Arpi Dadoyan: A Tribute

Arpi Dadoyan has died.In the unwritten annals of the culture of the Armenian diaspora, Arpi holds a place which is as unique as it is legendary.

No one who has been fortunate to have seen her in Varoujan Khedeshian’s 1971 production of Theatre 67’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” can forget her ferociously intense performance of Martha. Martha is at least twice Arpi’s age as Edward Albee, the playwright, had written her. Martha is also a foul-mouthed drunk, a character of immense physical presence, in body, voice, and speech–a life force turned against itself, as it were.

Arpi was 23 when she performed this role, dominating the stage with an unbridled energy and audacity which no Armenian actress had shown before, at least not on the stages of the Armenian community of Beirut. I was in the audience, as a theater critic for “Ahegan,” the short-lived, groundbreaking review of literature and culture.

Beyond the understanding that Arpi displayed in that role, what was also significant was that she was a completely home-grown talent (taking her first theatrical steps on the tiny stage of Nshan Palandjian College (Djemaran) as an elementary school student), but lots of daring at a time of great creative energy, innovation, and freedom in pre-civil war Beirut. Arpi’s presence on the stage in “Virginia Woolf” and later in other productions of Theatre 67, was a testament to that collective spirit, which, alas, was as fragile as it was incendiary. If for no other reason, Arpi’s gesture was for the generations.

Arpi belonged to that generation of talented young men and women who by choice or force of circumstance had to leave Beirut. That passage, too, had neither been written nor acknowledged. Arpi continued her theatrical work in the US, performing with community groups, doing stand-up comedy, writing songs, but, truth be told, for many of us, our memory of her is seared in that fiery Martha who spoke Armenian in a voice as clear today as it was then, enriching the culture, yes, but also our native language.

The earth light, on Arpi Dadoyan.

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Oh, Jerusalem, in the snow…

To get to Jerusalem from Amman, you would have to get to the Jordanian security checkpoint at King Husseyn (Allenby) Bridge, cross the bridge itself (a mere few minutes of a bus ride the last time I did it!), pass the Israeli security which is as detailed a process as it is humiliating, and then walk onto a clearing of taxis and more buses. You’re in the desert now; the air is thick and the sun is shameless. The negotiation is fast, and you’re on your way, a bit relieved and ready to talk to the driver in the Arabic you thought you had forgotten. He is jovial, and nicotine-voiced, and the surroundings are as sallow and lusterless, the desert cradling you as it were, time suspended almost, and not a living creature around you except you, the driver, and the anticipation. And on like this for half and hour through winding roads and hazy skies.

It takes a split second. The taxi swerves; the silence breaks;and in the distance, far from the noise and the hustle and bustle of life is a beautiful sight. The day is warm, the sky is clear, and in the distance is Qubbat al-Sakhra, known as the Dome of the Rock. It is a majestic site towering over the Old City, the dome itself a deep gold, which takes on an intense, other-worldly shine under the mid-day sun.

Set against the intense blue of Jerusalem’s sky, the dome looks as if it did actually descend from heaven, that it is of this wretched world but also of another. And beneath it, the Old City itself, village-town of faith and madness, its cobblestone streets sites of beauty and zeal, tension and tenderness—a place like no other, even now.

That’s the entrance to Jerusalem that I know, have known all the times I have been in the city.  Things may have changed from the time I was there a decade ago, but that’s not important. Jerusalem is also of the imagination. And the news that snow is falling in the Old City today is as unsettling as it is exciting, exciting to imagine my Jerusalem transformed like that, the dome holding layers of snow on its radiant curve, from the distance of the taxi , the brick roofs carpets of white, and the religious sites–the mosques, the synagogues, the churches—made small and modest, all part of climate and geography. 

And because Jerusalem is also of the imagination, in my mind’s eye this snow-clad Jerusalem finds a place near the sun-soaked one, as its double, or other, or prodigal variant, the two living together not so much in harmony (that would be boring for a mad place like Jerusalem) but in some arrangement yet-undefined.  But for today, nothing seems more joyful than the sight of people making snow figures in the open expanse of the Dome of the Rock, joyful and so unexpected. 

Oh, Jerusalem, chart and destination, golden and white, pious and mercurial, heavenly and profane, place of birth and of longing—for all.

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Glenda Jackson–then and now.

Glenda Jackson: I watched her again this weekend, this time as the very old, mentally and physically depleted Maud in the Masterpiece Theatre production of “Elizabeth is Missing.” Her voice and her face filled the screen again– that combination of determination and vulnerability, frailty and tenacity. As a victim of dementia, Maud is a character that eviscerates the heart, and a remarkable creation that only Jackson could have pulled off at the age of 85.


