Lawyer, agricultural magnate, and uncle to legendary writer William Saroyan, Aram Saroyan (1893 to 1986) was a legendary figure in the eyes of many Fresno Armenians. A man immortalized in many of his nephew's stories, Aram was known not only for his courtroom antics, but his wit, intelligence, and dedication to the Armenian people, both in diaspora and in the land of his birth.
Here, from chapter 22 of Meet Uncle Aram, is his appraisal of the situation for Armenia and Armenians in 1952. Largely composed of a speech Saroyan delivered at Carnegie Hall, and later entered into the Congressional Record, it also serves as a record of his trip with Hosvep Ignatius to Paris, Yerevan, and other environs, to visit with Armenians on their home ground.
Chapter 22 - Paris
There are something like one-quarter of a million Armenians in the United States, settled in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Fresno. In Europe there are one hundred and twenty-five thousand; in Persia and Turkey two hundred and fifty thousand; in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, five hundred thousand; in Soviet Armenia, two million, two hundred and fifty thousand; in the rest of the U.S.S.R. one million; in Canada, South America and Mexico one hundred thousand. I can't say I know them all, but I've met enough on my travels to feel confident that Aram Saroyan is a name that rings a bell in a conversation among Armenians.
In 1952, wanting to satisfy my ambition to meet the Armenian people in their colonies from Erevan to Singapore, I booked passage on the Queen Mary, sailing for Europe. With me was my long-time friend, Hovsep Ignatius, the father of the man who was to be Secretary of the Navy in Lyndon Johnson's administration. Ignatius and I had worked together as leaders in the movement to bring before the United Nations the matter of Armenian territorial rights, of regaining from Turkey the land stolen from Armenia. Because the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in World War II, it seemed to be the right time to demand our territory from Turkey. We organized committees and delivered speeches across the country and, to launch our campaign, we got together a crowd of four thousand in Carnegie Hall., and some senators and congressmen were up there on the stage with us. The speech I made on that occasion was introduced into the Congressional Record by the Congressman from California, Bertrand Gearhart.
"Fellow Americans, I have come from the fair State of California, and I bring greetings to you all. Indeed, as a citizen of this great democracy, I consider it a rare honor and privilege to join my voice with yours in bringing the just cause of Armenia before the world at large and the American people in particular.
"Before we can discuss the Armenian problem intelligently, let us turn to the pages of history to inquire, who are the Turks? Who are the Armenians? Why have the Armenians been persecuted for centuries? What has been their crime? Let us not appraise these people by what I have to say, but by what distinguished and reliable historians and statesmen have said through the centuries:
"First of all, it was a supreme tragedy for civilization when the Turkish hordes, in the sixteenth century, invaded and occupied Armenia. The Armenians were gifted, progressive and above all, devout Christians. The Turks, on the other hand, were so uncivilized and barbarous that Pope Calixtus III in 1456 decreed the addition of the following invocation to the Ave Maria: 'Lord, save us from the devil, the Turk and the comet.'
"Many great writers and statesmen have shown that with the appearance of the Turks, civilization vanished in Syria, Mesopotamia, Byzantium, Arabia, Egypt, Armenia, and Greece. Victor Hugo admirably described the blighting influence of the Turks when he said: 'The Turks have passed there — all is ruin and tears.'
"William Gladstone, the great English statesman declared: 'The Turks were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one anti-human specimen of humanity! Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them; so far as their dominion reached, civilization disappeared from view.'
"The Armenians, by their Christianity and by their genius were the representatives of Western civilization in Turkey. The field of activities of American, French, and later, German missionaries, who went to Turkey for educational and evangelical purposes, was strictly confined to Armenian communities. The New York Times of October 19, 1915, published the following statement of General Sherib Pasha, then a Turkish exile in Paris:
“’If there is a race which has been closely connected with the Turks by its fidelity, by its service to the country, by statesmen and functionaries of talent it has furnished, by the intelligence which it has manifested in all domains — commerce, industry, science, and the arts — it is certainly the Armenians.'
