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Diasporan Reflections: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are

Editor’s Note: In this in-depth essay, former Weekly editor Antranig Kasbarian traces the development of ‘preservationism’ as a diasporan cultural strategy. As he evaluates its effectiveness and changing relevance, he concludes that today preservationism offers diminishing returns. Meanwhile, more than ever, Diasporan culture will depend on engagement with Armenia, utilizing it as a resource that can nourish and reinvigorate our communities abroad.
As we enter a new phase of Armenian life, I believe it’s time for serious reflection about our Diaspora—its needs, its potential, its guiding assumptions, and how these continue to change over time. Perhaps such reflection should have begun long ago, and in some pockets I know that it has. But today, more than ever, this subject requires a public discussion that is wide-ranging and critical.
We need this discussion now for two reasons. First, let’s acknowledge that after its Velvet Revolution, Armenia is undergoing major shifts in governance and public culture, including an official reset of homeland-diaspora relations. At such a juncture, it’s important that the Diaspora not only keep pace with such changes, but play an interactive role in how these take shape. Second, it’s increasingly clear that while the Diaspora has changed over the years, these changes have often crept up on us, leaving a disconnect—a poor fit, if you will—between many longstanding assumptions, our present-day realities and how we might act on them.
In saying so, I claim no magic wand that will cure our problems. Indeed, panaceas are probably unrealistic, given how messy and diverse our diaspora is. Rather, I seek to explore some key patterns and processes, understanding that this is provisional – a work-in-progress – leading hopefully toward a broader examination that is vibrant and ongoing.
PART ONE: Hayabahbanum: Cultural Preservation and the Struggle for Identity
Armenian diasporas have existed for centuries – including traders in the Far East, refugees in the Balkans and many other groupings, each with their stories of displacement, itinerancy and more. But in the modern era, it was clearly the Armenian Genocide, and to some extent Sovietization, that created a permanent, worldwide entity that has lived apart from the homeland for decades. It is this diaspora that continues to live, breathe, change and demand our attention.1
In contrast to many diasporas – often formed from a mix of ongoing factors – this one was born out of rupture, crisis, discontinuity… catastrophe. Indeed, catastrophe was soon followed by another peculiarity – exile – as Kemalist Turkey ascended over an ethnically cleansed Western Armenia, while Stalin’s USSR held captive the remains of Eastern Armenia. For the post-Genocide diaspora, these two conditions presented barriers – real and perceived—to re-entering our homeland; they thus fed our uncertainty about whether we could survive for long in absentia.
In such an environment, the diaspora’s first inclination was toward hayabahbanum – literally armenopreservation. This tendency, expressed at many levels, sought to compensate for what we’d lost by preserving what we still we had: national culture and identity. Whether expressed through language, history, traditions or ideology – cultural preservation seemingly offered our best hope of holding out until better days. It was a consciousness that vaguely resembled holding one’s breath, as our early communities clung to hopes of ‘exhaling’ one day, i.e. returning home and resuming life as before, once history’s natural course had been restored.2
In the immediate post-Genocide era, hayabahbanum was quite logical in its way. Our newly uprooted ancestors were still regaining their balance, trying to make sense of their condition while struggling to survive in foreign lands. During those years, our communities lived mostly within their bubbles. Most were concentrated in Armenian ghettoes within larger cities such as Cairo, Paris and New York. Most didn’t know the language of their host country and were often poorly integrated into society’s larger fabric. Individuals often toiled away as factory workers, clerks or menials; or, if they had saved a few dollars, became proprietors of small businesses such as tailor shops or grocery stores. Meanwhile, their passion was reserved for community affairs, which largely sought to reproduce Armenian life as we knew it. Churches and agoumps (clubs) became places to gather, debate and rehearse our national loyalties and aspirations. Literary evenings kept alive the classics of Hagop Baronian, Taniel Varoujan and Vahan Tekeyan, while theatrical performances offered portrayals of life in the Old Country. Picnics and other outings maintained the bonds of extended family, ancestral village or political party. In this milieu, tradition carried great importance. Indeed, it was considered a duty – almost second-nature – to replicate life as we knew it, to hold on to those values and practices we knew to be good, true and dear.
Such practices became enduring, even as our communities gradually changed over time. As the ‘20s gave way to the ‘30s and ‘40s, it became clear that Kemalist Turkey and the USSR weren’t going to collapse anytime soon, and so we began to plan for a longer haul—building schools, summer camps, youth organizations and English-language publications for a new generation born in diaspora. And yet, the hayabahbanum paradigm remained largely unchanged. Indeed, if anything, it was reinforced. As the homeland receded further into the past, our leadership sought to ingrain it in our collective memory through an array of programs and activities, including yearbooks, memoirs, folk-dance troupes and above all, commemorations. For those in the Dashnak/nationalist camp, May 28 became enshrined as a day to rally around the dream and concept of a free, independent and united Armenia, and was celebrated religiously each and every year. There were also lesser events such as the February 1921 revolt against Soviet authority or the Khanasor Expedition of 1897, that became staples of the community calendar, subject to annual renewal.
