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From One 24 to the Other: Bridging the Gap Between Two Collective Bodies

In my imaginings of my Armenian diasporic kin growing up, there were always certain archetypes that cropped up like the characters in tarot cards. The Hermit, the Hanged Man and the Hierophant. The Lovers, The Empress and the Fool. And just like those characters, they were bound not to any nation or state, but to a liminal space. To a more nebulous netherworld. Depending on which card I drew, which ancestor I dredged from a distant past or which comrade I envisaged to inhabit a world that would one day collide with my own, something of great importance would be revealed to me. I just didn’t realize I would have to travel to the semi tropic southern reaches of this earth to find it. 

I have crossed paths with my Armenian kin in a great many places around the world. Los Angeles, Athens, and Cairo. London, New York, and Beirut. Each has no doubt revealed something of great importance to me, but Buenos Aires was a different story. We all seem to share a similar existential condition, it’s true. We are each haunted in our own way by such notions as belonging and the myth of return. But we are not just archetypes living in a liminal space. Each member of our ancient race bears the imprint of where they’re from and whatever insights they have gleaned are no doubt predicated on the sociopolitical context of their native home. 

St. Gregory the Illuminator (Catedral Armenia San Gregorio El Iluminado).
Plaza Armenia.

The history of the Armenian diaspora in Buenos Aires, for instance, is a rich and at times treacherous one. Sometimes the community was characterized by opposition and enmity due to divisive matters such as the Soviet factor. Sometimes they crowded joyously under a banner of collective good will and accomplishment.  But there was no event that made as indelible a mark on them as the dictatorship that was established after the 1976 coup that overthrew then president Isabel Peron. The community’s response in the wake of this harrowing time in Argentina’s history reveals as much about the universal human condition as it does Armenian diasporic sensibility. 

Isabel Martínez de Perón, Argentine politician who served as President of Argentina from 1974 to 1976.
Jorge Rafael Videla(C) Argentine military officer and dictator and de facto President of Argentina from 29 March 1976 to 29 March 1981.

“The local context is the background of the way Armenianness is constructed in Argentina,” said anthropologist and former researcher for the Armenian Diaspora Survey Lucila Tossounian. “For example when you think about how the recognition of the Armenian genocide got mixed with that of the dictatorship. That’s a very distinctive diasporic way of seeing these traces, of building an identity.”

During la dictadura (dictatorship) in Argentina, a military junta was established with General Videla at the helm and a reign of terror ensued. It is estimated, in fact, that upwards of 30,000 mostly civilian unarmed combatants–Armenians included–were murdered and disappeared. Dissidents, they called them. This plunged the whole country into hell, but everyone felt its wrath differently. The Armenians, for instance, in addition to being seized by the fear of suffering the same fate as some of their brethren, were also gripped by the trauma of previous generations. The tendency to mirror and draw parallels between these human rights violations would prove to become one of the primary hallmarks of the Armenian-Argentinian narrative. 

A protester against the regime is arrested in Buenos Aires.

“What happened in Argentina at the time of the dictatorship was a genocide,” said Argentinian-Armenian lawyer, former judge, and minister of justice Leon Arslanian. He served in the panel of judges that presided over the historic 1985 Trial of the Juntas which tried members of the de facto military government that ruled Argentina during the previously mentioned dictatorship. It was also the first major trial held for war crimes since the Nuremberg Trials and one that, for Arslanian, in a circuitous yet  parallel way, reminded him of something his Armenian kin had long been fighting for. How tremendous it was that someone of Armenian descent served on this panel was not lost on me. 

Leon Arslanian (C) served as Chief Justice in the tribunal that presided over the 1985 Trial of the Juntas.
The United States forensic, Clyde Snow shows in 1985, to the President of the court Leon Arslanian(L) and other judges, images obtained during his investigation focused on the exhumation of human remains at individual graves. Snow's testimony helped convict six of nine former Argentinean military junta leaders for the deaths of missing people. AFP PHOTO Daniel MUZIO (Photo credit: DANIEL MUZIO/AFP via Getty Images).

“When I had to take my decision to be a part of the tribunal, when it came time to judging the Argentinian war crimes,” he continued, “I of course remembered the Armenian genocide and how it was at the hands of the Turkish state. It was inevitable that I set a parallel between the two.”

