Armenian Life : Immigrants, Fleeing War's Pain, Work to Preserve Culture

Times Staff Writer

"I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race.... Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia." --William Saroyan, 1908-81

Up and down Washington Boulevard in Pasadena--along the storefronts of pastry shops, small vegetable markets and convenience stores--refugees from war and persecution have created a new home, a new Armenia.

They have come in two waves of immigration, one in the early 1970s and one that continues today, fleeing pressure to choose sides in Lebanon's civil war. Out of the madness, the destruction of Beirut, they have created a community here that straddles two worlds, embodying both a dream and a fear.

Many have been shunted from one war-torn country to the next and welcome the stability of America. They embrace its vast potential while fearing it as the only country in the world with the power to fully assimilate them.

They say they have grown accustomed to a nomadic life style, for this has been the history of Armenians, a small tribe of Christian people who remain patient in the face of remarkable vicissitudes. Yet their voices betray a certain weariness from living too long at the grace of others in adopted lands.

There is Nazareth Mankerian, who works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, in his small market on Washington Boulevard. His eldest son showed promise as a young pianist in Beirut and Nazareth brought his family to the United States so his son might realize his full potential as an artist.

"What would he be if we had stayed in Lebanon?" Nazareth asks a visitor. "A terrorist? Playing with a gun instead of a piano? His face is not the face of a terrorist."

There is Abraham Karabibergian, a jeweler by trade who opened a toy shop on Washington Boulevard two years ago. Karabibergian, 27, sees endless opportunities in America but still waits for the Armenian homeland that was lost 70 years ago when 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Turks in a forced exile from eastern Turkey.

He believes that to fully accept the United States as his permanent home would be a betrayal of his dream. His license plate reads "HYE MNA," which means, "Stay Armenian forever."

And there is Krikor Keshishian, the proprietor of a corner pastry shop facing the same boulevard, who waits for the day when his only son will be the third generation of Keshishians to bake French pastries. The boy, 13, has told his father he wants to be a Marine instead.

Pasadena's Armenian community ranks second only to Hollywood's as the fastest-growing in the nation. There are an estimated 17,000 Armenians living in Pasadena, half of whom arrived here in the last five years, chiefly from Beirut.

Because so many of them have arrived in such a short time and cannot speak English, Pasadena has had trouble absorbing these newcomers in a tight job market. Although precise figures are not known, social workers say a growing number of immigrants are applying for public assistance. Still, county welfare rolls show only 1% of Southern California's 200,000 Armenians receiving aid.

To help ease the transition to a new life in Pasadena, Armenian community leaders lobbied hard to win passage of a law that recognizes Armenians as a protected class under Pasadena's affirmative action ordinance.

The law, which went into effect in March, is the first of its kind passed by any city and will mean that Armenians, like blacks and Latinos, are officially classified as a minority and must be recruited for city jobs and city-awarded contracts. The affirmative action ordinance is one of several recent actions taken by Pasadena to court Armenian voters, who represent a growing political force in the city.

Beyond its economic implications, the ordinance is seen as a positive force against the tendency by recent arrivals to band together and form ethnic enclaves apart from and ignorant of the larger Pasadena community.

The inclination to gather in tight-knit groups and speak Armenian in public has caused some tension between the newcomers and longtime Armenian residents of the city. Second- and third-generation Armenian-Americans, whose forebears came to the United States in the aftermath of the 1915 genocide, worry that the newcomers are creating a bad name for


Recent immigrants respond that Armenian-Americans have adopted American culture as their own and have forgotten what it is like to be an Armenian.

The differences between the newcomers and established Armenians are underscored by a nagging debate over Armenian terrorism and whether it advances the goals of forcing Turkey to admit that it massacred nearly two-thirds of the Armenian race from 1915-1918 and to return the ancient Armenian homeland.

In the past 10 years, Armenian extremists have assassinated a number of Turkish diplomats in Los Angeles and other cities worldwide. Turkey and Turkish-American lobbying groups have responded by conducting a wide-scale campaign denying that Armenians were systematically massacred and contending instead that Armenians actually massacred Turks.

