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Armenian Patriotism, Revisited 

A Los Angeles man returns to the homeland — and might become its president

Thursday, Feb 3 2011
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When writer Garin Hovannisian goes home to Armenia in a few days, he will feel weirdly homesick. "It's so strange. I always miss the place where I'm not," he says, sitting in a café in Glendale, the one place in Los Angeles where there are so many Armenians it can seem like you already are in the old country. To understand his very contemporary kind of longing, you have to go back a bit, to the Ottoman Empire. Specifically, to a guy named Kaspar.

Kaspar was Garin's great-grandfather, one of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the Armenian genocide. When the Ottoman Turks butchered the men of his village, Kaspar escaped to the San Joaquin Valley, where he started a grape farm. He gave his kids American names and taught them to embrace their adoptive country. One of these kids was Richard.

Richard did not love the vines and the farm. He fled his home, too, but to Los Angeles and a professorship at UCLA, where he founded the department of Armenian studies.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JENNIE WARREN - Garin Hovannisian at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Montebello
  • PHOTO BY JENNIE WARREN
  • Garin Hovannisian at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Montebello

Richard, in turn, begat a son named Raffi, who grew up in Brentwood, played football at Palisades High, became a lawyer and married. Raffi set up practice and made lots of money. He became, in short, the epitome of the American dream. You'd think this is where the story ends, everybody fat, fulfilled and happy. And it could have ended there. But if you read the book Garin — Raffi's son — has written on the subject, you'd see it's actually only the beginning.

Because then, the fatherland called. Or rather, faxed.

"My dad sat in his office in Century City and realized history was waking up miles away," he says. "It was waking up after decades of silence."

Garin was 3 years old when his father announced they were moving to Soviet Armenia. It was 1989. It was kind of a shock. "My poor mother!" Garin says. "She was actually a refugee from Soviet Armenia. She had just become a successful lawyer herself."

Nevertheless, they traded the house in Brentwood for an apartment in Yerevan. Garin's dad didn't have a job lined up in Armenia, but his revolutionary and democratic hopes were high. You can live on patriotism, it turns out.

Raffi joined up with the people who would become the country's new leaders and made himself indispensable: visiting the Karabakh conflict's front lines one day, arranging interviews between the new democratic party's members and the world's press the next.

In 1991, following mass demonstrations throughout the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's empire crumbled and Armenia declared independence from the Soviet Union. The fledgling government needed just such a natural connector, a person who knew law and the outside world, who had contacts in the United States, who could speak English, French and Russian. Soon Raffi was appointed the new Republic of Armenia's first minister of foreign affairs. He negotiated diplomatic relations with every foreign country. He raised the new flag at the United Nations. He installed the ministry's first fax machine. "We recognize," came the return transmissions, communiqués from Britain and Japan and Mexico, acknowledging the new country's independence.

"My dad was born in the U.S. but always had a sense that his future was somewhere else," Garin says. "He's left me kind of a divided legacy. My immediate family are in Armenia, but my extended family is in California."

From age 3 on, Garin traveled back and forth from L.A. to Armenia, spending half the school year here, half there. He remembers trips on Aeroflot planes. He remembers passengers drinking vodka, eating, handing him candy, "a party in the air."

He has grown up into a thoughtful, gracious young man who has never felt fully at home, never fully adjusted to the culture he's in.

History, apparently, is written not by winners but by their children. The bicultural upbringing that made a diplomat out of Raffi made a writer out of Garin. His book Family of Shadows is Armenian history as seen through the achievements of the prodigal sons — Kaspar, Richard and Raffi — of one of its leading families. It is a book bursting, aching with pride. Pride for fathers. Pride for family, duty and nation. Yet there are feelings left unspoken, too: disappointment, disillusionment. Hence, the shadows. They slip through the narrative, darker interior moments that are gone as soon as seen:

 We lived in a castle. That is what it seemed like, anyway, because there was a Russian pool table on the veranda and secret service agents in the basement. I marveled at all of this, yet I knew this was not my real home. I knew that beyond the gray walls of the dacha was Yerevan, which itself was not real, and beyond that was California, where all my grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins lived. Where I was now, this was just beautiful nonsense. I was simply walking through my father's dreams.

 How can a son be anything but proud of a father who has done so much? How can you be in two places — metaphoric, psychic, geographic — at once? History may be written by children, but it is made by parents.

To flesh out details, Garin interviewed his father and grandfather. "The most terrifying ones I did were with my grandfather. He's the master interviewer. He's collected some 800 interviews with genocide survivors."

If Garin seems too young to tell the family saga, having personally lived only 24 years of it, he worried about that as well. "It required courage," he says. "No, arrogance."

Maybe it's genetic, that courageous arrogance. His father was just 30 when he abandoned his cushy upper-middle-class Southern California existence and uprooted the family to join the revolution. He is expected to run for Armenia's presidency in the next election.

Thus far, the dual life continues. Garin's dad still lives in Armenia, and Garin still splits his time between continents, racking up the frequent-flier miles. When in Los Angeles, he crashes with his grandfather in Westwood, walking distance from the UCLA campus. In Armenia, he sits at a desk in an apartment in Yerevan, facing a window that looks out on Mount Ararat. Reaching across the café table now, he flips to Family of Shadows' title page and draws a mountain with the sun peeking out behind it. He will write a novel next, he believes. For his debut, Garin has, quite literally, put his family first.

"I can't say that I would make the same decision he did," Garin says of his dad, though he'd be lying if he said the dream and the patriotism mean nothing to him.

But which dream, is the question. Which country?

"The American dream or the Armenian dream. I'm not sure which one I want yet," he admits. "Ah, well. Life is meaningful in the balance."

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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