But what was more exhilarating was to see in Maud the young Glenda Jackson, in Ken Russell’s 1969 production of “Women in Love.” There, she plays Gudrun, the woman made eternally memorable for her intelligence, erotic energy, and her forthrightness. It was that year–1969–the floodgates were about to open, and there was Gudrun taunting us, challenging us. She was guide and icon, destination and chart, and she was like no other character we had seen on the screen

Photo: imdb

Between Gudrun and Maud, between the promise of youth and the twilight of old age, is the tumble of the decades, experiences, twists and turns of living. And it is all on Glenda Jackson’s face, the wrinkles and cracks, and in her unsteady gait and limping shuffle. All the things that make up Maud, but not quite, not quite. Because old age always whispers (or weeps) its youth, longs for it but also is freed by it. And Glenda Jackson –in life and in her magisterial acting career– holds all these truths tight, holds both Gudrun and Maud in equal measure. To grow old this well…



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Coda: after the defeat

Coda: After the defeat

Over more than a quarter century, all those politicians, armchair analysts, academics, party hacks, activists, and celebrities who spoke only when the truth was self-evident and did not need the courage of one’s convictions are now standing in line to say their word–in language at once melodramatic and preachy. Their words often sound hollow, disingenuous, and opportunistic.

After such defeat, perhaps it is better to stand back in self-imposed restraint for a while, turn inward in reflection, ask the honest questions: How did we get here? What are the imperatives of the moment? What kind of future can we imagine for Armenia and also for the diaspora, together and separate from each other? “They became what they beheld,” wrote William Blake. The present moment also demands an act of the imagination.

A new vocabulary is necessary for this moment, and a new way of telling this narrative, one which is modern, critical, and realistic; one which does not fall back on the hackneyed verbiage of Hay Thad and genocide recognition; one which imposes the grid of the present and future over the burden of the past (and not the other way around as we have done for so long, so long).

But first, some quiet, introspection, and tenderness, so that we can mourn the ones who died so valiantly on the battlefield, those who left home and hearth, for their bravery and dignity. A wise friend once wrote: “To be remembered is to die; to be thought of is to be born.”

After the mourning, the long sunlight of thought.

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Pashinyan’s “Hardtalk” Stumble: Back to the Drawing Board

None of this, though, is meant to suggest that Pashinyan or his foreign minister was a victim of anti-Armenian bias, or that “Hard Talk” is in the pocket of the Azerbaijanis. The program approaches all its guests with a Thatcher-like swagger, and it offers equal opportunity in the small mounds of rubble it leaves behind. From Pashinyan to Lavrov to Gwyneth Paltrow, “Hard Talk” is just that—hard and talk, rather, hardly talk and more interruption! If by some miracle, “Hard Talk” managed to get Ilham Aliyev on the show, the end result would be the same–Azerbaijanis would claim that Sackur is pro-Armenian.

Source: Pashinyan’s “Hardtalk” Stumble: Back to the Drawing Board

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The fractured center of “Da 5 Bloods”

Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” is film about a neglected subject–the experiences of African Americans in the Viet Nam war. And as such it is a corrective and timely.

Beyond that, the film has a beautiful surface which spans the ink dark of the jungle to the vibrant buzz of Ho Chi Minh City; an unusual film score which integrates Marvin Gaye, R and B, with big orchestral score, and solo laments bordering on New Age. The story, too, has a strong synthesizing impulse: to integrate several genres– the heist genre, the war movie, the documentary, even the tourist postcard. The result is a unusual work, expertly edited I thought, into which Lee has thrown a dozen characters, three related stories, a historic perspective, at least two psychological themes, and a lot of blood and gore and body parts.

Lee goes for excess here, and tries to couple that with the narrow confines of the heist as narrative. In the first half– the better half, actually the first half is riveting–I was seized by awe and deep emotion as the nascent theme began to take shape. In the second half he changes course, expands the story with digressions, and tries to turn the film into something huge, all-encompassing which is meant to assault the senses from all directions in a macabre dance of beauty and extreme violence. Sometimes that assault achieves its intent, at other times it confuses and alienates, so much so that all the emotional buildup of the first half slowly begin to slip away. The first half asks: What did the Viet Nam war mean for the Bloods who fought under the slogan of freedom but were themselves and their ancestors denied such freedom in their home county? The second half returns to this questions only sporadically; it is distracted by other things.

I think this is a movie primarily for younger audiences who are nurtured on big Hollywood productions, and abundance of technological wizardry and lots of sound and fury. But the story is a throwback to “our time,” the sixties and the early seventies. I am curious what younger viewers will think of it because Lee seems to have an educational and moral intent in mind, which is the only way to explain the rather quaint and positive ending. After so much violence and horror, what is the place of love and collective action and charity–virtues on which the film comes to its conclusion and silence.

