Inheriting the diaspora identity: Narrating the Lebanese-Armenian language dilemma
In its prime, the Armenian community in Lebanon was one of the most prominent Armenian diaspora groups; some might argue that its status remains undiminished. However, in order for this diaspora community to claim its place in Lebanon, they continue to forgo a series of cultural aspects that would otherwise grant their integration. Language is the most fundamental barrier that they choose not to cross – in an attempt to prevent acculturation.
Following the Armenian Genocide, the displaced Armenian community in Lebanon was naturalised as of 1927, yet this naturalisation did not ensure their integration. On the contrary, it brought about a series of cultural responses that translated into the educational system and curricula of various Lebanese-Armenian schools and cultural centres.
Being a third-generation Lebanese-Armenian, neither my parents nor I have had a chance to visit Armenia. Nonetheless, Armenian has been our initial language of communication. This is fundamentally interesting while observing inter-group relations since the Armenians of Lebanon are secluded in certain regions that are predominantly populated by fellow Armenians. Therefore, one can go about communicating without having to learn Arabic – the official language of the country they actually belong to, Lebanon. There are certain instances when a Lebanese small business would newly open in the midst of an entirely Armenian neighbourhood. This phenomenon creates a sense of confusion for the people of that community who are no longer able to express themselves in an optimal manner. Being one of these people, I used to plan my shopping list in advance and, in the lift, I would rehearse how to pronounce each of the Arabic words on my list.
The children of such mono-cultural neighbourhoods are students at Armenian schools, where curricula are designed in such a manner to promote the omnipresence of the Armenian language in most, if not all, subjects. The English, French, and Arabic language classes that these institutes offer are limited to linguistics and grammar. Unless the student is applying for the French Baccalaureate, there is usually no other reason for the Lebanese-Armenian school system to advocate practising communication skills in any foreign language.
This intentional social and communal isolation is a collective choice. Looking at it from the perspective of the contemporary Lebanese-Armenian community, this linguistic hindrance and its resultant lack of integration in the Lebanese community is considered to be a factor that has contributed to the sidelining of the Lebanese-Armenian community. The threat at hand is not the absence of the capability to express oneself, but rather the ability to express oneself efficiently in a language besides Armenian. This dilemma transcends the initial objective of simply preserving the Armenian language.
Consequently, bearing in mind that there are two variations of Arabic: formal and colloquial, the Arabic included in school curricula is formal Arabic. This Arabic is not used in its spoken form and is often restricted for official documentation rather than as a medium of social communication. This creates generations of children, myself included, who lack the basic skills to communicate by using colloquial Arabic. This results in minor inconveniences that hinder, if not halt, the process of integration. The latter upsets the identification process because the child will neither feel entirely Armenian nor Lebanese.
For instance, growing up, I vividly remember going to the pharmacy to buy a toothbrush. The minute I saw that the Armenian pharmacist had taken a day off, I had to call my mother in order to ask her the term for a toothbrush in colloquial Arabic. It is memories such as this that have created a sense of alienation and lack of belonging in a country that had long ago considered my grandparents to be among its official citizens.
It is the minor instances that make one question the notion of home; it may simply be going to a coffee shop but being forced to speak English to get a correct order, or being unable to ask for directions when lost during a long drive.
These instances are also mirrored in the Lebanese ‘host’ culture’s perception of Armenians. Often, when a Lebanese individual notices that the person they are speaking to has an Armenian name or surname, a series of stereotypes and prejudices emerge. The Armenian identity shrinks into a list of types of food, or a few words of salutation.
Being different is not problematic, but being unable to communicate limits one’s potential for identification with one’s host country. Yet, the Lebanese-Armenian community has brought this alienation upon itself. This isolation was deemed a mechanism to preserve the Armenian identity. The process of integration is largely associated with acculturation and assimilation, which is observed as loss of identity. Although the sentiment at hand is justifiable, the emergent identity is one of eternal conflict – there is no home, merely the inherited yearning for one.
Vicky Panossian is an emerging Social Anthropologist with a fundamental interest in Arab refugee studies. Currently, she is editing a monograph about the interpersonal struggles of integration of Levantine diaspora groups. Her project, entitled ‘Contemporary Multicultural Escapades’, is expected to be published mid-2021. Vicky's research interests range from identity and prejudice to their manifestation in art and policy-making.