Who is Armenian?

Keghart.com Editorial Board, 15 August 2012

Think of a travel poster depicting a female tourist lounging under wafting palm trees on a powder-soft, snow-white sandy beach. The sky is predictably blue, the ocean bluer. The advertising text says “ONLY $799/wk. Santo Domingo.”

If you are a travel packager you might compare the above price with the Grenada vacations your company sells. If you are a photographer you might observe the lighting, the model’s pose, the symmetry of the poster. If you are a printer you might check the clarity of the printing, the typeface.  If you are in the fashion business or own a hair salon, your focus might be on the tourist’s swimwear and hair style. If you are interested in North/South politics, you might condemn the “exploitation” of the Caribbean by “affluent” North Americans…

Keghart.com Editorial Board, 15 August 2012

Think of a travel poster depicting a female tourist lounging under wafting palm trees on a powder-soft, snow-white sandy beach. The sky is predictably blue, the ocean bluer. The advertising text says “ONLY $799/wk. Santo Domingo.”

If you are a travel packager you might compare the above price with the Grenada vacations your company sells. If you are a photographer you might observe the lighting, the model’s pose, the symmetry of the poster. If you are a printer you might check the clarity of the printing, the typeface.  If you are in the fashion business or own a hair salon, your focus might be on the tourist’s swimwear and hair style. If you are interested in North/South politics, you might condemn the “exploitation” of the Caribbean by “affluent” North Americans…

This is a long way of saying that we view the world invariably through our prism, priorities, interests and obsessions.

Ask yourself “Who is Armenian?” Through which filter would you pore over that question? What are, according to you, the requirements that make an Armenian?

Traditionalist at one time might have said an Armenian is someone whose parents are Armenian, he or she belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church, speaks Armenian and identifies himself/herself as Armenian. Some might add to the traditionalist’s definition by adding that an Armenian is a person who contributes to the furthering of Armenianess culturally, socially, demographically, materially.  But what about a person who says he is Armenian but can’t speak Armenian, has one non-Armenian parent and is an atheist? What about someone who is partly Armenian but is active in the Armenian Church and community? Is he/she as Armenian as a “full-blooded” Armenian who is not interested in Armenian affairs? Is a Muslim Hamshen no less Armenian than a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church who never goes to church but can speak in Armenian?

Armenians are proud of entertainers Sylvie Vartan, Arlene Francis, Cher, former Lebanese President Emil Lahoud, World Cup soccer player Youri Djorkaeff, musician Michel Legrande, racing car champion Patrick Fiori, directors Albert and Allen Hughes, Bollywood actress Tulip Joshi … Would they be less proud of them if they learned that they  are all “half Armenians”?

For centuries the answer to the question “Who is Armenian?” was straightforward: Armenian on both sides of the family + member of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The certainty had to be modified a few centuries ago when some Armenians became Roman Catholic or Protestant. Nowadays a Bangladeshi bearing the name Fatima Montaza Sharif and wearing hijab can emigrate to Canada and three years later become Canadian, with all the rights and privileges of a native-born. And if she is involved in a news story while outside Canada, she is identified as Canadian—although she has lived most of her life in Bangladesh and is ethnically, culturally a Bengali. She is considered Canadian after a mere three years in Canada.

Once upon a time ethnicity was the universal determining identifier, but that changed in some countries such as the United States and Canada. Multi-racial states often see ethnicity as the enemy, a divisive rival which might threaten the unity of a country. According to modern states, your national identity is what your passport and citizenship declare. Thus, in the eyes of states around the world, an Armenian living outside Armenia is Brazilian, British, Canadian, French, Greek, Russian, Indian… His ethnicity is tertiary. As a result of making citizenship the only identifier we get such ridiculous headlines such as the recent “Three Russian Terrorists Arrested in Spain.” The headline was misleading because the three terrorists were Chechens: they were in Spain supposedly plotting against Russia. They had Russian citizenship because Russia occupies Chechnia.

Some Western states have also dispensed with citing the passport bearer’s religion. The latter was partly due to anti-Israel terrorists who identified—and sometimes killed—Jewish travelers who had their religion documented in their passports.

In most Muslim countries a prime identifier is a citizen’s sect–Sunni or Shiite. In parts of Africa and Asia, the tribe is the identifier. Although Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea are black, they are considered Arab (Semites) because they speak Arabic and are Muslim. Nearly 60 years ago when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt was promoting pan-Arabism, he said an Arab is a person who spoke Arabic. According to that definition, many Ottoman Armenians, who could not speak Armenian and many Armenians born in the Americas who can’t speak Armenian, are not Armenian.

