Saturday, December 9, 2017

Paylan Sounds Alarm on Fate of Minorities in Turkey

Garo Paylan
Garo Paylan
ISTANBUL—Garo Paylan, an Armenian member of the Turkish parliament representing the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has sounded an alarm on the fate of minorities living in Turkey, including the Armenian community.
Speaking after vandals targeted several Alevi home in Eastern Turkey, Paylan said told Al-Monitor that minorities in Turkey could “again be pawns of shadowy forces that seek to exploit the country’s current discontents.”
“They [minorities] remember what happened to their grandparents, or even their mothers and fathers, and they know that it is in the current environment, crimes can occur,” he told Al-Monitor.
“Some powers use minorities as a form of manipulation against each other [knowing] that people are biased against these groups,” he said.
Late last week week, vandals painted red “X”s on 13 houses in the predominantly Alevi district of Cemal Gursel in Malatya, where Paylan’s grandparents are from and currently is known as a conservative city with 800,000 residents.
Two days after the Alevi homes were vandalized, an Armenian church association was pelted with stones when the office was empty.
Local police have yet to investigate these incidents.
Malatya is home to about a few dozen Armenians. Before the Genocide, one-third of the city’s residents were Armenian.

Chris Cornell, Constantine Orbelian, Tigran Mansurian Receive Grammy Nominations

From left, Chris Cornell (Constantine Orbelian and Tigran Manurian were nominated for Grammy awards Tuesday
From left, Chris Cornell (Constantine Orbelian and Tigran Manurian were nominated for Grammy awards Tuesday
NEW YORK—The late singer Christ Cornell, the Armenian conductor Constantine Orbelian and the Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian were among performers nominated for Grammy awards when the roster was announced Tuesday morning on CBS “This Morning.”
Cornell was nominated in Best Rock Performance category for his song, “The Promise,” which was the theme song for the eponymous film about the Armenian Genocide that premiered in April in the United States.
Cornell, who was best known as the lead vocalist, primary songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for the band Soundgarden and as lead vocalist and songwriter for Audioslave, died in Detroit on May 17. He was 52.
Last month the Armenian National Committee of American-Western Region honored Cornell with a special tribute during its annual gala. Earlier this month, Cornell was honored at the Arpa International Film Festival 20th anniversary banquet and was posthumously awarded.
Orbelian  was nominated along with the late Russian opera singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky Best Classical Solo Vocal Album category for “Russia Cast Adrift,” the world premiere orchestral recording of neo-romantic composer Georgy Sviridov’s song cycle set to the vivid and moving poetry of Sergei Yesenin.
Orbelian conducted the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra and the Russian folk music ensemble Style of Five for Hvorostovsky’s latest album “Russia Cast Adrift.”
Orbelian’ is the General and Artistic Director of the Yerevan Opera House, which in 2018 will mark the establishment’s 85th anniversary as well as the 150th anniversary of Armenian opera. Another album featuring Orbelian was nominated for Grammy 2015.
Mansurian was nominated for two Grammy awards in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Choral Performance categories for his “Requiem,” which is dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide victims.
Mansurian is nominated along with his collaborators Alexander Liebreich, Florian Helgath and the Munich Chamber Orchestra and the RIAS Choir Berlin, which co-commissioned the piece.
“Requiem” reconciles the sound and sensibility of Armenian traditions with those of Western practices, the combination of ancient Armenian religious and secular music with the Latin Requiem text, which Mansurian says gives “rise to something unexpected.”
The 60th Grammy Awards will be held on January 28 at Madison Square Garden in New York and will be broadcast live on CBS.
This article was modified to include the news about Tigran Mansurian’s Grammy nomination. An earlier version did not reflect that fact.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Photographing Historical Armenia: Facing a Past of Pain, Creating a Future of Peace

