BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
This past week on August 14, 2015, Asbarez paper turned 107—a hard-to- believe milestone. But I bet you’ll be surprised if I tell you that the first Armenian language paper in France was published in 1855 by Gabriel Aivazian, the brother of the iconic marine painter Hovhannes Aivazian or better known Aivazovsky. The paper was called “Massisiats Aghavni” (the Dove of Massis), a bilingual monthly magazine published in Paris. More French/Armenian language publications in France can be found here.
I learned about this piece of information last month when I visited the office of Nor-Haratch, the Armenian language newspaper in Paris.
Let me take you to Paris.
After several email exchanges and back-and-forth telephone calls, finally I made it to the office of Nor-Haratch in Paris. The paper was originally started in 1925 by Shavarsh Missakian. He named it “Haratch,” which means “forward” in Armenian. After his death, Shavarsh’s daughter, Arpik, continued publishing the paper until 2009, when she decided to retire and close the paper.
The Armenian community of Paris, not wanting to lose the paper, rallied to find a way to give the paper a new life. Jirair Jolakian stepped up and took the reigns as the new publisher, and re-named the paper “Nor-Haratch.”
After all the coordination to meet Jolakian, I couldn’t see him. Coincidentally during those very same days, Arpik Missakian passed away at the age of 89. Jolakian was busy making funeral and memorial service arrangements. Instead, at the office, I met with Shant, a young energetic guy who was the French language editor of the paper.
Shant welcomed me and gave me a brief history of the paper, which is published three times a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Recently, the Thursday paper began coming out both in French and Armenian. They have 1000 subscribers from 24 different countries. It is the only Armenian language paper in Western Europe.
Shant gave me an overview of the Armenian communities in Paris. I learned that Alfortville has the largest concentration of Armenians in the Paris region—about 7,000 Armenians live there. The latest news was the newly built Armenian school of Alfortville. So the following Sunday, I planned to visit Alfortville to see the church and the school.
I made my way from the city of Sceaux, where I was staying, to Alfortville in about an hour and a half. I arrived there around noon and fortunately the Sunday mass was not over yet.
As I stepped out of the train, I met a woman walking with her young daughter. I asked her if she knew the Armenian church on Komitas Street. The woman happened to be Armenian. She told me to take the first street and just keep going straight ahead.
A few hundred feet away I saw another woman walking with two grocery bags. This time I was pretty sure that she must be Armenian. So I asked in Armenian, and she told me the same thing: to keep straight ahead. Then I met a family returning home from a trip. They were pulling their luggage. I heard them speaking Armenian. And I asked them the same question and I got the same answer.
The neighborhood I was walking in consisted of small homes with front enclosed yards. I assumed most of the homes were occupied by Armenians, because I noticed a few people standing at their front doors and talking to their neighbors in Armenian.
The church was about a 10-minute walk from the train station. On my way there, I passed an Armenian market. I knew it was Armenian because the name was Ararat. Since I was in a hurry to get to the church before the mass was over, I didn’t stop at the market. I thought I might visit the store on the way back. However on my way back it was closed. I missed my chance to interview the owner.
Unlike the Apostolic church of Issy Les Moulineaux, another suburb of Paris, this church was built in the style of all Armenian churches with a nice bell tower and a slopping roof. Although small in size, it embodied all the characteristics of a real Armenian church.
At the church gate I met two young men who were distributing flyers promoting an upcoming Hnchakian youth meeting. They told me about their activities and I was quite impressed about their devotion to the cause that they believed in. They were in their twenties and spoke both Armenian and French.
I entered the church, where the smell of Frankincense permeated the air and awakened my senses, giving me a nostalgic feeling. After the mass was over, as I exited at the court yard I met Hermine, a sweet little woman in her 80s along with her daughter, her son and his wife. They were waiting to meet the priest and then to visit the graveside of Hermine’s husband, their father, together. Hermine told me of her long journeys and how she ended up in Alfortville. I think many Armenians will relate to Hermine’s life story of continual uprooting while looking for the best place to settle.
She was from Egypt and had met her husband Elian there. After they got married, they moved to Lebanon. They stayed in Lebanon for two years, but then the adventure-seeking Elian moved his young family to Brazil. Their stay in Brazil didn’t last more than a few years, because the family pressured them to return to Lebanon. In 1972, when their son was twelve and their daughter eight, Elian took his family again and this time they repatriated to Armenia. But the situation in Armenia was not as Elian had expected. So they stayed there for only six months and then moved back to Lebanon. Two years later, Elian took his family to Alfortville, and that was their final stop. Hermine told me that she has lived in the same house in Alfortville since they moved there in 1974 from Lebanon. Her son and daughter have married and have their own families.
I met with Reverend Keledjian only briefly because he was busy with parishioners who had come to seek his advice and get help. Afterwards I walked to the newly built school which was right on the corner. It took me a few minutes to get there.
At the school the workers were busy putting the last finishing touches and fine tuning for the upcoming inaugural ceremony of the school, which was set for the following Saturday. The most remarkable element of the school is that it sits alongside the river Seine. It has incredible views of the river. I would not have mind to step back in time and be a student of that school.
The school is named after Kevork Arabian, who has financed 90% of the construction cost which amounted to 4.5 million euros. The construction of the school began two years ago, in August of 2013. This September the school year will begin with 300 elementary students, in the hopes that later it will evolve into a secondary school. Kevork Arabian School will be one of the four full time schools in the Paris region of France.
The river Seine was so inviting. I took a little stroll along its banks and then headed to find a place to have a bite. On a Sunday afternoon, Alfortville looked like a ghost town. There was nowhere to eat other than a corner fast food place. There I met an Armenian woman with his son and his son’s girlfriend.
As is my habit, I started a conversation. They were visiting Alfortville from another city. They had come to see Reverend Keledjian. Again, their story can be universal. Anna, her husband and three sons had left Armenia to find a better life. They had sold their home in Yerevan and had spent most of the money to be able to come to France. Her husband had a kidney disease, and he could get better treatment in France. They were living in a government subsidized home. Their sons were going to trade school. And somehow they were able to survive with the little money they received from the French government.
I paid for their food and asked them if they would like to accompany me for a walk on the Champs Élysées in Paris. We had a lovely stroll together. We started out at the Arc de Triomphe and passed Place de la Concorde and finished it at the Carousel (shopping center) of the Louvre museum.
Along the way we had an authentic Parisienne experience. We stopped at the iconic Café Ladurée which is well known for its afternoon tea and their delicious macaroons. After Ladurée on the same side of the Champs Élysées we came across to Abercrombie & Fitch, which was simply stunning—from the ornate wrought iron gates, to the gravel walkway and the lush green bushes lining the walkway, and inside the boutique with ornate frescos and staircases. It really felt like a museum.
As we were saying our goodbyes, it strikes me that I could ask Davit, Anna’s son, to come and help me carry my luggage to the train station. I was leaving Paris by train to Vienna in a few days. It just worked out so wonderfully. I thought to myself, “Being nosy has its benefits.”