Not too long ago, my twenty-three-year-old daughter asked me about where her great-grandparents came from. To her surprise, she found out that she is a sixth generation diasporan Armenian, with three different countries (Armenia, Syria, and Lebanon) that she could call hyrenik or her ‘homeland’. Through the process of learning the history of our ancestors, Ani and I situated ourselves within our ethnic and diasporic landmark and constructed our identities as Armenians living in yet another ‘hostland’, Canada. Records from India and Italy between 1717-1789 show that Armenians were dispersed from their historic homeland throughout the world (Panossian, 80). Armenians have not had a fixed centre for centuries having therefore formed fluid identities.
Armenians refer to Armenia as Myre Hyasstan, meaning ‘Mother Armenia’; however, not having a direct translation for ‘homeland’, we use the word hyrenik, which translates to ‘land of our father’. This might be an indication that ‘homeland’ does not only refer to Armenia but rather to any country where our fathers were born. Our history shows that our ancestors were constantly on the move — voluntarily or by force. Therefore, it has become a habit to ask each other, “Where do your parents come from?” or “Where were your parents born?”. The answer to these questions never surprise us because we know that Armenians have established communities in all corners of the world. Hence, “diaspora’s idea of the homeland … could be the ancestral village in the Ottoman Empire, the city of birth, present day Armenia, or the ideal of an Armenia to be – and probably a combination of all these” (Panossian, 86).
My homeland is the imagined Armenia (I have never been there), but I introduce myself as an Armenian born and raised in Lebanon. My identity is a construction based on my history, my language, and my culture. In fact, this paper is another reconstruction of myself for my readers (and for myself). Just as Stuart Hall (1996) observes that “Identity is a narrative of the self; it’s the story we tell about the self in order to know who we are” (346).
Hall postulates the concept of identity as a “diverse and pluralized situation” that can only be understood in terms of “history”, “the unconscious life”, “linguistics”, and “the discovery of other worlds, other peoples, other cultures, and other languages” (340, 341, 344). The history of our family, the history of our country, and the history of our world, are all determinants, now and in the future, of who we are and where and how we live. We cannot look at ourselves independently from “the practices and the discourses that make us. … Marx reminds us that we are always lodged and implicated in the practices and structures of everybody else’s life” (Hall, 340). I am an Armenian because my parents are Armenians. I was born in Beirut because the political situation in Syria forced my father to flee that hostland. I am living in Canada now because the civil war in Beirut forced me to seek refuge elsewhere and because Canada was one of the few countries at the time accepting immigrants from Lebanon. Events in my particular family and events in the world at large dictated my destiny and provided me with the building blocks of my identity.
Not only history but also the unconscious life provides bases to build and alter identities. Expanding on Freud’s concept of the psyche, Hall elaborates: “Identity is itself grounded on the huge unknowns of our psychic lives, … it is formed not only in the line of the practice of other structures and discourses, but also in a complex relationship with unconscious life”(340). Therefore, a unique self might emerge from within me and give me an identity that I could call a “true self” until external influences merge and reconstruct my identity.
Judith Butler (1990) refers to this creation of identity through everyday activities as “performativity” and she asserts that “an identity [is] tenuously constituted in time [and] instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (270). She points out that behaviours are “compelled by social sanction and taboo” and “through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (271, 274, 275). Performativity, then, is the conscious and the unconscious building of identity through everyday activities while following predetermined social and cultural patterns which make us who we are.
Similarly, Hall asserts that our “social, cultural, and political life cannot be understood except in relationship to the formations of unconscious life” (340). I believe that my unconscious life is based on inherited and learned behaviours. I express myself as per the role I am born in, the role I am assigned to, and the role available to me, in a given situation and a specific location. The role becomes the person just as Butler asserts that one “becomes a woman” by conforming “to a historical idea of ‘woman'”, and that gender is a script that gets enacted and continuously expressed (273, 279, 282). Like gender, personalities and identities are constantly reshaped and constructed by certain expectations as well as through specific behaviours. I constantly forge new identities that spring from my unconscious where my life pattern is scripted based on my milieu, my culture, my language, and my independent volition.
My culture has provided me with a specific language or a ‘mother tongue’. Hall elaborates on the Saussurian linguistic model and asserts that “one is always inside a system of languages that partly speak us, which we are always positioned within and against” (341). Language is one of the demarcations of my identity since it provides me with a means to think and to communicate, to learn and to express. My culture was passed on to me through my language. However, I need not speak Armenian to be an Armenian. Within diaspora, one can belong to an ethnic group and not speak the ethnic language. There are hundreds of thousands of Armenians who identify themselves as Armenians yet they do not speak the language. For example, my two cousins who live in Montreal, and three cousins who live in Australia, do not speak Armenian yet identify themselves as Armenians. Similarly, there are millions of diasporan Armenians who speak diasporan Armenian (Western, mixed with Turkish) yet do not speak the Armenian spoken in present day Armenia (Eastern, mixed with Russian). Therefore, even though language is an important aspect of identification within a culture, it is not a requisite in order to feel part of a certain group or to wear the identity of that group.