pecial to the Armenian Weekly
Arriving in Istanbul, 2012 (Photo: Stepan Norair Chahinian)
A man of many talents, Stepan Norair Chahinian brings a new way of processing information through visual representation.
From generational branches that stretch back to Urfa, Marash, Iskenderun, and Kessab, Chahinian was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1979. His passion for photography was inspired by his grandfather, Avedis Shahinian, who migrated from Marash to Aleppo, where he founded Studio Photo Shahinian.
Chahinian received education in architecture and urbanism from Mackenzie University in 2001, and in 2007 a master’s degree in art history from São Paulo state university. He began his profession as a photographer in 1999, while at university.
After graduating, he traveled throughout South America, Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East to take on photography projects. Those photographs were published in various books, newspapers, and periodicals.
He visited Turkey for the first time in 2012 to follow his family’s footsteps after they had been forced to flee their homeland, Western Armenia.
In 2015, Stepan published The Power of Emptiness: Talking with Stones in Historical Armenia, in Istanbul, Turkey, during the commemoration of the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide. In the same year, he exhibited this work in Diyarbakir and Urfa, in Turkey. A year later, his project extended to Armenia, France, and countries in South America.
Below is our interview about The Power of Emptiness and related issues.
Lori Sinanian:  This is our second encounter since we met in Abril Bookstore’s Roslin Gallery in Glendale, Calif., for the release of your new, trilingual photography book, The Power of Emptiness.Please give our readers an understanding of who you are.
Stepan Norair Chahinian: I am a consequence of a genocide that happened more than 100 years ago. My four grandparents were victims, in different ways and scales of persecution. Their families were forced into exodus and were lucky enough to survive. So I am a classic example of a third-generation member of the Armenian Diaspora, from isolated Brazil. I graduated as an architect, and inherited photography from my grandfather as a language of art and as a path of expression and as means of reading humanity in its most different forms of manifestation.
L.S.: What is the reason behind your work?
S.N.C.: Justice, recognition, and peace among all nationalities, mostly between Armenians and Turks. I had in mind to visit Turkey and try dialogue through photography: facing a past of pain and being able to create a path of peace for the future. I have never conformed to the classical divisions within the Armenian community in which I grew up: Are you from this or that political party? Which church do you attend? Which club? Who is your father?
Since 1991, the independence—and the possibility of effective political action in a free country, with its parliament, its laws and regulations—that we were able to achieve after centuries of domination, in my opinion ended any need of political divisions inside the communities. What about being “just” Armenians? That is already a huge responsibility!
The interior of Nazarian family house in Aintab, 2013 (Photo: Stepan Norair Chahinian)
We can and need to have different opinions, but the fight for our culture, history, language, traditions must be our unified mission inside the society that we live. I do not believe that fueling hate and anger over the black past of the Turkish people will help us solve the problem, much less burn flags or swear justice via arms by preaching that one day we will conquer our rights with bullets…
My generation needs to go to today’s Turkey and face them! Show them that the plan to exterminate Armenians failed and we’re coming back. We have the truth on our side, and there is no better weapon than that. They are guilty, and this is [a] very heavy [burden]. In my case, I faced them with art, with photography, and it was an incredible experience. We have to reinvent ourselves and change the strategy in the diaspora…and we have already lost a lot of time… We have to build bridges instead of trenches.
Inside the Armenian priest’s house in Everek, 2013 (Photo: Stepan Norair Chahinian)
L.S.: What is the psychology behind your title, “The Power of Emptiness?”
S.N.C.: I wanted the title to express a sensation, the one that was with me in every city, home, church, or empty school I found in the four years of travel through our historic lands. They are empty today but there’s a lot of energy stored in their memories. The stones and spaces are witnesses of the Genocide. And it was those memories, full of power, that the stones shared with me, and which I tried to reproduce through photography.

L.S.: The power of nonverbal communication, the intertwining of the past and present through interpreting images beyond the actual image… these methods of photography overpower regular conversations. Through the moments you’ve captured, what is the first image that comes to mind?
S.N.C: Although it may seem incredible, it was not even a stone, a place, or a space that impressed me so strongly, but a human being. It was the meeting with a person, an Armenian woman, who—before being photographed—took a cross out of her dress, and asked me for that photo to carry a message wherever I went. She asked to tell everyone that she is Armenian, Christian, and that she lives in the very same village where her mother, an orphan of the genocide, lived. We were, we are, and forever will be in our land. We have to value these real Armenian heroes who live and survive on the frontlines. And it was right there, that I understood that the plan failed, and the third chapter of the book is all structured on the life of the Armenians in Turkey, today.

Armenian couple from Gerger, 2013 (Photo: Stepan Norair Chahinian)
L.S.: Talking about genocide through different mediums is a way of revisiting history to constantly remind and make sense of what has happened. The different ways to define Genocide offer a layering of different perspectives. Do you believe you allowed your audience to understand Genocide in a different way?
S.N.C.: At least it’s an effective attempt. I’m sure many people could never have imagined some of the stories behind the photos, and this is very comforting to me. I feel like a messenger. The book was all produced and published in Turkey—in five languages, and two different versions: one in Armenian, Turkish, and English; and the other in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. It was released on April 24, 2015, in the evening, during the centenary commemoration, in Istanbul. The publishing house is Armenian Aras. Throughout the four-year process, I have created great Turkish and Kurdish friends, heard countless apologies and recognition of the Genocide.
It’s clear that in the world of art there is more knowledge and consensus on our struggle. I was also arrested, and I was able to observe the more fascist side of the Turks who still manifest against the Armenians.
This increasingly latent ambiguity will make the political situation in Turkey even more confusing and spur the dissolution of the current dictatorship, which will one day certainly come. It will reveal the black face and all the dirt hidden for years. We need patience (yes, more…) and change the focal and action points.
In my case, I am very happy for the relationships and contacts I have established, and I hope that many others will experience it, too. One of my contacts, Mr. Osman Kavala, was arrested a few weeks ago without any real allegation by the Turkish government. He is perhaps the greatest reference in the world of arts and human rights in Turkey. Once again, a great mistake, like the death of Hrant Dink, that will further strain the relationship with minorities.

