests riches in

monetary or material terms, we see that

the speaker has something completely

different in mind.

Wealth

My wealth is a heap of unexplainable sad

moments.

From this yellow trash my arteries branch

and blossom out.

In the spring, the cherry trees rise like

a fakir to dispense talismans with shivering

hands.

Moments. Between life and death are moments,

only,

Lory Bedikian received her MFA in Poetry from

the University of Oregon. Her collection of

poetry has twice been selected as a finalist in

the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition

and twice in the Crab Orchard Series

in Poetry First Book Award Competition.

Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture

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which face each other fiercely over a game

of chess.

Moments like sudden flashes of lightning

that could work miracles if they could be

held.

I dance a thousand jigs like a marionette

soldier.

Without the cord, I become again the awkward

peasant.

I was an angel distributing children’s presents.

Christmas passed and I turned back into a

tree.

My sad unexplainable moments are my

wealth.

And from this yellow trash heap my arteries

stem and bloom.

Sarafian – who was born on a ship

traveling to Bulgaria from Istanbul – authored

four books, lived from 1905 to

1973, and wrote “Wealth” in 1927. Perhaps

it is comforting to know that this

poet, decades ago, also felt that wealth

was not attainable and that his source of

prosperity was in his “sad unexplainable

moments.”

by Shahane Martirosyan

GLENDALE – It’s not often that lectures

on the classics of Armenian literature

focus on sex and sexual relations.

Thus, it was a particularly interesting

evening at Glendale Public Library on

January 31, when Professor Krikor

Beledian delivered a lecture about Levon

Shant’s The Woman, concentrating

on the sexual connotations present in

the novelette.

Professor Beledian, who teaches

Armenian studies at the Université

Catholique de Lyon and the Institut

national de langues et civilisations orientales

in Paris, is a leading figure in

Armenian letters.

The lecture was organized by the

Hamazkayin Western Region Committee

and the Glendale Public Library

and was titled, “The Artist and

His Model: Analysis of Levon Shant’s

Literary Work.” The event brought together

Armenian scholars, professors,

and literature lovers for a very unusual

evening.

The Woman is about a painter living

in Munich and a woman he meets at

the opera. She agrees to sit for a painting.

After the painting is completed, she

rips it up in the painter’s bedroom and

leaves him. He goes to look for her in

her hometown. He never finds her. He

patches the painting back together and

presents it as an exhibit with the title

“The Woman.”

The scene in the book when the woman

goes into the painter’s bedroom is

symbolic, for it suggests that the painter

and the model had made love. In

Shant’s illustration, the room has a fire

What resonates so much in this piece

is Sarafian’s imaginative writing. Yes,

he uses the traditional device of repetition

when reiterating the lines regarding

“wealth,” “moments,” and “yellow

trash,” but his craft goes further than

that. The “yellow trash” is a metaphor

for the speaker’s sad moments. He

then doubles his use of metaphors by

telling the reader that the speaker’s

“arteries branch and blossom out.” At

the end of the poem, this moment is

extended when Sarafian’s speaker tells

us “Christmas passed and I turned

back into a tree.” He never calls himself

a tree before that, but merely suggests

it with “branch” and “blossom.”

At the close of the poem, he further

enriches the metaphor with “stem”

and “bloom.”

The spiritual elements of this poem exist

not in the use of traditional phrases

or symbols, but in the poet’s references

to nature and other words. For example,

Sarafian refers to the “fakir” – in this instance

I believe he is suggesting the Sufi

miracle-maker who can walk on burning

coals without a sound. Sarafian uses a

simile to depict that “the cherry trees

rise like / a fakir to dispense talismans.”

Referring to “miracles” and “an angel”

in the background, a fully made table,

and a bed. The woman places a wreath

on the painter’s head. All of these objects

represent marriage and sexual

relations between the two characters,

Beledian argued.

Beledian reviewed the views of other

literary critics about the novelette:

the great literary critic Hagop Oshagan,

as well as Krikor Shahinian and

Nichol Akhbarian.

According to Beledian, Oshagan was

not a big fan of Levon Shant’s. Oshagan

criticized Shant’s The Woman as

little more than a love story between

an artist and his lover, in which the

protagonists do not complete their

love story.

