25.11.09

From Van to Buenos Aires: History of Three Generations

Juan (Mgrdich) Binayan was an Armenian from Van who, in 1889, embarked from Marseilles to South America. Born around 1855-1858, he had apparently been involved in some revolutionary activities; therefore in 1874 he had to flee his birthplace. He would never be able to go back. Before going to Marseilles, he had lived and worked in Odessa, Constantinople, Tripoli, Alexandria, and Malta. Attracted by the legendary stories telling “in Chile, you pick gold from the streets with your own hands,” he settled in the capital, Santiago.
He married a Chilean lady and his business flourished. Four of his thirteen children would be born there. But in 1902 he went into bankruptcy and decided to leave the country. He tried to find new horizons with his family in South Africa, but failed after three years of work. In 1905 they returned to South America and settled in Buenos Aires, which Juan Binayan would make his home for the rest of his life. The community would be founded in the 1910’s, but his family never integrated to it. He died in 1937, longing for Van until the last breath.
His only son, Narciso (1896-1970), born in Chile but raised in Argentina, was a highly regarded intellectual in Argentinean academic circles. As an undergraduate, in 1921-22 he published two books of bibliography, and in 1924 became the first university graduate of Armenian descent in Argentina after getting his degree as a professor of Literature. He was a long time teacher of Literature and History, author of many erudite articles, pamphlets, and tracts, as well as widely used textbooks of history and Spanish language. Although he did not leave a substantial corpus of publications in book form and could not finish his Ph.D. dissertation, his scholarly work as a polymath earned him the respect of his colleagues. In 1963 he translated into Spanish “L’Arménie,” by the French journalist Jean Pierre Alem, and had it published through Eudeba, the University of Buenos Aires publishing house, at a time when the scanty books about Armenian subjects in Spanish had barely come out from the narrow circle of private or community-sponsored publications.
Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the first Armenian Republic, met both Binayans in 1936 during his first visit to South America, and dealt at some length with Juan in a chapter he contributed for a book on Van-Vaspurakan (Boston, 1942). Later on, he devoted to him an entire chapter of his multivolume memoirs, “Through the Paths of Life.” He pointed out some curious traits of the old, somewhat eccentric patriarch, and also noted that his half-Armenian son was a respected figure in Argentinean circles, with little or no connection with Armenian life, for he had no knowledge of Armenian. Vratzian could not have known that in the last years of his life, Narciso Binayan would become, despite having lived outside the community, a very active supporter of Armenian causes.
Neither could he think that Narciso Binayan’s son, Narciso Binayan Carmona --he added his maternal surname to avoid any confusion with his father--, himself the offspring of a mixed marriage, and with no knowledge of Armenian either, would become a more staunch promoter of the Armenian cause and the first historian of the community. He would also be a Vanetzi perhaps even more proud of his ancestral city than his own grandfather, without having seen it.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1928, Binayan Carmona was a journalist and editor for the influential daily “La Nación” from 1960-1991. A historian and genealogist in his own right, he published countless scholarly articles about Argentinean, American, and Armenian history and genealogy, and also delivered papers to many specialized conferences. He was a member of foreign academies and an indefatigable traveler, having been to 97 countries, including two visits to Armenia in 1969 and 1991. After his retirement, he wrote for many years a weekly column, “Conflict Hypotheses”, in the same daily, and continued to display his deep knowledge of world affairs and history.
In 1974 he authored “La colectividad armenia de la Argentina” (The Armenian Community of Argentina), a seminal book on this subject in Spanish, which soon run out of print. In 1996 he published a second volume, “Entre el pasado y el futuro: los armenios en la Argentina” (Between Past and Future: The Armenians in Argentina). Neither of these books is a mere history of the community, however. Through thoroughly researched and dense pages, Binayan Carmona shows his real aim: the study of the Armenian people as a “community of memory,” a term he is keen to use. He places the Argentinean community in the Armenian world, and the Armenian world in a 4000-year old timespan. And, despite being more or less a marginal member of the community, with no knowledge of Armenian to give him a first-hand glimpse into Armenian affairs, the rightness and certitude of his analyses can be confirmed by any well-informed reader.
In 1999, the well-known Emecé publishing house released his book, “Historia genealógica argentina” (Argentinean Genealogical History), where Binayan Carmona showed again his erudition, advancing some original and well-founded hypotheses about the roots of the country which only in the nineteenth century would become Argentina and the population which only in the twentieth century would consider itself Argentinean. In this task, he researched the genealogies of the entire Argentinean population, from the Spanish conquerors to the Native American population, from the Italian immigrants to Armenians (to whom he devoted 20 interesting pages), and to the smallest communities.
In 2002, Binayan Carmona published a collection of genealogical articles, “Dieciséis estudios genealógicos” (Sixteenth Genealogical Studies), which included mostly studies on Argentinean and Spanish history. Particularly interesting is a paper published in 1978 about an Armenian princess in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), where he had advanced an interesting theory about her origins.
Narciso Binayan Carmona, a friend to this writer for more than twenty years, maintained his insatiable interest for things Armenian until the end of his life. He passed away in November 2008 and left several unpublished books on his account, as well as an important intellectual legacy.
Vartan Matiossian

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