Rethinking the Discourse on Armenian Diaspora: Language(s), Culture(s), Affiliation(s)

Vahe Sahakyan
The year 2017 was marked by two major diaspora focused events in Armenia, both attracting a fair number of visitors from around the world. Chronologically speaking, the first event, receiving much publicity across the Armenian universe, organized by the government of the Republic of Armenia on September 18-20, 2017, brought together representatives from around the global Armenian diaspora. Around 50 participants from the diaspora were carefully selected to address the public on behalf of their respective organizations, institutions and communities. The second event, somewhat marginal in the Armenian social and political mainstream discourse, organized by Common Purpose in cooperation with UWC Dilijan with the support of Aurora Humanitarian initiatives on October 8-10, 2017, gathered some 60 participants from around the world with diverse backgrounds, cultures and geographies. The “Diaspora Dialogues” intended to provide a forum for an exchange of views and perspectives about the challenges of diaspora leadership.[1]
One would assume that the tiny geography of Armenia would make it impossible to host two global events on diasporas independently from each other, yet the two events hardly had any overlaps in terms of participants, audiences and topics addressed. The former focused exclusively on the Armenian universe, while the latter emphasized the exchanges across various diasporic experiences. Consequently, most of the participants of the first conference represented exclusively Armenian constituencies, while the second gathering seemed to have attracted primarily non-Armenians.
In what follows, I would like to focus on the concepts, which, nonetheless, connected the two events, even if symbolically. Both of these events engaged in discussions about the diaspora phenomenon and invited people who could be categorized as ‘diaspora leaders’ in one way or another. If the Armenia-Diaspora conference organizers, it seems, gave preference to those with more traditional, ‘unmixed’ Armenian identities, who could also preferably and fairly fluently communicate in Armenian, the Diaspora Dialogues preferred leaders “with multiple geographical or cultural identities, who contribute to multiple societies.”[2] If the former event defined leadership mostly along ethnic lines, the latter overtly emphasized cross-ethnic or trans-ethnic leadership. The problem that I am seeking to address here is about the diaspora leadership. Who are the diaspora leaders? How is it possible that diaspora leaders can have both multiple geographical or cultural identities and yet remain ethnically ‘unmixed’? Let’s explore diaspora leadership and then I will return to Armenia-Diaspora conference and the Diaspora Dialogues to illustrate how this discussion may have some policy and research relevant implications.  
First I would like to suggest some characteristics of diasporas, on which I will be relying further in my discussion.  I am going to spare readers from the details of how scholarly perceptions of the concept of ‘diaspora’ evolved in the past 30 years. Instead, I would like to offer the following bullet point characteristics of diasporas, which I developed as a result of about a decade long literature reviews, conversations with diaspora scholars, research in Lebanon, France and the United States, and pondering about the ‘diaspora’ category:

●      Diasporas are different from dispersed population groups or migrant communities: the dispersed and migrant populations who have personal memories and connections to the country which they left behind may eventually produce diasporas, but not all migrant or dispersed communities give birth to diasporas. Diasporas are multigenerational phenomena;[3]
●      Diasporas are extremely diverse: diversities of diasporas grow over time during decades, centuries, millennia;
●      Perceptions of homeland evolve and change over time: most often homeland becomes a symbolic image for diaspora-born generations rather than an actual place of the ultimate return.[4]

These are not just theoretical abstractions but are also deeply rooted in the practices of diasporas. A close examination of the Armenian communities in Los Angeles area, for example, can quickly reveal the diversities of diasporic forms and expressions within a relatively compact geography. For an impartial observer it will be easy to identify the multiplicity of languages, traditions, lifestyles, religious and other affiliations, prevailing among the Armenians who originate from various countries. These often mutually exclusive Armenian spaces are demarcated first and foremost by country affiliations. While the Lebanese-, Syrian-, Istanbul-, Persian-, Russian-, Hayastantsi-Armenians, all represent the Armenian-American diversities in Los Angeles, the impartial researcher will be also reminded that the Armenian-Americans actually constitute another category – the third, fourth- or fifth-generation descendants of Armenian migrants and genocide survivors, often of mixed origins, who in most cases do not speak Armenian, but are still involved in Armenian affairs.
