Dr. Dickran Kouymjian - Biographical Interview

To prepare an article for Spring 2007 edition of FresnoState magazine on the impact of Fresno State's Armenian Studies Program, Fresno freelance writer Lisa Lieberman interviewed founder Dr. Dickran Kouymjian in Paris via e-mail. Here is that exchange:

Q. What is your own family history with regards to Armenia? When and how did your parents/grandparents come to the United States?

A. My mother, Zabelle Calusdian, born in Samsun on the Black Sea coast of the Ottoman Empire in 1906, was left an orphan along with a brother, Arshavir. Their father, Dikran (a teacher and later a commercial agent after whom I was named), sent the youngest children to stay with a Greek family, but was arrested with other Armenian notables and killed at the start of the genocide in 1915.

My grandmother was sent off on the death march in the Syrian desert with the older siblings (my mother saw them leave in a wagon). After the war ended in 1918, my mother was placed in an Armenian orphanage in Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was there that her uncle, Levon Calusdian, already settled in Chicago, found their names among the lists of orphans circulated by American and Armenian relief organizations and arranged for their passage to the U.S. and from New York to Chicago by freight wagons.

She was adopted by a well-to-do Armenian family in the Oriental rug business and was able to attend senior high school. My father, Toros Kouymjian, born in Talas-Caesarea (today Kayseri), grew up in Smyrna (today Izmir). He attended the school of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist fathers, whose headquarters is on the island of San Lazzaro in the Venice Lagoon. He was also a noted singer in the Church of St. Stephen in Smyrna.

In late 1920, at about age 20, he sort of ran away from home with the blessing and connivance of his grandmother. He made it to Chicago before the dramatic events of 1922, when Smyrna was attacked and burned to the ground by the Turkish forces under Ataturk, resulting in the massacre of the Greek and Armenian population. Much of his family was able to flee, probably through the help of commercial contacts, for my grandfather was a classic "Smyrna merchant."

They made their way to Naples, and from Italy to Bucharest, Romania, where there had been a very old Armenian colony. In Chicago, my father worked the usual hard jobs available to immigrants but also got a scholarship from a Chicago Women's Group to study voice at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. After a few years, as he told it, he got tired of taking money from the women and eventually, with his best friend and other young Armenians, he was hired by another large Armenian oriental rug firm.

He continued his singing. He met my mother at an Armenian ball. From Chicago they made two trips to visit my father's family in Romania. On the second, in 1934, my mother was pregnant with me and I was born in Tulcea, Romania, as was my brother, Armen, two years later. They stayed in Romania until 1939 when WWII broke out and the American Embassy advised my father and mother to get back to the U.S. After a harrowing trip, because the war had in fact started, I finally got to America and Chicago at age five in November 1939.

My wife's parents, Kayane and Garabed Kapoian, had a similar experience. Her mother was born in the Smyrna region, too, and in 1922, she, her mother and grandmother were literally fished out of the bay by a Greek ship during the destruction of the city, while her father was killed. For eight years, they made and sold lace in Athens until they could come to Paris.

Her father was from the northeast of historic Armenia, Artvin, then under Russian control, and he became orphaned at an older age and escaped after the Russian Revolution of 1917, eventually studying to be a monk at San Lazzaro. From there he went to Paris, married and raised three daughters.

Though I spoke Romanian, Armenian and some English before getting to the U.S., my parents felt that English had to be spoken in the house to help us along as we started school. I lost all other languages slowly, but Armenian came back as a young adult.

Q. What got you interested in Armenian Studies and how long have you been involved in this program?

A. This is a question of personal archeology. My undergraduate work moved from physical chemistry to engineering and, finally, European cultural history after I got bored with the sciences in which I had always excelled. That was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which had an enormous liberating effect on me.

I wanted to learn everything and study everything. I was lucky to have such history professors as George Mosse for European cultural history and Michael Petrovich for Russian intellectual history. But graduation in January 1957 (it took me an extra semester because I had changed majors so many times) as the Korean War was ending, meant the Army.

