BY ARA KASPARIAN
There is an old adage, “tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
One of the mysteries of life is how we manage to strike friendship with some people and not with others.
Zareh Deurdulian was my friend. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary capacity for friendship. Sometimes we pick our friends and sometimes they pick us. I first met him on the tennis court along with a group of men mostly members of Homenetmen. He was as competitive as any robust amateur athlete. A few years older than I was, he was agile, in good shape, and showed fierce competitiveness. Within days we were able to strike a friendship that continues to add spice to my life even after his death eleven years ago. He had a permanent smile on his face that reflected the purity that was in his heart. He had an extraordinary ability to empathize with everything human and everything Armenian. Unmarried, he lived his life vicariously through the families and the children of his friends for whom he was the ultimate Uncle Zareh. He would spend hours describing to me the scholastic achievements of Haig Haytayan, the son of his close friend Shant, as Haig navigated through his high school years. He would insist on attending the high school football games of Christopher Berberian, the son of his other friend, Jack. All of his friends experienced the ritual of daily calls inquiring about our families’ well being with the reminder that he was eager to be helpful to all. What was the source of his enormous capacity for friendship? The best explanation is his upbringing as a devout member of Homenetmen. Like many in his and the previous generation of the Armenian Genocide survivors, his soul was nurtured by Homenetmen to reflect a healthy body and a healthy mind. I know this from the stories narrated to me by my father who survived the emotional ravages of the Armenian Orphanage in Aleppo. His youth took a decidedly healthy turn when he became a member of the Homenetmen family. The organization gave him a structure of support, camaraderie with fellow members and a sense of optimism and idealism that served him the rest of his life. The idea of elevating oneself and then elevating others brought a sense of optimism to him. The collective destiny of this youth was forged by Homenetmen’s ideals as they graduated from their Boy Scout days to the later higher achievements of their lives. Zareh was a product of this organization. His soul was marinated in the warm atmosphere of Homenetmen. This is where he developed his love for sports and competitiveness. Homenetmen gave him his zest for life, his enormous sense of optimism, his sense of humor and his ability to elevate others. He remained devoted to these ideals till the end.
Zareh befriended everybody, the rich and the poor, the mighty and the downtrodden. He saw the positive in all without being blind to the defective traits of some. Most of all, he brought the best in all of his friends. No gathering was complete without him. His devotion to Armenian causes was instilled in him from his earlier life in Lebanon. Every one of his friends has a favorite story about him, mostly belying his simplicity, his sense of humor and his unbound optimism.
The first day of the year 2000, while the world’s attention was on the fleeting impact of Y2K, I called to challenge him for a game of tennis. Uncharacteristically, he said he felt a little tired and preferred to rest. The next day, I called again to inquire about his health. He did not respond. I called him again and again. Then I checked with his other close friends. Nobody had heard from him that day. That evening I called Shant asking him to meet me at Zareh’s apartment, as I was on my way there to check on him. We enlisted other friends to accompany us as we noticed his car parked outside his apartment. The knocks on the door remained unanswered. In desperation, we broke the window and got inside. In his bedroom, on the bed, we found his frozen body. Within minutes there were twenty of his close friends gathered in his living room in shock and disbelief. At the moment Zareh’s body was being carried away by the attending paramedics, Shant stopped them and turned to the gathered friends, asked us to say our last Hair Mer for Zareh. His friends made a circle and uttered our most sincere prayers on behalf of Zareh.
There was a funeral service after which his body was flown to Beirut at his family’s request. The proceeds collected here were dedicated to Homenetmen’s Zareh Deurdulian Memorial Fund. A tennis tournament in his name was established at the Navasartian Games each year since then.
A few years ago, Homenetmen honored Shant Haytayan for being an Exemplary Member. December 18, 2011 was Shant’s 60th birthday. His expressed wish was to gather his friends not only for that occasion but also to pay homage to his long gone friend, Zareh. More than sixty of us gathered at Carlitos Gardel Restaurant. Zareh would have loved it. In lieu of birthday presents, Shant had requested donations to the Zareh Deurdulian Memorial Fund of Homenetmen. Proceeds collected went for that purpose. Those gathered reminisced about Zareh, highlighting anecdotes of lived experiences with him. This was an exemplary act by an Exemplary Homenetmen member to recognize a unique friend and support a valuable cause.
Many people walk in and out of our lives, but only true friends leave footprints on our hearts. Zareh’s life was a celebration of friendship, loyalty, and honoring an Armenian organization that has its imprint in our hearts.