In this humorous, learned, and moving memoir, Vartan Gregorian recounts his journey from an impoverished childhood as a Christian Armenian in Muslim Tabriz to cultured citizen of the world.
Gregorian's odyssey begins in an obscure poor quarter of a provincial city (thought by some to be the location of the Garden of Eden). Childhood centered on his brilliant, beloved, illiterate grandmother who taught him so much, the beauty of Church, school, American movies, and the larger world he read about in his borrowed books. From there, he continued on to a Beirut lycée, Stanford University, and the presidencies of the New York Public Library, Brown University, and Carnegie Corporation.
Like Jimmy Carter in An Hour Before Daylight, and in the tradition of Nabokov, Jill Ker Conway, and V. S. Naipaul, he tells us that education is an openness to everything, and describes his public and private life as one education after another. This is a love story about life.
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Vartan Gregorian is the twelfth president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. Previously, he served for nine years as president of Brown University and as president of the New York Public Library. Dr. Gregorian is the author of The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946. His academic honors include some fifty honorary degrees. In 1998, President Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CHAPTER FIVE: To America
On August 3, 1956, I landed at New York's Idlewild (now JFK) Airport. The flight was long and exhausting and I was anxious. Once again, I was facing the unknown for I really did not know much about the United States. What little I knew was through the prism of Hollywood. My English, to be charitable, was shaky. I was afraid not only of embarrassing myself in America but also the Collège Arménien and its considerable investment in me. I was scared to let down Sir, not to mention the Armenian communities of Tabriz and Beirut -- indeed, the entire Armenian nation and my fatherland, Iran, and of course Mr. Vratzian. Like many shy, frightened immigrants, I was too proud to ask questions lest they unmask my ignorance. I pretended to know everything. Behind the façade of my self-assurance, there was a profound fear.
My first test came during my flight from Paris to New York. I was handed a U.S. Customs declaration form. Prior to the flight, I had been given an inventory form by Pan American Airways, to help me make a record of my belongings. I thought there must be a certain connection between the two forms, and therefore I listed everything in my possession in order to satisfy U.S. Customs. I wanted to be both accurate and thorough. After all, I was coming to the "land of laws," of "complete transparency" and "accountability."
After filling in the Customs form ("no purchases, nothing to declare") on a separate sheet of blank paper, I listed the number of socks, evening shirts (I thought any shirt you wore during the evenings was an evening shirt), T-shirts, underwear, handkerchiefs, as well as shoes, gloves, suits, and jackets. I had two or three silver frames. I did not know the word "frame." I asked a passenger across the aisle about it. She told me they were "frames." I heard her say "frabes." So I listed them as "frabes." I am sure the bewildered Customs officer must have thought I was a nut and threw my "inventory" into the garbage can.
As we approached America, my anxiety gained sadness as a companion. Upon the death of my mother, when I was six and a half years old, my younger sister and I were told by our relatives that our mother had gone to America: "a distant but beautiful land." As we were approaching that "beautiful land," my childhood fantasy that my mother was in America came to an abrupt and sad end. I had to catch up with the reality of death.
The dream of going to America had been a fantasy. For me, America itself was a fantasy built and rebuilt in my mind and psyche. I had lived it through scores of cowboy movies. My American heroes, who embodied courage, honor, loyalty, solidarity, integrity, self-sacrifice, patriotism, love of justice, and generosity, had prepared me for a fantasyland and sustained my dreams.
None of the movies prepared me for my first encounter with New York. I was stunned, overwhelmed, intoxicated, "blown away" by it. It was huge, massive, powerful. The varieties of sounds, colors, shades dazzled me. I had never seen or imagined so many cars, buses, ambulances, so many fire engines, police cars, taxis, or so many people in one city! The multitudes, their energy, their fast pace were incredible. All of a sudden, I felt I was in the presence of a microcosm of all humanity, the whole world. Every ethnic group, religion, race, continent was in New York. I had never seen so many tall buildings. Nor had I seen a concentration of so much cement, concrete and, especially, steel and iron. For the first time, I saw water towers and long fire escapes. They seemed to be everywhere. Elevators, escalators, and revolving doors impressed me, as did the number of shops and restaurants, not to mention the multitude of well-dressed people. I got lost in Central Park. It was so huge that I thought it contained all the trees and all the gardens of Tabriz, Tehran, and Beirut combined.
One Sunday, I visited Saint Patrick's Cathedral. It was imposing, majestic, yet open and welcoming. The burning candles, the beautiful music, interspersed with moments of silence and serenity, had a soothing effect on me. The altar boys reminded me of my childhood in Tabriz and my church, where I had spent so many Sundays hearing of and singing for the glory of God. All of a sudden, I felt very sad and nostalgic. My childhood seemed remote.
