As I reflect on what I’m about to write, I’m somewhere over the rainy borders of continental Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, destined for Yerevan, after a short reprieve from my real life, spent in hot sunny Southern California.
While in California, I read and talked with friends about the 100th anniversary of Asbarez, undoubtedly a XXX of Armenian American life for the last century. And only during these conversations did I realize that had it not been for Asbarez, I probably would not be on this transatlantic journey to Armenia.
The story goes something like this:
In May 1994, as a third year university student at UC Berkeley, I kept on my studies and was involved with various political movemen’s–as one does at UC Berkeley. At the time, the political hot button issues were Proposition 187, the racist anti-immigrant ballot measure, intending to turn teachers and nurses into INS informan’s; then there were the myriad sit ins and teach ins, and hunger strikes, and requisite protests to establish a Chicano Studies department at Berkeley. And to add a bit of diversity to my political diet there was the feminist/LGBT studies center where I sort of watched things. I remember being in a Berkeley police holding cell (don’t remind my parents, please), where a number of my Hispanic cohorts looked at me and one blurted out “who are you? You’re not even Mexican, why are you arrested with us?”
What Miguel didn’t realize was that his question would set in motion a number of things that would lead to this flight.
In May 1994, another thing happened–a young author named Carol Edgarian, across the Bay Bridge, in San Francisco, published her first novel Rise the Euphrates. The San Francisco Chronicle had a review of the book, and a friend of mine at the I-House dorms thought I might be interested to read the review, since “it mentioned something about the Armenia’s.” Now, it was true that my friends knew that I was Armenian, and had arrived in the Berkeley hills through a number of countries and cities, but no one had really ever asked much about what that meant, and who I was, and just to be clear, I was very content about that, because I really didn’t have the ability to explain anything about being an Armenian. In fact, my parents had somewhat abruptly decided to move the family from Europe to America (where as I would later drag out of them, they had hoped we would lose our European–read, non-Armenian ways, and join the vibrant Armenian community of Southern California). So, in short, I was what one might call a dolma Armenian, because that’s the only time I was connected with that part of who I was, and that’s all I could explain to people–well, aside from the tidbit about the Genocide and Soviet Armenia.
But, back to Carol. So, the review was in the Examiner and I read it, and it mentioned the background of what seemed to be an interesting coming-of-age story. I was about to enter finals weeks, and during those weeks, if I did any reading, it was to cram for my exams, but against my better judgment, I went and picked up Rise the Euphrates at Cody’s Book Store. What happened over the next three days is still a mystery to me. I began reading a story that paralleled in great part my own story, my own family and my own state of being. And Casard, Seta Loon, and Araxie became my constant companions for those hours and days, and later years to come. I received my first C at Berkeley on my next exam in a literature course, and was just fine with my achievement of reading this book, or so I thought.
I woke up three days after reading the book non-stop and decided that I wanted to meet Carol Edgarian, because I needed to have some sort of connection with Seta Loon and Casard. I wanted to meet the woman whose mind had given birth to these friends of mine. My Indian roommate, who was studying for his PhD oral exams in quantum physics, was already annoyed with me for keeping the reading light in our hole of a room on for three nights, but decided that it would be the culturally right thing to do, and not ridicule me–after all, who in their right mind stalks an author, after reading a book.
Now, enter Asbarez.
I needed a cover for calling the publicist at Random House to request a meeting with Ms. Edgarian, the oft-sought after author, whose sensational new book was making all sorts of best seller lists. So, I picked up a phone book (remember the Internet had not yet become a pervasive force in our lives) and looked in the Armenian section. Actually, let me correct myself. I called a friend in Los Angeles, and asked her to pick up a phone book and send me the phone numbers for various Armenian publications, particularly newspapers and she came back with one–Asbarez. She explained that she had talked to her parents and grandparents, and the only publication worth even communicating with at this point was Asbarez. She, too, thought I was a bit weird about this whole thing.
I made a cold call to Asbarez’s Managing Editor at the time John Kossakian, who must have thought that I was some strange kid who was playing a prank and simply said go ahead and tell Random House that you’re reporting for us, and do the interview. He also explained that I shouldn’t expect that the article would necessarily be published–only if it was good. After I hung up, I had to call back to make sure that Mr. Kossakian knew that I wasn’t about to write this article in Armenian (a minor fact that had escaped me), and so, he transferred me to English Editor Ara Khachatourian, who in his irreverent way explained that English would be fine. Ara also explained in the course of my conversation that Asbarez had just established a summer internship program for university students, and that if the article was any good (what he really meant was, if you think you can get this interview and do a decent job at it), then I’d be invited to participate in the internship program. As a literature major, I had absolutely no clear career objectives, so I thought dabbling in journalism might be something of interest.
The next call was to Random House and their Bay Area office, where after a good hour or so of talking to various people I was on the phone with Carol Edgarian’s publicist, who was nice enough to humor me with a positive answer and said that she would get back to me with a date and a time. She called back that afternoon, and said that I would meet Carol on May 17, at 1 p.m. for lunch at Zuni’s Caf? on Market Street in San Francisco.
We did–Carol and I met–we talked, we laughed, I asked her if she was Seta Loon, and she said no, and she said that Casard was all hers. I wrote the article, spent an entire day crafting what at the time seemed like the perfect sentences, using every ounce of creative writing ability I had acquired at Berkeley, and sent the article in.
Just to be clear, I faxed the article in, and then also emailed it using an archaic email system that chopped the article in half, and so the article had to be typeset by the Asbarez staff. I got a call from the staffer responsible for typesetting–Anahid Oshagan, who explained in confidence that the editors had liked the article very much, and that it was going to be published in the extended Saturday edition, and that it would have a full dedicated page.
I hung up the phone, and couldn’t stop jumping up and down. At the time I thought it was for being published. Today, I know it to be different.
Asbarez’s internship program that summer was the window to my Armenian identity. The next time I was threatened to be arrested was at a demonstration in support of Armenian Genocide recognition, and my first trip to Armenia in 1999, was because I decided to work at the Foreign Ministry as a graduate student. And I reported for Asbarez from there, too.
Today, as a seven-year resident of Armenia, I continue to report for Asbarez occasionally, not because Asbarez doesn’t have others to write for its legendary pages, or because it lacks the talent on staff. No, I continue to write for Asbarez because this 100 year old publication, which provided countless others with a home during the most difficult days of the Armenian nation’s tortured history over the last century through massacre and deportation, immigration and emigration, earthquake and war, or the rare days of independence and victory, I am convinced will be the forum through which another lost Armenian may find his or her way home.
I did. Thank you, Asbarez.
Alex Sardar’s summer internship at Asbarez resulted in a multi-year tenure as an editorial assistant in the English Section. During his time here, he covered myriad issues and events and went on to assume leadership positions within the community. A frequent contributor to Asbarez, Sardar is the Chief of Party for the USAID Civic Support Program (CASP), implemented by Counterpart International.