Newcomers from Beirut, who tend to be more nationalistic, often justify the assassinations and bombings of Turkish institutions as options forced upon the Armenians by an unresponsive world. Many regard as a hero Harry Sassounian, a Pasadena Armenian who was sentenced last June to life in prison for the 1982 murder of Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan in Los Angeles.

Most Pasadena Armenian-Americans argue that the violence has served only to besmirch the reputation of all Armenians.

"There are two Armenian communities in Pasadena," said Bob Nigsarian, a former Pasadena police officer and an acting commissioner for the Pasadena Parks and Recreation Department. "Armenians who came here after the genocide were forced to fit in. Now we have our Deukmejians, Saroyans, professors, lawyers, doctors and judges.

"On the other hand, the Armenians who have come from Beirut in the last few years have learned to survive in an atmosphere of war," he said. "Terrorism gets a great deal of emotional support from these newcomers. We're dealing with a different set of values."

In some ways, the merchants of Washington Boulevard stand as a bridge between Pasadena's two Armenian communities and, more broadly, between the immigrants and their new country. The store and shop owners have integrated at a faster pace than other recent arrivals from Beirut, partly because so many of their customers are non-Armenian and they have readily learned English. Yet they hew to tradition, holding close the Armenian values of family and preservation of language and culture. They work long hours and live for their children.

For a stretch of three blocks, from Hill Avenue past Allen Avenue, virtually every business along Washington Boulevard--every produce market, appliance store, shoe repair shop and printing shop--is owned by an Armenian from Beirut.

Of the 260 Armenian-owned businesses in Pasadena, roughly one-third are on Washington Boulevard, the street that divides Pasadena from Altadena.

Except for a succession of commercial signs written both in English and the ancient Armenian alphabet, there is nothing outward that distinguishes Washington Boulevard from any other thriving business strip. There are few vacant storefronts or businesses for sale. Several merchants say they are prospering, while others complain that they are merely holding their own.

Once inside the shops and stores, though, it becomes clear that Armenian merchants have accommodated two worlds in a way that transcends commercial signs in two languages.

At Nazareth Mankerian's Armenian-American market, candy bars and Budweiser beer are sold alongside tahini, a sesame seed paste, and halvah, a Middle East confection. About 80% of Mankerian's customers are non-Armenian. Like other Armenian-owned businesses on the strip, Mankerian's market can only be described as eclectic in function. It is part grocery store, part delicatessen, part liquor store and part appliance center. He jokes that the 7-Eleven-type convenience store was a concept stolen from the Armenians.

"We Armenians like to offer a little bit of everything," says Mankerian, a short, balding man who constantly chews a wad of bubble gum. "I did very good business in Beirut, but here you have competition with big supermarkets. In Lebanon, everything was smaller."

Mankerian, 55, and his wife, Virginia, have three boys: Vatche, 21; Shahe, 17, and Vahe, 14. The family left Beirut in 1979.

"We ran away for the sake of our children, especially my son, Vatche," Mankerian said. "He was born to play music."

Vatche, a senior at USC, started playing piano at age 5. Three years later, he was performing on Beirut television. Last year, he recorded his first album, a collection of pieces by Armenian composers. In May, he gave his first major concert, before an audience of 800 at the Wilshire Ebell Theater.

Mankerian, who displays the album on a spice counter behind the cash register, becomes emotional when describing the concert.

"When he plays the piece and finishes and people start to applaud, how do you say? . . . Tears come from my eyes. Even when I read the article about him in the Armenian newspaper, when they wrote that he was a 'hero,' I can't finish it. I can't see the words after a while."

Mankerian says his new country has been good to his family, pointing out that loans, grants and scholarships are financing Vatche's college education. But Mankerian said he so wanted his son to be a concert pianist that he was prepared to sell the family home to send him to college.

"My father sacrificed for me so I sacrifice for my son," Mankerian explained. "And my son will sacrifice for my grandson. This is the way we live."