"However, the Turks, because of their Mohammedan fanaticism, could not tolerate Christianity, whose faithful followers were the Armenians. As you know, ever since the Armenians adopted Christianity as their national religion in the year 301, they have adhered to it with great devotion and superhuman sacrifices. Historians tell us that when in the middle of the fifth century the Persians tried, first by promises and then by force, to convert the Armenians to fire worship, they failed miserably. To the Persian threats, the Armenians made this classic reply:
"'From this faith no force can move us — neither angels nor men; neither sword nor fire nor water; nor any deadly punishment.. . . If you leave us our faith, we shall accept no other lord in place of you but we shall accept no God in place of Christ. If, after this great confession you ask anything more of us, lo! our lives are in your hands. From you — torments; from us — submission; your sword — our necks. We are no better than those who have gone before us, who sacrificed their wealth and their lives for this testimony.'
"During all the Turkish atrocities, many thousands of Armenians, who were immolated for their Christian faith, could have saved themselves by merely pronouncing the formula of Islam and renouncing Christ. They preferred, instead, to suffer fiendish indignities and death at the hands of the Turks.
"Lord Bryce has said:
"'Of the seven or eight hundred thousand Armenians who have perished in the recent massacres, many thousands have died as martyrs, by which, I mean, they have died for their Christian faith when they could have saved their lives by renouncing it. This has perhaps not been realized even by those who in Europe or America have read of and been horrified by the wholesale slaughter and hideous cruelties by which half of an ancient nation has been exterminated.'
"Finally, the constant religious massacres of the Armenians by the Turks so outraged the moral conscience of the Western World, that Turkey was compelled to subscribe to the sixty-first article of the Treaty of Berlin, signed on July 13, 1873, which read:
"'The Sublime Porte undertakes to carry out, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and Kurds. It will periodically make known the steps taken to this effect to the powers, who will superintend their application.'
"The ink had scarcely-dried upon the solemn international obligation, before it was contemptuously violated.
"Instead of the promised reforms, the Turkish Government increased its persecution and encouraged the Kurds to pillage and slaughter the Armenians. From 1884 to 1896 more than three hundred thousand Armenians were massacred. In 1909 the terrible massacre in Cilicia shocked the civilized world, and when the Turks entered the First World War in 1914, they endeavored to destroy the entire Armenian Nation by massacre and deportation.
"Professor Angelo Hall, of the Annapolis Naval Academy, wrote in 1906:
"'Self-interest prompts the nations to let Turkey go on with her work of exterminating the Armenians. The nations may yet pay a heavier penalty for their crime than we paid for slavery.'
"That prophecy of calamity was fulfilled during the First World War. Perhaps the Second World War would not have scourged the human race if embers of injustice were not left smoldering.
"Lord Robert Cecil, referring to the collapse of the Russian Army during the First World War, said:
"'In the beginning of the war, the Russian-Armenians organized volunteer forces which bore the brunt of some of the heaviest fighting in the Caucasian campaign. After the Russian Army's break-down, the Armenians took over the Caucasian front, fought the Turks for five months, and thus rendered a very important service to the British Army in Mesopotamia. They served alike in the British, French, and American Armies, and have borne their part in General Allenby's victory in Palestine. The service rendered by the Armenians to the common cause can never be forgotten.'
"We all remember at the conclusion of the First World War the Armenian fighters, the only way to promote peace through justice to Armenia, which they called their 'Little Ally,' created by the Treaty of Sevres a free Armenian State. Turkey was a signatory of that treaty, and the boundaries of Armenia were delineated by President Wilson in 1920 at the request of the Allied Supreme Council.
"The only way to remember the valiant and heroic deeds of the Armenian fighters, the only way to promote peace through justice, and the only way to redeem the Allied promises for liberty and security to the Armenian people is for the United Nations to expedite the annexation of the Armenian provinces of Wilsonian boundaries to Soviet Armenia.