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HR 296 and the Politicization of the Armenian Genocide: Assumptions, Questions, Pitfalls

Asbed Kotchikian and I wrote this op-ed on HR296. It is posted on Hetq, November 18.

By Asbed Kotchikian and Taline Voskeritchian

The passage of Resolution 296 by the US House of Representatives (HR 296) on October 29 recognizing the Armenian Genocide has been welcomed and cheered by Armenians as a historic event. However, the timing of the passage raises some questions that seem to pale, and often disappear, in the world-wide Armenian reaction to recognition.  The congratulatory discourse is often carried out as if this event had happened in a vacuum, outside the sphere of international, Armenia, and diaspora politics.

The euphoria over the passing of HR 296 can certainly give temporary solace and renewed vigor to most Armenians in the US in their push to find new points of leverage with Turkey.  But several assumptions surrounding the issue of genocide recognition in the overall strategy and tactics of making Turkey accept and admit responsibility for a crime it committed and that it has denied for more than a century need to be challenged.  In the last few days, the euphoria has been laced with outrage at the action of of Senator Lindsey Graham to block a Senate resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide.

For decades Armenians have argued that the Genocide is a historic fact and should not be politicized. This position is advanced to counter Turkish claims that no such thing as genocide ever happened and that the Armenians are trying to politicize the genocide.

The argument that the failure of previous attempts to have the Genocide recognized in the US—be that in Congress by both Republicans and Democrats or in the State Department—resulted from the policy of not harming US relations with Turkey makes the timing of this resolution at best expedient and at worst hypocritical.  Had the recent Turkish invasion of Northern Syria and the ensuing political outrage among US policy makers not occurred, it is highly doubtful that this resolution would have passed with such an overwhelming support.

HR 296 is nothing more than political maneuvering by a House of Representatives intent on “punishing” Turkey for its actions in northern Syria.  The passing of the resolution was as politicized an act as the successive and well-documented failures in the past decades.

Politicizing historical events, especially calamitous ones, is not a sin nor is it blasphemous. Many nations and states have used national tragedies for political gains.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as there is a clear strategy and a follow-up to reap those political gains. From this perspective, Armenians—in diaspora community organizations worldwide and in The Republic of Armenia–can also politicize the Genocide issue not just for the sake of forcing Turkey into recognition, but also to create a platform on whose basis direct contacts with Turkish society and government can lead to the eventual achievement of justice and recognition in the form of reparations both financial and territorial.

In the general discussions about the politicization of the genocide, one key factor is often omitted. It is a factor that has to do with the internal dynamics and modus operandi of diaspora organizations. Over the decades, the Genocide—its history, its victims, and its on-going denial—has come to function as an internal oath of survival and renewal, a ritual, if you will, that community organizations, the church, and individuals claiming a public platform can’t live without. Let’s say it for what it is: The stranglehold that the Genocide has over Armenian public life often instrumentalizes the national tragedy, reducing everything to a mixture of moral absolutism, therapeutic jargon, and public relations copy.

Resorting to such absolutism—non-recognition is “bad” and recognition is “good”—is naïve at best. The world, especially the political one, is seldom governed by morality. While in some cases policy makers have the easy task to adopt policies that are both “right” and “good”, seldom do the “right” and “good” choices converge. In the case of HR 296, the moral choice (advocated by Armenians) converged with the right choice (as calculated by a political motivated and savvy legislators in the US House of Representatives).  However, this is the exception and not the norm. As such, it is as important to acknowledge the congruence of events as it is to celebrate moral victories.

History is full of instance of criminals who would seldom recognize a crime they committed if the admission is not forced on them. The Nuremberg trials, the military coup in Rwanda and the NATO intervention in Kosovo are just some examples of accountability being forced upon the perpetrators of crimes with the threat or the actual use of force. Over 30 countries around the world have partly or completely recognized that the Ottoman Empire—and by extension modern Turkey—was responsible for the extermination of most of Armenian population residing in the Empire and for the denial of that crime.  Yet, today, Turkey is no closer to accepting that responsibility than it was three decades ago.

The euphoria surrounding HR 296 is sustained by the belief that genocide recognition will lead to a concerted effort by the international community to put pressure on Turkey itself to admit its crime of genocide. The more countries recognize the Genocide, the stronger will the pressure be on Turkey—so goes the working assumption of Armenian lobbying organizations, activists and celebrities who work for genocide recognition, as well as large sectors of the Armenian public.  In the implementation of this view, one important fact is often minimized or completely disregarded: For all its internal problems and its external policy challenges, Turkey is a geopolitical heavyweight in the Middle East and South-Eastern Europe. It has an economy that ranks in the world’s top 20.  Turkish policy is far from being influenced by political statements made and resolutions passed in foreign countries, even when those countries—the US, for example—may have a temporary bone to pick with Turkey.  Not only that, but Turkey is also headed by an ultra-nationalist who seems to have little regard for minority populations in his country.

