By Audrey Selian
Out of what seemed a relatively innocuous post on Facebook last week about a repatriate feeling a little tired about the standard “Ararat-is-so-magical” article, the theme above emerged and went viral: All does not appear well with diaspora-Armenia relations. I will attempt to capture in the coming pages the nature of the conversation that developed on this topic, with additions that reflect solely my own views. I do not mention individual names, but I do take the liberty to draw from the terminology and references of some of those who joined the thread, with forgiveness requested in advance for anything I may have interpreted grossly out of context, or for enraging any acquaintances of the ultra-nationalist variety.
On a personal note, it is worth mentioning that the group that got involved in this Facebook debate, the specifics of which I omit, was so civilized and sophisticated that it was hard to believe this to be an example of diasporan discourse; perhaps this is a testament to the circle of friends of the person who placed the initial post. Anyone who has witnessed typical “Armenian discourse” in person or on the web knows what I am talking about; it’s not for nothing that a stereotype of “high emotion” (shall we call it) is associated with our description of “the typical.” Across the board, however, participants in the conversation offered articulate, intelligent, and insightful commentary, all in various ways addressing the core of a vital issue facing the Armenian Nation1 today.
And I was reminded: Yes, we do have a real living peer group of inspired young intellectuals and professionals in the diaspora, just as there is one in Armenia. They exist, and this community is not just defined by the superficial social gatherings that convene us from time to time in a fancy ballroom in Los Angeles, New York, or Paris. Which leads me to my point.
There is a radical disconnect between the diaspora and the Homeland
…and it’s partly because fancy ballrooms in expensive cities in the West do not figure into the reality of the average Armenian, unless it figures into the dream of emigration, which statistically speaking belongs to a staggering majority of the population. It’s no wonder, really, that a disconnect exists when we have such profoundly divergent origins, some rooted in the traumas of genocide, others in older trauma of displacement, and still others shaking off the remnants of their parents’ Soviet experience. There are also third- and fourth-generation Armenians whose only common point of reference to present-day Armenia is a picture of a mountain hanging in their garage, and perhaps the name of a dish. And maybe they are ultimately the lucky ones, devoid of the struggle of identity altogether. Whatever the case in terms of background, the truth is that most of us outside of Armenia have zero understanding of the life experience of those living in the country—what they went through from 1992-93, how “transition” has affected the average family dynamic, and what the majority of the population endures today, a majority that lives under a poverty line that we cannot even visualize. Ironically, even as Armenia has today become more “accessible” to the diaspora, the curtain that separates our divergent realities is thick, and it’s becoming harder and harder to discern whose job it is to pull it back. Not to mention what to say or do when one sees through to the other side.
The purple elephant
In private conversations in both the diaspora and in Armenia, people talk about themselves vs. “the other” in typical “in-group”/“out-group” language all the time, and yet the Armenian “media,” in general, tends to overlook the merits of an informed discussion of the “existential” issues that lie herein. It’s quite the purple elephant in the room (though draped in red, blue, and orange). While we as individuals may meet and form bonds and like and love one another across our cultural divide, and while individual inter-community bridge-builders exist and toil with devotion to break down stereotypes, more broadly there are a few very big groups of “Armos” facing each other under a single flag, and frankly, just not really liking what they see. It’s not a shock to most of us that even in long-established diasporan communities in the United States and Europe, Hayastantsi newcomers are viewed with relative distrust—with good reason, many of my acquaintances would add, on the condition of remaining anonymous. Yet, it would be a lie to say that this distaste is generally inexistent vice versa. Why? Perhaps there is a fallen expectation of a would-be familiarity, a desire to see more of themselves in the other? Could it be the reverse, that we see what we “could have been” (had our great-grandfathers bought a bus ticket in the other direction), and therefore implicitly resent? Is the discomfort derived from a deep-seated lack of empathy, which is ironic for a people that has endured genocide? Or does it stem from the fear- and guilt-based defaults of survivor trauma passing from generation to generation, culminating in a broad unwillingness to trust “others”? This conversation certainly cuts many ways, though I would be dishonest if I suggested that I fully understand both perspectives. I can but attempt to lay the frame around the problem, and admit my own failures in maintaining an even keel.
One interesting truth is that we as a population in the diaspora have been often significantly less progressive (intellectually and socially) than our Armenia-based counterparts, despite all the resources most diasporans have grown up with at their disposal. And it is precisely this that constitutes the joy of discovery for many in uncovering the objectively divine artistic and cultural riches of the land of Armenia. It holds a mystique for those who have been largely in a static cultural vacuum, playing tavli and grilling meat since their ascendants re-grouped post-1915. Generally speaking, however, while the diaspora is hard-working in its own context, if one had to take a long view we could probably be seen as quite lazy when it comes to Armenia. We’re not exactly out there running kibbutzim. Perhaps because it’s hard work to get to know the local cultural and political context of a place when you live thousands of miles away, and quite taxing to understand and absorb what really lies beneath all the examples of “la vie quotidienne”: sourj, oghi, and khorovadz.
