Vahe Sahakyan: “Historiography still has not recorded the end of a diaspora because of the return to homeland”

In May, the Leipzig Center for the History and Culture of East Central Europe (GWZO) hosted an international conference entitled “Within and Beyond Ethnicity: Negotiating Identities in Modern Armenian Diaspora.” Dr. Vahe Sahakyan from the University of Michigan and Hakob Matevosyan, a PhD candidate at Leipzig University, were the organizers of the conference, which was devoted to the discussion of the issues of ethnicity, diaspora and identities.

HayernAysopresents the interview with Dr. Vahe Sahakyan. 

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Sahakyan, what was the purpose of the conference entitled “Within and Beyond Ethnicity: Negotiating Identities in Modern Armenian Diaspora”?

Vahe Sahakyan: The title of the conference reflects the current trends on ethnicity, diaspora and identities in modern Western diaspora studies. The difficulties associated with the translation of the title of our conference into Armenian demonstrate the necessity of introducing such vocabulary into Armenian diaspora studies scholarship. I have seen some translations of the expression “identity negotiations,” such as “ինքնության բանակցություններ” and “ինքնության վերաձևակերպումներ.” But I should note that the Armenian words “բանակցություններ” or “վերաձևակերպում” do not fully convey the meaning of the word “negotiations” which, in this context, means to adapt to, integrate into a new society, self-realize in a new environment, while maintaining, constructing, transforming and adapting certain manifestations of an identity which differs from the dominant culture.

Such an understanding allows for examining social and cultural identities as ever-changing phenomena and refraining from approaches, which treat them as essentialized, unchanging traits. In this sense, diasporic communities, organizations, generations and individuals are in constant identity negotiations through which, on the one hand, they establish belonging to a certain country and society as institutions, organizations and communities functioning in those countries or as full-fledged citizens and members of those countries and societies, and, on the other hand, they appear as communities, organizations and individuals representing a certain diaspora.

 The same is true for the Armenian translation of the subtitle of my opening remarks—Armenianness Beyond Ethnicity. I would translate it as “Հայկականությունը էթնիկությունից անդին,” trying to highlight the fact that Armenianness in the diaspora sometimes extends beyond ethnicity. Ethnic belonging and self-awareness, of course, are important characteristics of Armenianness in certain Armenian diasporic communities. This is true especially for the diasporic communities established in the countries of the Middle East, in which historically the social and political conditions have been quite favorable for the formation of Armenian-speaking communities, for the creation and maintenance of Armenian ethnic spaces. However, looking at the diaspora through the lens of ethnicity often conceals diaspora’s significant part.

There are many examples, but here I would like to bring a few from my own experience of studying the Armenian diaspora. In November 2015, two University of Michigan affiliated organizations of Jewish and Armenian students invited me to give a talk about diasporas. After the lecture, a young student and a member of the Armenian Students’ Cultural Association asked me the following question: “I am half-Armenian, half-Jewish. My father is Armenian, my mother is Jewish. To which diaspora do I belong?” If diaspora necessarily implies ethnicity, then we can argue about whether or not a half-Armenian and a half-Jewish is ethnically Armenian, and whether or not he/she should be considered as part of the Armenian diaspora. Similarly, during my dissertation field work a few years ago, as I conducted interviews with members of various Armenian diasporic organizations, I occasionally encountered people who would tell me they were 10% Armenian, 25% Armenian, but who would invest some of their time in certain Armenian projects. Defining these people as ethnically Armenian is also arguable.

I believe, however, that these people are part of the Armenian diaspora, insofar as they consider themselves Armenian on some level, participate in Armenian diasporic organizations, or are involved in an independent activity that favors Armenia or the Armenians. It is through the support and participation of people, who do not speak Armenian, who have no direct or daily contact with Armenia and who are sometimes offspring of mixed marriages, that a number of Armenian organizations and institutions, for example, in France or the USA, function. Of course, alongside them there are also the so-called ethnic Armenians who speak Armenian, who have Armenian parents and who occupy different positions within various diasporic organizations. But it was exactly for this reason that the title of our conference and the subtitle of my opening remarks suggested to discuss Armenianness in the diaspora within and beyond ethnicity, allowing for broader understanding of the Armenian diaspora.

Hayern Aysor: Who organized the conference? What was the motive behind holding discussions on this topic?

 V. S.: In some sense, the conference was the sequel to the “Armenia and the Diaspora in the 20th Century” graduate student workshop organized by the Armenian Studies Program of the University of Michigan in April 2014. The idea for organizing another conference emerged in ongoing conversations between Hakob Matevosyan, one of the participants of that conference and a PhD student from Leipzig University, and me. When Hakob proposed to organize a conference on Armenian diaspora at Leipzig University within the frameworks of the project “Armenians in East Central Europe (15th-19th centuries),” we started thinking about the topic. We eventually decided that it might be interesting to have discussions on methodological issues. For this reason we invited young scholars and researchers who had innovative approaches, were well aware of modern trends in diaspora studies, and whose research focused on the least-studied Armenian diasporic communities.

