One year ago on Jan. 28, thousands of miles away from his beloved Armenia and in the shadow of the enchanting Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Mass., Armand the “Patriarch of the Iranian Armenian Poets,” one of the last representatives of 20th-century Diasporan Armenian literature, entered his eternal rest at the advanced age of 93.
Except to his immediate family and loved ones, he departed almost unnoticed to the other residents of the Armenian Nursing Home in Jamaica Plain, where he had spent the last months of his life. Perhaps none were aware of who Armand was, nor were they aware of his significance and place in the 20th-century Armenian literary heritage. His funeral service, like his personality and the life he lived, was simple and modest. There was a time, not so long ago, when throngs of people would line up for hours to pay their final respects to cultural figures who had enriched our lives with their writings, with the music they had composed, the portraits they had painted, or the statutes they had sculpted. Exceptional minds who had brought color, light, wisdom, and soul to our houses. Pages of the papers, or entire issues, would be dedicated and filled with eulogies and reflective writings on their lives and legacy. Not anymore.
Armand (nè Aram Andonian) was born in Tehran on Aug. 22, 1915, in the land of poets, mysticism, and literature, to a heritage of unparalleled beauty and depth. He was the eldest of Aramais and Anna Andonian’s four children: sons Zhores and Andon and daughter Seda. He received his elementary and secondary education in the American schools and his higher education in the American College of Tehran, majoring in literature and economics. In 1952, he married Adik Hovsepian and had two sons Aramais and Shahen. An avid reader, Armand mastered Farsi, English, and French. His love for literature drew him toward the literary world. He worked at the American Embassy in Tehran and its affiliated Lincoln Library for 26 years as the senior translator and thematic librarian in arts and humanities.
He began writing in his adolescent years. However, he only ventured to enter the literary scene later in life. Armand credited his first love for poetry to his mother, Anna, who over the years nurtured the first literary seeds in him. (She had been a student of another Armenian literary giant, Nikol Aghbalian, one of the icons of 20th-century Armenian literature and the minister of education of the First Armenian Republic.) Armand’s first work was published in the Alik Daily in the early 1940’s at the encouragement of the Iranian-Armenian historian, intellectual, and scholar André Ter Ohanian (Amurian). Later, poet Aram Garoné’s positive review of Armand’s works, which had appeared in the Bagin literary digest of Beirut, Lebanon, served as a major impetus for him to explore his literary horizons. Armand entered the literary scene with the penname “Mithra,” later contributing to a number of Diaspora Armenian periodicals under his new penname “Armand.” Over a period of five decades, his works began to appear in the Alik Daily, Armenuhi, Arpi, and Luys of Tehran, the Hairenik of Boston, and the Bagin bi-monthly and Nawasard monthly (later quarterly) of Beirut and Los Angeles, respectively. In addition to his poetry, Armand was also credited for numerous translations of international literary works from English to Armenian, as well as from Farsi to English and vice versa, which were often unsigned and uncredited; these works remain scattered throughout several prestigious literary journals and periodicals. He was also a well-known name in the writer community and the Writers Union in his beloved Armenia.
His works were introduced, discussed, and broadcast from the Yerevan Radio on several occasions.
Parallel to his literary work, for decades Armand actively participated in Iranian-Armenian educational, literary, and cultural life. He was one of the founding members of the Association of the Armenian Writers of Iran in 1961. He served on the Board of Trustees of the Mariamian and Davtian secondary and high schools in Tehran. He was a member of the Ararat Athletic and Cultural Organization, and the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society, as well as a devoted member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Armand was a faithful member of the Armenian Church.
Armand’s literary output, though modest in quantity, is rich and colorful in quality. Throughout his literary career, which spanned more than half a century, Armand published four books. Shkegh Merkuteamb (In Glorious Nakedness) (1975), his first collection of poems dedicated to his father Aramais and brother Andon, was published twice. Seven years later, he released the second volume of his poetry Daraverji Sarsurner (Centennial Shudders) (1982). He dedicated all the proceeds from the sale of this book to the relief efforts for the survivors of the December 1988 earthquake in Armenia. Armand’s third collection of poems, Matean Siroy ew Khorhurdi, (Book of Love and Mystery), was published in 1990. All three titles exceeding 560 pages and including 223 pieces were the first-prize winners of several literary awards, including the Gevorg Melitinetsi Literary Award, Antelias, Lebanon (1975); Hur Atanas Literary Award, New Jersey (1987); St. Nerses Shnorhali Literary Award (1987); and Eliz-Kavookjian-Ayvazian Literary Fund Award of the French-Armenian Writers Union (1991-92).
Born and raised in the land of the supreme masters of Eastern poetry and mysticism—Hafez, Rumi, Saadi, and Khayyam—Armand could not remain indifferent or immune to the works of these giants of world literature and philosophy. His fourth and last book of poems entitled Linelutean Arahetneorv (Pathways of Existence) (1992) was a collection of 275 quatrains in three chapters, dedicated to the memory of the Armenian minstrel Sayat Nova. Like his previous volumes, this one also won the first prize of the Eghia Baboomian Publication Fund in Tehran, which also sponsored the publication of Armand’s work dedicated to the literary legacy of Archbishop Artak Manukian, Prelate of the Armenians of Iran. Armand continued to write despite his advanced age. Undoubtedly there are many pieces from his work, scattered in the pages of several papers and literary journals, that remain undocumented.
