How it All Began: A First-Person Perspective from the Founders of Asbarez

The first issue of Asbarez, published August 14, 1908 in Fresno

In 1978, the Armenian Review dedicated one of its issues to the 70th anniversary of Asbarez. In it were two gems we discovered while producing this 100th anniversary edition–the English translation of two articles written by Abraham K. Seklemian, the first editor of Asbarez and the assistant editor at the time, Hovannes Kabadyan, who would later take the editorial responsibilities. The two were reflecting on the early days of Asbarez for a 10th anniversary special published in 1918 in Armenian. The Armenian Review translated the two pieces and we reprint it today. Below are excerpts from the introduction.

The present (1978) year represents the seventieth anniversary of the founding in Fresno of the Asbarez newspaper, which only a few years ago was transferred by its sponsoring Armenian Revolutionary Federation to Los Angeles; and the second is that this medley represents another step in The Armenian Review’s continuing effort to reconstruct history of the Armenian communities of America, in which of course the Fresno settlemen’s have played such an important role.

On its own, the seventieth of the Asbarez cannot pass without due notice. Materials in this present issue will describe the birth pains of an organ which today, in point of continuous publication, is second only to the Hairenik Daily, of Boston, as the oldest Armenian publication currently on the American scene. Both publications of course are organs of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Throughout its superb career of work, Asbarez (Arena) has devotedly retained its pristine principles, first expressed by its founding fathers way back in 1908, and has been honored for it. Originally published as a weekly, it grew to a twice-weekly publication and is today, in its new home in Los Angeles a daily newspaper, one portion of which today is devoted to English-language materials. The reader will note that nothing that follows will refer to the more contemporary story of either the newspaper or the Fresno community since the thrust of this miscellany is the early years of the Fresno Armenian presence.

The first two articles, those of A(braham) K. Seklemian and Hovaness Kabadayan have been rendered into the English-language on their originals found in the book-length publication issued by the Asbarez press in 1918 to mark the tenth year of the newspaper-1908-1918: Asbarez Dzoghovadzou.

The first of these is of special interest since it is the work of the first chief editor of the Asbarez who is remembered to have been certainly the principal spirit behind the founding of the newspaper. Unfortunately, there is very little information about the life of this historic figure in the California Armenian story. In 1954, his son, Masis Seklemian, an authority on retail advertising and then a partner in the firm of Webell, Seklemian and North at 420 Madison Avenue, New York City, told and interviewer of the Boston-based Hairenik Weekly (viz. issue of May 20, 1954) that he himself had been born of his parents Abraham and Magdeline Seklemian in Fresno on January 20, 1905, and that his parents had migrated to the United States after the Hamidian massacres of 1895-96.

He said, “Our home in Fresno on Sundays was like the Grand Central Station. We never had less than 12 people for dinner;Well known Armenian figures were often at our house discussing political issues. My father published several book in Armenian and on Armenian folklore which Outlook magazine featured in monthly installmen’s. I have all his manuscripts;”

Outside of this, we have presently little other information on Abraham Seklemian except that he is noted by one source to have been an early graduate of an unnamed American university and that in Fresno he acted as a real estate agent while, up to his illness in 1918, graphically described in his paper, he really devoted most of his time to the editing of the Asbarez.

We know even less about the author of the second portion of this quintet, Hovaness Kabadayan. One good source reports that he graduated from Syracuse (NY) University “in the early 1900s” after which obviously he moved westward to Fresno where, it is believed, he too worked in real estate. It is obvious from his writings that he was a well-read man. As will be shown by the following materials, Kabadayan was Selman’s assistant editor when the Asbarez was launched and on a few occasions actually directed the editorial effort.

The seven visionaries who founded Asbarez

The Founding Years of the “Asbarez” Newspaper

BY A.K. SEKLEMIAN

Toward the latter days of the 1907 and the dawn of the succeeding year the purpose of founding a weekly Armenian newspaper expressed itself in Fresno.

As far as I can recall, the first meeting of people interested in the project was held in my office located at that time in Room 14 of the Short Building at 1933 “J” Street. The records of this meeting and those that followed having been lost following this writer’s grave illness of 1933, memory must be relied on. This means too that he must touch only on those major issues relating to Asbarez over that period of time.

The names of all those who attended the first meeting cannot be recalled. What I do remember however 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 my home on Fig Avenue where, in reality, Asbarez was born.