Clearly, such activities held much value in keeping our communities oriented toward the homeland, in a conscious and purposeful way. And yet, the task was daunting. Imbuing the past with a presence it lacked, creating a ‘here’ out of an increasingly distant ‘there,’ became more and more challenging with each passing generation. Indeed, in the absence of a living existence on Armenian soil, such activities produced a national identity that was no longer fluid and dynamic, but often rehearsed like a ritual or catechism. In its more routine manifestations, hayabahbanum resembled an effort to pinch ourselves, making sure we were still present, authentic and whole as a people.
Emerging Conflicts and Contradictions
In some communities, hayabahbanum presented no major dilemmas or conflicts. For example, our Middle Eastern ghettos often lasted for decades, maintaining insider/outsider distinctions that enabled Armenians to survive, even thrive, while living in a bubble, the outside world carefully regulated. But in many communities of the West, it was a different story. Here the assimilative forces were much greater, and as we moved into the ‘50s and beyond, Armenians began to assume a dual or hyphenated existence…moving from exile consciousness to that of, say, Armenian-Americans. Increasingly, we carried divided identities that were sometimes reinforcing, but more often than not, kept separate. This frequently led to a schizophrenic condition, in which one’s everyday life – one’s surroundings, one’s transactions, one’s education – increasingly blended with the US mainstream, while one’s Armenian identity was practiced separately, part-time, within the family or on weekends.
Such a condition was perhaps unavoidable. And yet, its associated problems must not be ignored. Our leadership at that time – political, cultural or religious – too often enforced a separation between “Armenian life” and everything else. Thus, the issues and concerns that inform daily existence – e.g. working conditions, gender relations, environment and neighborhood – were not integrated into our organized community life. Indeed, they were often not given attention at all. As a result, national consciousness was separated out and held up as an end realizable unto itself without context. For example, our elders often fed us abstract goals and narratives that were unrealistic, often based on the trope of the ‘good Armenian.’ For them, ‘Armenianness’ wasn’t simply about identity; at times, it carried with it a whole moral code, identifying the national with all things good and wholesome. Indeed, my peers still chuckle as we recall years past, when our elders would admonish that Armenians were different, not only in language or history, but because we didn’t have crooks, prostitutes or other lumpen elements found in other societies! Less amusing, perhaps, is how the ‘good Armenian’ trope stifled or conflicted with modern living. Issues like intermarriage, sexual orientation, or divorce bred much stress and stigma among our elders, who viewed such ‘deviant’ behavior as somehow a defeat for traditional Armenian values. I could point to many other cases where tension arose in our communities when folks ventured off the ‘straight and narrow,’ whether in lifestyle, personality or career choices. Rather than incorporate difference and change, our mainstream leaders preferred to live a delusion, sometimes impairing our collective ability to move forward.
I present this condition not simply to criticize, but to stress that it, too, was symptomatic of a diasporan community with a seemingly uncertain future, desperately trying to stick together. Viewed broadly, we went through a period of decades, still lingering today, in which we’ve posed a false dichotomy pitting pure/authentic identity versus degradation/assimilation. Meanwhile, valuable notions like cultural hybridity and cultural borrowing – essential to all living societies – have until 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/protect against our impulse to create/unfold.
Over the years, hayabahbanum has been taken as an innate good, something almost elemental, a building block of our community life. What is lost, however, is that hayabahbanum wasn’t simply an assertion of cultural survival or presence, but rather a result of conscious cultural strategy. In other words, it didn’t just spring forth naturally, but was crafted consciously as a way to face the predicaments imposed on us at a particular juncture. Let us recall that in other times and places, very different mores have been tolerable, even acceptable among our public. How many of us recall that Simon Vratsian, Ruben Ter-Minasyan, Hovnan Tavitian and other early leaders of Dashnaktsutiun intermarried – usually with European socialists – without stigma or disapproval?
Looking at culture differently
If we treat culture in this way – purposeful rather than innate, strategic rather than elemental—then we’ll realize that today’s conditions are much different from those giving rise to hayabahbanum back in the day. Indeed, today’s diaspora has changed beyond what those early generations could have imagined. We are no longer ‘waiting to exhale.’ Our communities are less and less ghettoized. Armenia is no longer a distant abstraction. And our diasporan condition can no longer be considered temporary, unnatural or a weakness (although challenges certainly remain). In other words, the entire subject deserves some re-evaluation.