Krikor Shahinian found that a woman

cannot be whole on her own; she

needs a man to complete her. Nichol

Akhbarian, according to Beledian, had

a preconceived notion regarding the relations

between men and women; for

him, men create art and women inspire

art. He also believed that the characters

in the novelette were not real, but fictitious.

Looking at the novel from the

takes the spiritual realm of the poem

even further.

Sarafian’s imaginative writing resonates

also in several other instances.

For example, he personifies moments

“which face each other fiercely over a

game of chess.” The speaker becomes a

“marionette soldier” and then an “awkward

peasant.” Each line of the poem

holds one of several devices: a simile, a

metaphor, a moment of personification,

or repetition. In its native language I’m

sure there are particular layers of rhythm

and sound. In other words – and excuse

the pun – Sarafian has used a wealth of

devices in a short, but effective poem.

Some may say it’s discouraging to recognize

one’s own wealth in sad moments,

but we shouldn’t forget that out of these

moments, the speaker of Sarafian’s poem

becomes a healthy tree. Of course, I do

wish for all of us to have happier moments.

After all, it wouldn’t hurt to have

all types of abundance, all types of wealth,

and from all of it, to be able to flourish

and bloom.

f

“Wealth” from Anthology of Armenian Poetry, translated

by Diana Der-Hovanessian, edited by Diana Der-

Hovanessian and Marzbed Margossian, Columbia

University Press, 1978. Reprinted with permission.

Krikor Beledian discusses sexual relations in Levon Shant’s The Woman

Krikor Beledian.

painter’s point of view, Akhbarian saw

sex as a threat to art.

Beledian maintained that these critics

never addressed the woman’s cutting

the painting as a sexual act, which

just happens to be the climax of the

novel.

When the woman is in the painter’s

room – Suren’s room – the author tries

to convey that the woman tells the

painter that she loves him. In return,

Suren tells her that he loves her as a

muse. This is when the woman rips

the painting with a knife. During their

conversation, the painter speaks of

their relationship in the past tense as

if their relationship had ended. Beledian

also argued that if the woman

had not cut the painting, the painting

would not be real. When the woman

cut it, she justified the fact that the

painting was real. “The painting did

not really exist until it was ripped,”

Beledian stated.

In a sense, for Shant, by ripping the

painting, the woman took the painting’s

spirit out and created a work

of art. This scene reached into the

woman’s personality and brought it

out. Here the painting finds its own

identity when the woman leaves the

room, leaving the painter alone with

his work. The painting’s full independence

is achieved when it is displayed

at the exhibition.

At the conclusion of his lecture, Beledian

took questions from the audience,

which included comedian Vahe Berberian,

president of the American University

of Armenia Haroutune Armenian,

and Armenian language lecturers from

UCLA Anahid Keshishian and Hagop

Kouloujian.

f

C2 Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009


Sisters Inga and Anush

Arshakyan performing

at the Karen

Demirchyan Sport

and Concert Complex.

Photos: Photolure.

Inga & Anush to represent Armenia at the

Eurovision 2009 Song Contest with “Jan Jan”

by Nyree

Abrahamian

Yerevan – Backstage at the Karen

Demirchyan Sport and Concert Complex

last Saturday night, it was all nerves, vocal

exercises, and make-up. The 21 finalists

vying for the top spot to represent Armenia

in Moscow, at the Eurovision 2009

Song Contest, were getting ready for the

concert that could potentially boost their

careers to the international scene.

Armenia has been participating in

Eurovision since 2006, but this was the

first year that so many finalists were

considered. They represented a broad

range of genres from rock (The Bambir,

Dorians) to Armenian hip hop (Davo),

and everything in between.

Early favorites among this year’s finalists

included Shprot, a bubbly blonde pop

singer who pulled off a risqué half-man/

half-woman act [see last week’s Arts &

Culture section for a profile], Mher, who,

hailing from Moscow, has a growing fan

base in Armenia and in the large diaspora

community in Russia, and Inga &

Anush, a duo of sisters with beautiful

voices and a funky, modern twist on traditional

Armenian folk music.

