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01 September 2008

2577) Defining the Diaspora, by Daniel Beast, An Armenian Diasporan of United States

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Anyone mildly familiar with the diaspora knows there are myriad communities throughout it, none of which can exactly seem to jive with the others. On the international scene, besides the obvious Hayastansis from Armenia we have communities from Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Russia, Baku, France, the U.S., Istanbul, .
and so on. While many of us see this as a recent phenomenon caused by the genocide, diasporan communities date back far longer, as most recently evidenced by President Sargsyan and Karekin II’s visit to Crimea to celebrate the 650th anniversary of its Holy Cross church. Across Ukraine in Lviv, one of the city's oldest churches is that of the Armenian community which founded it in the 1300s . Its neighbor Poland also has an ancient Armenian community which has mostly assimilated by now but some retain their identity or Armenian-influenced names. Wealthier refugees and nobles from the fall of Cilicia in the late 1300s fled to Cyprus, and while to the best of my knowledge they must have all assimilated after half a millennium, the island received a fresh batch of refugees after 1915 causing it to maintain its position as a prominent spoke in the diaspora. Armenian traders set up communities throughout India and the Far East, which in many cases only the church, cemetery, and a few caretakers might remain of the once-vibrant community, but the Armenian mark of hundreds of years have been left in all these places.

No blog regarding diasporan issues would be complete without the most prominent one which faces us, assimilation, and the ongoing changes within our communities. While certain leaders today revile and see it as a modern ill of this globalist world, keeping an eye to history reminds us that these changes have actually been a constant part of our history going back as far as there has been some sort of group called Armenians. A simplistic (and common) view would hold that we have always been “Armenian”, doing whatever were doing for thousands of years until suddenly in 1915 we were uprooted and escaped to foreign lands, where whether because of our own fault (or society, or a mix of both) we are doomed to a second genocide as we assimilate away into nothingness. There are some truths in that, but in actuality what we see as our “Armenianess” is Anatolian village life of the 1895-1915 era put on pause and transplanted elsewhere. Living as an Armenian means, whether we realize it or not, to mimic as best we can the lives our of village ancestors based on a lot of imagination and preconceptions as to what that life was actually like. In a sense, our notion of what it means to be an Armenian today- and the way we now generally assume it has always been throughout history- is an interpretation of what traditions the refugee generation was able to bring with them from home and rebuild abroad, usually adapting them to their new place and time. We today see our Anatolian past through this lens of how our grandparents lived in a world totally separate from where they started, meaning the diaspora has developed based on these interpretations and adaptions a step removed from the original culture it seeks to perpetuate. Even then, this particular ideal culture we look back to as setting the standard for Armenianess throughout history is merely how it was in one area at just one singular point in the long history of Armenia. This is, as my blog title proposes, our disapora's society remaining constantly in a fixed position "West of Igdir" where we try to survive by holding fast to the little we have left. This is problematic however because this creates the conditions for century old feuds to maintain a stranglehold on us in tandem with these attempts at keeping the preceived and actual greatness of our past.

So a diasporan culture and community, whatever interpretations of Armenianess it may or may not be based on, definitely exists but is there a singular identity? What we fail to realize about our Armenian identity is the role our host country has played in the formation of this identity. If Anatolian culture was the seed of our modern diaspora- or should I say multiple seeds which were hardly uniform to begin with (ever heard a Dikranagertsi accent?)- they could not have grown without nutrients from the foreign soils which they blew to. Whether we like it or not Western Armenian culture has developed into numerous different Armenias (William Saroyan was right)- which while it gives us a vibrancy is also the root of numerous problems. I will go into some of these problems and what happens when these varying identities collide in one place in part 2. I plan on using my own community Philadelphia to be a case study as I start off my diasporan issues blog with an attempt at defining what Armenian diasporan identity really is. One can see these problems at work here but also some novel ways in which Philly Armenians have managed to do it differently. An introduction to the make-up of the diaspora is vital in understanding the dynamics and issues of the day which will surely come up and be discussed here. While I propose a diasporan uniformity as both a myth and an impossibility, an ultrasegmented diaspora like we have is a carcinogen attacking our diasporan body and will only lead to an expidited expiration date for the heirs of Western Armenia.

