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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Armenians

IRAN: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia squeezed between Tehran and Washington


Armenia finds itself in an unfriendly neighborhood and engaged in a highly militarized 20-year territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. It has long pulled off a diplomatic coup, maintaining simultaneous close relations with Iran, Russia and the United States, all three of which it relies on for protection, investment and trade.

But the chickens came home to roost two years ago when it drew the ire of the U.S. government upon the discovery by U.S. intelligence that Armenia had transferred Bulgarian missiles and rockets to Iran, according to a December 2008 cable from the secretary of State, posted on WikiLeaks.

Those weapons were later "recovered from two Shia militant attacks in which a U.S. soldier was killed and six others were injured in Iraq," according to a January 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. 

Washington was demanding answers, and Armenia was feeling the heat. 

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TURKEY: Celebrity lawyer takes on Turkish government, banks for Armenian assets


The Los Angeles-based Lawyer Mark Geragos is used to representing celebrities like Chris Brown and the late Michael Jackson, but he recently took on a very different kind of case, one with deep personal significance for him.

Last Thursday, Geragos and his team of litigators filed a lawsuit against Turkey and two major Turkish banks seeking restitution for Armenian properties and assets that were seized by Ottoman forces during the mass killings that took place almost a century ago and that many have labeled the first modern genocide.

Turkey denies the killings constitute genocide, and the United States’ federal government has not formally recognized them as such, although 44 states have done so individually. Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved a measure to officially recognize the killing of Armenians as genocide, but it has yet to make it to the floor for a vote.

Geragos spoke with Babylon and Beyond in a recent interview about the significance of the case and his personal connection to it:

B&B: You have been involved in some very high-profile criminal cases. How is this lawsuit different for you and the other lawyers involved? It is our understanding that they are all of Armenian descent.

Geragos: We have all had serious cases, but all of us had relatives that were victims… it’s extremely moving and infuses great passion in your work. It’s one of those where you find out what it really means to be a lawyer.

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IRAN, ARMENIA: Booze and relative freedom lure Iranians to Christian enclave to the north

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Landlocked and still recovering from the decades of Soviet rule and a war with Azerbaijan that quickly followed, Armenia may not be the world's most attractive vacation destination.

But for those living in the neighboring Islamic Republic, it's a kind of earthly paradise.

Iranians purchasing souvenirs In March, 27, 600 Iranians spent Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. 

But late spring and summer -- when the weather is comfortable, delicious fruits are harvested and outdoor events are numerous -- tourists also come in droves. 

An Armenian community leader in Tehran said up to 80% of Iran's Armenians, speculated to be as many as 500,000, travel to Armenia at least once a year.

The visitors can enjoy Armenian shish kebab and rice pilaf with a bottle of pomegranate wine or homemade liquor, or pick up a lahmajoun, an Armenian thin-crust meat pizza, on the street.

"Iranians are looking for reasons to leave their country so they can experience some freedoms," said Vanoohi Googasian, a Persian Armenian tour guide living in Yerevan.

"It's not about the specific holiday," she said. "It's about Iranians finding an excuse to leave their country to party."

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ARMENIA, TURKEY: On anniversary of genocide, two peoples mourn separately


As the rain fell Saturday, a woman lay flowers at the eternal flame in Armenia's capital city of Yerevan, in recognition of those who died in the violence nearly a century ago.

"Every year it rains on April 24," she said. "They say the sky is crying."

This weekend, Armenians around the world commemorated the 95th anniversary of a genocide that killed an estimated 1.5-million people. April 24 marks the 1915 roundup of Armenian leaders and intellectuals. Then came the able-bodied men of each village, followed by women and children who were sent on death marches into the desert.

Saturday also marked one year since Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, long enemies, took a step toward peace. In a diplomatic breakthrough promoted heavily by the United States, Turkish and Armenian governments announced they would move toward the normalization of relations and signed protocols to that effect.

"A road map has been identified," they said back then.

These days, however, neither side seems to be on the same path.

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TURKEY: Anger at U.S. over Armenian genocide resolution


Turkish reactions to a proposed United States resolution that would identify the killing of Armenians by Ottoman forces in the early 20th century as genocide showed dismay and disappointment, but so far there have been no serious calls to end the strategic partnership between the two countries.

"If [the resolution] is approved, it will definitely create turmoil," Bulent Aras, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Technical University, told The Times. "But the expectation is that this is a gesture to the Armenian diaspora and will not be approved."

Turkey withdrew its ambassador to the U.S. minutes after the resolution passed committee on Thursday, although observers say the move is temporary and mostly symbolic.

At the time of this posting, it was still unknown if the resolution would make it to a vote. After publicly failing to pass a similar resolution in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would only bring it to the floor for a vote with the necessary votes to pass it guaranteed.

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LEBANON: Photo exhibit captures changing Armenian quarter


A rare photo exhibition and film festival explores the ups and downs of Beirut's Armenian suburb as it undergoes a transition that has the potential to either help or alienate residents who have already endured decades of marginalization.

"Badguer," which takes its name from the Armenian word for "image," opened last week with a performance from an Armenian rock band and features a number of foreign and local artists. Babylon & Beyond visited the exhibition on a recent warm evening and found a lively mix of local families and young, stylish Beirut residents. Bits of Armenian, Arabic, French and English could be heard over the strains of a young man's violin. Please watch the video above for interviews and a tour of the exhibit.

Until recently, the quaint streets of Bourj Hammoud, the bustling, mostly Armenian neighborhood just east of Beirut, were practically unknown to the well-heeled Lebanese and Persian Gulf tourists that crowd the capital’s cafes and shops in summer. 

But as Beirut’s galleries, bars and cultural spaces creep ever eastward in the search for cheaper real estate, Bourj Hammoud is emerging as a destination for its distinctive food, bootleg DVDs and fine metalwork in gold and silver.

The municipality, meanwhile, is hoping this new interest will translate into sustained support for local cultural and artistic initiatives.

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ISRAEL: Discussing Armenian genocide


A week before Israelis and Jews will mark Holocaust Remembrance Day early May, Armenians throughout the world will be commemorating their own tragedy.

Armenians say 1.5 million people, one third of the ethnic nation, were massacred by the Turks in 1915-1916. Turkey maintains that between 250,000 and 500,000 Armenians were killed during the minority's struggle for independence, and a similar number of Turks. The Armenians are relentless in their push for recognition of the killings as genocide, while an uncomfortable Turkey counters these efforts with international pressure.

In this bitter dispute, Israel finds itself in both a moral and diplomatic hard spot.

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