Tsolin Nalbantian, Armenians Beyond Diaspora: Making Lebanon Their Own (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Tsolin Nalbantian (TS): This book grew out of many conversations I had with friends and colleagues about Armenians in Lebanon while living in Beirut. These conversations initially were not geared towards something scholarly: they were about the contemporary situation of Armenians in Syria and Lebanon, the Armenian populated neighborhoods of Beirut, or even something as “everyday” as Armenian food. As I was gathering and conducting research on the Armenian community at the time, I could not help but notice that although Armenians were often a subject of conversation (if not curiosity), they were not really present in histories of Lebanon. Part of this was a question of access to language and sources, but it is also due to the treatment and understanding of Armenians as essentially a refugee or victim population. Yet, in my research I was hardly finding that that was the case. Or if it was the case, it did not adequately represent the actual lives of the Armenian inhabitants in Lebanon. They certainly did not limit their self-understandings to tragedy or temporary residents of the country. In fact, I kept finding evidence that Armenians used the sectarian system of Lebanon and Cold War tensions for their own means.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

TS: Despite the genocide, Armenians have known thriving political, sociocultural, ideological, and ecclesiastical centers in the twentieth century. Armenians Beyond Diaspora: Making Lebanon Their Own focuses on precisely such a center: Lebanon. This is not a history of loss or simple rebirth, perspectives omnipresent in writings on modern Armenian history. Rather, this is a history of power. I focus on how Armenians experienced the everyday in early postcolonial, Cold War Lebanon, making it their own, and how they manipulated and managed loss and renewal. I pursue this inquiry by closely analyzing Armenian language newspapers published in Beirut. Often ideologically opposed, these papers reflected the issues of interest of the day. Armenians in Lebanon re-situated themselves and re-imagined their place in that Middle Eastern country and in the world more broadly during a sensitive, transitional time of change, i.e. the early post-colonial period.

Armenians Beyond Diaspora is not principally concerned with demonstrating how something “Armenian” was created. Rather, it shows how Armenians in Lebanon experienced politics every day, and what those experiences can teach us about interlinked national and global events. By examining changing aspects of belonging, and by exploring how these concepts travel over time and space, the book simultaneously challenges the supremacy of the nation-state and the role of state power in regional and Cold War histories. It also fills the lacuna of works on Lebanon between its Ottoman Period and the Lebanese Civil War. This in turn aids in the understanding of how Lebanon’s inhabitants experienced the sectarian system, the eventual long-term breakdown of civil society, and contests the representation of Lebanon as a state on the constant brink of collapse.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

TS: The book is a heavily reworked dissertation. It also builds on several published pieces including “Articulating Power through the Parochial” (Mashriq & Mahjar) and “Going Beyond Overlooked Populations in Lebanese Historiography: The Armenian Case” (History Compass).

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

TS: The natural target audience of the monograph Armenians Beyond Diaspora comprises social and cultural historians of Lebanon, the greater Levant, and the Middle East and scholars of the region more broadly. By engaging with the years prior to the Lebanese Civil War, it invites its scholars and those focusing on similar civil strife to consider, also, how members of the population used the pre-conflict social and political environment in struggles for power. This work also answers the call by anthropologists and specialists in diaspora and minority studies for layered understandings of everyday life in Lebanon. I also expect Armenians Beyond Diaspora to appeal to scholars of the Cold War and international history. Finally, I believe this study has contemporary socio-political relevance beyond academia. Providing historical context for activists and policymakers in the region who work on minority and diaspora issues, it will improve their understanding of marginalized people living in the contemporary Middle East. This is especially critical given the concern for the fall in the number of ethnic and religious minorities in the region.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

TS: My current research, including the co-edited volume Practicing Sectarianism with Lara Deeb and Nadya Sbaiti, raises new questions about both what constitutes valid historical records and the ethnographic terrain and how that is determined in the first place. Combining methodological inquiry with empirical work, its lessons are relevant for studying other, especially Middle Eastern, sectarian contexts. My own chapter explores how from the 1930s, the Armenian Church in Lebanon expanded its power to incorporate Armenian communities outside of the Middle East. Armenians in Lebanon used sectarianism to increase their power in membership and financial revenue in Lebanon and beyond.

I am also coediting, with Talar Chahinian and Sosse Kasbarian, Diaspora and ‘Stateless Power’: Social Discipline and Identity Formation. This volume explores the nexus of diaspora and stateless power in the making of Armenian communities outside the “homeland” in as far flung sites of the Armenian diaspora as Istanbul, Aleppo, Beirut, Jerusalem, Paris, and Los Angeles, among others.

