Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
20 - 26 May 1999
Issue No. 430
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue


Little Armenia

By Fayza Hassan

"Have you come to watch us entertain ourselves ethnically?" A young woman I know asks the question ironically as I walk into the small theatre of the Nubarian School in Heliopolis to attend a concert arranged by the Millet Council, under the supervision of the Armenian Orthodox Church, and performed by the members of the Armenian chorale. Many young Armenians joke gently about their clubs' and churches' various activities, primarily aimed at keeping their culture alive, but few rebel seriously against traditions which are taken very seriously by the elders; one has the strong impression that, notwithstanding the self-criticism, they would not have it any other way.

On the stairs leading to the theatre, a plaster stork welcomes the visitors. The bird symbolises the flight of the Armenian people and their hope of returning to their nest one day. Few of those I have met, however, really seem to be contemplating the purchase of a one-way ticket. Still, the symbol endures, and so does the culture, nurtured by a well-established community which has learned to reconcile -- and pass on to younger generations -- their hearts' longing, and practical reality.

The room, of generous proportions, is packed to capacity. It features an elaborately carved wooden screen just inside the door and half-rounded wooden arches supported by straight columns framing the windows, "a typical Armenian motif," says Ara Keuhnelian, an expert in Armenian architecture, who is performing the difficult task of introducing a total stranger to the various members of this private gathering. Armenians may think of themselves as a discrete community, and a closely-knit one at that, but they welcome strangers warmly, and questions are answered readily and gracefully.

Maestro David Zalian has been hired by the Armenian Prelacy to teach music at the school; the various clubs of the community have also asked him to train and lead an amateur mixed choir which performs on festive occasions. The repertoire is rich and diverse, including old ballads, national hymns, love songs and several numbers by Egyptian composers, sung in Arabic. On this particular evening, Sayed Darwish's Baladi Ya Baladi has the whole audience clapping in unison. The maestro's wife plays the piano.

Until 1996, the couple lived in Armenia, where they have a music school. In the beginning, Zalian had some trouble with the language spoken by the community here, which differs in certain respects; "but," he says proudly, "I have now learned the Armenian of Egypt." He is currently tackling Arabic, which all Armenians here, especially the younger generation, speak as well as their mother tongue.

Armenian chant

THE ARMENIAN community operates two benevolent and one cultural associations, the Armenian Red Cross Association, the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Houssaper Cultural Association. The community has four social clubs in Cairo and two in Alexandria, in addition to three sporting clubs in the capital and two in Alexandria. There is one home for the elderly, and many activities for young people, including a dance troupe, Zankezour, a choir, Zevartnots, and a children's choir, Dzaghgasdan.

The difference in dialects is often mentioned by Armenians who have visited Armenia. Aida Ostayan, who has been directing the Armenian programme on Radio Cairo for 30 years, explains: "The Armenians of Armenia were under Persian and Russian influence; they are the Eastern Armenians. We, on the other hand, lived in the Ottoman provinces and our roots are more European." Ostayan herself was born in Aleppo. "The language is really the same, but there are differences in accent (as in Egyptian Arabic and Lebanese for instance), and words have been borrowed from one or the other culture, which sometimes lead to confusion," she says.

Notwithstanding the initial communication obstacles and a lack of knowledge of Arabic, Zalian is very much at home here. Is his wife? The question seems to surprise him. "My wife does as I tell her," he finally says, implying, albeit with a laugh, that in his household, he is the boss. In this, he is quite in tune with Egyptian Armenian views on the matter: the members of the community are no strangers to the Si'l-Sayed syndrome, even though they have come to take it with a grain of salt. "We give men their prestige outside the house, but we rule inside," says Caroline Mazloumian, whose husband is not here tonight. "We are no chauvinists," protests Ara; "we do not prevent our wives from working after marriage, and all these women you see hold excellent jobs."

They do indeed, but this remains nevertheless a very traditional society, where men are expected to be the principal breadwinners and women's primary concern is to look after the household, of which they are considered the queens and valued as such. Men are doctors, dentists, engineers, university professors, jewellers, businessmen, factory owners; women, on the other hand, are secretaries, translators, school teachers and involved in community work. Exceptionally, they may help their husbands run the business, but usually this role is reserved to adult sons. Most young daughters in affluent Armenian households are university graduates, however, and many hold post-graduate degrees.

