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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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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NK violence

September 11, 2009 at 3:17 pm (Nagorno Karabakh) (, , , , , , , )

The BBC reported last night that as many as five Armenian soldiers may have been killed in a cease-fire breach on the Nagorno Karabakh-Azerbaijan border.  This 15-year-old cease-fire has been challenged before, and reports of skirmishes between soldiers posted on the border are not uncommon; however, there are a couple things that make this clash interesting:

1.  So far, it has only been reported by international and Azeri media.

2.  The NK Defence Ministry spokesman Senor Hasratian denies that the clash took place.

NK map  credit:

NK map credit:

My first thought was how odd it is for Azerbaijan is reporting on how they are breaching the cease-fire.  So they must have a reason for exposing it just like NK must have a reason for covering it up.

The protocols.  Yup – NK was kind of left off the table in the latest round of diplomacy building between Armenia and Turkey.  Perhaps skirmishes on the frontline are a way to re-insert this unresolved conflict issue into the negotiations – or dare I say – to complicate them.

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Roadmap to Protocols: Armenian Turkish Diplomacy within 2 months?

August 31, 2009 at 10:06 pm (Armenian-Turkish relations) (, , , , , , )

Very exciting news today, courtesy of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey.  Armenia and Turkey have agreed to two protocols to be mediated by the Swiss.  The protocols are expected to be signed within six weeks.

The “Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey”emphasizes their commitment to open the border, recognizes that border as it is, agrees to establish diplomatic missions in each other’s country, and generally promotes peace, trust and neighborliness.  The “Protocol on Development of Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey” identifies the mutual interests of both countries to enhance bilateral relations and the countries AGREE TO OPEN THE BORDER WITHIN TWO MONTHS OF SIGNING.  They even have a time-line.  Read the texts of both protocols here.

Armenian-Turkish border - credit: evrimnazli

Armenian-Turkish border - credit: evrimnazli

Armenia and Turkey announced a vague roadmap on April 23rd, 2009 but, to date, these protocols have been the greatest strides towards diplomacy.   The 1.5 million dollar question thrown around between April and today was how the genocide would play into the diplomatic process, even though Serge Sargysan has said for over a year that Armenia has no preconditions to normalizing relations.  The only nod to the genocide comes in the Protocol on Development of Relations, in which both countries agree to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.”

No doubt this is going to please some and horribly upset others, namely the Dashnaks.  I, for one, will be keeping an independent watch on that two month deadline.  It’s time for some action.

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Football Diplomacy One Year On: Is it all about the genocide?

August 28, 2009 at 8:11 pm (Diaspora-homeland relations, media) (, , , , , , , )

Back in the fall, I set about the task of discovering how knowledge is disseminated in the form of “the news.”  I wanted to know exactly what is disseminated and what that says about the source, audience, industry, and actual on-the-ground events.  I chose to look at the media coverage of the Armenian-Turkish football match of September 6th, 2008.  I’d attended the match itself and could not avoid the build-up of excitement in the media and on the streets as the match approached.  Seemed like a good twenty-pager to me, so I went for it.

Armenia vs Turkey, September 6th, 2008

Armenia vs Turkey, September 6th, 2008

There were multiple, compacted levels of significance to the match – some of which appeared in the press, others that hid just under the surface.  The most obvious levels unpacked by the media pertained to Armenia and Turkey’s recent border stalemate and the older but even grittier issue of the genocide.  While Turkey was amongst the first countries to acknowledge Armenia’s sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s (still ongoing) war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh quickly ended all diplomatic relations between Armenian and Turkey – and closed the border.

But it is not, and probably never was, just about Nagorno Karabakh.  No, the history between Armenia and Turkey predates either country.  Starting in 1915, the majority of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population was killed, starved, or otherwise forced to leave.  The genocide created a large diaspora that landed throughout the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and Australia.  Put simply: Armenia maintains that the genocide was a genocide and Turkey rubs the back of it’s neck explains how chaotic the end of World War I was for the Ottomans.  The genocide, and Turkey’s denial of it, is a wound for both sides, that’s been open and festering for 90+ years.

Almost all of the articles about the match that I analyzed checked off the NK war/border stalemate issue and the ever-contentious genocide issue, but few went for the real meat.  Here was a relatively new president, Serzh Sargsyan, advocating for diplomacy with Turkey without reservations.  Sargsyan’s stance did not mirror policies of not his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, but rather, resembled the policies of his competitor in the election, Levon Ter-Petrossian.  TP served as Armenia’s first president from 1991 until 1998, when he was forced to step down – due partially to his position on opening diplomacy with Turkey.  While Sargsyan won against TP in 2008, it was a close election, and opposition supporters contended the results with disastrous results.

Armenia Election Protest - credit AP Photo/Photolure, Mkhitar Khachatryan

Armenia Election Protest - credit AP Photo/Photolure, Mkhitar Khachatryan

On March 2nd, Armenian police arrested hundreds of protesters and even opened fire, killing ten.  Sargsyan’s throw-back to diplomacy with Turkey without reservations was either a nod to the TP faction, the result of a new economic and geo-political reality, or some combination of the two.

