16 July 2007

1814) Book Review: A Complicated Kaleidoscope Of A Divided People: German Journalist Chronicles Armenian Lives

Who are the Armenians? What makes them who they are? What drives them to make their ethnicity an important part of their identity? What drives them to preserve their culture at great cost? How have they dealt with the trauma of genocide? How has their culture survived and thrived in exile and in the most remote corners of the world? These are some of the questions political journalist Huberta von Voss entertained when she set out to create a book titled Portraits of Hope: Armenians in the Contemporary World. The book captures Armenians from all walks of life, from renowned artists to ordinary citizens; an excerpt follows this interview by Paul Chaderjian, which begins with a question about how Ms. von Voss decided whom she would present in her book.

von Voss: I didn't want to do any kind of "hall of fame" .. book. To me this wouldn't have been authentic. If you want to mirror the identity and character of a nation you have to choose stories of success and stories of failure, the mainstream and the eccentric aspects, the ruptures and the common ground. This is why I tried to have sort of a balanced mixture of prominent figures and of those who are less well known people. I wouldn't call them ordinary, by the way -- many of them are quite outstanding and particular, like the painter Anna Boghiguian from Cairo, who is a very unconventional kind of woman or Kevork Hintlian, a person whom everybody knows in the Old City of Jerusalem. To me it was also important to choose people whose life story would be representative in some way -- like the one of Levon Arutunyan, the Karabakh veteran or the one of Rosita Youssefian, the teacher of Armenian from Buenos Aires.

PC: Did you conduct in-person interviews, or did you correspond with those you present via postal or electronic mail?

von Voss: The first contact was often over the Internet. Some of them didn't have a computer, like the photographer van Leo in Cairo. So I just rang him up and went to see him while I was in Egypt. Yes, all of the portraits are based on interviews. If you want to portray a person you have to feel the handshake, look the person into the eye, and note the various feelings they reflect. We also tried to meet the people in their private homes, which wasn't always possible. Some people came to our house instead, like Professor Dadrian. He was giving a lecture in Cyprus, where we were living for some years. I still remember the first moment when he saw my husband. "Hello, Mr. Ambassador. Let's test your German. Can you tell me all the synonyms for the word 'quick' please?" My husband gave his very best, but failed. Dadrian could still add two or three more words. This is how we became friends.

PC: How did you go about photographing the subjects in your book? Did one photographer or several captures the images of those people featured?

von Voss: No, the whole project had no financial backing, although I had originally tried to get some subsidies. The Germans weren't interested yet in the matter and the Armenians turned down my requests as well. That has made my task as editor a bit more demanding and I am indebted to all my contributing authors for accepting to work for free. The photos have been kindly given to us by the people portrayed in the book.

PC: Among those people featured, whose story stays with you the most? Whose story has made the greatest impression on you and those close to you?

von Voss: That's very difficult to say and it might depend on the mood: Some portraits are funny, some are sad, some rather factual, some more poetic. For me it was a privilege to meet so many different people over the years and I feel very grateful for the trust so many people have put into the project. Looking back, I have to say that the portrait of Hrant Dink holds a special place in my memory. Hrant became a friend over the years and we used to meet when he came to Berlin. Together with a friend from London we tried to convince him to leave Turkey for a while, but he refused to do so, knowing that he was taking a high risk. Hrant belonged to his soil like few others in Turkey. Now he's dead and I wonder what will happen with his son who has been charged under the same paragraph 301 for allegedly "denigrating Turkishness."

