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Where We’ve Been and Where We Are

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Photograph: Avetisyan91

Editor’s Word: In this in-depth essay, former Weekly editor Antranig Kasbarian traces the development of ‘preservationism’ as a diasporan cultural technique. As he evaluates its effectiveness and altering relevance, he concludes that immediately preservationism gives diminishing returns. In the meantime, greater than ever, Diasporan culture will depend upon engagement with Armenia, utilizing it as a useful resource that may nourish and reinvigorate our communities abroad.


As we enter a new part of Armenian life, I consider it’s time for critical reflection about our Diaspora—its needs, its potential, its guiding assumptions, and the way these continue to vary over time. Maybe such reflection should have begun way back, and in some pockets I do know that it has. But at this time, more than ever, this topic requires a public discussion that is wide-ranging and significant.

We’d like this discussion now for 2 causes. First, let’s acknowledge that after its Velvet Revolution, Armenia is undergoing major shifts in governance and public tradition, together with an official reset of homeland-diaspora relations. At such a juncture, it’s necessary that the Diaspora not only hold pace with such modifications, but play an interactive position in how these take form. Second, it’s more and more clear that while the Diaspora has changed through the years, these modifications have typically crept up on us, leaving a disconnect—a poor fit, if you’ll—between many longstanding assumptions, our present-day realities and how we’d act on them.

In saying so, I declare no magic wand that may remedy our issues. Certainly, panaceas are in all probability unrealistic, given how messy and numerous our diaspora is. Quite, I search to explore some key patterns and processes, understanding that this is provisional – a work-in-progress – main hopefully towards a broader examination that’s vibrant and ongoing.

PART ONE: Hayabahbanum: Cultural Preservation and the Wrestle for Id

Armenian diasporas have existed for hundreds of years – including traders within the Far East, refugees in the Balkans and lots of different groupings, every with their stories of displacement, itinerancy and more. However in the trendy era, it was clearly the Armenian Genocide, and to some extent Sovietization, that created a everlasting, worldwide entity that has lived aside from the homeland for many years. It is this diaspora that continues to reside, breathe, change and demand our consideration.1

In distinction to many diasporas – typically shaped from a mix of ongoing elements – this one was born out of rupture, crisis, discontinuity… catastrophe. Certainly, catastrophe was soon followed by another peculiarity – exile – as Kemalist Turkey ascended over an ethnically cleansed Western Armenia, whereas Stalin’s USSR held captive the remains of Japanese Armenia. For the post-Genocide diaspora, these two circumstances introduced obstacles – real and perceived—to re-entering our homeland; they thus fed our uncertainty about whether or not we might survive for long in absentia. 

In such an surroundings, the diaspora’s first inclination was toward hayabahbanum – actually armenopreservation. This tendency, expressed at many ranges, sought to compensate for what we’d misplaced by preserving what we nonetheless had: national tradition and id. Whether or not expressed by means of language, history, traditions or ideology – cultural preservation seemingly provided our greatest hope of holding out until higher days. It was a consciousness that vaguely resembled holding one’s breath, as our early communities clung to hopes of ‘exhaling’ someday, i.e. returning residence and resuming life as before, once historical past’s pure course had been restored.2

In its extra routine manifestations, hayabahbanum resembled an effort to pinch ourselves, making sure we have been nonetheless current, authentic and entire as a individuals.

In the speedy post-Genocide era, hayabahbanum was quite logical in its approach. Our newly uprooted ancestors have been nonetheless regaining their stability, making an attempt to make sense of their condition whereas struggling to survive in overseas lands. During these years, our communities lived principally within their bubbles. Most have been concentrated in Armenian ghettoes inside larger cities corresponding to Cairo, Paris and New York. Most didn’t know the language of their host nation and have been typically poorly built-in into society’s bigger material. Individuals typically toiled away as manufacturing unit staff, clerks or menials; or, if that they had saved a couple of dollars, turned proprietors of small companies similar to tailor outlets or grocery stores. Meanwhile, their passion was reserved for group affairs, which largely sought to reproduce Armenian life as we knew it. Churches and agoumps (golf equipment) turned locations to collect, debate and rehearse our nationwide loyalties and aspirations. Literary evenings stored alive the classics of Hagop Baronian, Taniel Varoujan and Vahan Tekeyan, while theatrical performances provided portrayals of life within the Previous Nation. Picnics and other outings maintained the bonds of extended family, ancestral village or political celebration. On this milieu, custom carried great significance. Indeed, it was thought-about an obligation – virtually second-nature – to duplicate life as we knew it, to hold on to these values and practices we knew to be good, true and pricey.