The goal of the conference was to identify the problems related to the concepts of “ethnicity” and “diaspora” by exploring the negotiations of diasporic spaces and identities, the impact of global and local processes on internal developments within Armenian diasporic communities, and the perceptions of homeland among diasporan Armenian settled in Armenia and in the diaspora.

 HayernAysor: Who were the participants and how were they selected? What issues were discussed? What were the conclusions?

 V. S.: We invited scholars and researchers from leading universities of various countries. During the first session, Hakob Matevosyan (University of Leipzig, Germany), Konrad Siekierski (University of Warsaw, Poland) and Heitor Loureiro (University of Sao Paulo, Brazil) presented papers on the activities of Armenian diasporic institutions and organizations in Hungary, Romania and Brazil, especially emphasizing the impact of the dynamic social and political conditions of these countries on the formation of diasporic identities and on diverse expressions of Armenianness. During the second session, Sevan Beukian (University of Alberta, Canada), Nanor Karageozian (University of Oxford, UK) and Hamazasp Danielyan (Yerevan State University) examined in their papers the concept of homeland, as well as the issues of identity and belonging among diasporan Armenians who settled in Armenia and in the diaspora in general. In the final session, Ulrike Ziemer (University of Winchester, UK), Brigitta Davidjants (Estonian Academy of Music and Theater, Estonia) and Nicolette Czézár (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany) discussed the formation and negotiations of Armenian identities in Southern Russia, Estonia and Hungary. We also invited Stefan Troebst, Monika Wohlrab-Sahr and Bálint Kovács from Leipzig University, Hratch Tchilingirian from the University of Oxford and Jo Laycock from the Sheffield Hallam University as panel and round-table discussants and participants.

The primary criteria for the selection of the participants was the experience with the East Central European and other understudied Armenian diasporic communities, as well as the innovative approaches to the studies of the Armenian diaspora.

HayernAysor: Mr. Sahakyan, what are the challenges and perspectives of Armenology today? (this topic was a topic for discussion during the conference).

 V. S.: I will try to be brief. The major challenge of Armenian Studies in the West is how to make research in Armenian Studies relevant and connected to the contemporary discourses and discussions developing in humanities and social science in general. It is a fact that most of the Armenian studies programs and chairs outside Armenia are housed in Western universities. Therefore, they need to keep up with the most recent developments in other cognate fields in the West. In this sense, it is important for Armenian Studies scholars not only to be aware of modern theoretical and comparative studies and occasionally cite them in their works, but also to participate and contribute to discourses developing within other fields and disciplines with their research in Armenian Studies.

Our conference also aimed at connecting the Armenian diaspora studies to the most recent discourses in diaspora studies. To address these issues, we ended the conference with a roundtable discussion, during which we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of comparative studies of diasporas and about methodologies for diaspora studies.

HayernAysor: Armenian Diaspora, identity issues, repatriation…Could you provide details about your views on these three categories?

V. S.: We can have extensive discussions on all three, but here I will try to touch upon each of them. Beirut, Marseille, Paris, Boston, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Detroit: these are the cities, in which and in the suburbs of which I observed and interviewed people, who considered themselves Armenian, of Armenian origin, Armenian-American, Persian-Armenian, Istanbul-Armenian, French-Armenian, Catholic, Protestant or Apostolic Armenian, who were Armenian-speaking or not, had Armenian parents or were only half-Armenian and were involved in the activities of Armenian diasporic organizations. Based on this, I concluded that the Armenian diaspora does not convey the singularity, which is often implied in the conventional usage of the expression in everyday conversations. As much as it is tempting to imagine the diaspora as a definable and finite social entity, both the most recent studies, and the realities of the Armenian diaspora suggest that the diaspora is not a social group, a community or a political entity. Most importantly, it is hard to imagine that with the enormous diversity of identities and global dispersion diaspora can ever become a social group, a community or a political entity. Of course, there are individual communities, political entities and organizations in the Armenian diaspora, but these organizations represent only a small part of the diaspora.

In her book entitled “The Armenian Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian,” Armenian- American sociologist Anny Bakalyan writes about the identities of American-born generations, or, in her own words, the “symbolic Armenians,” who can choose to be Armenian, Armenian-American, American-Armenian or American (p. 7). If being an Armenian is not a matter of much choice in the countries of the Middle East such as in Lebanon,where according to the state regulations the children of Armenian parents must be affiliated with an Armenian church, being an Armenian in France, the United States and in many other countries is often a matter of self-identification and choice.

Let me bring another example, which became a topic of extensive discussions in our conference. The Armenian diasporic space in Hungary is characterized by social-political conflicts between the descendants of Armenians who had settled in Transylvania in the 17th-19th centuries and whose descendants movedto Hungary in the early 20th century, and those who migrated to Hungary after the genocide and in later periods. The so-called “Transylvanian Armenians” are Catholic, Hungarian-speaking and, in the perceptions of their opponents, assimilated Hungarians. But they claim to be “the real Armenians,” the descendants of the Armenians who came from Ani, and they consider Ani their homeland. The other Armenians, whom the descendants of the Transylvanian Armenians refer to as “Eastern Armenians,” also consider themselves “the real Armenians.”They emphasize their knowledge of Armenian language, the fact that they are the descendants of the Armenian Genocide survivors, or their connections with modern-day Republic of Armenia. This example also shows the diversity of the diaspora in another small community. Once again, discussions here go beyond ethnicity, but they occur within the diasporic space.