In all of this, for the record, I make exception to those who have repatriated and lived in Armenia for any amount of time beyond a holiday. For the rest, let’s admit it: The conventional “wisdoms” about Armenia today are captured regularly by trite pseudo-truisms like, “Don’t invest there,” “Never trust an Armenian” (the beauty of this lying in the ambiguity of what kind of Armenian), and “They only want our money, they don’t want us.” Well, sigh. If you look hard enough, you’ll see whatever you want to.
Needless to say, diasporans in general are not particularly viewed with adoration and open arms either, on the other side of this equation. Especially when it comes to their involvement in important realms where money and power are involved.2 The knee-jerk reaction of most Armenian nationals is understandable. Generally, diasporans show up like they own the place, pay more for a night in a hotel than most local people make in a month, visit Garni/Keghart, lament the situation in their funny accents, get suckered into placing some dollars in the hands of the regulars working the block around the Marriott, and then plod back to Zvartnots with their return tickets, immersed in a cliché residual feeling of attachment, combined with a secret sense of relief. Not that they should be faulted for being mere tourists, of course. The only fault really is that however many times this happens, it rarely translates to action in our “real” lives—and this happens over and again. Case in point: There has probably been less than 1,000 willful (i.e., not refugee), true repatriates from the West to the nation in the last 21 years. This is not to say there is an imperative that somehow a pendulum should swing and we should all be re-trenching for the gentle hills around Ashtarag. It’s just a fact that for most of us, for whatever reason, this is not an option.
Nevertheless, this leads in part to the existential question: Should “being diasporan” be about more than eating lahmajoun, dancing in a circle a few times a year, and the fairy land of Ararat and Masis? Particularly for our brothers and sisters in the United States who are losing (or have already long lost) our language, for example. With no effort underway to actively do much of anything, what good does it do us that we all get choked up listening to “Dele Yaman”? In fact, to follow the logic of some diasporan leaders, life is hard enough as it is for Diasporan Armenians scraping by in menial lower-middle class existences; why pressure ourselves to do more, like learn Western Armenian? Shoot for the stars, right?
Forgive the pragmatism, for I do deeply “get” the emotional component of all this on a personal level, but how responsible are we being to the people we call our compatriots, both inside and outside the nation? Is it more damaging to hold on to an “imagined community” (a la Benedict Anderson) than to try to grasp a real one that’s slippery and messy and dirty? Why has all the wealth of the diaspora only translated to some marginally useful tourism? Worse, why do we as diasporans lament the situation and then do everything in our power to take advantage of it, as though we expect nothing better? To play devil’s advocate, I propose to consider the idea that perhaps this connection to a patch of rock in the middle of the Caucasus really isn’t what being Armenian is all about. Not for me, anyway. We were doing “fine” until 1991 when an empire fell apart and suddenly there was this country we were supposed to belong to, right? Disturbing though somehow, isn’t it?
Mainstream vs. alternative
The deconstruction of issues pertaining to society is perhaps only just now beginning to occur on a mainstream level. Plenty of “urban legends” abound when it comes to the “cauldron” of corruption that diasporans love to refer to, directly or indirectly—the beauty being, of course, that most diasporans don’t even have an imagination rich enough to pull off a fraction of the legendary “beat-the-system” stunts our compatriots do. Yet, surely it is as wrong to revel in the idealism of the mountain-loving sugar-coaters as it is to bask in the negativity of the Armenia-haters; after all, what is easier than throwing a stone? But how much of a balanced reality translates to the information that is offered readily outside the borders of the nation, and to the policies of those who purport to represent diasporan interests?
For those who are engaged and interested, the role of investigative media sources (like HETQ.am) or research/think tank-type organizations like CivilNet, for better or worse provide a small window into efforts underway around major current issues. Outside of Armenia, Policy Forum Armenia also expends quite a lot of effort with hand wringing and red-flagging incidents. All of these sources are speaking to a very niche audience on issues such as fighting corruption, reporting abuse in the military, protecting the environment, supporting domestic violence legislation, reporting on illegal construction, corruption in the protection of property rights, etc. These efforts tend to be led by a tiny handful of nationals and repatriated diasporans. Interestingly, the point remains why any individual or organization systematically questioning the national status quo is seen as wildly “alternative,” only quasi-credible, and well beyond the thresholds of the mainstream? This is not to assume that critique is automatically equated with credibility; it most certainly is not. But it is nevertheless blaringly obvious that critique does not play a prominent role in the dominant discourse between the Armenian Diaspora and Homeland. The following will sound overly critical, but it is just meant to provoke thought: Is it that much more satisfying for us to talk about another soup kitchen deployment that puts a bandaid on open heart surgery, belying our diasporan dexterity in serving only the most immediate needs of the poor? Or coverage of another heart-warming “Olympics” event that convenes the youth of 25 countries in a show of nationalistic fervor, yerakouyns waving wildly in synchrony, while young muscled boys bare tattoos of a lost mountain on their backs. Where are we going with this?
