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.

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