L.S.: Your photographs portray the voices of our ancestors, the voices of writers, lovers, creators, artists, philosophers. Your photographs give “the invisible stories, the marginalized stories” life and meaning. As an artist, what is your advice to photographers who wish to bring experiences of the past to the present moment?
S.M.C.: Let go of the stereotypes and old dogmas that are still alive in Armenians who haven’t had the chance to return to our historic lands and do not know the current Turkish society. I believe that there still are many people who fit the stereotypes, but also there are many [Turkish and Kurdish] people who are willing to help and apologize.
The ruins of Ani, former capital of Armenia, 2012 (Photo: Stepan Norair Chahinian)
Take time to produce images, think and observe the more unexpected details—of constructions and of people. And believe that before Armenians, Turks, Brazilians, or Americans, we are human beings and, therefore, there are moral values that are common to us all.
Photography is more than a tool to eternalize moments. It is a gateway to dive into the enormity of the human being.
Stepan Norayr Chahinian is currently archiving his grandfather’s depictions of Syria and will continue to make the project into something bigger. He hopes to be able to spread his work across the United States.
He last visited Los Angeles in the beginning of October for a “short, and for what felt fast” stay. “During my duration in LA, I felt flabbergasted by the huge community. I wish to one day meet the extended community all throughout the U.S., from coast to coast. I am ready for my educational journey that will provide growth on both spectrums: for my audience and for me,” Chahinian said. 
Chahinian’s book is available for purchase on Amazon and at Abril Bookstore

