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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Confronting Memory through Art in Turkey

November 2, 2009 at 7:22 pm (Armenian-Turkish rapprochement, Armenian-Turkish relations) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

This fall, an Istanbul art exhibit at the BM SUMA Art Center is breaking the silence over a collective Turkish memory that some would like to forget and others find impossible to ignore.  The “Dirty Story” exhibit confronts the memory of Turkey’s 1980 military coup through art in hopes of coming to a modern understanding of the deaths, detentions, human rights abuses, and pain caused by that era of Turkey’s not-so-distant past.  The exhibit also challenges political and artistic censorship in Turkey, with photos of muzzled artists alongside a photographed tombstone, engraved with a gun.

Tarih-i Kadim (The Old History) artist unknown

Whenever grotesque and inhuman events tear the social fabric of a society, it takes strength and courage to initiate healing.  Leave it to Turkish artists to tackle this challenge.

In recent weeks and months, much of the global Armenian diaspora have mobilized in opposition to the Armenian-Turkish protocols.  At the core of their opposition is pain that results from Turkey’s ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.  The protocols do not address this wound – they arguably make it worse by having both countries agree to a historic commission.

What is not being addressed within the diaspora, Armenia, or Turkey is the difference between rapprochement and reconciliation.  The diaspora’s response to the protocols demonstrates the difference between the two and the need for rapprochement not to preclude or prevent reconciliation.  In fact, the protocols have the potential to pave the way for more efforts, more courage, and more drive for understanding and peace between these groups.

The “Dirty Story” exhibit offers a model for initiating reconciliation that could be applied to the memory of the Armenian genocide.  Besides obliterating  Armenian society in eastern Anatolia, the genocide destroyed the social fabric of late Ottoman and early Turkish societies.  The ramifications of genocide denial reverberate in Turkey to the present day.  The timing is perfect for an artistic collaboration to explore this trauma and shock all sides into an atmosphere where reconciliation is possible.

[Thanks to Rob at Art Threat for bringing this exhibit to my attention.]

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