Recognition of the Genocide by various countries has created solidarity among large segments of Turkish society, in what they perceive as foreign countries trying to marginalize Turkey (in perhaps a neo-colonial analogy). It is, therefore, not implausible that the Armenian euphoria and outrage may be fodder for the leaders of the Turkish state as they rally their citizens against the common enemy.

The absence of long- and short-term strategies is also evident in another sphere of Armenian life. The reaction surrounding HR 296 highlights the near-total disregard for the Armenian population of Turkey.  The welfare of this community–its institutions and culture–seems to be minimized at best and ignored completely at worst.  Such a huge chasm between the pronouncements of Armenians in the US and Europe and the anxieties of the Armenians in Turkey does not bode well for the future of the Armenian nation and its communities worldwide.  If we want to think in a pan-Armenian (a term that has become so popular in Armenia and the diaspora of late) way, we must think beyond interests of one sector of the Armenian world though this sector may be the loudest and the most prosperous.  The “Star Trek” dictum that “the needs of the many far outweigh the needs of the few” is an apt description of the present approach that views the Armenians of Turkey unimportant, even expendable for the higher cause.

Over a century and a half ago, a socially conservative yet politically savvy Armenian clergyman urged Armenians to rely on themselves in the pursuit of their rights and demands. The “iron ladle” directive was later re-articulated by Armenian intellectuals across the political spectrum, especially during the months and years preceding Armenia’s independence in 1991. These ideas were most clearly articulated by one such manifesto known as “The Law to Exclude Third Force,” which, among other things, criticizes Armenians for seeking the help of outside powers in the pursuit of their national agenda, and, like the clergyman a century ago, put forth once more the challenge of self-reliance.

Unfortunately, it seems that seeking the “support” of outside powers in Armenians’ search for justice has become the norm rather than the exception.  This state of affairs shows that Armenian political and strategic thought over the last decades has been reverting to “classic” reliance on foreign powers in the pursuit of justice.

In the late 1980s as the Karabakh movement was igniting, one prescient intellectual, warning about the dangers of relying on foreign assistance, argued that those outside powers—primarily in the West—to whom Armenians look for support in fighting oppression and injustice were themselves involved in oppressing Armenians in the past and neglecting their demands. He wrote: “The [Armenian] people continue to be exploited. The chains, once on their hands and feet, continue to make their weight felt. The chains weigh on the tongues and brains.”


Asbed Kotchikian teaches at Bentley University’s Global Studies department. His areas of research include socio-political change in the Middle East and the former Soviet space.

Taline Voskeritchian teaches at Boston University’s College of Communication.  Her work has appeared in The Nation, London Review of Books, Journal of Palestine Studies and other on-line and print publications.

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“Empire, Nation, Diaspora: Recovering the Voices of Vahé and Hagop Oshagan” at the MLA International Symposium, Lisbon, July 23-25.

Lisbon was recently the site of two important events related to the literature of the Armenian diaspora.

The first was a panel that convened at the International Symposium of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the major professional association for scholars and teachers of language and literature, including comparative literature. This year’s theme was Remembering Voices Lost. According to the organizers, the conference, which took place between July 23 and 25 in the Portuguese capital, aimed to “recuperate the ‘lost voices’ of humanity: those that have been buried or forgotten and those that have been marginalized or othered on the grounds of their perceived foreignness.”

The panel, titled “Empire, Nation, Diaspora: A Look from the Armenian Experience,” examined the work of Hagop Oshagan and Vahé Oshagan, whose biological lives stretched over the entire twentieth century and whose output inscribed the limits of the imperial, national and diasporic projects. The panel explored the respective literary critical trajectories of the two writers, as well as the complex literary links between them. In his opening remarks, Karen Jallatyan (Armenian Studies Postdoctoral fellow at U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor), chair of the panel, stressed the singularity of the event. “This is the first time that an MLA panel is held on Hagop and Vahé Oshagan,” he said.  “We are hoping that it will contribute to the advancement of Oshagan studies, which in turn will lead to new perspectives on Armenian-Turkish relations in the Ottoman Empire, the peculiarities and possibilities of Diaspora literature, and the themes of loss, survival and remembrance.”

