ArmComedy takes on Television

April 7, 2010 at 12:55 am (Armenia, media) (, , )

Super best friends Narek and Sergey over at ArmComedy have taken their humor to the boob tube.  Congrats on their politically racy premier!


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On being an Armenian-American in the Spring: Performing Identity through Genocide Recognition

April 7, 2010 at 12:53 am (Armenian-ness, diaspora, genocide, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I started to question the relationship between my identity as an Armenian-American and the campaign for genocide recognition last spring.  At the time, I was working with the Armenian Student Association at the University of Chicago on an event to commemorate the genocide.  I was asking myself and my fellow students: how do we, how can we commemorate the genocide?

Armenian genocide remembrance day is on April 24th, but the day is loaded with so much more than just memory.  This spring, as April 24th rounds the bend, I can outline pattern of emotion and action:

– Pre-April 24th speculation of what might happen commences after the holidays in diasporan presses, Armenian political and cultural circuits, and, in part by osmosis, the American media machine.

– There are campaign promises to the Armenian-American community be upheld or broken.  There are petitions, letters to the editor, diligent follow ups, and a huge public relations push by both the Armenian and Turkish lobbies.

– Suspense builds.  Will the committee/house/senate acknowledge the genocide?  Will my senator/president stand up for the truth?

– There is the volatile situation of the year, be it the war in Iraq, the “road map” between Armenia and Turkey, or, as is the case this year, the war in Iraq and now the delicate protocol approval process.  There is always something to be lost for American-Turkish diplomatic relations if the US recognizes the genocide – an ambassador, at the very least.

– What begins as a media simmer turns into a full boil as the big dogs make their statements by April: Christopher Hitchens, Robert Fisk, John Evans, Orhan Pamuk – non-Armenians brought into the studio or quoted in articles to balance arguments from the deep state Turkish side of the story.  That the Armenian ‘side’ is always countered with the official Turkish line adds insult to injury.

– April is the one month of the year when Armenians and their interests can be assured press coverage.  As a result, it is also the time of year when Armenians are most often referred to as a monolithic entity.  Whether we are referred to as Armenians or as ‘the’ diaspora, we are primarily portrayed in the collective, with identical interests.  Because April 24th is also the main push for genocide recognition, that collective identity, broadcasted annually, is pro-genocide recognition.

– By April 23rd, the Armenian community in America awaits the decision of its government in a dither built up from years of frustration paired with intense media coverage and, of course, the pain of commemorating another anniversary of the event that created their existence in dispersion.

– The president’s annual commemoration address creates a media event all on its own: how he phrases it is always a subject of speculation, anticipation, and, usually, disappointment.

– Ultimately, whatever is uttered on the 24th by the president or our community leaders is never sufficient to commemorate the deaths of our ancestors and, yet, year after year we go through this hellish roller coaster of pain, denial, and mourning.

Whether or not one is actively involved in the campaign for genocide recognition – by virtue of being Armenian in the United States one is subsumed into the ephemeral monolithic Armenian identity that hits the streets every April.  A combination of guaranteed, pre-April 24th media coverage and the intense efforts of diasporan political and cultural organizations creates the outline of an Armenian identity that is pro-genocide recognition.  This outline is fleshed-out by Armenian-Americans whose Armenian-ness is just one of multiple identities they wear at any one time.  The pattern of emotion and action I describe above allows ethnic, but not necessarily active, Armenians to perform their Armenian-ness through pre-organized and publicized channels.  Turkey’s utter denial of the genocide and opportunities for the United States to recognize it prompt diasporan passion and action.  Writing to one’s senator, signing a petition, or nodding one’s head at the television or church event as someone stands up for genocide recognition become moments of performance.   Through performance, one enters something bigger, if only for a moment, a month, or a season.  Threatened by assimilation, diasporans turn to performance to receive the warm embrace of an identity that is strong, vibrant, and needs them.

