Prof. Michael Pifer

New UMich Armenian Literature Chair Has a Global Cultural Vision


ANN ARBOR, MICH. — One of the most prominent positions in the field of Armenian Studies in America has a new occupant. On July 22, the Center for Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, announced the appointment of Dr. Michael Pifer to fill the Marie Manoogian Chair in Armenian Language and Literature.

The chair, which was established in 1987 with an endowment from philanthropists Alex and Marie Manoogian, had been held by Professor Kevork Bardakjian since its inception until his recent retirement. It followed the 1981 establishment of the Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History at the same university.

Originally a part of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, reflecting Armenia’s status as a republic of the Soviet Union, in 1997 the chair was moved to the Department of Near Eastern Studies, which changed its name in 2018 to the Department of Middle East Studies, through the initiative of Bardakjian.

Pifer, who was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., is of Armenian descent through his mother, a native of Fresno, whose father was born in Kharpert. He studied the Armenian language at the University of Michigan with Bardakjian and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern Studies and Creative Writing in 2007. During that time he spent a year in Aleppo, Syria, to immerse himself in daily spoken and written Western Armenian. He subsequently received his PhD in comparative literature, also from UM-Ann Arbor, in 2014. His dissertation, titled “The Stranger’s Voice: Integrated Literary Cultures in Anatolia and the Premodern World,” explored the figure and concept of the gharib, which is found cross-culturally in Armenian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish literatures.

While gharib literally means “stranger” in Arabic, it is widely used in Armenian, Turkish and other Middle Eastern languages to reference a wanderer, pilgrim, emigrant, and so on. The concept has existed in Armenian culture since the Middle Ages and is often tied to the experience of Armenians leaving their homeland — willingly or otherwise. The closest equivalent in formal Armenian is bantoukhd.

Pifer from the beginning, has had a deep interest in the relationship between and across the various cultures of the Middle East, while focusing on the Armenian literary tradition.

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“I’m a comparative literature scholar with a specialty in medieval Armenian literature,” he says. “I’m also interested in what you might call the long history of non-standard Armenian language, from Middle Armenian to the development of the modern Eastern and Western dialects in the 19th century,” he explained.

Unlike other languages in the Middle East or Europe, Armenian did not exist as the language of a royal court in most time periods and thus did not develop a “court literature.” While the “formal” literature was written by clergymen (theology, hymns, histories) and was directly approved by the Church, the development of “secular” Armenian literature and poetry, written in so-called “Middle Armenian,” took place in a much more informal way.

Pifer’s first book, Kindred Voices: A Literary History of Medieval Anatolia, touches on such literature. It focuses on the poetic traditions that emerged in the region in the 13th century after the consolidation of Seljuk Turkish power over most of what is now Turkey and the re-emergence of an Armenian kingdom in Cilicia. The book shows how Anatolian Turkish poetry and Middle Armenian “vernacular” poetry first emerged. This took place in the same region and at the same time as the activities of the famous Sufi mystic Rumi, who lived in Konya and wrote his Persian-language poetry there, beloved to this day. The first Turkish poetry was initiated by Rumi’s son, Sultan Valad, as well as the poet Yunus Emre, while only a little further to the east, also under Seljuk rule, poets like Kostantin Yerzingatsi and Hovhannes Yerzingatsi, along with the enigmatic Frik gave birth to the first “vernacular” Armenian poetry. The vernacular poetry was in the language of everyday people rather than Classical Armenian and reflected interest in nature and love while still centering on Christian themes. The language they used has come to be known as “Middle Armenian.”

Middle Armenian is another of Pifer’s particular areas of interest. As he describes it, non-standard forms of the Armenian language which didn’t fit the Classical mold were used informally by these early poets. Such a tradition continued through the centuries in oral and written literature, including collections of folk songs, troubadour poetry and other genres. The development of the modern standardized Eastern and Western Armenian took place in the 19th century, based on the local dialects and prior informal versions of the language. “Middle Armenian” is sort of a catchall term for the informal language of those centuries, rather than a standardized language in itself. “It has a huge footprint and it’s very diverse,” Pifer says. As such, we can see the diversity of the different strands and expressions of Armenian culture reflected in that era, a theme which runs through Pifer’s work.

“There’s something instructive about looking at the Middle Armenian period, in light of what’s going on in other fields. To think about what it is that’s happening with this non-courtly Armenian literature that seems so expansive, and doing all kinds of things that are happening in this decentralized way,” he noted.

Perhaps the decentralized and open-ended style of medieval Armenian language and literature, in contrast to tense moments of standardization and consolidation of Armenian culture — the Christianization of the 4th and 5th century, the national revival of the 19th century, the post-Genocide reconstruction of the Diaspora and Soviet Armenian culture — lends itself to a different way of looking at the world, more applicable to the changing and diverse world we live in today, while remaining rooted in Armenian history.

“It’s kind of restoring an unruliness that makes Armenian literary history unique; that’s at the heart of some of my research,” Pifer concludes. “What I’m interested in is bringing the heterogeneity of Armenian cultural production to the attention of anyone who wants to engage in it. I want to engage them with something written in the 5th century or 13th century to speak to what concerns they might care about today, or what the broader Armenian community might care about today.”