"You see now, my friends, that the demand of the American Committee for Armenian Rights to restore the Armenian Provinces in the Wilsonian boundaries to the Armenians, is really a demand for the execution of a legacy left by President Woodrow Wilson to the American people. Let us honor his imperishable memory by upholding Armenia's claims to her own homeland! Let no one cherish the illusion that there can be established universal peace without the establishment of universal justice.
"Now comes the Turk and says to the world, unashamed: 'Why should the world concern itself with the Armenian problem, since no Armenians exist in the territory in question?' It is like a cold-blooded murderer who kills his victim with malice aforethought, and when he is brought before the bar of justice, shouts to the court anil jury, without remorse or humiliation: 'Why punish me? My victim is dead and buried.'
"Because of the hideous crimes which have been perpetrated against the Armenian people for centuries, the Armenians have been scattered, like autumn leaves, to the four corners of the earth. Today, for the first time in history, little Armenia, a member of the Soviet Union, opens its doors and its heart to its brethren to come home. Already more than six hundred and fifty thousand now dispersed in Syria, Egypt, Rumania, Turkey, Bulgaria, France, and elsewhere, have signed applications to be repatriated on their ancestral soil. But their home is too small. A great portion which was stolen by the Turks today remains desolate, unproductive, in the hands of our traditional enemy. Today the Armenians in every land are crying to the world's conscience: 'Give us back our land, our sacred land; land that belongs to us, historically and geographically; land that has been drenched tor centuries with the blood of our ancestors; land upon which we may build our homes, rear our children, till our soil and enjoy the fruits of our labor, and worship God according to the dictates of our conscience.'
"To the call of this small but heroic people, I am confident the American people will respond by assuming the leadership in seeing that justice is done.
"America's love for freedom and justice is a guarantee that she will not fail the Armenians now."
Our efforts came to nothing; the resolution with twenty thousand signatures of churchmen of various faiths throughout the country that we presented to the State Department, meant nothing after Winston Churchill, in his speech at Fulton, Missouri, dropped the Iron Curtain between East and West. It was the beginning of the Cold War. From that point on, we silenced our voices. The big countries weren't inclined to get together to grant little Armenia what was hers.
Before I went to Armenia in October 1955, Mr. Alex Manoogian, who had recently been elected president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, asked me if I were willing to take the chairmanship of a drive throughout the United States and Canada to raise a quarter of a million dollars for the purpose of introducing the Armenian youth in America to our language, culture and history. Further, Mr. Manoogian told me that at the same time the A.G.B.U. was to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the organization in over twenty-five cities in this country. The campaign was to begin December of that year and to wind up the spring of 1956. I told Mr. Manoogian that I would give him my answer when I returned from Armenia.
Upon my return, I informed Mr. Manoogian that I was willing to accept the job, provided Mr. H. B. Ignatius could accompany me throughout the campaign and arrange the banquets in the various cities, for I had recognized Mr. Ignatius's capabilities as an organizer in our drive for Armenian territorial rights in 1946. Mr. Manoogian was glad to accept my condition.
The purpose of this campaign was close to my heart. Until now almost all the financial aid given by the A.G.B.U. had been for Armenians in Arab countries, but the new president felt that it was time that the organization did something for the Armenians in America. I heartily concurred. On several other occasions I had assisted the A.G.B.U. by raising money for various causes, particularly for repatriation in 1946, so I proceeded with confidence and joy. Immediately, we organized in California and moved to New York where we established ourselves at the A.G.B.U. offices. Our campaign, which lasted six months, took us from Boston to San Francisco. We not only spoke at banquets, but we also spoke to small groups and obtained their contributions. Our tour was crowned with great success: we topped our quarter of a million goal by two hundred and fifteen thousand dollars.
No effort of such magnitude could have achieved such success without help, and I was thankful for the methodical, patient and persuasive Hovsep Ignatius whose salutary influence upon me was immeasurable. Others were of great assistance, too, and I particularly recall the untiring efforts, the timely suggestions of Mr. Don Donielian. In the end, though, a cause is more important than the individuals who further it, and we were grateful to the multitudes who kept it alive.