Finally, I am embarking on a larger project that reconsiders the modern histories of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and parts of the Gulf through the everyday lives of their Armenian inhabitants. No one has written a history of Armenians in the region outside of linking the presence of the population—and not the activity(s)—as an acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide. I am still interested in following this story as every time I dig deeper, I feel that the while Armenian Genocide does indeed situate Armenians in the region, it does nothing to explore their lives, interactions, and engagements as local inhabitants.

J: By trying to situate you work “beyond” Diaspora or “beyond” the Armenian Genocide, are you not still defining your work through these structures or fields of study? 

TS: That is one way to look at it. I certainly acknowledge the contributions of both fields, and for sure my work sits upon their shoulders. But it is more that I am cautioning against using either as a myopic lens to view Armenians. Both academic and non-academic works often use “diaspora” and the Armenian Genocide in references to Armenians. But that is usually where the conversation ends. These two terms steer our understandings of Armenians to bounded spaces that prevent us from engaging with the actual lives and activities of those Armenians. In addition, they often stop us from considering Armenians as local actors, thus fashioning them as separate and even “failing to belong.” This, even though it is our (skewed) understanding that constructs them as such in the first place. So, in an attempt to contextualize, these two reference points unfortunately limit scholarship. I do not think this is the intention of authors and researchers. But unfortunately, it has become the convention. Now, this has been made all the more complicated by the almost visceral fight for the Genocide recognition. But my concern is that these fields block from view the everyday lives and struggles for power in which Armenians engaged. I also hope this challenges a consequence of these traditional readings of Armenians, that they need to be treated distinctly and therefore studied separately from the environment in which they live and thrive.


Excerpt from the book

In 1952, Catholicos Karekin I (Hovsepian) passed away. As the highest figure in the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Cilician See, headquartered in Antelias, near Beirut, he headed one of the most powerful, and independent, ecclesiastic units in the Orthodox Armenian world. For four years, Karekin’s seat remained vacant. The Cilician See repeatedly postponed electing the next catholicos. Internal disagreements irked it, and it did not wish to aggravate relations with the Echmiadzin See. Headquartered in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), that capital see was independent from and equal to the Cilician See, which saw it as Moscow’s long arm. Finally, in early 1956, Antelias decided to go through with the catholicos election. The run-up to that event was dramatic. On 3 February, Vasken I (born Levon Garabed Baljian, 1908–1994), the catholicos of the Echmiadzin See, visited Lebanon in a rather undisguised attempt to influence the election outcome. To no avail: On 20 February, the Cilician See’s bishops chose as new catholicos an outspoken critic of communism and the USSR, Zareh I (born Simon Payaslian). He did not lose time to condemn what he considered ‘organised attempts by Soviet authorities to use the Echmiadzin See as an instrument to control the Armenian communities of the Diaspora’. In effect, his election officially positioned the Cilician See against the Echmiadzin See, the ASSR and the USSR.  Chaos ensued. In Beirut, supporters and opponents of Zareh clashed. Pro-Western Lebanese President Camille Chamoun (1900–1987; r. 1952–1958), who had taken a vivid interest in the election and met with all parties concerned, ordered government troops to secure Armenian neighbourhoods in Beirut. A month later, the ach, a solid gold mould of the right arm of St Gregory who is credited with converting the pagan Armenians to Christianity in 301, along with a few other relics were stolen from the Cilician See’s monastery complex in Antelias: an act universally seen as an attempt to embarrass the Cilician See and to torpedo Zareh’s ordination. In September, Zareh was ordained anyway. And the following year, the relic was ‘found’ in Jordanian-ruled East Jerusalem and returned in triumph to Beirut.

The present chapter tells the story of the 1956 catholicos election as a site of contestation by Cold War powers and their state and non-state allies and proxies in the Middle East. Lebanon, staunchly pro-Western and pro- American under Chamoun, was not the only state directly involved in that election, indeed. So were Egypt and Jordan, among other Middle Eastern states and the Soviet Union, principally through Catholicos Vasken. The United States and key European states like France and Britain also made appearances in the story. Even so, it was the Armenians who were this story’s main protagonists – that is, Armenians of different, if not diametrically opposed political convictions. As the last chapter showed, during the 1946–1949 ASSR repatriation initiative, leftists wielded considerable power in the Armenian community of Beirut and beyond; and the repatriation initiative further boosted their influence at that juncture. But a decade later, in 1956, things had changed. Ironically, the very success of the leftist repatriation drive, i.e. the emigration to the ASSR, depleted the leftist presence in the repatriation ‘donor’ countries. As a consequence, from the late 1940s the rightist Dashnak Party became more preponderant, certainly in Beirut. What is more, the Cold War was much more heated by the mid-1950s than it had been in the mid-1940s, when it just about began.

