Houry Varjabédian

Houry Varjabédian: Presenting Armenian Literature to French Readers


YEREVAN — Last September, after several years of e-mail correspondence, I met French-Armenian translator and cultural figure Houry Varjabédian. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1955, Houry has been living in Marseille since 1968, where she studied to become a pharmacist. She cooperates with “Parenthèses” publishing house in Marseille, is engaged in translations from Armenian into French, actively participates in the life of the Armenian community in Marseille and in the Armenian-French cultural dialogue.

Dear Houry, first of all please tell me about the Armenian editions of Parenthèses publishing house.

In the 1980s, architects Varoujan Arzoumanian and Patrick Bardou created Parenthèses, initially for the purpose of publishing the book they wrote together, but later they decided to publish others as well. Instead of constructing buildings, they gradually began to publish books, mostly about architecture and building materials, but also on music, urbanism and photography. And since one of the founders is Armenian, an Armenian section was also created with the somewhat unusual name of “Collection of Armenias.” The first book in this series was the French translation of Avetis Aharonian’s The Road to Freedom, which was followed by other volumes over the years. Recently, the 31st book was published, The Pains of Light by Nicolas (Nigoghos) Sarafian, very beautifully translated by Ara Dandiguian. Our goal is to present Armenian literature, both old and new, to French-speaking readers. When the literature is not translated, it is as if the writers do not exist. When a few years ago, together with historian Anahide Ter Minassian, we published the collection Lands of Our Childhood, in which we collected the works of 40 Armenian writers about their childhood, it was very sad for us to hear from the French: oh, are there so many Armenian writers? Of course, there are much more! Among the books published by “Parenthèses,” I would like to mention Axel Bakunts’s Mtnadzor, Charents’ From Yerevan House of Correction, Zabel Yessayan’s My Soul in Exile, Kostan Zarian’s An Island and a Man, Nigoghos Sarafian’s The Bois de Vincennes, Zareh Vorpouni’s The Candidate, Perch Zeytuntsyan’s The Saddest Man, Vahe Berberian’s In The Name of The Father and The Son, Krikor Beledian’s Thresholds and others. We would like more Armenian books to be published, but we can’t get our hands on them. We publish the Armenian books with our own funds, as they are difficult to sell, the readers are few, we have few or almost no sponsors. I should mention that the French Cultural Center has sponsored us several times. However, when strangers tell us at the book fairs they have read an Armenian book, they loved it very much, even if have forgotten the title (of course, it is difficult for a French to pronounce Mtnadzor), this is the greatest appreciation for us.

I once read that 100,000 books are published annually in France. It must be very difficult to ensure an Armenian presence in this huge sea — or ocean.

In the French book market, we are looking for a tiny place to present Armenian writers alongside the literature of Japanese, Croatian, Vietnamese and other cultures. But we Armenians, are few and there are also few translators from Armenian. Very important works were done by the late Pierre Ter-Sarkissian, who very beautifully translated Shirvanzade, Kostan Zarian and others. Our plans are many, but time is short. We are very interested in Parajanov’s works. When he was imprisoned, Varoujan Arzoumanian formed a defense group for himself in Marseille. We went to the Cannes festival, other places, collecting signatures to release Parajanov. Years ago, at the Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, we saw his letters and other materials and decided to translate them. The late Alice Der-Vardanian translated Parajanov’s letters from Russian: we hope we will be able to publish them one day. Next year, we plan to publish Vahan Tekeyan’s Caesarea in French, as well as a volume from Teotig.

The values of the past are very important, but today also there is good prose being created in Armenia.

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We have not forgotten that, it is important for us to publish and introduce our living authors. A few years ago, we published an anthology of poetry, works of 20 authors, mostly from Armenia. Nune Abrahamian was the translator, Krikor Beledian and others also participated in translation. When we published that book, we made presentations, Hovhannes Grigoryan, Armen Shekoyan, Violet Grigoryan, Tigran Paskevichyan were invited to different cities in France, Nune was also invited to Bordeaux for residency. When we read Aram Pachyan’s novel Goodbye, Bird, we really wanted to translate it and it was published right before the covid. We intend to translate others as well, because we have many good young authors, both men and women, who have very original writing. We are very happy when we publish a writer who can come to the presentation and talk.

This time you came to Yerevan following the footsteps of French-Armenian female writer Lass, a member of the French Resistance movement, a victim of the anti-Nazi struggle.

