Write-up by Leon Aslanov
The crises that we have been witnessing in the Middle East for the past few years, especially in Syria, have made the discussion of Armenian communities in this region highly pertinent, and this was the topic of lecture given by Dr Nicola Migliorino, on Monday 8 February 2015 at SOAS, University of London, who earned his PhD from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. His research has focused on Lebanon, Syria, and questions concerning ethno-cultural diversity in the contemporary Arab world. Between 1998 and 2000 he worked for an international NGO assisting Palestinian refugees in Syria. Most recently he has held positions as Assistant Professor in International Studies at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, and as an independent researcher and consultant.
Migliorino’s first encounter with Armenians occurred when he was working with Palestinians at an NGO in Syria. He noticed unique traits of the Armenians in these lands. Their language, culture and history stood in contrast to the local inhabitants of the region, and yet, the Armenian communities did not seem to be alienated or marginalized from the mainstream. They have been involved in all areas of life, especially in Lebanon. This includes the arts, trade and, most surprisingly of all, in politics – the domain in which a minority, especially one that has arrived from elsewhere, is least likely to be visible.
Migliorino recounted two stories that are told in parallel in his book, (Re)Constructing Armenia in Lebanon and Syria: Ethno-Cultural Diversity and the State in the Aftermath of a Refugee Crisis (Berghahn Books, 2008). The first story relates to a mass of Armenian refugees thrown into predominantly Arab lands who then started to adopt a mission to preserve their nation in exile. Migliorino used the term ‘permanent diaspora’, coined by Khachig Tölöyan. The permanent diaspora emerged once refugees ceased to be a mass and became communities with institutions and associations. As is noted in the title of his book, Armenians did a lot of work not only to reconstruct their culture, but also to construct new forms of identity.
The second story tells how Armenian communities lived within the Lebanese and Syrian states. How did Armenians interact with these political entities? How did they negotiate with these states in order to preserve their identity? These are important questions since the Lebanese and Syrian states themselves are rather novel innovations first managed as colonial outposts of France which, after the Second World War, were deemed postcolonial states attempting to form unified identities.
Migliorino postulated that the Armenians have managed to find their place within the Lebanese and Syrian states, but that their experiences have differed in the two countries. In Lebanon, the Armenians are much more visible. They are accepted as one of the players within the consociational politics of Lebanon. Consociationalism, a term coined by political scientist Arend Lijphart, denotes power-sharing negotiations between the elites of individual ethnic groups within a diverse society. Armenians, thus, have a stake in the power-sharing that exists in the heterogeneous society of Lebanon.
In Syria, the situation is rather different. The Armenians have no formal role in Syrian politics. But despite their negligible presence in the public sphere, Armenians have been able to survive and thrive: they have been able to implement their own cultural projects; to teach Armenian in schools; and to preserve their political identities (such as the Tashnagtsoutyün), as long as all of this is done without much visibility in the public sphere.
From the outside, such arrangements seem generous towards the Armenians. However, it is not necessarily out of altruism that Lebanon and Syria have welcomed Armenian immigrants; rather, the Armenians have been beneficial to each state in reinforcing their legitimacy. An inflow of Christians to shift the balance between Muslims and Christians has been useful for both.
How permanent are these agreements? Are they sustainable for Armenians? The upheavals and transformations that Lebanon and Syria went through during the twentieth century, especially the Lebanese Civil War and the nationalist Arabization project in Syria, seem not to have had a significantly negative impact on Armenian communities.
On the other hand, Migliorino cited economic crises as a primary threat to the existence of these Armenian communities. There is a critical mass that is required for Armenian communities to survive. For schools there must be students; for publishing houses there must be readers, and such establishments close when the critical mass is not met. In other words, there is a shrinking of the ‘Armenian market’ and, thus, a gradual shrinking of Armenian communities.
This issue led Migliorino to explore the more general question of what it means to preserve cultural identity. He mentioned two ways it may be preserved: as a museum, or as a living entity. If one perceives the inevitable end of a culture, it may be wise to preserve its language and particular characteristics as artefacts for future generations to refer to. If there is a chance to save a culture from extinction then there must be a proactive effort among the existing community to enliven the culture. Although there are multiple aspects to any culture, Migliorino and members of the audience agreed that language is of the utmost importance, whether it is preserved as a living, breathing language, or as a dormant one.
In 2011, when the revolts within Syria began, Migliorino had an ominous view of what was to come. He envisaged a great threat to the presence of the Armenian communities of Syria. The role of Armenians in these revolts has been negligible. They do not belong to these uprisings, apart from individual exceptions in the initial phase. Generally these revolts are actually a challenge to community interests, and therefore we are seeing a slow exodus of Armenians from Syria at the moment, despite efforts to keep the communities together. Unity in a time of crisis is difficult for Armenians in Syria, since the communities are not concentrated in one area and they do not constitute a visible political force.
The future of Armenians in the Middle East seems bleak, and Migliorino shared with us a somewhat pessimistic view of what is to come. There is no way of predicting whether Syria might become a unified political entity in the future, so the wisest standpoint to take is simply an apprehensive one.