After a contractual six months as an officer in the Washington, D.C., area, I headed to Brussels in mid-1958 for the World's Fair as a freelance journalist with Down Beat, the jazz magazine, and by the end of the fair hooked up with a Canadian journalist, Paul Davis, to form the International Press Service.

We headed out to Beirut as the Lebanese civil war was winding down, but the revolution in Iraq was still major news. We covered it from Beirut. While there, I decided that since there was an American University I should work at an M.A., and decided the most valid field would be Arab Studies. Thus, I got started in graduate work and in what we then called Oriental Studies.

I kept up the journalism to earn a living. For instance, in the summer of 1959 I went overland to India for IPS to interview the Dalai Lama, who had just fled from Tibet and was in northern India near the border. I also gave a half-dozen interviews on All India Radio.

In the second Beirut year, I was hired full time as an instructor in the university's General Education Program and in the English Department. It took three years to write the thesis and get the M.A., but by then I liked teaching and studying enough to look at doctoral programs in the field. Finally I opted for Columbia for two reasons: I was given a teaching job in Columbia College's G.E. program (by then I felt I was an expert, especially since the American University of Beirut program was modeled on that of Columbia) and there was a program in Armenian in the Near Eastern Languages and Literature Department. My feeling was that if I was going to work in the Near Eastern field, why not Armenian, about which I had both some knowledge and interest.

At Columbia, I was confronted by much the same personal need to do more than one thing: teaching and taking classes seemed not enough. The first year in New York, living in Greenwich Village, I got involved in the restaurant business with a casual friend, Haroutiun Derderian, an architect who studied with Buckminster Fuller at the University of Minnesota. He had just taken over a restaurant on Waverly, appropriately named Harout's. We opened only at night, so we could attend to things after our respective day jobs. I was what you might call a junior partner.

It was one of the great Village hangouts of the early 1960s. On weekends we had Armenian music and gave the first real start to George Mgrdichian, the famous oud player who died last year. For a time we also allowed a jazz operation to run in the cellar with two young, innovative musicians, the saxophonist Archie Shepp and the clarinetist Steve Lacy. Steve died in Paris a couple of years ago. Archie is still going strong.

By 1964, I was advised by my professors that I had better stop teaching and think about my comprehensive Ph.D. exams, including the four language exams, two Oriental languages beside Armenian and two Western languages. As far as I can remember they were Arabic, Turkish, Russian and French.

So I stopped teaching, but in that same year began a literary agency, American Authors Inc., with offices on Madison Avenue. I still kept the (one has to eat!). With exams out of the way, I started in earnest on my doctoral thesis, which centered around numismatics and Armenia. It was an ambitious attempt to analyze the history of Armenia and the surrounding regions in the 11th to the 13th centuries, based primary on the Islamic coins of the period.

But many things, fortunately, got in the way. Meeting my future wife, Ang le Kapo an, a French Armenian who was teaching French language and literature as a visiting professor at the Chapin School on the Upper East Side near where I was living. We met at the restaurant. We married in the early summer of 1967 at City Hall with my lawyer, Bruce McMarion Wright, later the famous Judge Wright, as best man.

Bruce had been the lawyer of many jazz musicians Miles Davis, Art Blakey and others. He was a major figure in Harlem and was urged to run for mayor of New York more than once. He was also a great poet and a great lover of Paris. He passed away two years ago.

Just before marriage and almost finished with the doctoral thesis (defended it in 1969), I was offered positions at several universities. I finally opted for one with the American University of Cairo as assistant director of the Arabic Studies Program. I signed the contract one day before the Six Day War in May 1967, and sold American Authors Inc.

After a second marriage (to the same person, of course) in the Armenian Church in Paris, we headed toward Cairo but had to stay in Istanbul until early 1968 because Americans were not given visas for Egypt for months after the war. Following four years in Cairo, I was offered a job back at the American University of Beirut in the History Department. It was there that I finally started teaching Armenian history and art in addition to the history of the Near East. We stayed in Beirut until the civil war broke out in 1975; we were able to get the last plane out the day after classes ended, but all our possessions and whatever money we had stayed in Beirut for nearly two years.