Such practices turned enduring, whilst our communities steadily modified over time. As the ‘20s gave approach to the ‘30s and ‘40s, it turned clear that Kemalist Turkey and the united states weren’t going to break down anytime soon, and so we started to plan for a longer haul—constructing faculties, summer time camps, youth organizations and English-language publications for a brand new era born in diaspora. And yet, the hayabahbanum paradigm remained largely unchanged. Certainly, if anything, it was strengthened. Because the homeland receded additional into the past, our leadership sought to ingrain it in our collective memory via an array of packages and activities, together with yearbooks, memoirs, folk-dance troupes and above all, commemorations. For those in the Dashnak/nationalist camp, Might 28 turned enshrined as a day to rally around the dream and idea of a free, unbiased and united Armenia, and was celebrated religiously each yr. There were also lesser events such as the February 1921 revolt towards Soviet authority or the Khanasor Expedition of 1897, that turned staples of the group calendar, subject to annual renewal.

Clearly, such actions held much worth in preserving our communities oriented towards the homeland, in a acutely aware and purposeful method. And yet, the task was daunting. Imbuing the past with a presence it lacked, making a ‘here’ out of an more and more distant ‘there,’ turned increasingly challenging with every passing era. Indeed, within the absence of a dwelling existence on Armenian soil, such activities produced a nationwide id that was not fluid and dynamic, however typically rehearsed like a ritual or catechism. In its more routine manifestations, hayabahbanum resembled an effort to pinch ourselves, ensuring we have been nonetheless current, authentic and entire as a individuals.

Emerging Conflicts and Contradictions

In some communities, hayabahbanum introduced no main dilemmas or conflicts. For example, our Center Japanese ghettos typically lasted for many years, maintaining insider/outsider distinctions that enabled Armenians to outlive, even thrive, whereas dwelling in a bubble, the surface world rigorously regulated. But in many communities of the West, it was a special story. Right here the assimilative forces have been a lot larger, and as we moved into the ‘50s and beyond, Armenians began to imagine a twin or hyphenated existence…shifting from exile consciousness to that of, say, Armenian-People. Increasingly, we carried divided identities that have been typically reinforcing, however most of the time, stored separate. This ceaselessly led to a schizophrenic condition, during which one’s everyday life – one’s surroundings, one’s transactions, one’s schooling – increasingly blended with the US mainstream, while one’s Armenian id was practiced separately, part-time, inside the household or on weekends.

Such a situation was maybe unavoidable. And yet, its associated problems must not be ignored. Our leadership at the moment – political, cultural or spiritual – too typically enforced a separation between “Armenian life” and every thing else. Thus, the problems and considerations that inform day by day existence – e.g. working circumstances, gender relations, setting and neighborhood – were not built-in into our organized group life. Certainly, they have been typically not given attention in any respect. In consequence, national consciousness was separated out and held up as an finish realizable unto itself without context. For instance, our elders typically fed us summary objectives and narratives that have been unrealistic, typically based mostly on the trope of the ‘good Armenian.’  For them, ‘Armenianness’ wasn’t simply about id; at occasions, it carried with it an entire moral code, figuring out the national with all issues good and healthful. Certainly, my peers nonetheless chuckle as we recall years past, when our elders would admonish that Armenians have been totally different, not only in language or history, however because we didn’t have crooks, prostitutes or other lumpen parts found in other societies! Less amusing, maybe, is how the ‘good Armenian’ trope stifled or conflicted with trendy dwelling. Points like intermarriage, sexual orientation, or divorce bred much stress and stigma among our elders, who seen such ‘deviant’ conduct as by some means a defeat for traditional Armenian values. I might point to many other instances the place pressure arose in our communities when people ventured off the ‘straight and slender,’ whether in way of life, character or career decisions. Slightly than incorporate distinction and change, our mainstream leaders most popular to reside a delusion, typically impairing our collective capability to maneuver ahead.

