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Along the Paths of Armenian Identity

  Standpoint of Diaspora

Along the Paths of Armenian Identity

Antoine Agoudjian - Photographer


Antoine Agoudjian

French Photographer

Antoine Agoudjian was born in France in 1961, the grandson of Armenians who survived the Genocide. At the end of the 1980s, he spent time in Armenia to help the victims of the 1988 earthquake that occurred in the North of the country, with its epicentre in Spitak. Staying in Istanbul in 1996, he felt the compelling need to search for Armenians still living in that historic homeland. His travels took him to all sorts of Armenian communities scattered throughout the Middle East, as well as along the deportation roads and places of massacres in Eastern Turkey and to the Syrian desert of Deir ez-Zor, on the traces of a memory that has been suppressed, denied, but never completely stamped out. In March 2015, a book encapsulating 27 years of his photography was published, entitled Le cri du silence: traces d’une mémoire arménienne (Shouting Silence, Traces of Armenian Memory). This body of work is currently exhibited in several venues around France, as well as and above all in Diyarbakir, for the centenary of the Armenian genocide. It has been called “a historical, political and artistic event”.

REPAIR: As a Diaspora Armenian living in France, how would you describe your identity?

Antoine Agoudjian: To my mind, the Armenian identity is diverse, because of our history. It is of course undeniable to say that I was born in France, but there are several specifics in my life story. The first one is that I am a third generation Armenian in exile. In my days, the Iron Curtain was still there and you didn’t have access to Armenian land since it was also impossible to go to Turkey. The sole word “Armenian” was taboo over there. My generation thus developed a whole identity in imaginary form, inspired by Armenian culture, and by dancing – I have danced since the age of five in Armenian folk groups. All this happened in a “village”, the town of Alfortville (note: in the Paris suburbs), which counted many Armenians, whose lives were organized around their football club, the UGA (Union Générale Arménienne), and their folk groups. It was a village life, also marked by an Armenian identity because we lived around survivors of the Genocide, who included my own grandparents.

How would you define the Armenian identity?

To me, the Armenian identity is essentially linked to the culture – to the fact that Armenians were not just a people who had undergone extermination, but a civilisation with its own literature, its opera… and a Turkish memory that deliberately tried to erase Armenians from its history. To me, the Armenian identity consists in deeply loving this legacy that was passed on to us. There is this common view that some Armenians are more Armenian, either because they speak the language better than us or because their activities put them in touch with their origins. However, I think that identity is a little bit like a friend. Despite the faults or the many things you can criticize in a friend, you remain emotionally attached to him. Likewise, although we don’t belong to a perfect civilisation or nation, whatever happens, I love it unconditionally. I have always been attached to my origins, to my people’s culture and their history.

The earthquake in Armenia deeply affected you.

Watching on television such a little country flattened to the ground was to me the continuation of the genocide: it was another instance of annihilation. I really experienced it that way. The only sanctuary where some Armenians remained in place was destroyed, and I thought: that’s it, we’re disappearing. And in the end, my whole work has stemmed from that.

You then left for Armenia – as an interpreter, in particular – and over there, you discovered familiar faces and various atmospheres that your grandparents had evoked in their recollections. What you describe hasn’t happened to all who made the trip.

Some have excessively idealized Armenia, so they return disappointed. And I believe that they meant it to happen that way. I didn’t. Although I’m an idealist, I have no desire to have people be other than who they are. We shouldn’t ask them to be up to our own projections and fantasies. Let’s not forget that, historically, Armenians from Armenia were the first during the Perestroika to peacefully voice claims in relation to Stalin’s mistakes – and who suffered the wrath of Baku in the following Sumgait pogroms; that before the Baltic countries broke away from the USSR, Armenians demonstrated for Karabakh to join Armenia. Let’s not forget also that in the 1950s-60s, they were the first to shout, hands raised, “Our lands, our lands, our lands!” And that Armenians from Armenia had obtained a special status under bolshevism recognizing their religion. They should not be viewed as naïve, or materialistic. They were very involved in the political reality of the region and, just for that reason, deserve respect.