Present at these two meeting were this writer, Hovaness Kabadayan, Aslan Aslanian, Avedis Tufenkjian, Arpaxat Setrakian, Bedros Hagopian and Levon Hagopian. (1)

The second meeting examined in depth all aspects of the problem of launching the publication.

First: It was recognized that the number of the Armenia’s both in California and the general Fresno enclave was growing daily, and it was absolutely imperative that an Armenian newspaper be published.

The Asbarez headquarters

Second: Such a newspaper had to be published by ideological associates so that the newspaper would have both strength and durability.

Third: The newspaper would have to provide readers with serious and wholesome contents.

Fourth: The newspaper would offer information on Armenian life and literature, and the Armenian American youth would have to be drawn to the effort so that the youth would not be assimilated into American life. The trench between the Americans and Armenian would have to be filled in.

Fifth: Readers would be kept informed of current and daily events.

Sixth: To the best of its ability the newspaper would encourage a love for the fatherland of Armenia.

Each of the “Six Points” was subjected often to exhaustive discussion by the participants.

Early formative meetings were held too in the homes of Kabadayan and B. Hagopian.

Finally, after all these lengthy explorations, on the acceptance of these By-Laws, the following bought shares in the Association and thus became the Founders of the Asbarez:

The four writers

A.K. Selemian, 4 shares, $200; A. Tufenkjian, 4 shares, $200; B. Hagopian (unpaid), 1 share, $50; Hovaness Y. Kabadayan, 6 shares, $300; A. Aslanian, 2 shares, $100; A. Setrakian, 2 shares, $100; L. Hagopian, 2 shares, $100; M. Markarian, 2 shares, $100; S.A. Arslanian, 4 shares, $200. (Total $135,000)

The last two joined some eight months after the newspaper first saw the light of day.

Name:
It was difficult to settle on a name for the new newspaper. A number of names were suggested–Arevmoudk, Arev, Asbarez, Djhairm Aztag, Argos, Shepor, etc. Each member spoke favorably of either one or the other of these names. Finally, each of these names was written on separate billets of paper and one was drawn in lottery style–Asbarez!–by Mrs. Prapion Hagopian. Up to the final acceptance of the By-Laws, the paper was referred to as the prospective Arevmoudk.
Editors: According to the by-laws, there would be one chief editor and one assistant editor, both of whom were to be elected by vote. Elected to the editorial staff were A.K. Selemian, Hovaness Kabadayan, Bedros Hagopian, and Sahag Arslanian who, one after the other served as the first editors. Editing at all times is demanding work, but editing the Asbarez was in its earliest days an especially knotty exercise. In those days, those who served as editors had to work free of charge. It was only later that it was decided that the chief editor would receive a salary and that too only on understanding that his salary would not be drawn from the income of the paper, but would be credited to his stock holdings. The first paid editors, then, received only $6 weekly, and this was calculated against their stock or against purchases of additional shares. According to the by-laws, no member, however, could hold more than ten shares of stock.

Until 1913, or during the first five years of the Asbarez, or January 6, 1913, when I fell ill, editorial duties fell chiefly on the shoulders of this writer.

Although the story of my illness is one perhaps common to most people working as editors or writers, I will be forgiven, I trust, if I relate the circumstances of my illness–since it is illustrative of our story of the early days of the Asbarez.

That week, the newspaper faced its usual Saturday deadline. Our typesetter, who was a bowling addict, suggested on Friday of that week that, perhaps, we could that week skip an issue. I was unaware that what he really wanted was to get away to the bowling alley.

I told him that we had to get the paper out even if it were necessary to burn candles. To that purpose I worked that night to write my editorial views in order to have it ready for the typesetter bright and early the next morning. After this, I went home at 9 pm, had a light dinner, sat behind my homework desk and went to work again. Both my wife and children were asleep.

It was very cold outside and I was all wrapped up in woolens as I worked. The fact is I was very tired from my day’s work. It was both difficult for me to think and to write. A great need for sleep came over me but I fought it off for a while; then I decided to take a brief nap, to rest where I sat and, to that purpose, I let my head drop forward;and I dozed off. I came to in a few momen’s, drank a glass of cold water; but a great weight fell on me. I tried to get to my feet but I was unsuccessful. I threw myself on a nearby sofa, thought I would rest for a while and let the sensation pass. I then went to the bedroom, looked into the mirror. I was completely without color. The same weight again came over me. I threw myself on the bed. Apoplexy struck me on my let side. I was paralyzed.