FBI Uncovering Turkish Ties within the White House

Special to the Armenian Weekly
Is there any connection between Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s pleading guilty for lying to the FBI and an Azeri-Turkish businessman’s testifying about having worked with Turkish President Erdogan’s government? (Graphic: The Armenian Weekly)
President Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI on Friday. A few days prior, a prominent Azeri-Turkish businessman testified in New York about having worked with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
Is there any connection between these two former power brokers who turned state’s evidence? All signs seem to suggest so—and they are pointing to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
On March 19, 2016, a high-profile, wealthy businessman named Reza Zarrab was arrested by federal agents in Miami for illegally trading Iranian gas for gold, and laundering the money through U.S. financial institutions. Zarrab, who holds citizenship in Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Macedonia, carried out this violation of U.S. sanctions with the aid of the Turkish government.
Erdogan began immediately calling on the Obama administration to do away with the case, fearing what would be revealed if Zarrab went to trial. Indeed, soon after Zarrab was arrested, others began to be indicted, including Turkey’s former Economy Minister and several heads of Turkish state-owned banks.
When the overtures to officials such as then-Vice-President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch did not pan out, the Turkish government set its sights on the Trump administration.
Michael Flynn was at the center of its strategy.
Flynn’s guilty plea this past Friday included admissions of being a lobbyist “for the principal benefit of the Republic of Turkey.” His statement of offense read that he lied in his Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings about being under the “supervision and direction” of “officials from the Republic of Turkey.” In other words, Trump’s leading national security adviser has openly admitted to having been a paid agent of the Turkish government.
One of the many services Flynn is suspected of carrying out was a plot to help free Zarrab and drop the case against him. There are reports that Flynn met with Turkish officials in mid-December—after being officially designated National Security Adviser—to discuss a deal in which he and his son would be paid $15 million for their assistance.
In addition, the U.S. attorney in charge of prosecuting the Turkish gas-for-gold case, Preet Bharara, was abruptly fired by Trump on March 11. That firing alone is not shocking, considering that it was part of a mass dismissal of 46 former Obama-era prosecutors. What is bizarre is that Bharara was being personally courted by Trump prior to his termination.
After winning the election, the president-elect called for a meeting with Bharara at Trump Towers in New York, where he asked for his cell phone number and said he wanted to keep him on the job. He called Bharara three times after that, including on the day before the inauguration, simply to “shoot the breeze.” Bharara characterized the conversations with Trump as one where the latter was trying to cultivate a relationship with him.
For a sitting U.S. president to be directly contacting a U.S. attorney is not exactly the ethical norm. As a result, Bharara let Trump know he could not answer his calls. A few days later he was fired. “To my knowledge, Donald Trump did not reach out to any other U.S. attorney,” said Bharara on his podcast, “and none has come forward to say they got a phone call—it seemed like it was just me.” Like other justice officials who have been fired by Trump this year, Bhahara felt he was, inappropriately, being vetted to carry out wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Zarrab himself hired former New York Mayor and close Trump confidante Rudolph Giuliani to be his attorney. Giuliani—who is an adviser to the president and whose law firm is also a registered foreign agent of Turkey—tried to resolve the case by flying back and forth between Ankara and Washington. Instead of pursuing legal channels, he pursued high-level meetings with the Trump administration in an attempt to arrange an extrajudicial “prisoner swap” between Zarrab and unnamed Americans being held in Turkey.
Those efforts failed, and Zarrab’s prosecution continued to move forward. As a result, officials in Ankara grew more and more hysterical.
Erdogan has called the Zarrab trial a plot to “blackmail” Turkey, masterminded by an Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania. Both Bhararra and his successor, Joon H. Kim, have been accused of being part of the conspiracy and have had investigations opened against them in Turkey. Authorities have also arrested a longtime employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on allegations that he is linked to the cleric behind it all. They also called on the acting American Ambassador, John Bass, to resign in the wake of the row over the consulate employee’s arrest.
However, despite all of the lashing out in Ankara, not once has Erdogan criticized Trump himself.
Instead, Erdogan calls the American president “my dear friend Donald.” Trump similarly expresses great admiration for his counterpart, saying at a meeting with Erdogan in September, “I think right now we are as close as we’ve ever been. And a lot of that has to do with the personal relationship.” Trump added, “Frankly [Erdogan’s] getting very high marks.” Even after Erdogan’s bodyguards brutally attacked peaceful U.S. citizens (not once, but twice!), in Washington and New York, Trump refrained from making any condemnation of Turkey.
Despite the affinity between the two presidents, Zarrab was unable to stop U.S. prosecutors from moving forward with the trial. Seeing no other way of sparing himself, he decided to go from being a defendant in the gas-for-gold case to the government’s main witness.
And this is when the relationship between Michael Flynn and the authorities also began to shift.
About a week after news surfaced of Zarrab’s flip, Flynn’s lawyer told the Trump legal team that he can no longer share information with them about the FBI’s special counsel investigation into the administration, signaling the beginnings of a plea deal. Another week went by, and Zarrab took the stand in New York. Three days later, Flynn plead guilty to the FBI in Washington.
Many analysts believe that Zarrab’s decision to work with the authorities was the tipping point that led Flynn to similarly begin cooperating with the special counsel. What Zarrab, and his associates like Giuliani, may know about the extent of Flynn’s and Trump’s dealings is yet to be seen.
However, what we do know is that Michael Flynn—a man at the center of the Trump team, with access to the most sensitive state secrets—was a paid agent of the Turkish government. His statement of offense issued on Friday clearly states he was being paid and directed from officials in Ankara. His activities may have included not only plans to kidnap an American resident but also to free a man charged with helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions and derail plans to defeat ISIS in Syria. What’s more, even after Flynn left the White House, the Trump administration continued to placate Ankara and considered extrajudicial measures to free Zarrab and others evading sanctions against Iran, in exchange for freeing American citizens being held as bargaining chips by Turkey.
Is it any wonder, then, why Erdogan feels so free to try to meddle in the U.S. judicial and legislative system, plot kidnappings, barter for detainees, and attack peaceful protesters when visiting the country? Not to mention the repression he carries out in his own country and in the region.
What Zarrab and Flynn, as well as the broader FBI investigation into the Trump administration, will reveal has yet to be fully uncovered. What is for certain is that the coming days of this investigation will be critical for not only the future of democracy and rule of law in the U.S. but also the basic protection of the nation’s sovereignty against foreign intervention.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Erdogan Keeps Alienating Everyone, including Distinguished Foreign Scholars