We took refuge with my in-laws in Paris and looked for any kind of work. After odd jobs, the American University of Paris hired my wife and me. It was from Paris that I applied for the new post in Armenian Studies created at Fresno State.

And finally we get to your question!

I came out for an interview and was chosen and given a tenure track contract to start in the fall of 1976. I said I would accept only a one-year visiting professorship (I had never seen Fresno before) and that I could only start my teaching in the spring 1977 semester. My charge was to restart an Armenian Studies Program that had faded away after the tragic death of Professor Louise Nalbandian in December 1973 and the retirement of Professor Arra Avakian.

I started by developing completely new history, art history and language and literature courses. When my one-year visiting professorship was up, I returned to Paris to teach a contractual semester again at the American University. In the fall of 1978 I came back to Fresno on a tenure contract. I have been here ever since. From the beginning, I took very seriously my initial charge to establish a major undergraduate Armenian Studies Program.

Q. What makes the Armenian Studies program in Fresno unique compared to other similar programs throughout the country or throughout the world?

A. Is it unique? I suppose so, because it has been functioning now for 30 years and there are 100-200 students enrolled each semester in a wide range of classes.

With two full-time faculty and an annual Kazan Visiting Professor, we certainly have the largest instructional staff on the undergraduate level in the U.S. We have the most students of any other program (perhaps more than all the others combined, someone once remarked) and the largest and most varied course offerings in Armenian studies. We offer language, literature, history, art and architecture, film, music (from time to time) and genocide studies.

Why has this come about? Because I and my younger colleague and former student, Barlow Der Mugrdechian, worked hard to make it happen. We also have the oldest and, perhaps, the only Armenian university program student newspaper, Hye Sharzhoom (Armenian Action), anywhere in the world, now in its 28th consecutive year, I believe.

From the very beginning, I realized that even with a large number of American-Armenian or part-Armenian students on campus, a program could not be sustained without mechanisms that would institutionalize the program. That was my key word -- "institutionalization." I quickly developed a new course, "Introduction to Armenian Studies," which was accepted into the General Education Program.

Then Armenian language also became an optional requirement to fulfill the university's language requirement. In time, a literature course and an art course became options in the G.E. Program. Today our students are divided half and half between Armenian and non-Armenians and in some classes there are 10 non-Armenians for every Armenian.

Our program also has sponsored its own lecture series for some 20 years, a way to bring the community to campus and to expose our students to other and varied voices.

Q. What kind of work are you doing abroad? What kinds of work have your students done or are doing in Armenia?

A. In October 2006, I was in Armenia to be honored by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, on the occasion of the Armenian translation and publication of the "Album of Armenian Paleography," a massive study of the evolution of Armenian script through an analysis of date manuscripts. The album was compiled by me and professors Michael Stone of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Henning Lehmann of Aarhus University in Denmark. The Catholicos was so impressed by the volume, which was published in 2002, that he insisted on sponsoring an Armenian translation.

For the past year and a half, I have been actively involved in "Arm nie mon amie, l'Ann e de l'Arm nie (The Year of Armenia in France)," which started Sept. 21, 2006, Armenian Independence Day, and finishes July 14, 2007, Bastille Day (the French July 4). Last year it was "The Year of Brazil" and the year before "The Year of China." So it is quite an event that such a small country is being honored with hundreds of museum exhibits, concerts, theatrical performances, conferences, etc., some say 800 different events in 40 French cities.

The largest and most splendid exhibition ever of medieval Armenian Christian art opened Feb. 22 at the Louvre Museum: 210 objects, including about 30 massive (up to 2 tons each) khatchkars (cross-stones, unique to Armenia) and a catalogue of 470 pages. I participated from the beginning, writing two chapters and describing and analyzing 18 liturgical objects from the Treasury of Holy Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian church.

