Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Friday, April 20, 2007

How my Family Coped with the Armenian Genocide - More Alive than Dead

Well, it can be denied, distorted or ignored, but it won't go away. Still, people try. The last example being the UN's U/Secretary for Communications, Japanese diplomat Kiyotaka Akasaka. This narrow-minded international uncivil servant closed down an exhibition in the UN building's entrance dedicated to the massacres in Rwanda. Why? Because the Turkish delegation complained about a small reference to "genocide", which explained that the word had been coined specifically to describe what happened to the Armenians in 1915.

Once again the commemoration is upon us. On April 24, we remember the 92nd anniversary of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and a ceremony will take place in Santiago's Armenian Community House this Sunday 22nd at 11 AM (Irrarazaval 5455, Ñuñoa). A couple of years ago, I covered the history of the Kouyoumdjians, who saw the writing on the wall and left Turkey in the 1890's when the first preliminary "rehearsals" started, eventually becoming the owners of Fallujah in Iraq. This year, I would like to recount the story of my maternal families, who were more directly involved, but survived to tell the tale.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION Probably as a result of the contact with the Crusades, and mixed marriages with Frankish kings and princes settled in the area, the Armenians of Asia Minor have been French-leaning for centuries (the last king of the Armenian kingdom of Cicilia, Leon VI, which fell to the Mameluks in 1375, is buried in Saint Denis, with the Kings of France). Through the circumvolutions of History, the crown of Armenia has devolved to the Italian royal family house of Savoy.

I do not know when the formal relationship of my family with France started, but by the turn of the 20th century, my great-grandfather Ludwig Khoubesserian was the representative of the French government in the coastal city of Adana, where he grew cotton and fruit. His formal title was that of "drogman honoraire", and he reported to the French Consul in the larger city of Mersin. For those who are not familiar with the meaning of the word "drogman", a post which no longer exists, it comes from the Arabic root "tarjim", meaning interpreting or translating. However, drogmen in diplomatic posts, were more than mere interpreters. They were people with good local knowledge and connections, who acted as intelligence agents and advisers to the foreign diplomat or authority.

In April 1909, there took place another Genocide "dress-rehearsal" in the shape of a major massacre of Armenians in and around Adana. An estimated 25,000 people were killed, often with the help of Turkish regular troops (this is confirmed by the official dispatches, among many others, of Commander Prére, second-in-command of the French warship Victor Hugo, which had been sent to help the victims. Details are kept in the archives of the Service Historique de la Marine, where they were dug up, together with other documents concerning my family kept in the archives of the Foreign Ministry, by researchers in the Paris-based Armenian Noubar library).

There was not much my great-grandfather could do, apart from protecting himself and the family. Despite the French flag flying on it, his house was pillaged and burned on April 28 (as mentioned in Cdr. Prére's report). In fact, the massacres took place in two stages. During the first part, armed Armenians organized resistance, but after a visiting British officer negotiated a cease-fire conditional on the defenders surrendering their weapons, the killings started again without any means of defence (obviously the British were also rehearsing their own selling down of the Armenians, as was subsequently reflected by the shameful episode of Gal Dunsmore and the Baku Soviet in the early 1920's).

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES When the "Big One" came in 1915, organized by a triumvirate of Pashas, the Khoubesserians had another stroke of luck. Ludwig had been a classmate of one of the leaders, Djemal Pasha, who had earlier fallen out of grace with the Sultan and had been sent as governor of a distant region (I think Iraq). He then lost that job too and came back a lonely and friendless person. Though all his former friends were evading him, Ludwig Khoubesserian gave a big reception in his honour. The man must have had some conscience, because as the Genocide started, he gave the extended family (Ludwig alone had 8 children, one of whom being my maternal grandmother Marie) a safe-conduct to Jerusalem, where they settled in the Armenian monastery for several years.

Ludwig did not remain idle and soon left for England, where he had previously exported the cotton of his estates. He spent some time in Lancashire and family lore has it that he may have become a member of the Cotton & Wool Exchange. He then moved on to New York, where he might have been a member of the commodity exchange there (on my first visit to the USA in 1971, I tried to find out for sure but they did not have on hand records going back that far). His idea was to bring the whole family over, but unfortunately he died in the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic, and is buried in a New York cemetery. That is one reason why I am not an American.

THE INTELLIGENCE AGENT After WWI ended, Cilicia, the part of Turkey which includes Adana, came under French Mandate, and French troops, including an Armenian Legion formed during the conflict, were stationed there. The family returned from Jerusalem and retook possession of their properties. One of Ludwig's sons, Vahan, got into the French administration, as drogman to the governor of the region of Djebel Bereket.