I point this out not to condemn the organizers or the performers, but to suggest the role that such a performance plays into homogenizing Armenian-diasporan identity in America.  By filling in this shell of Armenian-American identity, one forgoes the more challenging task of uncovering one’s personal relationship with one’s cultural heritage.  It is much easier to perform an Armenian identity in the ways expected on pre-designated dates than to explore the nature of being Armenian in the United States on, say, a Thursday in August.

The challenge with respect to April 24th is to commemorate without the hate – that is – to commemorate the event that shredded the social fabric of our ancestors’ communities without  focusing on modern Turkey’s denial or Barack Obama’s word choice.  The genocide scattered Armenians throughout the world where they established roots and raised the bulk of today’s diaspora in dispersion.  Now mature, the diaspora owes it to our ancestors to fight for justice, but not at the expense of nurturing our own, personal identies as Armenians.

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Gendercide in the Caucasus

March 16, 2010 at 10:34 pm (Women) (, , , , , , , , , , )

A belated happy International Women’s Day!  While women the world over have much to celebrate, we still have a long way to go…

This month, the Economist published an issue that focused on “Gendercide:” the gradual imbalance in the genders that occurs when a historical preference and/or necessity for male babies meets declining fertility rates and years of easily accessible prenatal sex-determining tools, like ultrasounds.  The result?  A generation of wanton bachelors that disrupt the social fabric of their communities with their lack of mates, stability, and status.  The primary article in the Economist focused on China and India; however, a chart based on United Nations data from 2000-2005 highlights the prevalence of gendercide in the Caucasus.

I was under the impression that the Caucasus were experiencing a surplus of women as men left for Russia and Europe in search of work.  This may indeed be the case; however, as the data suggests, perhaps women back home are manipulating their pregnancies to compensate for the exodus.

Solutions to this problem – according to the article – include education, equal social and economic rights for women, ending the one child policy (in China), anti-discrimination laws, and media campaigns.  Nevertheless, education and prosperity alone do not solve the gender gap; in fact “sexual disparities tend to rise with income and education.”

In the Caucasus, economic opportunities for men and women alike are essential to reversing this trend.  Furthermore, the business environment they enter must embrace women as both leaders and mothers.

With all of this prenatal finagling going on, my wish for International Women’s day 2010 is for the Caucasus to empower the women of today to give birth to the women of tomorrow.

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Notes from the Diaspora Conference

February 19, 2010 at 4:22 pm (Armenian-ness, diaspora) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Last weekend, I attended Boston University’s first International Conference and Student Workshop on the Armenian DiasporaAcademics, students, community organizers, artists, and activists  converged to discuss the latest research in the field and to mull over old issues together.  Over the three-day event, a number of provocative points were raised by attendees, some of which I would like to share with you here. 

1.  Normalization between Armenia and Turkey does not mean reconciliation – and one should not prevent the other. 

2.  The Armenian diaspora is both heterogeneous and cohesive and can’t be one without the other.   This sameness and difference are in constant dialogue with each other. 

3.  Using the word “diaspora” for the Armenian case is problematic, and becoming more so.  If an Armenian from Istanbul is not part of the diaspora, then what happens when that Armenian moves to Berlin?  or Glendale?  What about post-Soviet immigrants with every intention of returning to the Republic of Armenia in a year, or five, or twenty?  Are they part of the diaspora if they reside in Los Angeles?  How about in Moscow?  Furthermore, should people studying a diaspora acquiesce to how individuals self identify?  In other words – who gets to decide who is a diasporan? 


4.  Another tricky word is repatriation because it is not sufficient to describe the types of settling and re-settling that Armenians do.  For example, if my family moved to Armenia, it is not truly repatriation because, firstly, my family is from the eastern Anatolia and, secondly, after living for generations in the states, how can we re-patriate anywhere?  Nevertheless, a diasporan like me might be considered a repatriate in Armenia but not in Turkey.  What about Armenians from the Middle East who move to Armenia…are they repatriates?  How about an Armenian from Moscow whose family was relocated during the Soviet period – when this person moves to Armenia, is he/she a repatriate?  What do you make of this: one researcher at the conference noticed a phenomenon taking place among diasporan tourists in eastern Anatolia.   While visiting their parents’ hometowns, they would be sure to grab some soil.  They brought spades and ziploc baggies with them precisely  for this purpose.  When they returned home, some would put the soil on their mantels, others would give some to friends, and some would sprinkle it on the graves of their parents.  Is that repatriation? 

