The Faces And Facets Of Armenian Identity

By Robert Fullam

ianyan magazine

Feb 4 2010

"Well, you don’t look Armenian." It’s one of those phrases that you
might hear occasionally but for some Armenians, they’re told they don’t
"look Armenian" all the time. The issue of looking Armenian opens up
certain facets of Armenian identity, one of them being the subject of
race. The night before Armenian Christmas, my mother and I went by the
Armenian store to pick up some food and the cashier asked my mom if
she was Armenian. I could see that she, like everybody else, made a
preconceived judgment of what ethnic group my mom belonged to. When
I was with my mom in Los Angeles, she was in a similar situation,
except this time when the waiter came over to ask our orders, he
started talking to my mom in Spanish, assuming she was Hispanic,
and this of course caused some embarrassment to the waiter.

Many ethnic groups have encountered clashes with identity and the
physical and cultural traits attributed to them, most popularly
achieved through stereotypes.

Armenian’s themselves don’t seem to be able to come to a general
consensus on the issues of race and identity. I’ve been told by many
people, "You look Armenian", my mom likes to switch it up often saying,
"You see, you don’t look Armenian" then "You do look Armenian", which
is all very confusing to me. I met an Armenian taxi driver in L.A. and
my mom probably quipped something about me being half-Armenian,
which prompted the taxi driver to respond with a smile and say,
" He looks Armenian."

I’m sure that it would be a challenge for anybody to try picking
an Azeri out of a group of Armenians and vice versa, try a group of
Kurds, or Syrians or Turks. These people have mixed and lived with
each other for centuries and there is no doubt that they share similar
genes. I’ve seen Armenians vary greatly in appearance, some tall,
some pale, with small noses, some with light eyes, some dark enough
to be mistaken for an Indian or Arab. The fact is that all of these
people are Armenians, regardless of what they look like and being
Armenian doesn’t necessarily depend on what you look like in order
to dictate how you act, how you feel and who you identify with, it’s
the social norms and the stereotypes that make it this way because
we have slowly grown to accept misconceptions or part-truths as full
truths and realities.

Yes, being born Armenian makes it a lot easier to absorb the culture
and let it shape your identity somewhat, with both parents being
Armenian or even one.

When a non-Armenian spouse marries into an Armenian family and
decides to adopt Armenian customs and so on, they are trying to
acculturate themselves with "Armenianness." This can be trying to
speak the language or just using Armenian words, converting to the
Armenian Church, cooking Armenian food, or getting involved with
events, picnics and the community at large. Even though they might
be more involved in the community than many Armenians, the idea of
ethnicity or religion are still strongly held. The problem here is
that Armenians have paid little attention to what "being Armenian" was
since for hundreds of years under the Ottoman Empire’s millet system
and in other countries as well, religion was the deciding factor of
what group you belonged to. Today we still apply this religious type
of identification by basically making being Armenian synonymous with
being an Armenian Apostolic Christian or more loosely, just Christian.

We’ve all heard people say "You must be Christian to be Armenian,"
"Armenians were the first Christian nation," but living today in
a more pluralistic and more free society, its no longer necessary
nor is it helpful to define ourselves by outdated means. If being
Armenian is to survive and adapt, then many Armenians are alien to
the people they identify with.

It can be argued that for all cultures, not just Armenians, that in
order for a culture to survive, it has to change. At first it seems
like this would not preserve the culture but in the end destroy it
but a strong culture, especially an Armenian one requires room for
flexibility and change. I am a half-Armenian atheist which puts
me in a tight situation where I am discredited for not following
"traditional Armenian Christian values" and being from a mixed marriage
somehow seen as promoting marrying non-Armenians and encouraging
assimilation. Most Armenians support this view partially or fully but
coming from the Arab world, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, France,
etc, their ideas of being Armenian are all different from each other
which by extension kills the myth of the ideal Armenian. Armenians
all around the world although similar are not all the same and it’s
their inclusion of the host culture or neighboring ones that help
them survive. Religious authorities such as the Armenian Apostolic
Church and secular organizations such as the AGBU or ARF have been
slow to take note and even combative at the notion that there are
changes that must be implemented in the Armenian community worldwide.

Non-religious Armenians like those in the former Soviet Union make up a
good chunk of the population due to state atheism in the Soviet period
as well as intermarriage rates and declines in religious attendance
among Diasporans, notably the United States. By plastering articles
about the Protocols and getting the Armenian Genocide recognized,
many Armenians are not informed about issues that have been pushed
to the back burners, issues that can be just as important if not
more than the ones stated above. Womens’ rights, income inequality,
LGBT rights, minority rights and civil liberties among others are
all issues that need addressing.

The future of the Armenian nation, that is Armenians as a people, is
already threatened by assimilation, intermarriage and a relatively
small population relative to other groups. If inroads are not met
in terms of important social issues, more and more Armenians will
leave the flock, having become turned off by such conservative ideas
in a increasingly liberal world. The goal here is to update Armenian
culture, making it tangible and allowing people to relate to it.

Turning Armenian culture into a modern twist on Shakespeare would not
result in Armenians dropping likes flies out of boredom but create
an engaging and familiar environment where they can feel comfortable
with themselves. The number and nature of the problems and issues that
need to be addressed are daunting but nonetheless necessary if the
survival of the Armenian nation is our goal. Making Armenian culture
relevant is insuring that Armenians will not compromise their future
by living in the past.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS