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The Armenian Weekly; Volume 75; No. 1; Jan. 10, 2009

Features
1-The Genie Is out of the Bottle
Turkish Intellectuals to Armenians: We Apologize
By Khatchig Mouradian
2-Madame Paulette: An Armenian American Success Story
By Yelena Ambartsumian
3-Paul Varadian's Unique Dining Experience
By Tom Vartabedian
***
1-The Genie Is out of the Bottle
Turkish Intellectuals to Armenians: We Apologize
By Khatchig Mouradian
On December 15, around 200 intellectuals in Turkey launched an
Internet petition1 apologizing for the Armenian Genocide. Soon
thereafter, hell broke loose.
Although there is a wide consensus among genocide and Holocaust
scholars that the Armenian Genocide took place, the Turkish state
continues to vehemently deny that a state-sponsored campaign took the
lives of approximately 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. The
Armenians, the official Turkish argument goes, were victims of ethnic
strife, or war and starvation, just like many Muslims living in the
Ottoman Empire. Turkey invests millions of dollars in the United
States to lobby against resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide
and to produce denialist literature. Moreover, many Turkish
intellectual who have spoken against the denial have been charged for
`insulting Turkishness' under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.
The fact that the text of the apology2 didn't employ the term
`genocide' but opted for `Great Catastrophe' did not stave off
condemnation. A barrage of criticism and attacks followed almost
immediately. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish
army, many members of the parliament, and practically the entire
Turkish establishment instigated and encouraged a public outcry
against the apology. Threats and insults flew from left and right, and
counter-petitions were launched from Turks demanding the Armenians to
apologize.
Yet despite the wave of condemnation, thousands of ordinary Turks from
all walks of life added their names to the petition. After breaking
the taboo against talking about the Armenian Genocide, Turkish
scholars, writers and journalists had made apologizing for the
Armenian Genocide an issue of public discourse. The petition did not
simply recognize the suffering of the Armenians; rather, it went
beyond and offered an apology, which was crucial for the initiators of
the campaign. `I think two words moved the people: Ozur Dileriz (`We
apologize'),' said the drafter of the petition, Prof. Baskin Oran when
I asked him about the wording of the petition. `These are the very two
words that kept thousands of Turks from signing it. But they were
imperative. I don't feel responsible for the butchery done by the
Ittihadists [the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the organizers
of the Genocide] but we had to say these words. There is something
called a `collective conscience,'' he added.
Some criticized the text because it avoided using the term `genocide.'
The former head of the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights
Association, lawyer Eren Keskin, said, `I do not accept compromise
when it comes to the use of the term genocide. Even though the word
genocide was not used in the petition, I signed it, because I believe
any change in a country or in a system can take place if there is an
`internal' demand. I believe that the Republic of Turkey is a
continuation of the Ittihadist tradition - the tradition of the
perpetrators of the Genocide. The majority of the founding members of
the Turkish Republic, including the leaders, were members of the CUP.'
An apology is an obligation, Keskin told me. `Just as the Republic of
Turkey took over the financial obligations of the Ottomans under the
Lausanne Treaty, it should take over the obligation to apologize for
the Genocide. I believe it is first and foremost the obligation of the
Republic of Turkey to apologize. The individuals
who internalize the official ideology, who do not question it, who
ignore the fact that a genocide has been committed and who give their
approval by remaining silent also owe an apology to Armenians,' she
said. `I signed the statement because I think this is an initiative
that will normalize, in the eyes of the Turkish public, the concept of
and the obligation to apologize to Armenians.'
Amberin Zaman, Turkey's correspondent for The Economist and a
columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf, said that regardless of the
criticism about the wording, the petition initiative was a turning
point. `When we look back at this campaign several years from now, I
think there can be no doubt that it will be viewed as a turning point
- not just for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, but more importantly
in terms of getting modern Turkey to come to terms with one of the
darkest chapters of its recent past,' she said. `Whether people agree,
condemn or quibble with the wording of the text, in the end [the
petition] has unleashed an unprecedented debate about the fate of the
Ottoman Armenians. It has also sent a very strong signal that
rapprochement efforts between our mutual governments [Armenia and
Turkey] is far surpassed by the very real desire at a societal level
to heal the wounds and move on,' she added. `The genie is now well and
truly out of the bottle.'