In the end, it was Inga & Anush who

took it with their surprisingly popinspired

song, “Jan Jan.” “It’s a style that

we call folk pop,” said an ecstatic Anush

after the show, “And you’ll notice that

most successful artists everywhere in

the world are being noticed and creating

hits with fusion styles.”

Though Inga & Anush had not revealed

their song before Saturday night’s performance,

word on the street (and all

over youtube.com) was that the song

Inga Arshakyan.

Anush Arshakyan.

they had selected was “Gutan,” a strong

folk rock song with an edgy video. Inga

even hinted at a press conference a few

days before the concert that their main

focus lately had been experimenting

with folk rock. But in the end, probably

since Eurovision is a mainly pop-based

competition, “Jan, Jan,” the catchier option

with a combination of English and

Armenian lyrics, won out. “We are not

betraying our roots. We are staying true

to our style and growing in our musical

experimentation,” said Anush.

Although Inga & Anush were clearly an

audience favorite, there were a lot of questions

and speculation regarding how exactly

the winner was chosen. The idea was

that the winner would be selected through

a combination of audience votes via text

messaging, and a panel of judges, each

weighted equally. But it was disappointing

that the identity of the judges was never

revealed, and it wasn’t quite clear how audience

votes and the judges’ evaluations

could be weighed on the same scale.

Mher, whose ultra-catchy song, “I

Love You” (bound to be a club favorite

this summer in Armenia and Russia)

came in second, was clearly disappointed

but gracious after the show. Asked

if he thought the result was fair, he responded,

“To be honest, I don’t know

what the breakdown was between audience

votes and the jury. They don’t

tell us that. And I know a lot of people

had trouble getting their text messages

through.... But I should hope that everything

was conducted in a fair and

just fashion. What’s important is that

Inga & Anush represent us well at Eurovision.

I like their song and I wish

them well.”

The Eurovision Song Contest is a tradition

that is over 50 years old, and

every year, its popularity seems to be

growing around the world. It is broadcast

not only in Europe, but everywhere

from the United States to Hong Kong.

Since 2006, it is even broadcast online.

Eurovision is one of the most-watched

non-sporting events in the world, with

audience figures in recent years quoted

as anything between 100 million and

600 million internationally. Last year,

Armenia was represented by Sirusho,

whose song, “Qele, Qele” came in fourth

place and was subsequently a huge hit,

blared all through the summer on radio

stations throughout Europe.

Best of luck to Inga & Anush at Eurovision

2009! Watch for it in May. f

Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009

C3


Hakob Hakobyan: repatriate, patriot, painter

Discovering new forms

of expression in an

unfamiliar time

by Maria

Titizian

YEREVAN – When I asked a friend of

mine, well versed in all things artistic and

articulate, if there was anything I should

know before interviewing the renowned

artist Hakob Hakboyan, he said: “Hakob’s

main characteristic is that he is the

conveyor of the eternal pain of Armenia.

The Genocide is permanently imprinted

on his essence as a man.”

Riding up the elevator to the 10th

floor of his apartment building in Yerevan,

I tried to form images in my head of

this Western Armenian painter who had

come of his own volition to Soviet Armenia

in the 1960s. Would he be candid

Was he bitter Did his art suffer because

of his desire to move to an elusive notion

of homeland Did his nationality,

his history dictate his path in life as an

artist Did it make him a better artist

He opened the door to his spacious

apartment/studio and welcomed me in,

quickly escorting me through a maze of

rooms and corridors to his sitting room.

Once we settled in and had spoken for a

few minutes, I realized that after 47

years he had not lost his Western

Armenian; in fact he had retained

most of it and only a few Eastern Armenian

expressions and pronunciations

made their way into his speech.

Not only was he candid and unassuming,

but he allowed me to travel

with him back to his childhood, unlocking

some of the pain and confusion

of his early existence, which

undoubtedly led him to become one

of the greatest Armenian painters

of our time.

This is the story of Hakob Hakobyan.

Fate, loss, destiny

Hakob Hakobyan was born in Alexandria,

Egypt, in 1923,

the second of three

children. His parents

were from Aintab. I

assumed that here his

story would take the

traditional narrative:

parents forced on to

deportations, barely escaping, make their

way to Egypt. But fate had saved them

from the tragedy that befell so many. “We

were lucky. Only some members of our

family were forced on deportation routes

and then killed. The rest had left before

the Genocide,” he said.

