The Armenians of Egypt: An Old Community with a Profound Past

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David Zenian

CAIRO - Like an old dynasty, the Armenian community in Egypt is clinging to its institutions despite the devastating effects of an exodus which has depleted its ranks from a healthy 40,000 in the 1950’s to a meager, but stable, 5,000 in 1994.

Like other minorities reacting to local and regional political changes, the Armenians began leaving Egypt almost immediately after the 1952 military uprising which forced the abdication of King Farouk, and peaked with the introduction of hard-line socialism under the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956.

As a consequence of this new political and economic order, with wide scale nationalization of private property, and the 1956 Egyptian-Israeli war, many Armenians – together with members of other minorities like Greeks and Jews – packed up and left.

Today structures like clubs, schools, and sports facilities built in “the good old days”, are kept open by die-hard community activists determined not only to preserve, but also to revive the heritage of their forefathers.

The more popular of the clubs have distinctly overlapping memberships which fluctuate around the 150-member ceiling. Others are hanging in by the skin of their teeth.

The student body of Cairo’s two schools has declined so much over the years, that some of the upper high school classes have one student each. Cairo’s only Armenian church provides free bus transportation to encourage the faithful to attend Sunday service.

“If everything was measured by supply and demand or dollars and cents, then most of these institutions would have vanished a generation ago. But this is Egypt, and Egyptian Armenians are a different breed,” says a thirty-something community member with a grin.

“This place is like a huge mansion or even a palace which was built for a large family. Over the years, most of the children have grown up and moved out, leaving the grandparents to look after the property,” he said.

“The exodus has stopped, and the community is once again growing — but very slowly,” Mardig Balayan said.

One sign of the gradual revival is reflected in the growing size of the kindergarten classes of Cairo’s Noubarian School. Available figures show at least 28 percent of the 1993-94 enrollment to be in pre-elementary classes, with the rest spread out evenly between first to 12th grade.

“In the 1970’s and 1980’s the proportion of kindergarten students was much less,” a school official said.

But Noubarian today has a total student body of 113 and a teaching staff of 55 between full and part-timers.

Cairo’s other Armenian school, the 140-year-old Kaloustian Varjaran, is less fortunate. It has only 52 students, down from over 900 a few decades ago.

Will the Kaloustian school close, or merge with the more modern and by far better equipped Noubarian school?

“No way ... too much pride is involved to let such a thing happen. The Kaloustian loyalists will never give up.” a community member says with a sigh.

And with annual tuition at the two schools as low as 40 Egyptian pounds (12 U.S. dollars) for kindergarten and 250 Egyptian pounds (75 U.S. dollars) for the upper high school level at a time when Egyptian private schools cost 1,800 U.S. dollars, no wonder some parents will keep their “neighborhood” school open.

“We are not allowed to increase the tuition, so we charge extra for the bus transportation, which is 350 Egyptian pounds (or 106 dollars) per year. We lose money, but our losses are covered by the Prelacy of the Armenian Church in Egypt,” school Principal Ms. Jizmadjian said.

The Prelacy, which is under the jurisdiction of Holy Etchmiadzin, is the primary guardian of community assets such as endowments, real estate in the form of agricultural land and other property bequeathed by generations of philanthropists.

Alongside the Church, the Armenian community has, over the years, also set up one of the most elaborate civilian infrastructures in the diaspora.

These include, in Cairo alone, three newspapers — one for every traditional Armenian political party — seven cultural associations, four sports clubs, two schools, an old-age home, and eight Prelacy-affiliated auxiliary committees which oversee a diverse string of programs and activities from managing community property to maintaining the 150 year-old Mar Mina (St. Minas) cemetery — one of the testaments to the community’s past heritage.

But Mar Mina , with some of its mausoleums dating back to 1848, also tells another, but sad, story — that of a community which has moved away in large numbers from its ancestral home, leaving the graves of their forefathers at the mercy of vandals who have already started stripping away marble headstones and busts.

No one remembers Dr. Hagop Yaldimizian, whose tombstone says he was born in 1874 in the south Lebanon coastal town of Sidon, and buried in Mansourah, Egypt, in 1949.

The same is true with “Hagop Manougian of Jerusalem” whose neglected burial site is another example of the sad state of affairs at Mar Mina, long forgotten by the shrinking community in favor of a newer cemetery.

Unfortunate as these phenomena may be, the community remains steadfast despite its declining numbers, lost to mixed marriages, and the imbalance in its birth-death radio — 45 to 10 in favor of deaths.

The odds might seem stacked against the survival of Egyptian-Armenians as a community, but the battle is by no means lost, thanks to a great extent, to the unifying role of the Armenian church and the apolitical structure of the Armenian community.

Unlike some other Diaspora communities, the Armenian newspapers do not blast each other over policy matters. The community also stays out of local politics.

“What politics? In a country with a population of 56 million, I think a community of our size has only one option: stay out of politics,” a recent university graduate commented.

The apolitical nature of the community has also helped preserve national unity. Egypt’s Armenian community has always upheld allegiance to one church which traces its roots to Bishop Gabriel of Marash who served as Prelate from 1830-1864.

But there is more to a well-established community than religious harmony. A well-established community also means newspapers representing the various shades of the social fabric.

Arev, Housaper and Chahagir, which are by far among the longest continuously-publishing newspapers in the Diaspora, have a combined circulation of “considerably less than 1,000 copies”, but are determined to continue publishing despite the declining readership.

“It’s a question of principal. People do not give up here. All the old community structures are still in place,” Housaper’s Editor Zaven Lilozian says.

The Housaper newspaper itself was established 79 years ago, and despite a declining readership, is determined to continue the uphill battle.

“This is a one-man operation. I do not even have a fax machine to receive news from our more fortunate sister Armenian newspapers overseas. For news about Armenia, I have to rely on Radio Yerevan which we cannot always hear, the Voice of America’s newscasts, and whatever else I can get my hands on. This is the sad reality,” Lilozian said. Housaper is the official newspaper of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).

“Under similar circumstances elsewhere in the world, and especially in the United States, this newspaper should have closed down a long time ago ... but not in Cairo,” he said during a meeting at the old Housaper Building in downtown Cairo.

As old as the newspaper, the Housaper Building was once one of the main focal points of Armenian life in Cairo. Today, it stands dilapidated and old. It’s 800-seat theater is rented to a local Arabic troupe which has covered the entire facade of the building with massive billboards and posters advertising Arabic plays promoting Egyptian actors and actresses.

Not far away from Housaper is the Arev newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Armenian Democratic Party (ADL).

Also a one-man operation, the 78-year-old newspaper is edited by Hovhannes Bedrossian and is “fortunate to have a fax” which allows an easier and more up-to-date flow of information from several sources, including other ADL-owned newspapers in the United States and Canada.

“It’s a difficult battle which we are fighting every day. This community has a glorious past, and we want to keep this flame alive for the coming generations. Some of our problems are very serious, including such things as manpower and declining readership,” he said.

The Hunchag party newspaper Chahagir, toiling under the crushing hardships, is already publishing less frequently than its “relatively healthier” Arev and Housaper.

The exodus which started in the 1950’s to the distant shores of the United States, Canada and Australia, has dealt a painful blow to the very foundation of the Armenian community in Egypt.

“Our loss was their gain,” says Archbishop Zaven Tchintchinian, the Prelate of Egypt since 1977.

“Thank God the exodus has stopped and the young generation is showing some signs of revival,” Archbishop Tchintchinian says stoically.