“Whatever language you first start reading, that language dominates you subconsciously or consciously. I have read Asian, Armenian and Russian literature all in Armenian,” he explains in our interview. And being an Armenian still influences his values: “survival, transcendental values of religion, language and consciousness above all.” Vartan Gregorian previously served as president of Brown University and director of the Public Library of New York. He serves on several boards and has received many awards and honors including the National Humanities Medal (1998) and the Medal of Freedom (2004). He is a member of Reset DoC Scientific Committee.
You have lived and worked in Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the US, indeed everywhere. How would you define yourself? Armenian, Armenian-American, or Iranian-Armenian-American?
I feel as if I am a citizen of the world. I left home when I was fourteen. I was already mixed up then, because I had to go to a Russian-Armenian school, then I had to go to a Turkish school and then I had to go to Iranian school, which I left aged fourteen or fifteen. I went to Lebanon to attend a French school. Identity depends on what you want to belong to. So I am an Armenian by birth, American by citizenship, and culturally I would describe myself as predominantly influenced by Armenian-Asian literature, Russian literature, French and English literature, and last by Italian translations. I will tell you why: San Lazzaro’s XVII century Armenian monastery in Venice contains translations of all the major classics from Italian, French, German and English into Armenian, so I read many of the classics in Armenian published in Venice. You can see how complex my life is.
What makes you feel like an Armenian after so many years?
I feel that I am a minority, in a sense. I do attach a great emphasis to minorities, and as a Christian minority in the Middle East, I do not feel uncomfortable: it is something that just reinforces your identity, whether you want it to or not. If you are treated as an Armenian, that is, not as part of the majority, then your actual role is a minority. Moreover, whatever language you first start reading, that language dominates you subconsciously or consciously. I have read Asian, Armenian and Russian literature all in Armenian.
Do you associate being an Armenian with a set of values, or with a certain way of thinking?
Yes, absolutely. Those values are the following: survival, transcendental values of religion, language and consciousness above all. Armenians’ classical religion has been officiated in all the churches since the 5th century. Armenians accepted Christianity as the first state religion eleven years before Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan. Then the alphabet. Before 102 they invented their own alphabet, which is still used. In 412 they translated the Bible into Armenian. So religion is part of nationality and I am, in many ways, involved in that kind of spiritual context without having theological convictions.
Is there a strong difference, or even a rivalry, between Turkish Armenians, Iranian Armenians and Armenian citizens?
No, it is the same kind of thing you used to have among Jews. East-European Jews are orthodox, and due to the fact that they did not speak good German, West-European Jews always looked differently upon them. When you do not have a country, as was the case for Armenians, each region imposes its own rules. When I came to the States in 1956, I could not understand the Armenian-American usage of Armenian at first, because they had 40-50 different dialects. Dialects can be fine, but when you have so many, the written word becomes a dominant issue.
I read a wonderful interview of yours in which you described your great biography, your great life. You said that “Diasporas are not ghettos, rather they are connecting bridges to larger communities”.
Yes, especially in America, where you have mobility both within class and outside, within the region, in the culture, across religion. Even if you do not speak English, you can go to Queens or Brooklyn, you will be able to buy your meal, go to a Synagogue or an English funeral home or cemetery. If anybody wants to live in a ghetto, that is possible. But the Diaspora in America brought 400 ethnic papers to New York, 400 ethnic publications in Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, French, Italian, Hungarian, Czech and so forth. These provide connections not just for New York Jews, Italians or Armenians, but with all the other fragments of Armenians, or Jews, Italian, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians throughout the United States, and through them also links to Russia, Israel, Armenia. So the Diaspora is a very dynamic community that is not self-contained. America does not allow you to be self-contained because of the opportunities it offers.
Do you think Europe is different in this sense?
Europe is very different. I always used to believe that all you needed in France was to have the French language. French language was the passport to Frenchness, the English language was your passport to Britishness, but evidently that is no longer sufficient because religion is emerging as a factor, class is emerging as a factor, cultural taboos are emerging as a factor. In America though, because of the dynamism, you have mobility geographically, and you have individual opportunities to transcend all of this. This is very hard in Europe, because there is not as much mobility. In fact cultures move, products move, but I do not know of, let’s say, hundreds of thousands of people moving from France to Germany or Italians moving to Tunisia.
Let us go back to the Armenian identity. Would you use the word “genocide” for the mass-killing of the Armenian population conducted by the Ottoman Empire?
