Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Crossing Igdir

Besides being a blog on diasporan issues I also enjoy following developments in Armenia's geopolitics and plan on covering developments in that field as well. 2008 has been the most interesting year of that since I've started following these issues almost a decade ago as the region pulsates with troubles and a renewed push towards a Turkish-Armenian thaw. This thaw might have happened earlier had not Azerbaijan hung on to its "brother state" Turkey for dear life keeping them from doing anything which might be seen as a positive for Armenia. This has stunted relations between Armenia and its western neighbor and delayed any potential developments between them. Cracks have been growing though, most recently with Prime Minister Erdogan's new proposal of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform.
The Turkish Daily News published an article today by Adil Baguirov, head of the "US-Azerbaijani Network" and USC's former Armenophobe-in-residence on why stability and cooperation in the Caucasus is a bad thing for Turkey and that such peaceful moves like opening the border will do nothing but to harm it. If you care to read his joke of an article (I do not say this because he is an Azeri but as my response to it below points out it truly is a non-sensical joke of an article) here's the link followed by my take:

The blindingly fantastic nature of Adil Baguirov's propaganda piece "For true Caucasus stability Turkey must remain on course" defies belief. Thankfully he does start off his propaganda with an actual fact, that the Armenian-controlled areas equal 15% of Soviet Azerbaijani territory (as opposed to the 20-25% which regularly is cited from Azeri sources despite the ease with which one can dispel that exaggeration via simple math). Unfortunately he then dives right in highlighting "over 800,000 Azerbaijans and Kurds were displaced or killed". Such a framing of the conflict, in which an uninformed reader might presume Armenians killed anywhere close to a million people, neglects the internationally recognized fact that almost all of the displacement occured during the course of the war after "400,000 Armenians were displaced or killed" by anti-Armenian riots throughout Azerbaijan before war had even started. Baguirov literally demolishes his own credibility in one quick swoop by neglecting this vital fact for understanding the evolution of this conflict and proves that he isn't afraid to leave out facts for the sake of promoting the interests of one side.
What is almost as puzzling is the whole purpose of Baguirov's article in the first place. He goes on a tirade about the Armenian lobby's twisting of PM Erdogan's recent Caucasus iniative, except as an active member of the Armenian diaspora and a close follower of both Armenian and Turkish news I have not even seen the iniative mentioned by Armenian lobby groups yet let alone twisted to meet their own allegedly sinister desires. He claims that the proposal has already been "ripped from context and used with such ulterior motives by one special interest group" and yet fails to mention what the Armenian lobby or Armenia has done. He's actually created an opportunity to slander the Armenian lobby (or Armenia, it is not exactly clear which is his guilty party) out of thin air by letting the Turkish Daily News's readers assume what the evil Armenians must have already done to sully this iniative- without actually telling us what it is. This is of course because there is nothing to actually report!
He then rhetorically asks what Armenia has done to repay Turkey for all its goodwill, as if Armenia has constantly rubuffed a Turkey which reaches out to it despite taking constant abuse from Armenia. This once again forgets that the blockade is Turkey's not Armenia's initiative and that it is Armenia which has asked for the border to be opened without preconditions. Despite this Baguirov continues to play pretend by asserting that Armenia is "holding Turkey hostage to never-ending demands", once again failing to mention what these imaginary demands are. He also forgets Armenia's leadership has publically denied it has claims on Turkish territory on numerous occassions (a prerequisite for opening the border) only to have Turkey tell them that they actually do, and that it has shown the goodwill Baguirov claims is lacking to the point of even inviting the Turkish president to Yerevan for the upcoming football match. What better way than to show the good neighborliness Baguirov claims is lacking from Armenia than for President Gul to accept her invitation to visit? Baguirov continues his arguement by stating the best tactic for Turkey would be to continue its trade with the "booming economies" of Georgia and Azerbaijan and that this trade is best done by using Georgia as the only bridgehead. Any tactician could tell you that relying on one path for anything is hardly the best course of action. Baguirov's statement, or should I say his wishful thinking, is now almost pitiable as we see Georgia in shambles and its only east-to-west corridor unblocked just days ago by the Russians, its future accessibility in severe question.
I am not responding to Baguirov to merely promote Armenians as some infalliable people who are right about everything as he does on the other side of the arguement. I just believe his firery Azeri rhetoric as a last-ditch effort to convince Turkey it will somehow suffer by promoting open borders and freer trade for all peoples of the Caucasus is an attitude which does not help this terribly volitile region. If Georgia has taught us anything it is that the nations of this region must work together harder than ever to resolve their differences before they explode again. This means all parties shifting into the painful yet necessary reconciliation mode now instead of attempting to contiually spite fellow nations forever, which while much easier does no good for the region's future. Turkey can play a constructive role in the Caucasus, but is acutely aware that its influence is severely limited as long as it has no relations with a third of the region and needs to rely on wartorn Georgia as its lone outlet. I'd also like to see how Baguirov's arguement that opening the border would cause nothing but ill for Turkey holds up if posed to residents of its eastern provinces, areas in bad need of the economic opportunities the opening would bring. An impoverished region means an unstable region, and more than anything Turkey will benefit from a relieving of its eastern instability. This doesn't even begin to take into account tourism from Armenia whose residents badly want to visit their sacred sites located throughout this region and the positive the people-to-people contact this would bring and contribute towards reconciliation. Based on first-hand accounts, it seems an Armenian has yet to visit Turkey and not felt at least a little bit at home. "For true Caucasus stability Turkey must remain on course"?! Nothing promotes hostility better than polarization and unfamiliarity, what better way forward towards stability than by breaking down regional barries and rediscovering how similar we all really are?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Defining the Diaspora, Part 2

