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David Zenian

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When Haigaz Tahmasian left his native Iran 25 years ago as a 17-year-old escaping the draft in Shah Reza Pahlavi’s army, his new home across the Persian Gulf was nothing but a vast desert.

The desert Sheiks have since come together to form the United Arab Emirates, the Shah has died in exile, his nation transformed into an Islamic Republic, and Haigaz Tahmasian has become one of the leading builders in his adopted country.

But Tahmasian, like 2 million other foreigners living and working in a country of 500,000 ethnic Emirates’ nationals, is still an Iranian citizen and cannot even hope for a UAE citizenship despite his long residence and vast business connections. “We can live, work and prosper, but cannot have any roots here. This is a typical Gypsy kind of society. There is movement all the time, but some of us stay longer than others. There were only a handful of Armenians in Dubai when I arrived by ferryboat from Bandar Abbas in 1968. I had no money and no real education, but I was willing to learn and work ... and work hard,” Tahmasian says in retrospect.

“I started off as a welder, doing odd jobs for oil companies in the hot desert ... not the kind of work for a teen-ager who had a good and protected life in Iran,” he says with a smile.

Tahmasian, now 44 and father of two children, has every reason to smile. A self-made man, his is one of the success stories of the small but cohesive Armenian community of the United Arab Emirates. His Yerevan Steel Corporation is one of the largest in the region.

“I had to give the company an Armenian name ... for good luck,” he says. Numbering not more 1,500 people scattered across the Emirates of Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, the Armenian community is composed mainly of upper and middle level managers in local and foreign enterprises, engineers, small industrialists, custom jewelers, traders and car mechanics. “The size of our community has fluctuated over the years depending on the prevailing political situation in the neighboring countries. Fewer people are coming now that there is more stability in the region - especially in Lebanon,” Tahmasian said.

Drawn from Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese Armenian backgrounds, the tight knit group has not only accumulated considerable financial assets for itself, but it has also spared no effort to build most of the traditional Diaspora infrastructure for the survival of an otherwise mobile community.

The Armenian school caters to the community’s youngsters who attend classes on Fridays — the last day of the Moslem weekend. At present, some 100 Armenian children are enrolled in the three-hour program, learning the Alphabet and a bit of history and culture.

But with no opportunity to continue their higher education in the United Arab Emirates, high school graduates either return to their native countries or travel to the United States and Canada to continue their studies. “The teen-agers don’t come back after getting a university or college education abroad, so this means that sometimes their parents also relocate to be closer to where their children are,” Tahmasian said, pointing to the dozens of Armenian teen-agers at a recent community picnic in the oasis town of Al Ain. “The adults are very Armenian, but among each other, most of the youngsters converse in the foreign language of the schools they attend,” he added.

The community also has a resident clergyman from the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon, who conducts mass each Friday in one of Dubai’s few churches. The Catholicosate also appoints the members serving on the local Armenian Community Council.

While most community structures are in place, and local Armenians live comfortable lives, few call the United Arab Emirates “home.” The United Arab Emirates, like the other neighboring Gulf states, does not allow foreigners to own private property, and every resident alien should have a local “sponsor” or guarantor.

This explains why Tahmasian, who employs 60 people including engineers and draftsmen, cannot be the official proprietor of Yerevan Steel Corporation. “I have a local sponsor who, as the license holder, technically can pull the rug out from under this whole business in two minutes and force me to either find a new sponsor or leave the country. The sponsor holds the key to our operation. I pay him what amounts to a royalty or a license fee every month. It’s the sponsor who handles my residence permit without which I cannot work or live in the United Arab Emirates,” Tahmasian said. “There have been problems with capricious sponsors in the past, and while things are much better now, the sponsors can essentially ruin everything we have built in this country.”

These investments include expensive custom jewelry stores, wholesale and retail stationery and office equipment outlets and light industry. “We do not see any danger to our livelihood, but dependence on sponsors sometimes curtails our expansion plans,” Tahmasian said.

