A Clash of Cultures: Re-imagining the hyphenated Armenian
BY MARIA TITIZIAN
I often wonder if other nations are as hard on themselves as we are. No doubt our behavior toward one another on a personal, national and global scale is enough reason to begin a critical discourse on our self-perceived lack of inspiration. While we all claim to be Armenian due to genetic material, ethnicity, language, physical characteristics and a shared history, we are in fact a people whose behavior, world views and perceptions are in constant conflict. Our personal stories and experiences in the Diaspora attest to this condition and were further compounded after Armenia gained independence. We went from the typical Diaspora hyphenations of Lebanese-, American-, Iranian-, Syrian-, French-, Argentinean-Armenian to the Hayastantsi-Spyurkahay shift. We are forever labeling ourselves as Armenians belonging to a particular place but never a shared space.
We create divisions for the sake of divisions.
My personal revelation of this condition revealed itself to me in 1983 during the first pan-Armenian AYF camp in Greece. Young Armenians from the Middle East, Europe, South and North America came together for two weeks of educationals, excursions and activities. I was 17 years old, very young and naïve and my excitement at traveling for the first time to Europe and getting to meet like-minded compatriots was beyond measure. The memories and friendships have stayed with me thirty years on. It was an experience that changed the course of my life. Although I returned to Canada with a stronger resolve to maintain my identity as an Armenian, I was also astonished by the serious clash of culture I had experienced. The Lebanese-Armenians considered us North American-Armenians not as “Armenian” or patriotic as they were because we would speak English, the Syrian-Armenians kept mainly to themselves, especially the girls, none of us Western Armenians could understand the Iranian-Armenians, to hear the Armenians from Argentina speak with such a heavy Spanish accent was a little shocking and the European Armenians were so different that we didn’t interact. We all considered ourselves to be Armenian but there was a disconnect; we were in reality so different from one another.
Growing up in Canada, a multicultural society, where ethnic minorities are encouraged to maintain their identity and culture, living with a diverse group of different races taught us tolerance and acceptance. But the labels almost always existed unless you could trace your Canadian lineage back at least three of four generations. The rest of us came from somewhere else. We sought out familiarity and made sure to stick with those who were most like us.
This was true for the Armenian Diaspora. You were a “Lebanonahay” or “Syriahay” or a “Barsgahay” and you generally kept to your own “kind.” And the other important division was the “Americahay” versus the newly arrived hyphenated “other” Armenian, and then the issue became not only about culture and language but turf.
And then our comfortable hyphenated world shifted as Armenia gained independence and new labels were quickly assigned – we were the Spyurkahays and they, the Hayastantsis. But the Hayastantsis also had their own internal hyphenations based on city or region, and then there was the Kharabakhtsi, the Javakhtsi, the Bakvetsi, etc. The most ingrained distinction is reserved for the repatriates from the 1940s who, 70 years on are still called “aghpars.” We like to distinguish.
And in this strange Armenian configuration of multiple identities, we moved to Armenia where we came to be known sometimes as “aghpars,” sometimes the more polite terminology of repatriate, but most times crazy for leaving behind the comforts of the West. And as a painfully small trickle of Armenians from different parts of the world come to live in the homeland, these divisions continue, not as severe as they were in the Diaspora but they do persist. Some traditions die hard.
The Genocide not only deprived us of our ancestral homeland but it deprived us of the feeling of belonging to a particular geography, oneness and unity. Yes, we talk about the power of the Armenian, our tenacity to survive in the face of adversity, and yes, we still tend to agree on some things of national importance or significance but most of the time we like to disagree on many things.
But today, we have ownership, there is geography, recognized borders, a specific, tangible piece of land, soil, a state that belongs to all of us, however small or incomplete it may be. And not only one, but two. Although the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh is not yet recognized, for all intents and purposes it is de facto a nation state, with its corresponding institutions and living, breathing people, the second Armenian state on this planet. And yet the hyphenations continue.
Our diverse narratives, our personal histories and experiences, the countries and communities where we lived in our formative years, which have positively impacted our world views and perceptions, are strengths that we must celebrate and employ to ensure the empowerment of not only the homeland but the Diaspora. Utilizing the strength of Armenians right across the globe can be a tool for greatness.
We must re-imagine what it means to be an Armenian in the 21st century. We are a global nation in a globalized world. The Genocide viciously cast us out into the world, a dispersion of catastrophic dimensions for our people. We must flip this tragic narrative on its head. Without ceasing to struggle for the restoration of our historic and legal rights, let’s simultaneously use it to empower us and not weaken us. It forced us to adapt, to become more flexible and inventive. We had to learn how to live again. Some of us lived in established democracies, others in authoritarian states; some of us were caught in wars that had nothing to do with us and survived; some had the privilege of living in countries where social justice prevailed and in others where there was corruption, fundamentalism, lack of freedoms and polarization; we learned tolerance and yet were targets of intolerance; we learned to be innovative, cunning and how to survive with nothing and then prosper. We educated ourselves and our children. Individual Armenians around the world reached dizzying heights of success because they intrinsically understood and had felt hatred and deprivation and the only alternative was to succeed and be better. We have lived in the west and the east, in the north and south. We have covered the globe and have overcome. This is our legacy, yet we hyphenate.
I am not a Canadian-Armenian, a Diaspora-Armenian, a repatriate, or an aghpar, I am Armenian. So are you.