Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Remembering David:
Camp Lutherlyn, Camp Haiastan, and “Pumpkin Suni”
Vahe H. Apelian

Reproduced from Armenian Weekly (2001 ?).

BUTTLER, PA:  Driving our children to the annual AYF Junior Seminar in Camp Lutherlyn became an annual ritual in our family since we moved to Cincinnati in 1995. Camp Lutherlyn is located in Prospect, Pennsylvania, 325 miles or so from us. There is no AYF chapter in Cincinnati, which is why we took upon ourselves to drive our sons to the camp.
This was the last time that David, our youngest son would attend the seminar as a junior participant. He was placed in the grown-ups cabin, a situation that made us realize that a phase in our lives has now come to its end.  Butler, the town next to Prospect, had become our Memorial Day weekend gateway. My wife and I rummaged the local antique shops and the flea markets or fairs and enjoyed Pennsylvania outdoors as our children attended the seminar these past six years.
Most parents have not visited Camp Lutherlyn and for good reason. The AYF chapters bus the children there, covering a distance which is not meant for the faint-hearted or for those who have not set their minds for making the long journey a memorable experience. Ours was no different. During the past years, we accumulated our share of experiences of missed exits, wrong routes, memorable lunch stops and familiar landmarks.
But none of these will ever come close to the way I related to the camp on our way there, on the highlands of Pennsylvania, some five seminars back. It was to be David’s second attendance. I asked him if he remembers anything from the educational from the previous seminar. He said he remembered well what “Pumpkin” Suni and his friends did for the Armenian cause. David’s slip of toque was agonizingly evident and yet conspicuously innocent. Born in America and now growing up in the Mid-West, toque twists of Armenian names or wrong connotation, is the least I would have been concerned.  I was sure that in time, he would learn the correct pronunciation of the name that had fired the imagination of countless children and youth, including mine.
My father enrolled me in the Papken Suni Badanegan (Youth) Mioutyun (Association) when I was David’s age. We held our meeting on Saturday afternoons in the old building of the Beirut Gomideh. At least once a year we held the same debate over whether Papken Suni and his friends served the Armenian cause by their deed, or whether it was a reckless act. We knew the outcome of the debate and few us ever volunteered to be in the team that negated the act. But at times we did since someone had to.
And now Papken Suni’s name had acquired a new twist with my American born son who was growing up trick or treating the neighbors on Halloween day with their overgrown pumpkins. But the spirit of the act had now caught his imagination too. The passage of the legacy of sorts had indeed taken place.
For three days, during the long Memorial Day Weekend, Camp Lutherlyn becomes the microcosm of the best the Armenian community offers to its children. Arriving from different states of the East Coast, the kids get together to renew their friendship and relate to the past year’s camp experiences as if it had happened only yesterday. Soon they realize what was meant to be only yesterday is in fact 365 days old now. Nature has taken its course and they are now a year older. For all those parents who are not there to see, we bear witness of the joy of their children seeing each other and for being together for one more time and the all too evident sadness at the departure time after three memorable days. And yes, sadly, we will miss that too. Come next year we will not be there anymore.
For the past six years, we witnessed the dedicated work of the AYFers who organize the annual Junior Seminar. It’s a huge undertaking and is well organized by the AYF Seniors or Alumni who are now shouldering their own personal responsibilities. These dedicated young men and women devoted countless hours to make the Junior Seminar a memorable event for the few hundred kids who attend.
David is an AYF member-at-large and attends the seminar independently. However, right upon our arrival, he fits with the crowd. By now we know what to do. After we pull our car on the campground and see David saluting and hugging his fellow campers of past years, we head towards the main station and give David’s name. The attendant pulls a file bearing his name. In that file, we find the program, the layout of the camp, his assigned cabin and the names of the kids who will be with him in the cabin. A similar file is prepared for each and every camper.
Each cabin is given the name of a memorable ARFer. This year David’s cabin was called Mikaelian. The next cabin was named after Palabegh Garabed, the next one over, the inevitable Papken Suni. Along with the names, a brief biography of the person with a picture is also posted on the door of the cabin. On this Memorial Days weekend, past ARFers who also sacrificed, at times with their lives, are also remembered.  Each cabin has one or two councilors. Along with the educational, the dances, the three evenings in the cabins, the long drive to and from the camp, constitute the bulk of the experience for that year.
In August David will attend Camp Haiastan for the last time as a camper. Daniel, our elder son, is now a former camper, counselor, and lifeguard at Camp Haisastan. David may follow in his footsteps and may opt to become a councilor too in the future. However, their time as an impressionable youth has now come to pass.
On behalf of our family, I would like to thank all those who organized these seminars and the experiences both at Camp Lutherlyn and at Camp Haiastan. Unknowingly maybe, they opened a window for our children in ways that we, as parents, would not have been able to do by ourselves. And for all those who made these experiences possible and memorable for our sons, we remain ever grateful.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Kessab: Remembering June 16, 2014