At the time of the 1896 massacres,

Hakobyan’s father, 15 years old at the

Hakob Hakobyan in his studio in Yerevan. Photos: Grigor Hakobyan for the Armenian Reporter.

time, was sent to the United States by

his family to live with his married sister.

“We don’t know much about our father

because we lost him at a very young age,”

Hakobyan said. All they know is that

he stayed in the United States for 18

years before moving to Egypt sometime

in 1913. “In the meantime, my mother’s

father had moved to Alexandria also before

the Genocide. My grandfather then

returned to Aintab to bring the rest of

his family, but they were killed before he

got there. My mother and father then

were spared of the Genocide.”

After losing his father at the

age of seven, Hakobyan was

sent Melkonian Educational

Institution in Cyprus to continue

his education. “I guess they

sent me away to school so that

I wouldn’t be left on the streets,

and to receive an education. I

wasn’t able to continue my education

because of the war. That’s

how my life progressed – with

different waves. I really never

had a plan,” he explained.

The joy of revelation

One day Hakobyan’s father took

him in his lap and drew a rabbit

on a piece of paper.

“For me it was

like witnessing

a

miracle. I

had never

seen

a n y o n e

draw before. My father asked me if I

could draw one. I tried and I was able to

draw the rabbit. After that I always drew,”

he said plaintively. He admits to loving

the attention he would get every time

he drew. “As a child when I would draw

people would compliment my drawings.

I guess in a way it was very psychological.

When people compliment you, you then

want to receive those compliments, so

you draw.”

His first art teachers who had a great

influence on the young student while at

Melkonian were Arakel Badrig and Onnik

Avedisian. However his tenure at

Melkonian was short-lived and he was

forced to return to Egypt in 1941 because

of the Second World War.

“Life was difficult. I was forced

to work. It’s

very dangerous

to

stop something

halfway

through,” he

said, referring to

his education, which he

never was able to return to. “I always

lived in uncertainty. Everything was

in disarray, unorganized. Even my

painting was unorganized,” he admited.

But his love of

reading Armenian

literature and history

sustained him

through those difficult

years.

In 1952 he traveled to Paris. It was during

his time there until 1954 that he decided

not to abandon painting. “It was

a very high ideal – to paint and support

my family through my painting.”

The journey “home”

The yearning to move to Armenia started

at a very young age for Hakobyan. “It

was my destiny to move here,” he said.

He hadn’t been able to come during the

great repatriation of 1946–48 when over

100,000 Armenians from all over the

world repatriated to Soviet Armenia. Even

after hearing all the stories of how the repatriates

had suffered, his desire to come

to Armenia remained the guiding light of

his life.

He was finally able to repatriate in

1962 with his wife Mari and their two

young daughters, aged five and 11.

He said that even after living here for

more than 40 years,

people still ask him

why he came. “I always

wanted to come to

Armenia,” he put it simply.

The fundamental desire for him

was to live in the homeland and not

in odarutyun. “There is and was only one

Armenia. There wasn’t a capitalist Armenia

or a Bolshevik Armenia. There was

only one Armenia.

At

that time

it happened to be under a communist

system. Armenia is a much older thing

than that regime it was under for 70 years

– that regime disintegrated and disappeared

but Armenia remained,” he said.

Though he is softspoken, with kindly

eyes, his tone shifted when he started

talking about the Soviet regime

and its lasting impact on

the people of Armenia.

“Whoever hasn’t lived

under the Soviet regime

can never understand

what kind of a monstrous regime it was.

A regime like that has never existed

in the history of mankind. It was a regime

that wiped out millions of people.

Very few heroic people tried to struggle

against it. They paid the price with their

lives or were exiled. Look at how they

killed Charents,” he said, as he became

more animated.

He admited that he wasn’t treated as

badly as some, yet he could never escape

the “nightmare” because of what he saw

the Soviets do to other people. When he

spoke about 1946, he didn’t mince his

words. “The great repatriation was a disaster.

Repatriation was the final, terrible

blow to the Western Armenians. What

the Turks had left unfinished, the Soviet

Continued on page C5 m

C4 Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009


n Continued from page C4

Union completed. Those 100,000 people

weren’t accepted as Armenians, but as

foreigners. After arriving they figured

that out, but it was too late,” he told me.

