The academic year 1971/72 at Haigazian College in Beirut, Lebanon ended on a high note. William Saroyan had accepted an invitation to be the commencement speaker at the end of June in 1972. When I spoke to him about the honorarium, he said that he had only one condition; that we put him up in a room on the fourth floor of the St. George Hotel. I was puzzled. Why would he specify the fourth floor? When I went to arrange for the room, I realized for the first time after all those years in Beirut, that the hotel had only four floors!
The arrival in Beirut of the man whose books had been required reading for me in the freshman year at Lafayette in the early “40’s was momentous. Our graduating seniors were ecstatic. The whole college was agog.
The American Ambassador arranged a cocktail party in his honor. Saroyan was the center of attention. Everyone, it seemed was automatically drawn to him He even managed a visit to the kitchen and charmed the chef into preparing for him a bag of goodies. A friend of mine had driven Saroyan and me to the party in a Volkswagen Beetle, and on our return to the hotel, the great man asked us to drop him off at the corner where he said they made the best madzoon he had ever eaten. He planned to eat in his room with that and the contents of the bag from the party as the piece de resistance.
The Armenian town of Anjar was one of the highlights of his visit to Lebanon. He was droven to the border town by a group of Moussa Dagh survivors and upon arrival at the town’s entrance, the davul-zurna musicians started the dancing and singing. Surrounded by the townspeople, William Saroyan was nearly dragged into the town while the dancers gulped away the locally made Arack and in the fountain restauran’s fresh trouts, tabboule, hummos and other delicacies were served. For a few momen’s William joined the dancers and the fun continued until late evening. The next day Saroyan was one of the happiest Armenia’s seen in the world. He had lived their freedom with them. He was full of joy.
After lunch, Saroyan wanted to meet students. There are three schools, all elementary and high schools, and he visited all three. Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical. As for the students, I doubt if they ever will forget the moutashiod man introduced to them all as “Baron William Saroyan.”
I knew that he would enjoy a meal at my favorite restaurant, Al Barmaki and set up a small luncheon for four of us; Roy Essoyan, the Associated Press Bureau Chief, Harry “the horse” Koundakjian, the ace photographer of AP, Saroyan and I (Markarian). We arrived at about 1:00 pm and we were enjoying the mezze and the conversation which took the form of shared anecdotes. Each new story would remind one or the other of us of another and so the time passed. Within about a half hour, we discovered that Saroyan had taken over. We left the place at 6:00 pm. We three agreed later that while Saroyan was being Saroyan, we should have had a tape recorder. He had kept us on the edge of our seats for almost five hours!
The most difficult part of his visit was trying to satisfy all of the requests we were receiving for his time. He had put himself in my hands and had told me that he would do whatever I arranged. Our schedule was becoming more and more tight. One visit we had to include was to the Catholicos in Antileas just outside of Beirut. We raced there and were running to keep the appointment when a local photographer who had wanted to make a portrait of Saroyan came rushing to us and tried to thrust on us an enlarged wooden framed picture. We had to rebuff him abruptly, Saroyan saying, “What do I want with that board?” Then later as we were ready to return to Beirut, he turned and asked me if he had been too hard on that man. I said, “Yes.” He insisted that we get the man’so that he could accept the photo entitled, Yerevan by Night. He then arranged for a portrait of himself to be taken at some very odd and inconvenient free time. That was typical. He was a man of the people with no wish to act arrogantly toward the least and the simplest.
At the late afternoon ceremony was the graduation ceremony for the high school graduates. All smiles and proud, some recited their poetries, others read their compositions. All and their parents now keep Saroyan’s pictures in their homes and his smile in their hearts.