What is considered mainstream outside of Armenia, and why? The author of the original post mentioned about 7 tidbits of “news” about unbelievably pioneering, innovative, and brave work being undertaken by various individuals in Yerevan. Should this not be the stuff of the mainstream? Should we not know about the people who have ended up in jail for standing up for what they believe in? Or those fighting to protect historical landmarks, and the forests? Or those who are providing unprecedented handicapped facilities in an arts institute, the first of its kind? I purposefully do not, by the way, make any comment in this piece about state-controlled media and information, other than to dismiss it outright as quasi-irrelevant. At least with those sources, we know why they are there and we know what to expect.
There are countless diasporans who speak up and express opinion, in whatever circles they may happen to have access to; yet often these circles are private, and that’s where both critique and action start and end. This is in stark distinction from the institutions in the diaspora, which are often comprised of these same individuals, but seem to make their living from generally looking the other way and engaging with dodgy autocrats for sport. More seriously, these are the very same who tolerate a government that has committed major sins against its own nationals, holding the occasional political prisoner, and generally presiding over a decline of the entire state in the face of systematic malfeasance for personal gain. One person suggested in an interesting post that the general political conservatism of those in the diaspora (in their places of residence) could be related in some way to a systematic “default” aversion to shaking the tree in Armenia in favor of liberal, social causes. Scary.
Surely, this long discussion merits a glance at the work of those diasporan institutions that are the biggest donors and “drivers of influence” (to the extent the diaspora has any). This also begs the question of what the role of these organizations ought to be: Are they designed to support the preservation of Armenian identity and culture in the diaspora, or is there a larger more intent-driven, strategic purpose for them now that there is this independent homeland? All evidence points to their good will and marginal success in the former category, with significant evidence pointing to their relative failure in the latter, at least for as long as they opt for respecting the ring-kissing status quo. Without actually thinking about and understanding the dire reality of today’s Armenia, we are perpetuating patterns of “engagement’” within the diaspora, which really don’t do a damn thing in terms of sustainability for anyone in the long run.
Is it possible to honor the true beauty of the nation (which is real and intact) while also decrying some of the ridiculous and profane that occurs in Armenian politics and the Armenian “economy”? If objection is not led by the collective representatives of the diaspora, then from whom shall it come? Why does this not appear to happen more systematically and, more frighteningly, is the diaspora really that complacent?
A moment of indulgence that encapsulates this point: When I lived in Armenia in 2004, two friends and I worked to launch an NGO in support of young women coming out of the national orphanage system in Armenia. We fundraised, set up a website, picked a beautiful name, and found an amazing public figure who was willing to be our Goodwill Ambassador; we were naively excited to think we could play a role in protecting some of the young women of the country from sex-trafficking predators. We then fatally picked our “more experienced” Armenian partners, including one particular local woman who asked us to transfer all the money we would raise into her personal name “for tax reasons,” and then eventually denounced us for asking “too many questions about the money.” As a team comprised of two Ph.D.’s from the U.S. and a professional from the UK with some level of personal credibility, we thought it might be worth attempting to draw the attention of the U.S.-based Board they brought with them, highlighting that at least one of their local partners in the outskirts of Yerevan was highly suspect and deeply unethical in her behavior. And this was to be our first highly clichéd, bitter taste of Armenia. What did our Armenian-American Board associated with the organization do? Absolutely nothing, of course. Other than to cast us off as embittered, crazy young people. So, boo hoo for us, right? Actually, the moral of the story is that it’s got nothing to do with us; the only thing that falls victim to such situations is the good intention that could have manifested in some way to benefit those in Armenian society who are most vulnerable. This for me was a hallmark of the complacency and ignorance of our diaspora about their Homeland.
Sure, there’s an important distinction between individuals and institutions, but the fact remains that the former are comprised of the latter. When most of these large unnamed institutions resist change, rebuff new models of engagement with Armenia, and do little to engage with their diasporan constituents (read: donors) who still do not know or understand what kind of information they should be demanding, this strictly reinforces the status quo. One that serves only those in power.