As you can see the being an Armenian in the diaspora is a complicated identity and without a central homeland Western Armenian culture has not been able to evolve, merely attempt to remember what it had once been a hundred years ago. Unfortunately this putting on hold of our culture for a century has also led to a stagnation of the problems and political differences which separated us then. Armenian-Americans in particular can see how the political rivalries and old world debates which festered among us not only set us back as a people in our new world but prevented us from wielding political power and influence within our adopted societies. We were too busy holding on to our ethnic political affiliations and disputes- something totally foreign and incomprehensible to American politics- to be politically efficient. We approached officials as Tashnags and Ramgavars instead of Democrats and Republicans, the true labels of political capital in America.

However, when seen on a global scale, western Armenians have been very much shaped by the country their ancestors found refuge in and are far less homogenous due to the common denominator of their Armenian origin. We often blame ourselves for these differences and the inevitable conflicts such divisions cause, almost surprised at the differences we see in other subdivisions of Armenians after growing up thinking of ourselves as one people. We are shaped much more by our home nations than we realize and to a degree an Amerigahye meeting a Barskahye is only somewhat less foreign for them as it would be for an American to meet an Iranian (minus the inherent political antagonism over nuclear weapons). In my (limited) experience, nowhere has this been more apparent and dramatic than in the American-Armenian community. Having formed an identity of their own through their churches, schools, organizations, and kefs, steady flows of immigration from other parts of the diaspora to America during the past 50 years has meant the average Armenian-American community member is more likely to experience the “other” Armenians I spoke of on a regular basis. This has left the Armenian-American diaspora with an interesting series of strata differentiating them, and while I am not as familiar with the number of major classes of Armenian in the other major centers in the diaspora, it is not hard to speculate that America has the most.

The Armenian-American as an identity has been a constantly evolving notion. When Armenians first started coming to America in huge numbers due to the genocide they met and in many cases brought over by kinsman who had been in country for up to 30 years. The foundation had been laid long before though it was accelerated by their swelling ranks due to the genocide- though with many struggling to make a living after arriving here with nothing it was still a slow uphill struggle. Organizations like AYF were founded here and churches were built-up and consolidated (albeit separately as we know…). While it is impossible to call any group homogenous as previously stated, there was definitely a sense of familiarity and similarity amongst American-Americans (within their unfortunately very much politically split groups) as a distinct entity. The political complexities however did cause the complete estrangement of this otherwise singular identity which artificially split what was otherwise the same. Where things really get complicated is with America’s prominence as the place all immigrants strove to be. While an Armenian-American cultural identity had developed so had the Lebanese-Armenian, Syrian-Armenian, and numerous others from throughout the world. After having fled to these nations to escape the genocide, it seemed Armenians were doomed to perpetually flee turmoil. Problems in Iran in the 1950s and later 1979 Islamic Revolution created waves of Barskahye immigration. Ethnic strife against Christians in Egypt and Istanbul around the same times sent them abroad as did the Lebanese civil war of the 70s and 80s. Even more recently the Baku pogroms and general post-independence emptying of Armenia for abroad has created only the latest of numerous waves of differing-identity Armenians to America.

For the diaspora in general not only does it have the acute problem of virulently opposed political parties and a split national church but due to the ubiquitous nature of the Armenian they come in multiple cultural variations. It is hard enough trying to get otherwise similar Armenian-Americans of differing parties and churches to understand each other let alone with these other types of Armenians. Each group has differing levels of comprehension of the Armenian language and cultural identity in great part due to the type of society in which they were raised. This means that what being Armenian means to them and how they display it also tends to vary widely. In future entries I hope to tell the story of these differences and what happens when they mix together in one community- namely where I’ve seen it personally in my own Philadelphia. As I said while these problems are acute throughout the American-Armenian diaspora, there are some expected and interesting differences to be found in Philadelphia which I hope can be used as a model for other communities throughout it.

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