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a “blessing” to all those who are opposed to Turkish autocratic rule and massive violations of human rights. Not a day passes without the Turkish government’s behaving brutally against scholars, human rights activists, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and political opponents. Erdogan has done more harm to Turkey’s image around the world than anyone else since the Ottoman Turks’ implementation of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: The Kremlin)
One of the latest manifestations of Turkish intolerance toward free speech and academic freedom was displayed when the University of Michigan’s Workshop for Armenian Turkish Scholarship (WATS) decided to hold a conference at the European Academy in Berlin, Sept. 15-18. The conference was co-organized by the University of Michigan, USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies, and Lepsiushaus Potsdam, under the auspices of Minister for Science, Research and Culture of the State of Brandenburg (in Germany) Dr. Martina Münch.
Prominent multinational scholars, including Turkish academics, were invited to participate in this important conference. However, the Turkish Council of Higher Education prevented the travel of distinguished professors from Turkey to attend the conference on “Past in the Present: European Approaches to the Armenian Genocide.”
Professor Beth Baron, president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), sent a highly critical letter to President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim in September on behalf of its 3,000 members worldwide, describing Turkish efforts against the conference as “an assault on the academic freedom of scholars in Turkey” and a “disturbing new instance of a broader trend of stifling scholarship on topics” deemed taboo the Turkish government.
“The events surrounding the WATS conference in Berlin represent another depressing instance of your government’s failure to respect basic human rights’ protections under Turkish law despite Turkey’s clear international obligations,” part of the letter read.
Radical Turkish politician Dogu Perincek announced that the conference would “serve imperialism and the interests of Kurdistan” and called the Turkish participants “traitors.” Other right-wing nationalists and pro-government media in Turkey also denounced the conference.
MESA’s President sent copies of her critical letter to the President of the Turkish Parliament; the Justice Minister of Turkey; the President of the Turkish Higher Education Council; the Chair and Vice Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights; the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations; the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights; the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education; Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States; and the United States Ambassador to Turkey.
Not surprisingly, several weeks later, neither President Erdogan nor the Turkish Prime Minister had responded to the letter.
In addition, a statement was issued by the WATS Organizing Committee on Sept. 18 terming Ankara’s refusal to allow Turkish scholars to attend the Berlin conference “an attack on free speech and academic freedom, indeed, to extend such intellectual repression beyond the borders of Turkey. We share the concern of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America that such actions seriously and scandalously damage scholarship and the free exchange of knowledge.”
WATS stated that the conference came “under sustained attack by Turkish ultra-nationalist political circles in Turkey and Germany. Long-time deniers of the Armenian Genocide in the international arena declared that the conference will ‘serve imperialism and the interests of Kurdistan’ and framed the Kurdish issue as forming ‘the second Israel,’ clearly an anti-Semitic slur.”
WATS also declared, “Turkey has been hurt by the current atmosphere of intimidation and threats as evidenced in the treatment of the scholars who wished to attend the WATS conference in Berlin…. We…call on the Turkish government to restore the academic freedoms that have been and are being violated in Turkey. We demand as well that the Turkish state desist from interfering in intellectual exchange and expression outside of Turkey…. Such interference infringes on the democratic order in Turkey and in hosting countries. The events surrounding the WATS conference in Berlin demonstrate one more instance of the Turkish state’s refusal to respect basic human rights’ protections both under Turkish law and Turkey’s clear international obligations.”
Finally, Dr. Fatma Muge Gocek, Professor at University of Michigan (originally from Turkey) and co-organizer of the Berlin conference, wrote a commentary in the Washington-based Ahval News Turkish website on Nov. 10, titled “Harassment of Turkish academics in the West should be stopped.”
Dr.  Gocek wrote: “I have been constantly harassed by the Turkish state because of my work. This harassment has taken the form of online slander campaigns, anonymous threats traced back to Turkey, and people at my talks planted by the Turkish state who try to challenge and demean me. I have encountered this harassment both in the United States and in Europe, despite the fact I have only given lectures at universities. Once, the FBI had to be called in to investigate a personal threat I received. This situation, which was already bad and completely antithetical to the freedom of expression and opinion, has become worse this year.”
Gocek further stated that the Turkish protesters who came to the Berlin conference “not only heckled and filmed participants, but also tried to break into our meeting. Finally, Turkish newspapers reported our activities as a bizarre conspiracy to attempt to control Turkey and create a second Israel there.”
Gocek concluded her critical commentary by calling on Western countries to take action against Turkey: “What is most disturbing for me is not only the persistence of Turkish state violence in Turkey, but its extension outside the country, as I have experienced in Europe and the United States. It is time for the West to take an effective stand against this escalating harassment on its own soil. I believe that such harassment differs from terrorist violence only by degree as both intend to challenge, undermine and destabilize Western norms and values. Only by taking an effective stand against foreign state harassment would the West be able to contain the lack of accountability for violence that exists within such authoritarian countries like Turkey.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


