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Interview with Arda Haratunian

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Armenian Oral History Project
Interview with: Arda Haratunian
Interviewed by: Gregory Smaldone
Transcriber: Cordelia Jannetty
Date of interview: 30 March 2016
Interview Setting: Manhasset, NY

(Start of Interview)

GS: This is Gregory Smaldone with the Binghamton University Special Collection’s Library at Binghamton University working on the Armenian Oral History project. Would you please state your name, your birthday and where do you currently live for the record?

AH: Okay, Arda Haratunian, April 16, 1964. I live in Manhasset which is in Long Island.

GS: Where did you grow up?

AH: In Rego Park, Queens.

GS: Okay, can you tell me about your parents?

AH: My parents, okay, so my father who passed away thirty years ago this year emigrated from Jerusalem. He was born in Palestine, 1925. His father went there after the Armenian Genocide. So, my dad came here for school in the late fifties. My mom who is eighty years old, who also lives in Long Island came in the late 1950s as well on a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music.

GS: Where did she emigrate from?

AH: From Beirut.

GS: Okay.

AH: In Lebanon which is where her parents ended up after the Armenian Genocide.

GS: So, both your parents are ethnically Armenian?

AH: Correct, 100 percent.

GS: How would you identify yourself?

AH: Armenian slash American.

GS: Okay, so, what was the highest level of education that your parents achieved?

AH: My father was undergraduate; City College and my mother was a double masters. She did her undergraduate at American University of Beirut and she got two master’s degrees one in Education and one in Music from New England Conservatory.

GS: And what were their occupations?

AH: My father was ultimately started his own travel agency. So, he was a travel agent for decades and which is what he was doing when he passed away, and my mom became̶ She was a college teacher, she was a music teacher but she was also an administrator. So, she retired as an elementary school principal and a parochial school system probably about fourteen years ago now and she has worked part-time since then doing all sorts of cultural related activities and volunteering work.

GS: What were your parents’ roles in the household growing up?

AH: Both parents worked which is surprising at the time; you know other people did not have that. My father was very much a traditional male figure. He worked very long hours, travelled a lot and he dedicated the bulk of his time to the church and the community which we laugh about now but at the time was a bone of contention. He would surprise my mom with guests. Everything from the Catholicos of the Armenian Church with days’ notice to priests from Jerusalem who he was friend with all of them from his childhood to various community leaders; he probably brought someone home once a week for dinner. My mother worked full time when we were growing up. I mean I think probably part-time for a couple of years but full-time she was teacher, administrator, and she was very much the traditional housewife too. She made sure that we were well-fed, well-cared for, clean and everything. And you know, we did not have a lot of resources but we did not know growing up.

GS: Did you have any siblings growing up?

AH: Yes, I have a sister whose two years older who, I went to public high school in Queens until I graduated and went to Queens College. She actually went to Stuyvesant High school in the city, and ended up in the University of Rochester.

GS: And that is your only sibling?

AH: Uh-huh, one sibling.

GS: It is safe to assume that your parents both spoke fluent Armenian?

AH: Yes. We only spoke Armenian in the home.

GS: You did! For how long?

AH: Until I was five. So, I really did not speak English well until I went to kindergarten.

GS: Really, and do you still speak Armenian fluently now?

AH: Yes.

GS: Um, why was it important do you think for your parents that you speak Armenian?

AH: Um, I think it was preservation of culture, it was tradition. It was because it was the thing to do. I made both of our kids to go to Armenian school and both of them understand it fluently and can speak it very well which is surprising nowadays. I think it is something when you are such a small number of people that you do it as a matter of just tradition.

GS: Okay, can you tell me a little bit about your childhood growing up for example; would you say that you hung out mostly with Armenian children or non-Armenian children?