When I tried to broach the subject

one more time, gently reminding him

that the repatriates who came in the 40s

must have contributed, at the very least

through their way of life, through their

cuisine and customs, something to the

fabric of society , he said, “What good is

it when you bring people in 1946–48 and

then you exile them to Siberia in 1949

If you didn’t want these people, if you

brought them by mistake, why not just

send them back where they came from

Why do you exile them”

There was more to his anger than appeared

on the surface. He understood

what the loss of homeland meant. More

than that, he understood the hunger for

returning. For him it was about their

collective fate, their collective suffering,

the Genocide that always hung over

their heads. These feelings are portrayed

in his paintings from that time period.

With all that this artist has seen in his

life, the one thing he doesn’t have is regret.

“It was my destiny to move here, however.

I have never regretted coming. I have never

thought about leaving or living somewhere

else. I always wanted to live in my

country among my people,” he told me.

His thoughts about repatriation today

are ambiguous but of one conviction

he is sure. “Repatriation today Don’t

you think it would be better for them

to find ways of hampering people from

leaving the country” he asked. “The Diaspora

Ministry should concern itself

with finding ways of keeping people in

the country, then trying to bring back

those who left.”

Starting over in Gyumri

When the Hakobyan family repatriated

to Armenia, they were settled in Gyumri,

Armenia’s second largest city. They lived

there for five years. Hakob was 40 years

old. He was known in some artistic circles

in Armenia already because he had

donated 10 of his best paintings a few

years earlier to the National Art Gallery.

Life in Gyumri was difficult. “They

didn’t even ‘give’ me a studio to paint,” he

said. “Instead of all the accolades, if they

had allowed me to have a small room to

turn into a studio instead of working in a

corner of my tiny apartment, that would

have served me better.” He had brought

some canvas with him when he moved,

and after that was finished, he bought

what he could find, which was of very

poor quality. “A lot of my early paintings

have been ruined because of that poor

quality of canvas.” He still finds it ironic

that they would only have poor quality

canvas upon which paintings that were

sometimes worth thousands of dollars

would be painted. “Nothing made sense,”

he said, shaking his head.

“That’s how our life was in Gyumri. I

don’t want to complain that I had to

work under those conditions. For me the

most important thing was to be able to

paint in Armenia. I didn’t want to take a

break. I didn’t want people think that I

couldn’t succeed here,” he explained.

After his first solo exhibition, he slowly

began to establish himself as a painter

in the homeland. Although even art was

stifled under the Soviet regime, Hakobyan

stressed that it wasn’t always possible to

Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009

suffocate every human inspiration. “Look

at Minas Avedissian. You can’t always take

the art out of the man,” he told me, referring

to a fellow artist.

What would his life’s journey been

had he not moved to Armenia “If I had

stayed in Egypt, I might have become

a different artist,” he said. The painter

was also astute. He knew never to complain

or demand in order to survive in

the system. “I had no confrontations,

but I retained my freedom in my sphere

– through my art.”

Thoughts about the nation

“I have lived half my life outside of Armenia,

then I lived under Soviet rule for

27 years and 17 years in independence,”

he said. He feels that we have suffered

as a nation because of our size. “If we

had been 30 million instead of 3 million,

do you think that the Turks could have

slaughtered us like sheep Therefore being

a small nation is a sin,” he stressed.

For Hakobyan there is an important

distinction to be made. “Independence

was given to us; we didn’t win it. For

600 years we never had independence.

Did we ever think about independence

Therefore we never wanted it and now

we don’t know what to do with it. We

still want odars to come and govern us,”

he told me. And about victories “Yes,

we won in Karabakh. But look at what

the price was – thousands dead, hundreds

of thousands of displaced people,

more than a million left the country.

If this is victory, then bravo, we won,”

he said, his voice straining. So there is

some bitterness in this man’s spirit.

And what about the state of the country

today “After 600 years of slavery and

survival, we have learned how to survive,

but in the process we have become individualistic.

We think only of taking care

of ourselves. That is why we can’t move

forward today. It’s all about the individual.

