1960-2004. The unexpected and shocking death of Vanya Exerjian with her father at her Heliopolis flat brought dozens of friends and family to the entrance of the building on Tuesday afternoon. The funeral took place at the Armenian Church on Thursday, with a brief mass on Saturday.
A remarkably talented actress known across Egyptian households for a popular tissue paper advertisement -- "soft, strong and full of tenderness" ran the slogan -- Exerjian had played the lead in El-Warsha Theatre Company's production of Tawfik El-Hakim's Rosasa fil-Qalb (Bullet in the Heart) last year. Though a bad cold eventually prevented her from travelling with the troupe to France, where she was to participate in an upcoming production premiered there, she was as active as ever at Video 2000, the production company at which she was one of two partners, and to which she devoted most of her energy in the last few years. She was also reportedly to have a main role in an upcoming film by one of her oldest friends, "those serious filmmakers we grew up knowing", as she liked to describe them. After an extended period of uncertainty following personal troubles, Exerjian was back in shape -- excited, cheerful, energetic and effortlessly sociable. As an audience member who demonstrated the principle of audience participation to perfection, she often brought verve and humour to El-Warsha performances.
The only daughter of an Armenian-Egyptian couple from the town of Erzerum in Anatolia, Exerjian graduated from the American University in Cairo (AUC), where her passion for theatre found expression in numerous performances including Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. She was a founding member of Zassy, a puppet theatre company that originated at AUC, and went on participating in its activities until the early 1990s, the time during which she made a string of brief if often outstanding appearances in films directed by Youssri Nasrallah, Zaki Abdel- Wahab and the late Radwan El-Kashef. Having led a more or less sheltered life within the Armenian community until she enrolled at AUC, Exerjian spoke of "a widening of horizons" brought about by her student life and subsequent involvement with the AUC theatre -- a process which joining El-Warsha in 1989 made all the more intense, bringing about contact with people from all walks of life and from every sector of Egyptian society: Upper Egyptians, street performers, Student Movement activists... Exerjian participated in all three of the company's full- scale performances: Dayren Dayer, Ghazir El- Leil (Tides of Night) and Ghazl El-A'mar (Spinning Lives). She played an Armenian resident of a Minya town as well as the Upper Egyptian incarnation of Khadra, the mother of the hero of the Beni Hilal epic. After finding herself embroiled in too many administrative tasks, Exerjian extracted herself from her commitment to the troupe, playing the lead in The Last Walk, a cycle of Alfred Farag plays directed by Dina Amin and performed at Wekalet Al-Ghouri, before Rosasa fil-Qalb.
She was a film and advertisement producer and child psychologist (the subject she studied at AUC) as well as an actress. Though she maintained excellent relations with many members of the Armenian community, the vast majority of her friends were Egyptian. Due to her devotion to theatre, her social life ranged far and wide, often bringing about a radical change of scenery, but wherever she went Exerjian took with her her dramatic voice, temperamental disposition and spectacular presence -- qualities that endeared not only her but the whole of the Armenian Diaspora to people with whom she interacted. She was born in Cairo and grew up in Heliopolis, where she continued to live till the end of her life, visiting Armenia for the first time in 1978.
VANYA EXERJIAN (1960-2004)
She would have turned 44 on August 17th 2004. She brought so much joy to her parents who waited a long time for her to arrive. She lived as an only child, but was not alone at all. She had us, Nora, her cousin and sister, and Vazken, her cousin and brother. The three of us grew up together. She also had hundreds of friends, thousands of fans, and lots of children, though none of her own. She dedicated many years of her short life to children with mental and physical disabilities working with them through theatre which she loved so much and at which she was so good. She worked with them, bringing out the best and the artistic in their souls; spreading lots and lots of love, joy, and life’s precious gifts around her. She made her surrounding happy, though she may not always have been so herself. More than most, her priority had always been making others happy; bringing sunshine into other lives, even to those that disliked her, though it’s hard to believe anyone could.
My darling Vanya is gone! She is no more! It has been 5 months without her and the pain is unbearable. I miss her more every day. The only consolation over this terrible loss is the gift of having known her; the gift of having had her as a cousin, a sister, and most of all as a confidante and a truly caring friend.
How could this happen? What did God have in mind? Were my darling cousin and dear uncle too good for this world that he summoned them both to the next one so fast?
My darling Vanya: Like the stars in the sky, thousands of light years away, still shining long after they expire, your beautiful soul and radiant smile will be with us even though you no longer are. Your love will linger on for thousands of years in this universe and in the memories of thousands you have touched.
You gave and gave, never expecting anything in return. Your love, caring, good energy quenched those around you, sometimes leaving you drained in the process. But you didn’t care. You were fulfilling your purpose of being there for everyone. This endless love, to which I have had the privilege of being privy, is now gone. No more phone calls to cheer each other up, no more visits to Cairo for Christmas or New Years. Our last Christmas together, December 2003, will remain engraved in my memory. It was magical! We connected as we always have, but this time, even more strongly. It was fate playing its tricks on us and we didn’t know it.
We didn’t know our projects together would never see the light. I wanted you to play our grandma - you look so much like her when she was young- in my autobiographical film about our family. We were writing a play together to do it as a duo. And our short film entitled Hanging? It is all gone! I feel all alone and often cannot find the strength to continue. The only thing that gets me going is your encouragement when I was in doubt about pursuing my purpose in life. Your voice is still ringing in my ears: ‘Hold the Bull by the Horns’ you said, and gestured to doing it. You wanted me to never give up! With what strength? How?
Your last Christmas present to me- the lampshade I was unable to take in my suitcase as it was too big and cumbersome - I finally had it shipped. It gives me light and guides my path. Your soul is present every time I switch it on. You’ve enriched my life in the 43 years you were in it. Where will I find such a sister? It is all a memory now.
I feel you presence everywhere I go, and it gives me strength. I shall continue the journey; for you, for us. I hope you can see me from up there. I know you can, we spoke about this before, remember? I hope I am not going insane. I must tell myself that I have no choice, I cannot give up.
Did you have to keep this appointment with destiny? Couldn’t you fool it by going to Paris like you were supposed to with the theatre group? I had so wanted you to see my new place. Maybe you still can. The sprit travels a lot more easily than the body they say. I am waiting for you; for our reunion in this world or in the next.
Your lovin cousin,