The Pursuit of Reparations:The Armenian Genocide 1915-1923

Special to the Armenian Weekly
The Armenian Weekly recently hosted an event, “The Universality of Translating Reparations for Mass Violence,” featuring Dr. Henry Theriault and Alejandra Patricia Karamanian.
During his remarks, Dr. Theriault made a brief yet striking statement that deserves to be echoed: Armenians are always extremely proud of the many contributions we have made to this world, he said, including architectural innovations, wine, the first shoe, and so forth. However, he added, perhaps the most important contribution we can make would be to the global reparations movement.
The statue of Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey courthouse in London (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Understanding our pursuit of reparations for the crime of the Armenian Genocide within the framework of a much larger movement, and as an important contribution to the world in the 21stcentury, can help define our nation’s own understanding of what constitutes justice for genocide.
We are experiencing an important shift in our pursuit of justice, and a new narrative has been gradually taking shape over the past several years: an evolution from recognition to reparations. The work for recognition carried out by previous generations is unassailable. We owe a great deal to the movement that took us from complete silence to near global recognition. Today’s conscious move toward the pursuit of reparations builds upon the work of the vanguard who achieved recognition by dozens of countries, 48 American states, the European Parliament, the Pope… The list goes on.
Now, this progression and strategic shift needs popular support. The pursuit of territorial restoration, monetary compensation, return of stolen properties, etc., is too often scoffed at and depicted as the pipedream of Armenian nationalists.
However, the Armenian pursuit of reparations is not divorced from a global reparations movement. It plays a critical role in justice for victims of human rights violations worldwide.
I would go so far as to say the Armenian pursuit of justice through reparations is particularly important for setting the right precedent in international human rights advances, because it demonstrates that no amount of time passed should negate state—and successor-state—responsibility for the crime of genocide. Thus, there is immense contemporary significance in the pursuit of justice for an international crime committed a century ago.
Here, I can predict pragmatic readers making the argument that our responsibility now is to what remains of Armenia—the current Republic—and that we should focus on strengthening and repopulating our developing state. It’s undeniable that growth and prosperity in Armenia are critical at this juncture. However, it is a disservice to our national potential to adopt such one-dimensional narratives. Our participation in the reparations movement and the development of Armenia should not be seen as conflicting—but, rather, as complementary to one another.
Moreover, the often-heard position of needing to develop current-day Armenia before seriously thinking about the return of lands sends a clear and dangerous message to all perpetrators of genocide. It can be translated as a victim group succumbing to the consequences of genocide. It says we have come to accept the current, illegitimate, status quo and our weakened condition has convinced us that we are undeserving of what was once ours.
Such collective negligence will have generational consequences. It can—and some might argue, already has—led to a dystopian society, in which acts of unspeakable violence are carried out with impunity.
We cannot abandon a universal obligation to human rights merely because of our current weakened political and economic position. In fact, our current fragility is in large part a consequence of the genocide itself.
This fight is for everyone, and it’s time to fully embrace it. Emerging from the farthest margins of political power, the Armenian nation, alongside a growing human rights community, can demonstrate resolve against even the most determined and pernicious deniers. Our position can serve as a beacon of hope for countless victim groups.
A scene from “The Universality of Translating Reparations for Mass Violence,” featuring Dr. Henry Theriault and Alejandra Patricia Karamanian (Photo: Karine Vann/The Armenian Weekly)
Our people have paid with their bodies, as have the people of the Caribbean, Cambodians, African-Americans, Chileans, and many others. The fight to be compensated, impossible as it may seem, is what will mark a new era in human rights.
And this fight is not strictly confined to the realms of law and politics. Justice for genocide belongs to all. It is a cultural fight, an ethical fight, a philosophical fight. Our passionate dissent might be defeated, but it also might change the world.
The Armenian pursuit for justice has universal relevance. More than our groundbreaking inventions and centuries-long influence on global commerce, our greatest contributing to the world in this modern age can be our leading role in the global reparations movement. Our contribution, our role as the ultimate victims’ advocate, can help push the idea of restorative and reparative justice beyond its current limited boundaries. Ultimately, this undertaking serves the greater purpose of not only challenging an illegitimate post-genocidal status quo, but also helping to deter future crimes against humanity.
This fight is pure, it is un-shameful, it requires love, dignity, and courage. This fight is what will push us toward the pinnacles of human achievement, and we have the opportunity to be its leading crusader.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Henry Theriault serves as the chair of the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group (AGRSG), which was established in 2007 by four experts in different areas of reparations theory and practice. Funded initially by a grant from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the members of the AGRSG are Alfred de Zayas, Jermaine O. McCalpin, Ara Papian, and Theriault (chair).  The group’s final report Resolution with Justice: Reparations for the Armenian Genocide, is available here

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Reflections on Armenian Language Learning’s Impact on the Armenian-American Experience

