Humble Beginnings to a Bright Future: Celebrating 95 Years in Print

The seven founders of Asbarez

As a new Diasporan community forms in the Western United States, a new publication hits newsstands

BY PAUL CHADERJIAN

While much has happened in the world since the first issue of the Asbarez was printed 95 years ago, the newspaper’s mission to keep readers informed has never veered off course.

Since 1908, when each letter of the alphabet was hand-picked and positioned on a printing plate, and well into the 21st century when the Internet makes instant electronic newsgathering possible, the Asbarez has continuously chronicled the global Armenian experience with ever-increasing velocity.

“The Armenian-American community was still in its infancy when the first-ever issue of the Asbarez rolled off the presses,” says Maral Habeshian, English-language editor of the Asbarez. “In 1908, the eyes of the community were on the fragile condition of the homeland. Weighed down by revolution within the Ottoman Empire, Armenians there were grappling with new realities.”

“Armenians on the eastern front were facing challenges of their own under Russian imperial rule,” says Habeshian. “Those who had come to California looked at Armenia and Armenians for guidance. With the community’s desire to preserve its heritage and identity, and to create a bridge between the homeland and the community, the Asbarez was born.”

Ironically, the nearly hundred-year-long history of the Asbarez began in room 14 of the Short Building, located on J Street in Downtown Fresno. The street has since been renamed Fulton and makes up the pedestrian walkway called “Fulton Mall.” While its first home was torn down to make room for a hotel, the newspaper has outlived its geographic history.

The same month that the first issue of the Asbarez rolled off the presses in Fresno, the community also welcomed a baby boy named William Saroyan. Saroyan would go on to trip the light fantastic, introducing Americans and foreigners to his ancestral culture, and the Asbarez, in similar fashion, became the voice of a people struggling to create new Diasporas and communities — a people preserving their culture through all means possible, teaching younger generations the importance of a free, independent and united homeland.

Saroyan and the Asbarez were born in Armenia Town, a small neighborhood around the red brick Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. As Holy Trinity and the community’s two Armenian Protestant churches increased in membership, a nearby farming community saw the founding of the Fowler Congregational Church and there was talk about the need for an Armenian paper.

“The nearby communities that made and make up the Armenian community of the area were not fully formed at that time,” says historian and writer Berge Bulbulian, whose book The Fresno Armenians chronicles the formation of the Armenian community in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Most Armenians who lived outside the city of Fresno, lived on farms,” says Bulbulian. “Most of the Armenians in Fresno at that time were from urban areas of the old country, so, they were better educated than those who came later after the Genocide. Thus, that could be an explanation of why the Asbarez was established at that time.”

Bulbulian writes that Armenians were already firmly entrenched in farming by 1908 and already farming nearly 16,000 acres. “The Armenian population in the area was about 2,500,” he says, “and Armenians operated a number of businesses including a furniture store, a taxidermist shop, barber shops, jewelers and a few fruit packing houses.”

Bulbulian says many believe the first Armenians to arrive in the Central Valley were a group known as “the Forty Armenians” from Marsovan, who arrived in Fresno on September 4, 1883. According to a 1905 article in the Fresno Morning Republican, “a strangely dressed group of foreigners arrived at the Southern Pacific Station in Fresno on a bleak and rainy night. They with their belongings remained at the station until morning when they attracted a large and curious crowd.”

Despite their name, reports vary as to their exact number and their homelands. “Interestingly, the Shahamiranians, who had been in Fresno for almost a year by this time, were also from Marsovan, although there is no evidence that ties them to this group,” says Bulbulian. “At least two of the new arrivals were not from Marsovan.”

“In 1908, a number of Armenians worked in packing houses that were just developing at that time and others worked in the fields as farm laborers,” he continues. “Others worked for Armenian businesses in town since by then there was discrimination against Armenians, and non-Armenian business owners were reluctant to hire Armenians. This applied to farms, as well.”

“Keep in mind that the Asbarez did not serve only the Fresno area,” says Bulbulian, “but was read by Armenians elsewhere as well, although there were not a lot of Armenians in California outside of the Fresno area. My recollection from my father’s reading it was that it covered local Armenian issues, as well as Armenian issues elsewhere.”

“Many of the folks from rural Armenia were either illiterate or could barely read,” notes Bulbulian. “My mother, for instance, could not read or write.  She was from a very small village just north of the city of Van. My father, on the other hand, could read well although he had only a few years of schooling. He seemed to be fairly well informed for a man with very limited education, so I assume he got that information from the Asbarez and the Hairenik.  As you may know, at one time, the latter was a daily and the former a weekly.  Now they have reversed.”

“Let us not forget that it was the Fresno Armenian community that nurtured and supported the most important Armenian newspaper east of Boston,” says Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, Director of the Armenian Studies Program at California State University, Fresno. “Fresno was the cultural center of Armenians in the west until the 1960s and the pages of the Asbarez chronicled the Armenian community’s difficult progress toward respectability and prosperity.”