State of Armenian Studies

One of the critical issues in Armenian Studies is how to gain more interest in the fields of Armenian history, literature and culture. Most Armenians are familiar with the experience of flipping through a history book on the broader region — say the Ottoman, Persian or Byzantine Empire — and finding only passing references to Armenia and Armenians. One of Pifer’s primary goals is to make the scholarship and sources available to a broader scholarly audience.

“I think where the field is going is in an exciting way,” Pifer says. There are more and more non-specialist scholars who are becoming engaged with different Armenian sources, who want to learn Classical Armenian.”

Promulgating knowledge of the Armenian language to scholars in relevant fields something Pifer hopes to further with his appointment at U-M. He has taught Classical Armenian at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (affiliated with St. John’s University in Minnesota), Fresno State, and at the Matenadaran. With Fresno’s Sergio La Porta he has taken the same group of students to Armenia for three years during the summer.

Unlike most summer study programs in Armenia, the participants weren’t necessarily of Armenian descent, but rather scholars in various fields, from Classics to Art History. Most were graduate students but some were also early- or mid-career academics, from all over America and Europe. With their new familiarity with the Classical Armenian language, these scholars can now bring their specialized knowledge to the Armenian studies field as well as introduce Armenia and the Armenian experience into their own fields.

Similarly, Pifer mentions the desire to use his position at the University of Michigan to make Classical Armenian as a language option more available at other Big Ten schools by making it available online or in hybrid ways.

Another project Pifer is working with is a collaborative group of scholars known as “Armenia Entangled” and led by Dr. Zara Pogossian of the University of Florence. The group is trying to look at the Armenian experience from the perspectives of architecture, history, numismatics, art history, literature, and other fields. The group’s name refers to the “entanglements” Armenians had with neighboring or even distant cultures and peoples and is funded by a grant from the European Research Council. The group, which has regular virtual meetings, is set to produce three volumes in the near future.

Pifer also notes the close relationship between scholars in the Armenian Studies field. “Being within a relatively smaller field can have its advantages. There’s really no excuse to not read each other’s work, for instance,” which means that most scholars stay rather up-to-date on the latest research and studies. He also notes that Armenian scholars have to “wear a lot of different kinds of hats” and the field “has a lot of potential to produce people that are omni-directional.”

Future of Ann Arbor Program

Pifer, by virtue of his position, is tasked with heading up the future direction of the Armenian literature and language program in Ann Arbor. He plans to add to the diverse roster of courses by adding, for instance a course on Armenian Film. He also plans to increase the graduate seminars available at Michigan, such as adding a translation seminar and a poetry seminar.

He also wants to increase the audience for Armenian culture and literature by offering a offering a course on comparative Middle Eastern literature, including Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Armenian literature in the medieval and modern periods. Setting the Armenian tradition within the regional context might draw more interest and students who would not otherwise be exposed to Armenian culture, he says.

Pifer is also conscious of the wider Armenian community in Southeast Michigan, of which he has become a part. He plans on continuing to partner with the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School in Southfield to get their students interested in what studying Armenian history and literature can look like in a university setting. He has also spearheaded a program of “garj [short] talks”, co-sponsored with St. John Armenian Church, in which post-doc scholars at the university speak to community members, presenting their research in a non-specialized way.

An Armenian Film Festival in the local area is also on his mind, “so that people could also engage with Armenian cultural production that’s happening around the globe.”

In general, Pifer likes to engage people. His inspiration comes from his own reading of medieval literature and the emotions it evokes. Much of his teaching philosophy is based on thinking about “how can I reproduce that excitement and wonder for someone today?” Further, his teaching philosophy is the essence of “pay it forward.” “People are going to hopefully take some of that knowledge and do something new with it that I can’t anticipate,” he says.

Mentioning that there is a robust Armenian Students’ Cultural Association (ASCA) on campus, mostly composed of undergrads, with whom the Center for Armenian Studies works closely, Pifer also shares that there is a growing graduate student body, with three graduate students arriving this coming year that will be studying under his supervision.

He also recognizes he role as a steward of the endangered Western Armenian language. Noting the initiatives of the Gulbenkian Foundation to help preserve the language, he describes his philosophy as “meeting people where they are.”

“Students [in the Western Armenian course] might come with very little knowledge, sometimes spoken in the house, and with just a simple motivation like wanting to have a conversation with their grandparents. They come for all kinds of reasons and we need to meet them where they are, and thinking about what they want to do and ways they can use it in the world. Very few people are going to use [Western Armenian] professionally, but there are a lot of ways it can be used for community engagement, enrichment and creative expression.”

Pifer is married to Knar Callan, who was born and raised in the strong Metro Detroit Armenian community, and the couple has two small children. “For myself I read a lot of different kinds of children’s literature to them in Armenian. So this summer I’ve been writing a short children’s story in Western Armenian and illustrating it. There’s a lot of ways to encourage the flourishing of the language and one is nudging the imaginations of children.”


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