Faces of the “disappeared” during the Dirty War. Photo credit: BBC UK.

This tendency to draw parallels was a very prominent one amongst the Armenian diaspora in Buenos Aires. There were many narrative leaps taken in an effort to create links between their homeland and their ancestral motherland, Argentinianness and Armenian-ness. The collective memory of the former was constantly being interwoven with that of the latter. And like Lucila said, this has a great deal to do with the local context. 

“The local color, just like many other communities, is strong here,” said Khatchik Derghogoussian, former editor of Diario Armenia, which is the oldest newspaper of South America’s Armenian diaspora. “There are no walls between the community and the rest of Argentine society. It’s very integrated and that I think is a consequence of living in a democracy.” 

Argentina is a host country of massive migration. They, in fact, advertised themselves as such ever since their unification in the wake of liberating themselves from monarchical Spain. Even the preamble of the constitution lays out certain lofty principles that apply to “all men in the world who wish to dwell on Argentine soil.” And while I am certain that these principles have not always been upheld, certain that not every community at all times integrated itself, the fusion of imported customs and ideologies is still evident. On a small scale, you can see it manifest in the spatialization of a neighborhood where you’ll find typically Argentinian cafeterias offering empanadas wedged between shops selling sundry Levantine goods and old school Italian joints dishing up provoleta. On a grander, socio-political scale, you’ll see the participation of the Armenian diaspora in human rights-centric Argentine policy and their perpetual insistence on bridging the gap between two collective bodies.

“There’s a tradition in one Armenian school called Jrimian,” said Derghogoussian. ‘It’s called from one 24 to the other 24 and it refers to March 24, which is the the day the military delivered the coup d’etat and took control of the country, perhaps the biggest tragedy in Argentina’s modern history, and April 24, which is the day of remembrance for the Armenian genocide. So the community, they build this bridge between one collective memory and the other one.”

When democracy returned to Argentina after the end of its military dictatorship and the heads of the former regime rolled, the psyche of the country’s inhabitants changed. No longer under siege, they were finally afforded the space and the time to analyze and contemplate, but they were by no means home free. The Argentines of Armenian descent, more than just about any other contingent, understood this. They had gone through an equally harrowing ordeal earlier in the century in which 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed. 

When a collective body experiences a collective trauma, its mere termination does not necessarily terminate the traumatic event’s reverberations. In battle are two dogged desires that exist in two different temporal zones: one is for retribution and the other is to move forth. The former, for many, is a precursor of the latter, but when you’re dealing with droves of disappeared people and years spent in suspension and persecution and anguish, retroactive criminal justice is not always enough. The question, then, is not just “what happened” but “how do you live with it”. 

“We have an existentialist condition on a permanent basis and we are very aware of that,” said Victoria Minoian, a Communications specialist and daughter of one of the founders of the Association of Foreign Entities. “We are very conscious that there are not too many of us in this universe and we are very conscious that throughout centuries we have been exposed to decimation. This is not necessarily an element that features in other nationalities.”

Minoian is referring to her Armenian cohorts and what distinguishes them from the rest, but she also offers a view that is sympathetic with their belonging to the larger scheme of things. 

“An Armenian is another member of this universe. Nothing less, nothing more. And when you are able to cross cultures and incorporate them into your being and your daily life, you become transhuman.” 

Minoian’s definition of transhuman is not strict and has absolutely nothing to do with genetic engineering or artificial intelligence. When she elaborated on her usage of the term, she said that it had more to do with the prefix “trans,” which is tacked onto words in order to connote an extension across, over, or through. In the case of the word transhuman, it is the human that is extending itself across cultures, mirroring itself in others with whom it originally suspected it had nothing in common.

Buenos Aires felt this way to me. Like the world was on its doorstep and it was letting all of it in. Although each diaspora culture was maintaining its own kind of singularity, the boundaries of their communities were also dissolving. The Armenian diaspora especially had not only integrated, but acted in accordance with intersectional solidarity.  Should we be able to do this more consistently on a global scale, extending ourselves across cultures as much from joy as from trauma, we could perhaps finally see ourselves as we truly are. Nothing less, nothing more. 

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