Society for Armenian Studies and Middle Eastern Studies Association Meet in Boston

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON – The Society for Armenian Studies (SAS) held a conference on Armenians in America on November 17 in Boston, along with its annual membership meeting. It sponsored several panels at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Annual Conference, which continued through the weekend ending on November 27 at Boston’s Marriott Copley Place. There were also a number of non-SAS sponsored presentations of papers on Armenian-related topics at the MESA conference. The National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) cosponsored a reception at its Belmont headquarters together with SAS for the visiting Armenian scholars on November 18.

The SAS conference was opened by SAS President Prof. Barlow Der Mugrdechian, the Berberian Coordinator of the Armenian Studies Program and Director of the Center for Armenian Studies at Fresno State. He pointed out that this was the third consecutive year that SAS has organized conferences in conjunction with the annual SAS meeting.

The first conference panel, on Travel, Collective Memory and Homeland among Armenian-Americans, was chaired by Marc Mamigonian, NAASR’s Director of Academic Affairs. In it, Dr. Margaret Manoogian of Western Oregon University spoke on “Connections for Families Disrupted: Travels to Anatolia by Diasporans,” while Dr. Carel Bertram of San Francisco State University spoke about the role of music in identity in her presentation called “Coming to Terms with Home and Homeland.” Both talks in part use information from the trips organized by Armen Aroyan of California to Turkey.

Sona Nersisyan of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of
Sciences of Armenia examined “Homeland Perception and Identity Construction: The Case of the Los Angeles Armenian Community.”

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The second panel, on “Diversities of Armenianness in American and Diasporic Contexts,” was chaired by Dr. Vahe Sahakyan of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Its first speaker, Anatolii Tokmancev of UCLA, presented a talk called “Armenian Jehovah’s Witnesses: Nationalism in a Strictly Non-Nationalist Sect,” in which he analyzed the Armenian Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Glendale, California. Apparently the internal structure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect is conducive to maintaining national identity, and proselytization by Armenian members is restricted to other Armenians. Tokmancev found that maintenance of Armenian culture is in their case not connected to Armenian identity but used in connection with religious identity.

Dr. Shushan Karapetian of the University of California, Los Angeles discussed the relationship between language and identity among Los Angeles Armenians in “Language in Diaspora: Problematizing Ideology, Identity, and Symbolism.” Based on her empirical studies, she concluded that the symbolic value of language has increased, as the scope of its use as a primarily means of communication has decreased, for it is seen as having little practical value for success in American life. This leads to a state of cognitive dissonance, Karapetian said.

Helen Makhdoumian of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign focused on Armenian-American Patricia Sarrafian Ward’s novel The Bullet Collection (2003) in her presentation, “Inheritance of Exile: Negotiating Memory, Home, and Belonging in Armenian-American Literature about the Lebanese Civil War.” Makhdoumian indicated that previous generations’ memories of exile, as in the Armenian Genocide, are articulated in new permanent Armenian transnational communities. Movement facilitates memory through new traumatic displacements.

Der Mugrdechian chaired the SAS annual meeting, at which three other members of the SAS Executive Council were present, Vahe Sahakyan, Sergio La Porta and Vartan Matiossian. Mugrdechian reported that Michael Pifer and Hagop Ohanessian are working as coeditors of the SAS Newsletter, which comes out annually. It has been redesigned in digital format and is available on the public area of the SAS website. All news items will be kept on the website, including reports on member activities. The annual printed newsletter would have items such as formal SAS reports, the budget, and awards.

La Porta, editor of the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, reported on the changes in the look of the journal in 2015, and its move toward digitization. The goal is to primarily have the journal be distributed electronically, but print versions will be available too on request. The 2016 issue will come out at the end of 2015 or early January 2016, and submissions are coming in for the 2017 issue. He announced that the journal is seeking a fulltime book review editor.

Der Mugrdechian declared that four regular members and seven student members have been gained this year. He spoke about SAS finances for the current year, and the events SAS has organized.

It was informally reported that the SAS award for Best Conference Paper by a Graduate Student for 2015 was won by two people, Gohar Grigoryan for her article “Manifestations of Mongol-Armenian Relations in the Royal Art of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia,” and Khatchig Mouradian for his paper “Genocide and Humanitarian Resistance in Ottoman Syria, 1915-1916.” More information will be forthcoming in an official release next month.

Two openings on the SAS Executive Council were filled through the election of Vahe Sahakyan and Khatchig Mouradian, for three year terms. Ani Kasparian volunteered to work on the nominating committee. It was voted to have another mini-conference alongside next year’s MESA conference in Washington DC.

An audience question concerning the status of various Armenian studies chairs in the US was raised as well as the problem of academics being appointed to Armenian studies chairs who do not know the Armenian language.

The SAS sponsored a panel during the regular MESA sessions on November 18, entitled “New Issues, Perspectives, and Sources in Armenian Studies.” Chaired by Der Mugrdechian, with Ümit Kurt (Harvard University) as discussant, it included Anna Aleksanyan, a graduate student at Clark University, who delivered a paper called “Ritualized Rapes and Body Destruction of the Armenian Women During the Genocide” and Varak Ketsamanian, a graduate student at Princeton University, who spoke on “The Hunchakian Revolutionary Party from 1891-1895” and placed events in the Sasun area in their socioeconomic and political context. Ketsamanian argued that the Hunchakian Party oriented already existing violence in a particular direction, thus helping in a sense to institutionalize it. Aleksanyan found that rape was systematically and ritually used during the Armenian Genocide to help destroy Armenian society and identity. Woman were killed or lost the will to live (e.g. committed suicide), or lived afterwards among their people as a constant reminder of their humiliation and dehumanization.

Kürt commented on positive developments in Armenian Studies, including micro-level research revealing local intricacies in the context of Ottoman imperial developments based on archival and printed sources and then directed some specific remarks and questions to the two panel presenters. Two other panel members were unable to appear and deliver their papers.

SAS cosponsored with the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, a roundtable discussion on “Knowledge Production, Exclusion, Inclusion: The Repositioning of Armenians in Ottoman and Turkish Historiography,” on November 19, while more than ten Armenian-themed papers were given in other panels of the MESA conference.

At the Friday night NAASR reception, NAASR Board of Directors Chairman Yervant Chekijian spoke about NAASR’s support of Armenian studies over the decades, and explained the plans for the renovation and expansion of the NAASR headquarters. NAASR Executive Director Sarah Ignatius welcomed and commended the NAASR Leadership Circle members for their support of Armenian studies, and the SAS scholars for their academic work. NAASR Director of Academic Affairs Mark Mamigonian spoke about the long and complementary relationship between SAS and his organization.

Der Mugrdechian spoke about SAS, and congratulated NAASR on its 60th anniversary. Sergio La Porta spoke about the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies. The SAS members present all introduced themselves.

As a special surprise, NAASR’s Dr. Sona Aronian Book Prize for Excellence in Armenian Studies was announced in the presence of this year’s winner, Dr. Christina Maranci. The title of her book is Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015). Maranci is the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara T. Oztemel Associate Professor of Armenian Art at Tufts University. She expressed her gratitude for the support NAASR has provided her over the years, and pointed out that indeed, such books take years or even, as in her case, approximately a decade, to complete, and cannot be done without proper support.