Whither the Diaspora?

Garen Yegparian
Garen Yegparian

Garen Yegparian

BY GAREN YEGPARIAN

Yesterday, I was talking to a friend when a question posed prompted this topic of discussion. I’d been stuck, with no good ideas for this week’s piece, so I owe a debt of gratitude for this question.

Especially since I’ve put out two pieces about language in recent weeks, let’s start with that aspect of the Diaspora’s life. Clearly, Armenian speaking in the Diaspora is getting hammered. Everywhere, the number of speakers and the quality of Armenian spoken is declining. Fortunately, some serious efforts to counter this are afoot (among them from the Gulbenkian Foundation). Also, the issue seems to be getting more attention and discussion lately, an important sign that people are concerned and willing to approach the matter maturely and conscientiously. While there are traces of the “if you don’t speak Armenian, you’re not Armenian” mindset still around, I think they have been tempered by realities of the Diaspora and modern communications. If we can figure this one out, Armenians worldwide will be in great shape. But, at a minimum, I think that what Vahe Oshagan said to us in a class, more than 1/3 of a century ago, must serve as a baseline – anyone aspiring to leadership in our communities and nation must be able to communicate in Armenian (and realistically, at least one other language).

We speak freely and loosely of the Diaspora. Yet, according to many experts, it is more accurate to refer to many DiasporaS. I have a problem with this. While it may be a technically, sociologically, academically more correct, it begs the question, “What do WE WANT?” Do we want to be many, different Diasporas or do we want to be one? What does all this mean anyway in the context of having only about 20% of our homeland reasonably freely accessible to us. Do we want to legitimize, deepen, and perpetuate the differences imposed on us by host country realities? Do we want to strive for some semblance of national unity while scattered internationally? Lots of questions, insufficient discussion, and very few answers – at least as of now – make this matter, Diasporan identity, a sore spot.

Culture is of course another grave concern – art, church (unfortunately this too must be included since it has become the repository for many things Armenian that predate its existence), dance, film, folk tales, food, history, legends, literature (in Armenian & other languages), local village lore, medicine- old remedies, metalwork- gold, silver, and other metals, music, mythology, numismatics, philately, photography, poetry, Sasoontzee Tavit- our epic, theatre, stories, traditions and values (particularly those that are specific to us rather than Christian or village-life based), yerazahan (our dream interpreting book). We have always said we have to “maintain” or “preserve” these. That’s a tough one. With few exceptions, these components of culture are all fluid and evolving. So, trying to keep them frozen is likely to fail. Our approach should be one of allowing them to develop. In fact, we should insist on that mindset so that obsolescence will not sheer them from us over time. Fortunately, it seems to me “development/evolution” approach is gaining ever more acceptance.

But why bother? That’s really the more fundamental question.

In a Diasporan context, it’s all about motivation. Why should any human, who happens to be Armenian, bother with any of this while living in… pick any country other than Armenia? That person really needs a good reason. And that’s where inspiration and Armenian spirit come in. But again, why would Armenian spirit arise in anyone? For me the answer is simple – it comes from the innate human desire for justice. Is there any doubt that Armenians have a massive project of reestablishing justice? Once someone is plugged in to this multigenerational challenge of recognition, reparations, and return of the lands, then, it’s a small step to recognizing that success in reestablishing justice for Armenians entails enlivening, relishing, and thriving in all the items listed above.

So where the Diaspora goes will be determined by our collective desires, will, and most importantly, activation of Armenian spirit. Get out there and inspire your compatriots.

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4 Comments

  1. Robert Assarian said:

    Abolish the concept of Diaspora.It is divisive. There are only Armenians.

  2. Janapar said:

    History is full of examples of the diaspora movement influencing change back home. The dream of Zionism even created a new country. Similarly Armenia and Georgia are uniquely placed to continue to be a thorn in the side of Russia and Turkey. Positive outcomes are possible and so while the personal attitudes of diaspora’s worldwide fluctuate between activism and revolution to assimilation and acceptance, it is very important that along the way the culture itself survives. Diaspora Armenians have to work to ensure that they are not overwhelmed and forgotten, like the Native Americans, and reduced to night school Armenian and folk festivals. We have all seen how Trump does not like negative press. Aliyev and Putin and Erdogan are the same.
    The diaspora has a lot to do from teaching kids to speak Armenian to keeping Van and Stepanikert in the news.

  3. Stepan said:

    I don’t always agree with Garen but respect his insight, his stimulating topics and his ardent patriotism. All entities need an identity in order to sustain existence. For three generations, we had an identity with the motherland through the survivor generation. As that generations n passed , the identity became more challenging. We bought another generation or two with the influx of the middle eastern Armenians from the 60s-80s( especially in the cultural domain). But eventually their children would “assimilate”. What was going to be our connection? For many Armenians, the cause of justice has always been an identifier…especially since the “Great Awakening” in 1965. But let’s be honest… the cause of justice did not become the banner of all Armenians until 1991 when Armenia became free. Prior to that the cause of nationalism, justice and “Hai Tad” was almost exclusively sustained by the “ARF” community. When Armenia became free, almost immediately , the tri-color of the First Republic was accepted and Mer Hairenik became the national anthem( with a few small changes). These symbols that the ARF community honored for decades, had now become Armenia’s again. Tri-colors flew in all diaspora churches and thousands learned ” Mer Hairenk”. A free Armenia had arrived just in time to give all Armenians unity and a renewed sense of identity. Our future in the diaspora lies with Armenia. It can be a wonderful two way street. We help Armenia become the country of our dreams and Armenia helps the diaspora(especially our youth) build an identity with their heritage that will help fuel a sustainable diaspora. As we invest in Armenia, we must also invest in the identity of youth. Send your children to Armenia….help fund the immersion programs……Armenia is there waiting to help. Once your children build an emotional bond with their heritage, a sustainable commitment is born.

  4. Varouj Garabedian said:

    Mr. Garen, you have raised many questions and tackled many issues in this piece. All is good that ends good, said one old timer. Your deduction is quite convincing.
    However, we can add one basic argument to answer the question about why an Armenian should be motivated to learn, speak and communicate in Armenian. Without the basic knowledge of Armenian, one will deprive himself/herself of getting connected with the rich CULTURE (in all the fields that you have listed thoroughly) and History that belongs to him/her. It is equally important to realize that one can be a very good Armenian as a person speaking any other language in the Diaspora, but will not survive as an Armenian without gaining access to these foundations; and acquiring the language is an inevitable factor to increase the number of Armenians in the world, Armenians who will bear the burden of our just cause.
    BTW, we must face the reality that the Diaspora has many faces depending on the geographical venue of each Armenian community. This is something that no one can control. But this colorful panorama that has many variables does not prevent ALL to yield to the same conclusion: Basic knowledge of our language is a must to avoid demise.

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