Armen Aroyan, tour organizer

Armen Aroyan at Mount Sebuh, the burial location of St.Gregory the Illuminator, West Yerzinga

  A Pioneer of Pilgrimages: Armen Aroyan

By Mary Terzian

According to William Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage, and all the men merely players." Some fill center stage. Others work quietly behind the scenes, happy in the realization that the services they provide are unique, serve an important purpose in the community, and cause deep personal satisfaction. The respect earned eventually is an incidental but welcome recognition of their efforts to be useful and contributing members of society.

Armen Robert Aroyan is one of those serene individuals who leave an imprint on community life without being conspicuous. For the last twelve years he has organized the Armenian Heritage Society’s tours to historical Armenia, making interesting and emotional forays into the past. Tour participants, most of whom are survivors or offspring of deportees from Anatolia, choose to visit the land of their ancestors in search of their roots, to heal open wounds that still ooze, or repair the disconnected link with the past. These tours are not run-of-the-mill trips, but rather emotionally charged pilgrimages that need to be handled tactfully and with sensitivity.

Aroyan perceived the need for such tours in the early 1990s and started organizing the trips as a service to interested individuals. In doing so, he ventured into untrodden territory and managed to dispel some of the apprehensions that still cloud the Armenian psyche. In addition, these visits brought to light a plethora of churches, monuments and buildings that are still somewhat erect and bear witness to the Armenian presence in that part of the world.

Aroyan’s accidental role as tour director resulted from an evolution of events rather than formal planning. Born near the end of World War II in Cairo, Egypt, the eldest of four siblings, little Armen grew up in a typical closely-knit Armenian family. He showed enough acumen from early childhood to become eligible for an innovative advanced placement program at the Kalousdian Armenian School, with successful results. He remained there through the sixth grade, imbibing the essence of Armenian qualities for which the school is well recognized. Thereafter, he attended St. George’s College, an all- boys high school, where the primary language was English, preparing for the General Certificate of Education.

Unlike other teens, Aroyan concurrently followed correspondence courses in electrical engineering, under the tutelage of his far-sighted father, through the International Correspondence Schools (ICS) of London. The elder Aroyan took great pains in endowing his children with a well-rounded education along with available entertainment: music lessons, tape recorders (a novelty then), electric trains, educational toys and extra-curricular activities. He kept them in focus on self-development. Father still keeps his pedestal in Armen’s memory.

After two years of engineering courses with Ahmeds and Muhammads at the University of Cairo, Aroyan continued his studies in the United States, courtesy of his father’s efforts, with Johns and Jacks. He obtained his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Cal State, Los Angeles, and kept on with his studies during his employment with McDonnell Douglas, garnering a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Southern California. He established and directed for a decade the Armenian Evangelical Choir of Pasadena, with limited training in music but with a sharp ear for rhythm and harmony and a knack for organization.

Aroyan’s genteel manner, his depth of technical knowledge, his ease with languages and “savoir faire” in public relations won him consulting assignments in Japan, Taiwan, China and Germany. Such exposure sharpened his curiosity about the world and his taste for foreign travel. He always volunteered for assignments where he could prove useful. In 1983, on a business trip to a client in Germany, an advertisement for weekend vacations in Constantinople, Turkey, caught Aroyan’s attention. He elected to visit the country on a whim. It was an eye-opening experience that eventually changed his life. What started as a curiosity, evolved into extended visits to the hinterland, collection of archival material, interaction with the local people and the establishment of facts, supported by a massive video collection. At first, conceding to requests by acquaintances to join him, he led visits to satisfy demand. Later, as pressure for extended services increased, he organized the Armenian Heritage Society Tours. Travel progressively absorbed more of his attention, especially after he became a casualty of the U.S. Defense Budget cutbacks in 1990 (pursuant to the fall of the Berlin Wall) - after 24 years of service at the same company.

Asked if he does not tire of visiting the same country over and over, Aroyan comments on the vast opportunities for discovery, both physical and social. The interior is sprinkled with Armenian relics. Within any group, the mix of individuals with particular interests and qualifications make each venture a unique experience. The itinerary, which usually includes cities of major interest, is fluid and is designed to tailor-fit the participants’ desire to visit certain sites, hometown to their ancestry. These sites, especially the villages, often with distorted names or fired up imagination, may prove to be blown up pictures of modest hamlets, or real locales long wiped off the map. It is also possible that they still exist, or have acquired a different name. Aroyan makes every effort to locate these nondescript villages to place them back on the map or in his itinerary.

Such interesting deviations from the mainstream give the tours an individual character and feel, exposing fragments of history doomed to extinction. Churches, schools, tombstones, houses of exceptional quality, lost Armenians, relatives and acquaintances left behind, all are hazardous occurrences as they turn up in the remotest of villages of dubious names. Interaction with the simple-minded peasants, untarnished by world politics, and unaware that the visiting Americans carry Armenian names, reflects the real feelings of the populace, which is nothing but respect and admiration for the Armenians. Some of them remember that a “problem” existed in the past, but the extent of such “problem” remains shrouded in ignorance.

Why has Aroyan succeeded in opening closed doors? His answers are simple and logical, as can be expected from an engineer. In the recent past, restrictions of visits to the interior may not necessarily have been directed towards Armenians, but used as a safeguard against infiltration of Kurdish revolutionaries. The present Government encourages tourism as a source of income. Attempts to join the European Market may be another reason for the relaxation of restrictions. As far as he is concerned there are no threats to human lives. On the contrary, the villagers are happy to see new faces and do not care who the tourists are, as long as they provide a stream of income. Perhaps such visits are registered as memorable dates in the annals of their history, like “the year when the American/Armenian tourists visited our village…” since very few travelers venture to the interior of the country.

Aroyan’s transfer of left-brain engineering aptitudes to right-brain social applications appears to be successful. His custom-tailored tours gain progressive popularity. Surprise and cultural enhancement are added attractions. He encourages or invites knowledgeable individuals, professors, historians and researchers to participate in his trips. Memorable photos or videos are sometimes available for distribution. A “couleur locale” entertainment or a special invitation, not available for the regular tourist, may be chanced upon. This unusual and unexpected quality gives each trip its own flavor, whether planned for or improvised on the spur of the moment.

Aroyan’s pioneering ventures into the hinterland have the marginal propensity for a “rapprochement.” For the past fifteen years, it has been his philosophy that visiting the opposite camp, measuring assumptions against realities, checking the pulse of the populace and assessing the situation in the proper perspective, are positive steps towards the development of a better strategy for an Armenian-Turkish dialogue, starting at the grass roots level.

As for the future, it is Aroyan’s dream to see his legacy of archival material, including some 400 hours of documented video, compiled into a publication - a monumental task that calls for the concerted efforts of a few scholars. This quiet Armenian, who prefers the shadows to glorification, and who has borne the brunt of criticism at times, has selflessly trekked thousands of miles to document the monuments bearing witness to Armenian culture that still grace historical Armenia’s countryside. Such dedication can only be filed under patriotism.