Humble Beginnings in Fresno
“The pages of the Asbarez,” says Habeshian, “first in black and white print, then in both Armenian and English letters and now also in bits and bytes over the Internet, have contained stories of world wars, great catastrophes and jubilant celebrations.”

From the Armenian Genocide, the first Republic’s short-lived independence, Soviet rule, to the regained independence of the new republic and major geopolitical changes in the Diasporan experience, the newspaper has delivered ‘the news of the day’ weekly, biweekly and now daily.

In an article celebrating the newspaper’s tenth anniversary, one of the seven founding fathers of the Asbarez, Abraham Seklemian, wrote that near the end of 1907, he and Hovaness Kabadayan, Aslan Aslanian, Avedis Tufenkjian, Arpaxat Setrakian, Bedros Hagopian and Levon Hagopian met to discuss the need of a weekly Armenian newspaper in Fresno. Could they have imagined what their paper would write about over the decades to follow?

“What I do remember,” wrote Seklemian, “is that those who were there were in unanimous agreement that such a newspaper was absolutely necessary to serve the needs of the growing immigrant community of California. A second meeting followed [in early 1908] at my home on Fig Avenue, where, in reality, The Asbarez was born.”

As the mission of the paper and by-laws of the yet-to-be-published newspaper were under discussion and deliberation, each of the founding fathers suggested a name for the publication. Among the suggestions were Arevmoudk, Arev, Asbarez, Djhair, Aztag, Argos and Shepor.

After much debate and difficulty, the founding fathers held a lottery with all the suggested names written on small pieces of paper. Mrs. Prapion Hagopian was asked to draw the winning name and, by chance, she drew the paper with the name Asbarez (‘arena’ in English).

Soon the paper became a true arena — not only in an ethereal sense but also as a center of Armenian activity in Fresno’s Armenia Town. The paper would eventually move to Southern California, when the Armenian population there grew in number and outweighed the population in Central California.

“During my childhood,” remembers Bulbulian, “my father was a good friend of Hovaness Amaduni, the editor of the Asbarez at that time [1931-1940], so each Saturday when my parents picked me up at Armenian school across the street in the basement of the Holy Trinity Church, he and I went to the office to visit with him.”

“Amaduni was one of three or four employees,” says Bulbulian. “Mrs. Hampar was the secretary and there was a typesetter, and there may have been another who did the printing … but, none of them were paid well. Amaduni was also the California field worker for the ARF, so his salary covered both jobs. That doesn’t mean he was paid twice as much. He just did twice as much work for the same money.”

Financial hardships were part of the landscape at the Asbarez for decades after its creation. Several newspapers including Levon Lulejian’s Mushag were created and disappeared without a trace. A third paper, Kaghakatzy was re-invented as the Nor Or when it became the official organ of another political party.

“My recollection is that none of the newspapers made much money if any,” says Bulbulian. “There was very little advertising, and as you know, subscriptions don’t go far in publishing the paper. The ARF subsidized it.”
Although people outside the area subscribed, there were only 600 households locally, and not all of them held subscriptions, according to Bulbulian.

Since its inception, the circulation of the paper has grown from 1,200 copies to thousands. Its readership and following have been vast and wide with copies distributed throughout California and as far away as Russia, Japan, China, Africa and Egypt. But primarily, it has focused on the needs of Armenians who first migrated to Fresno, and then the growing Armenian population in Southern California.

“Amaduni was an important influence in my life, since he was the best educated person we knew,” says Bulbulian. It was the talents and dedication of men like Amaduni — the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and political leaders over the decades — who allowed the Asbarez to thrive. Today, the paper enjoys continued success by drawing on the talents of those individuals who realize the newspaper’s vital role in fostering an Armenian community.

“One word that comes to my mind is ‘sacrifice’ by so many, beginning with the editors, the employees, and those who supplied information to the newspaper,” says Edward Megerdichian, an employee of the newspaper from 1956-1963. “It was ninety percent voluntary, and everyone had a sense of ownership, a sense of community — that this is our paper and our lives are described in this paper. The paper was and is our link that keeps all the Armenians in Fresno, in California and the world tied together.”

Megerdichian, the printer
When Edward Megerdichian arrived in Fresno in 1956, he had left Syria and the American College in Aleppo to study at Fresno State. On his third day in Central California, a family friend introduced him to Asbarez editor Andre Amourian, the working pseudonym for Andre Der Ohanian, the first of several editors Megerdichian would eventually work with. Amourian asked Megerdichian if he spoke Armenian and whether he was looking for a job.