The full circle
As stated beautifully by one of the articulate commentators to the above-mentioned Facebook post, “We need more dialectics…in our political and civic discourse. Somehow, the left and the right must find the points of synthesis in civil discourse if we’re to transcend the polarity of thesis/antithesis…and evolve politically and culturally. Otherwise, we’re doomed to eternally recapitulate our historical fracturing, subversion, bitterness, and divisiveness, all of which work to undermine our collective interest.” Does this mean that long articles extolling the majestic grandeur of Mt. Ararat and the evening breezes of Yerevan do not have their place in our discourse? I, for one, think they do. We need to hear about the beauty, we need to be able to fall in love, we need to be able to dream, albeit with some grounding in the reality. As one commentator said, “You have to see and appreciate, for example, Yerevan’s ‘historical buildings’ before you join [the] campaign against their destruction, and illegal construction.” However, in the words of another, “We need to find a way to reconcile our devotion to a secure, sovereign, and independent Armenia with an equal devotion to the fundamental civic, civil, and economic rights of our fellow Armenians living there.” To actually contribute to creating a place where we would all want to live, for real.
…and the hardest part of coming to it
At worst, we diasporans have no clue what is going on in the nation and don’t care, or we do care and continue to believe that sending a check to big philanthropic organization XYZ is going to materially, sustainably, systemically affect the life of an Armenian citizen. Looking at poverty and demographic statistics today relative to the amount of philanthropy, aid, and investment flowing into Armenia, it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of room for improvement. The less diplomatic translation: the status quo = DIRE. This level of engagement with the usual suspects should at least lead to a demand for more innovative levels of engagement and strategic thinking where the Armenian Diaspora-Homeland nexus is concerned.
At best, we diasporans inform ourselves, decry the state of the nation, and raise Cain. But often without pondering for a moment the most chilling possibility of all—that what we see apparent in the polity and society of our nation-state is actually a part of our unique DNA, which manifests exactly the same way in the behavior of those with power in diasporan communities all over the world. The diaspora, too, has its oligarchs, its bureaucrats, and its media control, and in some cases the opportunity cost of the outcome of their behavior may be even higher than the cost of dysfunction within national borders.3 The dissolution in the diaspora cannot be reversed by other underlying social infrastructure, whereas in Armenia you remain Armenian and you always speak the language, even if the economy is so dysfunctional that you will never earn enough money to leave.
Some will invariably respond that these tendencies are rife in human nature as a whole, and that every ethnic group and nation will demonstrate such traits where power is for grabs. I see that as a total cop out. I work in a world where I see wealthy people willing to invest lots of their personal money for social returns and sub-optimal financial returns, where social impact bonds are being launched and raising millions in liquidity for social causes, where dialogue, criticism, debate, and argument are par for the course. Communities the world over are seeing transformations in governance and business as economic discourse evolves to incorporate notions of solidarity, community, blended value, and collaboration. It’s time for a shift, and admiring the resplendent skirts of Ararat should now be accompanied by a healthy dose of realism both about the nation and the responsibility we bear to her by association, however weak that link may be. This does not mean everyone needs to be “going there” and “doing things,” per se. That is simply not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it does mean spending a little extra time thinking about those who do, and whether the existing structures and organizations in place to represent us are doing justice to the development path of this Nation (in broadest terms, with a capital “N”).
Without a doubt, as much as the onus of responsibility lies on the people of Hayastan and their attitudes towards their own leadership and to us outside in the diaspora, so too does it lie on our realization in the diaspora that demand for real information (coupled, of course, with the requisite admiration of national treasures, for those who need and dig that) is key to overcoming the endemic complacency and planting the seeds for social transformation. Today. the centers of gravity for the Armenia Diaspora—the church, language, and bless their hearts, the Big Boy representative diasporan organizations—are weakening. Let’s not fool ourselves. They’re not doing well. Their followers are in mutiny and the sound of silence is being misinterpreted by those whose fancy conclaves aren’t changing a thing. If we are not able to understand the problems (endemic to our own communities) in the mirror, coupled with the truth of the diaspora’s relations with the country (“through the looking glass”), if bridge-building to this end does not take a turn for the better, it may well just be a matter of time before we no longer have a Nation (capital “N”) to worry about. Problem solved.
(1) For reference, the use of a capital ‘N’ in nation refers to the global community, and not to the Armenian nation-state alone.
(2) While the influence of formal diaspora-born political parties has presence in the political landscape, their real impact is marginal, and further exploration of this would bring us hors-sujet.
(3) The example of the Swiss-Armenian community and its internal debacles is an excellent case in point.