I had become ill of exhaustion. My efforts to satisfy my typesetter had drained my strength. I do not recall all this to connote any discontent on my part but simply to record the last momen’s of the editor of a regional newspaper.

It was thus that illness took me away from my beloved arena of journalism;

Requiremen’s of the press: In the beginning, it was extremely onerous to meet the needs of the Asbarez. Because of our financial crises, we could not buy a linotype machine and, what is more, it was extremely difficult, especially in California, to find Armenian type. We even considered, in the light of these difficulties, to write to Constantinople and Venice for type, and we actually had correspondence in this regard. But because of the times–it was well-nigh impossible to get anything at all from Constantinople, and we were forced to contact the American Type Foundry Company, inquiring if they could fashion the Armenian type we needed.
Mr. M. Alexander, the manager of the San Francisco office of the company, a fine ma, assisted us to the extent of his ability. Finally, it was decided that the company representative in Fresno, Mr. Shadenger, and the foreman of the typography department of the Fresno Republican–Mr. Winzel–would consult with us on the size of the paper and the other technical needs of our organ.

Typesetters:
Our first typesetter was Mardiros Sadoian. He had worked at the Hairenik, in Boston, and was an experienced typesetter. He was present at all our discussions on the molding of the type. It later became imperative that we train other typesetters–Zarmir Sherian, Nishan Tourounjian, Manoug Manoukian, Harutune Geogeushian. These individuals worked at Asbarez at one time or another, some as foremen and others as assistants. All served faithfully, contributing to the progress of the paper.

Correspondents: During the beginning years, Asbarez experienced a lack of collaborators and especially correspondents, a constant thorn in the side of the paper. Finally, quite a few Armenia’s of some ability, from near and far, took part in our work and in their persistent collaboration created a fine image for Asbarez.

There were others who worked for us for a brief period of time. It must be stressed that the Asbarez accepted materials from not only co-idealists but also from people who opposed us. We did not lock our doors in the face of those who outrightedly criticized us.

It is also worthwhile to remember that certain of our collaborators were well versed in the Armenian language, were quite familiar with Armenian literature and were thus able to make names for themselves through their contributions at Asbarez. The newspaper acted as a sort of school to some people and the evidence of this is found by the presence in the Asbarez’s archives of numerous letters attesting to this fact.

During the first ten years, Asbarez attempted to have correspondents “round the world,” to print news from everywhere and to have ties with the Old Country. Thus, we had correspondents in Paris, Kghi, Moush, Dikranakert, Constantinople, Zeitoun, Kharpert, Erzrum, Van and elsewhere, who frequently sent in news and views of their area of the world.

During its first ten years Asbarez was able to rally to its banners an imposing coterie of intellectuals ‘s T. B. Khungian, Hadji-Baba, Dr. C. Mallarian, Professor H. H. Basmadjian, the Reverend Father Theodorus Isahakian, M. K. Ferrahian, (2), Siamanto, Levon Hagopian, Harutune Tarpinian (Hairoti), Arpaxat Setrakian, Sempad Rustigian, Avedis Tufenkjian, the Reverend (Minister) Mihran Kaprielian, Melkon Markarian (Darontsi), S.Y. Parnak, Dzaghig, M.B. Yeridasart, Yeznig Meneshian (Kar), Arsen Yeretzian, Yervantouni, and many others.

I do not have the means to recall here the names of all those who collaborated with Asbarez in its first ten years.

We also had a limited number of writers of the distaff side, including Mr. Shoghig Markarian, Mrs. Haiganoush Yeghlejian, Mrs. Frankian, Miss Lousentsak, Mrs. Shushanik and others.

Asbarez, a People’s Paper
We early decided on a principle to which we held faithfully to the end of the first decade. Our pages were open to all organizations, to all individuals, to all critics. Contrary to that reality that the Asbarez was dedicated to a certain political orientation, we gave a space to even our more outspoken adversaries.

Asbarez for many years published without charge notices on meetings of all the Armenian churches, charitable organizations, women’s societies and all the compatriots. At the same time it encouraged such activities, covered the proceedings of gathering and maintained ties with members of these organizations and institutions.

