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.


tzitzernak2 said...

You've taken on quite a heavy and worthy task - trying to unweave and reweave the intricacies, depths and psychology of the Diaspora. A beautiful title for you blog, by the way.

Raffi said...

Looking forward to the rest of the posts related to Armenian Diaspora.

Internation Musing said...

linked this post as well.