Mankerian has dreams for his other sons, too. "Shahe will take singing lessons. He has a good voice. Vahe, he's good in business. He will take over the market one day."

But Vahe talks of aspirations beyond the market. "It's a boring job. I want to be a veterinarian or a zoologist."

"If he doesn't like the business, why does he stay all day?" Mankerian asks, speaking to his son through a visitor.

"Because he makes me," Vahe says, laughing. "I have no choice in the matter."

Mankerian also insists that his sons marry Armenian girls. Armenians refer to non-Armenians as o-dars , and the word comes up often in any discussion of marriage.

"It is better to marry an Armenian girl for the sake of our people," he said. "We are a little bit chauvinistic and maybe an o-dar girl wouldn't understand this.

"The Armenian culture began 3,000 years ago and has survived many conquerors. Nobody has the power to destroy us except ourselves by marrying outside our people."

On this point, his sons agree. "In Lebanon, I took being an Armenian for granted," Vatche said. "Neighborhoods consisted of only Armenians. I didn't have the fear of losing my culture and language.

"But over here, there is the fear that my children will not grow up Armenian. That has caused me to cling to my Armenian roots even more."

Vatche, like his father's market and the boulevard itself, is a product of different worlds, reflecting each in the music he plays and the dreams he holds close.

In Vatche's small studio next to his brother's bedroom, his piano from Lebanon sits across from an $8,000 synthesizer. While teaching piano part time, he is trying to form a band that will bridge Armenian folk and American rock music. Ultimately, he wants to score motion pictures while pursuing a career as a concert pianist.

"The Beatles are the reason I went into music. They are a part of me like Mozart, Franz Liszt and Komidas (a renowned Armenian composer). I hope some day to combine all these influences and create my own music. To be original in a way that makes me unique from all others."

At a small corner shop facing Washington Boulevard, Krikor Keshishian proudly announces that the chocolate used at the Parisian Pastry is "pure chocolate from England."

Keshishian came to Pasadena five years ago from Beirut, where he owned three such pastry shops. Photographs behind a pastry case show the eight-tier wedding cakes that have made Keshishian an important man on two continents. Traditionally, Armenians spend lavishly on wedding parties, and a large cake is integral to the elaborate celebration. It is not uncommon for an Armenian wedding to cost $50,000, an expenditure which parents proudly bear as much for their children as for pronouncing their wealth and good fortune to friends and neighbors.

Keshishian, who was born and lived his entire life in Lebanon, decided to emigrate to the United States in 1979 after a bomb flattened his home in a suburb of Beirut and injured his son, Vicken. Vicken, now 13, needed a type of corrective surgery on his leg performed only in the United States.

"The U.S. has been good to me," Keshishian said. "I would give my life for it. My son now good, me good. I am happy here."

Keshishian also has a 9-year-old daughter. But on this day, he wants to talk only about his son, who will one day take over the family business if Keshishian has his way.

"He doesn't have to make pastry," Keshishian insists. "A doctor or lawyer he can be." But Keshishian is already making plans for Vicken to follow a tradition laid down 60 years ago by his father.

"In this business, I need someone who can speak English good," he says.

Because Keshishian cannot afford to send his children to one of the dozen Armenian schools in the area, he reacts to their fascination with the punk hair styles and fashions by being extremely strict. He brooks no nonsense and has slapped his son in front of customers on more than one occasion.

"One day he tells me he's going to play soccer so I go to the game and wait for two hours, but there is no Vicken. I worry like crazy. Then he shows up at my shop and I slap him. I say, 'What are you? Crazy? I call the police.'

"I work for him with all my heart, my business, my property. I act like crazy man so he will be afraid of me and respect me and turn out to be a good boy."

Raffi Chaparian is 25 and single and searching for an Armenian girl to marry. But his four older brothers, who own and operate the Foodland Deli on the boulevard, keep him busy with work every day except Sunday. And he uses that day to go to Venice Beach to lift weights and relax in the sun.