There are no unifying elements.”

He shifted in his chair and continued.

“My dear, we don’t have normal relations

with our neighbors. Two of them are our

enemies; the neighbor to the north we

want to turn into an enemy; the one

to the south is the enemy of the rest of

the world, and the other one [Russia],

with whom we have no natural borders

and who is our former ‘owner,’ is in our

country protecting our borders.”

His disenchantment causes waves of

sadness to rush over him. He is frustrated

because he is the first to admit that

we are a nation of gifted people. “The Armenian

has limitless abilities. Before the

Soviets, the Armenian was another sort

of person, a totally different person,” he

said. “We had genius; we had the farmer,

but they turned him into a kolkhoznik;

we had the artisan but they turned him

into a laborer; and the entrepreneur was

sentenced to exile or death. That is what

the Soviet regime bequeathed us.”

Studio visit

Finding that our conversation had exhausted

him, I suggested we move to his

studio to look at his new creations. His

demeanor changed, and the sadness and

frustration subsided as he stepped into

his oasis.

As he walked around his studio, he

told me that he works every day for a

few hours. Today he produces about

20–25 pieces annually. “I don’t have the

same enthusiasm as I did, but creating

something new still exists in me,” he

said, pointing to shelves of newly created

metal sculptures.

Over the past year, Hakobyan has

started creating sculptures out of scrap

metal parts. “Every weekend I go to the

Vernissage and buy these metal parts. After

creating the sculpture I incorporate

in into my paintings. I have made about

Left: A collection of

Hakobyan’s metal

sculptures. Below: The

story of Aryuts Mher

is depicted in this stillto-be-named

painting.

100 sculptures this past year,” he said.

A sculpture that appears to be two

fish suspended on metal rods, proves,

on closer inspection, to be two pincers

used in jewelery making. “You are seeing

this for the first time. I haven’t shown

them yet,” he smiled. I feel privileged as

I walk around the room, looking at the

sculptures. When I asked him where he

got the idea to create sculptures out of

old metal parts, he said, “I don’t know.

It just came to me.” Even at 87 years

of age, this august painter still has fervent

inspiration and creative drive. His

paintings are still evolving. He has begun

introducing not only his sculptures

to his canvas, but also mannequins and

gloves. If everything goes according to

his plans, he intends to have an exhibition

in April in Yerevan. He stops for a

moment and then smiles: “It’s like an interesting

game. When I put these metal

pieces together, I feel as though I’ve become

a child once again.” Perhaps this is

the best time in Hakob Hakobyan’s life

as he tries to recapture his lost childhood

with new creations in an unfamiliar

time.

f

C5


Program Grid

23 February – 1 March

EST PST

10:00 PM 1:00 AM

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11:30 PM 2:30 AM

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1:00 AM 4:00 AM

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23 February 24 February 25 February 26 February 27 February 28 February

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

Deal or No Deal

Fathers & Sons

Love E Lee

7 Mekhq (Serial)

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Vrijarou 2

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1 March

Sunday

Deal or No Deal

Century

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7 Mekhq (Serial)

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CUBE

Giving Armenians back some of their history

Pascal Carmont, Les

Amiras: Seigneurs de

l’Arménie ottoman (The

Amiras: Lords of Ottoman

Armenia). Paris: Salvator,

1999. 187 pages.

reviewed by

Christopher

Atamian

From the small town of Agn (today’s Kemaliye)

in Anatolia’s Erzincan province, a

remarkable group of enterprising and ambitious

Armenians rose to the forefront of

the Ottoman Empire in the 17th, 18th, and

19th centuries. They are referred to simply

as amiras (a variant of emirs) and these

men who came from modest provincial

backgrounds accomplished great things in

almost every human sphere. Published in

Paris under the French title Les Amiras, Seigneurs

de l’Arménie ottomane, this fascinating

book by Pascal Carmont fills an important

gap in Armenian studies, namely the

economic and social history of a large segment

of Constantinopolitan society leading

up to and until the end of the nineteenth

century. Carmont’s narration comes to an

end with the Hamidian massacres and the

rumblings of discontent within the empire

that would eventually take the monstrous

form of an all-out genocide.