Unfortuanately for my paper, the media’s coverage of the football match kept it simple: match, NK, border, genocide, diplomacy (maybe?) the end.  Too simple.  I wanted something to sink my teeth into.  I wanted to reveal the biases of the international media, or their political correctness, or how either their bias or the PC manipulated the story.  I had no luck at all.  I knew it wasn’t fair to critique the news on their failure to report on all the nuances of Armenian politics.  But even a comparison between Armenian and Turkish presses was lack-luster – both countries’ media were doing their job, being objective, giving a play-by-play as the match approached.

So it was with some surprise that I read Tom Esslemont‘s BBC article on the aftermath of the football diplomacy.  (We are one year on now, and it is going kind of slow.)  In the human interest piece, Esslemont presents Gharnik Kharibyan, a man from Margara, Armenia who is in favor of opening the border:

The lush border village of Margara is about as far south as you can go in landlocked Armenia. But residents are now hopeful that an open border could change everything. Gharnik Kharibyan is in favour of it.

“The prospect of a border opening is not only a personal issue. It will help everyone. We want to become friends with the Turkish people – they are our neighbours,” he says.

From the end of [Kharibyan’s] garden you can see across to the Biblical Mount Ararat, whose snow-capped peaks rise above lush vines and tomato plantations in Turkish Anatolia.

Mr Kharibyan points across to Ararat, and turns to me with an air of nostalgia.

Mount Ararat from Armenia  Photo credit ©Ashy Macbean

Mount Ararat from Armenia - credit ©Ashy Macbean

“You see the mountain?” he asks. “A lot of our history is rooted there on the other side of the border, and it will be good to be able to go there again.”

The chapter of history Mr Kharibyan refers to is the time when hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed during their mass deportation from Anatolia, in World War I. Armenia wants the atrocities to be internationally recognised as genocide.  Turkey does not see them as systematic killings.

In his analysis of Kharibyan’s mention of ‘history,’ Esslemont jumps straight to the genocide. Strange – Armenians are a people with history – make that History.  Ask any Armenian: Tigran the Great spread the Armenian kingdom from sea to sea in the first century BC.  Armenia was the first state to declare Christianity its state religion in 301.  Oh – and don’t forget about the unique alphabet created like a gift from god in 405.  What Kharibyan is refering to is the history of Armenians before the genocide, when they peacefully occupied Eastern Anatolia along with Kurds and Turks.  For better or for worse, Armenians interacted with peoples and cultures throughout the Middle East for centuries.  Only relatively recently have Armenians been restricted to their present day borders.  It is possible that Kharibyan’s ancestors emigrated from the Ottoman Empire to the Russian-controlled Caucasus in the early 1900s, and that’s the reason for his nostalgia.  Or perhaps he is simply curious to see the Armenian churches and landmarks that are within miles of his town.  Of course, there is also the symbolic value of Mt. Ararat to all Armenians.  Certainly, though, his comment was not intended as a segue into Esslemont’s discussion of the genocide and how it plays into Armenian-Turkish relations today.  Where did his assumption about Kharibyan’s comment come from?
I think I know the answer.

It wasn’t until long after I finished my paper that I got clued into the phenomenon of diasporan power.  The bulk of the Armenian diaspora is 90 years removed from the homeland.

world wide diaspora - credit: Aivazovsky at the English language Wikipedia

Worldwide Diaspora - credit Aivazovsky at the English language Wikipedia (click for larger view)

They do not speak Armenian, have Armenian first names, or know much of anything about Armenian history.  They have a nominal (or better) affiliation with the Armenian church and have been aptly tapped by various Armenian charities and lobbing groups, many based in the US.  The one thing that unifies the diaspora is the thing that caused their dispersion in the first place: the genocide.  It is the basis of their identity as Armenians in dispersion.  If you bump into an Armenian in Detroit or Manchester or Sidney, chances are they won’t be able to tell you how to get to the bus station in Armenian, but they will bite your head off if you suggest the “genocide” is kind of an overstatement.  Today’s diasporans are well-educated, well-off, and feverishly passionate about worldwide recognition of the grimmest period in thier ancestors’ history.

So I think Esslemont equates ‘history’ to ‘genocide’ because of the Armenian diaspora and their unrelenting, public fight for genocide recognition.  Ok, Esslemont is to blame for putting words in Kharibyan’s mouth – but the diaspora is to blame for putting genocide! genocide! genocide! into Esslemont’s head.  While the genocide is a sticky hurdle to rapprochement, it is far from being the only one.  It is, however, the most well know in the west – because of the diaspora.

Esslemont’s remarks illustrate diasporan power, a power firmly rooted in shared trauma and manifest in the oddest places, like in the minds of reporters.  This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the diaspora and the republic are confused with one another.  As we approach the one year anniversary of Armenia and Turkey’s football diplomacy, it is tempting for politicians, reporters, and civilians alike to write off the lack of progress on the genocide.  However, perhaps the centrality of the genocide to this debate is a self-fulfilling barrier to real progress.

Governments aside, FIFA forges ahead.  Armenia and Turkey will meet again for another World Cup qualifying match in Istanbul this October 14.

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