The Oshagan panel: L to R: Karen Jallatyan, Nanor Kebranian, Hagop Kouloujian, Taline Voskeritchian

The first panelist was Nanor Kebranian (Queen Mary, University of London) who began by noting the invisibility — prior even to the possibility of being remembered — to which Diaspora Armenian literature is condemned by academia since it falls outside the purview of post-colonial, post-Ottoman, Middle Eastern as well as Ethnic and Area Studies. Kebranian then offered a reading of Hagop Oshagan’s oeuvre as a refusal to conform to any exclusionary nationalist identity politics in rise particularly at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Following this, Karen Jallatyan offered a reading of Vahé Oshagan’s incomplete and unpublished historical novel Promontory, including the ways it rewrites Hagop Oshagan’s Remnants from the diasporic ground and thus offers a rare perspective of the Armenian transition from empire to nation to diaspora. Hagop Kouloujian (UCLA) gave the third presentation by attempting a comparative reading between Nigoghos Sarafian and Vahé Oshagan’s poetics, drawing attention to their deliberate openness towards non-binary diasporic becoming. Taline Voskeritchian (Boston University) made closing remarks by discussing the emergence of Vahé Oshagan’s diasporic literature in Armenian in the context of a statement he made in 1962 at the beginning of his literary career: “You must play poker on your grandfathers’ grave if you want to be a writer.” She drew attention to the complexities of literary risk-taking that characterizes what Vahé Oshagan has called a “diaspora sensibility.”

The panel was made possible through a travel grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

On July 26, and in conjunction with the MLA panel, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation hosted the screening of Hrayr Anmahouni Eulmessekian’s experimental documentary “Vahé Oshagan: Between Acts” at the Foundation’s headquarters in Lisbon. The film has been screened at the American University of Armenia, and the Mirzoyan Library in Yerevan; at UCLA and Abril Bookstore in Los Angeles; at Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris; and by the Montreal chapter of Hamazkayin Cultural Association.

The film brings together extracts from Oshagan’s poetry; Ohannes Salibian’s electronic sound-texts of Oshagan’s poems; analysis by Nichanian, Krikor Beledian, Krikor Shahinian and Oshagan himself; and biographical information about the Oshagans. The result is an arresting and informative film — an intense conversation between language, image, sound, commentary and biographical narrative. “Here, too, we have several significant qualities,” said Voskeritchian, who translated the film, including the poetic extracts. “The film is entirely in Western Armenian, about a modern Armenian writer who wrote in Armenian. This is rare in our diaspora culture. What is even more rare is that it is an experimental documentary — in image and sound — but its home, if you will, is the Western Armenian language.”

A Q and A with Anmahouni and Voskeritchian followed, moderated by Hagop Kouloujian.

Marc Nichanian, philosopher, writer, and translator, who has written extensively about Hagop and Vahé Oshagan, offered final remarks both on the MLA panel the day before and the screening of the film. Regarding the first, he noted, “This panel was the first of its kind devoted entirely to writers writing in Armenian, not to mention the fact that they are father and son. There is here the possibility of opening some elements of Armenian literature to an international context and beginning a conversation with the world.” Nichanian further noted that on the one hand the experience of dispersion marking the diasporic experience suggests the impossibility of transmission from one generation to another, from father to son. On the other hand, Nichanian suggested that with the Oshagans, we have a complex situation that inscribes the challenges of cultural transmission in the diaspora. Kebranian in a commentary drew attention to an inverse phenomenon of expecting excessive transmission from Armenians living in the Diaspora. Both Nichanian and Kebranian agreed that the Diaspora Armenian experience is marked by a difficulty of transgenerational cultural transmission.

“Vahé Oshagan: Between Acts” was originally commissioned in 1994 by Hamazkayin Cultural Association, Western Region, and up-resed and translated with English subtitles in 2016 with a generous grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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Anahide Ter Minassian:by way of a tribute

Anahid Ter Minassian (1929-2019): By way of a tribute

Some deaths are trascendant; they point to something larger beyond the individual life.

The death of Anahide Ter Minassian–in whom the historian, the person of action, and the tender nurturer cohabited a common psychological space–on February 11 is one such event. It spans the decades of Armenian life after the genocide, and with her passing, an entire period in the diaspora of Europe comes to an end, a period anchored in Paris and sustained by the work–material and cultural– of the refugees, exiles, displaced persons, all remnants of the genocide: the Missakians, the Ter Minassians, the Samuelians, and less directly the Aznavourians; the factory workers, the skilled laborers, the seamstresses, among others.

Almost all were survivors of some kind, refugees, displaced persons, exiles carrying the horrors of the genocide and the indignities of resettlement, people who tried to rebuild their lives and their communities–clubs, newspapers, bookstores, theater groups and choirs.

The grief for her passing is also a collective mourning for the end of that era and its substantial achievements. Anahide Ter Minassian was one of the most vocal and original figures of that generation, and the one with the most energetic life. Till the very end, her heart and mind were generous, her laughter sharp and voluminous, and her spirit buoyant and utterly free of sentimentality.

