Yesterday, I was talking to a friend when a question posed prompted this topic of discussion. I’d been stuck, with no good ideas for this week’s piece, so I owe a debt of gratitude for this question.
Especially since I’ve put out two pieces about language in recent weeks, let’s start with that aspect of the diaspora’s life. Clearly, Armenian speaking in the diaspora is getting hammered. Everywhere, the number of speakers and the quality of Armenian spoken is declining. Fortunately, some serious efforts to counter this are afoot (among them from the Gulbenkian Foundation). Also, the issue seems to be getting more attention and discussion lately, an important sign that people are concerned and willing to approach the matter maturely and conscientiously. While there are traces of the “if you don’t speak Armenian, you’re not Armenian” mindset still around, I think they have been tempered by realities of the diaspora and modern communications. If we can figure this one out, Armenians worldwide will be in great shape. But, at a minimum, I think that what Vahe Oshagan said to us in a class, more than a third of a century ago, must serve as a baseline—anyone aspiring to leadership in our communities and nation must be able to communicate in Armenian (and realistically, at least one other language).
We speak freely and loosely of the diaspora. Yet, according to many experts, it is more accurate to refer to many Diasporas. I have a problem with this. While it may be a technically, sociologically, academically more correct, it begs the question, “What do we want?” Do we want to be many, different diasporas or do we want to be one?
What does all this mean anyway, in the context of having only about 20% of our homeland reasonably freely accessible to us. Do we want to legitimize, deepen, and perpetuate the differences imposed on us by host country realities? Do we want to strive for some semblance of national unity while scattered internationally? Lots of questions, insufficient discussion, and very few answers—at least as of now—make this matter, diasporan identity, a sore spot.
Culture is of course another grave concern—art, church (unfortunately this too must be included since it has become the repository for many things Armenian that predate its existence), dance, film, folk tales, food, history, legends, literature (in Armenian and in other languages), local village lore, medicine-old remedies, metalwork (gold, silver, and other metals), music, mythology, numismatics, philately, photography, poetry, Sasoontzee Tavit (our epic), theater, stories, traditions and values (particularly those that are specific to us rather than Christian or village-life based), yerazahan (our dream interpreting book).
We have always said we have to “maintain” or “preserve” these. That’s a tough one. With few exceptions, these components of culture are all fluid and evolving. So, trying to keep them frozen is likely to fail. Our approach should be one of allowing them to develop. In fact, we should insist on that mindset so that obsolescence will not sheer them from us over time. Fortunately, it seems to me “development/evolution” approach is gaining ever more acceptance.
But why bother? That’s really the more fundamental question.
In a diasporan context, it’s all about motivation. Why should any human, who happens to be Armenian, bother with any of this while living in… pick any country other than Armenia? That person really needs a good reason. And that’s where inspiration and Armenian spirit come in.
But again, why would Armenian spirit arise in anyone? For me the answer is simple—it comes from the innate human desire for justice. Is there any doubt that Armenians have a massive project of reestablishing justice? Once someone is plugged in to this multi-generational challenge of recognition, reparations, and return of the lands, then, it’s a small step to recognizing that success in reestablishing justice for Armenians entails enlivening, relishing, and thriving in all the items listed above.
So where the diaspora goes will be determined by our collective desires, will, and most importantly, activation of Armenian spirit. Get out there and inspire your compatriots!