Diversifying the Definition of ‘Diaspora’

Conference in Yerevan brings together leading experts in Diaspora Studies to discuss how the term 'diaspora' is evolving, and new approaches to studying it.

YEREVAN (A.W.)—Some of the world’s leading experts in the field of Diaspora Studies—a subject to which Armenians are no strangers—convened in Yerevan on April 3, for a one-day conference on diaspora communities, how they evolve, and what they bring to the societies where they form. The event was organized by Aykut S. Ozturk, a PhD candidate at University College London’s Department of Anthropology.

(Photo: Sofia Manukyan)

The choice of Armenia as a venue for this event was significant according to Ozturk, a Hrant Dink Foundation fellow who currently lives in Armenia and conducts research at the Department of Diaspora Studies of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (IAE). “In Armenia, obviously, for historical reasons, ‘diaspora’ is a very ‘established’ term,” he told the Armenian Weekly. “I mean there is even a Ministry [of Diaspora]. Jewish and Armenian experiences of diasporization and re-diasporization are often taken as the classic examples. But the end of the Cold War led to a ‘diasporic turn’ in both social sciences and also for the many migrant countries around the world and researchers tried to understand extended histories and experiences of dispersion and mobility through diaspora fieldwork and many dispersed communities claimed the title of ‘diaspora.’”

At the conference, Ozturk wished to stress that there is a multiplicity of definitions in the wider world—both in academia and the “everyday level.” “But in Armenia I sense the word is taken too literally. There is no one united single ‘Armenian Diaspora’—as the diaspora has emerged in different waves of dispersion, and also the ‘centers of gravity’ are changing,” he said.

Ozturk’s interest in Diaspora Studies has a long and rich background. Previously a Master’s student at University of London’s SOAS in Migration and Diaspora Studies, his doctoral research now focuses on the daily encounters between Istanbul Armenians and Armenian migrants from the modern Republic of Armenia. He detects the main dynamics of relationships and community making in contemporary Istanbul, and has conducted his research in three Istanbul neighborhoods, as well as in Gyumri and Vanadzor, with migrants who have come back. He even performs fieldwork in the transitional spaces, like in the buses connecting the two countries (which exist despite the closed border). At IAE, Ozturk is continuing his work in the field, researching the “transformation of Armenia-Diaspora relationships after emergence of Armenia as ‘an accessible homeland.’”

One such complex situation was presented by Hrag Papazian, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, who spoke about Armenians living in Istanbul and the variety of classifications the community has for defining itself (his PhD research topic). The debate on whether Armenians in Istanbul are a diaspora or not is quite deep-rooted, and has even led to the need of having conferences on the topic, where certain representatives expressed their opposition to being called “diasporans.”

Papazian formulated his thesis following numerous interviews with Istanbul-Armenians, some of whom felt themselves a diaspora and consider historical towns in the Eastern part of Turkey (known in Armenia as Western Armenia) as their homeland; others rejected that they are a part of the Diaspora, and consider Istanbul their home; and a third group falls somewhere in between, not believing themselves to be Diasporan, yet not feeling themselves quite at home in Istanbul, either.

Papazian also noted that the politics of the Turkish Republic has, in turn, played some role in the feelings of acceptance of some local Armenians in Istanbul, due to propagandizing the Armenian Diaspora as being affiliated with militant Armenian groups, like ASALA (considered a terrorist group by and as a guerrilla and armed organization by others). Therefore, he said, some community members would distance themselves from the term “diaspora.”

Other presentations concentrated on the ways diaspora communities form their identities and roles as part of a larger diasporic entity. The Armenian community in Anjar, Lebanon, for example, is a result of Armenian refugees coming from Musa Ler (Musa Dagh). They have, as a result, named the neighborhoods after the six villages in Musa Ler. Khoren Grigoryan, ethnographer at the IAE, spoke about the important role the popular book from 1933,The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, has played in this community’s identity formation. Citing one of his interviewees, he also pointed at how Armenians in Lebanon view Beirut as a place for work, while Anjar as a place for spiritual revival—a breath of fresh air.

IAE’s Arsen Hakobyan spoke about the complex situation of Syrian-Armenians after the war in Syria, whose trajectory of movement first resulted in the creation of their small “diaspora” within Armenia, and later, due to mostly economic and social and less due to cultural specifics, resulted in some Syrian-Armenians moving abroad and others going back to Syria.

Literary studies scholar and lecturer of Comparative Literature at the American University of Armenia Siranush Dvoyan (from the American University of Armenia) presented her work regarding the “loss of parent figures in literature” in the French-Armenian Diasporic literature between 1930-1950s concentrating on the works of writers such as Shahan Shahnur, Zareh Vorbuni, and others. Speaking about the formation of French-Armenian Diasporic literature, she concluded that while Western Armenian writers had been familiar and influenced by French literature, after having been forced to move to France, they found that they did not know enough to be adopted by the French literary world. As a result, considerable time was spent on trying to adapt, unlike the case of Armenian literature that was shaped in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, which focused on the past.

The conference also included discussions on non-Armenian diasporas, on going beyond traditional definitions of diaspora, and on introducing the additional term “diasporic,” which Ozturk believes could help to understand the diversity of various communities, including those who live in their own homes, yet can be referred as to “diasporic natives.”

Zoe Goodman, a doctoral candidate at SOAS in Social Anthropology, who lived in Mombasa, Kenya, presented about the Indian communities there. From her research, she revealed that Indians living in Mombasa for generations cite feeling disconnected from the native Kenyan community, who still after all these years, see them as foreigners. Goodman concentrated on food in particular as a symbol of “reproduction” of the Indian diaspora in Mombasa. While local Kenyans see Indian residents as “guests” (even those who have lived there for generations), they have absorbed certain Indian culinary traditions into their regional, “native” fare, and often sell this cuisine as as something very local, despite the fact that they see Indians themselves as non-natives.

For many, the conference was a breath of fresh air in a world where it seems interaction between academics and the societies they study is growing increasingly scarce.

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Sofia Manukyan

Sofia Manukyan is a staff writer at the Armenian Weekly. Her specialization is in the field of human rights impacted by the private sector. She is particularly interested in how private interests impact the environment and socio-economics. She holds a degree in human rights from the University of Essex. In Armenia she is mostly engaged with promoting environmental protection and labor rights.

5 Comments

  1. Interesting to read.
    It seems a bit strange that the largest Armenian Diaspora population is in North America. Canada; in Montreal and Toronto, The USA; in CA and the Northeast and yet no discussion or presentations were made about this huge segment of the Diaspora, which plays a very critical role.
    Vart Adjemian

  2. Absolutely fascinating discussion. Important that issue is tackled scientifically and evidenced-based. Congratulations. annie

  3. Our Grandmother and her family were from Constantinople Armenian. They immigrated to Central New York in 1920 with the help of newly American Armenians and Protestant Americans. Diaspora is a vast topic to explore.

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