History, politics, language, and culture situate us in particular social groups. Difference becomes accentuated when ethnic groups are formed and given categories. My Armenianness is a reaction to the non-Armenianness of the ‘other’. To illustrate, we, Torontonians, organize summer festivals when we celebrate “multiculturalism” in the city. For a whole week, each ethnic community displays its foods and crafts, demonstrates its skills in music and dance, and invites all other groups to come and observe. During these festivities, each ethnic group reaffirms its standing in the community and reconstructs its identity for its audience. Hall affirms: “Only when there is an Other can you know who you are” (345). Paraphrasing from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Hall talks about “the gaze of the Other” [that] fixes [us] in an identity” and that “there is no identity that is without the dialogic relationship to the Other” (345). Here, “nationalism and racism” are also at work because when we locate ourselves on opposite or other sides of each other, we notice differences in political beliefs and shades of skin colour, which become determinants of our identities. For instance, my skin colour is white, but the “gaze of Otherness” locates me in the category of an immigrant from the Arab Middle East; therefore, I am not as white as a Western white, I am not a Canadian-Canadian but rather an Armenian-Canadian. Often, I am asked where I am from. To my reply, I receive a short “Oh” or a long “Ohhh”, which I interpret as an indication of pleasure or displeasure. In the late seventies, when I first arrived to Canada, political and economic ties with Arab countries were unstable; therefore, the short “Oh”s were frequent and disheartening. Not only was I the ‘other’, but the threatening ‘other’. Thus, forging my identity was contingent on the political and historical situations of both my homeland and hostland.
Feeling uncomfortable in my new host country, I sought the company of my own kind: other Armenians. After all, they would understand my language, my culture, and some of my difficulties. It is this power of solidarity that brings members of the same ethnic group closer together. We form clubs, build churches, and establish schools to give moral support to each other. The force that brings us together is “the idea of belonging to one particular nation” and “the fact that Armenians have very deep historical roots as a (persecuted) collective deprived of their homeland, of a state, and hence constantly feeling the insecurities of a diaspora existence” (Panossian, 96). The close association with each other “stabilize[s] and stage[s] our sense of ourselves” (Hall, 342). Not only do we feel secure and more settled, but we also form “collective social identities” that give us strength (Hall, 342). For example, when I introduce myself as an Armenian living in North York, some people ask if I go to the community centre and the church on Victoria Park. And if I say I do, suddenly I am identified with an established organization and am more than just an independent individual. At the same time, I feel proud to be recognized by ‘the other’ and feel safe because I am not a lone ‘outsider’ anymore; after all, I do fit in the community. I fit within the expectation and understanding of Canadian multicultural society. I am that one little piece of the mosaic that completes the picture only if it is placed with a group of others that belong together. My identity is part of the collective identity of Armenians in Toronto.
This diasporic situation and the desire to belong to a group is not true only for the first generation but for subsequent ones as well. This is especially true for minority groups, which have been discriminated against. Daniel Yon (1999), during his fieldwork at a secondary school, where the student body consisted of fifty-seven cultures, worked with a group of students who just had formed a group called “The African Queens” (31, 32). The founder of the group, Ann, is born in Canada to immigrant parents from Jamaica. Ann feels that “she is very Canadian”, yet she has a deep desire to associate herself within a group (34). “Ann laid claim to essentialist notions of culture in the form of Afro-centrism”, says Yon (35). Ann has confided: “we have all been detached from Africa, from our culture, so that we have adopted every culture to survive. So we are all mixed up inside about who we are” (35). It is interesting to observe that Ann is not associating herself with Jamaica, but with Africa. As a Black woman, she shares the “insecurities of a diaspora” (Panossian, 96), as well as the history of slavery and discrimination with other Black people from Africa. Her homeland is not only Jamaica, but also Africa. Ann has formed links with an imaginary and ideological homeland that has given her great strength to ground herself in her hostland. Similarly, my daughter Ani, feels no connection with her county of birth, Lebanon (where she left at the age of two months), but rather she views Armenia (to where she has never traveled), as her homeland.
Ann, Ani, and I “live the conditions of hybridity and change” (Yon, 35). We identify ourselves with more than one homeland, culture, and identity. This multi-layered concept of selves creates “hyphenated identities … within [a] cultural mosaic” (Yon, 28). Ann is Jamaican-Canadian, Ani is Armenian-Canadian, and I am Armenian-Lebanese-Canadian. Hall concludes that “identity is a process, identity is split. Identity is not a fixed point but an ambivalent point” (345). Our identities are constantly changing and taking on new faces in new places as we learn to adapt to new situations.
Through this exercise of constructing myself while reflecting on my past and present, both for my daughter and for this paper, I have realized how fluid my identity has been and still is. Nevertheless, I feel that I have a base or a fixed point where I started from, which is what I inherited from my parents: my unique beginnings. Over the years, I have constructed and reconstructed my identity, and I will continue to do so based on my history, my subconscious, my culture, the ‘gaze of the Other’, the economic and the political situation of the country I live in, and my ties to the global society. Thus far, I have learned to be a daughter, a student, a friend, a wife, a mother, an employee, a boss, and a citizen. I have tried to mould myself into some of these situations more than once at different times and different places. These roles will continue to be fluid and ever changing.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”. Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Hall, Stuart. “Ethnicity, Identity, and Difference”, in Becoming National: A Reader, eds. Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny, pp. 339-349. New York: OUP, 1996.
Panossian, Razmik. “Diaspora Politics and International Relations in the Former Soviet Union”, in Nations Abroad, eds. Charles King and Neil J. Melvin, pp. 79-102. Oxford: Westview Press, 1998.
Yon, Daniel. “The Discursive space of Schooling: On the Theories of Power and Empowerment in Multiculturalism and Antiracism”, in The Anthropology of Power, ed. Angela Cheater, pp. 28-41. New York: Routledge, 1999.