I current this situation not merely to criticize, however to emphasize that it, too, was symptomatic of a diasporan group with a seemingly uncertain future, desperately making an attempt to stay collectively. Seen broadly, we went by means of a interval of many years, still lingering as we speak, during which we’ve posed a false dichotomy pitting pure/authentic id versus degradation/assimilation. In the meantime, invaluable notions like cultural hybridity and cultural borrowing – important to all dwelling societies – have till late been shunned or ignored by our mainstream. While the motivations for this are understandable, the effect has been an unhealthy disconnect, pitting our impulse to preserve/shield towards our impulse to create/unfold.

Through the years, hayabahbanum has been taken as an innate good, something virtually elemental, a constructing block of our group life. What’s lost, nevertheless, is that hayabahbanum wasn’t merely an assertion of cultural survival or presence, but moderately a results of acutely aware cultural strategy. In other words, it didn’t simply spring forth naturally, but was crafted consciously as a strategy to face the predicaments imposed on us at a specific juncture. Allow us to recall that in different occasions and locations, very totally different mores have been tolerable, even acceptable amongst our public. How many of us recall that Simon Vratsian, Ruben Ter-Minasyan, Hovnan Tavitian and other early leaders of Dashnaktsutiun intermarried – often with European socialists – with out stigma or disapproval?

Taking a look at culture in a different way

If we deal with culture on this approach – purposeful somewhat than innate, strategic somewhat than elemental—then we’ll understand that at the moment’s circumstances are much totally different from those giving rise to hayabahbanum again in the day. Certainly, right now’s diaspora has changed beyond what these early generations might have imagined. We are not ‘waiting to exhale.’ Our communities are much less and fewer ghettoized. Armenia is not a distant abstraction. And our diasporan condition can not be thought-about short-term, unnatural or a weak spot (though challenges definitely stay). In different words, the complete topic deserves some re-evaluation.

We are not ‘waiting to exhale.’

But are we ready to undertake such re-evaluation critically, unflinchingly? I, for one, am not so positive. How many people are prepared to confess that hayabahbanum has yielded combined outcomes? That at this time, three generations removed from genocide, cultural preservation presents diminishing returns?

We will try to measure these diminishing returns by tracking group developments and patterns. Attempt these, for example. In the US particularly, as our group members develop in life, we’ve got to grow with them. But we frequently don’t. Our pillars of hayabahbanum – the faculties, group centers, youth and cultural teams—are pretty effective at protecting youngsters engaged till they are youngsters…at most school students. However then they exit into the actual world, and our organized group loses lots of them, in all probability most of them. Give it some thought…what number of of our Armenian faculty graduates stay lively locally someplace, someway? What number of of our teeming AYF or ACYOA juniors remain lively locally, years later? How about our one-time scouts and youngsters’s dance group members? Once more, as soon as they grow up, we frequently don’t know what to do with them. Oh positive, there are established automobiles – church boards, political events, benevolent teams – however is that this really enough this present day? When individuals develop up, their scope of concern often amplifies and diversifies. Some take interest in environmental points, others in ladies’s rights, still others in regulation, engineering, public well being or business. But until quite just lately, such matters have been treated as extraneous, exterior to our group life. 

Luckily, issues have begun to vary. Whether because of passing generations, bigger social tendencies or developments in Armenia, our diaspora has develop into increasingly open and numerous with the emergence of many various voices and methods of being. True, this also implies a specific amount of fragmentation and assimilation, which is not essentially desirable. But we should acknowledge that such modifications are real, and they are essential to face.