In sum, then, the 1956 election allows us to look at the Cold War in the Middle East not from the top down, through the eyes of Washington or Moscow (or Lebanon’s or Egypt’s state authorities, for that matter) during flashpoints like the 1958 US intervention in Lebanon or the US and Soviet reactions to the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956. Rather, in this election, Armenians made use of Cold War tensions to designate a leader of the Armenian church who was seen to suit the community’s interests. That story also expands historians’ understanding of Lebanon’s Armenians: from refugees and outsiders in national politics to true participants, whose own internal politics, moreover, were also of interest to Lebanon’s authorities, and who by now felt free to invade and use public spaces beyond their own neighbourhoods to make political statements.

In what follows, I tell that story while keeping an eye on three analytical aspects. One is the overlap between the global Cold War and regional Middle Eastern inter-state competition. Another is the mutual use, if not exploitation, of state actors and Armenian actors. And a third is the fascinating duality of states’ approaches to the Armenian issue: both nation-state-bound and transnational. States sought to assert their sovereignty vis-à-vis ecclesiastical Armenian matters that happened on their territory; thus, the Lebanese state, and in particular Chamoun, was involved politically and symbolically in the 1956 catholicos election. But states also tried to use Armenian issues and religious Armenian bodies, whose authority was non-secular and whose reach was not quite bound by nation-state borders (to say the least), to affect third countries’ politics; the foremost example in the present case was the Soviet attempt to meddle in the 1956 election in the person of Vasken, the catholicos of the Echmiadzin See, which was headquartered in the ASSR.

In taking this approach to the 1956 election, this chapter, as with the other chapters of this book, addresses lacunae in the secondary literature on Armenians in the Middle East and especially Lebanon, and reflects on the light their case can shine on larger topics. Power struggles, political differences and alignments among Armenians have long been ignored in the historiography of modern Lebanon, which has described the Armenian population as a coherent community. The Cold-War-related nature of inner- Armenian events and their place within the broader history of Lebanon and the Middle East has been accordingly ignored. The 1956 catholicos election is absent not only from overview accounts such as Kamal Salibi’s A House of Many Mansions and Fawwaz Traboulsi’s History of Modern Lebanon, but also from monographs like Caroline Attié’s Struggle in the Levant: Lebanon in the 1950s. As for Armenian historiography, texts like Simon Payaslian’s ‘The Institutionalisation of the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias’, by identifying the election of 1956 as the ‘most significant event in modern Armenian Church history’, describes the event simply as an internal Armenian issue, disregarding the Cold War context and the involvement of multiple states.

On 7 February, Aztag announced that the Cilician See’s next catholicos would be elected on 14 February. It likewise reported that Catholicos Vasken of the Echmiadzin See would take part in the election, a move welcomed by an, albeit-surprised, acting head of the Cilician See, Archbishop Khoren Paroyan. This was the first time that the Soviet government had allowed the catholicos of the Echmiadzin See to leave the USSR; indeed, his visit to Lebanon as a whole was sponsored by Moscow and occurred as part of the USSR’s broader Cold War policies. As Vasken’s jurisdiction did not extend to the Armenian populations of Lebanon, or to many Armenians in the Middle East for that matter, his visit to Beirut was seen by many in Beirut as directly connected to, and triggered by, the election at the Cilician See – and therefore as a political issue. More generally, Vasken was part of the Soviet Union’s political infrastructure. His movements were monitored; his very election and his sermons were sanctioned by the USSR; and in 1956, he flew from Yerevan to Beirut not directly but via extended stops in Moscow and Paris, where he met with Soviet government officials.

At the same time, Vasken’s visit, even though at Moscow’s behest, can also be seen as an attempt to extend his power to areas outside the USSR. (He had himself barely arrived in the Soviet Union by the time he visited Beirut. Elected catholicos in 1955, he had lived before, and been born in, Romania, where he had risen through the ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy loyal to the Echmiadzin See.) The overlapping dual motivation for Vasken’s visit – both his own ecclesiastical motivations, as well as his own and Moscow’s political ones – showed up in his address to the Armenian Lebanese press and, through the Soviet news agency TASS, to the ASSR’s population. ‘To the acting-Catholicos Archbishop Khoren: because of our love of our church and because we have the foresight to protect and affirm its unity, we have decided to participate personally in the election and anointment of the Catholicos of the Cilician See’. This statement violated the principle that Armenian sees operate independently from each other, and that one is not supposed to directly interfere in the internal affairs of the other.