Charles Aznavour to the East of his Eden

Charles Aznavour, the French Viguen Derderian or the Armenian Abdel Halim Hafez, died at age 94.

Charles Aznavour performs during the Quebec Summer Festival July 6, 2008 [Mathieu Belanger/Reuters]
Charles Aznavour performs during the Quebec Summer Festival July 6, 2008 [Mathieu Belanger/Reuters]

Upon his passing at the glorious age of 94, Charles Aznavour, the iconic Armenian French singer and actor, has been praised with a myriad of perfectly just accolades and yet one curious cliche – that he was “the French Frank Sinatra”.

“Charles Aznavour, the ‘Frank Sinatra of France,’ dies aged 94.”

The title of the obituary at the Guardian was pretty much typical of almost everything else published on the occasion in US and European press. The suspicious praise points to a larger issue of how we know and how we remember undoubtedly one of the greatest singer and songwriters of our time. 

Assimilating a legendary French singer into the persona of an equally emblematic American singer is perhaps obvious if we map the world in a westerly direction that continues to corroborate the myth of “the West” on both sides of the Atlantic as a coherent metaphor of cultural identity.

There is, however, a different world that Charles Aznavour, as the child of Armenian immigrant parents, symbolises that at a time of rising French (and European) racist xenophobia is very important to recall and keep in mind.

The world I have in mind does not mind placing Charles Aznavour next to Frank Sinatra or any other American singer – it is perfectly fine – but the world they have in mind when they do so has hardly heard of the names of Viguen Derderian or Abdel Halim Hafez.

How about if we were to say: the French Viguen Derderian, or the Armenian Abdel Halim Hafez had died at 94? Would either of such references make any sense anywhere in the world?  Yes, no, maybe and why not? 

Aznavour: Worlds apart

Alexis Petridis of the Guardian made an excellent point in his obituary that while “in the UK at least, Charles Aznavour … is largely embedded in the popular imagination as a light entertainment phenomenon … Aznavour wrote about rape, depression and, in 1972’s Comme Ils Disent, he conjured up a sympathetic portrait of a drag queen in an era when French music discretely avoided the topic of homosexuality.”

If just between France and the UK there is such a discrepancy between who Charles Aznavour was and what his music meant, imagine if we were to leave the European world behind altogether and went back to his parental homelands and looked at him from that vantage point.

This is not to disregard the fact that he was raised French and rose to global prominence as a French artist. This is not to assimilate Charles Aznavour back to Armenia or Armenian communities in the Arab and Muslim world. That would be equally provincial and provincialising. This is simply to point to other worlds in which he was received, loved, admired, and placed next to other iconic figures in the neighbourhood and thus staged in a vastly different perspective. 

Ever since his passing I have been listening to his music, his La Boheme, in particular, remembering when I too was “moins de vingt ans/younger than 20-years-old” and a friend attending Jeanne d’Arc French high school in Tehran word for word translated it for me. The image of a poor hungry artist and the young woman he loved were carved in my soul – as a hesitant Persian poem began bashfully to wiggle out of those strange French words: 

Je vous parle d’un temps         I speak of a time
Que les moins de vingt ans     That those younger than 20-years-old
Ne peuvent pas connaitre        Cannot know
Montmartre en ce temps-la      Montmarte at that time
Accrochait ses lilas                   Used to hang up its lilacs
Jusque sous nos fenetres         All the way up to our windows
Et si l’humble garni                    And if the humble bedsit
Qui nous servait de nid             which was our nest 
Ne payait pas de mine              didn’t look good
C’est la qu’on s’est connu          it was there that we got to know each other
Moi qui criait famine                   I, who would cry ‘hunger’,
Et toi qui posais nue                   And you, who would pose nude

La boheme, la boheme              La boheme, la boheme

Ca voulait dire                            That meant
On est heureux.                         One is happy

The innocent romance of this song may appear a far cry from the revolutionary turmoil of the last few years of the Pahlavi dynasty. But you will have to bring that romance and the dreams of such revolutions together to understand the passionate intensity of a youthful society on the verge of explosion. 

A different hall of fame

Obituaries are moments of appropriation, sporting a prose of reclamation and reconfirmation, of consolidating emotive and cultural boundaries, banking on the sympathetic instance of remembrance of things past for the assurance of things to come.    

It is possible, indeed imperative, to think of alternative geographies that the allegories of “the West and the Rest” systematically conceal. Like Charles Aznavour, Viguen Derderian was an Armenian singer though born and raised in Iran, emerging as a widely loved pop singer precisely at the time his French counterpart was rising to fame in France. As they called Charles Aznavour “the French Sinatra”, they call Viguen (as he was popularly and affectionately known) “the Iranian Dean Martin”!  

I wonder why this assimilating westward is taking place? By what authority, to what effect – corroborating what myth? Consider the fact that the globally beloved Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez too was called “an Egyptian heartthrob, an Egyptian Frank Sinatra basically”.  How many Frank Siantras were there anyway? Perhaps there have been Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, or Indian Frank Sinatras, too.

Charles Aznavour, Viguen, and Abdel Halim Hafez may or may not have thought of themselves as the French, Iranian, or Egyptian Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Should we even ask the thorny question why none of them ever thought of themselves, or were called, the Sammy Davis Jr of France, Iran, or Egypt?  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr were part of what in the 1960s was called the Rat Pack.  But only two of them made it to iconic prototype for the rest of the world to emulate and assimilate: the two white ones. 

A homeless soul

We to the East of Charles Aznavour’s Eden drew him closer to ourselves, where his passionate music became the lyrical background of our revolutionary dreams invested in the prose and poetry of entirely different reveries.  

In that space, we may think of Charles Aznavour as the French Viguen, who in turn stood next to Abdel Halim and because in a time of radio and LP records before television we could only hear not see them, it was the song and dance of the glorious Indian film actor Raj Kapour that personified them all. 

That rich and diversified world, all to the East of Charles Aznavour’s imagination, is scarcely mapped when we read how he was “the French Frank Sinatra”. On a space between the East and West of the Eden called “Europe”, closer to the darker memories of his parental heritage than the lighter entertainment of his Anglo-American reception, Charles Aznavour had a whole different life, and now his death conjures up.    

Charles Aznavour could not have been an iconoclastic artist in France if he were not true to the tormented memories of his ancestors, as best evident in the eminent Armenian Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s superb film “Ararat” (2002) – the first and last powerful movie an Armenian could make on the Armenian genocide, and in which Charles Aznavour played the role of Edward Saroyan, Atom Egoyan’s alter ego trying to make a film about the central trauma of his people in our time. 

Somewhere between an iconic French singer and an Armenian lyricist, in his songs and music and acting reminiscing the dark days of his ancestral memories, Charles Aznavour became the porotype of an exilic soul at home nowhere, in particular, welcomed and embraced by similarly lost souls everywhere. It is in the homelessness of an artist like Charles Aznavour that we find him at home right where we are.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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