The change-factors are many. And whereas an exhaustive listing isn’t potential here, we will certainly point to some necessary tendencies and flashpoints. To begin, let’s recall the necessary position of the 1960s – particularly within the West – when younger individuals extensively started to question acquired wisdom and the status quo. During this era, long-held orientations, e.g. Armenians because the ‘little ally’ of the West, gave method to brisker notions of non-alignment or alliance with other minorities and dispossessed peoples. In the meantime, on the group degree, the Hai Tahd movement galvanized lots of our youth, who engaged in a growing activism that challenged established authority, each within the streets and later via advocacy within the corridors of power. In the 1970s, armed wrestle—by way of ASALA, Justice Commandos and different extremist teams—jarred our communities, forcing individuals to rethink what being Armenian truly meant. Different modifications included large upheavals and population flows from the Middle East towards Western nations, youthful parts questioning the primacy of ‘previous males’ operating group affairs, and an elevated pragmatism as new, non-partisan groups emerged and stretched the boundaries of established group life. Let us also recall these recent initiatives in the cultural realm – particularly in music–that sought to mix the previous with the new, the normal with the fashionable, experimenting with types and mediums that have been totally different and yet undeniably Armenian.three

Definitely these have been modernizing elements that played a constructive position in our group life. However they might solely go to date, so long as the Diaspora was minimize off from Armenia. Without an organic bond to the homeland, our far-flung communities nonetheless tended to fall again on good previous hayabahbanum as their main supply of consciousness and id. Until…

Enter Armenia

The yr 1988 was pivotal for Armenians, particularly in the homeland. Whether or not by means of the Karabakh movement, the ensuing earthquake or the mounting drive towards independence, Armenia experienced momentous modifications in rapid-fire sequence. These modifications additionally reverberated beyond its tiny borders, as the nation steadily opened as much as international actors, including our Diaspora.

These years introduced with them urgent wants: solidarity for Karabakh, assist for the earthquake victims, and far more. In this setting, the Diaspora was a receptive audience and prepared companion, crammed with those who had been waiting for an opportunity to participate within the lifetime of their homeland. Instantly that moment was now, and it was typically of a sensible nature. Whether as help staff, journalists, health professionals or trade students, diasporans had an unprecedented opportunity to marry their Armenian lives with their skilled lives. Removed from the ‘part-time Armenian’ of previous, this new mannequin re-energized our diasporan communities, and to some extent redefined what it meant to be Armenian.

In fact, Armenia steadily emerged from its emergency standing, creating over time into a semi-functional state and society. However, the ‘genie had been let loose of the bottle,’ and for diasporans there was no turning again. Alongside their local, community-based considerations, there now was Armenia, which turned a source of engagement – certainly, a primary supply – for rising numbers of individuals. Inescapably, these modifications have affected our Armenian identities as properly. Whereas as soon as we sought purely diasporan options to the issue of id, now we see that the most important new issue, a weapon, if you’ll, is Armenia itself. Not solely is it our homeland, but in the strategy of partaking with it, we will uncover brisker, extra strong methods to ensure the diaspora’s ongoing well being and vibrancy.four

At first look, this may look like a contradiction. In any case, our preoccupation with Armenia has typically difficult our lives, added to our obligations, and compelled us to cope with right here and there simultaneously. Truthful sufficient. But in the present day Armenia can also be the important thing to a new and refreshed version of id, relying not on hayabahbanum crammed with previous heroes and abstract symbols, however on real-time actions for an actual country filled with warts, issues and solutions. Out of the blue id doesn’t function in a vacuum anymore; moderately it is tied to livelihood, career plans, worldview and so forth. So in case you are a budding environmental activist, Armenia’s mining and deforestation problems supply a congenial battlefield for you to minimize your tooth. Should you’re a grape-grower, Armenia’s proliferation of export-quality wines ought to appeal to you in some style. If your graduate faculty thesis is on ecotourism and historic monuments, you’ll be able to possible go to Armenia and find a smorgasbord of subjects obtainable. This kind of engagement allows not solely meaningful contributions to the country, but in addition ensures a special Armenian id, one that isn’t simply moored to essentialized notions of ‘Armenianness’ however quite to a dwelling, respiration existence that’s altering every day. This, I consider, is what we must be aspiring to.