Djebel Bereket was apparently a lawless place during the French mandate. Former Ottoman soldiers of the disbanded army, having kept their weapons, practiced banditry in its mountainous terrain. Vahan Khoubesserian obviously played a major role in its pacification, to the extent that he was decorated with the Order of the Nichan Iftikhar, a Franco-Arab award of North African origin. Document N° 3110/11 of the French Administration dated November 1st, 1919, was a request to that end addressed by Col. Bremond, governor of Cicilia to Georges-Picot, High Commissioner for Syria and Armenia. Here is an extract:

"Through his deep knowledge of people and things, he was always able to inform his superior in the best form, and managed to organize by himself in Dortyol, through his undoubted influence on the Armenians, a company of 100 volunteers who performed the highest services in the close defence of the city and the surrounding mountains…He in fact did the job of a French officer in Djebel Bereket. He is a totally devoted civil servant about whom there can only be praise "

Before he died July 1926 during an attack on a passenger train by rebel Druze tribesmen in Syria, where the family had settled after the French Mandate on Cicilia ended in October 1921, Vahan had another important task. He was a member of the Armenian delegation which visited Europe from March to August 1920 in order to plead the cause of autonomy, headed by the Catolicos (head of the Armenian Church).

Armenians had not been able to participate in the Versailles peace conference and were trying to claim what they had been promised (in the event, we were sold down the river again, that is why a kingdom which once stretched from the Caucasus to Northern Syria is now down to a 20,000 km2 "reservation").

There is an anecdote, which I have no reason to doubt, that when the delegation was received by French president Paul Deschanel, they were a chair short, and the president himself went to the next room to fetch one for Vahan. Some years earlier, in happier times, one of Vahan's brothers, Hagop, had been honoured in a different way. He served as interpreter to the visiting French orientalist Pierre Loti, who mentions him in one of his books..Being the first of the family to later settle in France, he became one of the pioneers of clinical acupuncture and practiced into his eighties until his death.

VICTIM AND JUDGE I have less information about my maternal grandfather, lawyer Leon Hazarabedian, who died a couple of years before I was born (on the other hand, except for Vahan, who died young as mentioned, I knew all of Ludwig's remaining 7 children, and one of those great-aunts bequeathed to me and my sister the apartment we have in Cannes, the last remaining link with the old family that remains).

Leon Hazarabedian was a young lawyer in Istambul when the Genocide started. He had started practicing in 1912 and like many Armenian intellectuals, he was arrested and about to be deported on a death march. Waiting in an open compound with other detainees, he spotted one of the Turkish magistrates on duty who were trying to give a semblance of legality to the whole episode. He recognized him as a classmate from law school. He tried to catch his attention to see if he could do something for him. The man looked his way but pretended to ignore his existence. Soon afterwards, they were herded to be transported, but taking advantage of a distracted guard, my
grandfather escaped.

I ignore what happened to him in the following years, and there is nobody left whom I can ask. However, the post-war French mandate finds him as a magistrate in charge of prosecuting war crimes in Turkey (there actually were trials of war criminals until the process was interrupted by the Kemalist upsurge and the end of the mandate). Justice was rather summary, and magistrates had the power of life and death. One day, who would appear in front of judge Hazarabedian but the former classmate who ignored him when he was about to be killed. When the man saw who was in charge of deciding his fate, you can imagine his feelings. However, my grandfather told him that he was a better friend than he had been, and said he was free to go. The Turk
fell sobbing on the floor and said; "of all the punishments you could have given me, this is the worst, because I shall have to live with my shame for the rest of my days".

Though the French mandate ended in Turkey, it continued for some 20 more years in Syria and Lebanon. During this time, Leon Hazarabedian was a fully-fledged French civil servant, first in Damascus and then in Beirut, reaching the post of Inspecteur Général des Services Fonciers de Syrie et du Liban. Among the people he was in contact with was a young French army major called Charles de Gaulle. (The latter was posted in Beirut from November 1929 to October 1931, as head of military intelligence). Later, my grandfather took up a private law practice, but died from tuberculosis a few years later in 1945. Among his clients was the Great Dervish, also exiled from Turkey. He had a sister and two brothers, only one of whom left descendants, who were born in France and live in the Reims area.

THE AFTERMATH As you can see, the Genocide left my direct ancestry pretty unscathed, if you forget the geographical movements, and on my maternal side, everyone eventually ended up in France from 1921 onwards. This continued over a long period (about 50 years) as things gradually deteriorated in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East.

Our association with France was therefore very strong. Unfortunately, in my own lineage, I am the last French speaker, and since arriving in Chile, have fought a losing war against the indifference of successive French "cultural counsellors", who have ignored all my attempts at getting involved with French cultural activities. This year, France is celebrating "The Year of Armenia", but the same embassy did not even answer when I suggested that they organize a premiere for "Voyage en Armenie", the award-winning latest film from French-Armenian director Robert Guediguian. It is an uncontroversial movie about a French-Armenian girl going to Armenia to rediscover their roots. When I insisted, I was sent packing with the following sentences "you can keep your analysis to yourself". I hope you will understand that on the basis of the above family history, it was not just another ungrateful diplomatic seat (of whom I have many on my list), but an insult to generations of my family in the service of the French Republic.


"I join California's Armenian-American communities and all Armenians worldwide in remembering those who were killed and persecuted during the Armenian Genocide, and urge people throughout the world to never forget these horrific crimes against humanity.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, Governor of the State of California, do hereby proclaim the week of April 22nd through April 29th, 2007, as "Days of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide."

IN WITNESS WHEREOF I have here unto set my hand and caused the Great Seal of the State of California to be affixed this 6th day of April 2007."

Arnold Schwarzenegger