Besides, when you are in a country where the robber is Armenian, and the policeman is Armenian, the lawyer is Armenian, the prostitute is Armenian, etc. you have to stop idealizing it. Like in any other, there is the best and the worst. Now, whoever holds a romantic or poetic view of his origins has also plenty to be inspired. No wonder that filmmaker Paradjanov should be Armenian because there is a lot of romanticism and symbolism in this culture. People going to Armenia should travel a little – to Zangezur and Dilijan in the North, to Javahketi (note: Armenian area in South Georgia), and Karabakh. They should meet simple Armenians, people like us, cultured people. In Armenia, even a peasant is well-read, and you can talk about anything with him. One should stop idealizing people who are like everyone else. I can recognize my grandparents in those people.

As a Frenchman of Armenian stock, how do you view Armenians from Turkey?

Just as Armenians from Armenia, they are attuned to a reality which is their own, and not ours. And they act according to parameters which they have to deal with on an everyday basis. For instance, they belong to a system which is not in favour of freedom of speech – and clearly, things have hardened in that respect. There is a lot of censorship and self-censorship, particularly in the media. So, Armenians from Turkey must do with the situation, directly facing the consequences of the positions they take. Everyone experiences a reality which puts him in front of his fears – of being sued overnight, of being ostracized…

I also see them as a people powerfully on the move. There is incredible emulation. All those islamized Armenians, in Diyarbakir for instance, are experiencing an Armenian reality beyond our understanding. You can’t imagine it from the outside. I think that, just as the Armenian Diaspora was astounded by what happened in Armenia, it will also be astounded by what is happening in Turkey. Because Armenians, both in Turkey and Armenia, experience their Armenian-ness on a daily basis. They are fully connected to it, and it changes everything compared to the intellectual type of Armenian-ness in France or the United States. It doesn’t take anything away from the more intellectual type of investment, but it isn’t something that is lived on an everyday basis. What’s more, Armenians in Diaspora countries are highly appreciated and not stigmatised as are the communities in those historical lands. When I go to Turkey, it is the only country in the world where I feel I’m wearing a yellow star. I have to be careful with whom I talk, with what I say and to whom I say it. Although I’m French, this is what I experience, and nowhere else.

Not so long ago, saying you were Armenian was risky in Turkey…

I started to work in Turkey in 1996. Now, it’s different. Many Armenians express their identity. But I’ve known a time when it would hardly be suggested through glances. For instance, I had noticed that several people I met had looked at me in an unusual way. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought to myself: this person looked at me with such warmth and kindness, I think she’s Armenian. That’s how it happened for a long time.

What role did Hrant Dink play in that change, do you think?

It’s true that there was a before and an after Hrant Dink, that people were terribly shaken in their psyches. In fact, the project that he would have devoted his whole life to getting people to understand – including Armenians – was accelerated and exacerbated by his murder. Everything he set up went along the lines he had wished – i.e. of building a bridge. As I said, we’ll quickly be bewildered by what is happening in Turkey. All those Muslim Armenians who reclaim their Armenian identity, these new Armenians “converts” – even if those are not so numerous – the political movement carried by Agos and Turkish intellectuals…

Regarding Turkish intellectuals, precisely, what do you think of those who side with Armenians?

They do what they can. They too have a right to be afraid. We’re talking about a country where, unfortunately, problems have always been solved in the same way. Always. I think about Sevag Balikçi, Hrant Dink and many others. There are reasons to be afraid when your life is on the line… It’s not about courage, it’s about being driven by convictions until you complete your project. Some intellectuals initiated the process of turning Turkey into a democracy, and this implies that the Armenian problem is a big stumbling block because that Republic was founded upon the massacre and extermination of Armenians.

Ultimately, the Armenian and Turkish identities are de facto connected…

The tragedy of the genocide has parted peoples who are in fact very close. We have the same history – although one false, and one which is accurate. We eat similar foods and love our children the same way – like Kurds too. We’re closely connected to Turks, in a way more than Germans were connected to Jews because we really originate from the same land. So of course our identity is closely tied to the Turkish identity and vice-versa. Their history is tightly woven to the history of Armenians, who were beneficial to them – and whom they betrayed in the name of a crazy and evil project.


