A Daily Newspaper Reborn in Beirut: An Interview with Baydzig Kalaydjian, Editor of the ADLP Organ Zartonk


By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Beirut supports three Armenian-language daily newspapers — Ararad, Aztag and Zartonk. Each one is the organ of a traditional (meaning originating in the Ottoman era) Armenian political party. It is a great achievement for the ever-decreasing Armenian population of Lebanon to maintain these papers, especially with Western Armenian in retreat throughout the world. While in Beirut, I had the opportunity to briefly interview the present editor of Zartonk, the official publication of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (the Ramgavars). Zartonk’s first editor was poet Vahan Tekeyan in 1937, and it has continued to have respected writers and intellectuals as editors in later years, including Kersam Aharonian (1948-81).

In May 2008, Zartonk had been closed for approximately 15 months and its future was uncertain at best, when an effort was made to revive it. Thanks largely to the efforts of Lebanese member of parliament Hagop Kassardjian, financial and internal administrative obstacles were overcome, and two editors were invited to restart the publication. Hrayr Garabedian returned to Beirut from Vienna, joining local writer Baydzig Kalaydjian. After about a year Garabedian left the newspaper, and Kalaydjian continued as editor-in-chief. Zartonk recommenced as a semimonthly, and gradually increased the frequency of its publication until it turned back into a daily this June.

Kalaydjian had a long history with Zartonk prior to her editorship. She began writing for it as a correspondent in 1990. She had her own weekly page on “women’s affairs” which she prepared for some six or seven years. Kalaydjian was quick to point out to me that she was not writing about women in the kitchen and other traditional spheres, but rather on the Armenian woman in Armenian national life, education and various modern realms. She felt at the time that Armenian women could not bring up children properly by staying at home. They had to be free, and involved in Armenian community life. They thus could become the pillars of the latter, not just of family life.

Kalaydjian is a graduate of the Melkonian Educational Institute, the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Yervant Hussissian Institute for Armenian Studies, and Yerevan’s Hrachia Ajarian University, where she received a master’s degree on the search for roots and Armenia identity. She focused on Peter Balakian’s memoir Black Dog of Fate in particular, and now continues to work with Azat Yeghiazarian in the Armenian Academy in order to complete her doctorate on the post- Genocide diasporan press.

Kalaydjian taught Armenian language and history for many years. She worked for 16 years at the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU)’s Garmirian School of Beirut, and then, was invited in 2000 to the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus to teach the same topics. She physically left Zartonk then, but continued to contribute articles frequently. She also served on the editorial board of Khosnag, the Lebanese AGBU publication, and in Cyprus also worked on Melkonian’s own publication and the Paros newspaper, as well as the on-line magazine Gibrahayer.

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Zartonk at present provides Lebanese political news on the first page. Very important breaking news pertaining to Armenians will also be placed on the first page, but otherwise Armenian issues are presented throughout the rest of the newspaper, which is, in all, usually eight pages long. These news items are often obtained from websites from the Republic of Armenia and are translated into Western Armenian. Reports about various Diasporan Armenian communities are presented in summary.

Kalaydjian reads Turkish and therefore occasionally translates and summarizes relevant items from Turkish newspapers like Zaman and Hürriyet. Zartonk has provided a great deal of coverage of issues pertaining to the Hamshen and Dersim Armenians. A variety of Armenian historical and cultural topics are frequently addressed.

I asked if there was anything distinguishing Zartonk from the two other Lebanese- Armenian dailies. Kalaydjian replied, “We very clearly are different from the other newspapers in one chief point. From the very first day, we have always adopted the same orientation and have not changed it since our founding. One of Zartonk’s chief goals in the Soviet period was to worship Armenia, even if unwillingly, and even if others were against it. This upbringing I myself received through Zartonk, and it was a great honor for me to have had. I still teach my students that the Soviet period was one of great progress for Armenia.” She went on to discuss the present period: “Even when we have political differences with the existing regime in Armenia, we still support it. Furthermore, we have always remained faithful to Holy Echmiadzin, no matter what the situation, and continue to do so, because we believe in its decisive historical and religious role for our people.”

Zartonk employs nine full-time staff members, members, including Kalaydjian. Of the nine, two are writers. In addition, occasionally the freelancer Hamo Moskofian contributes articles, as do writers from Lebanon and outside. There is a section on Armenians in North America, to which writers like Hagop Vartivarian contribute dispatches. Vartivarian and other party members in the US have worked hard to get Zartonk reopened, and the Tekeyan Cultural Association and others in the US support Zartonk financially. Many American-Armenians follow Zartonk through its website.

In 2005-2007, Zartonk published an Arabic-language monthly supplement called Al-Mulhak. It may be resumed again later. Kalaydjian pointed out that “it is true that the young generation is turning to Arabic, but it is also adopting English. This question should not be specifically limited to Lebanese- Armenian youth only. This is a diaspora-wide situation, and even sometimes a problem in Armenia.” At present, however, she still feels the majority of the population, perhaps 60 percent, have been educated in Armenian schools and so still have a connection with the Armenian language.

At present, the newspaper has over 1,200 subscribers, primarily in Lebanon, in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakiya in Syria, and in Jordan. Half of these subscriptions are complimentary. Zartonk established a website about 10 years ago, which recently has been expanded. It is done in color now. Many Lebanese-Armenian expatriates still read the newspaper through this website, as do other diasporan Armenians and many residents of the Republic of Armenia. The Internet version has perhaps 10 times as many readers as the print edition.

The editors of Zartonk and the two other Beirut Armenian dailies now enjoy good relations with each other and often meet. Kalaydjian thinks a friendly rivalry can be useful for the community at large. She is optimistic about the future of the Armenian press in Lebanon: “I still believe that there is a role for the printed press like Zartonk. We no longer take outside subscriptions, but people write us that they want hard copies. This is not a question of different generations and ages; some young people want the printed copies too. Last year when my students had events and these were covered, they obtained the hard copies and read them with interest.” Kalaydjian finds that the younger generation of Lebanese Armenians today is very interested in “news on Armenian issues, and questions of Armenian identity. For example, the youth liked Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate (in Armenian translation). It made them feel that it was not too late for them either [to become more connected with their Armenian heritage].”

Zartonk is still expanding. Recently, Ardavast Melkisetian joined as administrator for the newspaper in order to increase its circulation. About three months ago, Zartonk established a literary and cultural supplement in Armenian and Kalaydjian is considering starting a supplement for adolescents. It might be possible to expand the website too, and add audio and video material, but there are some complications since the newspaper’s hosting server is located in Germany. Kalaydjian wants to actively do as much as available resources will permit.

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