Special to the Armenian Weekly 
I don’t know whether it was a fluke or by design, but the Armenian Weekly’s Aug. 26, 2017 issue included three articles about the role Armenian-language knowledge plays—or doesn’t play—in one’s Armenian identity: Marie Papazian’s “A Generational Question: ‘If You Don’t Speak Armenian, Are You Really Armenian?’”; Garen Yegparian’s “Language vs. Spirit”; and Rupen Janbazian’s “‘Where Are You From?’ and the Huge Pile of Complexes.” Those articles were followed by the Weekly’s Oct. 6, 2017 online posting of Ani Bournazian’s “How Do You Measure Armenian Identity?” I read each with interest, and here I offer my reflections that resulted from those readings.
“The journey to language proficiency isn’t easy. But it’s worth taking, even as the journey starts with Armenian identity firmly in hand, head, and heart.” (Photo: The Armenian Weekly)
Although scholars conclude that national or ethnic identity is built on common touchstones—including language—we’ve reached a point in our corner of the Armenian Diaspora where Armenian identity does not require Armenian-language knowledge. We all know Armenian Americans who identified as Armenian but went from cradle to grave not speaking much Armenian at all. They experienced their Armenian ethnicity in a way that was different—but not quantitatively “better”—than an Armenian with Armenian-language proficiency.
In my third-generation experience growing up in an Armenian-American community, the very fact that we spoke a certain level and kind of Armenian informed and continues to influence a unique and beautifully fraught Armenian-American condition. And yet, Armenian identity survives, and people take the affirmative step of naming themselves Armenian, whatever their Armenian language skills.
But that’s not the end of the conversation. We have a problem. Too many have concluded that because Armenian identity survives a lack of Armenian-language knowledge, Armenian language learning is not necessary. It’s a reason why student enrollment in our Armenian-language one-day schools continues to decline steadily: Those schools increasingly have to cater to children who come to school already understanding the language; thus, unintentionally, they marginalize hundreds of non-Armenian-speaking children whose academic needs can’t be met well in today’s traditional Armenian school classroom.
When are we going to ask the question that we still haven’t adequately answered, even after all the years that have led us to today: How can we teach Armenian as a Second Language in a safe and systemic way and convince thousands of families that have abandoned the language to return to the classroom so that they and their children can deepen their Armenian experience, and in doing so strengthen the Armenian Nation?
The journey to language proficiency isn’t easy. But it’s worth taking, even as the journey starts with Armenian identity firmly in hand, head, and heart.
It’s Saturday morning, and I’m in class at Mourad Armenian School, Providence, R.I. My classmates are Armenian American-born peers and we are reading textbooks filled with many difficult and mysterious words not heard at home. We are among the last generation of children whose genocide survivor grandparents are living, so we hear Armenian regularly and even speak it to older generations. At annual year-end hanteses (concert), we recite poems and perform roles in plays, not completely understanding what we are saying and hoping we don’t embarrass ourselves and our families by stumbling and mispronouncing words in a language we have been taught is sacred and precious. A language whose erosion is a sign of assimilation, waste, and loss. We try to make our parents and grandparents proud.
I’m in Lebanon with five other college students from the United States who have been selected by the Eastern Armenian Prelacy to spend six weeks in Bikfaya learning Armenian language, history, and culture. Our stay has been underwritten by Kevork Hovnanian. A trip to Syria by way of Ainjar (Anjar) takes us to Aleppo, Damascus, Der Zor, and Kessab. In Aleppo, a fellow student and I are assigned to stay with a family that includes three sisters and a female visiting cousin. We seem to be interacting well and the family hosts us all for a pleasant dinner on our last night in the city. My roommate gets sick and goes to bed early. I follow later after everyone has left. The sisters and cousin crowd in the bedroom doorway. They ask me questions that I try to answer in my expanding, but still child-level Armenian. The atmosphere turns when the cousin responds, “Jib, jib, jib,” at my efforts and the mocking begins. I start to cry and tell them in Armenian that they’re breaking my heart, that we are the same, that we are all Armenian. But we are not the same and my baby Armenian words don’t move them. I tell them to leave me alone, and after they leave I weep for the loss of something I can’t identify.
I’m in Radnor, Penn., at the home of poet Vahe Oshagan and my fiancé, Hayg, son of Vahe and grandson of Hagop Oshagan, the revered Armenian literary critic and novelist. I’m listening very hard to Hayg’s conversation with his father, paying attention to words, idioms, inflections, and tenses, and saying as little as possible. I cannot participate fully in this high-stakes dialogue, full of nuance and fast and fluent observations in Armenian. I rehearse sentences and try to fit them into conversation when I can. I watch for signs and prompts. By the end of the evening, I’m exhausted. This construct repeats over the years.
It’s my wedding day, and I’m dancing with my new father-in-law at the reception. He asks, “You’re going to speak Armenian?” It’s a statement wrapped in a question. “I’ll try,” I promise in Armenian.
Hayg and I are walking back to our apartment on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus, and I’m three months pregnant with our first child. I have chosen this day to fulfill my promise to speak Armenian. This is the day I start to build the capacity that will allow Armenian to be the language of our home, the language of our family, the language of our firstborn. Hayg says something to me in Armenian and I respond in Armenian. And we continue from there.