You say that the Diaspora is or will be bewildered by what is happening in Turkey. Does it mean that it remained stuck somewhere, in some trauma that it cannot overcome?

I think that it’s good to distance yourself in order to look at the situation more serenely and make unsparing claims. I don’t mind that some political movements make very demanding claims, and only a certain distance enables you to do that. On the other hand, I think that those who remain solely within the legacy that was passed on by genocide survivors don’t have a very accurate view of what has happened in Turkey. Over there, many people have saved Armenians… What I mean is that if you give all the Turks the same face, if you refuse to have relations with them unless you obtain recognition of the genocide, then I think it’s a mistake because recognition can come from that country, but if it doesn’t change, it simply won’t happen. And in order for it to change, you have to accompany that transformation and therefore be there. It’s happening, through historians like Kevorkian or intellectuals and historians such as Taner Akçam. There is a definite opening in Turkey. By giving a human face to that country, it’s possible not to see the Turk as being solely responsible for the trauma, for that heavy legacy which naturally causes terrible psychological agony. What is happening in Syria, the beheading, the gutting, the raping of people, what the public now discovers with Daesh, I heard it as a small boy and I put pictures on it in my mind. It’s actually why I tried to exorcise this legacy through pictures. It weighed heavily on me. Those who keep mulling over it will feed the trauma which inhabits them.

What about Armenians in France? They are said to be divided, disorganized. Some descendants of Armenians from Turkey seem to frown upon those communities coming from the Middle East or Armenia…

My generation has known a time when we really thought we were going to disappear, when the police cracked down on us at demonstrations, when we were treated like less than nothing. I think that today, the community is getting organized, with imperfections, but you can see through the 2001 law of recognition of the Genocide by France, and the debates that are held, that the French Armenian community exists and is taken into consideration. And this, with few means deployed. So I’m rather optimistic. The Armenian community has obtained effective victories. Now, regarding the various communities who arrive as a result of tragic events such as wars, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the civil war in Lebanon or in Syria, the fall of the Wall… you can always turn differences into oppositions, but you can also turn them into real meetings. For instance, when Armenians from Lebanon arrived in France, they helped me improve my linguistic skills. Thanks to them, I had access to a sophisticated Armenian culture because, before the war, Lebanon was a beacon of Armenian culture. It’s the same for Armenians from Syria. Some Armenians can be sources of enrichment and others sources of problems, just like in any other community.

In the last years, we can see an awakening of identities in Turkey. Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, etc. make claims to different identities.

Of course, Turks have 42 ethnic groups to handle. They want to have people believe that they were the first and that there is only one nation. It’s ridiculous, and a bit like Pandora’s box for them. All the more so that they have made these people suffer for decades, so that the advent of democracy will also bring up all the resentment – with logical claims for reparations, lawsuits, etc. It’s only natural. And it comes from the fact that they have lived through repressive years in the 1980s. When I stroll through Diyarbakir with older people, they keep turning around as they walk. When I ask them why, they say that during those years, the sole fact of talking in Kurdish landed them in jail. Today, when those people who lived in fear realize that they can express themselves, of course they are resentful. They don’t identify with a nation which is only a fiction and offers them a demagogic project in which they are not recognized. They don’t feel Turkish themselves, and are included as second-class citizens. Everything is done in Turkey to stigmatize those people.

A small semantic battle sometimes takes place over whether one should use the phrase “islamized Armenians” or “Muslim Armenians”. What do you think about it?

It’s true that there were forced and arbitrary conversions during the genocide, but I have many friends who tell them that they feel good as Muslims. So it’s out of the question for them to go back on that. They declare themselves Armenian but don’t want to be bothered about their religion. Today, I think that it’s a fact, that there are Muslim Armenians, and who are going to stay that way. I think that islamized or Muslim Armenians have a real problem, which is that of their true Armenian legacy. I feel that they have built something new in which they feel good, but that at some level they ignore this specific Armenian legacy. We do have to get used to that. This is why I say Muslim Armenian instead of “islamized”.

