Haig Avakian

Haig Avakian: ‘Today, the Diaspora Is Obsessed with Great Narratives’

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YEREVAN / CAIRO — Haig Avakian born in 1964, Cairo, is a musicologist, pianist, vocal coach, chorus master, publicist and philologist. He studied at Noubarian Armenian School, Heliopolis, Cairo; in 1983, he received a certificate from the Cairo State Conservatory’s piano department.

In 1988, he graduated from the piano and musicology departments of the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory, then continued his post-graduate studies in 1988-1990. Since the age of 14 he has contributed to Egyptian Armenian and Arabic periodicals. As a concert pianist, he gave recitals and performed with orchestra in Cairo and Alexandria. He gave the first Egyptian performances of some works of Western composers and world premieres of Armenian and Egyptian composers’ works. In one of his recitals, he performed for the first time the complete solo piano works of the famous Egyptian composer Aziz Al-Shawan. From 1992 to 2001, he was the vocal coach at the Cairo Opera House. From 1992 to 2007, he worked as assistant and principal conductor for the Cairo Opera House Chorus. Between 2006 and 2010, he was the conductor and the artistic director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Chorus and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Children’s Chorus.

Avakian edited, annotated and published 23 scores by Armenian composers (published by the Cairo AGBU branch), mostly based on original manuscripts. From 2001 to 2008 he published in Cairo the Dzidzernag musical quarterly (director: Mardiros Balayan), dedicated exclusively to Armenian music (29 issues). There he published music studies, and record, book and concert reviews. He translated into Armenian Egyptian researchers’ articles about Armenian music. Also published works by Armenian composers, as well as works by foreign musicians with Armenian themes. Since 2016, he has published series of supplements of Cairo-based Tchahagir weekly (48 volumes so far, most of them authored and compiled by him), that are available online.

 

Haig, I can talk to you about everything, considering your wide interests and well-awareness of the Armenian world and culture. Let’s start with music. What is the current state of classical music in Egypt?

In Egypt, classical music is not tied to traditional institutions. Undoubtedly, the Cairo Music Conservatory and the Musical Pedagogical Institution, as well as the Opera Theater, are important centers of education and culture. But their capacity in the area of 100 million people is quite limited. I am interested in the publication of classical Egyptian composers’ works. In 1997, I succeeded in preparing the critical edition of complete works of the first Egyptian classical composer Youssef Greiss (1899-1961) in 12 volumes with detailed notes in Arabic (available online). The manuscripts of famous Egyptian composer of Armenian descent Fouad al-Zaheri (Garabed Panossian) are under my hand, the publication of which (by Armenian funding) remains a dream.

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The series of supplements of Tchahagir weekly is a gift for the Diaspora, where 48 volumes with limited print run are disseminated for free. Most of them apply to the history and culture of Egyptian Armenians, giving new life to the unpublished manuscripts and stuff lost in the old press. Whose initiative was this, and to what extent does it reach the reader?

The initiative was mine. The reason was the inner requirement of publishing collected materials and thoughts. It has been funded by Tchahagir, thanks to the encouragement of its editor and director Mardiros Balayan. As to the eternal question to reach the reader, I do not think about it anymore. The printed and online books have sent to the libraries of Armenia (there always have enthusiastically accepted them, asking also for extra copies).

Haig Avakian

You are one of the few publicists of the Diaspora, well aware of the developments of Armenian life, both in country and abroad, always raising painful issues. How did the combination of musicology happen to the publicist, moreover, to the political analyst?

In the beginning it was only music. I felt comfortable in my “professional” milieu. Afterwards, the professional ghettoization did not satisfy me. In 2014, I wrote a series of articles entitled “The Professional,” criticizing those specialists, who stay only in their “professional” level. I suggested not erasing the professional niche, but to take a step forward, toward intellectual liberation, which I called post-professionalism, one of foundations of which is involvement. Politics, among other things, is a part of this involvement. For example, in Tchahagir I tried to draw attention to activist movements in Armenia as a healthy process revealing the internal layers of society. There are quotations from Facebook, that are not recorded nowhere. In 2016 I wrote largely about the rebellion of Sasna Tsrer; since 2018 I have consistently followed up the issue of Amulsar; in 2020 I wrote about the protection of Firdus district of Yerevan. All these are taboos for the mainstream diaspora. While the diaspora celebrated wealthy people, it also artificially made them culture fans, and Tchahagir published two large criticisms, trying to introduce the real motivation of benevolent rich men, not sparing criticism of idolized names.

