BY THEO PANAYIDES
One LA asset manager is also a consumer, of art, culture and scholarship. THEO PANAYIDES speaks to a man with a soft spot for the island after having gone to school here, although his life revolves around discipline and markets
It’s a standard question, indeed the most standard: ‘What’s your family background?’. But Mark Chenian nods gravely, sitting in the executive lounge on the top floor of the Landmark in Nicosia. He pauses, with the air of someone about to vouchsafe something important. “My family background starts this way,” he begins. “Actually, it starts in 1915.
“My father was discovered in the Caesarea area [of Turkey] by American missionaries. It was estimated that he was about a year old. My mother, in Kharput area, was discovered by German nuns, and estimated to be about six months old.”
The parents on both sides had been killed?
“Yes,” he replies, then clarifies: “Well, we don’t know.”
That was in the genocide, of course, the Armenian genocide that led to the death or expulsion of some 1.5 million people. The two fortunate babies ended up in Egypt – was it just good fortune, or did their parents sacrifice their own lives to save them? or were the killers stopped in their tracks by some stray vestige of humanity when it came to killing children? we’ll never know – to be raised by foster families then joined together in (arranged) marriage, two survivors linked by their common survival. Mark’s mother was a wedding-gown designer, his father an electrical engineer; the family name was Chechenian, but he shortened it – just as he Anglicised his own name, Nishan (which literally means ‘mark’), when he went to the US.
Who is he, what does he do? His studies were in physics (at the American University of Beirut), then finance and economics. He’s lived in California for decades, working as an asset manager and investment consultant; his office is in Beverly Hills, his home about three miles away on the Los Angeles side (I assume his lifestyle is comfortable? “Extremely comfortable”) – but he also lectures, goes to conferences, sits on boards and committees, and works behind the scenes on assorted issues. “I follow think tanks, universities and so forth,” he tells me. “I have no time to do original research, so I let the scholars or experts do it – then I take the bottom line, and I try to strategise around it.”
We sit in the near-empty lounge on a Saturday morning, the cloudy day broken by occasional shafts of sunlight, a bottle of water (untouched) on the table in front of him. He talks easily enough, a twinkly 75-year-old with a crown of white hair – but I’m distracted by a constant low creaking sound, which I eventually realise is Mark’s restless energy as he fidgets and shifts in his chair like an excitable teenager. I’d initially assumed he’s retired (far from it), then assumed he was here on vacation – but no, he’s working “full blast” as he puts it, reading reports and advising his LA clients while also taking care of some Cyprus business. “While I’m here, I start at seven in the morning, and end up at 11 at night, because I come from a zone that’s 10 hours behind me… I’m a very high-energy person”.
His personal style is a septuagenarian’s, of course, bearing the hallmarks of a certain generational conservatism. “I always insist on being very formal,” he admits, meaning in his dress (he wears a navy-blue blazer to our interview), and of course his politics are also on the conservative side. “I consider myself a Republican, but – very ‘but’, an important ‘but’ – I consider myself to be a Rockefeller [i.e. centrist] Republican. These clowns in Washington today are not the kind of Republicans that I am”. He’s not big on identity politics – the resentment-driven emphasis on minority rights that’s increasingly trendy among younger voters – but agrees that the US system is rigged to favour the rich and supports universal health care, neither of which is a very Republican position these days. Two words recur again and again in our conversation: ‘market’ and ‘discipline’. The latter is how he lives his life, and how he can work those 16-hour days. The former is how he makes decisions – and in fact the two words have a lot in common, markets being shaped by numbers which impose their own logic, their own discipline.
Actually, three words recur in our conversation – the third being ‘Armenia’, the eternal focus of that life and those decisions. Not the country, necessarily (though he’s advised Armenian governments over the years, mostly “below the radar” as is his wont), but the idea of being Armenian, the idea which – like his parents – refused to perish in 1915. His CV includes stints on various outfits with names like ‘Armenian Business Forum’ and ‘Armenian Educational Foundation’, and he’s lobbied for everything from a shut-down nuclear power plant in Armenia (he wanted it re-opened, to help local industry) to the Melkonian school in Nicosia, his own alma mater (he wanted the land sold and the school relocated to LA, where the diaspora has largely shifted). Why does he get so involved in these issues?
“I’m Armenian,” he replies simply.
Well, sure, but – after a certain point, does it really matter anymore?
“Because it does. There is American – and there is ‘I’m an Armenian’.”
What does that mean, exactly?
“I do not consider Armenians any better than others,” he explains. “But I also refuse to accept that others are better than me.”
It’s a strange choice of words; what does being ‘better’ have to do with anything? But Mark Chenian’s energy comes with a competitive streak – and indeed, though he’s nothing but amiable in our conversation, he strikes me as a man who’d be persistent to the point of being ruthless in pursuing his aims. (No surprise to learn he was quite an athlete in his time at the Melkonian, mostly decathlon and 110m hurdles.) Then again, sticking up for Armenia does require a certain persistence – especially nowadays with alarming noises coming out of Washington, a general attitude of ‘This is it, get over it’ (see also: the new Israeli-Palestinian plan). “I mean, I hear it, at certain conferences and so on: ‘The genocide happened, Armenians get over it’. Excuse me!”
