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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