Kessab: Enduring Resilience
Remembering June 16, 2014

 Vahe H. Apelian

"Kantsasar", the official publication of the Aleppo Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, reported on June 16, 2014, that the Syrian Arab Army forces had advanced into Kessab and were stationed in the city square. The report effectively heralded the liberation of the historic Armenian enclave--on Fathers’ Day--after its occupation by extremists who had attacked the peaceful villages from Turkey on March 21.

Official Syrian sources reported that some of the residents of Kessab, who in the previous 88 days had taken refuge in the Armenian Apostolic Church of Latakia or with family members, relatives, friends, and hosts in that city, had begun to return to their vandalized and burned homes, businesses, community centers and desecrated churches. 

The once beautiful Churukian-Missakian Cultural Center building, in the center of the town, was still smouldering when they had arrived. The returnees soon found out that even the dead were not spared as cemeteries were desecrated and graves opened. The orchards and the gardens--left unattended--had gone wild with overgrowth. The machinery to tend them had been taken away by the plunderers. Even the wooden poles supporting the electric grid were cut off and the wires were removed and hauled away for sale as scrap metal in Turkey.

Over a century of long hard work had been wiped away. 

History was repeating itself for the Kessabtis. What they saw and experienced bore a stark resemblance to what Miss. Effie Chambers, the beloved American missionary in Kessab, had witnessed in the aftermath of the sack and pogrom of Greater Kessab in 1909. "It was a most desolate picture that greeted my eyes,” she wrote in her unpublished autobiography which her family has shared with me. “Houses had been burned after being looted, and silkworm eggs in the hatching process (one of the principal financial resources of the region) had been destroyed. The gardens stood in ruins. The grapevines, and other foods used for standby winter diets, such as raisins and molasses, were damaged beyond hope.
 The houses, my own, the Mission House, Girls' School, church, parsonage, and the market were all a holocaust. The outside villages fared the same.”

More than a century ago, the ever-resilient Kessabtsi did not spare a day and embarked on rebuilding their shattered lives anew. 

Just two days later after the liberation, on June 18, 2014, Father Nareg Louisian, the priest of the Kessab Armenian Catholic community, reported on his Facebook page that the St. Michael Armenian Catholic Church was cleaned of debris, thanks to the diligence of its parishioners. The church was ready for Holy Mass. The St. Michael Church, much like the other churches, had been desecrated and vandalized but it had not been torched. Father Louisian invited the clergy and the members of the other two denominations to use the sanctuary, saying that the St. Michael Church is their sanctuary as well. 

Within a week of its liberation, on June 24, 2014, Rev. Haroutune George Selimian, the president of the Evangelical Churches in Syria, visited Kessab accompanied by an official government delegation from Latakia. Rev. Sevag Trashian, the pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of Kessab, and lay dignitaries met the Reverend at the Armenian Evangelical Holy Trinity Church, at the town center. The historic over-a-century-old church that also stood had been desecrated, vandalized and torched. Rev. Selimian launched the cleaning and restoration work of the Armenian Evangelical Churches by symbolically wiping slogans written by the extremists on the walls of the church. Rev. Selimian also addressed the media covering his visit. He said that Armenians stand firm on their land in Kessab and remain loyal citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Syrian officials, in turn, promised to provide Kessab with the necessities to re-establish power and water supply. 

On Friday, July 25, 2014, Archbishop Shahan Sarkissian, the prelate of the Aleppo Armenian Apostolic Prelacy, consecrated the desecrated Armenian Apostolic Church of Kaladouran, Kessab’s coastal village. Lay and clergy representatives from the other two denominations attended the consecration. In the evening Divine Service was conducted and on Sunday Holy Mass was held for the first time in the newly consecrated church.

I have cited the chronology of Kessab's rebuilding by the three Armenian denominations as a testament to the indomitable and resilient spirit of Kessab's Armenian inhabitants. It is this tenacity that has made possible the continuous Armenian habitation on that rocky terrain over many centuries. As the Armenian phrase graphically puts, "They eked a living off of the stones". 
Miss. Chambers was in Adana to assist the survivors of that devastating massacre as marauding Turkish mobs had also attacked Kessab on the morning of April 23, 1909. She wrote in her autobiography: “Upon my arrival [to Kessab] the people, those who could get around were assembled in the yard of the Mission House to greet me. 