Zooming out of the Los Angeles area makes the diversities of the Armenian diasporic universe even more pronounced. Countries of residence have shaped the ways in which the descendants of once dispersed Armenian genocide survivors, immigrants or earlier settlers negotiated their identities through decades and centuries, the variety of ways in which Armenian institutions established and operated, and the diversity of Armenianness and Armenian cultural forms that emerged in various localities. Beyond the Armenian experience, in the case of the other “victim diasporas”[5] -- Jewish or African -- for example, it is likewise hardly possible to suggest any shared characteristic in the present perceptions of homeland, culture or even religion throughout their worldwide diasporas without the risk of essentializing the experiences of particular groups.[6]
When it comes to the Armenians, it is often tempting (and easy) to disregard the immensity of diasporic diversities. For more than a century, the transnational Armenian diasporic institutions, such as the Armenian Church or the political parties, have provided organizational networks to diaspora-born intellectuals educated in the Armenian ethnic enclaves in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt for claiming leadership positions in the West. Lebanon stood out among the three, as the French interests in the region between the 1920s and the 1940s provided fairly favorable conditions for the Armenians to re-establish a community life. The Lebanese conditions allowed the Armenians to become integrated yet separated as Apostolic and Catholic communities, to have representations in the Lebanese parliament and government as Apostolic and Catholic Armenians, to create extensive networks of Armenian schools and community organizations, and to organize the entire school curriculum around the Armenian language, history and culture. None of the Western countries, including France, was so generous to the Armenians (or any other ‘foreign’ ethnic group) within their metropolitan/national boundaries. While the official separation of church and state, the freedom of speech, assembly and press still provided some spaces for articulating and preserving difference in Western democracies, schools have remained one of the most important tools for the assimilation of immigrants and for the (re)production of national cohesion.
Lebanon is unique with its consociational political organization. And so is the Armenian community in Lebanon. Despite the prevailing numbers of Lebanese Armenians in many diasporic organizations, Armenian diasporic community in Lebanon constitutes an exception rather than a norm in how diasporas develop in theory and practice. If diasporas grow more heterogeneous and diverse over time, the Lebanese Armenian community had grown more homogeneous and distinct by the 1970s, at least linguistically. But Lebanon has also changed, and so did the Armenian community. The community of an estimated 300,000 members in the 1970s has significantly shrunk to some 80,000-100,000 due to the continuous outflows of Armenians caused by the political crisis of 1975-1990, socio-economic conditions or other reasons. Moreover, among younger generations the use of Armenian has been declining and the rates of mixed marriages have been increasing  in the past decades.[7] While these may seem unfortunate in terms of ethnic preservation, this is precisely how diasporas develop: they become more and more diverse over time.[8]
Preserving Western Armenian in the diaspora is important, and I am not expressing against the efforts to advance the use of Western Armenian. With proper determination, better organization, ongoing efforts and investments it might be possible to have more Armenian speaking diaspora-born generations in the future. Yet as diaspora scholar I am also aware that diasporas speak multiple languages; no matter what portion of the diaspora speaks Western or any Armenian, Armenian language can only be one of the many languages of the Armenian diaspora. Preserving Western Armenian in that sense is and will be a struggle against the process of diasporization. Regardless of how much I welcome and support the efforts for the preservation of Western Armenian, my task as diaspora scholar is to contribute to the development of research-based and, hence, more critical, accurate and objective perceptions of the Armenian diaspora. And the research-based approach not only supports the above mentioned characteristics of diasporas, but also offers some further ones along the same lines:
Diasporas are multilingual. Diasporas do not speak one language. None of the global diasporas - neither Jewish, African, Chinese or Indian - speak one language. They speak multiple and often mixed languages. So is the Armenian diaspora. Language proficiency does not and cannot define one’s commitment to Armenian life and affairs in the diaspora. And the commitment to Armenian life and affairs cannot be reduced to the ability to speak Armenian. Not all Armenian speakers who live outside Armenia are diaspora, and, similarly, not all who are involved in the Armenian institutional spaces or cultural productions in the diaspora speak Armenian.
Diasporas are multicultural. Diasporas can have certain shared cultural elements, usually rooted in the past, but even the past may change through multiple generations, as the interpretations and relations to the past change.[9] Diasporas, therefore, often have multiple pasts. Certain pasts may only ‘matter’ for a particular group in a particular time and place, but not for the rest of the diaspora. The assassination of Archbishop Ghevond Durian is very much part of the North American Armenian diasporic culture, but it is not a shared element among the Armenians in Russia, Australia, France or Hungary. The Armenians’ experiences in the Lebanese civil wars of 1958 and 1975-1990 are integral to Lebanese-Armenian culture, but they do not define Armenian culture elsewhere. Of course, the movement and circulation of peoples and discourses through the network of diasporic institutions often make some cultural experiences relevant elsewhere. But it is also these differences that make the Lebanese-, Persian-, Istanbul-, Russian-, Hayastantsi- Armenian spaces in California different and often disconnected in a relatively compact geographic area.