On the other hand, these organization and entities helped us not one iota during our times of financial need. In fact, certain of them worked in all, ways to bury us, to tear us asunder and destroy us from within. But we were able to remain loyal to our principles and we continued to serve their interests. We helped all useful enterprises, gave a hand to all people of talent, and tried in all ways to encourage budding talent so that they could help the Armenian scene and cause.

And all this was done simply to assist the progress and refinement of the Armenian community without any expectations on our part;

We caricatured all untoward facets (of community life), the negative qualities of Armenian affairs ‘s and we suffered not inconsiderably for this.

Whatever the case, we always honestly tried to educate and inform the people, to do everything we could for the people, to act as the spokesman for the people.

Thus, Asbarez became in reality the property of the people and the public.

Non-Armenian Friends:
Non-Armenia’s who understood the importance and need for an Armenian paper came to the force. The most outstanding of these was the late and lamented Dr. Rowell. This fine man, who was to his death a close friend of the Armenia’s, always kept an open door to the Armenia’s–without distinction to everyone. He had an especially soft spot for Armenia’s, and he worked incessantly for their interests, to help their betterment. When I explained to him that we were mulling publication of an Armenian newspaper, he expressed great joy and promised to do all he could do to help out. Dr. Rowell was the founder of the Fresno Republican daily paper, the most widely circulated newspaper in the Fresno area. He predicted a glorious future for our newspaper if only we were to persevere in our venture.
He told me, “You Armenia’s have come here to stay. You are not transients or drifters. You are an indivisible part of us. What is needed is work to better the community. A newspaper is an important element of the Armenia’s both economically and spiritually”.

He directed people in his newspaper to give us all possible assistance in our project.

Also a friend was Dr. Rowell’s nephew, the editor of the Fresno Republican, Chester Rowell, who shared his uncle’s feelings about the importance of an Armenian newspaper.

Our adversaries: Asbarez had its opponents. Being a newspaper dedicated to progress it was naturally in clash with the armies of reaction. At times when we spoke up in championship of enlightenment and progress, the reactionaries declared boycotts of the paper and spewed around propaganda against us. On our own part, however, we did not engage ourselves in battle against them and simply continued our work, facing fundamental issues alone.

What hurt us the most was a group of narrow-minded young people who, in the early days of Asbarez, joined forces against us and began publishing a new newspaper called Nor Serount, with the specific purpose of fighting us.

This group enjoyed no standing in the community, because we were widely recognized and accepted. But they were nevertheless able to create an unhealthy atmosphere. It transpired that at that time there appeared in the pages of the serious Constantinople journal Vosdan an article on the subject of Asbarez which pretended that all we were trying to do was make money. This was far from the truth, of course. We were not a business venture, were not profit-oriented, and, to the contrary were expending our own time and money on the newspaper.

The Ottoman Constitution and Asbarez – Many people thought that our newspaper’s founding was tied in with the Ottoman Constitution (1908) since both were published at the same time. But our members had been talking about a newspaper for some time before the Constitution as I have reported here, and it was simply a coincidence that the Constitution and Asbarez appeared almost simultaneously. It must be admitted however that the coincidence assisted out own venture a good deal since the Constitution gave us a ripe subject of discussion. It created great interest among our readers and helped us in our purpose to tie the motherland with the Armenian American community.

The Constitution created much hope among the Armenia’s. All freedom loving and progressive Armenia’s overseas rallied to us and assisted us in the launching of the paper.

The Constitution also raised the spirits of the founders of the newspaper.

Our program thus was altered and, in the spirit of the Constitution, we immediately turned to the reconstruction effort. In other words we had turned with the punch and were meeting the requiremen’s of the day.

From its earliest day, Asbarez proclaimed the causes of freedom and, even in those days, we said that the Armenian nation was living in the hope of its political freedom.

Ten years later, when the nation was facing its greatest crisis, when we were fighting the last battles of our existence, when the great deportations, massacres and enslavemen’s was brought on our head by or centuries-old enemy, we still worked in the same hope that we Armenia’s would finally bring about the re-effectuation of our freedom.

In its ten years, Asbarez continuously struggled for that freedom. We maintain that through its work Asbarez has helped inculcate into its readers that sacred hope that Armenia will be free and that we, along with other Armenia’s, would all return to the Old Country, to Mother Armenia, where with all other surviving Armenia’s, we would pitch into the task of reconstruction.

In that hope I close this article.

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