Lebanese-Armenian who works to promote understanding of the Middle Eastern
diaspora Center hosts lectures and performances that explore this issue
By Nana Asfour
Special To The Daily Star
`I’m a real diasporan person,’ declares Lebanese-Armenian Anny
Bakalian, as she sits, cross-legged, at her office at the City
University of New York, overlooking the Empire State Building in New
`I like being a diasporan,’ she adds laughing. `It gives you this
ability, this mobility, and it gives you choice.’
In that sense, Bakalian, who left her native Lebanon 23 years ago, is
perfectly suited for her position as the associate director of the
Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC).
The center, after all, was created to, among other things, promote the
understanding of the Middle Eastern diaspora. As such, it has hosted a
series of lectures and performances that explore this issue.
Last year, MEMEAC organized a talk by historian Akram Khater about
Lebanese immigrants, and a presentation of Kathryn Leila Buck’s
one-woman show, `I Site, ‘ about growing up multi-cultural.
Under Bakalian’s helm – and that of Mehdi Bozorgmehr and Beth Baron,
MEMEAC’ s co-directors – the center has become one of the leading
venues in New York for Arab, Armenian and Iranian cultural events and
`We’ve done a lot in the two-and-a-half years we’vebeen in operation,’
Bakalian says. `I really think we’ve been very successful.’
With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, MEMEAC came into
being in September 2001, merely one week before the attacks on the
World Trade Center.
At the time, Bakalian was a volunteer; she was in between jobs, having
recently moved to New York from Baltimore, Maryland, where she had
been teaching sociology for the past 10 years.
She had met Bozorgmehr a few years earlier and when he asked her to
come and help out, she happily obliged.
`When we started out, we were in a tiny cubicle downstairs, we didn’t
have any windows, and we were barely managing,’ Bakalian says.
`Then September 11th happened. What timing! Right after that, the
demand for Middle Eastern studies and for the diaspora became very
MEMEAC, which was conceived as the first center of its kind to combine
studies of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American, now saw its
role taking on greater importance.
Immediately thereafter, reports of violent attacks on Arab-Americans
and Muslim-Americans began to fill the newspapers and the
airwaves. Wishing to investigate the backlash, the National Science
Foundation (NSF) sent out applications for short-term grants.
`Mehdi and I talked about it and said, â=80=98Shall we go for
this?’ In three days, we wrote a proposal and sent it. In less than
three hours, we heard that they were funding it, which was extremely
Ever since, Bozorgmehr and Bakalian, whose volunteer stint quickly
grew into a full-time position, have been working on the NSF project,
studying how Middle Eastern and South Asian American support
organizations responded to Sept.
`We have already conducted 7,500 interviews and we’re now slowly
getting the results out,’ Bakalian says.
Bakalian’s responsibilities at MEMEAC have continued to grow over the
last two years. Between planning events and lectures, organizing
conferences (such as one on race and slavery between the Middle East
and Africa which is scheduled for April), doing research for the NSF
grant, and trying to create a BA in Middle East studies at the City
University of New York, she has little timeto do anything else, let
This might explain why Bakalian has not been back to Lebanon since
April 2001. `It’s a long trip,’ she says. But there is another reason
why she doesn’t often visit: not much remains of the Lebanon she knew.
`On the one hand, it’s very interesting to go back and try to figure
out, where was this? Where was that?’ she says. `On the other hand, I
am very saddened by the fact that the middle class no longer exists,
that there is so much poverty. There needs to be a middle class in
order to have a stable society. I’ m also still distressed by how
parts of Lebanon are now a solid block of concrete. There’s no urban
planning, no sense of esthetics. What has happened to all the
villages?’ Bakalian was born in Beirut in 1953 to first-generation
Armenian parents. She came into adolescence at a time when Beirut was
in its glorious prime, and she has fond memories of the city of her
`Baalbek was a fantastic thing: Being 18, 19, or 20 at the time
andseeing LaMama experimental theater, or Ella Fitzgerald – it was
exceptional,’ she says.
She attended the American University of Beirut and graduated in 1973
with a bachelor’s degree in sociology (`I’m a very proud AUB alumni,’
she professes). For her Master’s she traveled to England, then she
returned to Lebanon in the summer of 1975. She had hoped to find work
but Beirut was now embroiledin war.
`I was dodging bullets for a while,’ she says. Finally, shelanded a
part-time teaching position at AUB’s off-campus program, and that
opened the doors for more work opportunities. But the war continued to
escalate and, eventually, she followed in the footsteps of the hoards
of Lebanese fleeing the city.
In 1981, she moved to New York to pursue a doctorate at Columbia
For her thesis she toyed with the idea of going back to Lebanon to
write about professional women – `I’ve always been interested in
women’s issues,’ she says – but she feared that the fighting might
prevent her from completing her dissertation.
In the end, she opted to stay put, in the US, and to write a book
about Armenian-Americans. `I realized nobody had done anything about
it so I said to myself, let me do it,’ she says.
Soon after, she settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where she taught
sociology at a small liberal arts college. She remained there for 10
Living in New York – whose cosmopolitanism and chaos Bakalian likens
to Beirut – and working at MEMAC, where she gets to use her many
languages and engage on a daily basis with fellow diasporan, Bakalian
feels that `thingshave come around full circle for me.’ Although she
misses her native country,Bakalian would never consider leaving
America for good.
`To be honest as a single woman, it’s much more liberating to be in a
place like this. No one here says min beit min inti? (What family do
you belong to?), or Inshallah nifrah minneki (May we celebrate your
wedding day). Here, at least, you can have an identity of your own.’
She pauses for a moment, trying to think of a further explanation,
then says, `I like it here too much.’