Whither the Diaspora?

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.

The entry for the word Spyurk (diaspora) in an Armenian dictionary published in Constantinople in 1910

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!



Garen Yegparian

Garen Yegparian

Asbarez Columnist
Garen Yegparian is a fat, bald guy who has too much to say and do for his own good. So, you know he loves mouthing off weekly about anything he damn well pleases to write about that he can remotely tie in to things Armenian. He's got a checkered past: principal of an Armenian school, project manager on a housing development, ANC-WR Executive Director, AYF Field worker (again on the left coast), Operations Director for a telecom startup, and a City of LA employee most recently (in three different departments so far). Plus, he's got delusions of breaking into electoral politics, meanwhile participating in other aspects of it and making sure to stay in trouble. His is a weekly column that appears originally in Asbarez, but has been republished to the Armenian Weekly for many years.
Garen Yegparian

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  1. Hey Garen,
    You say that ”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) […] and values (particularly those that are specific to us rather than Christian or village-life based), yerazahan (our dream interpreting book).”
    Why do you say unfortunately? What are these values that you are talking about which are specific to us rather than Christian? Complete non-sense…
    A reminder to you, it is thanks to the Church that the Armenian people exist today. It was the Church which created the Armenian alphabet as a means to avoid the Armenian people being assimilated into one of the two camps (Byzantine and Persian) which were occupying and had split the historical homeland in two. Without the Church’s efforts, we would have been assimilated into either camp and today we would be calling ourselves Turks.
    Good old traditional Armenian values are Christian values, certainly not those of our pagan ancestors who worshipped stones, fire and had a loose sexuality like we see in America today.
    You refer to traces of the “if you don’t speak Armenian, you’re not Armenian” mindset, but truly, if you are not a Christian, you are not an Armenian.
    And if you haven’t forgotten, we were persecuted during the Genocide not because of our language, alphabet and DNA, but because we were Christian. We paid a high price to retain our cherished Christian religion and values, so you should revisit your anti-Christian and anti-Church bias if you want to inspire your compatriots.

  2. “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.”

    Yes it is tough, but if one does not preserve ones ethnic group identity and ethnic consciousness, then they as a group will become disunited and in disarray. A homogenous and hive-like mind is key to success. Just look at Japan for example. No one there is saying that speaking Japanese should not be a prerequisite to living in Japan leg alone working there. As an Armenisn it is imperative that you speak Armenian. Just even for the sake of proving the Turks wrong. Armenian’s tongue’s were cut out in Turkey if they spoke their mother tongue in public. Why would Armeniand in the free west no speak Armenian. It’s s disgrace.

    Culture should not be ultra fluid, but should be fairly consistent and have a protective quarantine around it. Just look at what Sweden is facing now- a cultural genocide of sorts, be used it doesn’t phasise that foreigners learn Swedish and states that anyone born in sweden is Swedish even if they don’t speak the language or have a vastly different culture from the native swedes. Don’t promote this crap for Armenia.

  3. When I was young I went every Sunday to the Armanian church in Paris
    with my grand’mother. Now I live far from any armenan church. I am 92
    years orld. I am grand mother. My children are very goog but but they do not go to any church. Il feel like an orphan.

  4. That “unfortunately” addition is the writer’s assumption that his readers are as anti-Christian as he is. According to Khorenatsi, we were barbarians before Christianity and there is no reason to doubt this. Our atheist or pagan intellectuals have brought us nothing but destruction since the 19th century.

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