Poet Ron Margulies considers the petition a first step. `It does
something which should have been done decades ago and tells Armenians
that many Turks share and understand their pain, sorrow and
grief. This apology and expression of empathy is the first step
without which nothing else can follow,' he said. `But there is also a
second reason which, for me, is as important as the first, and it has
to do with Turkish politics rather than the Armenian issue in
particular. In recent years, many unmentionables have become
mentionable and are frequently mentioned in Turkey. These include the
existence and rights of the Kurds, the issue of the other minorities,
the role of the armed forces in the political life of the country, the
competence of the armed forces and of the chiefs of staff, the issue
of Islam, the right to wear a headscarf in public offices, etc. Once
out of the bottle, these genies refuse to go back in. And they all
deal serious blows to Kemalism, to nationalism, to the
official ideology of the Turkish state. This petition, and the fact
that 8,000 people signed it within the first day-and-a-half, is
another such blow. We must continue raining blows on the edifice of
the Kemalist state,' he added.
For these reasons, Margulies notes, the wording of the petition was
not so important to him. `Every text can be improved upon. But that is
not the point. The petition has already had a phenomenal impact -
because of its content and its spirit, not because of the specific
wording,' he explained.
When I asked why she signed the petition, author and journalist Ece
Temelkuran spoke about the massacres, but more importantly, about the
dispossession. `Since writing my book [The Deep Mountain], the
conflict, which was already profoundly emotional for most of us after
[Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink's death, became a personal
issue to me. The petition was a way of telling my Armenian friends
that I share their long lasting pain and that I understand. As far as
I observed among the Armenians in the Diaspora and in Armenia, the
deepest and the most vital pain is the homelessness they feel. Besides
the pain of being massacred, Armenians today, all over the world, feel
homeless. With the petition, I just wanted to tell the Armenians that
people still living in Anatolia didn't forget what happened and that
they still feel the absence of their Armenian brothers and sisters.'
1http://www.ozurdiliyoruz.com
2 The apology read: `My conscience does not accept the insensitivity
showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman
Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for
my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian
brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.'
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2-Madame Paulette: An Armenian American Success Story
By Yelena Ambartsumian
Two Armenian brothers introduced Paris to caviar in the 1920's. In our
time, Armenians continue to expand the frontiers of
sophistication. John Mahdessian, President of Madame Paulette,
inherited a third-generation family business in the 1980's and quickly
transformed it into the world's leading custom couture cleaner. From
restoring historic gowns and family heirlooms to interior cleaning of
private yachts and estates, Madame Paulette is the vanguard of its
industry in every imaginable service. Remarkably, what drives the most
trusted man of the world's renowned fashion design houses is not a
desire for fame or wealth but rather an overwhelming love for his
family and an intense pride in his Armenian heritage.
John Mahdessian's great uncle founded Madame Paulette in the 1950's,
after emigrating from Cyprus and marrying a French woman who later
lent her name to the budding Upper East Side dry-cleaning
business. Mahdessian's father, Noubar Mahdessian, soon began working
for his uncle by day and attending classes at New York University by
night. `My father's aspirations were in accounting but after his uncle
got sick, he had to work full time to support the business,'
Mahdessian explains. `My uncle didn't get any better, and my father
had to take over the business not by choice but by obligation to the
family.'
Noubar Mahdessian had to support not only his uncle's family but also
his mother, his sister, and his new wife. Of course, this
responsibility was not without its setbacks. Part of the store was
destroyed due to a fire, and the insurance only covered half of the
restoration cost. `Most people would have filed for Chapter 11, but my
father was committed to keeping the business. He borrowed money and
paid everyone back in cash and credit over the next five years.'
>From a young age, John Mahdessian inherited his father's dedication
to hard work. `I remember as a child my dad used to give me a wire
hanger and tissue, and for each one that I made he would give me a
penny. So, I would assemble hundreds of them and get two dollars.' In
high school, Mahdessian sold items at the flea market. By college, he
was selling real estate. `It never occurred to me that I was too young
to do these things. I just knew that I had an amazing family that
would pick me up anytime I fell down. There wasn't anything that I
didn't think I could do,' he says.