"Their first question was 'Will you stay with us and help us start again?' 
"I said: 'That is what I came for, to stay and help you get on your feet again. If you want to stay we'll do it and God will help us rebuild our homes, shops, and churches and reclaim your land.' 
'Is it a promise?' they asked. 
"I said: 'Yes, on my part it is.' 
'On ours also,' was the reply. 
"'I can't tell you how we did it,' she elaborated. 'Just step by step, one day at a time, and by the autumn of 1911, before the rains set in, those who had stayed in Kessab and lived through the horrible ordeal, were back in their rebuilt houses, with their schools and churches going.'"

On Sunday, July 12, 2015, the renovated and refurbished Armenian Evangelical Church of Keurkune was formally reopened and Sunday service was held there. Rev. Selimian welcomed Rev. Jirair Ghazarian, the newly-appointed pastor for the Armenian Evangelical Churches in Kessab. After the service, a reception was held in the church’s courtyard.

The battle to rebuild Kessab for the third time is underway. If only the greater forces of the region appreciate the value of the enduring resilience of the inhabitants of this ancient Armenian enclave who, not long ago, made Kessab a safe summer resort for families of all faiths to come and enjoy its refreshing weather, natural beauty, and unmatched hospitality.
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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

In Armenia

Matheos Eblighatian
Translated by Vahe H. Apelian

In 1913 Matheos Eblighatian was appointed as the prosecutor general in Van. No Armenian had occupied such a high judicial position before, at least not in Van. Interestingly he regarded his assignment as a service in the fatherland, that to say Armenia. After a long journey starting on May 15 through Constantinople Batumi, Tiflisi Yerevan, Igdir, he arrived to Van on July 12. In his memoir (A Life in the Life of My Nation – Կեանք մը Ազգիս Կեանքին Մէջ) he narrated his first impressions under a header he titled “In Armenia”. Attached is my translation of that segment.

 In Armenia
From my young age, as a student and as an employee, I was accustomed to changing my place of residence and my environment but this was something altogether different. I was in Armenia and Van was one of the more significant places of the fatherland. Much effort was being vested to safeguard the fatherland and the Armenians. Tashnag, Ramgavar and Hnchag party members and their followers worked freely in Van.
After losing the Balkans, the Ittihadis had clung firmly to the remaining. Much like during the Hamidian regime, now also they worked to entice some Kurdish tribes and control other Kurdish tribes like puppets. I was interested in the governor of Van since my days in the European Turkey and in Constantinople. I knew that he was a young man who had gained experience during the Macedonian Revolution and was a pragmatist and industrious as well. Right after meeting with my director and the rest of my colleagues, I visited the Governor Tahsin Bey. My first impression confirmed what I had envisioned. He was not much educated but undoubtedly he was an intelligent man. There was an emphasis for friendship and sincerity with which he masked his cunningness. After our customary polite conversation, he immediately brought to my attention the following:


“At night, should you hear gunshots, do not be alarmed. This city has a reputation as a less than a civilized place. Everyone fires his pistol from his house’s courtyard. Do not think that something has happened and that they will be coming to you as the general prosecutor and ask you to investigate. People simply fire to have fun. I ordered the police to be vigilant and capture those who do not heed my command to cease firing. You also lend a helping towards this goal.”
I replied:
“Of course, within the law, I am ready to bring my unreserved assistance to the efforts the administration has taken and will undertake.”
I left him wondering why is he putting such an undue attention to a routine police matter. It did not take long for me to find out that the cunning person he was with his simple request he, in fact, was addressing the most vital issue of the government.  Truly, that very evening, not long after dusk, gunshots were heard from different places when a young Armenian judge was with me. Both of us were to reside in the Hussian’s house. The landlord had also arrived to welcome us. Both of them explained to me at length the reason for the gunshots.
After the announcement of the Constitution, the people had not stopped arming themselves. They were also learning to be good shots. Most of the people were busy working during the day consequently did not have the time nor the resources for being trained. Consequently, they were learning how to shoot in the orchards at night. That is why the Governor was feeling uneasy hearing these gunshots. They did not only disturb the tranquility for resting at night, but also were vivid reminders that the Armenians were buying guns and were learning how to use them.
The next day there came to the unending visits for welcoming me.
I already had a few years of experience for such visits. What was new for me here was the Armenian life and especially the characteristics of the visitors themselves. There were some among them who presented themselves as the agha (upper) class of the community and felt that they should establish amicable relations with the authorities. There were a few who wanted to establish an avenue for keeping abreast of the day’s events. There were some who were genuinely happy. They regarded my appointment as the general prosecutor as a sign for better relations between the governement and the Armenian community. There were some neigh-sayers (like patriarch Arsharouni) who regarded this arrangement as an act of deceit. 
In any event, during my first 8-10 days, I realized that I was in a very difficult situation. First and foremost I was a man of the law and was in a position to interpret the laws according to my mental and moral disposition.  It was not possible always to harmonize the legal dimension with moral disposition. Most of the Ottoman laws were translated from French.  A lot of lapses would happen in their interpretation and implimentation. With regard to political issues, it was well understood that their legal interpretations were subject to the judge’s race. However just would have been an ethnic judge’s interpretation, he could not convince the Turkish judge of the defendant’s just cause when he resisted the government’s unjustifable treatment of him or of his ethnic compatriots. Therefore when someone acted against the law, the judge (ethnic) felt that he should impose a penalty without taking into consideration the mitigating circumstances. There was also the impossible issue of passing an unrestrainted judgement without taking into consideration the defendant’s religion or race. Consequently, the penalties coming forth from the implementation of the same laws could vary greatly from person to person. I emphasized unrestrained because in general in all countries more or less, and especially in Turkey, one of the greatest impedement for the judges, especially with issues pertaining to politics, was the interference of the state, at times amounting to intimidation. But what could I do? Should I resign? Or should I face these challenges until let go?
It had always been my dream to work in Armenian land and within the Armenian world. I did not want to lose the opportunity and become a deserter. But I decided to be cautious and resort to a larger array of means to live up to my dreams.
The more interesting visitors I had were the Turkish notables. It was more than a curiosity for them to have an Armenian prosecutor general. How were they to sue Armenians henceforth? There were talks that the reformations promised to give Armenians some rights they did not have before. An Armenian prosecutor general was the very evidence of such talks. Some of these Turkish notables wanted to abide by the realities of the day and live and let live. Many of them were very curteous to me, or they may have been faking. There were some, however, who could not restrain their intolerance. There remained for me to be cordial towards all and be cautious in my own conduct, to study and understand each and in time understand all the elements that constituted my surrounding.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Agony of an Abduction

Vahe H. Apelian

Next, to losing a family member, the worst possible thing is not knowing if the person is still alive or dead. If alive, where is or is being held? If dead, how did he die? Was it a peaceful death or a tortured one? If dead, where were his remains buried? If alive, where is he being held? I do not think that a day would pass without the surviving family members not contemplating the fate of their lost family member/s.  The late Kevork George Apelian likened the anguished state as being “Martyred For Life” and so titled his book about survivors of the genocide who lost a family member, be it a child or a spouse, and lived the remainder of their lives wondering what happened to them, whether they were dead or still alive
It is not far-fetched to think Sarkis Zeitlian’s family lived and continues to live the agony of their loss.
Recently I came across a book in my library I had already read, titled “THE SARKIS ZEITLIAN CASE”, in Armenian «ՍԱՐԳԻՍ ԶԷՅԹԼԵԱՆԻ ԴԱՏԸ». “Hraztan Sarkis Zeitlian Publications” published the bilingual book in 1994, as the book’s second and expanded edition. “The publication was sponsored by the Strategic Research Initiative of the GALIAN FOUNCATION, Inc., a non-profit Public Benefit Corporations for the study of Armenian and Multicultural Issues.”
I do not think there is any need to introduce Sarkis Zeitlian other than glimpsing over his personal life. He was born in 1930 in the village of Khader-Beg on the slopes of the famed Moussa Dagh. In 1957 he married the noted author Sona Simonian who was his colleague in Kaloustian School in Cairo. They are blessed with four children. Their son Hraztan is an acclaimed architect.
Sarkis Zeitlian was abducted on Thursday, March 28, 1985, in broad daylight, at 9:30 am.  The abduction took place “on the street adjacent of Nshan Palanjian Jemaran in West Beirut. Accompanying Sarkis Zeitlian was a member of the ARF Youth Organization, Garo Kolanjian. As he did every Thursday, Sarkis Zeitlian was on his way to the office of Hamazcaine Vahe Setian Publicatishing House located at the corner to the Jemaran to supervise the layout of Aztag Shaptoriag-Troshag (note: ARF Organ) and to have the weekly ready for production by Yervant Nonofarian, the manager of the printing operations”.
It should be noted that the neighborhood, where I spent most of my teen years, and where the abduction took place was heavily populated by Armenians at one time, but was depopulated of its Armenian inhabitants because of the raging Lebanese Civil war. Nshan Palanjian Jemaran, Souren Khanamirian and Hovagimian-Manougian High Schools, the Demirjian Middle School, along with Hamazcaine Vahe Setian Publishing House, Aztag daily, Ara Yerevanian Center have long left the neighborhood - Zokak-El-Blat - the one time famed neighborhood of West Beirut.
The book is 130 page long. The first part is Armenian, the second in English. The book is a meticulous study of Sarkis Zeitlians abduction. It consists of six chapters and each chapter contains a number of subsections and each section, in turn, contains, at times, a number of headers, Checking the listing of the chapters and their subsections gives a glimpse of the scope of the study the family has undertaken to come to grips with his abduction. The six chapters are:
VI.          CONCLUSION.