Political persuasion, on rare occasion, has also been used as an identifier. There was a time in our unfortunate recent past when certain Armenian extremists inanely claimed “Whoever is not Tashnag is not Armenian” thus making Aram Khachaturian, Victor Hampartsumian, Charles Aznavour non-Armenians.

Ethnicity, once the main identifier of the individual, is under attack in North America. The old certainties have gone out the window in North America but in most of countries around the world ethnicity remains a key identifier.

Religion, as a crucial identifier, is also under attack in the West, although it continues to be an important descriptor in the rest of the world. Nowadays if an Armenian mentions in North America that Armenians are the first to adopt Christianity as state religion he might encounter a “so what?” look. However, in the rest of the world, where religion matters, the statement would still receive plaudits.

We have to acknowledge that we are different from the Armenian martyrs and survivors of the Genocide. We have to admit that Armenians of Armenia are somewhat different from Armenians of Argentina, Canada, France, Lebanon, and Uruguay …. Some Armenians would say there’s a huge difference between Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Jordanian and Palestinian Armenians, although these are Arab countries and the Armenian communities in most of them are younger than a century.

Andrei Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist and nationalist, defined Russian with these words: “Russian nationality is not about blood but about spirit. The greatness of our people is to be sought in the inner development in its breath or soul…all those who feel themselves part of this heritage in spirit are true Russians.”

A few months ago an Armenian intellectual in Armenia said in an interview that we should define and present our “Armenianess” in our own private way. For example, an Armenian writer living in North America (Peter Balakyan, Chris Bohjalian) expresses his “Armenianess” by writing English-language books about Armenians. Entertainer Kim Kardashian, until recently inactive in the Armenian community, demonstrates her “Armenianess” by calling for the recognition of the Genocide.

How should Armenians define and express their Armenian identity?

In a rapidly changing world we have to enlarge the tent to include Armenians who do not meet the traditional “24-karat” requirement of ethnic “purity” and Mother Church affiliation. But while we expand the tent we should be wary of “universalist” and “secularist left” twaddle . . . the naïve, impractical and sometimes hypocritical admonishments which declare that we are “all in this boat together” and that our goals in the “Global Village” should be identical, that we are all the same and that ethnic, religious, cultural variations are destructive.  Yes, as Armenians, we obviously share countless common interests and priorities with the rest of humanity, but we also have interests, heritage, characteristics and goals unique to our people. “Universalist” cant can threaten our nation, especially since we are few and are scattered all over the globe.

It’s high time Armenians re-examined their identity, answered “who is Armenian?” and took steps to preserve their 4,300-year-old unique identity and heritage. Let the conversation begin.

Related Material:

Belonging to a Community: Is Political or Religious Affiliation Necessary?


  1. Who is Armenian?
    The answer to the question is simple.  Whoever calls himself "Armenian" is Armenian.  No one in his right mind would claim to be what he isn't.

    Avedis Kevorkian
    Philadelphia, PA.  USA

    1. Avedis’ Version

      The late Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt defined an Arab as someone who spoke Arabic. Avedis has a similar but simpler definition of who an Armenian is:  anyone who calls himself or herself an Armenian.

      I do not think we will ever have a simpler and a truer definition of who an Armenian is other than the one defined by him here on Keghart.com. Avedis, in this instance at least, lives up to his name as someone who brings good tidings, be it in simpler packages.

  2. Who is Armenian?

    Thank you for the excellent debate on ethnic identity in the 21st century, especially in the U.S. and Canada, where minorities enjoy more freedom. In ethnic history, identity is defined as a "fluid" situation for the ethnic person. In other words, one is Armenian in his/her own community, and, outside  the community the person identifies with the host culture. As such, ethnic peoples' groups are looked as "imagined societies", which do not exist in the microcosm of a dominant culture since they are encouraged to keep their folklore and religious celebrations in their clubs or centres and thus are kept virtually away from real political power. However, as Armenians, we have a very strong identity through our difficult history and our struggle for justice. This  has given us a more powerful tool to call ourselves Armenians.

  3. Very Informative Editorial

    Who is Armenian? There are complexities and important issues in your editorial. You touch upon-at the end–our stance, which is definitely a particular dilemma and, as a small nation scattered all over, we need to meditate on how to persevere and preserve our ARMENITY (I do not approve of the words Armenianness or Armenianism). The one  that I use–derived from Latin/Spanish–is the correct one,.such as comunidad  (community).

    Your quoting of Solzhenitsyn is appropriate, of course, but we should stick to our own and try to first take care of our problems within.