But are we ready to undertake such re-evaluation seriously, unflinchingly? I, for one, am not so sure. How many of us are prepared to admit that hayabahbanum has yielded mixed results? That today, three generations removed from genocide, cultural preservation offers diminishing returns?
We can try to measure these diminishing returns by tracking community trends and patterns. Try these, for instance. In the US especially, as our community members grow in life, we have to grow with them. But we often don’t. Our pillars of hayabahbanum – the schools, community centers, youth and cultural groups—are pretty effective at keeping children engaged until they are teenagers…at most college students. But then they go out into the real world, our organized community loses many of them, probably most of them. Think about it…how many of our Armenian school graduates remain active in the community somewhere, somehow? How many of our teeming AYF or ACYOA juniors remain active in the community, years later? How about our one-time scouts and children’s dance group members? Again, once they grow up, we often don’t know what to do with them. Oh sure, there are established vehicles – church boards, political parties, benevolent groups – but is this really enough in this day and age? When people grow up, their scope of concern usually amplifies and diversifies. Some take interest in environmental issues, others in women’s rights, still others in law, engineering, public health or business. But until quite recently, such matters have been treated as extraneous, external to our community life.
Fortunately, things have begun to change. Whether due to passing generations, larger social trends or developments in Armenia, our diaspora has become increasingly open and diverse with the emergence of many different voices and ways of being. True, this also implies a certain amount of fragmentation and assimilation, which is not necessarily desirable. But we must acknowledge that such changes are real, and they are important to face.
The change-factors are many. And while an exhaustive listing isn’t possible here, we can surely point to some important trends and flashpoints. To begin, let’s recall the important role of the 1960s – especially in the West – when young people widely began to question received wisdom and the status quo. During this period, long-held orientations, e.g. Armenians as the ‘little ally’ of the West, gave way to fresher notions of non-alignment or alliance with other minorities and dispossessed peoples. Meanwhile, at the community level, the Hai Tahd movement galvanized many of our youth, who engaged in a growing activism that challenged established authority, both in the streets and later through advocacy in the corridors of power. In the 1970s, armed struggle—via ASALA, Justice Commandos and other extremist groups—jarred our communities, forcing people to rethink what being Armenian actually meant. Other changes included massive upheavals and population flows from the Middle East toward Western countries, younger elements questioning the primacy of ‘old men’ running community affairs and an increased pragmatism as new, non-partisan groups emerged and stretched the boundaries of established community life. Let us also recall those fresh initiatives in the cultural realm – especially in music–that sought to blend the old with the new, the traditional with the modern, experimenting with forms and mediums that were different and yet undeniably Armenian.3
Certainly these were modernizing factors that played a constructive role in our community life. But they could only go so far, so long as the Diaspora was cut off from Armenia. Without an organic bond to the homeland, our far-flung communities still tended to fall back on good old hayabahbanum as their primary source of consciousness and identity. Until…
Enter Armenia
The year 1988 was pivotal for Armenians, especially in the homeland. Whether through the Karabakh movement, the ensuing earthquake or the mounting drive toward independence, Armenia experienced momentous changes in rapid-fire sequence. These changes also reverberated beyond its tiny borders, as the country steadily opened up to international actors, including our Diaspora.
These years brought with them pressing needs: solidarity for Karabakh, aid for the earthquake victims, and much more. In this environment, the Diaspora was a receptive audience and willing partner, filled with those who had been waiting for a chance to participate in the life of their homeland. Suddenly that moment was now, and it was often of a practical nature. Whether as aid workers, journalists, health professionals or exchange scholars, diasporans had an unprecedented opportunity to marry their Armenian lives with their professional lives. Far from the ‘part-time Armenian’ of old, this new model re-energized our diasporan communities, and to some extent redefined what it meant to be Armenian.
