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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Pages 54-56

Southern California Chronicle

Alice Navasargian Authors Second Tome on Armenian Contributions to the Arts

By Pat and Samir Twair

In 1997 Alice Minassian Navasargian produced her first book, Golden Bridges: 20th Century Armenian Artists. It provided biographies and beautiful color reproductions of Armenian artists who were born in or lived in Iran. Two years later, she has published a second lavishly illustrated book, entitled Armenian Women of the Stage, which spotlights Armenian women actresses, singers and musicians over the past 150 years.

Navasargian’s new book was presented to the public Dec. 15 at a Brandview Collection reception in Glendale. More than 200 Armenian Americans were on hand for the program, which featured talks by Dr. Mihran Agbabian, president emeritus of the American University in Armenia, and Prof. Yervand Ghazanjian, president of the Actors Guild and Actors Studio of Armenia.

Lauding Navasargian for her research, Dr. Agbabian noted that Armenian theater has been documented for more than two millennia. However, with the advent of Islam, women withdrew from the stage in the Middle East until the mid-19th century. The first Armenian actress to remind audiences that a woman was much more convincing in a female role than a young man was Arousiak Papazian, who dared to appear on stage for the first time in 1858.

Turkish persecution at the turn of the century abruptly ended Armenian theater productions until after 1920, Dr. Agbabian said. Subsequently, Armenian theater in the Soviet Union had little contact with that of the West.

The author, who was born in Tabriz, Iran and received her degrees from the University of Isfahan, is dedicated to bringing the history of Armenian contributions to the arts to world attention.

“For Armenians, storytelling is an important medium through which older generations communicate with their youth to preserve the uniqueness of our culture,” Navasargian told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. “My book is not a collection of is about our stage heroines, a group of amazing and talented Armenian women in all the performing arts.”

Because she selected more than 50 artists, Navasargian said she focused on their major achievements rather than offering a scholarly account of each year of their lives. She talked to descendants and friends of deceased artists, and personally interviewed many of the living performers.

She learned that pioneer actress Papazian, who was born in 184l in Constantinople and by 1863 was performing Sappho in Sophocles’ Antigone and Lucrezia in Victor Hugo’s Lucrezia Borgia, eventually was forced off the stage. At the peak of her career she married the successful painter Sophon Bezirjian. He not only forbade her from acting, but would not allow her even to attend the theater. She died in obscurity.

It was a happier existence for the statuesque beauty Yeranouki Garagashian, who made her first appearance on stage in 1865, at the age of 18. She starred in melodramas and classic stage productions for more than 15 years until she abdicated her crown as queen of the theater to marry Prince Alexander Arghutiants Yerkaynabazuk of Tiflis. She lived in regal luxury until her death at age 76 in 1924.

Mari Nvart lived only 32 years, yet more has been written about her than any other Armenian actress. She was born in 1853 in Constantinople and was raised as an orphan by Catholic nuns.

She began acting at age 17, and by 1885 was recognized as the prima donna of the Manakian Company. Her final appearance was in Tiflis, where she played the role of Margetet Goethe in La Dame aux Camelias. She failed to make her last curtain call because, Victorian critics wrote, she had been consumed by her tragic role and drew her last breaths listening to the applause of her audience.

Another tragic life was led by the beautiful Azniv Hrachia, who achieved her greatest success performing historical tragedies and melodramas in the early 1880s. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the height of her career and settled in Baku in 1896.

Siranoush (1857 to 1932) became an acting legend after she performed the role of Ophelia in Hamlet and created her own school of theater. Her performances in Russia were regarded as her finest work.

In the West, Zabel Aram, who emigrated with her parents to the United States in 1907, sang at the Boston Opera Hall in 1920 and, after studying at music conservatories in Rome, Milan, Paris and Geneva, performed opera in Europe and the U.S. from 1932 to 1948.

Lilie Chookasian was born in 1920 in Chicago and sang with the Metropolitan Opera. In 1978, as a guest artist at the White House, she sang the first Armenian songs performed in the presidential mansion.

Arlene Frances, post-World War II star of film, radio and television, was the daughter of New York photographer Aram Kazanjian. Born in 1926, she has been a familiar face on the TV screen for five decades.

Superstar Cher is recognized more in this tome for her visit to Armenia in 1993 than for her world-class achievements as a pop singer and actress. Several pages are devoted to photos of the Oscar-winning actress visiting orphanages and historic sites of Yerevan.

Tribute is paid to concert pianist Dora Sarviarian Kohn, who was born in 1936 in Beirut and is a leading interpreter of Khachaturian’s “Piano Concerto.”

World-class Armenian opera singers are Maria Guleghina, Hasmik Papian, Aline Kutan and Kallen Esperian.

Armenian Women of the Stage should be in university libraries as well as on coffee tables throughout the world. It is interesting to speculate whether Navasargian will next turn her attention to Armenian writers and poets.

Lebanese National Day

Lebanon’s Consul General in Los Angeles Dr. John Makaron and his attorney wife, Graziella, hosted a Nov. 21 reception in the Beverly Hilton Hotel on the occasion of Lebanon’s 56th independence day.

The consul general told the more than 1,000 guests that Beirut had been designated the “cultural capital of 1999” by UNESCO and the Arab League.

The envoy also hailed the organization of the non-profit Lebanese American Foundation, which has been formed to establish The House of Lebanon in the Los Angeles area.

More than $200,000 has been pledged to the LAF, which hopes to combine a cultural center, library and consular offices. Dr. Hanna Chammas has been named charter chairman of the LAF.