While Mahdessian was in college, his mother, Ann Mahdessian, had given
up her job as a school teacher so that she could help Mahdessian's ill
father run the family business. After graduating from college,
Mahdessian had secured a high-paying job in investment banking, but
before starting his career, he decided to help his father for a
month. `And it was then that I watched my dad, and I realized that
even if I made millions of dollars on Wall Street, he wouldn't be
around to enjoy it.' Mahdessian felt instantly obligated to continue
the business and gave up his Wall Street ambitions. Within a mere six
months, he was able to retire his father.
`Every day, I challenge myself, and it's a different situation,'
Mahdessian says, `You just have to figure out everything on your
own. It was a lot of methodical testing and pioneering in this
industry.' Mahdessian remembers an early project, in which a socialite
wanted to donate a hundred dresses to a museum. Unfortunately, the
dresses were damaged in a flood, and the dyes transferred onto each
other after someone had put the dresses into a garbage bag. `When I
opened the bag, I couldn't believe it. Colors bled onto each
other. Mildew started growing. They compounded the problem.' For over
a year, Mahdessian spent every minute of his free time taking apart
each garment, testing each fabric with different solutions at varying
temperatures, and lastly re-stitching each dress by hand. `Out of the
100 pieces that were lost in history, I brought back 90 of them. And
that was remarkable,' Mahdessian recounts.
Today, Madame Paulette is a nationwide brand that represents the very
best in its industry. Mahdessian explains that Madame Paulette has
achieved such renown due `its pioneering of new cleaning techniques
and processes.' With more than 50 billionaires as active clients and
recognition for its work at the Trump wedding, at VOGUE photo shoots,
and at the Chanel and AngloMania Exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, Madame Paulette certainly does not have to go after clients
the way any other business would. Instead, it is widely recognized by
the best demographic clientele in the world.
Madame Paulette will once again set a new standard in its industry,
with Mahdessian's newest venture: the opening of a posh boutique. `I
took over half the block on 2nd Avenue between 65th and 66th streets,
in a landmark building where Grace Kelley lived.' The boutique has
custom furniture, custom chandeliers, and custom fabrics. Not
surprisingly, its interior designer is Armenian. Taittinger (one of
Madame Paulette's luxury partners) will be pouring visitors
champagne. `The dressing rooms will have the ultimate lighting
features, and we will ask each client what the event is for - day,
evening, or night - and we'll set the light accordingly,' Mahdessian
explains. `We also have a black light, so we can inspect the gown on
the client and see stains not visible to the naked eye.' The boutique
will have its grand opening in late-February. `It will provide the
ultimate in service. There probably isn't a nicer boutique, which I
know of, in Manhattan.'
Mahdessian attributes his success to his Armenian heritage. His
grandfather was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. `At the age of 7,
my grandfather watched his father and his brother get shot and his
mother and sister become slaves on their own estate.' Mahdessian's
grandfather was put into an orphanage to be converted to Islam, but
his mother planned an escape with a distant relative living in the
United States. `I heard many stories, as a child, from my
grandfather. He would tell me how he worked from 10 years old on in
the United States, and when he went to school, he had to wear
newspapers around his shoes. The kids would make fun of him, because
he couldn't afford a new pair,' Mahdessian says. `Those are the things
that I remember, so for me to work 12-15 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a
week, is nothing compared to what he had to go through.'
`My family sacrificed everything to get us where we are today, and
that is something that I never take for granted,' Mahdessian
explains. `I feel it's my obligation to make sure my parents live
comfortably, and I feel happy and blessed that I have the ability to
do so.' Looking toward the future, Mahdessian is not shy about his
desire to marry an Armenian woman. He feels strongly about passing on
his success, his abilities, and his heritage. But when it comes to
looking for his perfect match, Mahdessian jokes, `I just don't have
enough time, because I'm keeping the world spotless.'
--------------------------------------- ----------------------------------
3-Paul Varadian's Unique Dining Experience
By Tom Vartabedian
Guess who was invited to dinner in Istanbul by Turkish President
Abdullah Gul?