[Points 3 and 4 make me jealous of the Germans – with their lego-block-style language. ] 

Purgatory by Anatoli Avetyan

5.  Who gets to own a memory?  If a memory is passed down through generations, does the memory-maker have a greater claim to the memory than the person who keeps the memory alive?  Are memories real – or are they always re-imagined events?  God knows I’ve embellished some memories of my own – and I prefer them that way.    

 6. Race vs Ethnicity vs Citizenship vs Religion vs Heritage vs Community vs Self Identity vs Social Network  

7.  We need better archives – and we need those archives to do more and better research!  Where are the primary documents of the political parties?  Why can’t we watch any Armenian films online?  Likewise, we need more translators!  It is going to take me eons to read all of this stuff!  A translation institute was suggested by one professor, which brings me to the next point. 

8.  The diaspora needs patrons and practitioners.  Our wealthy retirees have more options than building churches or supporting genocide recognition bills.  They can establish chairs at universities, support artists and exhibitions, sponsor musicians, fund a film archive or a translation institute, support teacher/professor/student exchange programs.  There is a lot already being done – but there can be a lot more. 

9.  So long as the diaspora’s biggest enemy is genocide denial they will not stand up as a unified mass against other injustices (such as human rights violations or corruption in Armenia) because such action will be perceived as diverting attention, and unity, from the true enemy. 

credit: Carlos Chavez, Los Angeles Times

10.  We must not be fearful that our work hurts the “Armenian Cause,” or that critiquing someone else’s work is tantamount to an attack on the credibility of the Armenian nation.  We owe it to ourselves and our peers to challenge assumptions and embrace the truth.  Several cautionary tales were raised over the course of the weekend that made me cringe.  In one instance, a photograph of severed heads on shelves, commonly used to illustrate the barbarism of the Ottoman authorities, was revealed to actually be from an uprising in Iran.  Shoddy scholarship has inserted this photo into the cannon of Armenian genocide images – where it has no right to belong.   As for embracing the truth – that can also be bitter-sweet.  An artist at the conference told me about her experience bringing Armenian poetry to the US.  A crowd of (aging) diasporans gathered in NYC were horrified to hear a young Armenian citizen’s very raunchy verses.  It takes courage to break through assumptions.

My expectations for the academic rigor of this conference were far exceeded.  Not only were the presenters and discussants compelling, but the attendees managed to sustain a dialogue throughout the conference.  The issues above jumped out at me as ideas and problems that I would like to continue exploring in my own research and on this blog, and I welcome your own observations in the comments section to keep the dialogue alive post-conference.

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Airmail: Presidential Pen Pals

February 11, 2010 at 9:52 pm (Armenian-Turkish relations) (, , , , , )

Flying from Armenia to the United Kingdom on February 9th, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan penned the following for his counterpart, Turkish President Abdullah Gul:

Your Excellency,

I’m extending my greetings to You and the people of neighborly Turkey.

Our initiative of normalizing the Armenia-Turkey relations is in the spotlight of attention of the international community. This is truly a historic one, and the whole world realizes it. The efforts of the countries involved in the region are invaluable in the process of improvement of bilateral relations. I’m confident that it would be impossible to register progress without their mediation. At the same time I do believe that no matter how much the friendly states are interested in the positive outcome of the process, they cannot do what our peoples are able to do.

Mr. President,

I think you’ll agree that the authorities are to play a key role in breaking the stereotypes between our peoples and establishing an atmosphere of mutual trust. Only with trust in our work, resoluteness and adherence to our principles can we achieve results. Otherwise, when the words and deeds contradict each other, it brings about mistrust, thus opening a broad filed of action for those who oppose the process. We have to realize that in this case time does not contribute to the process.