Diasporas have multiple affiliations and hybrid identities. Researchers, policy makers, journalists and other professionals dealing with the Armenian diaspora often disregard the other loyalties and identities that diasporic Armenians possess as citizens and residents of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, United States, France, Brazil, Argentina, Hungary,  Russia or other countries. Most diaspora Armenians are involved in multiple cultural and social spaces in their everyday life, in which Armenian and non-Armenian elements become inherently mixed in vernacular languages and cultures.

Only a small minority of the diaspora Armenians have the ‘luxury’ to spend their entire life and career on thinking exclusively about Armenian (ethnic) matters, crafting and devising policies for exclusively Armenian use, and acting on behalf of the Armenians in certain countries. These what I call ‘ethnic’ leaders can thrive because there is a substantial critical mass of diasporic (‘mixed,’ ‘hybrid,’ ‘symbolic’) Armenians who maintain the Armenian institutional or discursive spaces by paying membership dues, formal or informal taxes, by voluntary donations and contributions, who participate in the production and reproduction of Armenianness and Armenian diasporic cultures in their multiple and diverse forms.
Alongside these ‘ethnic’ leaders, there are what I call the ‘diasporic’ leaders, who, like the majority of their constituencies, are involved in multiple cultural spaces in their everyday life. They are fully integrated in their local societies, participate in local political, economic, social and cultural life alongside their involvement in the Armenian affairs. They wear multiple hats, easily oscillate between Armenian and non-Armenian identities in different contexts and circumstances. They might or might not be fluent in Armenian, but they have native fluency of the local language, they often take pride in their Armenian heritage as much as they do for their non-Armenian identities. In other words, all the individuals and leaders who can claim Armenian descent, who participate in the production/construction/negotiation of Armenianness in any location outside the perceived ancestral homeland, who are directly or indirectly involved in local Armenian institutions, I define all these individuals as diasporic.[10]
In some cases, these two may overlap. Most of the ‘ethnic’ Armenian leaders in Lebanon are also importantly involved in local, Lebanese social, economic and political structures as representatives of local Armenian and non-Armenian constituencies. But they also have to often switch between the Lebanese and Armenian identities depending on contexts. In most cases, however, diasporic leaders develop trans-ethnic identities and affiliations, being themselves the products of the diasporic milieu. Americans or French of Armenian descent acting on behalf of the Armenians on various occasions in the U.S. or France often possess more political, social, economic or symbolic capital to make local, national and global influence, despite in most cases they may lack the most notable characteristics of the ‘traditional’ (ethnic) Armenian identity.[11]
From a theoretically informed and research-based vantage point that I am suggesting here, the presenters of the Armenia-Diaspora conference in September, the overwhelming majority of whom actually spoke in fairly advanced Armenian, hardly represented the actual diversity of leadership and thought in the Armenian diaspora. The “Diaspora Dialogues” conference, on the other hand, was closer to what diaspora gatherings should look like, in part because it was an “inter-diaspora gathering,” therefore, was meant to be diverse. Any diaspora gathering should represent the heterogeneity and diversity of diasporas expressed first and foremost in the multilinguality of the participants. And, to the contrary, any gathering that aspires to create a homogenizing space, representation based on ‘traditional’ ethnicity rather than diasporic diversity can claim to be anything but diasporic.  
In order to create effective partnerships among various segments of the diaspora and between them and Armenia, there is a need for developing a better understanding of the actual diversities of the Armenian diaspora and designing transnational projects, which will transcend strictly ethnic boundaries. Regardless of how practitioners, policymakers, the government of Armenia, a pan-Armenian council or any other local, national or transnational agency resolves to define the boundaries of the Armenian diaspora, diasporic Armenianness will continue being negotiated across multiple ethno-linguistic and cultural spaces, in the everyday practices of individuals, groups and collectivities, who are fully integrated in their own countries, claim Armenianness one way or another, and have their share in the shaping of local Armenian practices and affairs.
Therefore, the biggest challenge of 2018 and the coming years will be developing research-based perspectives of the diverse, mixed and multifaceted Armenian spaces in various countries from Asia, Eurasia, Eastern and Western Europe to North, Central and South Americas and beyond, and celebrating the actual diasporic diversities instead of continuing to valorize some idealized and ethnicized perceptions of the Armenian diaspora.