Armenians have always been told

that they played a key role in the Ottoman

Empire, that they were along with

its Greek merchants and diplomats the

Cover of Pascal Carmont’s book.

empire’s most brilliant subjects, but the

supporting narratives historical and

otherwise, have never existed to tell this

fascinating story in detail. The will to

annihilation of successive Turkish governments

has seen to it that this history

remained buried for close to a century,

as it continues in large part to be buried

today. Carmont’s book, calls the reader’s

attention to real people and events in a

world that we thought had been erased.

The author’s first accomplishment then

is to give Armenians back some of their

past, to help repair the rent fabric of a

post-catastrophic people’s history.

Who then were these amiras, these

so-called Lords of Ottoman Armenia,

who served the sultans so faithfully

for over 200 years Among these great

families were the Balians, who became

court architects and built such masterpieces

as the Dolmabahçe Palace, the

Yildiz Mosque, and the Imperial College

of Medicine, which today houses

the famed Galatasaray Lisesi. Another

family, the Manasse, served as the royal

Ottoman portraitists and miniaturists

for several generations. Their work was

so admired that leading Ottoman officials

commissioned portraits in strict

contravention of Muslim law and hid

these away in inner rooms and chapels

buried deep within their palaces. The

Momdjians and the Karakehia banking

families (from which sprang Nubar Pasha

among others) controlled much of

the empire’s finances. The Duzian family

held the position of superintendent

of the Ottoman Mint and the Arpiarian

family controlled the empire’s silver

mines. The Dadians, known as Barutshi

Bashuh or Grand Masters of the Powder

came to control the Ottoman munitions

and artillery, not a shabby position in

an empire of the size and scope of the

Ottomans. Other famous families included

the Duz and Noradoughian clans.

The latter provided the entire Ottoman

army with its daily bread supply.

The amiras, Carmont tells us, lived in

great palaces and yalis bordering the Bosphorus.

They also built sumptuous houses

in inner Constantinople, always careful as

Christians in a Muslim empire to superimpose

modest-looking outer walls and

entrances so as to not attract the jealousy

of their Turkish neighbors. How successful

were the amiras Very. They enjoyed

the confidence of great sultans, including

Mahmoud II. They rode in official processions

and were accorded privileges and

rewards unknown to anyone else in the

empire. In less than a century, they overtook

and supplanted the Jews who had

emigrated from Spain and Portugal during

the Inquisition as the Ottoman court’s

financial advisers and bankers.

The amiras were also put in charge of tax

collection in the empire. As Armenians,

they often tried to lessen the abuses in

this arena that were visited upon their

compatriots in Anatolia at the hands of

Turkish officials and Kurdish landowners.

Some of the amiras were corrupt, of

course, but most as described here were

industrious, God-fearing, and honest to

a fault, at least until the end of the 19th

century when things started to fall apart,

as they are wont to in any empire or ruling

class. The amiras also became the

leaders of the Armenian community, the

link between the Sultan’s palace and the

rather powerful Armenian Patriarchate.

They built many of Constantinople’s Armenian

churches, schools, and hospitals,

and regulated many of the community’s

disputes and affairs. They also intervened

whenever possible with their Ottoman

overlords when Armenians were

in trouble both in the capital and in the

provinces, though sometimes they could

do nothing to help them.

There are many fascinating aspects to

Carmont’s story, not the least of which

has to do with the history of Agn’s Armenians

and how such a small town

(estimates put its current population at

10,000) could have produced so many

brilliant and enterprising young men as

to seem positively surreal. (It should be

noted in passing that some amira families

were not from Agn, though the vast

majority did originate there.) Obviously

a network must have existed between

these Agntsis whereby they helped each

other come to Constantinople and get

started in business and in the arts. Yet

this does not explain the radiance of their

reign. Carmont offers no convincing hypothesis

in this regard. Was it a result of

their education or perhaps of a few charismatic

leaders An abnormally gifted

gene pool Were the factors endemic or

did they come from outside the community

itself As an interesting aside, Agn

was also the birthplace of Papken Siuni,

Continued on page C7 m

C6 Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009


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23 February 24 February 25 February

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6:20 9:20 Point of view

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7:25 10:25 My Big, Fat

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7:50 10:50 PS Club

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26 February 27 February 28 February 1 March

Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

EST PST

4:30 7:30 News in

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5:00 8:00 Good

Morning,Armenians

6:20 9:20 Point of view

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7:25 10:25 My Big, Fat

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7:50 10:50 A Drop of

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10:00 13:00 A Drop of

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Giving Armenians back some of their history

n Continued from page C6

who led the occupation of the Ottoman

Bank on September 15, 1896. In retaliation,

two thousand Agntsis were slaughtered

by Turkish authorities.

