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What makes a Diaspora?

 

Nareg Seferian

I am a member of a mailing list and Facebook group that shares news articles and other interesting bits of information pertaining to the Armenian world. One of the topics of discussion that took place recently was the status of the Armenians of Constantinople, the Bolsahays. A recent article in the Armenian Weekly also took on this question, as did the discussions that stemmed from the visit of Armenian Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan to Istanbul not too long ago.

Are the Bolsahays a “diaspora”? In what sense of the word? The question is posed because there has been an Armenian presence in Byzantium, in Constantinople, in Istanbul since time immemorial. Generations upon generations of Armenians have lived there; families that do not have any other origins save for Bolis have called that city home for perhaps a millennium. It is true that Istanbul falls outside of the historic Armenian homeland, but it was the capital of the empire that ruled over most of that homeland. Many Armenians there even now have a background that goes a generation, or two, or three back to what is eastern or southern Turkey today, to say nothing of the more recent presence there of Armenians from the Republic of Armenia.

But what makes things different in Constantinople is that the Armenian presence has been a part of that city for so very long—beyond living memory and into the annals of history. There are a few other Armenian communities like that, such as Nor Jougha or Isfahan, in Iran, and Jerusalem. Armenians that settled in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of Ani in the 11th century had a strong presence and influence in the culture and commerce of the region until at least the beginning of the 20th century, if not up to our own times. There are old Armenian quarters in numerous cities in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and the Crimea, Bulgaria, and elsewhere, including Armenian markings on the coats of arms of cities of the region, and even an entire city known as Armenopolis (Hayakaghak, or Gherla, in Romania).

Were any of those places “diasporas”? Understandably, a “diaspora” is classically a “dispersion,” the forced displacement of a people beyond the borders of their homeland. The term originates from the conquest of the Jews and their removal to Mesopotamia, as catalogued in the Old Testament. In the Armenian experience, certainly the fall of Ani, the deportations from Old Jougha by Shah Abbas in the 17th century, and, of course, the Armenian Genocide, were all events forced upon the Armenian people. But the Armenians seem to have an adventurous sort of spirit, and went quite willingly beyond Persia to India and the Far East, even up north to Russia, joining older compatriots who had made the move from those other European colonies during the rule of Catherine the Great. Certainly there was the Armenian Diaspora before there was the Armenian Genocide.

More recently, Armenians have settled well in a lot of places and integrated into their new societies successfully while trying to maintain their identity and culture as much as they can. There has come to be such a thing as a “second diaspora,” that is, the movement en masse to a new place after initial settlement outside of the homeland. This describes the condition of many Armenians in the Americas, Europe, and Australia today.

Different societies treat the Armenians differently, in the sense that if, in the Middle East, greater numbers, religious differences, and cultural and educational conditions allow for more successful efforts by the church and other institutions in passing on the language and heritage, Armenians in the more secular West have an easier time assimilating into societies where the rule of law is the umbrella that brings people together, with varying attitudes towards language or religion or other aspects of culture. But even in the West there are differences. Armenians in Quebec may be fluent in three languages, whereas third- or fourth-generation Armenian Americans in New England, not too far away, manage with English alone. Different Armenian communities have thus experienced different histories and have acquired varying characters as a result. They can be considered “diasporas,” as opposed to “the Diaspora,” that is, the general idea of Armenians around the world, outside of the Republic of Armenia.

But even when it comes to taking the Republic of Armenia as the criterion, what of the Armenians of Artsakh and Javakhk? The Artsakh issue is still not finalized. One can assert regardless that the Armenians there have defended and maintained a part of their homeland. In neighboring Georgia, however, there are the Armenians of Javakhk, historically considered a part of the Armenian homeland, and then there are the Armenians of Tbilisi. The capital city of Georgia is not considered historically Armenian in terms of territory, but it was a major Armenian political, cultural, and educational center for centuries, right up to the Russian Revolution. As with Bolis, the Armenian presence in Tiflis goes far beyond living memory and well into history. How “diasporan” are the Armenians of that city, and how does the comparison work with their fellow citizens of Georgia, the Armenians of Javakhk?

It is hard to draw the line when it comes to such questions. When asking the Armenians of these places, surely they will consider their homes as their homes in the full sense of the word. For an Armenian of a “second diaspora,” on the other hand, life in the previous country is within living memory, so being an outsider in some sense would make itself felt even in the more recently settled home. Both would surely also simultaneously bear some emotional and psychological attachment to the Republic of Armenia. The level of ease of such shared sentiments depends on where one lives. It is especially difficult for the Armenians of Turkey, where there are strong political, communal, and religious tensions that are yet to be resolved.

Another way of judging these nuances would be to consider how much the Armenian presence forms part of the character of the place in question for the non-Armenians who live there. Of course, many people in Lebanon know who the Armenians are, and readily acknowledge their presence in the country and their position as a part of Lebanese society. The average American, however, has probably never even heard of the Armenians, although someone off the streets of Los Angeles or Boston would, in all likelihood, know who the Armenians are.

The amount of time an Armenian presence has been felt in a place and the quantity of Armenians there make for important factors in drawing those fine lines between newer émigré communities and well-established diasporas that are recognizable, culminating ultimately in an Armenian presence that forms part of the very character of the place in question.

It is this lattermost stage that is qualitatively different, going beyond the community or diaspora, where both Armenians and the non-Armenian locals consider the Armenian presence as something essential to the place. There have been a few such cities or regions historically that could fall under this category, but it seems that today the numbers are dwindling in Istanbul, Tbilisi, Isfahan, and Jerusalem, while they are increasing in Los Angeles and Moscow. What kind of Armenians and what kind of Armenian presence will pervade the United States and Russia in the coming generations is anybody’s guess.

As such, the diaspora has a hard time settling down. It is of necessity in the nature of diasporas to be flexible, certainly, but that also makes for diasporas that are less than reliable—or, at least, less than consistent. It cannot be helped, especially given that these past few decades—indeed, this past century—has been one of immense upheaval for the Armenian people. Now, with an independent Republic of Armenia, the dynamic of the diasporas, their presence and role, and their tie to the republic are all in a great state of flux. The Diaspora Ministry of the Republic of Armenia is meant to somehow regulate that flux, but it, too, suffers from its own limitations.

Part of the challenge lies in managing to deal with this significant philosophical differentiation among newer émigré communities, established diasporas, and historical presences, as well as the special case of Javakhk, and the more complicated scenarios of places where there are simultaneously more than one kind of Armenian diaspora as described above.

For all Armenians, though, it is arguably only the Republic of Armenia that can serve as a tangible and sustainable rallying point. But that involves building and maintaining a state—something far different than a mere community, even if that community were to last for centuries.

Source: Armenian Weekly, 26 August 2011
http://www.armenianweekly.com/2011/08/26/seferian-what-makes-a-diaspora/


Added: Tuesday, August 30, 2011
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