Khaleej Times, United Arab Emirates Sept 9 2005


9 September 2005

The Armenian diaspora in the UAE is a few thousand strong. SHALAKA PARADKAR talks to Liza Saghtejian who describes her people as hardworking, creative, inventive and resilient

My first brush with Armenian culture started innocuously enough in downtown Mumbai. Trying to locate a sharebroker firm, I stumbled upon a little gem of a building, nestling in the shadow of the stock exchange tower - the Armenian Church.

There was something heartwarming about how Mumbai's Armenians (a grand total of four, including two octagenarians) had defied logistics and economics to maintain their beautiful church, with its gilded dome, polished hardwood pews and crystal chandeliers. Faith shone bright here, as also some sentimentalism. The adjacent ghastly grey apartment block, also owned by the church, was called Ararat - after the mountain where Noah's ark was believed to have landed. Another sweet touch was the grapevine trailing over the backyard, transplanted from Armenia and struggling to establish its identity in Mumbai's less-than-salubrious Fort precinct.

Thankfully the Armenian community in India has had a happier fate than that vine. They are believed to have landed sometime in the 17th century in the then-capital, Calcutta. Armenian contributions to the city's culture and cuisine include a ferocious rugby team, many fine buildings and the delicious dolma, a dish which Bengalis believe is as much of their soil as rossogolla and Satyajit Ray, little knowing its roots stretch all the way back to the Caucasus mountains.

How did the dolma make its journey from a tiny landlocked nation bordered by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia to across the Middle East, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and even as farther afield as the USA and France?

Once a cradle of civilisation and now a republic that gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia has been witness to ethnic strife, bloodshed and genocides in the intervening millennia. Armenia's history is an almost linear progression of foreign rule under the Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian Mamluk, and Ottoman Turk empires before accession to the Soviet Union. Waves of emigration resulted in Armenians finding refuge in countries such as the UAE, where they have made valuable contributions as a hardworking community of businesspersons and young professionals.

In the UAE, the Armenian diaspora is a few thousand strong. Much of community life revolves around the church, Al Yarmook, built eight years ago in Sharjah. Curious to know more about this remarkable community and its flavoured cuisine, I met Liza Saghtejian. A 33-year old schoolteacher, church volunteer and mother of one, Liza is fiercely proud of her Armenian heritage even though home is Aleppo in Syria where she was born and Sharjah where she has lived for the past eight years.

Thanks to improved flight connections, a favourable exchange rate and visas on arrival, many more of the diaspora are winging their way to Armenia. Liza recently holidayed in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where her son Jack attended an art camp for children. It was as much a holiday as a homecoming, as she still has family in Yerevan. Says Liza of her culturally gifted people, `Nearly everyone I met in Yerevan wrote poetry or played musical instruments or sang or painted

-  everyone has some creative interest.' Liza herself plays the duduk,

a reed instrument which has to be wetted before playing. She also embroiders intricate antabi designs on velvet, a hobby that needs plenty of patience and skill.

Settling down for our chat over coffee and baklava, she says, `If I were to describe my people in brief, I'd say they are hardworking, creative, inventive and resilient. Despite all the emigrations, we thrived and have been well-liked in the countries of our residence. I am proud to be Armenian.'

Armenian cuisine reflects much of their history. There is a significant Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence in the recipes and ingredients. Geography too plays its part in what people eat. Thanks to the fertile, well-watered soil and the warmth of its sheltered valleys, Armenia produces an abundance of fruit: plums, figs, apricots, apples, cherries, oranges and grapes. (A bumper harvest this year resulted in Yerevan's major cultural event being rechristened The Golden Apricot Film Festival.)

For Ara Keusseyan, current president of the Armenian Community Council, the memory of Armenian fruits still linger from his visit there. `The absence of chemicals and fertilisers in farming render the fruits quite extraordinary in taste and smell. You could find your way blindfolded to a peach being eaten 15 metres away, so powerful is the fragrance.'

Keusseyan moved to the UAE from Beirut in 1983 to join his family which has been here for the past 40 years, and even though his dinner table sports an international look, traditional Armenian dishes do make a frequent appearance. Two of his favourites are mante, a lamb pie, and nivik, spinach and chickpea appetiser.