Although the book is a serious study of Sarkis Zeitlian’s abduction, yet the agony of grieving family permeates the book. At least that is the impression I was left with. The copy I have is personalized by Sona Zeitlian and is dated 1997.  Thirty-three years have elapsed since his abduction. Had nature been kind to him, Sarkis Zeitlian would have been eighty-eight years old.  Even with the passing years, I imagine that it will be impossible for the family to accept with a comfort that by now, the patriarch of the family may very well be deceased.
In Kevork George Apelian’s book, “Martyred For Life” the survivors, in spite of the passing years, retained in their memories the image of their loved ones as they saw him or her last. Sarkis Zeitlian was abducted and disappeared in the murky realities of realpolitik at the age of fifty-five. I imagine that it would be impossible for the family members to erase from their memories the image of the robust and dynamic man he was when he disappeared from their midst.
The book ends quoting Jean-Paul Kaufman, who was a former hostage in Lebanon who was released in 1988. Jean-Paul Kaufman has said: “until we have unequivocal evidence that a hostage is dead, we shall conclude that he might still be alive”. I am not sure if passing years will alleviate Zeitlian Family from the pain of losing their patriarch whose fate continues to remain unknown.
We have a saying in Armenian, “May God spare our enemies from such pain”.

Monday, April 16, 2018

We Were Not Unprepared

Vahe H. Apelian

This past April Friday thirteen brought back memories of events that changed the course of my life and altered it forever. I was reminded of the deadly confrontation that happened on Sunday, April 13, 1975, between the armed members of the Lebanese Phalange (Katael) party and Palestinians.  On that fateful gorgeous Sunday afternoon, I was returning from Anjar, the Armenian inhabited village of former Moussa Daghtsis. I was held in traffic as I approached Beirut. I asked an armed civilian who was directing the traffic what was the problem? He said that there was a military clash between the armed members of the Phalange (Kataeb) Party and Palestinians. The details of that deadly encounter appear to remain murky to this day. That day and that that incident is generally accepted as the beginning of the Lebanese Civil war as a result of which, a year later, on July 9, 1976, I set foot in the NY Kennedy Airport as another immigrant.
I am born and raised in Lebanon. My parents had me enrolled in A.R.F. Papken Suni Badanegan Association (Myuoutiun) when I was in elementary grade. From there on I became a member of the A.R.F. Zavarian Ashagerdagan (Pupil) and then Oussaneghogand (Student) Associations as I graduated from Elementary to Middle and then High School and entered the American University of Beirut and took my vows to become an active member of the Tashnagtsoutiun (A.R.F).
In a few weeks, the Lebanese will elect the members of their parliament. The first and the only election I participated in Lebanon was the one that took place in the latter part of April 1972. The Lebanese Parliament then was carefully crafted and comprised of 55 Christian and 44 Muslim members with each of the two religious denominations having its share based on its demographic constituency. The Armenian Orthodox community was allocated four seats, the Armenian Catholic Community one seat and the Evangelical community one seat. Traditionally the candidate for the Armenian Catholic and Evangelical seats was reserved to the Phalange Party. During that election, the dominant Armenian political party (A.R.F.) was able to secure the candidacy of the first Armenian Evangelical, Antranig Manougian, M.D.
The A.R.F. had adopted a cherished tradition of appointing only one party member and reserving the other three seats to prominent individuals who were understood to represent the other segments of the great Lebanese Armenian Community. Melkon Eblighatian. M.D. represented the A.R.F. and acted as the representative of the Armenian Parliamentarian bloc. The other three were Souren Khanamirian, the prominent philanthropist who represented the Armenian business community; Khachig Babigian, the prominent lawyer who represented the Catholicoate of Cilicia and Ara Yerevanian, the consul of Gabon, businessman, and philanthropist, represented the none-A.R.F. fraction.  

