Armenian Diaspora: Discovering Anatolia in Los Angeles
Living in the diaspora and dealing with emotions of disconnect and longing are very difficult to grasp for those who have never lived away from their homes, wherever that ‘home’ may be. Whether voluntary or forceful, physical separation from one’s homeland is a major trauma that can morph into a perennial emotional longing. It might go unnoticed or can be repressed in some cases but this psyche reverberates a narrative of an imagined homeland noticeably amongst collectives that were exiled or survived massive traumas. The diaspora Armenians are prone to this nostalgic collective psyche pertaining to the massive human resources and economic losses during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and after the fall of the Soviet Union.
There is plenty of discussion on the Armenian diaspora in Turkey, but the lack of first hand experience is impeding potential interactions with the diaspora. This is because of the misrepresentations and miscommunication between Turkey and the diaspora. In Turkey the dominant connotation linked to the Armenian diaspora is ‘radical’. After a month in the field I hoped to assess the relevancy of this prevailing perception and the intricate relationship between the Turkish and the Armenian diaspora identity.
Perhaps the most significant challenges between Turks and diaspora Armenians –other than both being trapped in conventional large-group prejudices- have been the lack of interaction, dialogue and communication. Although I had previous connections, my most distinct encounter with the diaspora in their Southern California heartland, the city of Glendale, was a step that epitomized my own fears. At the same time it was a major confrontation of my expectations of the diaspora. I had a certain image of what could be dubbed as ‘Little Armenia’ that I gathered from secondary resources such as news articles, books, journals and other publications. After all, as a former resident of the greater Los Angeles area I thought Glendale would not be safe for Turks and that I should not be there perhaps stemming from my own biases. More importantly, the now faded wave of violence towards Turks, diplomats and civilians alike, was in the back of my mind generating a certain typology of the diaspora. I was soon to realize that my biases were not well grounded. In fact, my month-long experience meeting with the diaspora Armenians was very inspiring. Stepping foot in Glendale, was almost as if I was in an Americanized Anatolian city, not too different than what I’m used to seeing in Turkey. Kabob restaurants, coffee shops, small stores and the Americana mall right on the Grand Avenue. The vivid image of men playing backgammon, drinking coffee and women rushing from one store to another shopping for the holidays reminded me of ‘home’. It also resembled Chaussée de Haecht in Brussels where roughly every other person on the street is of Turkish origin. I felt I fit in just perfectly. The truth is my anxieties were relieved following my first encounter in the all-Armenian Glendale. Surprisingly, even the thought of visiting Turkey triggered similar fears amongst some diasporans. Perhaps, a courageous first interaction is all it takes as I assured my diasporan friends.
I asked myself ‘where is home’ for the, what is it like living in the diaspora, where did they belong? I was able to meet diverse groups of diaspora Armenians and listen to their stories. To my surprise, there was a symbolic presence of Anatolia in Southern California through the descendants of Adana, Maraş, Kayseri, Muş, Diyarbakır, Antep, Elazığ and many more towns. Amongst those originally from these towns, very few have ever paid a visit but this didn’t change the fact that majority did have a strong emotional bond, an emotional belonging that is not easy to describe. There was an imaginative, pastoral description of the homeland transmitted from one generation to the next one coupled with the enduring effect of loss and being lost in the third space. It was not a strong longing but rather was a reminiscence of the past particularly for those who seemed to be politically more active. Perhaps the third space was represented in a ‘refugee mentality’.
It is unfair to take a holistic approach in defining the Armenian diaspora; the community is not a monolithic entity. Indeed, there are political and social diversities within the Armenian community in the greater Los Angeles area. Yet, the feeling of injustice, nostalgia, the traumatic past and the inability to form a certain belonging are collective identity markers overarching diversities. Some diaspora Armenians defined what they called a ‘compulsory exile’, as if they still have their suitcases packed, almost ready to go back either to their ancient homes or to the Republic of Armenia. This feeling, together with the perception of an unresponsive approach of Turkey towards their pain up until very recently has been containing the diaspora in a space of nostalgia, even in a constant state of mourning. It is a predicament that while the past should be commemorated dwelling in the past and the symbolic preoccupation with Turkey hampers diaspora’s efforts to construct a viable future for the diasporan identity, but on the other hand it is a bond for the identity that has a core narrative of victimization. On one hand, it is up to the diaspora to find a constructive way out of this state but also equally up to Turkey to relieve the diaspora of this pain through groundbreaking initiatives.
Besides this feeling of being lost, identifying the existence of the symbolic ‘Turk’ in the collective identity is puzzling. Even for those who have not actually met a Turk before there is still a certain perception. However, this is not a genuine interaction. During one of my meetings a young diasporan said: ‘I was hesitant to join this meeting and normally I have negative sentiments against Turks, but you are cool and this conversation is going well’. Another said she felt she is being heard. The views expressed by these diasporans were very similar to my own self-fulfilling judgments and positive experience that came afterwards meeting with the unknown territory of the diaspora. Another diaporan said ‘I wouldn’t expect to have such a nice conversation with a Turk, ever!’. This perhaps signified a predicament of getting to know the ‘other’. Likewise, such an anxiety of tackling an unknown space is present in the Turkish society. It is somewhat due to the alienation from the past, and with that both Turks and the diasporans are caught in the mechanism of hegemonic narratives hindering dialogue efforts. To be precise, majority of Turks are strangled in a one-sided history assessment and lack of empathy while majority of diaspora Armenians seem to be preoccupied with a sense of socio-political victimization and the overwhelming power of certain political groups.
Nevertheless, through a first step of interaction Turks and the diaspora will be able to recognize that neither is ‘dreadful’ and can work on trust issues. As a result, the current alienation might diminish and both Turks and the diaspora can rediscover their ‘home’. As the alienation perishes Turks and the diasporans are more likely to see one another from a healthier perspective that stems from personal and societal experiences. Both the diaspora and Turkey are actually going through major shifts in their approach towards one another, yet neither society is fully aware of this changing dynamic. Regrettably, the lack of communication is hindering the ability to see this perspective thoroughly.
One of the biggest mistakes in assessing the diaspora is taking a holistic approach and observing the society through the more strident narratives and publications. Likewise, it seems like the diaspora too will have a difficult time in making their point as long as the dominant narrative is produced by strident political movements.
*Senem Çevik is Assistant Professor at Ankara University. This article is based on the author’s field research in Los Angeles, U.S.A.