Of course, Armenia gradually emerged from its emergency status, developing over time into a semi-functional state and society. Nevertheless, the ‘genie had been let out of the bottle,’ and for diasporans there was no turning back. Alongside their local, community-based concerns, there now was Armenia, which became a source of engagement – indeed, a prime source – for growing numbers of people. Inescapably, these changes have affected our Armenian identities as well. Whereas once we sought purely diasporan solutions to the problem of identity, now we see that the biggest new factor, a weapon, if you will, is Armenia itself. Not only is it our homeland, but in the process of engaging with it, we can discover fresher, more robust ways to ensure the diaspora’s ongoing health and vibrancy.4
At first glance, this might seem like a contradiction. After all, our preoccupation with Armenia has often complicated our lives, added to our responsibilities, and forced us to deal with here and there simultaneously. Fair enough. But today Armenia is also the key to a new and refreshed version of identity, relying not on hayabahbanum filled with past heroes and abstract symbols, but on real-time activities for a real country full of warts, problems and solutions. Suddenly identity doesn’t operate in a vacuum anymore; rather it is tied to livelihood, career plans, worldview and so forth. So if you are a budding environmental activist, Armenia’s mining and deforestation problems offer a congenial battlefield for you to cut your teeth. If you’re a grape-grower, Armenia’s proliferation of export-quality wines should attract you in some fashion. If your graduate school thesis is on ecotourism and historic monuments, you can likely go to Armenia and find a smorgasbord of subjects available. This sort of engagement enables not only meaningful contributions to the country, but also ensures a different Armenian identity, one that is not simply moored to essentialized notions of ‘Armenianness’ but rather to a living, breathing existence that is changing daily. This, I believe, is what we should be aspiring to.
By discarding hayabahbanum and instead leaning on Armenia for injections of Armenianness, we will discover all sorts of benefits. For example, the Armenian language can become placed in its proper context. Yes, we all agree that being able to communicate in Armenian is important, but now we can see its importance in a new light. Whereas language was something we once needed for fear of losing it, now we can confidently seize upon language, first and foremost, as a tool and medium to communicate with others and get things done. Imagine that! Learning Armenian becomes not some ritual or sacred duty, necessary for us to feel identified. Suddenly it becomes essential in order to function in this brave new world called Armenia.
And while we continue to fret over Diasporan Armenians who are ‘lost’ due to assimilation, intermarriage and the like, let us also consider this. On the other side of the field, moving toward us, we now see a new phenomenon—the ‘born again Armenian’ (BAA). BAAs include many who were not active or lived apart from our mainstream communities; some of them have no prior training or schooling in what Armenianness is. But, through various exchange and internship programs they are coming back, rediscovering their Armenian identity via living and working in Armenia. Their numbers are growing, their contributions impressive, and their enthusiasm infectious.
In saying all of this, of course I’m not suggesting we do away with diasporan schools, dance troupes, literary groups, commemorations and so forth. But the role and purpose of these should be less about preserving some essential existence, and more about creating fresh new Armenians ready to engage with the wider contemporary world. Instead of separating out Armenianness, we now must reintegrate ‘Armenianness’ with ‘everything else.’
In this light, perhaps it’s time to rethink our goals and methods, our role models and even our aspirations. Our goal is not necessarily to produce youth who speak flawless Armenian, who can recite Taniel Varoujan with their eyes closed or who can dance an authentic tamzara as in the old country. This is no longer a contest, if it ever was, to determine who is a good Armenian. Rather, our goal should be, more than ever, to marshal all of those assets, far-flung and diverse though they are, toward common goals we can all share in.
What might those common goals be? Ah, now there’s a question. . . Let’s leave that for next time.

1 Today we might question whether this diaspora is the only one, or whether it is now accompanied by a second diaspora, namely the communities that have recently grown throughout the post-Soviet space. For the sake of expediency, I leave this question to subsequent discussions.
2 Unfortunately, that day never came. More accurately, the moment of return came incompletely and much, much later… after our communities had changed considerably. More on that anon.
3 Interestingly, it wasn’t the establishment that led the way here. Rather, cultural change began with ‘unofficial’ initiatives that were off-center, opening paths linking Armenianness to larger cultural currents. Musical examples abound: from 1970s Beirut, there is the ‘Five Fingers’ band which integrated Armenian folk elements into a mix of Near Eastern and European pop – basically the forerunner of what became ‘continental music.’ And from 1980s New York, there is ‘Night Ark,’ a fusion band which produced an eclectic blend of Armenian, rock, and alternative idioms that were innovative for their time. Since then, initiatives like these have multiplied many times over, but it took several more decades for our mainstream organizations to catch on. Only in the last few years have we seen truly pathbreaking initiatives that break the old hayabahbanum mold, such as AGBU’s Armenian Virtual College and most recently Hamazkayin’s h-pem project, which seeks to embrace contemporary culture in its diverse forms and contents.
4 As I emphasize Armenia’s resurgence in our lives, I am cognizant that today’s Armenia does not fully account for everything we have lost. Indeed, much of today’s diaspora traces its roots to Western Armenia, which remains largely beyond our reach. In this light, it is a challenge perhaps to place proper weight to these complementary tasks – engaging with the Armenia we do have, while reconnecting and advocating for the Armenia that we’ve lost.
Antranig Kasbarian

Armenian Weekly

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