“It so happened that Ardashes Ghoogasian, who was their printer for a long time,” says Megerdichian, “had asked for a five dollar raise. They had told him ‘No, we don’t have the five dollars to give you.’ So, he was looking for another job. He taught me whatever there was to be taught, the printing skill that I had no concept of. By the end of the fifth week, I was printing the newspaper.”

Megerdichian soon became an important part of the four person staff of the operation, which was housed in the Asbarez building at Northwest corner of Ventura and “M” Streets. The building was torn down in the 1980s and replaced by the front parking lot of the new Radisson Hotel and Conference Center.

“As you entered the building off of Ventura across the church,” remembers Megerdichian, “to your right was the secretarial office, where we had Nvart Kouyoumjian. She was the secretary. Immediately across her section was the editor’s room. Then there was a section that had glass and wooden frame that separated the shop from the editor’s section and the secretarial part. That’s where the big section was that had all the machinery and the linotype machines.”

Inside the dark and poorly ventilated print room, Megerdichian and his fellow staffers worked with and inhaled hazardous caustic chemicals. “I don’t know what kind of a chemical it was we used to purify the recycled lead,” says Megerdichian. “The linotypist had to put it in the melting pot, and there was no exhaust pipe to take out smoke and odor out of the building. For a while, we were inhaling all that stuff. But in time, when we had a female linotypist, Mary Bedoyan, we installed some exhaust piping that would take the exhaust out.”

The unforgiving Fresno summers also took their toll on the staff of the paper. “When it was a hundred plus, it was extremely hot inside,” remembers Megerdichian. “We had a huge door that opened into the Asbarez Club. A huge door that slid on two horizontal bars would open manually. It was about four inches thick and reminded me of the old castles of Europe. When the editor had guests like Soghomon Tehlirian or William Saroyan or donors, he’d order coffee for the guests from the club next door.”

The Asbarez Club was separated from the print shop by a twelve inch wall, and Megerdichian would often open the gate in between the buildings and see those playing tavloo (backgammon) or cards, the wager being a cigar or a cup of coffee. “Whenever I opened the door to get a Pepsi or soft drink, the smell of the cigars would just rush through the door into the printing space and, of course, I would retaliate by singing very loud. Nobody would object to my singing, because I was all alone at night.”

In those days, the newspaper had two editions a week, and Amourian’s sharp memory of historic facts, ability to write fluidly and quickly and his organizational skills were credited for the efficiency of the five-person staff. “He wrote long-hand and so flawlessly,” says Megerdichian. “He didn’t have to think to recall a fact, to retrieve it from the past. He would write it longhand and the typist would type it.”

“By then all the contributors to the paper were familiar with the deadlines,” says Megerdichian, “and it was amazing how the operation was done. Volunteers would bring their articles, like reports about cultural events, and Amourian almost always had to rewrite every one of them and sign the reporter’s name and give it to the typist for setting. He always had articles from the Hyrenik in Boston, Haratch in France and Aztag in Lebanon.”

Megerdichian remembers printing pages from books that were serialized at the bottom of their pages. “If there was a book that people didn’t have,” he says, “we would start running a series of four or five pages at a time, way at the bottom, and people had to clip them out and save the pages until they had the entire book.”

Taking care of the finances in the early days was a separate finance committee, made up of Fresno-area businessmen. Often, these men would come to the rescue when the paper ran out of funds. “I remember many, many weeks when Nvart was crying in her office,” says Megerdichian. “I asked her why she was crying, and she said I don’t have any money to pay you today. There’s no money in the bank. And they would call Garo Kavafian. He was the person in charge of the finances, and he had a liquor store. He would bring money from his own account and put it in the Asbarez account, so that we would get paid.”

The Arena & Its Atmosphere
The presses at the Asbarez captured the births and deaths, the marriages, school talent shows and religious ceremonies in Fresno. Its news columns recorded current events while editorials focused on ARF messages about the importance of preserving the culture, bringing justice to those who had perpetrated the crimes against a people, and remembering to reclaim the sacred homeland.

Within the pages of the newspaper were scars to heal, world wars to record and lessons to learn. Teaching and informing the ever-growing base of subscribers were the men whom the ARF had named as its editors in chief.

The printer, who had witnessed the replacement of antiquated printing equipment at the Asabarez with ones that were more technologically advanced, also witnessed changes in the character of the newspaper with each of its new editors.

When Andre Amourian left his position as editor and poet and ARF party leader Melik Shah [pen name of Armenag Melikian] was named editor, Megerdichian says he realized that much of the newspaper’s accessibility and voice reflected not only the voice of the party but also the character and voice of the editor in charge.

“Shah’s language was different,” says Megerdichian. “It was written for the average man to read and understand, like an editorial should be. But Andre Amourian’s language was more at an intellectual level. It was less accessible but added more character to the paper. So most of the time, the paper took the feel and quality of its current editor.”