The colour and flavour of Armenian produce is incredible, which lifts the dishes way above the ordinary. The cuisine is also quite healthy, with its emphasis on grilling and steaming, and consuming choice seasonal fruits, salads, yoghurt, spices and herbs. (The pattern of consumption is less healthy with the evening meal being the heaviest one, stretching into several courses, while breakfasts are light - usually coffee, cheese, jam and bread.)

Having said that, Armenians do like it hot! Garlic is a firm favourite, and their love of the barbie would do an Aussie proud.

`Beef, chicken and vegetable barbecues are a distinct feature of Armenian cuisine. It is the men who are involved in grilling meat, as we really don't like our ladies to smell of barbecue!' says Ara. Spices used for meat rubs and marinades include cinnamon, cumin, cloves, sumac and fiery peppers from Liza's home town of Alleppo. Meat is also air dried and spiced to make soujukh - an extremely popular dish.

Yoghurt is usually set at home, and eaten for breakfast or as the salty summer drink tan. The Armenian bread lavash is a staple at all meals, for breakfast with cheese, or scooped with vegetables and salad, or broken into bits over soup. A thin oval flatbread, it is baked in earthen ovens called tonirs, very similar to tandoors. Lavash can be left to dry and moistened before eating by placing it under a damp cloth.

Showing us pictures of Yerevan - lots of fine statuary, lovely old churches, some dating back to the 5th century, and scenic beauty - Liza reminisces about the memorable meal she had at the Heen Yerevan restaurant. `It's done up like an old country house, the walls are decorated with hanging clusters of peppers, onions and garlic. We had a tahini and eggplant appetiser, and the entree was my favourite - kufta made with bulghur and minced beef.'

Yerevan is located on the banks of Sevan Lich, a gigantic lake that is home to the endangered ishkhan trout, known locally as the king of fish, and unavailable elsewhere. Freshwater fish makes a frequent appearance on Liza's dinner table in many avatars: grilled with garlic and spices, stuffed, steamed or served as soup.

Traditional harvest time specialities include preserves made from fresh green walnuts; eggplant jam (which Liza assures us is indeed very tasty and also has walnuts) and fruit sujoukh, a type of walnut candy. These are not available in the UAE, but you can sample them at the Annual Armenian Bazar in Sharjah, usually held in December, just before Christmas.

Armenians are staunch Christians who fast during the 40 days of Lent when delicious vegetarian versions of dolma, or stuffed vegetables, and ghapama, or pumpkin stew, are eaten. Dolma is made by stuffing grape leaves, cabbage leaves,

Swiss chard, eggplant slices or even firm vegetables like zucchini, courgettes, tomatoes and bell peppers that have been hollowed out. Accompanying sauces are simple tomato or yoghurt based.

Explaining that a typical Armenian meal is served in courses, Liza elaborates, `Every meal starts off with appetisers: garden salad made from fresh vegetables like tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers, panir, a salty cottage cheese, sujukh, pickles and olives. The main course is usually barbecued meat or fish, and the meal is rounded off with desserts, fresh fruit that is sliced at the table and Armenian coffee.'

Liza also shows us her collection of pomegranate curios, yes, you read that right. Of all the fruits available in luscious plenty, the pomegranate (noor) holds a special place in Armenian culture.

`The noor is symbolic of the cycle of life and renewal, each one of its translucent red seeds is a metaphor for a day in your life and one fruit is believed to contain 365. If you eat a seed a day, it brings you good luck!' Pomegranates are a recurrent motif in Armenian art and craft; they appear on incense burners, cruet sets, souvenir plates and various touristy tchotchkes.

Why pomegranates? Possibly because they are coloured red which is also an auspicious hue for Armenians, it is one of three colours on the national flag and represents all the blood that has been shed over centuries (the other two being blue and orange, for Armenia's land and skies).

