Once there was and there was not…
Your face has changed. It’s fuller now. Your five o’clock shadow has disappeared. Your hairline has receded. And the decades you’ve lived are recorded in the wrinkles on the back of the hands you’re washing.
You’re standing in front of a sink in one of the bathrooms of Baghramian Hall in Montebello. Nareg is at the sink to your right. You’ve known his family your entire life; and tonight Nareg, his brother Varand, and their mother Louisa will receive the St. Mesrob Mashdotz Medal awarded posthumously to their father, Vahik Gourjian.
As Nareg says something, you remind yourself that you will write him and his brother an e-mail tonight and tell them that it was an honor to have known and learned from their father. You will tell them you feel fortunate to have known this former editor of the Asbarez, this community leader, and an ARF executive. You will write that you feel fortunate to know his sons and that they are continuing his legacy.
Legacy is what you have come to Montebello to celebrate… Not only the legacy of the Asbarez newspaper on its 101st anniversary, but the legacy of your people, your community, and your family…
The founders of this newspaper who had gathered in the Smart Building on Fresno’s Fulton Mall in 1908 would have never imagined that their legacy would be the creation of a newspaper that would be the glue holding their community together well into a second century.
They would have never fathomed something called the Internet and that their successors like Apo Boghigian, Ara Khachatourian, and Allen Yekikian, would write and edit words that would draw 100,000 Armenians to the newspaper’s web page.
You stand in a room away from the chatter of the banquet and look at the portraits of the founding fathers of the ARF in a glass case.
On the walls nearby are other black and white photographs of brave men, ungers, compatriots, who were dedicated, committed and following a dream that they didn’t know would ever be realized. But they had faith that their people would survive and someday return to their lands under the Ararat, to see the tri-color of Armenia – the red, blue and orange flag – flying high above Ararat Valley.
You experience a strange feeling of dejavu; these are the faces you have grown up with, looking at you from their eternal resting place. You feel a strange sense of comfort and protection in the eyes of these fedayees. You look into their eyes and understand where they were coming from, why they put their lives on the line and sacrificed all they believed in to reach their collective dream of a free, independent and united homeland.
You understand, for a brief moment, the happiness you’d feel if you had been born in your ancestral homeland, if you had grown up in a place where everyone was familiar, shared the same culture, sang the same songs and spoke the same language.
You remember the passion and giddiness your friend Garo had recounting the summer he spent in Armenia, talking about feeling like he belonged somewhere for the first time in his life, among the crazy Armenians on Armenian soil.
You imagine yourself living in a remote village, somewhere in Hayastan, away from the here and now in 21st Century America — where everyone is different, everyone is misunderstood, and everyone is a stranger, isolated, alienated.
You imagine yourself in a place where you belong, a place separate from this place, this super city — where 16 million people are inhaling one another, trying to make a place for themselves, trying to make a name or just attempting to get by.
You look around Baghramian Hall and see the friendly and familiar faces of the old and young sitting around round tables, sharing their food, breaking bread, toasting one another and being a community; and you want nothing more than to belong to these people, to this moment, to the history of the ARF and the Asbarez, entrenched and one with the organization’s mission and its heroes.
You remember another banquet in Montebello in 1990, when dignitaries from Athens had come to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ARF. That banquet had brought to life for you the mythical legacies of Krisdapor, Rostom, and Zavarian, legacies your grandmother Heranoush often recounted.
She had been a student of the Hripsimiantz Girl School at the Sanasarian College in Erzurum before the Genocide. She remembered lectures about Armenian History by Simon Vratsian, lessons from Armen Karo Pastermadjian, and her diploma signed by the ARF Founding Fathers.
These men had created a larger-than-life organization born to counter the hopelessness of Armenians in 1890, an organization called the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Dashnaktsutyun.
In front of you in Montebello in 1990 were the men and women who were carrying out the vision of a 100-year-old organization, the enlightened mission of ensuring equal rights – their birthrights, fighting the enslavement and victimization of Armenians, the monumental task of preserving and nourishing their culture, returning from exile and realizing their dream of nationhood.
On the eve of the 100th anniversary celebration in 1990, you had listened to the head of the organization, the representative of the Bureau. Standing at the podium, Unger Hrair Maroukhian had spoken about the human faces of the struggle. He had spoken about your friend Garo’s father – a psychology professor at a UC somewhere – meeting his wife, their long courtship through grad school and their eventual marriage.
You had looked around for Garo and spotted him talking, undoubtedly recounting his three months in Armenia, when he paraded around the villages drinking and sleeping in strange people’s homes to get a feel for the country.
Unger Maroukhian had talked about Fresno, and how at one time there were 12 committees in that small village up North. Fresno had been the hub of the Diaspora, he had said, and it was where Soghomon Tehlirian had gone to spend his final days after killing the executioner of the Armenians and being pardoned by a German court.
Tehlirian and others are the people who had given life to this organization, which in 1990 was on the verge of helping the Homeland stand up on its own two feet, break free from the Soviet shackles, and liberate its lands from Azeri rule.
The anecdotes and emotions had continued well into the next day in a suburb of Los Angeles. There were tears. There was laughter. Others had taken turns recalling their fondest experiences during their personal struggles to keep the door of their Saturday schools open, the electric candles of their churches lit, and their summer camps operating.
Who would have ever known, one unger had said, that within their lifetime the Soviet Empire would die and they would have a shot at realizing the dreams of the Trinity who had created the ARF. “Who would have known,” had repeated the man.
Someone at the podium had talked about how grateful the organization was to due-paying members who had already passed to the afterlife but whose wives or sons renewed their memberships to honor their memories.
You hadn’t known whether to laugh or cry, but you felt pride watching the sons and daughters of Armenian heroes celebrating their ethnicity and their legendary community.
You remembered vividly Garo’s dad talk about how his brother Viken was asked if he was a Punjabi when he had gone to Armenia for the first time. The folks in Yerevan had never seen a dark Armenian before and had wondered if Viken was only half-hye.
There was laughter and then another outburst when Seno Pakradouni remembered an unger’s dentures flying out of his mouth during a passionate debate about building a new church in Glendale.
You look at Se
no Pakradouni and smile remembering the denture story. This former editor of the Asbarez will also be honored tonight, and he is there with his family. Near him is his sister Salpi – who worked for the newspaper longer than any of its other employees, typesetting and writing for more than 30 years.
The more faces you look at, the more the room glows warm and the lights grow soft. There with you are the past and present, the modern-day heroes keeping the legacy of an organization and one of its newspapers alive.
You look around and see faces that all look familiar. You feel a longing to belong and a simultaneous need to do what can be done to sustain the moment and this history, your legacy.
You know you’ll do you part to ensure that the beautiful children of these educated and experienced community workers and
leaders continue the holy mission of the collective.
A new generation of these articulate young Armenians must and will soon need to take the baton and run the race. And you have confidence in these young men and women, who are knowledgeable about their culture and its history, and use effortlessly both their native, American tongue and the language of their ancient Armenian culture.
You look around the hall and know these young people will find successes in their chosen vocations, earn educational accolades, and one day see the realities of things your forebears only imagined and that you were able to only partially glimpse.
These young guns, who are able to drink any odar under the table, will have successful lives and prominence in their Armenian and American communities. They will pre-plan their annual trips to Armenia, send their kids to AYF camp in Big Pines, conduct educationals and teach like Vratsian and Armen Karo.
You know they will send children into the future – like Vahik did – without doubt that the Trinity’s vision and dream will be a reality within their lifetime.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.