None other than Paul Varadian, a one-time prominent AYFer from
Providence, who has spent the past 15 years promoting World Olympic
prosperity in Armenia.
In his role as Chef de Mission (head of the delegation), Varadian
organized a winter team for the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer by
recruiting a couple Providence athletes - Kenny Topalian and Joe
Almasian - for the bobsled.
The two aspirants proceeded to put Armenia in an arena of
respectability that year, marking the first Olympic Games with an
Armenian flag represented.
What started out as a brief volunteer stint is now approaching 16
years for Varadian, whether it's been the summer games or winter. Over
that time, the memories have been a dime a dozen, including this
recent dinner engagement with Gul.
Varadian accompanied Armenian Sport Minister Armen Grigoryan to
Istanbul, which recently hosted the General Assembly of 49 nations of
the European Olympic Committee. The two represented Armenia and got to
discuss matters privately with the Turkish President.
`We discussed our abilities to overcome past differences through sport
as highlighted by his visit to Yerevan,' said Varadian. `It was all
done in an environment of sport. The genocide was not discussed. His
most important words were that `courage' was necessary to accomplish a
brighter future for us.'
Meanwhile, Varadian remains bullish toward the future of Armenian
Olympics, especially after his team mustered six bronze medals this
year in China. It marked the biggest output ever for Armenia.
`Armenia has a strong future in the Games, much of it due to wealthy
entrepreneur Gagig Tsurakyan, who has personally provided financial
support for the athletes,' Varadian points out. `I've been to Armenia
several times since 1993, always to promote sport and assist in any
way possible.'
The 55-year-old is no back-seat driver when it comes to motivating
Armenians and putting them into the limelight. He is General Secretary
of the Armenia Skating Federation and for many years served on the
United States Olympic Committee, representing the Bobsled Federation.
When the Soviet Union became dismantled, Setrak Agonian of New York
asked Varadian to help the fledgling Armenian National Olympic
Committee get off the ground.
`At the time, certain individuals were given Armenian citizenship by
the government in a deal with the State Department and I was one of
them,' Varadian said. `I've marched in many opening ceremonies and
lived in the Olympic Villages, meeting so many great athletes I cannot
count.'
Varadian has the blessings of his wife, the former Vartus
Artinian. The two have been wed 31 years and now live in Newton,
Mass. with two daughters, Sonig, 23, and Nevart, 17.
He's competed nationally in archery, rowing, track and field - and
internationally for the USA in skeleton, including the World
Championships.
For the past three decades, Varadian has remained the consummate
sports entrepreneur, developing the world's largest social network for
athletes (www.iamsport.org).
In his travels, he's been to 65 countries and made more than 200 trips
to Europe. Varadian has been head New England judge for Ferrari events
and served on the organizing committees for many major sporting
events, including USA Track and Field Championships.
During those venerable Providence days when he was a superb AYF
athlete, Varadian would pile up 104 points for his chapter. His late
father Haig was Olympic King in 1969, along with all four of his
uncles. His mom Anahid remains a community activist in Providence,
including ARS Woman of the Year. A sister Christine still holds the
AYF long jump record.
`Everything I've ever accomplished in life and sports is due to my
parents and my extended Varadian family,' he maintains. `At my age, no
matter where I go, I'm still proud to be referred to only as Haig's
son. My father, with the support of my mother, has had such an impact
on sports most people cannot appreciate.'
Last year every New England high school championship in every sport
was named after Haig Varadian.
As many times as Paul Varadian has mulled retirement, he's returned to
the forefront - a life that's more passion than duty. Creating an
international stand for Armenia is his biggest attribute. However, an
illness to his wife has curtailed much activity.
`Vartus has patiently allowed me to carry out a life that many can
only dream of,' Varadian admitted.
The die has been cast in what could be a bonanza for future Armenian
athletes. But not without certain enhancements.
`We need to branch out beyond the strength and combat sports and
include more women,' he confirms. `For the winter, it's more of a
challenge. But with the improvements in Tsakasor winter sports
complex, there is some hope. The recent re-opening of the Yerevan
Sports Complex (Hamalir) offers us an Olympic ice surface for our
skaters and hockey teams. I'm very optimistic for the year 2014 in
Sochi.'