Up to now, Armenians were told that they were exterminated because of who they were, and today that they want to exist again, they are told that there are new ones, different ones, who are Muslims…It’s harsh, and in order to experience all this soundly, you need firm distancing and self-confidence. Armenians are so afraid to be dissolved, absorbed, changed… but let’s face it: when you cannot avoid something, you’d better embrace it. However, this doesn’t mean either that we should spare Muslim/islamized Armenians from the question: where is your culture and your cultural legacy?

A hundred years after the genocide, Armenians are still struggling for recognition of their identity and of the tragedy that they went through. Why such persistence?

Armenians are a fighting people. Even in Dersim, they say that those who fought were Armenians converted to Alevism. The same is said concerning the PKK. I think that Armenians have this seed of rebellion deeply rooted in them, something that was passed on along generations. And Armenians converted to Alevism in the 1930s knew very well what the Turkish government was up to. Armenians are a people who have always been stigmatized so they have this ingrained sense of revolt and struggle against injustice. To me, the Armenian resistance movement hasn’t stopped after 1915, it kept on going and took another form. They have been disseminated as an ethnical group and no longer fought as Armenians, but those who entered Marxist-Leninist or Maoist movements in the 1970s in Turkey are the heirs to Antranik (note: Fedayeen and Armenian national hero, 1866-1927), and other Armenian guerrilla fighters.

So, according to you, the myth of the well integrated, even assimilated “good Armenian”, who doesn’t make waves, should be questioned?

I don’t think that Armenians are part of the consensus because they have always been close to their struggles and to their cause, which is universal. And also, they are into building, and rebuilding. I think that Armenians have never stopped rebuilding what others have destroyed. It may be an intellectual legacy…

Finally, what is it that connects Armenians with one another? Since you’ve been around all the various communities, is there a feature that Armenians have in common?

I travelled extensively around the Middle East and elsewhere and sincerely think, without being demagogic or chauvinistic, that Armenians are a singular people. They are a rather Fellinian people. They have that slightly eccentric side to them which makes them charming, attractive. When you are in Armenia or Turkey, you can watch incredible scenes. Armenians are a funny, poetic people. That’s the side I love about them. Also – and I don’t want what I’m saying to be misinterpreted – I think that they have a distinctive face. Not all of them of course! But in the Dersim province, for instance, I found that most often they had truly recognizable features, and village people also shared that perception. Then, there is this legacy of the genocide… What is common to Armenian families is that they all have the same story. What binds a family is to belong in a genealogical tree, and what unites all the Armenians in the world is to be part of a frightful story. After that, what do you do with it? Should you cultivate resentment? No, on the contrary. As I said, Armenians have always rebuilt what was destroyed. I think that anyone should keep a certain distance with his struggles, and always be on the side of life. One should cultivate life.

THE CRY OF SILENCE. TRACES OF AN ARMENIAN MEMORY. ©Antoine Agoudjian/Le Cri du Silence/Flammarion

  • Antoine Agoudjian EN 0
    Book cover of The cry of silence. Traces of an Armenian memory. Flammarion. 2015 
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    The Trophy, Gyumri (Leninakan), Armenia, 1993
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    Gdouts, region of Van, Turkey, 2002
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    Sevkiyat, Yerevan, Armenia, 1989
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    Anguish, Istanbul, Turkey, 2009
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    Babel, Gyumri (Leninakan), Armenia, 1989
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    Baron Street, Aleppo, Syria, 2001
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    Seyfo, region of Diyarbakir, Turkey, 2013
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    Embers Smolders in Unison, Istanbul, Turkey, 2008
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    Assadour, region of Tunceli (Dersim), Turkey, 2011
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    The Rupture, Tunceli (Desim), Turkey, 2012
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    The Prophet, region of Midyat, Turkey, 2013
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    The Ghost of Armenia, region of Tunceli (Dersim), Turkey, 2011
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    Locations where the photographs were taken. ©Eric Van Lauwe



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