Reading of Das Kapital by Karl Marx, provoked me to interpret COVID-19 in the sphere of periodic crisis of capitalistic economy, putting the crisis before the virus — crisis as the main source of the virus and not the opposite. I tried to observe also the Armenian Genocide through reading of anarchism and classical Marxism (not of Soviet communism, which is a different thing). We are afraid that the genocidal understanding will be eliminated by Marxism, but in reality, in the case of authentic reading of Marxian writings, the very opposite takes place. At least, Marxism (not necessarily Marx himself) is aware of the mechanisms that can ban genocide generally. And today we want to ban the genocides by using the same tools in capitalistic world, which have been the cause of genocides and will continue to be.

Collecting lots of information about the territory of Artsakh and especially on new weapons obtained by Azerbaijan, I wrote in 2015 that “The Karabakh issue takes a new and dangerous look.” The 44-day war of 2020 proved the truth of this sentence. And many other similar things.

The language of post-professionalism is a consistent with reality. By being involved you can eliminate national exceptionalism (quite common and mandatory today) and enter the world of national experience, related to the lived life.

 

In your opinion, what do Armenians need today, both in Diaspora and Armenia?

The question is general, and I must avoid to observe Diaspora and Armenia in one field. But I try to make brief notices. Your question unites Armenia and Diaspora, therefore, it assumes also the relationship between the two. The main part of Diaspora is interested in the fermentations among Armenian authorities, according to Diaspora’s group interests, but the internal layers and thoughts of the society, the internal cultural directions are mainly left without respond.

On the other hand, Armenia is not interested in Diaspora. The Diaspora is almost absent in Armenia, in terms of consistency and especially involvement. There are individuals interested in Diaspora and its internal features, one of which are you. As about Diaspora issues, Tchahagir always writes on them with radical approaches. Which one can be chosen here? For example, the renunciation of modernity under the name of preservation of traditions. A question: can we say that the modern musical talents of Tigran Mansuryan or Arthur Avanesov have erased or weakened the Armenianism in Armenia? After all, they (and those similar to them in other fields) have strengthened Armenian culture. Why the works of modern Diaspora musician like Alicia Terzian are not involved in mainstream Diapora? Although her name is always remembered as an Armenian who succeeded in non-Armenian circles.

Finally, there is the eternal narrative on preservation of Armenianness (hayabahbanoum). Preservation or development of the Armenianness? By preserving, nothing is being preserved. In cultural terms Diaspora knows very little about itself. Huge productions remain unknown, or maximally turned into an encyclopedic entry. The 150th anniversary of Yervand Odian was not commemorated three years ago. Vahan Tekeyan remains in the circle of his “innocent” poems, while his articles and publicism reveal a rebellious and intelligent personality. Penyamin Tashian’s great translations of novels remain in the press scattered and unfamiliar; Shahan Berberian’s writings about aesthetics) have rarely surpassed academic summaries. In music, the works of Edgar Manas, Vagharshak Srvandztiants, Onnig Berberian, Ashot Patmagrian and many others, who have been worked in and for Diaspora, are almost absent from our stages. The literature of Vahe Oshagan is being criticized, if someone decides to remember him. Etcetera, etcetera…

Today, the Diaspora is obsessed with great narratives, forgetting itself. Great narratives are important. They unify. The great narration narrative, being importance for the pan-Diaspora, harms the realization of the Diaspora’s particularities. Each Diaspora, forgetting its own particularity, being not interested in its internal conceptual productions, literature and culture — for enhancing life, not a subject of “textbook” transmission — ceases to be a Diaspora unit.

Since Diaspora took the way of self-alienation, I do not find surprising that an International Foundation considered Western Armenian as an endangered language. I did not find surprising that an influential part of Diaspora Armenian elite representatives, praising the great narratives and especially making it an ideology, does not speak Armenian. Great Armenianness — without Armenian language.

 

And in the end, with what new projects will Haig Avakian make us happy in our unhappy times?

The answer will be on a purely individual level, on a self-advertising platform. The supplements of Tchahagir will be continued. There is inexhaustible material and thoughts accumulated. Articles will continue. The history of the formation of the Hunchak Party in Egypt is in the process of preparation for publishing, the archives of which I have. I also am preparing for publishing the diaries of Archbishop Mambre Sirunian, the leader of the Armenian Church in Egypt, composer Dikran Tchouhadjian’s annotated bibliography, discography of recordings of Armenian classical soloists from the beginning of the 20th century to 2010.

Almost all of my publications can be downloaded and read here: https://archive.org/details/@hav64?tab=uploads&sort=-date

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