New Reality in the Middle East in Wake of Revolts, Reforms and Religion: Eroding Diasporas Cling to Traditions

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By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN, Mass. — Political events of the past three decades have uprooted or altered the lives of many Armenians living in Middle Eastern countries. From Iran to Lebanon, and now Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, communities that seemed well-established — and well-heeled — now seem to have either shrunk dramatically or shifted as equally dramatically because of past, present or anticipated revolutions.

Two scholars studying Armenian diasporas shed some light on the changing nature of the Middle Eastern communities, once home to the largest Armenian Diaspora.

Prof. Ara Sanjian, director of the University of Michigan at Dearborn’s Armenian Research Center, suggested that in the past three decades, there has been a shift out of the Arab world for Armenians.

“If we take a very broad view since 1920, we see that there was an influx of Armenians in the Arab world and some migration of Armenians within the Arab world,” he said.

The revolution in Iran, he said, changed the dynamics. When Armenians left that country, he said, none went to Arab countries; instead, they all headed West.

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Regarding Iran, Khachig Tölölyan, a professor of English and letters at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, as well as the editor of Diaspora magazine there, cited an interesting change. About half of Iranian-Armenians left when the revolution happened. Yet, the remaining Armenians are still able to carve a strong presence for themselves, albeit within the government-proscribed and sanctioned church organizations. For Muslim fundamentalists, he said, it is easier to recognize religion, therefore church organizations can play a more prominent role.

Sanjian said that Armenian populations within the Arab world are decreasing, but that decrease is not only a result of emigration; it is that there is normal attrition and new people are not coming in to take the places of those who have died.

“Arab countries are not attractive for new migration among Armenians,” he stressed. The major group on the move among Armenians, he said, is those from Armenia proper, and they don’t go to any countries in the Middle East, except Israel.

The decrease of Armenians in the Arab world, he said, should also be seen in the context of the Christian exodus out of the region. The total number of Christians in the Middle East is decreasing, he said.

As for Lebanon, Sanjian said, the number of Armenians just prior to the 1975 civil war was appropriately 180,000. Now that number is about 80,000, thought about 145,000-150,000 Armenians hold Lebanese citizenship.

There are three kinds of diasporas, explained Tölölyan.

The first is residual, in which the community gradually and steadily weakens, such as the Armenian community in Ethiopia, which was “very strong” from the 1920s through the 1970s and now has practically disappeared.

Next, there are the emergent communities, which are the result of new migration, thus they have higher numbers and great commitment to their culture.

Third, he said, are the dominant communities, for example, Lebanon before 1975 and Iran before 1979.

Tölölyan said that “just the passage of time changes the nature of any country.”

He ascribed many changes in the Armenian community there to those of the greater host community, including the introduction of widespread media, including Al Jazeera and Western program, as well as wealth from oil and greater Islamization.

Tölölyan said that perhaps one should consider that a smaller community is not necessarily a weakened community. “The core group becomes even more committed. I don’t feel that everything is in decline,” he said, though in some communities the numbers are halved.

Western Armenian Culture in Jeopardy

One result of the move out of the Middle East, Sanjian said, is the erosion of Western Armenian culture and language. In fact, he said, last year the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Western Armenian an endangered language.

“Western Armenian culture is under serious threat. This is a delayed consequence of the Armenian Genocide,” he added.

The Middle East, including Istanbul, traditionally has Armenian-speakers for about three generations, Sanjian said. However, in Iran, he said, Armenians have been able to keep their language for generations.

In France, the US and Canada, where newer waves of immigration have led, there is more pressure to conform and speak the host country’s language.

Tölölyan agreed that the attitude in Lebanon, unlike Iran, has been much more inclusive.

“The attitude is, ‘Let’s all be Lebanese together.’ It is much more receptive. Intermarriage has tripled and quadrupled. They say we can’t keep separate,” Tölölyan said.

Sanjian agreed that assimilation is happening rapidly. In countries, like Egypt and Lebanon, he said, with large Christian Arab populations, Armenians regularly intermarry with them. The region is “overwhelmingly Muslim” and thus, Armenians are marrying within their group, though increasing the definition to mean Christians.

“They think it’s much easier to be with fellow Christians,” Sanjian said.

At the same time, Tölölyan said, what is going on in Turkey, namely “a debate among themselves to figure out if there is a pluralist way” to define their identity and to find out what makes a pluralist society, makes it unique.

From about 1900-1940s, the Middle East experienced a pan-Arab movement, with the movement peaking in the 1960s. However, since the 1970s, instead of pan-Arab nationalism, it is pan-Islamism that has risen.

“Since the 1970s, there has been a shifting identity” in the Middle East, so that any person does not define themselves as Arab, but rather as Libyan, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, etc., Tölölyan noted.

The number of students in Armenian schools in Lebanon has gone down accordingly — if not alarmingly. In 1975, he said, there were 21,000 Armenian students in grades K-12, but now it is about 7,000. There are many more ethnic Armenian school children, but now, he said, most parents opt for private Arabic-language schools in hopes of creating a better future for their children by making them more fluent in Arabic.

In Syria, he said, the number of students has been holding, approximately around 15,000.

In Egypt, Sanjian said that the number of Armenians, once so numerous, is down to a few thousand. The creation of the new Egyptian government, he said, once the dust settles, will resonate throughout the Arab world. “It will affect policy and discourse in other Arab countries,” he said, including Lebanon and East Jerusalem. “The changes are not going to stop at the Egyptian border,” he said.

One bright light, paradoxically, is Istanbul, he said. “It still has a thriving community,” though many are Turkish or Kurdish speakers. “It has recovered the feel of a community.”

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