Very little serious scholarship has

been undertaken into this absolutely

remarkable period of Armenian and Ottoman

history. Pascal Carmont is not a

scholar, nor does he pretend to be. A

decorated diplomat who served as the

French consul in Johannesburg, São

Paolo, and Alexandria (until 1992), he is

himself a descendant of an amira family.

He recounts many of the episodes

in this book from memory. Some of

them possess a lovely désuet quality, a

charming fictionalized historical style

that has long since fallen into disfavor

in Western scholarship and literary circles.

As a child, for example, his mother

prepped him to learn how to curtsy for

an upcoming Parisian tea at the Persian

Malcolm Khan’s house. Elsewhere, he

describes the Dadian clan thus: “Their

eccentricities knew no bounds. During

the forty days of Lent, family members

didn’t fast but gave up smoking instead

and wore black gloves. Madame de

Hubtsch, a very important member of

Constantinopolitan society, used to tell

the Dadians: ‘You are so very peculiar. I

simply adore you, but you are peculiar

nonetheless’” (p. 130, translation mine).

Much of Carmont’s book reads like a

distant family memoir or perhaps many

distant family memoirs rolled into one.

And although the author does provide a

five-page bibliography, he uses no footnotes

or endnotes whatsoever; nor does

he provide alternative explanations for

some of his admittedly tendentious presentations.

One wonders, for example,

whether such-and-such Amira was really

as charming as Carmont relates or if certain

accounts were embellished as they

were passed down orally from one friend

or family member to another. Carmont’s

deference to anything aristocratic or imperial

seems precious to a contemporary

reader and perhaps interferes at times

with his sense of objectivity.

Despite the lack of endnotes and the

Fragonardization of his prose, we owe

Carmont a great debt, for Les Amiras

chronicles names, places, and events that

might otherwise have been lost forever.

One wonders what records and details

about the amiras lie fallow in Ottoman

archives. To date only three examples of

scholarly work exist on the subject of the

amiras. The first is Levon Tutunjian’s Harutiun

Amira Pesdjian yev ir zhamaknere:

anor tznndian 200-amiakin artiv 1771–1971

(Harutiun Amira Bezdjian and his times,

on the occasion of his 200th anniversary),

published in Cairo in 1971. The second is

the English-language Columbia University

1980 doctoral dissertation by Hagop

Barsoumian, titled The Armenian Amira

Class of Istanbul, published by the American

University in Yerevan in 2007. The

third is an article by Barsoumian titled

“The Dual Role of the Armenian Amira

Class within the Ottoman Government

and the Armenian Millet (1750–1850),” in

Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire,

ed. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis

(New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982).

In time the amiras fell from power. Carmont

suggests that a combination of growing

decadence on the part of some the amiras

(as with any other ruling class, they too

eventually shone a little less brightly and

perhaps worked a little less diligently) as

well as a changing political climate within

the Turkish elite, accompanied by a rising

tide of anti-Armenian and anti-Christian

sentiment, eventually brought a glorious

period of Armenian history to an end.

Much needs to be elaborated. The possibilities

seem endless, including a sociological

examination of the relations between

Turk and Armenian, between subjugator

and subjugated, perhaps taking into account

what Marc Nichanian has recently

written about the notion of sacrifice in the

empire. A mercantile history of the period

should also be undertaken, including

trade routes and economic history. One

might also look into the effect of progressive

ideas emanating from Europe and the

growing emancipation of women in Ottoman

society; the role of the amiras leading

up to the Tanzimat period of reform; the

relationship between the Armenian and

the Greek and Jewish communities; and

much else. But first, perhaps an English

translation of Carmont’s book is in order.

We await future research into the amiras

with bated scholarly breath.

f

Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009

C7


C8 Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009

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