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Diamond in the roughProfile byFayza Hassan
Family, community and craft: the priorities are clear
Vartan's jewellery shop sparkles and gleams: the thriving green plants at the door are set in shiny brass pots that reflect the rays of the sun filtering through openings in the surrounding rampart of buildings. The façade is entirely covered in translucent marble, and the tiny window cut in the stone is exquisitely arranged to display a single, dazzling piece.
Varoujan Kazandjian (Varouj to his friends, Vartan to his clients), has none of the physical traits popular stereotypes associate with jewellers in general, and Armenian jewellers in particular. Handsome, tall and elegant, he is warm and welcoming, loves a joke and knows all his clients by name. One immediately imagines him presiding over a banquet at which important affairs are discreetly discussed while delicious food and vintage wines are consumed. Or, considering the number of stunning beauties who drift in and out, and assemble on a continuous basis in his packed premises, he could be in the process of selecting models for an unusual fashion show. He is affable, cordial and perfectly groomed. Clearly, there is nothing to the image of the old, grouchy and bespectacled Armenian jeweller bent over a collection of gold pieces which he fingers deftly while surreptitiously weighing up a prospective client.
Towards Opera Square, Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Street is lined with elegant jewellery shops established before the turn of the century and featuring brilliantly expensive displays of gold and diamond trinkets. The names in golden letters are mostly Armenian. Vartan's shop is nestled in this part of town like a rare gem in a lackluster setting. One discovers the little alley off the main thoroughfare just before reaching the square. Here, away from the bustle of the busy street, the atmosphere seems suddenly more subdued; the doors of the boutiques open onto less glitzy interiors. "Abdel-Khalek Tharwat -- once called Al-Manakh -- has always been the Armenian jewellers' quarter," says Vartan, "so naturally, this is where my father opened this shop."
Just opposite, in those days, there was a little garden-café (where a nondescript building stands now), where all the Armenian jewellers gathered to talk business, drink coffee and smoke a shisha. On holidays, young Varouj often accompanied his father and enjoyed listening to the grown-ups talk -- mainly about business, but also about the affairs of the community, the schools, the hospice for the elderly and ways of helping the poorest members of the community. Philanthropy was a duty that every Armenian took seriously, he recalls.
Like most Armenians in Egypt, he was spared the agonies of estrangement suffered by many of those who, having fled Turkey, established themselves in other foreign lands. The Armenian community was well entrenched in Egypt by the time Varouj was born, and he had no trouble reconciling a double identity. Like all his friends and relations, he was both Egyptian and Armenian. It was as simple as that. He spoke his mother tongue, of course, but from early childhood could express himself fluently in Arabic. He also learned French and English as a matter of course. Cairo was a cosmopolitan city, where ethnic differences were either appreciated or, at worst, ignored. He really had no reason, he says, to feel any different from the rest of his generation. His father had started from scratch and built himself up, but so had all the Armenians established in Egypt and prospering thanks to their diligence, reliability and hard work. These, and a great regard for family and community life, were the values cherished by the Armenian community and absorbed by Varouj and his peers with mother's milk. It therefore seemed quite natural that he abandon his studies at the American University in Cairo to help his older brother keep the shop going at his father's death.
"My brother did not enjoy working with his hands," says Varouj. "Although he was the one who had been assisting my father officially, I worried that he would neglect the more creative aspect of the business. I found pleasure in performing manual work. I had often washed the floors and polished the work benches when I accompanied my father to the shop. I was keenly aware that being a jeweller involved more than buying and selling beautiful pieces." He liked that side of the business too, however, and fondly remembers the day he attended King Farouk's famous auction of precious objects, right after the revolution. Still a very young man, he had been able to acquire quite a number of priceless pieces, out-bidding older and more experienced dealers who were not a little peeved at this "upstart's" performance, but who came in time to respect his judgement.
Buying objects of beauty was still the more glamorous aspect of the business. On a daily basis, he had to contend with the tedious hours in the workshop -- a tiny room on the second floor -- the careful handling of the raw materials, the heat of the fire melting the precious metals, the painstaking sorting of precious stones and the repairs to miscellaneous pieces, carried out for free to please a good client. Only then would he be rewarded with the sight of an original creation, the result of his meticulous labour. Varouj did not hesitate. Abandoning any idea of furthering his studies, he was ready to follow in his father's footsteps.