"I don't know who she will be but I know where I will meet her," said Raffi, cutting tomatoes during a busy lunch hour at the delicatessen, which also functions as a meat market, restaurant and wholesale liquor store. "I'll probably meet her through the family or the church. I know I won't find her at the beach."

Greg Hartunian glances up from a plate of vegetables and warns his friend that finding an Armenian girl is no guarantee that a marriage will work. Hartunian, who was born in Lebanon, married an Armenian girl from Iran in 1981 and was divorced two years later. The intervention of his parents could not reconcile the couple's differences.

"There are more and more young Armenians getting divorces," Hartunian said. "I don't think this would be happening if we were back in the Middle East. But Armenian girls see how things are in the United States and they change. They are not patient here."

Raffi has six brothers and three sisters. The brothers, who include a minister and a shoe store manager, range in age from 32 to 48. When Abraham Chaparian died in Lebanon in 1968, his sons assumed the role of father for Raffi, who was 7 at the time. The family was poor, and eight children shared two bedrooms.

The brothers ran a boutique and a stationery store in Beirut. One by one the family began emigrating to the United States, the pace accelerated by the increasing pressure placed upon the neutral Armenian community by warring Christian Maronites and Muslims needing succor in Lebanon's civil strife.

The oldest brother, Harut, left Lebanon 18 years ago. Loucine Chaparian, their mother, arrived in 1974. Two years later, Raffi followed. The brothers worked as busboys and cooks before saving enough money to open the delicatessen eight years ago.

Raffi said the business has finally begun to make a profit in the last few years, enabling his family to pay off longtime debts. Now the brothers are planning to open a second delicatessen.

"We're not going to be millionaires off this store alone," Raffi said. "We want to open up another deli and maybe franchise the idea one day."

Kevork Karabibergian sits in the back room of his son's Washington Boulevard toy shop, watching soap operas on television and thumbing through a conversational English-Armenian book.

He is 60 and trying hard to learn English. The pages of his book are worn from his looking up the dialogue of daytime television. "No problem," he says, confronted by a new word. He searches with his pinkie up and down the page for the meaning in Armenian.

"One language, you are one man. Two languages, you are like two men. Three languages, you are like three men," he says. Kevork, fluent in Armenian, Turkish, French and Arabic, jokes that he is four men.

The toy shop is a minute's walk from the family home. Kevork and his wife, Sarah, live there with their two sons, Abraham and Hagop, and Hagop's Lebanese wife and their 5-year-old son.

Abraham scoffed at the suggestion that things could get crowded. "American people, when their kids turn 17 or 18 they leave home and live separately," he said. "We love to stick together. My parents took care of me and my brother and sister and now we take care of them. My pocket is their pocket. Their pocket is my pocket."

Hagop, 28, works as a graphic artist. Abraham, 27, who is a jeweler by trade, decided to open the toy store when he learned that the ring molds he crafted by hand in Beirut were done more efficiently and cheaply here.

The toy store, which also stocks baby clothes, bicycles, backpacks and greeting cards, is similar to the one Kevork owned in Beirut. He sold that business two years ago, shortly after paying a $10,000 ransom to Christian militiamen who had kidnaped Abraham.

It was the fifth time in six years that Abraham had been kidnaped off the streets of Beirut.

"The last time, they confused me with an Armenian jeweler who had shot one of their fellow militiamen," Abraham said.

He was taken from his jewelry shop in broad daylight with several other hostages to a warehouse inside the city. The militiamen lined up the captives and tortured each one. Abraham said he was fortunate to suffer only a bullet wound and a knife puncture to the leg. Another Armenian hostage was decapitated; his head was paraded through town on a motorcycle.

"These killers are not Muslim," Kevork said, still finding it difficult to believe. "They are Christian."

But Kevork still misses Lebanon, the country it once was. He sighs, his voice plaintive, when he recalls the mountain air of Beirut and the touch of sea in it.

"If you saw the real Lebanon, you'd say 'America, no good.' You could be on the sand by the sea and in 20 minutes be in the cold mountains with clean air. . . . What happened?" He shakes his head. "What happened?"

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