If up to this moment we have managed to bring the bilateral contacts to a level, from where the future of normal relations between our countries becomes more visible and tangible, today it’s high time to demonstrate willingness to make a step forwards in order to leave and stable and secure region to the coming generations.

Accept, please, Your Excellency, the assurance of my respect.

On February 11th, Gul wrote back:

Your Excellency, Dear Friend,

I would like to thank you for the kind message that you have sent on the occasion of your flight over the Turkish territory. Please accept my reciprocal greetings to you and the people of neighboring Armenia.

I welcome the thoughts conveyed to us in your message. I do share the view that our bilateral efforts aimed at the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations attracted due attention world-wide by creating a new hope for peace in our conflict-ridden geography. Overcoming the long-established prejudices and nurturing mutual understanding and trust among our two neighboring peoples were indeed our main objectives when endorsing the process of normalization between our countries. You should have no doubt that our determination to take these objectives forward is intact, provided that this resolve and commitment remains reciprocal.

I also agree with you that responsible governance necessitates both standing behind words and supporting words with deeds. Hence, we will continue to work for taking our normalization process forward based upon the understanding reached between our two countries. We have to be aware that concluding this historic process will require honoring our commitments in their entirety as well as displaying adequate political courage and vision.

A future characterized by sustainable peace, security, prosperity and cooperation for all the people living in our region is our common goal and I will remain personally engaged in this process hoping to see it reach a satisfactory conclusion for both of our countries.

Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.

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Armenian Boats and Turkish Food: Anthony Bordain goes to Istanbul

February 3, 2010 at 11:59 pm (Armenian-ness, Turkey) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Everyone’s favorite snarky food writer, Anthony Bordain, took in Istanbul on this season of No Reservations.  (Watch the full episode here.)

We can all argue about whose dolmas came first, who makes the best pilaf or yogurt or baklava, and whose kebabs reign supreme, but at the end of the day we must acknowledge the geographically and culturally encompassing iron embrace that informed the palate of the Ottoman Empire.  So it was with a growling stomach and eager eye that I watched Bordain take in Istanbul.

And I laughed – because floating through shots of the Bosphorus at the beginning, middle, and end of the episode was a boat painted from bow to stern with colors of the Armenian flag – like this one:

I think it will be a few seasons before Bordain makes it to Armenia, but at least we can rest easy knowing that our flag got in there (three times!) on the Turkey episode.

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დოჰ! The Simpsons go Caucasian

January 22, 2010 at 4:55 pm (Georgia, media) (, , )

Cheeky computer animation has a way of breaking down our defenses and making harsh social criticisms oddly palatable.  Being hailed as the Georgian version of The SimpsonsThe Samsonadzes is doing just that. 

Many thanks to James for bringing this to my attention.

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Pomexpress Review: Akhtamar

January 4, 2010 at 10:27 pm (media, nationalism) (, , , , , , , , )


After eagerly anticipating a gem of corporate nationalist propaganda, I was thoroughly disappointed on multiple fronts by the Ararat Bandy production, Akhtamar – a short film by the Shammasian brothers.  The Armenianness of the “legend retold” is reduced to hackneyed national images: Mt. Ararat, Garni, Republic Square.  The taxi driver character eats a pomegranate and drinks coffee for a full five minutes.  In the grand tradition of Armenian cinema, Akhtamar was super boring.

All of the language choices in the film were odd.   The Armenian language is practically

Tamar Credit: Addis Zaryan

absent and, while I knew from the start that the young actors were not Armenian (he is Russian and she Uzbek), I was unprepared for the award-winning old Armenian guy to speak only Russian.   Furthermore, the compulsory subtitles are only available in English.  These decisions were clearly motivated brandy marketing: the Russian market drinks up 85% of the Yerevan Brandy Company’s exports.  The Russian language makes the film accessible to much of the former Soviet Union while English subtitles cater to a broader brandy-drinking audience.  That leaves only Armenian speakers with the short end of the bottle.