Part 2 (of 2)
As you can see the being an Armenian in the diaspora is a complicated identity and without a central homeland Western Armenian culture has not been able to evolve, merely attempt to remember what it had once been a hundred years ago. Unfortunately this putting on hold of our culture for a century has also led to a stagnation of the problems and political differences which separated us then. Armenian-Americans in particular can see how the political rivalries and old world debates which festered among us not only set us back as a people in our new world but prevented us from wielding political power and influence within our adopted societies. We were too busy holding on to our ethnic political affiliations and disputes- something totally foreign and incomprehensible to American politics- to be politically efficient. We approached officials as Tashnags and Ramgavars instead of Democrats and Republicans, the true labels of political capital in America.

However, when seen on a global scale, western Armenians have been very much shaped by the country their ancestors found refuge in and are far less homogenous due to the common denominator of their Armenian origin. We often blame ourselves for these differences and the inevitable conflicts such divisions cause, almost surprised at the differences we see in other subdivisions of Armenians after growing up thinking of ourselves as one people. We are shaped much more by our home nations than we realize and to a degree an Amerigahye meeting a Barskahye is only somewhat less foreign for them as it would be for an American to meet an Iranian (minus the inherent political antagonism over nuclear weapons). In my (limited) experience, nowhere has this been more apparent and dramatic than in the American-Armenian community. Having formed an identity of their own through their churches, schools, organizations, and kefs, steady flows of immigration from other parts of the diaspora to America during the past 50 years has meant the average Armenian-American community member is more likely to experience the “other” Armenians I spoke of on a regular basis. This has left the Armenian-American diaspora with an interesting series of strata differentiating them, and while I am not as familiar with the number of major classes of Armenian in the other major centers in the diaspora, it is not hard to speculate that America has the most.

The Armenian-American as an identity has been a constantly evolving notion. When Armenians first started coming to America in huge numbers due to the genocide they met and in many cases brought over by kinsman who had been in country for up to 30 years. The foundation had been laid long before though it was accelerated by their swelling ranks due to the genocide- though with many struggling to make a living after arriving here with nothing it was still a slow uphill struggle. Organizations like AYF were founded here and churches were built-up and consolidated (albeit separately as we know…). While it is impossible to call any group homogenous as previously stated, there was definitely a sense of familiarity and similarity amongst American-Americans (within their unfortunately very much politically split groups) as a distinct entity. The political complexities however did cause the complete estrangement of this otherwise singular identity which artificially split what was otherwise the same. Where things really get complicated is with America’s prominence as the place all immigrants strove to be. While an Armenian-American cultural identity had developed so had the Lebanese-Armenian, Syrian-Armenian, and numerous others from throughout the world. After having fled to these nations to escape the genocide, it seemed Armenians were doomed to perpetually flee turmoil. Problems in Iran in the 1950s and later 1979 Islamic Revolution created waves of Barskahye immigration. Ethnic strife against Christians in Egypt and Istanbul around the same times sent them abroad as did the Lebanese civil war of the 70s and 80s. Even more recently the Baku pogroms and general post-independence emptying of Armenia for abroad has created only the latest of numerous waves of differing-identity Armenians to America.