After several weeks of conversation, my Armenian comes out of my mouth more fluently, if not always perfectly. I can better recall and use the Armenian words buried in my brain. I still talk to myself to practice what I’m going to say, to try out that more precise word, to elevate my expression. I make mistakes and feel anger and shame when corrected, but I carry on to keep the promises I’ve made to others and myself. For my family’s sake. For my sake.
Years pass and my Armenian is stronger. Vocabulary is situational, so mine revolves around home, school, work, and meetings. I’m conversant in Armenian, and know my share of 25-cent words. I read the Hairenik Weekly—using the Armenian school lessons of decades past—to build vocabulary or correct pronunciation of certain words, seeing the spelling. My children speak Armenian and attend Armenian school. For an Armenian whose family has been in the U.S. for nearly 100 years, I’m satisfied with my achievement, but never completely relaxed using the fruits of that achievement.
I’m at a community event that has babies and toddlers everywhere, and Armenian is in the air because Armenian is the language spoken to small children, by instinct and impulse. Pari (good),char (naughty), yegour (come), voch (no), gatig (milk). In this moment, these are not baby words. They are gold among the tin of English. The Armenian words are few, but they are present and they resonate, said with love and memory. For some parents and grandparents, these words and others like them are all that is left to say. But they are beautiful and meaningful to the listening children who will only pass on these few remnants of Armenian themselves without more Armenian language learning opportunities.
I’m at Detroit’s Armenian Relief Society (ARS ) Zavarian Armenian School on opening day and see five-year-old Sevana Derderian enrolling for the new school year. It’s her first Armenian-school experience, and I watch her as I speak to her mother. There are few non-Armenian-speaking peers in the room, and the parents of Sevana’s friends have chosen not to enroll their children. I wonder how Sevana will feel about herself in the dynamics of a class filled mostly with children from homes where Armenian is spoken regularly. Will she crack a code that others already know innately? I silently make a wish that she won’t learn to connect Armenian-language learning with negative feelings that hurt her heart and spirit.
* * *
Xenoglossophobia. This is the fear of foreign-language learning. It’s my theory that thousands of Diasporan Armenians suffer from this phobia, which teachers of second languages debate and discuss.
University of Texas Austin foreign-language educator Elaine Horwitz says that, for many, foreign language learning can be filled with anxiety and can negatively impact learning.
“I think that there’s some amount of inherent anxiety in language learning, because A, it’s just difficult, time-consuming and complicated, and B, I think that for some people it’s a threat to our self-concept,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “We can’t be ourselves when we speak the language. We have to be limited just to whatever it is that we can say.”
Second-language scholar Alexander Z. Guiora has written that learning a second language is “a profoundly unsettling psychological proposition because it directly threatens an individual’s self-concept and worldview.”
Armenian-American parents who have bad memories of Armenian school and have not sent their children to avoid their negative experiences will recognize Guiora’s additional observation that students learning a second language—even when it is the language of their ancestors—“experience apprehension, worry, even dread. They exhibit avoidance behavior such as missing class and postponing homework.”
There has been much discussion in the Armenian press recently about reconciling differences between Western and Eastern Armenian and protecting Western Armenian generally as we continue reflecting on the meaning of our nationhood in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide’s centennial observance and in the run up to the 100th anniversary of the first Armenian Republic’s establishment.
As a community and nation, we may also want to focus on the survival of Western Armenian’s use throughout the Diaspora and on ways to rebuild an Armenian-language learning infrastructure that will teach Armenian as a Second Language using a strong, relevant, and systematic curriculum that meets children where they are and builds to a satisfactory and satisfying language-proficiency level.
“One shot” classes that have Armenian as a Second Language learners for a year or two and disband because of teacher or student discontinuity, together with piecemeal approaches in integrated classrooms, only perpetuate both the current atmosphere of parent abandonment of our Armenian one-day schools and the derision and eye-rolling that greets the question, “Are you sending your child to Armenian school this year?”
Continuing patchwork solutions to halfheartedly teach Armenian to non-Armenian-speaking Armenian children will only continue to keep Armenian Americans away from most of today’s Armenian schools. Parents will not send their non-Armenian-speaking children to a place where their understanding of themselves as Armenian may be threatened. The emotional connection between the non-Armenian-speaker’s language-learning discomfort and their Armenian identity may create the conflation that leads to that destructive question: Am I a “real” Armenian if I don’t know Armenian?
The sooner we implement and advance an Armenian-language learning environment for non-Armenian-speakers that deepens their Armenian experience in a safe and supportive space, the sooner the lingering divisions in our communities based on language and experience with language will blur, especially as the influx of fresh native Armenian speakers diminishes throughout the eastern U.S.
Until that happens, old debate questions about identity and language will pit us against each other and serve as a distraction, until we come together and confront the real danger we face together: the absence of a meaningful plan to shape the destiny of Western Armenian’s relevance, learning and use in our eastern U.S. communities, and the mindset of too many Armenian Americans who have concluded in the full embrace of their Armenian identity that it is not worth learning and using the language of their ancestors.