By discarding hayabahbanum and as an alternative leaning on Armenia for injections of Armenianness, we’ll discover all types of advantages. For example, the Armenian language can turn into positioned in its correct context. Sure, we all agree that with the ability to talk in Armenian is essential, however now we will see its importance in a new mild. Whereas language was something we as soon as wanted for worry of dropping it, now we will confidently seize upon language, initially, as a device and medium to speak with others and get issues achieved. Think about that! Learning Armenian becomes not some ritual or sacred obligation, crucial for us to really feel identified. Out of the blue it becomes essential in an effort to perform in this brave new world referred to as Armenia.

And whereas we proceed to worry over Diasporan Armenians who are ‘misplaced’ on account of assimilation, intermarriage and the like, let us additionally think about this. On the opposite aspect of the sector, shifting toward us, we now see a brand new phenomenon—the ‘born again Armenian’ (BAA). BAAs embrace many who were not lively or lived aside from our mainstream communities; some of them haven’t any prior training or education in what Armenianness is. But, via numerous trade and internship packages they are coming back, rediscovering their Armenian id by way of dwelling and dealing in Armenia. Their numbers are rising, their contributions spectacular, and their enthusiasm infectious.

In saying all of this, in fact I’m not suggesting we dispose of diasporan faculties, dance troupes, literary teams, commemorations and so forth. But the position and function of these must be much less about preserving some important existence, and more about creating recent new Armenians prepared to interact with the wider modern world. As an alternative of separating out Armenianness, we now must reintegrate ‘Armenianness’ with ‘every part else.’

On this mild, maybe it’s time to rethink our objectives and strategies, our position fashions and even our aspirations. Our aim isn’t necessarily to supply youth who converse flawless Armenian, who can recite Taniel Varoujan with their eyes closed or who can dance an genuine tamzara as in the previous country. This is not a contest, if it ever was, to determine who is an effective Armenian. Somewhat, our aim must be, more than ever, to marshal all of those belongings, far-flung and numerous although they’re, towards widespread objectives we will all share in. 

What may those widespread objectives be? Ah, now there’s a question. . . Let’s depart that for subsequent time. 


1 At this time we’d query whether or not this diaspora is the only one, or whether or not it’s now accompanied by a second diaspora, specifically the communities that have lately grown all through the post-Soviet area. For the sake of expediency, I depart this question to subsequent discussions.
2 Sadly, that day by no means got here. Extra precisely, the moment of return came incompletely and far, much later… after our communities had modified significantly. Extra on that anon.
three Apparently, it wasn’t the institution that led the best way here.  Moderately, cultural change started with ‘unofficial’ initiatives that have been off-center, opening paths linking Armenianness to bigger cultural currents. Musical examples abound: from 1970s Beirut, there’s the ‘Five Fingers’ band which integrated Armenian people parts into a mixture of Close to Japanese and European pop – principally the forerunner of what turned ‘continental music.’ And from 1980s New York, there’s ‘Night time Ark,’ a fusion band which produced an eclectic mix of Armenian, rock, and various idioms that have been revolutionary for their time. Since then, initiatives like these have multiplied many occasions over, however it took a number of more many years for our mainstream organizations to catch on. Only in the previous few years have we seen really pathbreaking initiatives that break the previous hayabahbanum mould, similar to AGBU’s Armenian Virtual School and most just lately Hamazkayin’s h-pem venture, which seeks to embrace modern culture in its numerous types and contents.
4 As I emphasize Armenia’s resurgence in our lives, I’m cognizant that in the present day’s Armenia doesn’t absolutely account for every part we’ve lost. Indeed, a lot of in the present day’s diaspora traces its roots to Western Armenia, which stays largely past our attain. On this mild, it is a problem perhaps to put correct weight to these complementary duties – partaking with the Armenia we do have, whereas reconnecting and advocating for the Armenia that we’ve misplaced.


Antranig Kasbarian is a member of the ARF Central Committee, Japanese United States. Over the previous 20 years, he has been a lecturer, activist, and group chief; he has additionally labored commonly as a journalist, activist, and researcher in Nagorno-Karabagh. He is a former editor of the Armenian Weekly, and holds a Ph.D. in geography from Rutgers College. He joined the Tufenkian Basis in 2003, launching its program in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh), and served as its government director till 2015. He is presently the Director of Improvement of the Tufenkian Basis, pursuing a variety of charitable/strategic tasks in Armenia and Artsakh.


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