Tuesday, October 7, 2008

“1937 has returned,” a store owner said. “You can’t trust anybody. If you say something that would have stayed a secret before, forget it, those days are past. Part of the reason is jealousy, and age-old Armenian problem. But part of it is due to the political atmosphere. If someone who has a big business considers you as competition, and he has connections in high places, usually parliament, all he has to do is make a phone call and the tax people start putting pressure on you and your business, making unrealistic demands, eventually forcing you out of business or bringing you to your knees with payoffs. But the worst thing is not being able to trust anybody anymore. This day will pass, but it sure is making it tough on a lot of people.”

Such was a conversation I had, of all places, in the lobby of the American Armenian University, during the first day of the William Saroyan Conference. The general atmosphere, however, was festive, with local cultural figures and guests invited to deliver addresses both at the opening ceremony and at short presentations to be held at the Congress Hotel this week. Guests included the author’s nephew and niece, Hank Saroyan and Jackie Kazarian, and another cousin, Bruce Janigian, all from California.

During the opening, several speeches about Saroyan were given, the most interesting probably by Professor Dickran Kuyumjian, newly retired Armenian Studies head from Fresno State, who talked about the author’s paintings and sketches, comparing them by picture and words with several great painters, Picasso included.

Introductory speeches were given by the prime minister, culture minister, and new ambassador from the US. A low point was the scene created by three Georgian women in the audience, one of whom had translated several of Saroyan’s short stories into Georgian. The women talked the entire time, in Georgian, not listening to the speeches at all, be they in Russian, Armenian, or English, even though all were being translated and could be listened to using the headphones by each seat. Obviously mocking the ceremonies and Armenians in general, those sitting near them asked them to lower their voices, leading to a loud but brief scene, the women finally moving themselves to the back of the auditorium.

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