Many married women are not strongly against playing the part assigned to them by their husbands. Family values are paramount among Armenians, and bringing up the children is considered a serious task. Mothers are not isolated since there are several clubs catering to their needs and those of their offspring, providing all the facilities ranging from a well-equipped playground to a good kitchen serving excellent meals.

On Ascension Day, the terrace of the Houssaper Club is buzzing with activity. Armenians mark this celebration with a unique custom. Young unmarried women throw a piece of their jewellery into a bucket filled with water strewn with a few flower petals. The trinkets are then retrieved by a fortune teller, who whispers to each of the owners a prediction about an impending change in their marital status.

In Armenia, the water comes from seven different springs and seven kinds of mountain flowers are used for the petals. In the absence of springs, mountain flowers, large numbers of girls of marriageable age and fortune tellers, a variation on the theme has been devised by the members of the Cairo club: little girls crowned with flowers stand around a plastic bucket filled with tap water in which a couple of rose petals float. They open the proceedings with a song fitting the occasion, then one of the women begins taking the jewellery out of the bucket, encouraging the children to shout out a description of each piece, which she hands to its rightful owner with a folded piece of paper, fortune-cookie style. Luck, of course, is on everyone's side and all the participants are promised long life, good health and all that their hearts desire.

According to one of the participants, the club has something to offer in the way of entertainment almost every day, and the women who do not have a job to go to hardly have any time to get bored.

Recently, however, economic conditions and some women's yearning for emancipation have dampened the more blatant manifestations of machismo in Egyptian-Armenian society, leaving the fair sex to forge ahead in fields which were previously the sole province of the male heads of households.

Armenian women readily admit that they have never been hindered in their professional ambitions by the Egyptian cultural climate. On the contrary, they have found only sympathy and encouragement, says Armin Kredian, an American University graduate who runs her family's factory. "Furthermore, Armenians of both sexes have been able to take full advantage of the higher education system, since Arabic is taught in Armenian schools from kindergarten. Students graduate with the Thanawiya Amma and find therefore no difficulties in adjusting to the Egyptian university system."

The General Armenian Cairo Benevolent Union's Arabic-language monthly magazine, Arev, published in March of last year a long interview with Servart Sahagian, a young woman proficient in several languages who, rather than embrace a lucrative, more feminine and glamorous career in translation, chose the arduous academic route. A renowned specialist in the methods of teaching French and English as foreign languages, she is currently a full professor at Mansoura University's Faculty of Education.

Nairi Hampikian is an architect famous in the field of restoration and preservation of Islamic monuments. The work she has done on the mausoleum of Al-Saleh Nigmeddin Ayyoub in the area of Bayn Al-Qasrayn has been praised by leading professionals, and she is currently completely immersed in the American Research Centre's project of restoring Bab Zuweila. "Of course, I am Armenian through and through," she says, punctuating her pronouncement with a peal of contagious laughter, "but my real home is Al-Mu'izz Lidin Illah Street. I feel privileged to contribute to the restoration of such an illustrious architectural past."

Many among the younger generation, if not all, feel the same kind of attachment to their adopted country. A case in point is George Simonian, who recently received his doctorate at the printing, publishing and binding section at the Faculty of Applied Arts, Helwan University, where he is now a professor.

Born in Cairo in 1962, Simonian emphasises the fact that he is totally Egyptian, with the privileges and duties pertaining to that status. In many ways, though, his trajectory is typical of the path followed by many Egyptian Armenians of his generation. Simonian was a pupil at the Nubarian School in Heliopolis. He received the Thanawiya Amma in 1981, then entered Helwan University where he received both his BA and MA in publishing, holding consecutively the posts of lecturer then assistant professor. While working on his doctorate, he was sent to England by the university on a one-year scholarship. Now, he teaches mornings at his alma mater and works in the afternoons with his father, brother and uncle at the Nubar Printing Press, a family enterprise established by his grandfather at the turn of the century in Gheit Al-Nubi. The printing works were later moved to Shubra, where they occupy a three-storey building equipped with state-of-the-art machinery.

Simonian is pleased with the high quality of their production and is thoroughly conversant with every phase of the process. He knows all the workers personally. "They are part of the family," he explains. "Many of them are the sons and grandsons of the workers once hired by my grandfather." The workers, in turn, are proud of Simonian's achievements, and seem to delight in calling him "doctor".

