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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Erdoğan in the Chocolate City

December 10, 2009 at 1:00 am (Turkish Diplomacy, Washington DC) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

On December 8th, the SETA Foundation hosted a talk by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC.  Held in the hotel’s grand, yet garish, ballroom – the event was open to the public and provided simultaneous translation in both English and Turkish through wireless equipment.  (neat!)  About two hundred people attended, including myself.

Erdoğan was introduced by former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel (R), who referred to Kurdistan during an anecdote about traveling in eastern Anatolia with Joe Biden.  I thought I heard a mild snicker ripple through the crowd when Hagel dropped the K-bomb, but maybe I am just overly sensitive to Turkey’s problematic relationship with their “mountain Turks.”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Chuck Hagel

Erdoğan was a good speaker: frank and not afraid to give some meat along with the requisite political niceties.  He addressed many of Turkey’s current foreign policy issues, touching upon domestic issues (the economy, human rights, Kurds) only very lightly.    His remarks came off as slightly defensive; whether he was covering Turkey’s prolonged EU ascension process, his country’s relationship with Iran, or the Israel-Palestine conflict -Erdoğan was explaining, justifying, and/or defending his stance.  The PM mentioned something in defense of this defensiveness – to paraphrase his remarks very loosely: ‘Turkey has been a state in limbo for the past 50 years and it is still lingering in this limbo.  Turkey is improving, but Turkey is also patient.’

Treaty of Sèvres (click for larger image) Credit: Wikipedia.org

This is what I know as the “sèvres syndrome,” a term used to describe Turkey’s contemporary foreign policy paranoia because of the way the Ottoman Empire was butchered-up at the end of World War 2.  The “sèvres” of sèvres syndrome refers to the Treaty of Sèvres, which was one of many peace treaties drawn up during WW2 to give Ottoman land to the allies of the Triple Entente.  While never enacted, the treaty shows how much Ottoman land was up for grabs.  The resulting paranoia is evident in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies today.

So when Erdoğan mentioned Turkey’s prolonged state of “limbo” – I thought of the “sèvres syndrome” and how Turkey is still fighting off the Ottoman Empire’s reputation as the “sick man of Europe.”   Erdoğan states that this limbo is fifty years-old, which covers the post-Ataturk & co. era of democracy building.  I think it is safe to say that this limbo dates back to the beginning of the Turkish Republic.  The Ottoman Empire is a tough specter to shake.

Erdoğan’s frankness did not carry over into his discussion of Armenian-Turkish rapprochement.  Firstly, this topic was not addressed during the talk proper – only during the short question and answer section that followed his presentation.  Secondly, he did not reveal any of his signature flair in response to the question, which was “How do you see the Armenian-Turkish protocol process proceeding?”  The PM has not shied away from critiquing the protocols.  In fact, despite being a member of the party that worked on the protocols with Armenia, Erdoğan was the first to start chipping away at them after they were signed.  Following the signing, Erdoğan voiced some common pre-conditions that have prevented normalization to date, namely, Nagorno-Karabagh.  Since the deadline for ratification is approaching, I thought the PM would have a forceful response to that question, but it was lack-luster.  He simple gave an overview of the ratification process (first signing, then commission, then parliament…) and said that progress between Armenia and Azerbaijan over NK would help.  The response short, civil, and totally predictable.

To date, I’ve attended talks by two high-ranking Turkish officials.  The other was Ali Babacan, who spoke at the University of Chicago in the fall of 2007.  If the two had a diplomat-off, Erdoğan would win – hands down.  His blend of staight-talk and suave disengagement from certain contentious issues explains why he is PM and why I wasn’t invited to the reception.

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