Arab Knesset Member Speaks

Husniya Jabara, the first Palestinian woman ever elected to the Israeli Knesset, has been the guest of Meretz USA in several speaking engagements in North America. In Los Angeles, she spoke to Jewish groups and met informally with Arab Americans and Jewish leaders in the home of Dr. Sabri and Jane El Farra.

As a member of Israel’s dovish Meretz Party, Jabara was appointed to the Knesset Committee on Labor and Social Welfare, Education and the Status of Women after her election to office last May. The Meretz Party holds 10 seats (four of which are occupied by women) in the 120-member Knesset.

Some of the bills Jabara has introduced to the Knesset deal with compensating Palestinian victims of terrorism on a par with Israeli Jews, who receive reparations as targets of terrorist attacks; educational grants for Palestinian women students; shelters for Palestinian women who face domestic violence; and measures to stop hiring discrimination against Palestinians by Israeli utility companies.

Jabara noted that 50 percent of Israeli Arabs are below the poverty level and that their unemployment levels are 80 percent for women and 35 percent for men.

In Israel, she noted, Palestinian women have traditionally worked for minimum wages in the clothing industry. Now the Israelis are moving clothing factories to Jordan, where workers are paid even less than in Israel. This leaves most Palestinian women jobless.

“People aren’t starving,” Jabara said. “One can always find a loaf of bread to put on the table. But efforts must be made to create jobs for Israeli Arabs.”

When asked about representation of Israeli Arabs in the Knesset, she replied that although they account for 20 percent of Israel’s population, they make up only 11.5 percent of the Knesset membership.

As for how Israeli Arabs voted in the last election, she estimated that 95 percent of the Arab vote went to Ehud Barak. “Actually,” she quipped, “I think Barak received a bigger Arab vote than Mubarak did in Egypt.”

In response to the problems in Nazareth, where the Israeli government has issued a permit for construction of a large mosque in the plaza of the Church of the Annunciation there, she blamed the conflict on Israel’s Likud Party.

“The people of Nazareth have always lived together peacefully,” she said. “If the problem were left up to the people, they could resolve it quickly. This whole situation is artificial.”

When asked why she joined the Meretz Party, Jabara said it is the party for peace and that Yossi Sarid, Israel’s Meretz education minister, has initiated a five-year plan for 2,000 new Palestinian classrooms, 39 preschool programs and the inclusion of 20 Palestinian academics into the Israeli Department of Education. In addition, he has insisted upon new textbooks that teach the truth about the founding of Israel and such incidents as the Israeli massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin and Kafr Kassem.

Jabara also praised the Meretz Party’s Ran Cohen, Israel’s minister of trade and industry, who has called a stop to public funding of industrial development in settlements.

“We can have all the peace one desires,” she concluded. “But if one side is impoverished and lives in sub-standard conditions, the privileged side will not prevail. History tells us that the outsiders look enviously upon the rich centers and sooner or later, they will invade them.”

“Lost Worlds” Documentary Looks at Mideast Realistically

“From Moses to McDonald’s, life goes on in the Middle East.” So narrated Rick Ray in his documentary, “Lost Worlds of the Middle East: Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.” The 80-minute film was shown at a UCLA program sponsored by Open Tent, a Los Angeles Middle East Coalition.

Prior to the screening of his documentary, Ray explained he earlier made films on the South China Sea, Bali, Vietnam, Burma and Cambodia.

“The Middle East was at the bottom of my list of regions I wanted to explore,” he confessed, “until The Learning Channel [TLC] approached me about filming a documentary on the area, particularly the city of Jerusalem.”

He noted that he most likely was selected by TLC because he has a reputation for gaining entry into difficult parts of the world and filming without government approval.

“I figure it’s easier to ask for forgiveness afterward than to ask for permission before,” Ray quipped.

TLC organized a three-man panel to interview Ray for the assignment. Each member professed a different religion. The first question asked was what faith Ray practices. When he said Buddhism, he was hired.

With his disassembled camera equipment and film stuffed in a backpack, Ray traveled in 1997 to the Middle East, where he spent one month each in Lebanon and Jordan, two weeks in Syria, and visited Israel eight times.

Since this was his first encounter with the Middle East, we asked Ray if he researched his material beforehand or relied on experts in the countries he visited. “I believe in formulating first impressions and then researching later,” he responded.

“Lost Worlds” does not focus on each country as an entity so much as it crosses borders in order “to allow Arabs and Israelis to think about their commonality.”

As the viewer looks upon a panoramic desert landscape, Ray narrates: “It is clear God owns this land, but who owns God?”

He philosophizes that the Arab world is an Eastern civilization built on kinship and that loyalty to the clans is uppermost.

“I discovered there is no such thing as a united Arab world nor a united Israel—tribalism is universal.”

As the camera pans on Israelis at an outdoor café in Tel Aviv, he continues: “Israel is the most tribal of all. Each Israeli is in a camp or political party.”

Turning to scenes of Beirut under massive reconstruction, he observes: “Lebanon witnessed one of the ugliest tribal wars of history. When a tribe has modern weaponry, it no longer is a tribe. It is a militia. Here, 17 militias fought for 17 years.”

Ray does not mention Israel’s devastating 1982 air, land and sea invasion of Lebanon, but he does comment that not one of the warring militias targeted the banking institutions on the Green Line because the funds of each were in them.

“God, oil and water are the reason people live in the Middle East,” he states in the documentary. “Our Western God was born in a desert. Yet because water is so rare here, it takes on grotesque proportions.”

The film as Ray produced it was rejected by TLC, which instead used much of his footage in a production entitled “Gates of Jerusalem,” narrated by Richard Kiley. Ray obtained the stock footage rights to create “Lost Worlds,” which he shows on university campuses and sells as an 80-minute video.

His latest project is an inside look at Ethiopia.

Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance writers based in Los Angeles.