A toast to Armenia then, Genatsit! May its skies and lands be forever free. And of course to open minds and happy tables groaning with good food. The recipes below, courtesy Liza, serve four. Use your imagination to adapt and improvise, for that is the Armenian way.



4 large firm tomatoes or 4 medium bell peppers

For stuffing

Cooked rice 2 cups

Minced lamb 250 gm

Minced beef 250 gm

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp grated nutmeg

1/4 tsp allspice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For sauce

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup canned tomato

1 tsp lime juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients for stuffing together. Prepare the vegetables for stuffing by carefully cutting off the top and removing the core and seeds. Fill the vegetables loosely with the stuffing, leaving room for it to expand during cooking. Arrange the vegetables in a pan. Cover and simmer with water and tomatoes, to cook the vegetables until just tender. Season and add lime juice. Add more water as needed during the cooking process .



For filling

minced lamb or beef 500 gm

2 large yellow onions, chopped

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

3 tbsp chopped parsley

1/2 tsp chopped mint leaves

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped

1 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp dried basil

Salt to taste

For outer cover

minced lamb or beef 750 gm

3/4 cup fine bulgur

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 tbsp chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste


Brown the ground meat for the filling. Add onions and cook for 30 mins. Add peppers and parsley, cook further for 10 mins. Add remaining ingredients. Cool.

Mix all the ingredients for the outer cover together. Pulse in a food procssor until light and fluffy. Take a little of this mixture and flatten it in your palm. Fill it with a walnut-sized ball of the stuffing. Cover and shape into a round meatball. Make all the meatballs this way.

Heat 1 litre of chicken stock until boiling. Drop the kofta into the stock and let them cook for 10 minutes.



2 cups semolina

11/2 cups shortening or ghee

1 cup boiling water

3/4 cup caster sugar

2 cups roughly ground walnuts or almonds or pistachios

1 tsp powdered cinnamon

1/4 cup icing sugar


Place the flour in a bowl, and cut in the shortening using a fork. Pour the boiling water and knead to a solid dough. Turn the dough onto a floured work area and knead some more. Cover and let stand for an hour or even overnight.

Mix together sugar, walnuts and cinnamon. Set aside.

Preheat the over to 350 F/ 175 C.

Knead the dough again and roll into walnut-sized balls. Shape a hollow and fill it with the nut mixture. Seal the dough over.

Place the balls on a cooking sheet, using a fork to gently make a pattern on the top.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until ight brown.

Dust with icing sugar when warm.

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Armenian Genocide

Sharjah Ruler Commemorates Armenian Genocide Victims

YEREVAN (Armenpress)--The Ruler of Emirate of Sharjah, HH Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, paid his respects, on Tuesday, to the victims of Armenian Genocide by visiting Yerevan's Genocide Memorial and a nearby genocide museum.

The Sheikh, who is on an official visit to Armenia to open the Days of Arab Culture there, initially met with the head of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences to review scientific cooperation, specifically joint research projects in the near future.

"We are happy that, despite the burden of pressing problems, Armenia opens its doors to Sharjah. We respect that, along with the determination to expand our relationship," said the Arab leader.

He said that cooperation with Armenia developed after President Robert Kocharian's visit to the United Arab Emirates in April 2002.

The Sheikh also met with Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian to evaluate implementation of projects in recent years, and the various cooperation agreements the two countries have in place.

They spoke of developing economic cooperation, and noted the need to expand their collaboration in the areas education, science, culture, tourism, and the exporting of agricultural products.

The prime minister the Sheikh's visit and the celebration of cultural days of Sharjah in Armenia will give new impetus to their relationship. Margarian stressed the importance of establishing an Arab cultural center in Armenia and thanked the Sheikh for readiness to provide financial support.

Diplomatic Relations

06.05.2006 00:36 GMT+04:00

/PanARMENIAN.Net/ By RA President Robert Kocharian's decree of May 4, 2006 Arshak Poladyan was removed from the post of the Armenian Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, reported the RA leader's press office. By another decree Vahagn Melikyan will assume the office in the UAE (residence in Abu Dhabi).