Megerdichian remembers Shah listening to American radio broadcasts and translating the latest local, regional and national news into Armenian. Stories about Armenia were distributed to all ARF publications globally and breaking news was shared by telephone.

The atmosphere at the Asbarez Publishing House also changed with each of the editors, says Megerdichian. “Melik Shah was one of the humblest persons I have known, with a fantastic sense of humor. He was more of a worker’s man and showed it. Once he finished writing his editorial, to him it was a celebration. Unlike Amourian, who would sit down and write as many articles as he would want to in 15-20 minutes, Melik Shah would take a long time to write one. But when Shah was done, he would buy a beer from the Club and share a drink to celebrate.”

The third editor that Megerdichian worked with was Mesarouni, a serious man who lacked a smile. “We rarely saw him coming into the print shop,” says Megerdichian. “He was always in his office, writing. He was an intellectual himself, a very bright person, and he had a lot of doubts about his being here, because he thought we didn’t like him. But he was wrong.”

“On his first day at the Asbarez,” remembers Megerdichian, “I was about to print the paper, but I had forgotten to clamp the plate with the typeset lines of lead, and the whole forum came down with an enormous sound, like an earthquake had taken place. All the fonts, all the lines, the whole thing fell to pieces. He came out and looked at it, and he said, ‘I know what’s going on. This is a sabotage.’ I said, ‘what are you talking about? I just forgot to clamp it.’ He said, ‘Because you guys don’t like me, you’re purposely delaying the publishing of the paper, so that my reputation looks bad.'”

Megerdichian spent that night reassembling the printing plates and delivered the paper on time. He would eventually earn his mathematics and social science degree and engage in a brilliant and rewarding teaching career at Kings Canyon Middle School and nearly 30 years at Bullard High School. The former printer of the papers that reached thousands of homes and hearts now spends his retirement teaching courses at Fresno City College and California State University. He is also the chairman of the committee in charge of redeveloping the area historically known as Armenia Town.

“One of the founding members of Asbarez was a Tufenkjian,” says Megerdichian. “The word ‘tufenk’ means gun in Turkish. His son Gunner — Richard Gunner — is now a developer and is in charge of the development of Armenia Town. There’s a beauty in this, a connection. What his father had started, the Asbarez, was destroyed and torn down, and now it’s back again, to be revived, and Gunner is the developer who is helping the party in terms of a concept and a plan.”

“We’re working with the city,” says Megerdichian with pride, “and we’re going to have a prime location for the new Asbarez Club, right across the church on M street. We’re going to have a building that will be representative of what Armenia Town used to be. There is going to be a club for people to play tavloo and cards. There will be a place for all the organizations to meet, and of course, a place for us.”

The Move to Southern California
In the 1970s, when the Armenian population was multiplying tenfold, the need for a local paper was greater in Southern California from Central California. Instead of creating a second newspaper in Los Angeles, those attending the ARF General Meeting voted to move the Asbarez operation to Southern California.

“Remember, we are a political organization,” says Megerdichian. “The balance of power had shifted to Los Angeles, because of the number of members in the organization. Our members had died in Fresno, and we didn’t have replenishment in our gomideh. So therefore, when we had a general meeting, the members in Los Angeles outnumbered the members in Fresno.”

“It was one of the saddest moments for the people of Fresno to hear that Asbarez was going to go to LA,” says Megerdichian. “At that time, the newspaper was financially so bad that in retrospect, it was a blessing [for the paper to be moved to Los Angeles]. The time was just right for it to move. The Armenian life was just flourishing and booming in Los Angeles, where in Fresno, it had stabilized and it had already taken form. So there was an important role for Asbarez to play in Los Angeles, where the community was just developing.”

The Asbarez Publishing Company first moved to the Venice neighborhood in West Los Angeles before finding a new home in Glendale, and Megerdichian says he was disheartened when he saw the Venice location for the first time. “It was a very sad sight to see,” he says, “the place on Venice Boulevard. That’s where it went. Then the way they printed the paper had changed. It was offset printing, and the old printing machines were just sitting there. But they did a marvelous job in Los Angeles. When I go to meetings [in Glendale] and see how the place is run, it’s amazing. From a budget of 19 thousand dollars, now they have a budget of millions.”

“A day doesn’t pass without me looking at the word ‘Asbarez,'” says Megerdichian, “and flashing back to pictures of what it used to be and what it is now. I have this admiration for the sacrifice of the young people in our organization and admiration for the older generation who were willing to give us responsibilities. They were very happy to see the young get involved. They gave us roles to play. They believed in us.”

Megerdichian says older generations of the party have always encouraged the younger generations in any way they could. “They hosted us in their homes, and the love they had for the culture was amazing. And the Asbarez was the center — the center for them to meet and socialize, take pride in. It lived up to its name.”

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