Standing LtoR: Tsolag Tutelian, Hovsep Seferian, Antranig Manougian, MD, Souren Khanamirian, Melkon Eblighatian MD, Sako Karkodorian, Arpi (Baghdassarian) Shahinina, Garo Sassouni, Mary (Bakalian) Arevian, Khatchig Babigian.  LtoR: ? Hovsepian 9/), ?, Yetvart Eloyan, ?, Hourig Panian, Vahe H. Apelian, ?, Zvart Sarhadian.
Sometimes in the later part of 1974, Dr. Melkon Eblighatian presented to the A.R.F. Zavarian Student Association his experiences as a parliamentarian. He had succeeded Movses Der Kaloustian who was the longstanding member of Lebanese Parliament. Dr. Eblighatian gave much tribute to his predecessor noting that the greatest challenge he faced was being accepted as the one who will be filling Der Kaloustian’s vacant seat. Among the wheeling and dealing Lebanese descendants of the merchandizing Phoenicians, Movses Der Kaloustian had stood apart with his unblemished impeccable conduct through the many years he served as a parliamentarian.
The second part of Dr. Eblighatian’s lecture constituted analyzing the political situation in Lebanon. A heightened political mood prevailed in the country. He concluded his lecture saying, I quote verbatim, “hot days await us during the upcoming spring”. The ensuing turn of events, starting with the “bus incident” on April 14, 1975, proved that he was prophetic indeed.
Sometime in early 1980’s Dr Melkon Eblighatian visited New Jersey where his son Norayr lived with his family. I interviewed him and recorded it. Norayr and I then transcribed the interview. I wrote an introduction and presented it to “Hairenik” Daily where both my interview and introduction were presented on the front page.  My contention in my introductory remarks was that the Lebanese civil war had far more destructive ramification to the Armenians than to the rest.
March 2011 is usually regarded the time that sparked the current civil war in Syria. One year and a few months later, in November 2012, the Syrian Armenians in Aleppo convened to best figure out how to best brave the ongoing civil war.
I cite these to make a point. Often times we, as Armenians, criticize ourselves that we historically lack political foresight. I do not believe it to be necessarily so. In both of these cases, the Armenian leadership anticipated the upcoming and prepared the community to face it but surely did not visualize the magnitude of the ensuing destruction. I doubt that if anyone could have possibly anticipated the level of destruction in these civil wars, still ongoing in Syria.

The civil wars in Syria and in Lebanon fundamentally changed the course of the Armenian Diaspora. These two communities remain the bastions for the preservation of the Western Armenian culture in spite of the fact that they remain mortally wounded. Nowhere else, be it in Diaspora or in Armenia, the Western Armenian language and literature have a better chance of preservation. Who knows? It might be that it’s in our stars that we should be subjected to such destructive forces far from our ability to contain them. I am no sure if it is a common metaphor but my late father used to say “the horses stamped and they mass up the green grass”. We were patches of the green grass in these two courtiers and we were not unprepared but forces far greater than our ability to control or contain caused havoc and perilously altered the course of the post-genocide Armenian Diaspora.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Haleb in its Hey Days

Translated and abridged by Vahe H. Apelian

Levon Sharoyan posted this article in segments on his Facebook page during June 2014 and titled it “Ո՞ւր Կը Կայանայ Հալէպահայ Գաղութին Արժէքը” (What Constitutes the Worth of Aleppo Armenian Community?) and wrote in the present tense. I had the article translated and posted in Keghart.com titling it “Glorious Armenian Aleppo”.  I changed the title to “Haleb in its Hey Days”, because I am reproducing the article in my blog. Much changed in the Aleppo Armenian community during the past four years. I retained the verb tense but opted to use the term Armenians use for Aleppo, Haleb.

