By Emil Davityan
It’s an odd experience always belonging to two worlds. To have one foot in, and the other out. I realized when I arrived in America that this is the common experience of the Armenian people, no matter where we have found ourselves.
Our long history as Christians in the Middle East, at the border of Europe and Asia, is evident in our customs, food, dress and music. We were then scattered into the wind as victims of the Genocide, violently targeted as outsiders despite our many years contributing to the Ottoman Empire.
Wherever we found ourselves afterwards, we were Armenians co-existing as part of something not historically of our own making: The Soviet Union, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, among so many other places, where over time we had rich and meaningful shared experiences with other cultures that influenced the image we had of ourselves.
And so we find ourselves today in the Diaspora, a modern version of the very same experience.
This history shaped us all as individuals and as a group, no doubt in subtle ways we no longer notice. Each generation born into ideas and customs that already exist. Simply the way things have ‘always’ been.
Did this experience harden our identity or make it malleable? Did we distinguish ourselves or assimilate? Undoubtedly, it was both at once.
‘Remember that every man is a variation of yourself’. William Saroyan
So much of this I already knew. At some level, it’s obvious. But the feeling was more immediate when I migrated to America, where my life has been changed by the beautiful relationships with my Armenian family and friends in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
As a descendent of Genocide survivors, I was born in post-revolutionary Iran, during the Iran-Iraq War. We left when I was young and I was incredibly fortunate to grow up in Australia, living a life of safety and opportunity within the home of a migrant family. I realize now that I had unconsciously developed layers of identity as a migrant child, where I assimilated fully into my new country but also witnessed the grueling social and economic challenges of migration faced by my parents’ generation.
When I moved to America at the age of 30, I was once again a partial outsider; an Armenian from Iran and Australia, who was a newcomer to the country and to the Armenian-American community. The evolution in my own sense of self was profound and immediate. I began to understand my own past and more confidently claimed my complicated family history. My ‘new’ self-identity flowed effortlessly in the way I described myself, in the conversations I would have with people from all over America and the world, and in my interactions with Armenians that had migrated to America before me.
The idea that we co-exist on many levels as Armenians and emigres became clear to me because I was again the latest outsider.
An idea as old as time
As I met with more Armenians, I realized that we tend to define being ‘Armenian’ as something that has always been. An enduring, unchanging and self-evident collective identity that we are only ever the temporary custodians of; something that defines us but which is also greater than us. It’s implicit in our idea of time, which we measure in millennia, not decades.
The reality, however, is that our Armenian identity is both strong and vulnerable. We agonize over how ‘it’ can endure in the contemporary world and in the multi-cultural nations we live. Many of us see the need to renew it, to improve it, to make it resilient and suited for modernity.
This is the challenge we face. How should we behave as individuals, families and communities, to breathe new life into an idea that is as old as time? A modern Armenian has to simultaneously come to terms with thousands of years of history, the tragedy of the Genocide and the future of the community. How do you survive as an individual in the Diaspora today but also as a people tomorrow?
It’s unsurprising that we’re often exhausted by this responsibility. In dealing with the strain of being perennial outsiders, we often fall back on old ideas and stereotypes – sometimes to the point of comedy, other times in more negative ways. We create barriers between ourselves; between men and women, sons and daughters, gay and straight Armenians, between Armenians born in different countries.
I don’t want my Armenian identity to be defined by these negative ideas and divisions. They are not a necessary part of being Armenian. They’re often merely the result of our migrant experience and now, ironically, stand in the way of sustaining our identity.
New friends with history
Soon after I arrived in America, I was invited to dinner by a group of new Armenian friends, where we ate our traditional food and laughed together, telling stories about our own families that seemed to be the same for everyone else. With some anguish, I learned that almost every person there was born in a different country and had family in countless others. It brought home that all too familiar experience of Armenians living in more than one world.
This sadness was overtaken though by the optimism and energy of those around me. A group of young Armenians all working to build successful lives and improve the Armenian nation in very real and modern ways.
At that dinner and so many times since, I’ve been reminded that I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the challenges of our insecurity and co-existence. So many Armenians I have met are contributing to a modern Armenian identity that is rich, vibrant, thoughtful and that will appeal to the youngest generations of Armenians. They want to empower our ‘traditional’ men to celebrate the strong women in their lives. To ensure gay Armenians feel as included as every other Armenian. They’re working so young Armenian boys and girls don’t feel like they belong to two competing worlds, one ‘traditional’ and the other ‘modern’.
As an outsider living again in a new land, I’ve seen that it’s possible to create a contemporary version of the beautiful tradition that we belong to. A vibrant and relevant retelling of our ancient selves. We can embrace modern literature, art, music, political ideas and businesses that draw on the best of our cherished traditions. A contemporary rendering that can also enrich the Republic of Armenia, not only reducing emigration but attracting Diaspora Armenians back to rebuild the country.
In the end, it’s not those conservative social and political ideas that will hold us together. We are connected to each other through our common ancestry, values, culture, language and passion for learning. These are what have given us a sense of solidarity through the worst times of our collective history.
Together, we must search for authentic and vibrant expressions of our culture. Our identity as Armenians depends on both our historical experience and the shared future we’re creating. As I’ve witnessed with my new Armenian friends, we can be modern and progressive, while deeply tied to our heritage. In the end, this may be the only way to survive.
Both complicated and beautiful, our Armenian identity is also ours to live and define together.
About Emil Davityan – Co-Founder, Bluedot Innovation
In late 2012, Emil Davityan co-founded Bluedot Innovation, an R&D and technology company that specializes in high precision location-based services and payments for enterprise. In this role, he has secured major clients and partners, including NewsCorp and Samsung. Bluedot Innovation now has 15 team members, including the founding CFO of PayPal, and offices in San Francisco and Melbourne. The company has been recognized as Australian Startup of the Year, and Emil as a Top 50 Male Entrepreneur Under 40. Emil is currently a mentor for KPMG’s Elevate61 accelerator program. From 2009-2013, Emil advised successive Australian Prime Ministers. His most recent role was as a national security and international policy adviser, focusing primarily on cyber and innovation policy. He led a range of key cyber-security initiatives, including on international digital identity, and was a leading contributor to the Cyber White Paper (now the 2013 National Digital Economy Strategy). Emil was previously an adviser on international economic and financial markets, including G20 and financial policy during the financial crisis. He has also been an Australian Government representative at international multilateral forums and task forces, working with numerous heads of government and state. This included the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, as Senior Officer to the President of Kenya, Mwai Kbaki. Emil previously held various private sector roles in the financial and telecommunications sectors. Emil has a Master of Public Policy (International Policy) and Master of Diplomacy from the Australian National University. He also holds a Bachelor of International Studies (Honors, First Class) from the University of Adelaide and a Bachelor of Business and Economics from Flinders University. We are so proud to have Emil in our community as a leader and active supporter of AIWA-SF.
The Armenian International Women’s Association is a dynamic global non-profit dedicated to empowerment, education and enrichment. Through many projects and initiatives, AIWA is committed to impacting positive social, economic and personal advancement of Armenian women worldwide through educational and other community activities that promote gender equity, and emphasize our Armenian cultural heritage.
To learn more about AIWA, please visit http://www.aiwainternational.org.