AH: We just had that conversation. So, we did the whole seven-day week going to school; five days a week. I just saw one of my kindergarten friends yesterday. So, I had very good friends from my neighborhood in Rego Park and Forest Hills, and then I had my Saturdays in Armenian school, Sundays at Sunday school and made some of my best friends doing church basketball, ACYOA, the youth group all these things. I would say it was probably fifty-fifty; maybe forty-sixty with the 60 percent being Armenian and it was a saving grace because you know all the issues you go through in school it was nice to always have your Armenian friends as either a real cover or a fake cover. So, if you did not want to go to certain parties or you are busy with your basketball friends or your church friends or whatever, so, you know it was probably half and half. I mean one of the things we had that we have tried to growing up which we have tried to maintain now is families who we were friends with so our kids are friends with their kids. It is almost a set social outlet. It gets a little tougher when the kids are teenagers but you know we are friends with the parents, our kids were friends, so we are all cousins, aunts and uncles everything like that, but it has gotten harder.

GS: Would you say that as a child your Armenian group and your non-Armenian group were separate?

AH: Yes, very much so.

GS: Um, where did you– what was the highest level of education that you achieved?

AH: I got a Master’s in Public Administration at NYU (New York University) and I did my Bachelor’s at Queens College like I said.

GS: Growing up what would you say was the main social space for the Armenian community that you were part of?

AH: The church.

GS: The church?

AH: Uh-huh.

GS: What kinds of activities would they have beyond just traditional church services?

AH: I did not really do youth things until after age eighteen and those where never in the traditional church, you would always find out to do them outside. But it was, you know, church basketball which was never done in the church, it was done at basketball courts around the region, and after graduating college it was different Armenian related like young professional’s groups like that and those spaces were usually social spaces in Manhattan.

GS: What other kinds of traditions beyond the language and the religion did your parents try to keep for you guys growing up?

AH: I would say family. The importance of family I mean I was jealous of all my friends used to go to Florida on vacation because I would have to go to Egypt, Beirut, Jerusalem, Armenia, you know so we travelled all the time.

GS: So, you travelled abroad a lot!

AH: From the time when we were born we were travelling, because of all of our– my grandparents, well actually my mother’s side came to Boston when we were young, so they were here. My father’s parents were in Jerusalem until they passed away. We used to see them very often. We had extended family in Armenia. So, it was, you know we did a lot of travel, so whereas kids go to Disney World and do things like that you know we were deprived of those things. [laughs] So was that, it was the get-togethers, it was obviously the holidays. It was cultural events, it was political events, I mean my dad was very politically involved and aware so you know–

GS: What kinds of political events?

AH: Um, well there was an Armenian man named Sam Assadian, who passed away few years ago who I adored, who worked for then mayor, Ed Koch. I want to say he had some connection to Lindsey also. But we used to go to things at Gracie Mansion then obviously in the (19)70s going into the eighties some of the Armenian genocide recognition started build–building up a little bit more steam. This was the era of terrorism ASALA which was not a group that we were proud of at all, it was basically Armenian revolutionary fighters who were fighting for recognition of the Armenian genocide in ways different than we try do now. But there was then a counter to that which was unified groups of Armenians from different sects got together and tried to get political recognition in Washington and whatever else. So, it was a lot of information sharing, lobbying or advocating. I should say lobbying; a lot of advocating, you know advocacy work. The Armenian Assembly was a big organization I was involved in from probably early (19)80s I was in in term with them and stayed involved with them forever. So, a lot of meeting politicians I worked in politics and governments for years so that gave me an opening to meet a lot of pretty influential public officials. So, it was a lot of you know trying to educate people about us our people, our history, some of it was genocide related, some of it was just history related. You now the big joke among Armenians is we were the first Christian nation, we were the first Christian nation and we were just in Rome with the kids last year we took them for the Pope’s event and someone there said something about Constantine, and you know Christianity and Catholicism and Armen who was thirteen said, Oh no Armenian was the first Christian nation, [laughs] so you know, it is like kind of it perpetuates itself.