Anahide belonged to another age, and it is that age over whose eclipse we weep now.~

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On Armenia-diaspora relations

~Here is the article I wrote for “Hetq” on the recent visit of the new diaspora minister, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, to Boston.  ~

Bridging the Divide: Diaspora Minister Hayrapetyan Promises Restart, but Core Issues Remain


10:12, August 8, 2018

By Taline Voskeritchian

Breaking with the past practices of his predecessors, Armenia’s recently appointed minister of the diaspora, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, said on August 4 in a town hall meeting in Watertown, Massachusetts, that he wanted to get to know the diaspora better; listen to its many voices, even those that criticize his government’s policies; offer information about participating in Armenia’s development; correct the mistakes of the past; and heal relations between the two wings of the Armenian nation. On July 31, Hayrapetyan had a similar meeting with the Los Angeles Armenian community.

It’s been said many times that the diaspora is not a unitary and unified entity, and Hayrapetyan based his comments on this view. He spoke of “thousands of communities” scattered throughout the world, and of his determination to work with everyone who wants to work with his government. In usage, this was a departure from past practices when the Armenian world seemed to be divided between the homeland and what was not the homeland, territory and extra-territory, երկիր and արտերկիր.  Actually, the word diaspora does not represent the full picture of the Armenian diasporic world today that Hayrapetyan ascribes to.  In the absence of a better alternative, I use the word here with reservation.

The idea of the diaspora implied in this writing is broad and ahistorical, but diasporas develop across generations and achieve a tenuous permanence over time.  In this respect, they are different from migrant or exilic communities. I have lumped all these forms of dispersion and resettlement together because of space constraints.

Hayrapetyan’s introductory comments and the answers he gave to selected questions sent in advance were based on two key ideas:  Several times during the meeting, he underlined the importance of this historic moment in Armenia-diaspora relations, arguing that conditions after the so-called velvet revolution are ripe for diaspora Armenians to help Armenia become a “cool” country, a country based on justice, transparency, and rule of law.  The non-violent popular uprising of April, with its ideals of solidarity and love, had created a unique opportunity, he said, to set aside the attitudes and practices of the past and embark on a new, more dynamic course.

The minister was forthright in discussing these past practices.

“We’re not asking for money,” he said. Armenia needs professional expertise from abroad mainly in health and agriculture; he pointed out that the regions, and not Yerevan, are the most in need of such interventions.  One of the goals of the Pashinyan administration is this kind of “professional repatriation” as he put it.

Later, he turned his attention to his own ministry, indirectly criticizing the way things were done in the past: the concentration of decision-making powers in the hands of the minister, and the identifying of the ministry’s policies with the person of the minister.  He answered a question about the ways that his ministry would measure the success of a particular program by saying that if the program withstood the transition from one minister to another, then it had the hallmarks of success. Ministers come and go, he seemed to be saying; policies and institutions stay and grow, if they are well thought-out and efficiently implemented.  This was a particularly revealing moment, a sharp contrast to the oft misguided declarations of his predecessor, Hranoush Hakobyan, who headed the ministry from its creation in 2008 until her resignation in April.

In his invitation to the Watertown audience to act on the urgency of the moment, Hayrapetyan repeated the necessity and attractiveness of investing in Armenia. This has been the mantra of all government officials who talk to diaspora audiences.

“You can make money in Armenia,” the minister told his audience.  He reported that his government was working on a series of measures to eradicate corruption and nepotism, to make the process of investing in Armenia clearer, less cumbersome, and more transparent, in short, to protect business interests.  “Investments don’t have a homeland,” he said. The assurance was noteworthy for the way it turned the idea of the homeland on its head to serve the interests of capital. But more than that, it was significant for what it left out: a government’s duty is also to safeguard the interests of the country’s workers, their environment and working conditions.  Investments may or may not have a homeland, but if an Armenian diaspora business person or entity from Los Angeles or Moscow is investing in the homeland, then the patriotic imperative is to demand that workers’ rights be protected stringently. Sadly, this idea of justice as a pervasive principle is often absent in the self-image of many diaspora communities.  In the US at least, traditional Armenian organizations and political parties have limited the practice of justice to the genocide and to genocide recognition and neglected social and labor justice, to the detriment of the diaspora’s full engagement in the public life of the countries where Armenians live, and by extension, sometimes of Armenia itself.

Hayrapetyan returned to this theme of the historic moment several times and urged the diaspora to step forward, aim for unity of purpose in building the new Armenia.  He appealed specifically to the youth and listed some initiatives that the government had undertaken. As past Armenian ministers go, Hayrapetyan is young, and his words carried the enthusiasm of his years and of the peaceful regime change he and his comrades successfully engineered.  But his audience in Watertown was a group of some 200 listeners who were largely middle-aged. (It may be argued that this condition is specific to the Boston-area community, but I watched the minister’s meeting in Glendale and noted no significant difference.) In the emerging diaspora communities of post-Soviet countries, the involvement of youth may be easier because ties to the homeland are stronger.