[3]  I am elaborating on Khachig Tololyan’s points on dispersion and diaspora (see Tölölyan, Khachig, “Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment." In Diaspora, 5: 1. 1996. pp. 3-36; Tölölyan, Khachig, “Armenian Diaspora.” In Ember M, Ember C. & Skoggard I., (eds) Encyclopedia of Diasporas. Immigrant and Refugee Cultures around the World. Vol II. Diaspora Communities. New York and London: Kluwer Academic/Plenum publishers. 2005, pp. 35-46).
[4] Some diaspora-born generations may return to the country which they consider homeland. But the ‘return to the homeland’ is a matter of personal choice rather than an inalienable feature of diasporas. I discuss the problems of homeland and return elsewhere in which I make a simple argument: having studied diaspora theory and practice for about a decade, I cannot recall any instance of a diaspora that ended because all its members returned to homeland. Diasporic communities may disappear in certain countries because of assimilation but not because of return. Some early diaspora theorists, such as William Safran, considered return to the homeland as one of the main characteristics of diasporas. Currently, however, there is much consensus among diaspora scholars that return can hardly be listed among the other distinctive features of diasporas.
[5] Robin Cohen classifies the Armenian, Jewish and African diasporas as “victim diasporas” because he traces the origins of all three to the involuntary displacements due to persecutions, genocides and slavery (see Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2008, pp. 3-4)
[6] While many Jews and especially non-Jews would not hesitate to call Israel the homeland of the Jewish diaspora,  in his recent book Daniel Boyarin, for example, proposes a decentralized perspective of the Jewish diaspora, complicating the singular perceptions of the homeland. He argues that Talmud, the “oral tradition,” the shared book replaced “the homeland and the center,” and became the “traveling homeland” of the Jewish diaspora. “It is the Talmudic study,” the author contends, “that has constituted the Jewish people as a diaspora” (see Boyarin, Daniel. A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp. 7-8, 14, 16).
[7] Տօնապետեան, Անահիտ “Արեւմտահայերէնը այսօր Լիբանանի մէջ. Իրողութիւններ եւ պատկերացումներ,” Լիբանանի Հայերը (Բ.) Գիտաժողովի Նիւթեր (14-16 Մայիս 2014), Խմբագրեց, Անդրանիկ Տագէսեան, Պէյրութ: Haigazian University Press, 2017, էջ 265-6, 270-2.
[8] Focusing on the Caribbean diaspora, Stuart Hall notes: “the diaspora experience … is defined not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of  a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of identity which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diasporas continue not despite but precisely because of diversities.” (Hall Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora," in Jonathan Rutherford ed. Identity: Community, Culture and Difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990, 222-237, page 235).
[9] I am rephrasing Stuart Hall’s point here about the Caribbean diaspora:  “The past continues to speak to us. But it no longer addressees us as a simple, factual ‘past’, since our relation to it, like the child’s relation to the mother, is always-already ‘after the break’. It is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative, and myth.” (ibid, page 226).
[10] My approach to ‘ethnic’ and ‘diasporic’, in this regard, is different from what Khachig Tölölyan suggested. According to Tölölyan true diasporics are those “recent arrivals who are vital to the struggles over communal self-definition”, who “give their various forms of allegiance to an Armenian nation that they see as having three components: a nation-state (the Republic of Armenia…); a region of traditional Armenia called Nagorno-Karabagh...; and a transnational nation, that is, a nation that exists not just in the homeland but also across the borders of other nation-states, "transnationally," and is made up of communities in thirty-four countries…" (Tölölyan, Khachig.“Armenian-American Literature." In Knippling Alpana Sh. (ed) New Immigrant Literatures in the United States: A Sourcebook of Our Multicultural Literary Heritage. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996. pp. 19-42; 24-25). These kind of leaders are an integral part of the diaspora, but they constitute the ‘ethnics’ in the diaspora, as I propose here, precisely because they would be perceived as ‘more Armenian’ (ethnically speaking) compared to the rest of the diasporic Armenian population.
[11] To emphasize these “voluntary” or “situational identities,” Anny Bakalian proposes the concept of “symbolic Armenianness” juxtaposing it to the “traditional” or ascribed Armenianness (Bakalian, Anny. Armenian-Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993, p. 6-7, 251). I prefer using the words ‘mixed’ or ‘hybrid’ to shift the emphasis from ethnic to transethnic identities and loyalties.

"EVN Report" (evnreport.com), January 30, 2018

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