GS: Okay, so it sounds like were in a very large and active Armenian community growing up?

AH: Yes.

GS: Where was the Church that you attended?

AH: Bayside–

GS: The Holy Martyrs?

AH: The Holy Martyrs. But we spent so much time in Watertown because that is from my maternal grandparents where my grandmother and my grandfather passed away when I was three. We used to spend probably a weekend a month or a weekend every six weeks in Watertown and we go to Church there too.

GS: Okay, um so, going a little bit to your adult life, you are married and you said you have children, can you tell me about your husband and your children?

AH: So, my husband Stephen used to play at the same church basketball league and his sister and I were, went to the Armenian Assembly internship program together and interestingly his dad who I have enormous respect for was friendly with my dad and he was on the policy side of the committee when my dad was doing the diocese side and anyway, so Stephen and I were friends for a long time before we dated. He is also pretty much first generation, although his dad was born in New York City, but he is equally Armenian, but very different, did not grow up speaking Armenian and so we have married twenty-two years, twenty-one, twenty-two years now. We have two kids, Kenar is sixteen, junior in high school, Armen is just now fourteen, eighth grade and they are, I would define them as pretty Armenian, they are not involved in youth group, they do not do ACYOA, both graduated Armenian schools begrudgingly first and both of them are thrilled and very proud. Now we just kind of cool to see. You know they would not say it but both of them speak Armenian and they both love that they are graduate. They are both in Sunday school so they are learning the faith. You know, it is a little bit more challenging I think now to do the stuff we did growing up because the demands that school and American world is so much more pressing than for us. But you know, we have been to Armenia couple times as a family. I took them out of school to take them to the Pope’s service in honor of the Armenian genocide last year. So, you know, we were definitely driven by things Armenian.

GS: Would you say was it important to you growing up that you end up marrying someone who is Armenian?

AH: So funny you asked that. My dad passed away when I was just graduating college. So, he was not there for it. And it is funny we used to joke around and say we have to marry an Armenian but they never, you know my mother says it more now as if it was really nice but no there was no pressure.

GS: There was no pressure?

AH: No, and I think that helps because ultimately you see how challenging life could be and it is nice to be with someone who you are really compatible with.

GS: So, there was not any pressure on you but did you personally feel was it important to you?

AH: I think in the end I was thrilled. I mean especially now. But it was not like a pressure but it was it would be a really cool thing to do. So, I remember dating someone who was not Armenian and he loved Armenian things, he loved learning and he loved everything and he said to me. I will become an Armenian. I was like okay, but you still do not get it, you know. And that is not the reason I broke up with him, but I think in hindsight when people say it is nice to have common ground something to it.

GS: Okay, so you said both of your children speak Armenian now. How did they learn it?

AH: Oh yeah remember, Tata, did you have–Remember, the baby sitter?

GS: Oh, Tomsic!

AH: Yeah, we called her Tantic but Kenar named her Tata when she was one. So, we had, my mom was really involved when my kids were around, I used work full time, still do. So, our first baby sitter was full Armenian from our Church only spoke Armenian with the kids and my mom was around all the time and she was basically their caregiver as well. So, they were surrounded by–

GS: So, they learned by immersion?

AH: Totally.

GS: Was there any–did you send them to Armenian language school?

AH: Yes, Armenian language school. It was fine, it was great.

GS: Weekends or–

AH: Saturdays. All day Saturdays for hours.

GS: So, they attended regularly?

AH: Yeah, but the regular public school, the reality is you do not learn Armenian in Armenian school only, if we enforce, we learn it in the home. So ̶

GS: What kind of traditions did you try and maintain in the household for your children to give them an Armenian heritage?

