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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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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Armenian Sighting: Rear Window

December 1, 2009 at 3:07 am (diaspora, media, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring Jimmy Stewert, a half-dozen times, but only this weekend did I realize that it also stars…an Armenian.

Photo still from Rear Window Credit: Alfred Hitchcock

You might remember the piano-playing composer with the slanted floor to ceiling windows?  Turns out that this actor is Ross Bagdasarian in Rear Window  Credit: Alfred Hitchcocknot only a Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter, but he is also Armenian.  Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian was born in 1919 in Fresno, California and is the cousin of that other Armenian Fresno native, William Saroyan.

The cousin connection launched Bagdasarian into the limelight – first with a role in Saroyan’s broadway debut, The Time of Your Life, and later with a cowritten song, Come on-a My House. Throughout the 1950s, Bagdasarian released songs and played minor roles on the silver screen before landing a number one hit with Witch Doctor in 1958.

Bagdasarian solidified his success with The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) which spun off into the animated, anthropomorphic musical group, Alvin and the Chipmunks.  Since Bagdasarian recorded all of the chipmunk’s voices, it is not too much of a stretch to claim Alvin, Simon, and Theodore as Armenians themselves – nationalism knows no bounds.

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Sibel Edmonds and the Armenian-American fan-fest ’09

August 30, 2009 at 7:06 pm (diaspora, genocide recognition, media) (, , , , , )

Over the past month there has been a flurry of activity among US diasporan news sources centered on Sibel Edmonds.  And they always use this picture.

Sibel Edmonds

Sibel Edmonds

Edmonds has been whistle-blowing since 2002, so what is it about August 2009 that has diasporan communities abuzz?

To refresh your memory, Edmonds was hired by the FBI as a translator in 2001, but was fired less than a year later after accusing a fellow linguist of espionage and raising allegations of fraud and corruption within the bureau.  Even though a 2005 Inspector General’s report generally supported Edmonds claims, she has been gagged from presenting her claims in court.  Of particular interest to the Armenian-American community are Edmonds claims about the Turkish lobby, which she accused of paying off congress members to keep Armenian genocide recognition legislation off the floor.  While mainstream media has tread lightly on the story, Armenian American media has covered it intently.

Leave it to Ohio to keep the media pinwheel turning.  David Krikorian, the democratic candidate for Ohio’s 2nd congressional district in the 2010 elections, is following Edmond lead by whistle-blowing on his rival in the 2008 elections.  According to Krikorian, republican representative Jean Schmidt “took more money from the Turkish lobby than any other single Member of the U.S. Congress” to fund her 2008 election.  Schmidt filed nine complaints against Krikorian for disseminating these allegations, five of which are still on the table to be decided on by the Ohio Election Committee September 3rd.  Krikorian called on Edmonds to appear as a witness; however, it remains to be seen if she will be allowed to testify in person.

The nature of Sibel Edmonds allegations about the Turkish lobby secured her position as the darling of the US Armenian diaspora.  The Krikorian-Schmidt hearing could potentially give Edmonds her long awaited day in court.  (Her video deposition is already available online.)  All of this synergy explains the hubbub in diasporan news outlets – but perhaps the stakes are a bit higher…

Krikorian has really come out gun-blazing with these allegations, calling Schmidt’s funding “blood money to deny the genocide of Christian Armenians by Muslim Turks.”  Krikorian also invokes the diaspora’s strong feelings about US genocide recognition to fund his campaign:

I ask Armenian Americans to give as generously as they possible can. If they do that, we will certainly have the financial resources to beat one of our worst enemies in the U.S. Congress. If the community is not willing to embrace this campaign, with all that they can possibly do, then we should never complain when the U.S. government doesn’t recognize the genocide, because my Congressional race is ground zero of the Armenian Genocide battle. Ground zero!

Krikorian is attaching his hearing and campaign to the Armenian genocide to win Armenian hearts and wallets.

I can’t blame Krikorian for using the hearings and Edmonds’s status to publicize his campaign – or to raise money – because plenty of politicians have tapped that angle before.  The aspect of this unfurling saga that bothers me is the centrality of genocide recognition – and the US government’s repeated failure to do so – in the media’s coverage.  Here we are in the genocide recognition off-season (post-April 24th) and Edmonds, Krikorian, his hearing, and her testimony are all opportunities for diasporan media outlets to reinforce the centrality of genocide recognition on their readerships.  Through editorials and interviews, diasporan readers are fed yet more pleas for attention and money to be focused on genocide recognition.  I am sure this is not the conscious objective of editors and, as I have previously discussed, the diaspora by and large bases its identity on the genocide and generally wants it recognized by everyone – so they are a willing audience.  Nevertheless, the ongoing Edmonds-Krikorian saga is symptomatic of what I see as a narrowing spiral of Armenian American identity, coiling tighter and tighter around genocide recognition.  Edmonds complements, and Krikorian feeds, this monolithic Armenian-American identity as the media reports on it.

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