Robert Haddejian: Dean of Armenian Journalists at 90


robertBy Edmond Y. Azadian

Robert Haddejian may not be a household name on the western shores of the Atlantic, but his literary and journalistic achievements place him among the major icons of Armenian cultural history. (See related story on Page 1.)

January 2016 marked a watershed in his life, as he stepped into his ninth decade, still going strong, still producing and creating relentlessly with an unstoppable zeal.

The Istanbul Armenians celebrated the 90th birthday of this phenomenal man. Armenia and the Diasporan Armenians have also been joining that celebration. Although his literary output is confined to Armenian, his creative life has impacted not only the Istanbul Armenian community, but also the entire diaspora.

Haddejian’s prodigious output can be categorized under literature or journalism. The combination of his literary and journalistic talents have rendered him into a wise community leader who has guided the Armenian community through many trials and tribulations in that historic and inclement landscape. First and foremost, he is a prominent writer, having produced pioneering works in prose. Almost 70 years of his life have been dedicated to Armenian journalism, 50 as the editor-in-chief of Marmara daily newspaper.

Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey by Ataturk, the country has experienced many political upheavals — each change impacting the Armenian community life. Haddejian has proven to be one of the more prudent leaders, safeguarding the community’s physical presence while preserving its cultural identity.

Despite the stipulations of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 which guarantees linguistic, cultural and religious freedoms for the Christian minorities in Turkey, Armenian community life had become a suffocating experience in the early days of the new republic. Following the Genocide, a decimated Armenian community survived in Istanbul, under the watchful eyes of the vengeful Turkish authorities who enforced rigorous restrictions, including literary and press censorship. Armenians were made to feel almost apologetic that they had not shared the fate of their martyred brethren and “disappeared” from the face of the earth.

It was in this atmosphere and within these parameters that the Armenian community had to shape its collective life and develop its literature. If anything, that led to a literature of sublimation and displaced alienation.

Until World War I, Istanbul had been the hub of Armenian literature and culture, where the Armenian spirit soared through the genius of Varoujan, Siamanto, Tekeyan, Zohrab and others. But the new era, with its restrictions, generated a new atmosphere where symbolism and surrealism could only survive unscathed.

The human and social frustrations of the Armenian writers had to be channeled through universal themes.

European literature, filtered through the poetry of Turkish writers such as Nazim Hikmet and Orhan Vali, came to dominate the budding Armenian literature: Henri Bergson, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and T.S. Eliot became role models for the young Armenian writers. Robert Haddejian was one of those young talents. Other promising talents, such as Haigazn Kalousdian, Garbis Janjikian, Zaven Biberian and Antan Ozer saw their lives cut short because of illness or sufferings they experienced as participants in the left-wing political movement.

Haddejian, Zareh Kharkhouni and Zahrad were lucky to survive and to continue contributing significantly to the development of Istanbul Armenian literature, which eventually also impacted literature in the diaspora and Armenia, with Varteres Karageuzian and Garig Basmadjian serving as a bridge between those communities.

Despite the daily responsibilities of being an editor, Haddejian has proved to be one of the most prolific writers of his generation. Additionally, he turned a daily paper into a literary forum, where prominent writers gathered and younger talents were nurtured.

Haddejian published his first play in 1960 under the title of “Three Sundays in a Life,” and he received the Anahid Literary Prize.

“Intimately with Hagop Baronian” reveals the famous satirist’s life, talent and sadness. This work seems to have been inspired by and fashioned on the famous biographies of Henri Troyat, in which the profile of a celebrity’s life (Turgenev, Tolstoy, etc.) also covers the burning issues of contemporary life. Errors in Words is the collection of short stories published in 1972. “Sunday Closing” and “Vastak” (Achievements) are two plays, the first dealing with love and marriage and the latter with aging.

Fifteen Days of My Diary, published in 1977, a travelogue written in a brisk journalistic style, contains the pages of enduring beauty and literary lure. His award-winning collection of short stories, On the Greatness and Wretchedness of Man, was published in 1977. It delves into the analysis of two opposite poles of the human condition and is endowed with modern style and a fresh outlook.

The Ceiling is a novel published in 1983 and is considered to be his masterpiece. His hero is an invalid, confined to his bed for the remainder of his life, watching the ceiling, which allegorically becomes a screen where he watches the lives of his children, far away in Canada, subjected to an alien culture and assimilation. Here Armenian nostalgia emanates through his humanity.

The above-listed literary output is only a fraction of Haddejian’s creations.

Haddejian is a phenomenal writer; he is a natural. His pen flows easily. His style is simple yet in his simplicity, he captures human nature, thus achieving greatness.

In addition to editing Marmara, a respected daily, Haddejian has his trademark daily “Notebook” (Houshadedr) where he focuses on the mundane chores of daily life while often meandering into philosophical thoughts. For example, a simple description of a bird gradually flows into the mysteries of nature, with sensitive beauty.

Readers are fortunate that the daily “Notebooks” eventually become volumes. At last count, the volumes had hit number 70. And his pen is still writing.

As we ponder the life and the deeds of this man, we discover that he is more than an individual. He is larger than life, and he is an institution in and of himself.

Haddejian has made writing the focus of his life and not wasted a single moment in that endeavor. Thus, he has given back to his community as well as to humanity and served as a role model for an exemplary creative life.