Akhtamar is billed as the “first in a series of legends retold;” however, the most egregious offense is the absence of a ‘retelling’ of the fable itself.  A retelling is defined as a new version of a story.  In Akhtamar, the legend is simply told, and poorly, by the taxi driver.  There is no adaptation of the plot to suit modern Armenia and it is questionable whether the uninitiated would even understand the original tale.  The film contains a love and love interest, but several major elements of the tale are missing: there is no torch or swimming, or rough waters, or death.  In short, the short is not a retelling of the legend of Akhtamar.

Ararat brandy’s Akhtamar is an Akhtamar-lite film with unremarkable performances by CIS eye-candy and a problematic, one-note plot.  With some visual and narrative inconsistencies thrown into the mix, Akhtamar leaves viewers craving an authentic retelling served up with a snifter of brandy.

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Armenian Cognac and Corporate Nationalism

December 30, 2009 at 10:52 pm (art, nationalism, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Armenia is famous for its cognac.  Winston Churchill famously preferred Armenian cognac to the other, less-Armenian varieties on the market.

The Yerevan Brandy Company is Armenia’s oldest cognac producer and, though now owned French alcohol conglomerate Pernod Ricard, the company maintains a line of cognac under the Ararat label with names that reflect Armenia’s cultural heritage.  For example, the six-year aged Ani cognac is named after the capital city of the Bagratuni Kingdom (885-1045 CE) and the twenty-year Nairi is named after the pre-Urartian bronze age settlement that is one of the contenders for the Armenian homeland.  That both are now located the Republic of Turkey, just over the closed border, adds modern political tension to the pain of centuries old territorial loss and dynastic decline.  Nevertheless, artists, writers, and companies alike have kept this nostalgia for Armenia’s glory days at a steady boil for generations.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by the island that inspired the poem, the countless paintings, and the cognac: Akhtamar.  Akhtamar is an island on Lake Van in eastern Anatolia, an area where Armenians once flourished and still cherish as their ancestral homeland.    Hovhannes Tumanyan turned into poetry the tale about clandestine lovers that – legend has it – gave the island its name.  Even the lone island (now a peninsula – thanks Soviet ecologists!) in the Republic of Armenia’s lake Sevan is commonly referred to as Akhtamar.  This mixture of romance and bittersweet nostalgia makes for some powerful branding, and the Yerevan Brandy Co’s ten-year aged Akhtamar cognac is now an important cultural signifier all on its own.  If fact, a cousin told me about a kind of pilgrimage in vogue today: Armenians travel to Akhtamar in Turkey, with a bottle of Akhtamar, get a picture taken with the bottle, the Armenian flag, and a Lake Van cat, and then return to Armenia with the cognac (and drink it). 

To keep this momentum going, the Yerevan Brandy Company is releasing a short film tomorrow entitled Akhtamar that will likely be available here.  I am expecting some well placed shots of cognac.  The trailer alludes to the Tumanyan poem and promises to be the first in a series of “legends retold.”  Retold through brandy and hot CIS actors?  I’m in.      

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Armenian Sighting: Dita Von Teese

December 18, 2009 at 10:41 pm (Armenian-ness) (, , , , , )

A nice bit of Armenian investigative journalism by Artmika over at Unzipped: Gay Armenia revealed yet another Armenian hiding in our midst.  It all started with a casual tweet at

“At eurovision, The Armenians are killing me with their hair and especially the fierce cateye liner! LOVE! I am part Armenian, in fact.” 

Inga and Anush Arshakyan

Dita Von Teese

Going a step further, Armika pressed Von Teese on her Armenian-ness at a book signing event in London:

She said to me that unfortunately she does not know much about her Armenian roots.  She said that it’s from her grandmother’s side saying that her grandmother was “adopted Armenian.”

Good enough!  As my Armenian studies idol, Ron Suny, says – we’ll taker her!

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