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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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: 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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Presidential Bromance

September 20, 2009 at 3:58 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Thanks to Trina from drawing my attention to a great photo-essay in this month’s Foreign Policy: Vova and Dima 4eva?



As mentioned in the article, Medvedev and Putin have a carefully executed public friendship – one that has been well captured by photographers.  However, as the title of this essay suggests with nicknames and junior high shorthand, these photos also present a level of intimacy between the prez and former prez: relaxed body language, intense eye-contact, and a general sense of ease and comfort in each other’s company.



What struck me was not the homoerotic, but rather, the domestic nature of many of these shots.  Whether walking the dog, sipping coffee on the porch, or sharing a laugh over dinner, these two Russian powerhouses have created a space in which their friendship can blossom for years to come.



For the full photo essay, click here.

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