For the diaspora in general not only does it have the acute problem of virulently opposed political parties and a split national church but due to the ubiquitous nature of the Armenian they come in multiple cultural variations. It is hard enough trying to get otherwise similar Armenian-Americans of differing parties and churches to understand each other let alone with these other types of Armenians. Each group has differing levels of comprehension of the Armenian language and cultural identity in great part due to the type of society in which they were raised. This means that what being Armenian means to them and how they display it also tends to vary widely. In future entries I hope to tell the story of these differences and what happens when they mix together in one community- namely where I’ve seen it personally in my own Philadelphia. As I said while these problems are acute throughout the American-Armenian diaspora, there are some expected and interesting differences to be found in Philadelphia which I hope can be used as a model for other communities throughout it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Defining the Diaspora, Part 1

Anyone mildly familiar with the diaspora knows there are myriad communities throughout it, none of which can exactly seem to jive with the others. On the international scene, besides the obvious Hayastansis from Armenia we have communities from Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Russia, Baku, France, the U.S., Istanbul, and so on. While many of us see this as a recent phenomenon caused by the genocide, diasporan communities date back far longer, as most recently evidenced by President Sargsyan and Karekin II’s visit to Crimea to celebrate the 650th anniversary of its Holy Cross church. Across Ukraine in Lviv, one of the city's oldest churches is that of the Armenian community which founded it in the 1300s. Its neighbor Poland also has an ancient Armenian community which has mostly assimilated by now but some retain their identity or Armenian-influenced names. Wealthier refugees and nobles from the fall of Cilicia in the late 1300s fled to Cyprus, and while to the best of my knowledge they must have all assimilated after half a millennium, the island received a fresh batch of refugees after 1915 causing it to maintain its position as a prominent spoke in the diaspora. Armenian traders set up communities throughout India and the Far East, which in many cases only the church, cemetery, and a few caretakers might remain of the once-vibrant community, but the Armenian mark of hundreds of years have been left in all these places.

No blog regarding diasporan issues would be complete without the most prominent one which faces us, assimilation, and the ongoing changes within our communities. While certain leaders today revile and see it as a modern ill of this globalist world, keeping an eye to history reminds us that these changes have actually been a constant part of our history going back as far as there has been some sort of group called Armenians. A simplistic (and common) view would hold that we have always been “Armenian”, doing whatever were doing for thousands of years until suddenly in 1915 we were uprooted and escaped to foreign lands, where whether because of our own fault (or society, or a mix of both) we are doomed to a second genocide as we assimilate away into nothingness. There are some truths in that, but in actuality what we see as our “Armenianess” is Anatolian village life of the 1895-1915 era put on pause and transplanted elsewhere. Living as an Armenian means, whether we realize it or not, to mimic as best we can the lives our of village ancestors based on a lot of imagination and preconceptions as to what that life was actually like. In a sense, our notion of what it means to be an Armenian today- and the way we now generally assume it has always been throughout history- is an interpretation of what traditions the refugee generation was able to bring with them from home and rebuild abroad, usually adapting them to their new place and time. We today see our Anatolian past through this lens of how our grandparents lived in a world totally separate from where they started, meaning the diaspora has developed based on these interpretations and adaptions a step removed from the original culture it seeks to perpetuate. Even then, this particular ideal culture we look back to as setting the standard for Armenianess throughout history is merely how it was in one area at just one singular point in the long history of Armenia. This is, as my blog title proposes, our disapora's society remaining constantly in a fixed position "West of Igdir" where we try to survive by holding fast to the little we have left. This is problematic however because this creates the conditions for century old feuds to maintain a stranglehold on us in tandem with these attempts at keeping the preceived and actual greatness of our past.