Yes, the term “genocide” was actually coined by Raphael Lemkin based on the Armenian experience, because that was in many ways a prototype of all the future genocides. Which means you first separate men and women, then you select able-bodied men so that they cannot fight. You confiscate their properties, then you push-pull them in a march to the desert. This is in wartime, without food, water, medicines. Remember in European history the Belgian atrocities by Germans, when during the 1st World War there were deportations of Belgians, and Belgium was not the Ottoman Empire. I consider it as genocide. I do not know why modern Turkey would resist accepting something that took place during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. It is not modern Turkey’s responsibility but the Ottoman Empire’s responsibility.
What do you think about the French law that could punish any person denying the existence of the Armenian genocide?
As an Armenian I am for it, but as a citizen of the world I am not for it because I like free discussion, and I would also like to see free discussion in Turkey. But if we eliminate the denial crime, then naturally follows genocide and I think Germany is coping with that dilemma: you cannot eliminate the crime of denial without allowing all the right-wing (or whatever) neo-Nazis to emerge again using that as a rallying point. So it is a hot issue. As a strict freedom-of-speech and freedom-of-thought intellectual, I do not believe in restrictions, and I have no problem to imagine a day when the denial crime is not necessary. Intellectuals should discuss freely, as long as evidence is not varied. I will tell you one of the things people do not mention. I spoke here at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I spoke about the Armenian genocide many years ago, perhaps 20-25 years ago. Initially I said this did not happen: the whole audience or congregation was very upset. I said, Jews could not be trusted, Britain and America could not be trusted as it was wartime propaganda. And I went on down the list: Italians could not be trusted, the French could not be trusted, so all the sources of those countries that fought against the Ottoman Empire (with the exception of America), could not be trusted. Let us say, they all are wrong. But tell me: why would German and Austro-Hungarian ministers, commanders and generals (who were allies of the Ottoman Empire) send cables to the German chancellor or to the Austrian chancellor reporting those assassinations? This is very interesting and is one of the questions that nobody could answer.
Do you think that the Turkish State that had condemned the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink for insulting Turkishness is somehow jointly responsible for his assassination?
I think I would not create a climate in which nationalism trumps liberalism. Turkey has a great humanistic tradition nationalists are allowed to dominate everything, creating an atmosphere which in my opinion is completely unnecessary. I do not see any country in the world establishing laws that prevent attacking Russianness or Italianness. This did not happen even in the Soviet Union where you could not criticize the party. I do not even know what those terms mean, frankly.
Isfahan Governor Morteza Bakhtiari recently said that, “The peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Christian Armenians, relying on their religious commonalties in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, can be an example to the world”. Do you agree with him?
Iranians and Armenians are used to each other in many ways, having coexisted for some twenty-two hundred years. We are not strangers. In Iran under the Safavis Empire (I wrote about that in my essay on the Armenians of Isfahan) since the 17th century Armenians have been model citizens. They contributed to the flourishing of a major trade and at the same time fully provided professional classes for Iran. So while they were not equal to Muslims, they were protected minority, and Iran has allowed Armenians to have their language and religion. Remember also that the people of Isfahan were transplanted from Julfa, near the border between Armenia and northern Iran, and taken for deportation all the way to Isfahan because the new ruler, Shah Abbas, destroyed their whole city so that nobody would be able to return back home. Because of that, in a sense there was no home to which to return but at the same time they made Isfahan their home. We know how to coexist as Christians and Muslims. We never ate during Ramadan publicly, we were always respectful of each other, but at the same time there were times that Armenians were discriminated against actually. Armenians are allowed to practice their religion. We are an insignificant minority anyway, a model but insignificant minority.
According to Armenian websites the Bush administration could have in mind a drastic reduction in regular US assistance to Armenians, provoking strong criticism from the Armenian-American lobbies and organizations. Are there geo-political reasons behind this choice?
Frankly, I have not heard about this proposal. America has been very generous towards Armenians, and Armenia is in a very difficult situation now. Its border is blocked by Turkey and has not been recognized de jure. The two countries have no diplomatic relations. Its borders with Azerbaijan are blocked and the Caspian pipeline was deliberately designed to bypass Armenia, which has no fuel. Armenia has to rely on very lousy, actually dangerous in my opinion, nuclear reactors, which are still in earthquake zones, so I think they should be eliminated. It also has to rely on Russia and Iran for fuel, and on whatever comes from Georgia, but this is also difficult due to the relationship between Russia and Georgia. It is a country at the mercy of everyone in many ways, and America’s help, along with other countries, could stabilize the region. In the US Congress currently there are 170 congressmen that have co-sponsored the genocide resolution and Pelosi has announced that she would be bringing it to the House for a vote, so there will be many repercussions. Maybe this measure, which I have not read yet, is to assure Turkey that America is not on the side of Armenia, or to correct an arithmetic error in the budget of Iraq.