But that is just one of seven or eight exhibits I have worked on. Two major exhibits on the great Soviet-Armenian filmmaker and artist Sergei Paradjanov are being held, one at that the Beaux-Arts Museum and the other a retrospective of all his films at both the Magic Cinema in Paris and the Cin mateque in Toulouse. For each of these I wrote essays and lent literally hundreds of documents and photos I either took of Paradjanov or which are in my archives. Both exhibits have impressive catalogues and the cover and the poster for the Beaux-Arts show used one of my own photos of Paradjanov.

A first-of-its-kind exhibition was at the Institut du monde arabe (Paris's very remarkable Islamic art museum) devoted to Armenian photographers in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians got into photography in the 1850s and quickly had a near monopoly in the profession until the Genocide of 1915-23. The major photographers in Constantinople and other cities of what is now the Republic of Turkey and those in Syria, Jordan, Palestine-Israel, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and even Cyprus were Armenian. I was a close adviser on this exhibit, though my only written contribution is an essay in the museum's quarterly, Qantara, on Armenian photographers.

Outside of Paris, the largest exhibit ever held on Armenian textiles and liturgical objects was mounted in Lyon at the Museum of Textiles and the Fourvi re Museum. For the first time, 15 large Armenian altar curtains of unimaginable beauty, dating from the late 17th to the 19th century and originating from Armenian communities from Constantinople to Madras, India, were on display. For some 20 years, I have been pushing for such an exhibit and I am pleased that this remarkable heritage in cloth was available to all. I wrote a good deal of the large catalog accompanying the exhibit.

Another blockbuster exhibit, like that of the Louvre, opened in Marseille at the old renovated medieval hospital (La Vielle Charit ), "Armenia: the Magic of Writing." It emphasizes Armenia's 1,600-year love affair with the alphabet invented by the monk Mesrop in the early fifth century. Nearly 300 objects in all the arts including many, many illustrated manuscripts, all items with clear inscriptions, were presented, with emphasis on the inscriptions.

The exhibit was directed by the historian Claude Mutafian, who was responsible for the large exhibit of Armenian art at the Vatican some years ago. Unlike the Louvre exhibit, which used only items from the various museums in Armenia, the Marseille exposition borrowed works of art from museums and private collections in the major European centers and the United States. Items came from UCLA, the New York Public Library, the Getty Museum, the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, the Boston Public Library and the J. P. Morgan Library in New York. I collaborated closely with Prof. Mutafian, an old friend, and helped him with many loans in addition to writing five chapters and describing a large variety of objects for the 500-page catalogue.

In June [2007], two other exhibits will open in the south, one at Arles and the other again at Marseille, for which I have been helping out and writing. In early July I have been invited to present William Saroyan's relationship with Hollywood and filmmakers at the annual conference on literature and letter writing (Saroyan was a champion) at the Ch teau de Grignan near Montpellier.

In addition to all of this, there are lectures and symposia I am involved in during this Year of Armenia. I am sure I have forgotten a lot, but it does give you an idea of how much the public will hear about Fresno State through one of its Armenian studies professors.

As for our students and Armenia, we have had an exchange program for years, but more productive have been summer study sessions in Armenia for students led by Barlow Der Mugrdechian.

Q. What are your goals for the program at Fresno State and for the Armenian community in general?

A. Many of the goals I set three decades ago have already been realized. An institutionalized Armenian Studies Program giving a 24-26 credit minor (nearly as much as some majors) with required courses in all areas. It is a very active program. It has proved impossible to form a major that is, a department because in general a minimum of five faculty members is needed.

This is a budget handicap for us since we do not qualify for a secretary paid by the university. We have an annual banquet and a fund drive, which we use primarily to pay for a secretary.

We also have built up a substantial scholarship fund through nearly 20 permanent endowments. We currently have about $75,000 a year to distribute.