Yes, I came with Marie Chartron from the French “France Culture” radio and Anouschka Trocker from the German radio to study Lass’s archives and prepare a radio program and an exhibition about her. Before this, Marie and Anouschka has gone to Germany and found her case in the archives of the concentration camp, where in a document it was described how she was dressed, what she had with her, her shirt, her bag, etc. We translated a short essay from Louisa Aslanian into French, and foreigners were very interested in this subject, especially when they learned the story of his life. Born in Tabriz and studied in Tiflis, Louisa Aslanian-Lass went to France with her husband, Arpiar, with the intention of becoming a pianist, but their means were insufficient. She was admitted to the Sorbonne and studied literature. Her first novel, By the Way of Doubt, was published in Hayrenik (Homeland) newspaper of Boston, and in 1936 it was published as a two-volume book. She was involved in activities of Committee of Assistance to Armenia and became a columnist in their newspapers. When World War II broke out, Lass joined the Resistance movement. It is very interesting that this delicate young lady who was writing, living in her dreams, became a Resistance movement activist, never scared of danger. She used to transport weapons and print leaflets.Together with her husband they translated the leaflets into German so that Nazis would be morally depressed and know they would be defeated. Lass collaborated with poet and future French Resistance figure Missak Manouchian and his wife Meliné, as well as with Hamlet Vardapetian. He was a great scientist, who worked with Irene and Frédéric Joliot-Curies at the radium institute. Vardapetian later repatriated to Soviet Armenia, but we learned that he did not tell much about his participation in the Resistance Movement. Lass distributes leaflets also with his mother; that old woman filled the leaflets under the vegetables in his bag and distributed them. Unfortunately, before the liberation of Paris, Lass and Arpiar were arrested and sent to the German camps. Lass was sent to Leipzig and Ravensbrück concentration camp. The French public figure Lise London was also in the same camp, who later testified that Lass, who was weak and sick, always wanted to write, and the other girls would take out pieces of paper from the trash can and give them to Lass. In the camp, she wrote the poem “Mala.” The other women worked in the lamp factory, but Lass refused to work for the Germans. When she realized she was going to be taken away, she handed over her writings to Lise London and said that if she survives, she would go to Paris and give those papers to her friend Rouben Melik. Fortunately, Lise London lived (she died ten years ago, at the age of 96) and fulfilled Lass’s request. I think there is a photo from that meeting where Lise London is with Rouben Melik, Archak Tchobanian and Achod Malakian (Henri Verneuil). At least that little part of Lass’s writings was saved, because the Nazis, having captured Lass, burned all the manuscripts in the house. Now there will be a radio program about this amazing woman in French and German, as well as an exhibition in Berlin. We plan to present the exhibition in France as well and we will dream of bringing it to Armenia one day.

You are also one of the lively figures of the Armenian cultural life of Marseille. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the massive settlement of Armenians in Marseille. What are you doing in this direction?

There is a lot to do, we would like to achieve everything, but there is no time. At the beginning of November, we will hold a book festival at the Hamazkayin School in Marseille. We collected Armenian books from Armenia, Istanbul, Beirut, as well as French books with Armenian topics. We will organize readings with the participation of young people. It is a great pleasure for us, we are very proud of this school. Again in November, we will open an exhibition of our Armenian cultural house, based on the materials of the Armenian archives of the ARAM (French: Society for the Study of Armenian Memory) organization in Marseille. ARAM was established by Garbis Artin, the son of Sebastien immigrant Sahag Artin. This person who reached Der Zor during the Armenian genocide and then found shelter in Mosul, Iraq, later established himself in France, and in new country he always was keeping everything written in Armenian. The archive grew so much that Garbis rented a garage to store the papers there. And one day he created an organization to continue the work to keep the books, photos, and old passports. Now ARAM is in a two-story office in Saint Jerome district. The president is Garbis’s daughter, Astrid Loussikian, who is a historian. We all work there for free, everyone does what they love, about 15 people regularly attend there. We usually work on Wednesdays and Fridays, but this summer we worked every day because of preparation of this exhibition. Exactly one century ago, a few weeks after the Smyrna disaster, the ship named “Tourville” took off from Constantinople and brought the first large group of Armenian immigrants to Marseille. There was already a small Armenian community in Marseille, mainly merchants, who had survived the pogroms in Ottoman Empire in 1890s. Mr. Tigran Mirzayantz, who was the representative of the first republic of Armenia in Marseille, along with other nationals helped the newcomers. In the first days, they gave some cash to refugees, who lived in cheap inns, then Mirzayantz appealed to the French government, and the Armenians were placed in a military camp (Camp Oddo), where about 5,000 Armenians remained until 1927. These old Armenians opened a private office and helped the emigrants in preparing their documents. The secretary of this camp, Alexander Arabadjian, has kept the lists of Armenians, which we can also look at online today. It is very important that people do not forget their history.

Houry, we met on occasion of my research on the history of African Armenians. It is very nice to see that an Armenian woman born in Morocco speaks Armenian so well and translates from Armenian.

I would like to speak much better. The Armenian atmosphere in France is difficult, we talk more in the family.

Where were your ancestors from and how did they appear in Morocco?

My paternal side is from Caesarea (now Kayseri in Turkey) and Talas. They came to Constantinople very early, my great-great-grandfather, Hambardzum, was an engineer, he worked in a car branch in Iraq, lived in Zahle and Beirut before the pogroms. His son, my grandfather Vahram, was educated by the Jesuits, knew Armenian, Arabic and French very well, collaborating with Armenian and French-language newspapers. He participated in the Armenian life in Beirut, wrote a book in French about Armenians in Syria and Lebanon, as well as a volume about Beirut. His wife, my paternal grandmother Hnazant Mesjian, was from Mersin. She taught us to read and write Armenian, also knew Greek very well, as the family lived often on Greek islands, and she read Greek until the end of his life.

My maternal grandfather, Kévork Kerkiacharian, was from Hacin (now Saimbeyli in Turkey), and his father was the priest of the Church of St. Jacob in Hacin. Many of the family were victims of pogroms, but my grandfather was not killed because he was a dentist in the Ottoman army, they needed him. He reached Gaza, Palestine, with the army of Jemal Pasha. Then, when the British defeated the Ottoman army, they released the Armenian soldiers. The founder of the Samuelian bookstore in Paris, Hrand Samuel, was also among those survivors. My maternal grandmother, Marie, was from Adana. Her father was a lawyer there, very well-known, and thus they were able to get free and go to Beirut. My two grandfathers knew each other from Beirut. I would also like to remember my mother’s godfather, Dr. Garegin Vardapetian, who was also the best man at my parents’ marriage. He was the one who freed Reverend Krikoris Balakian, as he was a doctor, had German education, and the Germans had given him a position in the hospital, where he was able to keep Reverend Balakian.

My parents, Berdj Varjabédian and Herminé Kerkiacharian, were born and raised in Beirut. My father came to France to study, he himself worked at the radium institute with Irene Joliot-Curie. Then, on the desire of my grandmother, he left that dangerous job and acquired a specialty in rubber and came to work in Morocco. My brother Vahram, who is deceased, and I, were born in Casablanca. There were several Armenian families there, we all always spoke Armenian and were very close to each other. When I went to the French school in Morocco at the age of six, I didn’t know a single word of French. I have never been to an Armenian school. When we came to Marseille in 1968, I participated in the Armenian lessons organized by the AGBU, then I was lucky enough to take lessons from Robert Dermerguerian, who taught adults, later I followed his Armenian lessons at the University of Aix-en-Provence. Robert lived in Armenia, speaks both Armenians and is a very good teacher.

And you also formed a family with an Armenian born in Africa.

Yes, Varoujan was born in Algeria. The story of his parentage is very interesting. His father, Boghos Arzoumanian, wrote in Haratch daily of Paris under the pen names of Anshen Vorbuk (Homeless Little Orphan) and Anshen Garodouni (Homeless Nostalgic). There was a very important organization formed by the writer Shavarsh Nardouni, the Adult Orphans Union, which Boghos Arzoumanian was a member of.

We speak Armenian and French at home, it depends on what. Armenian is very important for us, both Western and Eastern. My concern is orthography problem. We have dreamed for years, we have fought for Armenia to be independent, we are interested in Armenia. Independence took place, many buildings of the Soviet Union were demolished, but some forced Soviet changes still hold. I know it is difficult, but 30 years ago, we had to give up the Soviet orthography. Excuse me for saying this, but the Azeris changed the entire alphabet from Cyrillic into Latin, while the Armenian government did not want to change some spelling rules. Armenians are an intelligent people, they would quickly learn the correct spelling, so we could change the general spelling little by little. Many people do not agree with me, but perhaps we should have brought back our classic orthography for long time. Fortunately, today we are independent, we hope that Armenia will find its peace, as so many things we have to present to the world: very good writers, artists… and we long always to work together.

And we will work, dear Houry! Thank you very much for the interesting conversation.


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