Hovsep is one of the few men who has solved the problem of establishing internal tranquility in a world of timetables, appointments, and schedules. He never carries a watch. When I asked him, early in our friendship, if the lack of a watch sometimes proved inconvenient and embarrassing, he replied in his measured monotone, "You go here, you go there. No matter where you go you either sit or stand when you get there. What's the hurry? Why not sit or stand right here?"
Before the A.G.B.U. campaign, Hovsep and I, as I said earlier, were on a European trip. Our first night on the Queen Mary, after I had finished my coffee and dessert, I put down my napkin and stood up. Before I could excuse myself to the other passengers at our table, Ignatius, in a puzzled voice, asked, "Aram, where are you going? This is ocean." Hovsep always knows where he is.
We disembarked at Southhampton and proceeded to the train station. Ignatius was unconcerned that we had missed our train to London by a matter of minutes. The delay of a few hours strengthened my belief that his was a sound philosophy. In London we observed the ravages of war — the grotesque shells of bombed-out buildings and the endless ration lines of almost motionless humanity.
The Armenian colony in London had become markedly Anglicized over the generations; yet the Armenian identity was preserved by the humble and hardworking cobbler and Mr. Five Percent himself, Caluste Gulbenkian. Visiting the Apostolic Church, a very small but exquisitely beautiful structure, we were told that Gulbenkian had financed its construction from the cornerstone to the altar. Not only that, but to really insure his welcome into God's heavenly abode, the oil king had stipulated in his will that the church was never to accept donations or solicit funds. Instead, he had established a trust to cover any expenses which might arise in the future. It crossed my mind that the grand old man might own five percent of heaven itself.
Paris is no longer the center of the universe, and although most of her inhabitants will admit this, few will do so graciously. They seldom betray any overt contempt for the rest of humanity, but the implications are always there. They regard visitors generally, and American tourists in particular, as objects of prey. "Anyway," a guide confessed with a candid shrug of his shoulders, "we must eat, no?" It was my need for yogurt that brought about the most vivid example of that kind of behavior.
One morning I woke up sick.
"It must have been the tripe soup you ate last night," Ignatius said. "I'll call a doctor."
I was writhing in pain when the doctor arrived. He was a member of the large Armenian colony in Paris, a short, bald gentleman with thick bifocals. He poked and probed.
"Umm, ahmmm," he muttered. "Matzoon."
"What did you say?" I asked.
"Eat plenty of matzoon."
My God, I thought. Yogurt! What kind of a doctor is this? My mother could have told me as much and with a good deal more authority and conviction.
Ignatius called room service and asked for a small quantity of yogurt. Within an hour my "medicine" arrived.
"Five hundred francs for a quarter of a liter of matzoon!" I cried. "Ridiculous!"
My cramps began to give way to anger. I got out of bed and started to dress. "I'm going downstairs," I said, "and talk to the son of a bitch who runs this goddamn hotel."
Ignatius tried to restrain me. "Aram, Aram, you're a sick man."
"Not as sick as the manager is going to be when I'm through with him."
He was sorting mail behind the desk when he saw me approaching. "Mr. Saroyan, I thought you were ill."
My jaw was trembling with rage. "I order a dish of yogurt and you charge me for the price of a whole cow. Tell me, how much is a glass of milk?"
"So a spoonful of culture comes to four hundred and sixty francs. That's more than the price of gold."
"But, Mr. Saroyan, we import our yogurt from Bulgaria."
"Listen," I growled, "I don't give a damn where your yogurt comes from, just so it gets to my stomach."
"We could get you some local yogurt," he said. "It costs only fifty francs."
"And what's the difference?" I asked.
"It is not imported."
I gritted my teeth with frustration, turned, and went up the stairs. The pains in my stomach had gone. So had my desire to remain in France. I suppose if the doctor had prescribed some food other than yogurt I would not have felt so indignant. When somebody tries to exploit you over your soul food you get mad at the whole nation.