In 1988, after a rather quick fund drive, the Haig and Isabelle Berberian Endowed Chair in Armenian Studies was established. It was the first active endowed chair on the Fresno State campus and the first full-time chair in any of the 23 CSU campuses. It was a real pioneering experience for me as the first incumbent. The major donors, Dianne and Arnold Gazarian, named the chair after Dianne's father, who I knew well as a generous community leader.

Thanks to another endowment, we have a permanently endowed Henry Kazan Visiting Professorship of Modern Armenian Studies. Henry Kazan and his wife Victoria, now both deceased, came to visit Fresno from New York, having never had any ties with the university or the city, but attracted by the Armenian Studies Program.

In quick succession, endowments were established for a professorship and another major fund named after Victoria Kazan for the general support of the program, its publications, and activities.

Q. What are the current goals for the Armenian Studies Program?

A. Creation of some sort of B.A. program jointly with the Department of Art, History or Literatures and Foreign Languages. It would be for those students who want to get a B.A. with a concentration in Armenian Studies and who want to go on to do doctoral work at any one of a number of universities that offer such a possibility: Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, UCLA and perhaps, soon, UC Berkeley. It is true that over the decades there has developed a certain fear of making university teaching in the humanities a career, but there is always the highly motivated student.

Establishing a Center for Armenian Studies in a separate building or separate part of an existing building is another goal. This has been a dream from the beginning. When I was hired in 1976, there was an active project to build an Armenian Museum on campus in honor of Louise Nalbandian. The location was approved and the plans were drawn for an ambitious $5-million stone structure with stylistic influences from medieval Armenian architecture.

An economic downturn did not allow it, but the project in other forms has been revived from time to time, and we are hoping in the context of the current major university fund drive to be able to finally realize this project.

It would house the program and its vast archives now scattered on- and off-campus because of space issues. It would also have a small museum for permanent and temporary exhibits, which in part would house the very large collection of the painting and sculpture of Fresno artist Varaz Samuelian, who willed his art to the program..

The center also would have classrooms, a specialized library and a small auditorium. It would become an important research center for Armenian studies because of the material we have assembled over 30 years.

Q. What are your program's biggest contributions to the local community?

A. Surely it has been making the large and active Armenian community, with its many churches, cultural organization and political parties, feel that there is one place that can be considered home to them all, namely the campus. Our lecture series and annual banquet are ways of making sure that the community sees the campus as a user-friendly place. In this respect, I think we have succeeded very well.

Our courses also draw community members, as well as students, to attend the lectures of our Kazan visiting professor. We have an active Armenian Alumni Association with very loyal graduates of the program. We previously had a very active Armenian Studies Advisory Board, which also might be revived.

In addition, we have held over the years numerous conferences, concerts and art exhibits related to Armenia history and culture, including two major international conferences on William Saroyan and another coming up next year to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in Fresno.

The Armenian Studies Program also has regularly sponsored world-famous Armenian pianists in the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concert series on campus. And the Armenian community is just as strong in its support of this activity as it is in the Bulldog Foundation.

It might also be worth pointing out that our Armenian Studies Program, its teachers and the campus have been very important in the only professional organization for Armenian Studies in the U.S., the Society for Armenian Studies.

For nearly a decade, the secretariat has been at Fresno State. We published its annual scholarly review, the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, on campus, as well as the society's quarterly newsletter, which goes out to more than 200 scholars. Our Web site makes the newsletter available electronically. Barlow Der Mugrdechian has been president of the Society at least two terms and I for three; Barlow also has been past-editor of the Journal.

Finally, a word must be said about our very active Armenian Studies Program Web site, one of the first, if not the first, of any academic program on campus.

The last time I checked with the technical staff, we were getting more than 2 million hits a year from more than 150 countries.

On the Web site, one can find not only information on the program and its scholarships and classes, but entire courses, such as Armenian Studies 20, The Arts of Armenia, which is occasionally taught entirely over the Internet.

The site also houses my Index of Armenia Art, a vast database of Armenian art and architecture being continually augmented and perfected; and entire texts of articles and books by the Armenian Studies Program faculty. It has its own site search engine to go through its thousands of pages and a Webmaster to keep track of it all.