AH: Well, there are a lot of books, there is sometimes things on TV, and it is not really so much traditions, aside from the holidays and the family get-togethers. It is a lot of just being surrounded, like in our den we have my husband’s great grandmother socks that she wore during the desert marches, you know during the genocide with the holes on the bottom, like they are hand-knit gorgeous wool socks, so I actually spent money had them mounted and framed. And there are conversation points. My grandmother, my mom’s mom who passed away when she was a hundred, her ilik (spindle) which is how she would basically make her wool is on our den shelf. So, you know these are kinds of things you do not talk about every day but they definitely know they are there and they ask questions about them once in a while. And every once a while now their friends will be up what is that and then you will hear them out of the corner.

GS: Okay, so how do you view the Armenian diaspora in America? Do you think it is something that was an accident or do you think it is something that has its own unique identity? Do you think it is something is evolving or it has more permanence to it?

AH: Okay, so I am in a very different position talking about this because I am on the board of AGBU [Armenian General Benevolent Union] which is probably largest philanthropic Armenian Organization and we have this very strong belief now that diaspora is not what it used to be. It used to be that we had a homeland. People fled it during the genocide and created little diasporas-Middle East, South America, New York, then LA (Los Angeles), Western Europe and now interestingly the diaspora is larger than the homeland. You look at Russia, you look at Los Angeles, South America, Western Europe– New York to an extent, but we are not the largest any more. And the diaspora in New York is very different than the diaspora in LA (Los Angeles). So, now you have got a huge outside country, country and you have got Armenia. So, I would say the American diaspora is not what is used to be, it is constantly evolving and redefining itself either by choice or by fact, but you know the issues in Armenia are very different now than they were before independence.

GS: How is the diaspora changed in America?

AH: Because of the immigration who they are coming and what they are doing, you know if you were told me thirty years ago that you have diaspora population in, can you hold on one second–
[You are very good; you are very good at this]
Uh, if you told me thirty years ago that there might be Armenian gangs and you know and this is nothing to be proud of but the population, in the LA ((Los Angeles) diaspora is a population that has done things that you are not particularly proud of as enterprising you know immigrant community and whatever else I would have laughed at you, I would be no way Armenians are all hard workers, and we follow the rules and were you know, so I think in some ways we have got some of the most successful and we do this things now through AGBU with you know at prominent Alumni of AGBU related things whether its Camp Nubar or some of the internships we‘ve had scholarships programs and where they are, if you so some of these people, you are like are they Armenian, Oh my God, never knew that. You know and they just really make you proud as an ethnicity and then you hear some of the stories and you say “Oooh why are they doing that?” you know? But why are we different than any other diasporic community gets some bad and whole a lot good. So definitely the community has changed.

GS: How would you see the role of Armenian organizations such as AGBU in trying to bring new immigrants into the diaspora? Did you see it as focusing too much on recent immigrants versus multi-generational Armenian?

AH: No, I think for example like AGBU now has adopted this feeling of global Armenian nations. So, it is one nation and it is working with the different segments. So, we have a huge effort now with the whole issue in Syria and the refugees in humanitarian relief whatever, but the same time we have education programs aside from schools you know online learning which is obviously appealing to younger population. You know it is a whole e-Learning Center. Then, we have a– all kinds of cultural programs. So, it depends. For every type of Armenian there is a program, an opportunity, scholarships whatever it is, and there is no real preference given to one or the other but it is understanding how the needs have evolved and how the programs have a sort of reflect, those changing needs, so–

GS: Why do you think– how and why that the evolution happens from multiple different Armenian communities to one larger global diaspora?

AH: Well, we are not there yet. Because I think there is still is the pockets of diasporas but we believe going forward you better think of it as one global diaspora because if you do not you going to be so fragmented that no one is going to help each other.

GS: Do you see this attitude being taken up by other diaspora communities?

AH: Some.

GS: Some, such as?