    You see, I am delving into our particular case, never mind the universal/international ones. If we desire and hope to be (recently re-achieved) a nation/state and not a nation/people (quite a difference there) we should first think of resolving our inner issues. We should welcome  amongst  us–for instance–newcomer immigrants from Syria and treat them, regardless of their dialect, mannerisms etc…. AS ONE  OF US. We should not allow those amongst us who advocate universalism/internationalism to get away with that kind of propaganda.

    We need to redefine our identity as one nation/State and preserve both these. Moreover, our case (like that of the Jews) is especially delicate because we are surrounded by adversaries who think of wiping us. Yes, we do have a difficult problem, and for that reason alone, if not for others, we SHOULD STICK TOGETHER, regardless of creed, belief, etc. 

  4. Who Is Armenian ?

    An excellent editorial on a subject needing to be addressed because it is facing the realities of today. I am the son of a Dikranagert (sp?) Armenian and an Assyrian born in Springfield, Mass.

    I have worked diligently in the Congressional campaign for David Krikorian in Cincinnati against the Turkey-loving Congresswoman Jean Schmidt. I never cease to emphasize my Armenian heritage and am always ready to educate Americans about Armenia and its contributions to society. I am an American of Armenian heritage not an American-Armenian.

    Ethnocentricity is one of the major sources of aggression and warfare that we see around the world. If we do not embrace the reality that "we're in it together" we will destroy ourselves and the earth. Edward Wilson in his book, "The Social Conquest of Earth," emphasizes that homo sapiens has thrived and has dominated the earth because of our intellectuality,  but we still harbor the emotions of our animal ancestry that evolutionarily goes back millions of years. Emotionally, we too often still act like apes.

    1. Reply to Dick Bozian


      Dear Mr. Bozian,

      We, Americans of the United States, are not ethnocentric, it seems, yet our government is always waging aggressive wars [political or violent] on other countries. How do you explain that? Historians will tell you that humans will always  make war over resources–food, fuel, water, etc. No matter religion, ethnocentricity, language, we will group, regroup, invent an identity, re-invent identity and fight over land, water, etc.

      However, for the present, we'd like to keep our identities, whether French, Chinese, Armenian or Inuit. People in the United States have had a very short history–not long enough to have developed an identity like other nations. 

  5. Person Who is Ashamed

    The person who is ashamed if an Armenian does something shameful, the person who feels happy if an Armenian of integrity is successful, a person who is always ready to contribute something for the good of an Armenian…Whoever has these feelings or qualities is Armenian, whether he can speak or not, write or not in Armenian, lives in Armenia or not.


  6. Who is Armenian?

    Great topic and one that is highly relevant to Armenians.

    If the ending of our surname ''ian'' was a trade mark for our Armenian identity, there are many Iranians whose names end the same way, too. So that would not be a point of strong contention to the Armenian identity.

    We should dismantle the shackles of the age-old and somewhat antiquated criteria of deciding or reinforcing factors of the Armenian identity, whether it is speaking the language, is Tashnagtsagan (as absurd as it might sound), lives in  Armenia or belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Who in his right mind ever thought of that?

    If I have the pride, the conviction and the spirit to call myself an Armenian, then I am an Armenian, despite every other criteria spoken above and in your article.

  7. Crucial National Reflection

    Կեցցէ հայոց ժողովուրդը ի Հայաստան, յԱրցախ եւ ի սփիւռս աշխարհի:

    I completely agree with my compatriots Avedis and Nigoghos: if you assert you are Armenian, you use (or have the intention of using) your financial and/or intellectual resources for the benefit of Armenians, if you are happy to see an Armenian win an Olympic medal (whether he represents Russia or Armenia) then congratulations! You are among the few in this world who can claim to be part of a 4,300-year-old nation.

  8. Who is Armenian?

    We would like to inform your contributors that the London Chapter of the Tekeyan Cultural Association is organizing a formal debate on the issue in early 2013. This is a complex issue with many ramifications.

    Hratch Kouyoumjian.
                  TCA London


  9. Immigration

    What if Armenians open immigration to other nations, like Canada, US and Europe?
    Then the question would be "who are the original Armenians?"

  10. I am what I am

    I feel like an Armenian, dream and think as an Armenian. So, I am Armenian.  I speak a little Grapar. I am not corrupt. I work for the future of my people in Hamshen. I understand little the new Armenian. What is the problem?

    I don't criticize my folk. I make no distinction between rich and poor. Religious matters are private.

    Tigran Ishan Hamam Amatuni/ Hamshen-Diaspora

Comments are closed.

You May Also Like