He has no doubts about his feelings of belonging to the Armenian community. "But," he says, "culture is one thing and real life is another. In real life, I feel Egyptian. I was born and raised here, most of my friends and colleagues are Egyptian, and it is in Egypt that I have found the opportunities for success. Egypt has given me and many other Armenians a chance to realise our ambitions. Rather than dreaming of going back to a land we hardly know, my generation is intent on giving back to this country, which took us in as penniless refugees, some of what we have received." Simonian never felt discriminated against. "Sometimes in the army, the officer would say in jest, 'get me the foreigner', or someone would call me khawaga as a joke. But it was never said with the intention to offend."

Sculptor Vahan Telpian, whose work was recently shown and acclaimed at the Aswan Sculpture Biennale, speaks of a similar experience and similar feelings. He considers himself an Egyptian artist. "Maybe I have chosen stone as my medium because originally my family came from the mountains, but when I sculpt, it is the Egyptian landscape I have in mind." He, too, is comfortable with his double allegiance but, unlike other Armenians his age, he does not feel compelled to choose an Armenian bride. "I don't believe in this kind of nonsense," he says. "Marriage is a personal affair, not a community activity."

For the time being, his mind is much more occupied by a new way of sculpting granite which he has been experimenting with. As we talk at the Akhnaten Gallery, where Vahan is currently exhibiting his new work, completed after the Biennale, renowned journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal walks in. "He bought one of my sculptures," whispers Vahan proudly before rushing to greet the distinguished visitor.

Not every Armenian basks in the comfort of a double identity, however. Chant Avedissian, one of the most gifted artists of his generation, claims that Armenians have developed a ghetto mentality to which they continue to cling long after the end of the diaspora. "Even now, they concentrate in certain quarters to be next to each other. These days, almost every Armenian lives in Heliopolis," he says. "At the time of the massacres, my grandmother escaped from Izmir on foot and walked all the way to Egypt," recounts Avedissian. "My father was born here. Consequently, I am Egyptian. But for the first 20 years of my life, I knew nothing about Egypt. I knew the Kalousdian School, where I was enrolled, the club and our house. We only frequented Armenians and, as far as I was concerned, nothing else existed. I discovered Egypt when my father died and I emigrated to Canada. I made up my mind then to come back." He also discovered the revolutionary architecture of Hassan Fathi, and became the great man's disciple.

Avedissian believes that "Armenians in Egypt are not in touch with reality. Look at the Kalousdian School! It made sense in the 1920s, when there were hundreds of thousands of poor refugees in bad need of free schooling. Now they have less than a hundred students."

Thomas Zakarian, who works on an education programme sponsored by the Armenian Embassy and aimed at teaching their culture to Armenian children enrolled in foreign schools, confirms that 60 per cent of Armenian children do not go to Armenian schools and almost as many do not know the language. "Cultural activities should be left to the embassy, since we now have one. What we are doing here is keeping the memory of the old country alive; but now we are only a plane ticket away from Armenia. The diaspora is over. What is the problem? Those who pine for Armenia should go back, by all means; but they won't, because life is different there, different from what it used to be when their parents left, and different from the dreams that have been passed on to them. They prefer to keep the old image alive and continue to live in a make-believe world," says Zakarian.

Avedissian is equally indignant about Egyptian-Armenian politics: "They have imported the old parties. They still belong to them here and quarrel among themselves, although these parties no longer exist in Armenia today. They had their importance at the time when they were fighting to regain their country; the parties were then the Armenian equivalent of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Now they have become redundant and meaningless. Do their members have a seat in the Armenian parliament? Of course not. Moreover, in Armenia, Egyptian-Armenians are regarded simply as foreigners, not political opponents or supporters. Why don't they wake up and smell the coffee? They like it here, don't they? Then they should stop playing games. Who among them would go and settle in a country in severe economic trouble? Who would like to take their business there? In 1967, when the Armenians left Egypt in droves, they went to Canada, the US and Australia. They did not go to Armenia, although they could have."

This summer, Zakarian will be taking a group of Armenian youngsters on a short trip to Armenia. He wants the children to know their home country, to see it for what it is. "Every Armenian should know the language and culture; it will enrich them no end. But they should be put in contact with their true heritage and spared the stale patriotism that the various institutions are dishing out right now. These institutions have enough money to revamp all their cultural programmes. All it takes is the courage to sweep away the cobwebs."

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