BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
On a sweltering day in early September, I arrived in Dallas, Texas for a conference. I got off the plane and picked up my luggage, then walked to the outside of the terminal to find transportation to my hotel. At that point, I literally gasped: it was as if I had entered an oven.
There were ceiling fans on the terminal’s sidewalks. I stood under one of the fans to cool off but got no relief from the merciless heat. I wondered why instead of fans the airport isn’t using the cooling mist system I’ve seen on the sidewalks of Palm Springs.
Luckily, taxis were lined up at the curb so there was no wait. Within a short time, I got to my destination, and $20 was a reasonable taxi fare for one of the biggest cities in America.
For the past five years I have been traveling and writing about Armenian communities in different cities around the world. The conference in Dallas was a good opportunity for me to find out about the Armenians there.
An online search revealed that the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) had recently established a chapter in Dallas. Through a mutual friend, I connected to Avo Marzwanian, Chair of the ANCA Dallas Chapter.
Marzwanian is an attorney in his 40s, happily married, with two children (daughter Alexis, 14 and son Vina, 8) and a flourishing law firm with offices in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas. I was very impressed that with all his responsibilities, he arranged to come meet with me at my hotel.
Let’s take a look at his life. Marzwanian and his family moved from Lebanon to the United States in 1982, when he was nine. They settled in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“Why New Orleans of all places?” I asked.
He gave me a good reason: New Orleans, like Lebanon, was inhabited and influenced by French colonists. Many Lebanese have gravitated to New Orleans because of the common threads between the two cultures.
Marzwanian grew up during the civil war in Beirut. He has many vivid memories of the war, and he shared with me one very creepy experience. He said, “One day I was walking to a soccer field, I smelled smoke and a foul odor. Then I realized the rancid smell was produced from the burning of bodies.” Hearing his story I got goosebumps all over. He added, “Coming to America was the best gift my parents could give me.”
In Beirut he had attended an Armenian school, and when the family moved to the U.S., his father made him read the Asbarez newspaper so he wouldn’t forget the language.
With his grueling schedule at home and at work, how could he commit himself to volunteer as chair of ANCA? He answered that when you are passionate for a cause you can always find the time. He said, “Since I was a child, I grew up with a sense of preserving Armenian culture and committed myself to the Armenian cause.”
His family sent him to AYF (Armenian Youth Federation) camp in California. “A kid from New Orleans at a camp in California was quite a novelty.” He remembers while he was at the camp, he was interviewed by an Asbarez news reporter.
The ANCA Dallas Chapter was established in 2015. Since then, the chapter has helped to advance the Armenian cause in Texas. It has organized an Advocacy Day in Austin, and helped to pass Texas House Resolutions 1541 praising the efforts of Americans through Near East Relief to save Armenians during the Genocide.
On April 2, 2016, ANCA of Dallas celebrated its first anniversary with a Gala which included a tribute to the state of Texas. The theme was “Texas We Thank You!”
Marzwanian told me that each year for the last 20 years, St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church holds a very successful Armenian Festival in Carrollton (about 15 miles north of Dallas) during the second weekend in October.
The three-day event brings Armenians and non-Armenians together to spend a leisure time with friends and family, and includes many activities to celebrate our rich culture and heritage.
There are performance and instruction sessions for Armenian traditional dances, a fashion show inspired by Armenian traditional costumes, booths selling gifts and souvenirs, a backgammon tournament, and mouth-watering kebabs and baked goods. Checking the Festival site online made me wish I could stay in Texas for another two weeks and attend.
While still in Dallas and riding in a taxi, I struck up a conversation with the driver, who turned out to be Persian. I asked him if he knew about the Armenian Festival and he said, “Of course. I try to attend it every year with my family.”
As our conversation continued, the driver mentioned another local Armenian. He told me that the Dallas World Trade Center was about five minutes walking distance from my hotel, and on the first floor an Armenian owns a rug showroom.
The next morning, right after breakfast and when the temperature was still bearable, I walked there. Entering the building, I saw a huge showroom on my left, just as the taxi driver had described. There was no way I could have missed it.
Nazaret Shirinian, the owner of the showroom, was busy with his workers folding and arranging some carpets. I introduced myself, and he was happy to talk to me.
I was so delighted to find that an Armenian had created such an enormous and successful business at a very prominent spot. The showroom had about 5000 sq. ft. and thousands of rugs. Shirinian said that 12 years ago, they moved from the 3rd floor of the same building to this location.
The collection of rugs consisted mainly of used and antique kilims and rugs from Turkey, Iran, Morocco, Armenia and other Caucasian countries.
Shirinian was born and raised in Turkey, where his family carried on the same carpet business. He came to America at age 21, in 1975. His brother had moved from Turkey to New York City three years earlier, and had opened a store featuring carpets mostly from Turkey, on 5th Ave. in Manhattan.
A few years later, the two brothers Manas and Nazaret moved from New York to Texas. That’s where their business flourished. Manas has his own showroom in another location in downtown Dallas.
This weekend, the Shirinian brothers and their families, along with thousands of others, will attend the ArmeniaFest in Carrollton. Sadly, I won’t be there, but I have these memories and stories to share…