Vahan Zanoyan is a writer, traveler, global energy consultant, retired executive, and anti-trafficking advocate. He has published two volumes of poetry in Armenian, Վերադարձ (2010) and Եզրէն Դուրս (2011); and three novels in English, A Place Far Away (2013) and The Doves of Ohanavank (2014), both of which were inspired by a chance meeting with a young victim of sex trafficking, and The Sacred Sands (2016). The first two novels have been translated into Armenian and published in Yerevan.
Prior to retiring, Zanoyan served as global energy consultant to numerous international and national oil companies, banks, and other private and public organizations throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and Latin America. He also served as a senior economic and oil policy advisor to many oil producing governments. His third novel, The Sacred Sands, is based on his personal experiences as a global energy consultant.
Editor’s Note: Zanoyan donates all the proceeds from his books to various organizations that fight sex trafficking and support victims of trafficking and domestic violence in Armenia. His English books are available in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon. The Armenian books are available in major bookstores in Yerevan.
Gibrahayer: It is not common for a business executive to turn into a writer. What drove you into literature after retiring?
Zanoyan: Writing has always been a passion. I used to write as a teenager. I have published several short stories in Pakine (Բագին) literary magazine back in the 1970s. I picked it up again after retiring.
Gibrahayer: Your poetry is in Armenian, but the novels are in English. Can you explain why?
Zanoyan: Poetry simply does not flow to me in English. It is deeply personal. But the novels are about story telling. With the first two novels, I wanted to make a lot of international noise to raise awareness about the gruesome reality of sex trafficking. That’s why I decided to write them in English. They’re both published in Armenian as well. The third novel is about the global energy sector, geopolitics and the Gulf wars, involving far too many technical terms. So, English was more appropriate.
Gibrahayer: What made you decide to write about sex trafficking?
Zanoyan: It was a chance meeting with a sixteen-year-old, beautiful young girl in Dubai. She was from a poor Armenian village, and, as it turned out, a victim of sex trafficking. It took me over six months to finally gain her trust and she told me her story—of how she was recruited with false promises of a modeling job, raped, and thrown into the world of prostitution where she was forced to receive more than twenty clients a day. It was so shocking that I could not let it go. It became an obsession.
Gibrahayer: Why a novel?
Zanoyan: My main objective was to bring attention to the phenomenon and to raise awareness. I first thought of writing an article, or an Op-ed piece. But I didn’t think I could bring out the true nature of the gruesome reality through an article. A Place Far Away goes beyond the sex trafficking phenomenon. It describes the realities in Armenia, the poverty in the villages, the strength and courage of the Armenian villagers, the corruption in the government, the stunning beauty of the country. Only in a novel I could bring all that together.
Gibrahayer: How widespread is the problem of sex trafficking and prostitution in Armenia?
Zanoyan: First, I’d like to differentiate between sex trafficking and prostitution. They are entirely different. In these novels, my concern is not prostitution. If a mature woman, by her own will, for whatever reason, decides to engage in prostitution, it is not my business. But when they take a 15-16-year-old innocent girl, fool her with false promises or simply abduct her, and then force her into prostitution against her will, that is an entirely different crime which should not be tolerated. And it is not clear how widespread it is—there is very little official data. But I know it happens, because I have personally met and interviewed the victims.
Gibrahayer: How important is it to “make noise” about sex trafficking?
Zanoyan: It is very important. In Armenian communities, we generally don’t like to talk about things like this. It is too shameful and too painful. But that is exactly what the criminals want. They want the public to remain quiet, and in that public silence they feel more free to commit their crimes. We should not give them that ideal environment to operate in. Besides, unless an issue like this becomes part of the public discourse, it tends to be ignored by the government. Only when the public awareness is high and there is public outcry do the governmental bodies entrusted with dealing with the crime start paying attention.
Gibrahayer: Do you feel that you have achieved your objective of raising public awareness with the two novels?
Zanoyan: To some extent, yes. Once the Armenian translations were published in Armenia, they attracted a lot of attention. I was on many talk shows on TV and radio, and had many helpful meetings with government officials. But, to be effective, the issue should remain on the public radar constantly. It is not enough to have a few great months of attention.
Gibrahayer: Is your second novel, The Doves of Ohanavank, on sex trafficking as well?
Zanoyan: Yes, The Doves of Ohanavank is the sequel to A Place Far Away. It continues the story of Lara Galian, the main protagonist, the character based on the young victim that I met in Dubai.
Gibrahayer: With The Sacred Sands you move on to a theme closer to your professional career. Is that novel also based on real events?
Zanoyan: That’s right. The Sacred Sands takes the reader into the slippery world of global oil markets, OPEC, geopolitical intrigue, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent US-led Gulf war.
Gibrahayer: How involved were you personally in those events?
Zanoyan: I was advising most governments and oil traders described in the book at the time, and the story does provide an insider look of sorts into the events of the late 1980s and early 2000s. The first Gulf War, the events of September 11 and then the second Gulf War are, in many ways, the precursors of the current realities in the Middle East—including the rise of ISIS, the destruction of Iraq and Syria, and the political and economic turmoil in most of the Gulf and North Africa. The novel sets the stage and explains current day events in the context of the historic developments of the 1980s.
Gibrahayer: So, from sex trafficking to geopolitics of energy. What’s next on the horizon?
Zanoyan: Wine. I’m currently working on a novel about the rebirth of the wine industry in Armenia.
Gibrahayer: That is indeed a fascinating story. Can you tell us more about the book?
Zanoyan: Well, it is still in its early stages. But the story is truly fascinating. As I’m sure you know, Armenia is home to the oldest known winery in the world, dating back 6,100 years. Armenian wine merchants are described in detail by Herodotus. And yet, when I first visited Armenia in 1989, there was not a single drinkable locally produced wine in the country. In the last ten to fifteen years, that has changed. As you may have heard, Armenian wines won 10 gold and 13 silver medals in international competition this year. There are some truly world class wines produced in Armenia today. The story of how this came about is an epic story. That’s the story of my next novel.