Over the last few years I have visited Armenia and Artsakh on a number of occasions and have had the good fortune to meet and talk with a variety of people. During that period I have formed my view of Armenia, what it means to be Armenian and what life is like in the Republic as well as Artsakh. Needless to say, on these subjects, the more I have learnt, the less I have understood, and the more questions I have raised. On my return from the last visit, I thought it would be invaluable to speak to people who were part of the Diaspora in the UK, and see if their experiences and insight into my questions gave me a different perspective.
The two main locations for the Armenian communities in England are London and Manchester. Manchester is the oldest community which grew up originally around the textile trade, and has increased over the years through subsequent migrations. It consists of people from various corners of the Diaspora as well as people from the Republic.
I have visited Manchester a few times and have had the opportunity to talk to a selection of the people who regularly visit the church. My early naive expectations that there would be some common thread, theme, or connection within themselves, or with the people that I’d previously met, were soon brought into question.
For those people who have emigrated from the Republic then the concept of their homeland is clear – this is back to that geographical location. For the majority, from the Diaspora, they all have a variety of histories, predominantly starting with the Genocide period when their descendants fled the Ottoman Empire. For some, they fled to Cyprus, only to find that 50 years later, the policy of the Turks forced a further migration, this time to England. Now they are British citizens, but Cypriots by birth, with an ancestral home somewhere in Western Armenia – but with no connection to the modern day Republic. A lady I spoke to who was born in Germany, but lived mainly in France, who then moved to the UK with her husband for work, and is now naturalised as a British citizen, also felt no direct allegiance to any of these countries – the one thread for her which remained a constant was the fact that she is Armenian. But not an Armenian, in the sense that she feels a desire to be a citizen of the Republic – a cultural Armenian, as opposed to a political Armenian.
Another interesting, but controversial subject from some of the people I met was around who spoke the most “correct Armenian” – in itself, a difficult concept. Their perspective of the people from the Republic was that they had been “Sovietised”, and that language included many Russian loan words ( or was just largely Russian, as in Artsakh), and that culturally they had taken on many of the less respectable aspects of Soviet business and political methods with much corruption. This was not a place that had any attractions for people in the Diaspora who were enjoying the relative luxury and affluence of an English city, alongside institutions that were largely trustworthy. Other opinions have been expressed that the culture of the Diaspora is either too “Turkish”, or that it has been diluted by being integrated within the host culture.
There was a diversity of views on Artsakh. One view, which was quite fascinating , expressed the notion that it was the area that was most Armenian, and which preserved the true sense of Armenian-ness with the traditions, cultures, food etc. By virtue of this, it was a place that it was “right to fight for”, and maintain, as a part of the Greater Armenia. The debate over whether it had non-Armenian roots was dismissed as propaganda, and that all of the historians knew that this was in the heart of classical Armenia. This was countered by those who felt slightly uneasy about the war and didn’t feel that it was entirely down to Azerbaijan, as the aggressor. My conversations touched on the subject of the occupation of Kashatagh ( Lachin/Kelbjar regions) and the funds provided from the UK, through various foundations to improve the infrastructure, and housing within those regions. With Kashatagh not being part of the original Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, comparisons were drawn with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and people felt very strongly that it would be wrong to fund such activities. Whilst strictly true, I know from discussions with people in Artsakh, that they could not countenance having the Azeris in their “back garden” – the full land corridor with Armenia is to do with safety and security; an entirely understandable position.
I was surprised about the range of views on the Genocide. There are organisations in the UK, like the Campaign for the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (CRAG), amongst many who have one principal purpose. In fact just as much attention is put into this one subject, if not more, than the schooling of the children, and the maintenance of the language and culture within the UK. Whilst everyone would support the cause of remembering the Genocide, there is some uneasiness about how dependent the Diaspora is, in parts, on this one subject as a cohesive force. A senior member of the church suggested to me that if, tomorrow, Turkey accepted the Genocide, that the Diaspora would collapse. There are elements of the Diaspora who see the Genocide as their suffering, and not that of the people who live in the Republic – their suffering was from the Soviet rule; my experience is that the Genocide is just as much an issue in the Republic and Artsakh as elsewhere – this is about ethnic legacy, and not just personal ancestry.
At my last visit, as I was about to leave, I posed, again, the question of “Where is Armenia?” recognising that, for the majority, it is not the Republic or Artsakh. A frail man in his nineties, standing next to me, quickly retorted in his blunt Northern accent “It’s in the mind”; such a profound statement. Whilst all Armenians across the world can differ on the facts, history, politics, culture and the geography they all have one thing in common, and that is an emotional response to the notion of being Armenian; this binds them together despite political boundaries and personal histories. Ask them to describe it, and you will get many different answers; such is the enigma of being Armenian.
Categories: Being Armenian