Caren Davidkhanian

Caren Davidkhanian: The Journalist Descendent of Great Iranian-Armenians

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YEREVAN/DENVER — Caren Davidkhanian was born in Iran, to Sarkis and Lily Davidkhanian (née Massehian). His grandfather and father were founders and owners of Iran’s first dry ice factory, Daga Gas Company. Caren studied at the American University of Rome and was a journalist for 25 years in Italy, writing extensively about various subjects from fashion and food and wine to film and politics. He also has years of experience in teaching languages.

Dear Caren, as a researcher of the Armenian diaspora’s history and its individuals, I am always particularly interested in the heirs of famous families and their activities, so I would like to talk with you about the path you have traversed.

Thanks for your interest. I am not a career person. I just enjoy the good life, which I don’t necessarily associate with careers. Work to me is just a way to pay the bills while having fun.

Yes, I agree… Davidkhanian is a famous family in the history of Iranian Armenians. Particularly, the name of general, philanthropist, and professor Martiros Khan Davidkhanian (1843-1905) is quite known. He was the chief of staff of the Persian Cossack Brigade, and the commander of the Royal Guard of the Qajar Court.

I was born into a storied Armenian-Iranian family. My earliest known ancestor from my father’s family was from Karbi in Armenia and had a private army and fought for Karim Khan Zand in the 1700s against the Ottomans in what is today Iraq. The Persians lost the war and the only exit route was southeast to Shiraz. They settled there and then the next generation moved to Isfahan and became one of the most prominent families there. Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf, is another beautiful place to which I have deep family ties through my father’s mother’s family.

Besides my great-uncle Martiros Khan Davidkhanian, whom you already mentioned, among my ancestors there were also brigadier generals, generals, a finance minister, a royal architect, a court doctor, royal translators and teachers in Iran’s first polytechnic school in the 1800s. My great-grandfather was General Sarkis Khan Davidkhanian, also in the Persian Cossack Brigade. My grandfather, Megerditch Khan, was the governor of Khorramshahr (Muhammarah) and military governor of Dezful on the cusp of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. He was the one who arrested Sheikh Khazal Bin Jabir, the emir of Muhammarah and overlord of the Muhaisin tribal confederation and Sheik of Sheiks of the Banu Ka’ab, who was trying to set up an independent emirate in southwest Iran in the 1920s. Soon after that, my grandfather was put in charge of the personal security of Reza Khan, who at the time was Minister of War and just a couple of years away from becoming Reza Shah the Great, founder and first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. That position didn’t last long. Travel plans were arranged for Reza Khan to visit the holy Shiite shrines in Iraq and his close advisers convinced him that it wasn’t wise to visit the shrines with a Christian in tow.

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From my mother’s side, we are related to Hovannes Khan Massehian (1864–1931), renowned Iranian diplomat and brilliant translator of Shakespeare into Armenian. He was the Persian Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James and Berlin before he became Persia’s first Ambassador to Japan. He fell ill in the Gobi Desert and died in the city of Harbin. His father, Agha Dzeruni, was the Chief Jeweler of the Persian Court and was the creator of the bejeweled globe that is one of the main attractions of Iran’s magnificent crown jewels collection. Recent DNA tests with the Armenian DNA Project also showed that my mother carries some Bagratuni genes, although I am sure there are thousands and thousands of others who can claim the same.

And how did an Iranian Armenian become an Italian journalist?

I became a journalist accidentally. Ever since I was little, my fixation was architecture, but the revolution in Iran upset my plans, or rather it was I who let it upset my plans. I was very young and having lived through the revolution in Iran I just wanted to have some fun. I had already dabbled in modeling, participating in Italian pop singers Rita Pavone and Teddy Reno’s annual competition that would take place in each of Italy’s 20 regions from which the best unknown actors, actresses, models, singers, etc. would be picked and then all the regional winners in each category would meet for the final event in Milan, where the national winners would be elected.

In that year, I was elected the winner from Lazio (the region where Rome is) but didn’t win the final selection in Milan. Then, while still at the American University of Rome, I read David Niven’s autobiography where he tells the story of how after World War II, he had figured that if he became a journalist, he could make some pocket money and get into the best parties in town! I was in my early 20s and wanted to do the same, so I went to the local English-language daily, the once-glorious but now long-gone Daily American, and offered to do a free monthly fashion supplement for them. They agreed and within a few months of working there offered me a full-time paid job as the supplements and specials editor.

Lots of fun stories to tell there as I had access to the best Rome had to offer in the very early years of the Italian fashion boom. Those parties opened the door for me to live the tail end of the Dolce Vita, mixing and mingling with people I would otherwise probably not have had a chance to meet, from major Italian fashion names to fun characters like renowned inventor and Nobel laureate Gugliemo Marconi’s daughter, princess Elettra Marconi to Wanda Toscanini, Arturo Toscanini’s daughter and Vladimir Horowitz’s wife, to Valentino, to Sorelle Fontana of the 1950s Italian fashion fame, to Gore Vidal, to photographer Roloff Benny, and to countless descendants of historical Italian families, and others.