AH: You know there is definitely some Armenian, I mean it depends if there is some Armenians based in South America who feel it. There is some based in Europe, some based in the Middle East, but there is still very much that old thinking of; we are fine, thank you very much leave us alone, you know we are doing okay. But I think because of probably technology more than anything else there is a common platform so for example, the young professionals which again something AGBU started years ago but the YPs [Young Professionals] ideally it is like a twenty-four to let us say thirty-eight type of an age group. But these are people who very much want to be engaged with similar people. There is more of a common thinking among them. They want to do all professionally. They are curious about their homeland. Most have travelled there already. They have an interest in helping, however, they can and they see similarities, so every–two years, you know, hundreds if not a thousand of them got together and there is more similarities and differences even if they are from culturally or geographically different places. So, technology has brought a lot of this together.

GS: Where do you see the American diaspora in say fifty to a hundred years? Do you think it is a diaspora that is growing becoming stronger or do you think that is at risk of losing its identity?

AH: Aspirationally I would say it is growing, and I actually think things like inter-marriage not terrible because you know I have found and maybe it is naïve I have many friends who’ve married non-Armenians who have brought them into the community to an extent, you know, who have been able to raise their children who feel that need to belong and be involved. So, I think and maybe its aspirational, it is going to get stronger if our homeland keeps us together. We need a strong homeland as all ethnicities do. And right now, there is challenges there. There issues of rule of law and governance and whatever else but I have always been a glass-half-full person and so I do not think you throw the baby out with the bath water. So, there are issues people talk about; corruption people talk about, unfair internal justice, okay, and my believe is to talk about them, and you try to make them better and I am a student of American history and I do not think America is perfect with any stretch of the imagination but you know you have enough people trying to do good work, so you make it work.

GS: If you could give one lesson to future generations of Armenians in trying to teach them how to maintain the cohesiveness of the diaspora, what would it be?

AH: Stay involved, stay informed, read, put thing in context. I mean the best thing, you know, I teach just adjunct now, but I tell my students you have to read, you have to even if just a news aggregator you just get headlines so what’s going on in Syria now is exactly what happened, I mean obviously, metaphorically but exactly what happened one hundred years ago. It just we are hearing about a lot more because of technology but things repeat themselves. So, you have to understand what goes on in certain places has happened before and you know? So I think it is: read, stay involved, stay form, do not say oh, I am so embarrassed by what I just read about this thing Armenian I am cutting myself off. That is kind of weak person’s excuse.

GS: How do you see your children? What do you think will be the differences between the way your children see their Armenian identity in the way that you saw yours?

AH: I hope not much, because you know my daughter’s pretty American, I mean if you asked her what are you, she would probably say American-Armenian or whatever but her dream is to go back to Armenian with a camera and just shoot non-Yerevan landscape. You know like that is kind of a cool thing for a sixteen-year-old to wanna do. So, I hope it is not much different. I think the reality is when we get together with our friends, the parents aren’t talking Armenian. It is not all about church politics, when hanging out with priests all the time, so it is a little bit different than the immersion I had.

GS: Where was the main social space when you were growing up for the Armenian community?

AH: I kind of say church a little but I think it was the homes. I think it was the homes and then you know as I got older like after college it was restaurants and bars in the city you know?

GS: Would you say it is the same for you children now?

AH: Probably the home. Because they go to church but it’s not like they feel cozy and comfortable there.

GS: Okay, Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

AH: That is it? Okay.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Gregory Smaldone


Arda Haratunian

Biographical Text

Arda Haratunian is a strategic communications advisor and educator. She is a member of the board of the AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union). Haratunian earned her BA in Communications and Political Science from Queens College and her MA in Public Administration from New York University. She and her husband live on Long Island, NY and have two children.






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Binghamton University

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This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as Armenian Oral History Project, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries for more information.


Armenian genocide; Lebanon; gender roles; Church; culture; tradition; ACYOA; language; politics; activism; Armenian Language School; diaspora; AGBU


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This collection includes interviews in English with informants of all ages and a variety of backgrounds from various parts of Armenia. The interviews provide deeper insight into the history of the Armenian culture through personal accounts, narratives, testimonies, and memories of their early lives in their adoptive country and… More

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