Let me try to generalize and connect with repatriation. Diaspora implies generations, who for decades and even centuries have been living in places, in which their ancestors are believed to have settled from another place. In this regard, I would like to differentiate between the concepts of immigration and diaspora. I should note that the problems of identity negotiations are also characteristic for the people and groups who have just settled in a new country. In that sense, their worldviews, values, norms, and identities in general change over time. However, in order to experience the diasporic reality, one must be born in a country, which—as his/her parents, a school or other organizations will teach—is not his/her ancestral homeland, in which the language of the majority is not the language of this homeland.

The issue of homeland is almost unquestionable for the Armenia-born immigrants, who have left the country permanently for another country. They were born in Armenia; they have many friends and relatives there, with whom they usually stay in touch. Armenian is the native language and it is natural to speak Armenian. The issue of homeland, however, is not quite the same for the third-fourth generations of Armenian Genocide survivors in the United States, France, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, Greece and elsewhere. For many of them homeland is Western Armenia or the village or the town of their ancestors. There are also others who consider modern-day Armenia as their homeland. It should be noted, however, that the diaspora-born generations acquire this knowledge in their families, Armenian schools, or in community organizations, and most often they have no personal affinity or experience with the homeland. Speaking Armenian is also not given naturally, especially when the local conditions in a certain country have not been favorable for the establishment of Armenian kindergartens, schools, and communities.

After these considerations, is it possible to argue that the generations of Armenians born in France or the United States do not belong to France or the United States? Is it possible to claim that they are not Frenchmen or Americans and will someday return to the homeland, regardless of what they consider their homeland? To compare, say, with the Jewish case, is it possible to argue that the descendants of the European Jews, who had settled in the United States in the 16th-17th centuries, are not Americans and will return to the State of Israel, which has only been around for over half a century?

The comparative study of diasporas suggests that the return or repatriation is not one of the defining characteristics of diasporas, despite the fact that some earlier diaspora scholars claimed that the return to homeland is one of the defining features of diasporas. The Jewish diaspora did not disappear with the establishment of the State of Israel. What is more, the establishment of the State of Israel led to the emergence of an opposition movement in the Jewish diaspora against the State of Israel. Similarly, the existence of China is by no means a hindrance to the expansion of the Chinese diaspora. Historiography still has not recorded the end of a diaspora because of the return to homeland.

Returning to the Armenian case, it would be hard to imagine that diaspora Armenians and diaspora Armenian organizations, who have accumulated much wealth and many properties in the United States, France, Lebanon or elsewhere, will sell the enormous buildings and wealth of the Armenian churches and other organizations, will quit their jobs and leave their investments in the countries of their birth and will one day return to the land of their ancestors—Armenia. Of course, there will be people and organizations who will return; but it is important to highlight the fact that the individuals, social groups, organizations, institutions, communities and societies constituting diasporas represent social realities that have been established in various countries throughout decades and even centuries and, therefore, they also belong in those countries. The Armenians of Lebanon are as much Armenian as they are Lebanese. They are full-fledged citizens of Lebanon and members of Lebanese society. Armenian churches, schools and other organizations are likewise social institutions in Lebanese society. The same is true for the Armenian churches, schools and other organizations in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Brazil, France, the USA and elsewhere. The fact that the Syrian Armenian community has not disappeared, despite the large numbers of emigration, and that many Syrian-Armenians continue to resist the civil war and do not rush to leave the country or “return,” provides another evidence for this. Similarly, the generations of Armenian immigrants in the United States, France and elsewhere are first and foremost the citizens of those countries and full-fledged members of those societies. Armenianness of the American- or French-born generations (or those born elsewhere) develops in parallel to their American or French (or other local) identities. In this sense, diasporic identities are heterogeneous, or, using the Western term—hybrid. From academic perspective, conceptualizing those identities within exclusively the Armenian domain or within ethnicity does not properly reflect the complicated nature of diasporic identities.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Sahakyan, will there be similar conferences in Armenia?

V. S.: There is always a desire to organize similar conferences and events in Armenia. However, it is not a secret that such events become possible through the support of sponsors. The conference in Leipzig was sponsored by the Leipzig Center for the Study of History and Culture of East Central Europe (GWZO), the Armenian Studies Program of the University of Michigan, the Research Academy and the Center for Area Studies of Leipzig University, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Ministry of Education and Research. I hope we will be able to organize such events in Armenia as well. There is already some initial agreement on organizing a summer school in diaspora studies in Armenia where we can create a platform for examining the current diaspora theories and studies and see how the studies of the Armenian diaspora can contribute to the contemporary discourses in diaspora studies.

Interview by LusineAbrahamyan

Photos by Naira Tumanyan


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