Armenia and the Diaspora for decades perceived the post-genocide Armenian Aleppo as an isolated, self-contained and traditional community. It did not have the luster and the flamboyance of the Paris, Los Angeles and Beirut Armenian communities. The latter regarded Aleppo a backward village. For consolation, Aleppo had been crowned the “Mother Diaspora Community”. We were happy with the designation.
The unprecedented turn of events in the last three years due to the Syrian Civil War and especially the deliberate destruction of Kessab and of the Aleppo Armenian neighborhood of Nor Kyugh, focused the attention of the Diaspora on the “Mother Diaspora Community”, the “Dreamy Haleb”. Armenians began lamenting the possible loss of the community. Armenian Diaspora was mobilized to save its Haleb community and to safeguard its values, but alas …" after breakage”…
What were the characteristics of this community that the Diaspora is intent on safeguarding? It is one of life’s unmistakable order
s to appreciate the value of something after its loss. But let us, for a moment, ponder about the values of the Haleb community. What were its characteristics? What did the Haleb Armenian community offer that the others do not as well? I will present a cursory listing of these characteristics and let readers do the critical and in-depth evaluation. 
1.  Community’s religious and church life.
Haleb hosts eleven Christian denominations, among them the three mainstream Armenian denominations: Apostolic, Catholic, and Evangelical. Each denomination is organized and active. The religious and church lives of the Haleb Armenian community has always been exemplary. The Holy Forty Martyrs Church of the Armenian Apostolic denomination dates more than five hundred years. Our churches have always been filled to capacity on Sundays and on holidays. Should you ever have attended the early mass during the holidays you would have remained mesmerized by our all-volunteer large choirs. I would like to emphasize the "volunteer” designation because in Europe and in the United States even the scribes (դպիրներ) are paid. Weddings and baptisms had to be booked months in advance because there were so many them. I insist that the Haleb Armenian community’s rich and traditional church life may have come second only to Istanbul’s. We had a very rich church life here. No wonder that the seminarians in Antelias liked to come to Aleppo to perform mass. No other Armenian community could possibly have matched the regal reception the community extended to the visiting catholicos during his pontifical visit.
2. The Organizational Structure of the Community.
The organizational structure of the Aleppo Armenian community has passed on from one generation to the next unchanged for almost 150 years. It is based on the fundamental tenants of the Armenian National Constitution adopted in Istanbul in 1863. Accordingly, the Armenian Apostolic Church National Prelacy is the official body that represents the Armenian community to the government and is its nerve center and trigger. The prelate, in addition to being the spiritual head of the community, acts as its temporal leader and thus shoulders dual responsibilities. This is a unique form of representation that has been inherited from the Ottoman days. It has advantages because it centralizes the administration of the community and its dealing as well as it establishes bilateral relations with the government. If you were to look carefully at the administration of the National Prelacy of Aleppo you would find that it is a veritable government within a government. It's interesting to note that at one time Sultan Abdul Hamid II suspended the Armenian National Constitution for this very same reason... that it acted much like a government within a government. 

The legislative body of the National Prelacy is the National Representative Assembly. As the name indicates, the community elects its members. This body appoints and oversees executive boards in matters of education and administration of schools under its jurisdiction, religious education, judicial, financial, social services, real estate holdings and others. The effectiveness by which the Haleb community is governed can stir the envy of not only the other Armenian communities but also local Christian and Muslim communities: Compare the functioning of the Armenian community of Aleppo with those in North America, Latin America, France, Britain and Australia... and you will find that the Aleppo Armenian community is more effectively organized and administered.
The National Prelacy is the backbone of the community. 
Our elders speak of a time when the community was even more vibrant. I remember reading an interesting article by Antranig Dzarougian in his “Nayiri” weekly where he reminisced, as a young reporter in '40s, about attending the open-door deliberations of the National Representative Assembly where opposing viewpoints would converge to a middle ground and form a consensus on how to run the community.
With the passing decades, much water has flown under the proverbial bridge. The picture nowadays may not be the same but the organizational structure of the Armenian community in Aleppo is one of its distinguishing characteristics and is worth preserving and emulating. 

