MEDFORD, Mass. — The following is an interview with Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, Tufts Professor of History and Darakjian and Jafarian Chair in Armenian History, regarding her studies of diasporas and her insight on the formation of identities. It appeared in the newsletter of The Fletcher School’s Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies.
Katrina Stanislaw: Your childhood was uniquely international: raised in eight countries and educated in six languages before the age of 18. How did this exposure influence your passion for history?
Ina Baghdiantz McCabe: Living in many cultures makes you realize that
most people are the same despite their cultural differences. Pain and suffering are universal, as is the hope people hold for happiness and a better future. Revolutions have happened on the force of this promise for happiness and equality, but they always fail because some people never believe it should be allowed. To put it simplistically, people believe they are better than “other” people. The idea that some people are better than others, taken to its extreme logic, is what led to the Holocaust.
Of all the places I have lived I feel most at home here in the United States; it remains the best democratic experiment, despite some scary episodes. Unfortunately, that experiment also has a very painful beginning with the annihilation of many native groups. As a historian it helps you avoid the trap of exceptionalism; you realize that many problems are universal.
KS: Did any of the countries and cultures you experienced in your childhood have a particularly profound impact on the development of your academic interests?
IM: My passion for history stems from the many cultures that I have made my own and to me they are all profoundly connected. I have read most deeply in French and so the ideas of some very interesting thinkers such as Bourdieu, Bataille and the very old-fashioned Fernand Braudel have marked me. As a historian I shy away from jargon and theory but I have read a lot of theory, as most of it started in France. Only in the United States could I have become a historian, so of all of the cultures I know, the largest impact has been that of the place I have had the privilege of choosing as my country. I consider the state of Vermont, where my family lives, my home.
My own travels have forged a strong interest in cross-cultural exchanges, in travel writing, in diasporas, in trade and in intellectual exchanges. My Flemish mother and my Armenian father were both born in strong patriarchal cultures that were not inclined to accept women as intellectual or artists. Although there have been some, including my mother, they succeeded with great difficulty. I was born with a strong personality and a lot of drive, but even in the countries where I have lived in Europe I certainly would have not had the opportunities I have had here in the United States.
KS: In your writing, research and teaching you focus on the role of diasporas, specifically the Armenian diaspora, and merchant networks. What is it about diasporas that piques your academic interest?
IM: In a film by Bertrand Tavernier a history teacher enters his high school class, opens a suitcase and takes out a knife and a large sausage, which he proceeds to hack into pieces as he exclaims, “this is history.”
History departments are cut up into national histories — we have inherited this artificial classification from 19th-century nationalist views. The worlds was not always made up of nation-states, nor will it be in the future. In this national classification, diaspora communities were an invisible group. Luckily, things are changing and many departments are now designated in terms of regions or in transregional terms, but most hiring is still done according to national histories.
I have worked on the global silk and silver trade of a small group of Armenians — the New Julfans — since 1987 and wrote my first book about their trade in 1999. They were the same group Philip Curtin used to define the terms “trade diaspora” in 1984 and his work on cross- cultural trade sparked my own. My native Armenian and my knowledge of Persian were important to this research, as the New Julfans lived in Iran after 1604. I wanted to look at theoretical problems and definitions of a deported, wealthy diaspora community, as well as into the actual trade of the Armenians. I collaborated with many people interested in the same issues.
Phillip Curtin was also a pioneer in a second issue that fascinates me; in his discussion of trade networks in 1984 he includes the European militarized diaspora in the same category as the Armenians, the Jews, the Banians and the Fukein Chinese. This remains a contested issue as the term diaspora has rarely been applied to Europeans abroad. I agree with Curtin that his classifications offers a clearer picture of reality. It is very hard to reconstruct the past — all honest historians will accept that — but if networks, cross cultural contacts and exchanges, travel and movement, cosmopolitanism and transnational histories are not part of the quest, the quest will not yield fruitful results.
KS: Your work estimates the importance of understanding the intersection of material and intellectual exchanges and how these two elements of history viewed together can create a more complete historical pictures. Can you describe the link between these two elements and provide an example of how they can be viewed together?
IM: A striking example is the creation of the café, a public space in 17th-century Paris, in imitation of the coffee houses in Constantinople, Cairo or Isfahan. I have three chapters on the arrival of coffee in France in my latest book. According to several French sources, the Armenians opened the first five Parisian cafés.
The transfer of ideas is often linked to goods, although few historians study it that way. Many ideas about health, digestion and even morality were transferred with imported coffee, a commodity. Views about coffee vary tremendously and could fluctuate within the same decade. Today the café is seen as a Parisian institution, a marker of French identity, and the French think of coffee as a national drink, its “oriental” roots forgotten. This very slow cycle of cultural integration would also be the fate of many luxury goods imported from Asia. Initially viewed as foreign or exotic, the same product some few years later is viewed as representing France and French habits. This transformation fascinates me. Most people imagine that there are some objective properties that are intrinsic to the nature of things. In the case of coffee I could show how views about coffee changed according to who was importing it and whether it profited France or not at that point in history. Views regarding its properties varied from nefarious enough to cause impotence to excellent for your health. I also showed how a glorious heroic tale about the arrival of coffee in Martinique — due to one French officer — served to create total silence about the use of slaves on French plantations, making France the main European exporter of coffee to the rest of Europe by the 18th century. In analyzing the discourse about goods you can find variations in the discourse about the same good that prove how fickle and changing our perception of reality can be. We constantly construct categories and change them to suit our interests. As Louis XIV used the sale of coffee to raise money for his wars, court doctors advocated that coffee was better for your health than wine. Because an object or good is inanimate, it is easier to show how terribly subjective we are according to our self-interests. A social scientist can study material goods to show that values are not intrinsic to objects themselves, but rather are projected onto goods by society. This goes against objectivism, a view that there is one reality that exists independent of the human mind, a truth with a big T.
KS: History is an essential part of understanding contemporary culture. Are there any dynam- ics or patterns you have found in your research that you feel are particularly relevant when looking at current and future interactions between different countries and cultures?
IM: A study of constantly changing ideas about the “foreign,” the “exotic,” diaspora, refugees and cross-cultural exchanges and encounters permeates my work. Our false categories can be a huge obstacle to peace and mutual understanding. Categorizing something as foreign or exotic leads to an “us and them” view of the world. The same holds true of the traditional view of diaspora; it is seen as a group that does not really belong to its host country. I have argued for a different view in my work. This “us and them” view is very politically potent. I can give you a vivid example to clarify: when you hear someone argue that our current president is a foreigner and was not born in the United States, despite ample proof that he was, he is being described as “exotic,” and you are encountering this phenomenon of arbitrary “othering.” History is supposed to be about facts; our president’s American birth certificate is the kind of document historians use, but what people do with facts makes the historian’s job complex. My concern with the past gives me hope that we can understand that we built this world both materially and ideologically and that we are responsible for the many skewed systems of beliefs that cause us so much trouble.