In the classical diaspora, Hayrapetyan’s ministry may have to work with, but also around, the established community organizations to reach these marginalized young people and harness their energies. If organizations of the diaspora, inspired by the April popular uprising, are serious about energizing their structures, they would have to re-imagine a mission that is expansive and outward looking. In the case of the US diaspora, this would involve a re-thinking of the genocide cottage industry that the political and cultural organizations of the diaspora (as well as some cultural figures and celebrities) have so energetically supported.  They have reproduced the hackneyed rhetoric of the past, dismissed any criticism as elitism or countering with the well-at-least-they’re-doing-something jargon, but most important, reduced the national tragedy to public relations. (I am borrowing the term genocide industry from Norman Finkelstein’s notion of the holocaust industry, with a qualifier.)

Hayrapetyan’s vision of a modern, “cool” state all Armenians can be proud of is of a country that would put right the mistakes of the past, the corruption of the former administration, but also the injustices that the Armenian nation had endured.  “We have a historic opportunity,” he said, “to prove that the genocide was a failure.” He may have been tailoring his remarks to an American-Armenian community where the genocide and its recognition cast a long shadow, but this was the minister’s only reference to the genocide (and to its many rhetorical offshoots), and a modest departure from the language of the past. True, Hayrapetyan’s optimistic assertion carried a hint of triumphalism, and he did not say much about the limits of his government’s capability to carry out this monumental mandate.  But his speech—delivered in English–was free of the moth-ridden pathos and weepy patriotism of victimhood. It offered rationality, honesty, and pragmatism as correctives. He promised details, which he said would be announced soon.

Hayrapetyan’s second key idea was the relationship between Armenia and the diaspora–or rather the many diasporas and communities-and-enclaves-within-diasporas that make up what we have come to call the diaspora, the classical, post-genocide diasporas of the Middle East and the more recent, emerging diasporas of the post-Soviet realm.  He said that Armenia did not have a “clear understanding of the diaspora.” The admission is commendable; the reasons are complex; the solutions are long-rage.

Part of the reason for this lack of understanding is how his predecessors, going all the way back to Soviet times, saw the diaspora.  To understand the diaspora would have meant to accept the diaspora’s fluid, de-centered character and its hyper-vulnerability to civil war, revolution, economic turbulence; to confront the idea that diasporas are always in a state of formation and dissolution; and to be aware of the limits of exerting control over diaspora communities.

Another reason lies in the diaspora itself, which does not really know itself very well, has not taken stock of its real resources—financial, professional, cultural, and political–and has not developed democratic, inclusive institutions that encourage debate, change, even dissent. The diaspora does not know its cultural heritage very well either despite all the talk about Armenians being champions of culture.  In the US, for instance, the diaspora has not seized ownership of its Western Armenian language (as a friend says, “You want your children not to speak, read, and write Armenian?  Send them to an Armenian school!”). In short, it has not taken itself seriously, has not achieved the kind of self-consciousness that would make it a real participant in the conversation with the homeland.

Hayrapetyan said that to understand the diaspora means to research the capacities of its constituent parts, measure their potential, define their characteristics, find their luminaries through systematic, scientific work, all of it necessary and urgent for investment and repatriation. To understand the diaspora takes time; it is a long-term project. It is complicated by the vast differences in history, development, language, social life and habits of being. A first step might be to integrate diaspora history and culture (especially the literature) in the curriculum of schools in Armenia, to find a place of consequence for the Western Armenian language (begin by refusing to call it a dialect), to foster in students at least an awareness if not a consciousness of the homeland’s other. Another step would be to develop programs of real exchange.  Why should there not be, for instance, a Birthright Diaspora? High school and college students from Armenia could work as volunteers and interns in diaspora organizations and communities. But for such a vision to materialize, the diaspora has to put its house in order and be ready to cast aside its old habits and ways of doing things.

The diaspora is not only tourists flitting into Yerevan, spending money in eateries, visiting monasteries.  Neither is it celebrities, well-intentioned as they may be, speaking as self-appointed spokespersons of a diaspora that has yet to develop mechanisms of democratic representation.  It is ironic that these spokespersons often seem uninterested in the problems of the diaspora, in organizing its potential, protesting its sclerotic organizational structures.