The sight of the Central Post Office of New York City on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street astonished me. It was a civic monument, rather than a mere post office. It symbolized stability, confidence, and durability. I read with great pride the words inscribed on the lofty entrance: Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. The quotation, adapted from the Greek historian Herodotus, refers to couriers of the Persian Empire who, in the sixth century b.c., could travel some 1,600 miles in one week.
The Brooklyn Bridge fascinated me. I had never seen such a major, long bridge in my life. It was so powerful and graceful and beautiful! Speaking of beauty and grace, imagine my utter disbelief and enchantment when I saw MarÍa Félix, the actress, on Fifth Avenue. I became paralyzed. For a moment, I felt I was in Hollywood! I could not wait to write my friends that I had seen the personification of beauty.
The opulence of Fifth, Madison, and Park Avenues did justice to my Hollywood vision of America. Broadway and Times Square stunned me; I had never thought it was possible for a city not to sleep, or to have so much entertainment, so many bars, theaters, so many nightclubs, so much nudity, so many stations of sin and fantasy. But most impressive of all, I had never imagined seeing so much light and electricity in a single city. I felt as if the entire electric supply of the world was centered in New York, making it the City of Light. These firsthand, fast-moving impressions made me imagine New York as the City of Cities, the embodiment of power and sheer energy. I wrote to my sister that New York was a gigantic magnet. It attracted everything and everyone in the world, every source of power, energy, and scrap metal and every creative idea.
I had seen the Empire State Building in the movie King Kong, but nothing prepared me for the experience. I felt as if I were on the top of the world. After observing the range and the depth of the city, its architectural and engineering wonders, I wrote home that in New York I felt like an anonymous ant. If they stepped on me, I wrote, they would not even notice me. "This city will humble anyone and teach everyone humility," I wrote, adding that in New York, while you may be insignificant, at the same time you are just like anybody else, alone yet part of the multitude.
I had brought two letters of introduction from Mr. Vratzian. One was to Edward (Eddy) Sahakian, president of the Broadway-based Pictorial Engraving Company, Ltd., and the other to Martiros Zarifian, director of auxiliary services of the Taft Hotel. Eddy Sahakian was a benefactor of the Collège Arménien. I had lunch with Mr. Sahakian. Mr. Zarifian took me to his home on Long Island.
The reception accorded me by the two Armenian-Americans whom I had never met made me realize the range of all diasporas -- whether Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Greek, Lebanese, Irish, Egyptian, Nigerian, Italian, Portuguese, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, or Pakistani. I had always thought of diasporas as limited and parochial. In New York, later in California, I discovered that I was utterly wrong. Diasporas tend to be cosmopolitan, international. In any distant region, country, or city, one has an instant link to one's diaspora through one's extended, dispersed family, one's religion, cultural institutions, language, press and, of course, commerce. An immigrant, a student, a visitor finds an easy foothold, a pathway, a bridge to a foreign country.
After bidding farewell to the Zarifians on Long Island, I went to Idlewild to catch my flight to San Francisco. I had sent a wire to those who were instructed by Mr. Vratzian to meet me at San Francisco Airport. I was placed on a waiting list. I did not know that there were more than one or two flights a day from New York to San Francisco, nor did I know that there were several other airlines that had scheduled flights. My message stated that I was arriving in San Francisco on such and such a date with Trans World Airlines.
Then the worst possible thing happened. I lost my airline ticket. I told the ticket agent who had wait-listed me about my "tragedy." "What can I do?" I asked. "Not much," he said. "You have to declare the loss, wait for a certain period of time, and file a claim." "I can't do that," I replied. "Don't you understand? I have to be in San Francisco tomorrow! I must register as a freshman at Stanford University this week. I am desperate, desperate, desperate!" I actually shouted at him. Tears of anger, self-pity, and shame and my horrified face must have touched him. He told me, "I have never done what I am about to do. I will stamp this empty envelope, marked New York to San Francisco, without a ticket in it. You can board the plane. But you must stay onboard all the way. Do not disembark. Stay on it until you get to San Francisco." Grateful, yet fearful, I boarded the midnight plane. The fourteen-hour flight stopped in Chicago, Kansas City, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, before arriving in San Francisco. At each stop, I told the stewardess that I did not feel well and would rather stay aboard. The generosity of the airline clerk had an impact on me. Even in New York, this massive metropolis, individuals mattered. After all, I was not an insignificant, anonymous ant.
I loved San Francisco. It was one of the most spectacular cities I had ever seen, even in the movies. It was beautiful, open, warm, hospitable, charming, and manageable. You were not overwhelmed by it, you were won over. I felt welcome. Once again, I could see the sky and the stars. In some ways, it reminded me of Beirut and its charm. If the Brooklyn Bridge...
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