An Armenian Surname Does Not Determine Your Nationality – Claude Mutafian

An Armenian Surname

Claude Mutafian is a Doctor of History, a professor of mathematics, senior lecturer at the Paris 13 University in Villetaneuse, and author of numerous books on the history of Armenia.

Claude (Armen) Mutafian was born on July 27, 1942, in the French town of Clamart. From early childhood, he showed an interest in mathematics, literature, ancient and medieval history, as well as Latin and Greek. After graduating from high school, Mutafian became a teacher of mathematics at the University of d’Orsay.

The topic of his research in the field of mathematics was devoted to the Galois theory and problems of linear algebra. Mutafian has dedicated over 40 years of his life to this science, teaching in various universities not only in France but also in the United States, Cuba, Mexico, and Armenia.

“I was good at math. Then, it was believed that a good scientific diploma very likely landed you a job. Today, things are different – you can find a job without any diploma,” says Mutafian.

But the more Mutafian studied mathematics, the more he became interested in history, perhaps because the history of his family has left many secrets that he wanted to reveal. Mutafian’s parents Zareh and Haykuhi were among those who had managed to escape from the Genocide. According to Mutafian, Armenians experienced incredible stories, and his parents, being from Samsun and Caesarea, were no exception:

“In the year of the Genocide, father was an eight-year-old boy. His whole family was killed, and he survived only because he was thought to be dead… When he was finally found in a pile of corpses, he was sent to an orphanage on Corfu Island. The shelter was located in the building of former barracks, so it was often bombarded by Italian aviation (1923). About a hundred orphans died from the bombardments.

To avoid problems with Americans, Mussolini invited them to choose one hundred orphans so that they could receive free education in Italy. My father was in this hundred: he would study painting in Milan.”

Mutafian’s father became a famous artist. His works have been presented at exhibitions in Vienna and Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer.

According to Mutafian, his mother, Haykuhi, had been more fortunate than his father. She and her family had ended up in a convoy of deportees who were being led towards the Syrian desert of Deir ez-Zor.

“The column passed by Kangal, where the wife of the head of the local administration was just about to give birth. There was no one who could help her, that is, there was no midwife,” says the professor, “The people in the column were asked if there was a midwife among them.

My grandmother, clearly aware that they were being led to death and that this was the only chance to escape, decided to take the risk. She had never done it before. But, fortunately, the birth went well, and from that moment, the official left her along with the children in a village where she became a midwife. This is how they avoided deportation.”

Mutafian’s maternal grandfather had seven brothers. During the Genocide, all but two brothers were killed. One of the surviving brothers ended up in Polis (Istanbul) and the other in Lebanon. Both surviving brothers eventually settled in France and then brought there all the relatives who had managed to escape.

“When I was little, my father worked in a workshop near the metro station Cadet. Near this station, everything was like in Armenia – the offices of Armenian newspapers, the headquarters of political parties, the bookstore – simply put, it was a small Armenian Paris,” Mutafian says.

“One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was a lunch with my father in the Armenian restaurant Les Diamantaires. Here, people spoke only Armenian. If the door opened and someone started to speak French, everyone turned around and wondered what they had lost here. There, I noticed the geographical division passing inside the restaurant.”

In 1977 and 1979, Mutafian twice visited his historic homeland, the land of his ancestors. According to his confession, these trips have occupied a firm place in his heart and thoughts.

“They struck me,” the professor confesses, “I fell in love with these ruins, they have been witnesses of a long period of Armenian history. There was everything in this story: the Turks, the Byzantines, and the Romance peoples – that is, the Franks – with their crusades, there were also Mongols and Arabs… And in the center of all this were Armenians!”

Impressed by the ruins and churches in Ani, Akhtamar, and especially the medieval castles of Cilicia, Claude Mutafian engaged in book writing in 1980. Today, his most famous works are “Capitals of Armenia”, “The Last Kingdom of Armenia”, “The Historical Atlas of Armenia”, and “Armenia of Levant: XI-XIV centuries.”

Books of Mutafian today enjoy success and are sold with a circulation of at least several thousand copies. Today, at the age of 76, Mutafian is still a professor, is still working on future books, and is actively supporting the Armenian community of France.

Mutafian believes that it is absurd to divide people into nationalities (in this case, the French and the Armenians). For him, an Armenian is an entire culture. He considers himself a French citizen with two cultures, Armenian and French. As Mutafian says, every representative of Armenian nationality should be interested in the history of their homeland, culture, traditions, and know their native language.

“Being an Armenian is a choice. If your last name ends with ‘yan’, it does not mean that you are an Armenian. I know many people whose last names end with ‘yan’ who are absolutely not interested in Armenia, do not consider themselves Armenians. They are not Armenians! Being an Armenian is an individual choice! And being a Frenchman is not a choice if it is given at birth,” says Mutafian.

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