Commentary: United in Purpose, Divided in Action

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

The late Armenian poet Gevorg Emin had a favorite anecdote to illustrate our parochial nationalism. The story takes place near Crimea, during World War II, when Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union and had huddled thousands of POWs in a cave. An Armenian POW, groping in the dark, suddenly asks: “Guys, is there anyone among you from Akhta [a remote rural area]?” Another voice in the dark answers in Armenian, “why don’t you ask if there is any other Armenian in this multinational group?”

This anecdote exemplifies our parochialism and our tunnel vision. As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from The Republic indicates, people confined to a cave have a distorted notion of reality; they believe the only reality is the view framed by the opening of that cave.

On a grander scale, Armenians in general are not too far from that soldier uprooted from his native village. His national identity, patriotism and vision are defined by the borders of his village.

The individual with tunnel vision cannot be blamed because geography and history have defined his identity, or the perception of that identity.

Armenians living in a mountainous country have been fragmented. And that fragmentation has been amplified by historic upheavals, deportations, foreign occupation and massacres.

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Armenians have been divided by the tides of history, always seeking unity yet seldom achieving it.

In order to unify the Armenians around a cause or around their homeland, a careful study is needed to find out the reasons behind those divisions. After all, an accurate diagnosis is the beginning of the right cure.

Several years ago, I had outlined in an interview, the divisions between the diaspora and Armenia by using Bernard Shaw’s analogy. Shaw had said famously that the British and the Americans are the same nation, divided by the same language. My comments drew an uproar and some willful misinterpretation, as if I were advocating a division among our people. The truth is that Armenians living in Armenia have more traits and values in common with the other nations in the Caucasus, than with Armenians living in the diaspora. Only by recognizing this sorry situation can we find remedies for our divisions.

Two years ago, independent Armenia finally realized the necessity of forming a Ministry of Diaspora, and assigned a very competent minister in the person of Hranoush Hagopian to lead it. She has, indeed, her job cut out for her. To deal with the diaspora is the most daunting and challenging job. Thus far, the ministry is moving in the right direction. Many successful projects have been achieved and many more are on the drawing board. Several slogans have been floating, some are catchy and others not.

But slogans are too superficial to lure Diaspora-Armenians to repatriate or at least gather around their ancestral homeland. Slogans are only skin deep. There has to be a unification of values and ideals. The diaspora already supports Armenia instinctively, propelled by the historic trauma of the Genocide. But it has tremendously more potential, which remains untapped and which needs to be explored and utilized.

When we think about common values, the first thing that comes to mind is the sorry state of the Armenian language. The Western Armenian dialect is gradually falling out of use; it is frozen in time and no guardians are around to save it.Western Armenian is a highly-developed language with tremendous potential, but it is becoming petrified because of non usage. Its vocabulary, its syntax and its rich heritage could be integrated into Eastern Armenian to save them from oblivion and to enrich Eastern Armenian. After all, who is historically duty-bound to pressure our valuable language treasury if not the motherland? But only feeble efforts, uncoordinated projects and lip service are being offered while the Western-Armenian language is heading toward its demise.

The values in Armenia are also sometimes frozen in time. This comes as well from the traumatic experience of the Soviet era, where Stalin had convinced people that the Soviet Union had everything and whatever it had was the best. But when the fortress of tyranny fell apart, people realized that they did not have everything and whatever they had, indeed was not the best.

But that mentality has shaped the vision of current leaders of Armenia, who although they advocate differently, they act with the same mentality.

Take for example streets in Yerevan. Except the ones named after historic figures (Grigor Lousavovich, Puzant, etc.) they are mostly named after Soviet Armenian, or eastern Armenian writers and celebrities. One has to use a microscope to find the name of Daniel Varoujan on a Yerevan map. This does not mean that Eastern Armenian writers do not deserve the honor, just that Western Armenian writers also deserve their place in the sun.

Krikor Zohrab, Medzarents, Tourian, Tekeyan, Edgar Shahin, Carzou, Gorky and others do not represent lesser talents than those native to Eastern Armenia.

The same tunnel vision is reflected on the Armenian paper money (dram). Sarian, Hampartzoumian, Tamanian and Charentz are monumental figures in our culture, but Western Armenian cultural icons have not even been considered to be featured on Armenian money.

The diaspora is not yet thoroughly studied in Armenia, neither is Western Armenian literature readily taught to remove the feeling that Western Armenian writers, artists and other celebrities do not fall short of their Eastern counterparts. Sometimes they achieve international stature before being recognized in Armenia.

Every year Armenia organizes art festivals under the banner of “One Nation, One Culture.” Of course, the intent is noble, yet the integration of the two cultures and values are miles apart.

We are united in purpose, yet still divided in action.