PC: How was the idea of the book born? Whose idea was it, and what did you hope to create when creating Portraits of Hope?

von Voss: My husband and I spend some years in Beirut before moving on to Cyprus. We met a lot of interesting Armenians in both places. One night, a friend from Beirut passed around an article about the infamous Ambassador Wangenheim. It intrigued me that I knew so little, although I studied history at various universities. Moving on to Cyprus I discovered the wonderful Moufflon bookshop. Ruth Keshishian who runs it became a very close friend and without her hospitality I couldn't have done the book. Her store really became a second home and I could hang out there, browse and read as much as I wanted. This is where I discovered also Nouritza Matossian's amazing book on Arshile Gorky. After I had read Black Angel I thought to myself that some book was needed that would reach out to a wider public and explain to non-Armenians why the Genocide remains such a vivid trauma.

PC: Let's talk about the essays in the book and the chapters written by writers and scholars. What were the themes and historic storylines you set out to cover, and how did you go about deciding who would contribute to your book?

von Voss: It was important to give the reader an introduction into the matter as sort of a background for the portraits. I have chosen some of the leading experts in their fields: The German scholar Dr. Tessa Hofmann for Armenian history until World War II; Professor Vahakn N. Dadrian for the Genocide; Professor Taner Akçam for the history of Turkish denial; and the author Wolfgang Gust for the German role in the Genocide.

PC: Tell us about the places you've captured in this book. Why are these places noteworthy and were there other places that you considered but did not include?

von Voss: The idea was not so much to tell the history of Armenia, but the history of Armenians as a wandering nation. Many places in the book are important for the understanding of the national history, like Istanbul, Bourj Hammoud in Beirut, and Deir-es-Zor in the Syrian desert, or Karabakh. Other places are important to explain the meaning of the church, like the island of San Lazzaro and of course Antelias and Etchmiadzin. Some places were important to depict the history of the diaspora, like Pasadena, Los Angeles, Moscow, Paris, and Madras in India.

PC: If you had another volume, volume two, whom would you include and what other places would you explore? Were there historic themes that you would have liked to address in addition to those included in part one?

von Voss: I would probably ask the writer Orhan Pamuk or Elif Shafak for an essay about freedom of art and speech in a country that would like to join the European Union. They belong to the many Turks who would like to come to terms with their national history and who are feeling a strong need for reconciliation.

PC: As a German, how did you first learn about Armenians and when did they pique your interest?

von Voss: I guess I learned first about them by reading Franz Werfel's Forty days of Musa Dagh, which will hopefully be filmed next year. The German film producer Ottokar Runze has won wonderful -- and very prominent -- actors for the film and is now trying to secure additional funding. I hope the Armenians will help him in realizing a film that could help tremendously in creating support and empathy.

PC: Can you tell us about your career, what have you previously published and what has your career path been like?

von Voss: I am a political journalist by profession. After my master in history, political science, and French philology I started to work as a correspondent for several newspapers in the German capital. Then, I became spokesperson of Rita Suessmuth, the speaker of the German Bundestag, and took leave from my job when my husband was appointed to Beirut. I fell in love with the poetry of Nadia Tuéni, a Lebanese surrealistic writer and translated her and others into German. These days, I am working for the parliament as an expert in international affairs and I am writing a new book on child poverty in Germany. The only job that I have done continuously over the last 17 years is the one of a mother of three marvelous children.

PC: Did you travel to Armenia to research this book and have you traveled to places with Armenian populations?

von Voss: Yes, I did travel to Armenia as well as to Beirut, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Italy, New York, England, and of course Turkey to do interviews. Many other places in the world were covered by my contributing authors.

PC: The book was first published in German. Why German, and how did the German-reading public react to this book?

von Voss: It reacted very well. The head of the Protestant Church, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, has presented the book and it was reviewed by the leading newspapers. The reactions of the readers were positive and I got letters by many young Armenians who said that this book helped them to better understand their parents and grandparents. When I do lectures or readings many Armenians come and tell me their stories; this happened in Buenos Aires the other day, where I was invited to launch the Spanish version of the book. That is something very moving. Recently I discovered something on a German-Turkish blog. A young Turkish girl said that the book has completely changed her view on the Armenians. That made me very happy, since the book is meant as a contribution to dialogue.

PC: Thank You.



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