To understand the diaspora in the way that Hayrapetyan imagines would benefit Armenia immensely.  But it is also true that in the absence of reliable data, the idea of the diaspora’s potential and resources have assumed mythic proportions.  In the end, the diaspora’s potential is tied to individuals choosing to be involved or not in Armenia’s future. Some diaspora Armenians are indifferent to what happens in Armenia, to Armenia’s fate.  Or they are, at best, enthused temporarily by events of the day only to return to the demands of their life. In this day and age, to say, for instance, as some of these spokespersons have, that the reason large sectors of diaspora Armenians are not involved is that they do not have enough information is to propagate an untruth, and to relegate the problem again to the old stand-by, accessibility.

Hayrapetyan did not spend much time talking about limits and constraints though he did say that his government will be forthright in saying what it can and cannot do.  His emphasis was on the positives—a strong diaspora means a strong Armenia and vice versa. As the representative of a state, the minister has a clear idea of what makes for a strong state, but what about the diaspora?

Is a strong diaspora one that exerts pressure internationally?  That has high levels of education, professional success, institutional flexibility and resilience?  That has a noticeable and continuous cultural and scientific presence in the host country? That is able to provide substantial support to the homeland?  That can take care of its most vulnerable populations? Armenia will define the strength of the diaspora according to the country’s needs. Are those needs the same as those of the diaspora itself? And as Armenia develops “incentives for repatriation,” would that strengthen or weaken the diaspora?   Should there be a congruence between the state’s definition of a strong diaspora and the diaspora’s own definition if such a definition ever materializes?

The enthusiastic response Hayrapetyan received was partly, and understandably, due to the diaspora’s endemic unease with its non-state status, with its longing to be part of the state. But Armenia is also limited in how it can help the diaspora, the preparation of textbooks and the running of teacher training programs notwithstanding. These efforts, commendable for a small country like Armenia, may be touted as examples of how the state can be of benefit to the diaspora in the realm of national preservation (հայապահպանում).   But whose definition of national identity, the homeland’s or the diaspora’s? To act as though they are one and the same is to be blind to the facts.  As part of its program of national identity preservation, the Armenian government may offer, as the minister proposed, financial assistance to a school that is closing its doors, but that is –and should be– the responsibility of the community, which knows better than anyone else the causes and means of salvaging the situation.  Sometimes, schools have to be shut down.

For Hayrapetyan, the diaspora should “exist”, but opportunities must be created to connect diaspora Armenians with Armenia in concrete ways that are mutually beneficial.  No one can or should argue with that, but the operative idea here is the “existence” of the diaspora. Should it exist, or should it endure and grow and change and respond to changing circumstances and environments?  Existence is a bit like survival. After a decade of post-genocide identity-formation, it is time perhaps to move beyond the stranglehold of survival.

Both in the Los Angeles and Watertown town meetings, someone in the audience raised a question about the fate of Melkonian Institution in Cyprus.  In Watertown, the immediate response came from the floor: “Go ask the AGBU.” It’s a valid answer, but it does not make the question irrelevant or misguided.  On both occasions, the intent was, I think, to appeal to Armenia as a state that has an international presence and perhaps can, if it wants, exert pressure, negotiate, or formulate solutions to protect the interests of Armenian communities and institutions, particularly in the turbulent Middle East region.  In Los Angeles, Hayrapetyan refrained from offering a response to how Armenia can help in re-opening and revitalizing Melkonian. As I understand it, Melkonian is currently closed and under the custody of the Cypriot government.

In Watertown, where the same question was asked impromptu, from the margins at it were, after the event had officially ended, Hayrapetyan said that the closing of any Armenian school is a very serious matter, and that the closure of the Melkonian is part of a larger problem that needs to be addressed. Contrary to what the minister said, the Melkonian situation is not the same as that of the Armenian school in Amman, Jordan, which shut its doors recently. Together with Nishan Palandjian College in Beirut, Melkonian was a venerable diaspora institution, one of the major repositories of the diaspora’s collective cultural and intellectual memory. For this reason, its closure is a major setback to the diaspora’s efforts at national identity preservation. I think it is also for this reason that in both meetings, the subject of Melkonian came up. It was an appeal to the Armenian government to use its resources in securing a viable solution.

The Melkonian situation is also part of a larger consideration.  The same logic that propelled the questioners in Glendale and Watertown would be relevant to Jerusalem whose Armenian Quarter houses the rich heritage of Armenian treasures (surpassed only by Etchmiadzin).  The Armenian government may face a similar imperative should the community and the St. James Brotherhood become vulnerable in the ongoing Judaization of the city. In both cases, Armenia can play a role, as it can for Aleppo, a role above and beyond hosting Armenian refugees who fled the city at the height of the Syrian civil war.

(Taline Voskeritchian’s work has appeared in The Nation, London Review of Books, Armenian Review, Alik (Tehran), Journal of Palestine Studies, BookForum, Daily Star (Beirut) and other on-line and print publications. She teaches at Boston University.)

Top photo: Dejection of Noah from Mt. Ararat (Aivazosky, 1897)

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