In this endeavour, he was lucky to have Maestro Luigi Bibiano to guide him as he forged ahead. "He was an exceptional craftsman, whose calloused fingers bore testimony to the number of years he had spent handling burning metals," recalls Varouj affectionately. Bibiano taught him the difficult art of smelting platinum and, in time, he became an expert. "Nowadays, though, most clients are happy to settle for white gold, which suits me fine since there are no longer good craftsmen who can stand the very high temperatures required to work with platinum."
When Bibiano's time to retire came, the old maestro began dreaming about Brazil, where his son had settled. He was worried about the long trip, however. Varouj, on the other hand, was reluctant to see him go. "Stay a while longer, and I'll take you there myself," he promised. Finally the trip could not be postponed any longer and, true to his word, Varouj accompanied the old man all the way to his son's house in Rio de Janeiro.
Bibiano had passed on to Varouj the secrets of the craft, and his family had instilled in him the highest moral values, but there was no one to teach him the social skills of the trade. Happily married himself, he had always been surrounded by the close-knit families of the Armenian community. It had never occurred to him that human relations were not necessarily of the kind he had experienced so far. "I made one mistake," he recounts. "One day a very respected gentleman came to my shop and bought an expensive brooch. His wife had been our client for many years, usually buying small trinkets. The brooch, I reflected, must have been meant to mark a very special occasion. It was an exceptional piece, really, and the next time the man's wife walked in, I naturally asked her if she had liked it. Confronted with her puzzled gaze, I realised that I had just made a major faux pas. At once, I pulled out a tray displaying several brooches, and, hoping that my voice would not betray my emotions, I said as naturally as I could, 'I was saying that we have a new selection of brooches and wanted you to give me your opinion'. The lady began to examine the trinkets and said nothing more. Since that day, I follow this tried and true rule: see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing."
It often happens that he notices a jewel that he clearly remembers selling to a particular client worn by some young woman who is definitely neither his wife or daughter, "but now I refrain from commenting even to myself," he jokes. On occasions, he is visited by bold and beautiful members of the fair sex who announce the imminent arrival of their husbands on a mission to purchase a present for a birthday or an anniversary. "Increase the price, please, and let's share the difference," says the future recipient of the bijou. She invariably leaves in a huff when Varouj firmly informs her that he is not in this line of business.
Varouj's two sons are helping him now. They are very different in character: one is interested in the workshop, the other acts as a buyer and deals with public relations. "One is serious, the other is a playboy," explains Varouj with a smile. "The important thing," he adds seriously, "is that both have remained with me. Often one parts with one's children in the mistaken belief that it will further their career. All it does is break the family up." His sons have no desire to go settle in other countries, unlike many young men their age. They know they have a good thing going here, and they fully appreciate their luck, says their father.
Extremely protective of his own family, Varouj is also very active in the community's social life. The church and several clubs which he heads take up a great deal of his time. He also enjoys party politics, but none of the petty political bickering bound to occur occasionally in such a tightly woven community.
His main preoccupation, however, is to reinforce the family bond so important to Armenians. "It is crucial to provide family entertainment and insure the participation of young and old in as many recreational activities as possible," he says. "Our clubs cater for all members of the family, so that the children do not feel the need to go off with their peers while their parents are dedicating their attention to their game of cards or their grownups' parties. Our aim is to bridge the generation gap and keep a dialogue going between all the members of the community, regardless of their age. If there are disagreements, we settle them between ourselves, thus keeping them under control."
This kind of closeness may seem stifling to outsiders, but according to Varouj, it goes a long way toward keeping the good old values alive. Recently, the young members of his club travelled to Beirut, where they presented a programme of Armenian songs and dances. It took a lot of hard work, he says. "Some of the children who go to foreign schools cannot read Armenian, and we had to transliterate the words of the songs."
This is one of his great dilemmas: "Before, Armenian children went to Armenian schools which were free, at least for the primary grades. They came out proficient in Armenian and Arabic. Now the community is more affluent and therefore more demanding. The academic standard of our schools no longer satisfies them, they claim, so they enrol their children in foreign institutions."
Though he recognises the right of parents to decide what is best for their children, he foresees and deplores the neglect of the Armenian and Arabic languages. "Imagine," he says in wonderment, "a new breed of Egyptian/Armenians who can only express themselves in English or French. This is what will make them lose their sense of identity, not the fact that they have never visited Armenia."
photos: Randa Shaath