Does he think more genocides are likely in our collective future? Or have we learned our lesson? “I’m a very positive, optimistic person,” replies Mark wryly. “But I don’t think we have come to the end.” His view of conflict boils down to money, as you’d expect from a man who’s spent his entire working life around the stuff. “I must’ve read, over the years, no less than 500 books on human rights, crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and so on,” he tells me: “It always ends up being some kind of economic [factor]”. Even in 1915, the assets owned by Armenian victims were a major reason why ordinary Turks took part in the carnage – indeed, he says, if you look at big business empires in Turkey, they’ll often have their genesis in the early 20th century. “These companies didn’t start at ground zero.”
“There’s a lot of fighting for recognition of the genocide and so on – but my thoughts are completely in another direction. I would like to go and make claims on today’s Turkish economic system – that I have vested interests in these empires that you built, because you acquired my farms, my factories and so forth.”
“It’s not restitution, I’m not talking about restitution… That asset [which was taken in 1915] has present value. I would like to be an equivalent stockholder. It’s ownership rather than restitution.”
It sounds ambitious, to put it mildly – but when Mark says ‘claims’ he means legal claims, and in fact he’s already “engaging some scholars to really look at it”. It’s like another of the grand schemes he’s working on, a plan to repatriate Armenian antiquities (along the lines of our own ‘icon hunter’ here in Cyprus). “In major museums in the US, there are a lot of artefacts where the provenance is questionable,” he explains – so the plan is to hire art historians to scan museum catalogues, identifying items which are clearly of Armenian origin but not labelled as such. “That is first phase,” he says coolly. “Second phase, bring in attorneys. Because I always believe that, when you’re dealing with institutions, legal language has teeth.”
Spoken like a hard-nosed investment consultant with an office in Beverly Hills – though still quite a mild, softly-softly one; he’s “low-profile,” says Mark affably. He seems like the type who’d argue strenuously (Middle Eastern fatalism drives him nuts; he can’t understand why there wasn’t an uprising here after the haircut), yet never forget to smile for the photographers. Easy to picture him at a conference or policy debate, gliding behind the scenes in his navy-blue blazer, networking smoothly and reciting the latest research by this or that scholar. “I have an extensive library of over 3,000 books, it has 10 sections and so forth,” he tells me, describing himself as a consumer of scholarship. One section is presumably for his 500 books on human rights and genocide – though novels are conspicuously absent; he has no time (or, I suspect, much inclination) to read fiction.
Does he have an artistic streak at all?
“Actually,” he chuckles, “I always had just passing grades [in school] when it came to art and music and things like that. Yet, all my life, I’ve been in museums, concerts, classical music and so on.” He’s a consumer – “an appreciator” – of art and culture, just as he is with scholarship; indeed, his greatest gift may be for consuming and absorbing (his job is like that too, reading financial data and advising his clients accordingly), taking the bottom line, as he says, and trying to strategise around it. “I cannot do original research,” he repeats. “That’s way beyond my training, my abilities and so forth. But, from my early years, I try to identify who’s thinking, and what they are thinking about.”
Seems a shame, I say idly, putting all that energy into being an enabler of others.
Not at all, he replies. “‘Enabler’ is a beautiful word, and very apropos.”
So he identifies with that?
“Absolutely. Isn’t it the function of every parent? They’re enablers of their children.”
It’s an unexpected, oddly poignant way of putting it – partly because Mark and his wife don’t have any children (she’s a legal expert who used to work in the Medicare system; they’ve been married since 1972), but also because mention of parents and children takes us back to his own parents, rescued so improbably from the carnage of 1915. That particular story doesn’t end there. Mark, the eldest child, lost his father early, after which his mother fell ill; it was both a relief and a struggle coming to the Melkonian on a scholarship in 1957 – a turning point, he says, one that shaped him, taught him leadership and critical thinking (“I always challenged my teachers”) and also, incidentally, left him with a soft spot for Cyprus. He’s created his own story, away from his parents and Armenia – yet they (and it) are always there, on the fringes, soliciting his time and energy as if exacting some timeless filial duty. Parents do indeed enable their children – but Mark Chenian’s is a story of a grown child enabling his parents, and all that they meant to him.
The ‘child’ turned 75 in December, but it doesn’t faze him; he’s never understood how “top-notch people” suddenly decide to retire and “become babysitters to their grandchildren”. He himself isn’t planning to stop anytime soon, though he may decide to pause and put his journal in order (not a diary but some 3,600 pages of “notes on experiences”, written at various points in his life) – and of course he has his projects, the museum catalogues, the hoped-for claims against Turkish business. “I take great pride in making a difference,” he tells me earnestly – and the restless creaking seems to grow louder, as if energised by the mere thought of defending Armenia.