"No, I'm not a Californian. But I consider George Deukmejian our governor."
With those words, Rita Balian, a woman of Armenian descent who came to the United States from Beirut 10 years ago, expressed a feeling of pride that filled the Departmental Auditorium Saturday night. There, 375 members of the U.S. Armenian community gathered to pay tribute to Deukmejian and to what Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, primate of the Armenian Church of America, called "nothing less than an Armenian renaissance."
Judging from the people seated beside and before him, Manoogian, whose church, along with the western U.S. and Canadian dioceses, sponsored the tribute, was not exaggerating; other prominent Armenians taking part in the tribute were Rep. Charles (Chip) Pashayan (R-Calif.), George Keverian, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and former U.S. representative to the United Nations Set Momjian, who organized the evening with Balian. With all the political types around, talk of another California governor making it to the White House was inevitable. Said Pashayan to Deukmejian: "Washington's not a bad place to live. I do suspect you'll have a mansion to live in on Pennsylvania Avenue."
California's governor's mansion, built under Ronald Reagan's administration, has never been lived in by a governor; it has been sold to an investor.
The arts were also well represented, with Metropolitan Opera contralto Lili Chookasian, Met bass Ara Berberian, violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Arthur Papazian each performing a solo piece in tribute to the Armenian composer Komitas. Papazian, winner of the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition, came to this country a year ago from the Soviet Union and gave his first American performance Saturday; he will make his formal debut next month at Carnegie Hall.
The evening had a dual purpose. For the last 70 years, members of America's Armenian community have periodically come together to mark a holocaust that attracts little attention -- the Armenian genocide of 1915. That year, about 600,000 of the Eastern European nation's population of 1.75 million were wiped out in a Turkish attempt to deport the Armenian people to Syria and Mesopotamia.
Today, Balian said, there are 8 million Armenians scattered throughout the world; nearly 1 million live in the United States, a number that has swelled since many Armenians fled from unrest in the Middle East. But Saturday was a night for optimism about how far Armenians have come.
"We're here to be with our Armenian friends," said Andrew Jacovides, the ambassador of Cyprus, sipping champagne with Lebanese Ambassador Abdullah Bouhabib. Other notables who came to be with their friends included Rep. Gene Chappie (R-Calif.), Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Calif.) and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, in town for the annual governors conference. "The main thing we've been talking about is the federal deficit," said Dukakis of Saturday's session. "The government is trying to balance its budget on the backs of the states, and we want to come up with a good, fair compromise." But Dukakis preferred to talk about his Armenian ties.
"I'm here for several reasons. First, George Deukmejian and I are the only two 'dukes' who are governors. Second, Kitty Dukakis' wife is deeply involved in the Holocaust Council. Third, I'm of Greek descent -- my dad came from Asia Minor, where there are a lot of Armenians. And fourth, the speaker of the Massachusetts House is Armenian. And a Greek as governor and an Armenian as speaker -- as they say in Brookline, that's a 'mitzvah' . . . a good deed."
"No, it's a double mitzvah," piped in a friend.
"And don't forget you've got a Jewish first lady," added Kitty Dukakis.
On a more serious note, Bishop Vazken Keshishian of the Armenian Church of Canada said that although his country's Armenians have immigrated more recently than their American neighbors, he is "not very happy" to see that they too are assimilating into their new culture. "We should keep our identity -- it's very important. It's not about vengeance," he said of Armenians' efforts to keep the memory of the 1915 genocide alive. "Man's inhumanity to man should not be repeated."