Armand was among one of the few fortunate Diasporan Armenian poets who saw the fruits of his labor appreciated by his peers and fans and recognized by the Armenian literary community during his life time. Unfortunately, the English-speaking world remains deprived of his literary legacy. Only a select number of his works have been translated into English—by poet Dianna Der-Hovanessian, Tatul Sonentz-Papazian, and Vahe Oshagan. A comprehensive bibliography of Armand’s works is indispensable and needs to be realized. It is a project that will put over 50 years of the poet’s literary legacy in perspective and will be an important source for future Armenians literary scholars.
The waves of revolution and turmoil in Iran during the late 1970’s left its mark on Armand’s life. Remaining faithful and true to his beliefs and convictions, Armand stayed in his home country through the most difficult and turbulent years of the revolution. Over a decade later, like many Iranian Armenian families whose lives had been shattered, Armand decided to leave his birthplace in early 1990 to spend the advanced years of his life with his family. The Andonians settled in Watertown in 1992 so that they could be with their two sons. This opened a new chapter in Armand’s life. Until the last days of his life, Armand could not come to terms with this decision. He considered the transcontinental relocation a self-imposed exile beyond his control forced by the will of history—a fate that has knocked on the doors of every Diasporan Armenian from the Middle East in the last three decades. He complained about the apathy and indifference of the people toward culture in general, and literature in particular. The public’s general lack of knowledge toward the value of Armenian literature bothered him deeply. Only on a couple of occasions did the public have the opportunity to hear him during the book-launching of his last work. He argued: “What is the point in writing when nobody reads?” “Who do I write for when nobody appreciates or cares?” The fact that like many Diasporan Armenian authors, very few of Armand’s titles (and for that matter many of his colleagues’) are sold is a sad commentary to the status of Armenian readership. Despite his disappointments, which led him to experience depressive moods, Armand persevered and continued to create and write a number of original pieces. Many of his poems written during the years 1992-2006 appeared in the pages of the Hairenik Weekly and Bagin quarterly. Armand began to work on an extensive 400-500 page draft of his fifth volume, which unfortunately remains unfinished.
Armand the poet remained relatively little known among the Western Armenian community. Very few, like writers and intellectuals Poghos Snapian and Minas Tololyan, reflected upon his works and wrote reviews and commentaries. In his native Iran, Armand’s works have been extensively reviewed by his peers and literary figures, such as Hakob Karapents, André Amurian, Manuel Marutian, Grish Davtian, Aram Garoné, and many others. The most extensive and comprehensive review and textual analysis of Armand’s four works is that of Dr. Toros Toranian’s entitled Armand Banasteghtse (Armand the Poet), published in the United States by the Blue Crane Books in 1992. In his opening remarks, Toranian expresses his regret for having discovered Armand late in life, which he blames on the lack of bridges connecting Armenian Diasporan communities worldwide. However, he consoles himself when borrowing from national lore, which reads “that no matter where you hide the rose, its scent will betray itself.”
In the words of prominent French-Armenian poet Jacques Hakobian, Armand’s poetry “stands out from those of his Iranian Armenian compatriots for his unique art, color, style, and linguistic sensitivity. … [He] appears before us like an intimate Western Armenian poet, rather than an Eastern Armenian writer as Hakob Karapents was in the prose.” Armenian literary critic and author Kevork Kristinian qualified Armand’s poetry “as a unique phenomenon in the contemporary Armenian poetry. His restless, probing, and sensitive mind, his heart of love, his bold, discontent, rebellious, and revolutionary spirit, have worked day and night to weave a world of poetry whose colors and shades are inspiring justice and truth like the sun’s rays that pierce the fields of Armenian literature, old and new.”
“Protest and outrage against evil are Armand’s two eternal struggles. His esthetical ideal is the enrichment of the collective and individual, so that they will be good, kind, and conscientious. His patriotic writings express the unique Diasporan Armenian patriotism with joy and longing toward the fatherland. He also praises the fearless soaring spirit of the Armenian freedom fighters in their struggle for justice,” remarked poet Onnik Hayrapetian.
Unlike many Armenian writers who are recognized and honored posthumously, Armand was among the few fortunate who had the privilege and joy of being acknowledged by the literary circles and organizations and enthusiasts of Armenian poetry during his lifetime. In 1995 on the occasion of his 80th birthday, which coincided with the 55th jubilee of his literary career, the Armenian community in the United States and Canada held a number of events in his honor and paid tribute to his literary legacy. Among these were events in Boston, New York, and Toronto. A community-wide committee comprised of the Iranian Armenian Society, the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society’s regional executive committee, the Armenian Writers Society, and the Armenian community of Los Angeles paid tribute to the poet along with hundreds of literary enthusiasts. On this occasion, Catholicos Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, issued an encyclical, and Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia awarded him with the St. Mesrop Mashtots Medal, the highest medal-commendation bestowed upon the custodians and patrons of Armenian culture.
Armand’s legacy has left its mark on the lives of those who loved him and those who appreciated the value of his poetry. He spent close to two decades of his life among us in the United States. Yet, whether due to language barriers, shear ignorance, or community negligence, many were not exposed to his literature and failed to cherish and appreciate the greatness and magic of his words, which kept the torch of our national culture and identity lit. Those of us who enjoyed Armand’s rich literary output will feel the cultural and personal void created in our lives by his departure. In the words of poet Paruyr Sevak, “We will only appreciate the greatness of a tree after it has been toppled.”
A yearning for warmth
in your palms shivers from cold,
and on your lips the waning touch
of a maiden’s lips.
You draw close to yourself
and button your blue vest,
sparks leap out from the fireplace,
but it is chilling in your soul…
You wait for her to come
and sit with you to talk,
to sit by you and not move
and open the album of your past.
Let it come, oh, let it but come
and sit by your side,
then let it snow outside,
let it snow, no matter how long…
Translated by Vahe Oshagan