3. Our Unmatched Schools
Can Haleb breathe, let alone survive, without its schools? Such a scenario is impossible to imagine. Haleb loses its glitter without its schools and its vivifying graduates. We would not be mistaken in stating that the Armenian schools are the Aleppo community’s very lungs.
 Without them, we would suffocate. And what glorious schools we have: the Karen Yeppe Armenian College (Քարէն Եփփէ Ազգ. Ճեմարան), the historical Haigazian (Հայկազեան) and Sahagian (Սահակեան) schools, the more recently built Gulbenkian (Կիւլպէնկեան) and Grtasirats High School (Կրթասիրաց-Չէմպէրճեան) school, the A.G.B.U. Lazar Nadjarian-Calouste Gulbenkian Armenian Central High School (Լազար Նաճարեան), the Cilician (Giligian) (Կիլիկեան) Armenian High School, the Mekhatarian (Մխիթարեան) school and others.
For Haleb Armenians, their homely and lovely community life is best illustrated through the unfolding of the academic year. We witness the buses of the Armenian schools, each bearing in large Armenian characters the name of the school, crisscross the city from one neighborhood to next, traversing the thoroughfares of the city collecting the students to bring them to school.
Throughout that season I remain overwhelmed by a burst of emotions at the scene. 
Our schools are much like beehives, where every morning bees enter and work diligently to produce honey. The Haleb honey is just that, authentic and unadulterated. We have always shared our honey generously with our blood relatives overseas. Our honey is sufficient for all. Diaspora communities, big or small, have their schools, in Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, Cairo, Athens, Marseilles, Paris, Los Angeles, Montreal, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. I will muster the courage and state that the Armenian schools in these cities cannot possibly compete with ours in imparting to their students an Armenian education. Can you possibly name an Armenian Diaspora high school that can equal the Karen Yeppe Jemaran? Could you point to any other Armenian Diaspora high school that had the same pre-Civil War enrollment of 1,400 students we had at the A.G.B.U. Nazarian-Gulbenkain Central High School?
Speaking Armenian in schools, however, changed these days, is still predominant among our students even out of school.  
Some may claim that the Education Ministry of Syria has curtailed the number of classes in the Armenian language. 
In my modest opinion, that allegation is not devoid of lapses in judgment. The Armenian language and literature have always maintained their rightful place in the overcrowded curriculum of our schools. These subjects are properly taught with much care. We have some schools that have voluntarily abrogated the educational privileges granted to them and have curtailed the number of such classes or have completely eliminated some. It would be unproductive to dwell on this phenomenon now.
The raging destructive war in Syria is testing the Armenian schools in ways they have not been tested before. Their very existence is at stake, especially due to the economic collapse. The situation is alarming and its consequences dire. It is vital to assist the Haleb Armenian schools financially so that they, as the beehives of the community, continue to produce honey.
4. An Armenian Diaspora Treasure Chest.
Let us take a rapid trip through the Armenian neighborhoods of Aleppo and visit our social clubs. We will find the names of these clubs in a bilingual inscription at their entrances: Aram Manougian People’s Home, A.G.B.U. Tekeyan Cultural Association, Kermanig-Vasbouragan Cultural Association, Ourfa Compatriotic Cultural Association, and tens of others such associations and social clubs.
All of these associations have extended an open arm to embrace our Armenian compatriots who, having graduated from the local Armenian schools, come to socialize under their roofs to maintain their umbilical cord with their nation. The denominational affiliation and the political partisan leaning of the person do not matter, neither do the types of interest a person has for there is an Armenian association and a social club for the person.
Do you like to sing? Then come and join the Hamzakayin’s “Zvartnots” choir.
Do you have acting talents? Then A.G.B.U.’s “Atamian” theatrical group or “Zavarian” will be welcoming you.
Are you interested in dancing? There are two to three dance groups for you.
Is your interest to serve the Armenian literature? Then you may join the Syrian-Armenian Writers’ group monthly meetings.
Are you interested in or do you want to hone your skills in painting or photography? You may join “Arshile Gorky” or “Sarian” art academies.
Are you athletic? Knock H.M.E.M’s door and it will be open for you.
Are you a scout or do you like to bring your child as one? You have the options of having your children to tough it out with excursions and camps organized by H.M.M’s or H.M.E.M’s athletic clubs.
Do you want to contribute to the current youth movements? Syrian Youth Association and Dkhrouny clubs are there for you. 
Are you interested in preserving your grandparents’ heritage? Among many, you have the option to join, Marash, Kilis, Dikranagerd, Zeytoun, Daron, Ourfa compatriotic organizations.
Are you interested to render social services? The Syrian Armenian Relief Organization might be the place for you.
Haleb Armenians often have to choose from the many concurrently ongoing events. All these events take place in splendid social halls that we, as a community own, the likes of which other local organizations do not have. Our halls get filled to capacity.
In a city of 4-million residents, we as Armenians, present a unique communal picture. The non-Armenian communities with whom we co-habit have not been able to build what we have built and hence do not have the means to offer to their community what we can. That is why Haleb has become the ideal community to preserve the Armenian heritage where an Armenian is born as one and is interred as one.
No wonder the Haleb communal life stirred the imagination of the eminent writer  Dzarougian who penned his recollection in “Dreamy Haleb”. The newly appointed director of the AMAA (Armenian Missionary Association of America) Zaven Khanjian was born and raised in Haleb. He also penned his memoirs in the recent "Aleppo, First Station" about growing up in the city. Undoubtedly, the Aleppo Armenian community is the “Little Armenia” of the Diaspora, even though it has not been named so in an official capacity.
Indeed, the Armenian Diaspora has all the reasons to be alarmed by the ongoing war in Syria whose consequences may be disastrous to the once-thriving Armenian community of Aleppo and by extension to the beehive it was that provided bees and honey to the other Diaspora communities.