Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey
Feb 3 2014

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Living in the diaspora and dealing with emotions of disconnect
and longing are very difficult to grasp for those who have never
lived away from their homes, wherever that 'home' may be. Whether
voluntary or forceful, physical separation from one's homeland is a
major trauma that can morph into a perennial emotional longing. It
might go unnoticed or can be repressed in some cases but this psyche
reverberates a narrative of an imagined homeland noticeably amongst
collectives that were exiled or survived massive traumas. The diaspora
Armenians are prone to this nostalgic collective psyche pertaining to
the massive human resources and economic losses during the collapse
of the Ottoman Empire and after the fall of the Soviet Union.

There is plenty of discussion on the Armenian diaspora in Turkey, but
the lack of first hand experience is impeding potential interactions
with the diaspora. This is because of the misrepresentations and
miscommunication between Turkey and the diaspora. In Turkey the
dominant connotation linked to the Armenian diaspora is 'radical'.

After a month in the field I hoped to assess the relevancy of this
prevailing perception and the intricate relationship between the
Turkish and the Armenian diaspora identity.

Perhaps the most significant challenges between Turks and diaspora
Armenians -other than both being trapped in conventional large-group
prejudices- have been the lack of interaction, dialogue and
communication. Although I had previous connections, my most distinct
encounter with the diaspora in their Southern California heartland,
the city of Glendale, was a step that epitomized my own fears. At
the same time it was a major confrontation of my expectations of
the diaspora. I had a certain image of what could be dubbed as
'Little Armenia' that I gathered from secondary resources such as
news articles, books, journals and other publications. After all, as
a former resident of the greater Los Angeles area I thought Glendale
would not be safe for Turks and that I should not be there perhaps
stemming from my own biases. More importantly, the now faded wave
of violence towards Turks, diplomats and civilians alike, was in the
back of my mind generating a certain typology of the diaspora. I was
soon to realize that my biases were not well grounded. In fact, my
month-long experience meeting with the diaspora Armenians was very
inspiring. Stepping foot in Glendale, was almost as if I was in an
Americanized Anatolian city, not too different than what I'm used
to seeing in Turkey. Kabob restaurants, coffee shops, small stores
and the Americana mall right on the Grand Avenue. The vivid image of
men playing backgammon, drinking coffee and women rushing from one
store to another shopping for the holidays reminded me of 'home'. It
also resembled Chauss├ęe de Haecht in Brussels where roughly every
other person on the street is of Turkish origin. I felt I fit in just
perfectly. The truth is my anxieties were relieved following my first
encounter in the all-Armenian Glendale. Surprisingly, even the thought
of visiting Turkey triggered similar fears amongst some diasporans.

Perhaps, a courageous first interaction is all it takes as I assured
my diasporan friends.

I asked myself 'where is home' for the, what is it like living in the
diaspora, where did they belong? I was able to meet diverse groups of
diaspora Armenians and listen to their stories. To my surprise, there
was a symbolic presence of Anatolia in Southern California through the
descendants of Adana, Mara┼~_, Kayseri, Mu┼~_, Diyarbak─▒r, Antep,
Elaz─▒g and many more towns. Amongst those originally from these
towns, very few have ever paid a visit but this didn't change the
fact that majority did have a strong emotional bond, an emotional
belonging that is not easy to describe. There was an imaginative,
pastoral description of the homeland transmitted from one generation
to the next one coupled with the enduring effect of loss and being
lost in the third space. It was not a strong longing but rather was
a reminiscence of the past particularly for those who seemed to be
politically more active. Perhaps the third space was represented in a
'refugee mentality'.

It is unfair to take a holistic approach in defining the Armenian
diaspora; the community is not a monolithic entity. Indeed, there are
political and social diversities within the Armenian community in the
greater Los Angeles area. Yet, the feeling of injustice, nostalgia,
the traumatic past and the inability to form a certain belonging are
collective identity markers overarching diversities. Some diaspora
Armenians defined what they called a 'compulsory exile', as if they
still have their suitcases packed, almost ready to go back either
to their ancient homes or to the Republic of Armenia. This feeling,
together with the perception of an unresponsive approach of Turkey
towards their pain up until very recently has been containing
the diaspora in a space of nostalgia, even in a constant state
of mourning. It is a predicament that while the past should be
commemorated dwelling in the past and the symbolic preoccupation
with Turkey hampers diaspora's efforts to construct a viable future
for the diasporan identity, but on the other hand it is a bond for
the identity that has a core narrative of victimization. On one hand,
it is up to the diaspora to find a constructive way out of this state
but also equally up to Turkey to relieve the diaspora of this pain
through groundbreaking initiatives.

Besides this feeling of being lost, identifying the existence of
the symbolic 'Turk' in the collective identity is puzzling. Even
for those who have not actually met a Turk before there is still a
certain perception. However, this is not a genuine interaction. During
one of my meetings a young diasporan said: 'I was hesitant to join
this meeting and normally I have negative sentiments against Turks,
but you are cool and this conversation is going well'. Another said
she felt she is being heard. The views expressed by these diasporans
were very similar to my own self-fulfilling judgments and positive
experience that came afterwards meeting with the unknown territory of
the diaspora. Another diaporan said 'I wouldn't expect to have such
a nice conversation with a Turk, ever!'. This perhaps signified a
predicament of getting to know the 'other'. Likewise, such an anxiety
of tackling an unknown space is present in the Turkish society. It
is somewhat due to the alienation from the past, and with that both
Turks and the diasporans are caught in the mechanism of hegemonic
narratives hindering dialogue efforts. To be precise, majority of
Turks are strangled in a one-sided history assessment and lack of
empathy while majority of diaspora Armenians seem to be preoccupied
with a sense of socio-political victimization and the overwhelming
power of certain political groups.

Nevertheless, through a first step of interaction Turks and the
diaspora will be able to recognize that neither is 'dreadful' and
can work on trust issues. As a result, the current alienation might
diminish and both Turks and the diaspora can rediscover their 'home'.

As the alienation perishes Turks and the diasporans are more likely to
see one another from a healthier perspective that stems from personal
and societal experiences. Both the diaspora and Turkey are actually
going through major shifts in their approach towards one another, yet
neither society is fully aware of this changing dynamic. Regrettably,
the lack of communication is hindering the ability to see this
perspective thoroughly.

One of the biggest mistakes in assessing the diaspora is taking a
holistic approach and observing the society through the more strident
narratives and publications. Likewise, it seems like the diaspora
too will have a difficult time in making their point as long as the
dominant narrative is produced by strident political movements.

*Senem Cevik is Assistant Professor at Ankara University. This article
is based on the author's field research in Los Angeles, U.S.A.