Memory, Identity and Narratives of Descendants of Survivors of the Armenian Genocide: A Lecture by Hrag Varjabedian at CUNY in New York


Hrag Varjabedian speaks at CUNY.

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Hrag Varjabedian began his professional career as an electrical engineer, but when he volunteered for the Zoryan Institute’s Armenian oral history project, he found his true calling. Forty- years-old, he went back to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in cultural anthropology and obtained a doctorate after 10 years. He tried at first to focus on the stories of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, but encountered a serious problem — there was practically nobody left to turn to for follow-up questions. Instead, he changed his topic. On November 8 at the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he spoke about what he ended up writing — a tome on The Poetics of History and Memory.

Dr. Anny Bakalian, the energetic associate director of MEMEAC who regularly organizes interesting and serious lectures on Armenian topics, introduced Varjabedian succinctly. Varjabedian went on to present a dense, detailed and informative talk accompanied by slides of quotations, illustrations and movie excerpts. He was baffled initially to find out why Armenian-Americans, even some only one- ourth Armenian, strove so hard to keep the Genocide narrative alive after all these years. He explained his wonderment to this journalist: “They had the least to do with nationalism, and yet did the most to bring these issues to the public sphere. Nobody in Armenia was doing something similar.” To better understand the reason, he decided to study two different Diasporan- Armenian communities — those of Lebanon and the United States — and the Armenians of the Republic of Armenia.

Varjabedian began his talk with a review of the theoretical understanding of memory, so elusive and complex in nature. He examined the relationship of individual and collective memory, and their connection to history, drawing upon the works of Bronislaw Malinowski, Maurice Halbwachs, Susan Crane, Amos Funkenstein, Roger Bastide, Pierre Nora and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Among other things, scholars noted that the ruptures caused by the destruction of the social organization of a group through events such as genocide also have a destructive effect on collective memory. Varjabedian’s own work is on individual efforts to perpetuate narratives about the Armenian Genocide. He was interested in understanding the way people give meanings to the past to form their identities, not in the use of the past by political and intellectual elites.

The Armenians who ended up in Lebanon or in the Republic of Armenia were able to make up for the ruptures in social structure and historic continuity created by the Armenian Genocide through a nationalization process. They were exposed to Armenian culture and the Armenian language on a daily basis. A new framework and continuity was created through collective institutionalized commemorative activities which could be used by individuals formulating their own identities. Personal stories did not enter into the Armenian Genocide narrative in its national or collective form in these places. Instead individual narratives were used as a means of rebellion against paternal, national or state authority.

In the United States, on the other hand, commemoration of the Genocide was not institutionalized in the same fashion, and there was no dominant Armenian nationalization project. Individuals, sometimes isolated from larger Armenian communities, had to undertake the effort of historicizing their past on their own. Here personal experiences of the children and grandchildren of survivors were placed within the context of the stories of their survivor ancestors. These offspring attempted to deal with the ruptures of the Genocide by creating continuities through mythopoeia, a fictional mythology.

Varjabedian chose works of literature and films by Armenians from Lebanon and the US in order to analyze more closely and illustrate the factors involved in the transmission of Genocide narratives. In this lecture, Varjabedian gave detailed excerpts from the writings of Vahe Berberian and Ishkhan Jinbashian, two Lebanese-born Armenians who were inculcated with the dominant Armenian national historical narrative as youth. In America, they rebelled against the continuity of this narrative that connected Vartan Mamigonian and Krikor Lusavorich to contemporary figures like the Lisbon Five, who sacrificed their lives in an abortive attack on the Turkish embassy in Portugal. Berberian and Jinbashian denounced the nationalist values and traditional Armenian institutions of their elders. The former were sickly idols, while the latter were stagnant. There was a gap in communication between the Armenian generations.

In the Republic of Armenia, continuity came more naturally. The very landscape was one of continuity, with a sacred tree in Agnaghpyur supposedly planted by Vartan Mamigonian himself. The Sumgait massacres and Karabagh movement invoked the past — the events of 1915, 1937, 1949 and 1988 were all interconnected parts. The Genocide narrative could be used for many things, including ecological genocide, and white genocide for the “betrayal” of the Armenian language. Even the uprooting of people that the government carried out to create the new Northern Boulevard in Yerevan was equated to the deportations of the Ottomans.

In the United States (and Canada), the personal narrative or story was always a mystery to be decoded by the descendants of survivors. They had to struggle to reconstitute the gap in knowledge and narrative created by the Genocide. Varjabedian cited examples of the search for the past and the attempt to reinterpret the present through the knowledge of the past from the literary works of Peter Najarian, Peter Balakian, Nancy Kricorian, Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Aris Janigian; and the films of Eileen Claveloux, Tina Bastajian and the Canadians Araz Artinian and Atom Egoyan. In their process of historicization, the first generation of descendants of survivors frame events through fairy tales connecting past and present. Later works became more sophisticated, creating myths and fables or “mythistories” — the commingling of the fictional and historical. Varjabedian interviewed many of these authors to insure that he was understanding their intentions correctly.

Varjabedian presents Atom Egoyan’s film “Ararat” as a counter-example. Egoyan did not create a mythistory, and so failed in giving voice to a true history and combating Turkish denial. Varjabedian concluded with the question of what the majority of Armenians in the US, who are not artists or writers, do. He gave examples of pilgrimages to the ancestral homeland in the contemporary Republic of Turkey, where Armenians bring pictures of their ancestors, and collect samples of soil. They attempt to create the continuity that never existed through these acts. Varjabedian showed an emotion-filled excerpt from the video of one family’s trip.

Varjabedian today works as an international visitor exchange specialist at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State, “managing exchange programs fostering mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries around the world.” Like many other academics in similar circumstances, he continues to pursue his scholarly interests as much as he can in the time available to him. Most immediately, he is working on publishing his doctoral dissertation in an abridged form.