Benny was a phenomenal Canadian photographer who, invited by Empress Farah, had visited Iran many times over the span of a couple of years right before the revolution. The result of those visits were two magnificent books — Persia, A Bridge Of Turquoise and Iran, Elements of Destiny — that came out in the year of the revolution and quickly became highly sought-after by Iranian émigrés. I met Benny at a party at a friend’s palazzo in Rome. As soon as he heard that I was Iranian, he took me into a private room, closed the door, sat down and we practically spent the rest of the evening reminiscing about Iran. He raved about the beauty of the country and about the legendary hospitality he had received from the queen as well as from ordinary Iranians during his travels throughout the country.

At the time, I had started compiling a weekly page for the newspaper with listings of arts, music, and cultural events in the city. I asked him if I could use some of his photos in the layout and he enthusiastically agreed to it, inviting me to go to his place the following week to choose whatever photos I wanted from his archive. Unfortunately, he died a week later of a heart attack in his bathtub, and I got to use only one of his photos — the sublime interior of the dome of the Shaikh Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan — on my page that week.

A few years later I moved on to writing about wine and food and travel (several trade guidebooks, some co-authored) including a section of one of the earliest editions of Time Out, Florence and Tuscany and the Italian Touring Club’s guide to Rome, and then about Italian movie business for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Then I started my own publication, Italy’s first fax-delivered newsletter — The Italian Press Digest — where I would explain the day’s most important Italian political events in English for the use of the foreign embassies in Rome. After that, I got into writing editorials and commentaries on Middle Eastern, and particularly Iranian, politics for a small but very influential Italian newspaper, Il Riformista, and became an occasional commentator on Italian TV and the Vatican Radio.

Caren Davidkhanian in his modelling days in Rome

I assume your articles on Iran were important for raising awareness on Iranian issues in Italian society.

I can recall an unsigned editorial I wrote for Il Riformista in 2003. That was the year of a wave of student protests in Iran and the invasion of Iraq. In my editorial, I accused the Italian left and the feminists of double standards and complacency with the Ayatollahs when it came to women’s rights and political freedom in Iran. The editorial sparked the biggest break in relations between Iran and Italy when within hours of its publication, it had the second highest authority in Italy (the president of the Senate) and virtually the entire political class (party secretaries, members of parliament, etc.) make declarations in support of the student protests against the Islamic Republic. It led to the most unprecedented event in the history of the Italian Republic where all major political figures, from communist to neo-fascist, participated side by side at a demonstration in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori by the name of “Siamo tutti iraniani” (we are all Iranians) in support of the Iranian student opposition and against the Ayatollahs. At that time Italy was Iran’s biggest trade partner, but all commercial activities between the two countries came to a halt for a few weeks as Iran protested Italy’s “interference” in its domestic affairs. Shortly after that I became the first foreign citizen (I was still an Iranian citizen at the time) to be allowed to join Italy’s Ordine dei giornalisti italiani. The Italian Parliament had to issue a specific approval for that to happen legally.

Like many diasporan Armenians, you are a polyglot, going easily from one language to the other.

Yes, I love languages. I have also taught languages, English and Italian, on and off for four decades. I speak five languages fluently, Armenian being possibly my weakest, and am currently learning Iraqi Arabic, particularly the dialect of southern Iraq, which is the same as the one spoken by Iranian Arabs in the adjacent region of southwestern Iran where my father was born. I have also done translations on and off all my life, particularly in the wine and food sector. I have taught Italian at the Catholic Salesiana University of Rome where I prepared Spanish-speaking students to take the Italian proficiency exam that was required for admittance to the university. I have also taught English, including at the Italian Ministry of Finance’s Superior School of Economy and Finance and, believe it or not, one of Rome’s main jails where I had to teach a group of extremely unruly prison guards, male and female. They were so crazy and uncontrollable that I often forgot that they were actual prison guards, not prisoners! Teaching languages is truly fascinating as it opens the door to meeting people from all walks of life that would be otherwise hard to meet.

Caren Davidkhanian’s great-grandfather, General Sarkis Khan Davidkhanian, with his wife Minouchka Galustian, who was related to the Enikolopians of Tiflis. On her lap, Caren’s grandfather Mookooch (Megerditch Khan Davidkhanian).

And now you live in the United States…

Yes, I came here to be close to my family. I love it here in Denver as I love the mountains, the skiing and the easy access to horse country. I stopped working as a journalist when I came here but write for pleasure mostly nowadays. Last year, I helped my best friend from college with a successful online movie business magazine he has started by the name of The Verdict as its features editor but had to put it on hold for family reasons.

For a long time, I have been thinking about writing a series of very short stories. In fact, writing about my travels in Iran in the mid-90s is one thing I have wanted to do for a long time. For six years, starting in 1996, I would go back to visit my parents every summer and spend five or six weeks there, including a couple of weeks of travel to the most remote areas of the country using hired cabs and very rundown local buses with no previous plans as to where to spend the night. I had in mind to see remote and very little-known archaeological sites. One was a 10th-century standalone minaret in an isolated valley at a bullet’s reach from the border with Afghanistan. I got to the closest village, some 20 miles away from the site. The villagers told me that the area was very unsafe and infested with smugglers. So, I turned around and left. Those trips provided me with some of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.

Being fascinated by Iran, it will be very interesting to read about your travels. Thanks for your answers, Caren, and good luck with your endeavors!

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