Bustling Outpost of Armenian Culture
Thirty years ago, with his native Lebanon going up in the flames of civil war, Harout Yeretzian, a Lebanese Armenian, came to Hollywood and joined his brother in founding a magazine devoted to the Armenian language and culture.
One thing led to another. The magazine spawned a print shop, which spawned a bookstore, which spawned a small publishing house.
Three decades later, the brother is gone. So are the magazine and the print shop. Yeretzian’s dedication to his people’s literature, art and music, however, remains, domiciled now in a cottage-like brick building near Glendale City Hall.
Abril Books, which claims to be the largest of the half-dozen Armenian-language bookstores in the United States, is light-filled, as befits a place of cultural illumination. Open doors, front and back, send air currents eddying among shelves and stacks of Armenian-themed books, including the handful that Abril publishes each year, as well as periodicals, greeting cards and music CDs. Unseen loudspeakers lightly bathe everything in classical cello music.
The 62-year-old Yeretzian is a small bear of a man with a bristling mustache and wavy, gray, sweptback hair. His voice is deep and abraded by a daily succession of Marlboro Lights.
His mission is to help his fellow Armenians maintain their ancient identity. It’s not an easy matter for a people that, in the 1st century B.C., ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea but since has been scattered by economic privation and persecution to the far reaches of the Earth. With only a tiny, recently independent, Armenian state to serve as a point of contact for ethnic sensibility, Yeretzian says, literature, art and religion have had to play central roles in sustaining a sense of cohesiveness among the world’s Armenian communities.
He cites, as an example, author Krikor Beledian, whom Abril Books publishes. “This guy lives in Paris and teaches at the Sorbonne. He writes in Armenian about Lebanon, and I’m here in L.A., and I publish his books,” Yeretzian says.
Abril -- in Armenian the word means both “April” and “hope” -- contains about 5,000 titles, among them histories, novels, volumes of poetry and treatises on Armenian art and music. The books include works in Eastern Armenian, the language of Armenia proper, and Western Armenian, the language of Armenians who hail from more westerly parts of the Middle East, such as Lebanon and Syria. The differences between them, Yeretzian says, are significant, including variations in word suffixes and verb conjugation.
The challenge of multiple languages, however, is not insurmountable for a small ethnic group that has had to live for so long in foreign lands. As a boy in Lebanon, he says, he had to learn Armenian, Arabic, English and French.
“It’s not really hard to learn languages,” he says, with something like incomprehension at the American aversion to the task. “But here, the American people don’t even learn English very well.”
Preserving the Armenian language among young Armenian Americans is becoming a bit of a problem, however. Yeretzian says that at his original store, off Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, 80% of the books he carried were in Armenian and 20% in English. In his present store, which opened in 1998, Armenian-language books constitute only about half of his stock. The other half is by Americans of Armenian descent -- such as Peter Balakian, author of “Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response” -- who write in English.
(Yeretzian notes that nearly half of the books in English refer to the massacres of Armenians by Turkish authorities from 1915 to 1923, while barely a quarter of the Armenian-language books deal with the subject. Both of Yeretzian’s grandfathers died in the executions and forced starvations, which took the lives, it is estimated, of 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children.)
Abril sold books to the Los Angeles Unified School District when instruction for newly arrived immigrant children was conducted in Armenian. Those sales ended, a significant blow to Abril’s business, in 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227, which virtually banned bilingual education in California.
As with other ethnic groups, assimilation of the young into American culture is a concern to many older Armenians. The experience of Yeretzian’s own son Arno, a 30-year-old filmmaker, is a case in point.
Arno, the only child of Yeretzian and his artist/gallery owner wife, Seeroon, attended Armenian private schools through high school. All of his friends were Armenian. Then he enrolled at UC Santa Cruz and, as one of the relatively few Armenian Americans there, befriended students of different ethnic backgrounds.
“The clash with American culture was very strong,” Yeretzian says. “Now he says we should have exposed him to more American culture when he was a kid. Most of his friends are Americans now.” Yeretzian has faith, however, that the strength of Armenian families will keep the Armenian sensibility intact among the next generation.
“A lot of people who are engaged to marry Armenians, or already have, come in and ask for books on the Armenian tradition and language. So, the assimilation goes both ways,” he says with a grin. “If a non-Armenian girl marries an Armenian, she has to learn some Armenian words just to be taken into consideration as a human being by his family.”
That the bookstore is a sanctuary of Armenian identity is apparent in the motivations of those who visit.
Narine Gabouchian of Glendale came into the shop one morning and before long was carrying an armload of books, in Armenian and English, as gifts for her daughter Margaret’s 16th birthday. Margaret came with her family from Armenia when she was a toddler, and her parents strove to teach her to read and speak Armenian.
Now a student at a private school in Pasadena, Margaret “knows she’s Armenian and is very proud of it,” her mother said. “She would like to know more about her motherland.”
Later that day, Avetis Bairamian, a sportswriter for the Armenian language weekly Nor Or, dropped in on Yeretzian to exchange pleasantries and discuss Bairamian’s self-published book, whose title translates as “Famous Armenians in the World of Sports.”
It contains the exploits of competitors of Armenian heritage, including tennis star Andre Agassi, chess champion Garry Kasparov and a succession of champions in weightlifting, a sport in which Armenians have long excelled.
Bairamian proudly noted that at the 37th Chess Olympiad this spring in Turin, Italy, the Armenian team won the gold medal. (China won silver, and the United States, whose squad included 23-year-old Varuzhan Akobian of Los Angeles, bronze.)
Ruzanne Barsegyan of Tujunga, meanwhile, was scanning the CD shelves for a copy of the “Sonatina Toccata” by Aram Khachaturian, the most famous Armenian composer of the 20th century. Barsegyan, 18, an animated recent high school graduate headed for premedical studies at UC Irvine in the fall, is also a pianist.
Her conservatory-trained Armenian piano teacher wanted her to begin learning the Khachaturian piece for a recital, she explained with a mixture of excitement and dread.
“It’s very structured, and you have to find the rhythm and the rhythm is hard to find,” she told Yeretzian. “It’s very difficult, very, very .... “
“Strong?” he offered.
Yeretzian shrugged knowingly. “It’s Armenian,” he said.
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