So a diasporan culture and community, whatever interpretations of Armenianess it may or may not be based on, definitely exists but is there a singular identity? What we fail to realize about our Armenian identity is the role our host country has played in the formation of this identity. If Anatolian culture was the seed of our modern diaspora- or should I say multiple seeds which were hardly uniform to begin with (ever heard a Dikranagertsi accent?)- they could not have grown without nutrients from the foreign soils which they blew to. Whether we like it or not Western Armenian culture has developed into numerous different Armenias (William Saroyan was right)- which while it gives us a vibrancy is also the root of numerous problems. I will go into some of these problems and what happens when these varying identities collide in one place in part 2. I plan on using my own community Philadelphia to be a case study as I start off my diasporan issues blog with an attempt at defining what Armenian diasporan identity really is. One can see these problems at work here but also some novel ways in which Philly Armenians have managed to do it differently. An introduction to the make-up of the diaspora is vital in understanding the dynamics and issues of the day which will surely come up and be discussed here. While I propose a diasporan uniformity as both a myth and an impossibility, an ultrasegmented diaspora like we have is a carcinogen attacking our diasporan body and will only lead to an expidited expiration date for the heirs of Western Armenia.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

First Blog/Dorkiness Prevails

Well, it happened. As a constant follower of Armenian news in both Armenia and the Diaspora I've always thought about creating a blog to talk about it. I was encouraged by some other members of the Armenian blogosphere during the aftermath of the March violence as I was actively following the news and commenting about it at blogs such as Onnik Krikorian's fantastic Caucasian Knot: http://blog.oneworld.am/ I never did get around to doing it and eventually as the situation receded so did the impetus to add another star to the blogosphere's Armenian constellation. Five months later and the Georgian war has spurred me to finally go through with it and set up a blog so here it is. I'm an active follower of Armenian news but I really don't have any particular behind-the-scenes expertise or doctorate in this sort of thing, I'm just an amateur lover of it. The reason I think Georgia spurred me was because:
1. I didn't see it coming, I just kind of took for granted after years of following the news on these frozen conflicts that they would just stay that way for years to come. I should have known better, which makes me worried about the Karabakh situation more than ever. I should also point out that I am young enough that I don't remember Karabakh War the first time around and seeing the scenes of South Ossetia and Georgia bring home what could happen there again as well which is a very painful thought.
2. I knew 2008 would be an eventful year in the Caucasus with elections in all three countries but this invasion adds a whole new dimension to the problems there. It will certainly lead to much musing and speculation for a long time to come on a region of the world very important to me so what better place for it than a blog? Besides Armenian and regional politics though I also plan to cover goings-on in the diaspora at large with a focus on my own little corner of it Philadelphia (one of the more ignored Armenian-American cities which seems to be totally unique in its community dynamics from other diasporan cities. It certainly wouldn't hurt for other cities to learn from it). On top of all this the Turkish-Armenian soccer game is in less than a month and the dynamics between the two countries possibly headed into totally new territory I think there are many intriguing things occuring which bear discussion and reflection by all Armenians.

An introductory post should include a little information about me and my aim with this blog (without going on much longer!) I am purely a diasporan and I frankly have seen very little blogging about the diaspora and its myriad issues. We have some great blogs on Armenia itself and I thought it wouldn't hurt to add to the fray one coming from the diaspora discussing both issues in Armenia which I have visited and here as well. I named the blog West of Igdir because... well mainly because naming your blog is one of the hardest things you'll ever do short of birthing a child and I wanted to make it as painless as possible by just making it the first thing which came to mind. Why is an Armenian blog named after a Turkish town? West of Igdir is a notion I took from my great-grandfather's diary, a gamavor with General Antranik who wrote it on the battlefield in 1915. In an especially stirring passage translated into English he writes about his group of soldiers crossing over from their actions around Lake Van down into Igdir and its green Ararat valley. "Leaving the village of Mousn that morning, in one and a half hours we climbed to the top of the hill which was the Russo-Turkish border... In the evening we arrived in Igdir. It was as if we came to a new world. The whole city was green and blooming. We fell from hell to paradise." These lines he wrote really struck me, not only they are beautifully poetic lines from the field of war but the way they so perfectly illustrates the freedom from all the fighting and genocide to the west. The line is even more poignant today because this valley which provided freedom is no longer passable from one side to the other and Igdir is no longer a safe Armenian city. It goes without saying that both Armenia and the diaspora for their own reasons have yet to pass east to their own Igdirs so to speak, and many of the problems of these two Armenian nations have roots firmly in that same Armenianless land "west of Igdir". It is my hope that watching from this blog the slow work of peace and reconciliation- not just for Armenia and its neighbors but for Armenians with Armenians internally and for diasporans with diasporans throughout the world- each may too somehow pass out of the dark shadow of the past west of Igdir into their own green valleys.