Chess games took place throughout the day at Innovate Armenia.EXPAND
Chess games took place throughout the day at Innovate Armenia.
Liz Ohanesian

Over Kebabs and Chess, Scholars Ponder a New Future for Armenian Identity

On a Saturday afternoon, finding Innovate Armenia was easy. All you had to do was follow the smell of grilled meat and za'atar, a spice mixture used in Middle Eastern cooking, until you happened upon the gathering on the USC campus. There, in front of the Doheny Library, a multigenerational crowd had convened for an afternoon of cultural exploration. At Innovate Armenia, now in its third year, USC's Institute of Armenian Studies challenged people to "redefine" and "relearn" what it means to be Armenian. It did this primarily through a series of academic lectures, presented in a style similar to TED Talks, which took place throughout the day. But it's those smells of outdoor cooking and the music filling the air that could lure you into the event.

Upon first entering Innovate Armenia, I immediately flashed back to the picnics of my childhood. My parents would load up us kids and head off to large parks filled with people connected by a heritage that had, decades earlier, migrated from Western Asia to Greater Los Angeles. We would wait in line for plates of shish kebab and find some other kids to run around with us as the older generations chatted or sat down for games of tavlou (backgammon). Out in this small, parklike setting of a college campus, listening to English and Armenian languages butting up against each other, sometimes in the same sentence, all those memories came back. There were some differences, though. At Innovate Armenia, the kebab was served up in burritos. And, instead of older men playing tavlou throughout the day, younger people were hovering over chessboards. That makes sense. The food is about as L.A. as you can get in 2017, where there are now multiple generations of diasporan Armenians as accustomed to eating burritos as they are to eating kebab. Chess speaks to the Republic of Armenia, where the game is taught in schools and the grandmasters are plentiful.

As the day went on, those picnic memories didn't fade. "It's an intentional parallel," says Salpi Ghazarian, director of the Institute of Armenian Studies at USC. "We wanted to make it interactive, remembering the tavlou games and the kebab." As for those kebab burritos, well, that's part of redefining heritage. "That's the exact idea of innovative fusion," Ghazarian says.

At Innovate Armenia, attendees could try food that fused the past and present while merging cultural influences.EXPAND
At Innovate Armenia, attendees could try food that fused the past and present while merging cultural influences.
Liz Ohanesian

At the Institute of Armenian Studies, scholars look at the "post-genocide" period of Armenian history, as well as the diaspora and Republic of Armenia. These subjects present a complicated mix of issues that include more than just the history and current events of the small nation in the Caucasus Mountains that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. It requires understanding how myriad global issues have shaped Armenian identity.

One of the institute's goals, Ghazarian says, is to "rethink 21st-century Armenian-ness." She explains, "We started out the 20th century with being refugees, victims. We started out stateless. The 21st century is different. We have a state. We're not stateless. We're not refugees anymore, by and large — Syria, I'm not discounting. So, now how do we look at who we are? Now what questions do we ask? Now how do we define Armenian-ness?"

Even among the Los Angeles area's large population of diasporan Armenians, there is diversity in identity. Your family may have come here because of the genocide — maybe even earlier than that — or they may have settled in Los Angeles after World War II or the Iranian revolution or the Lebanese civil war or the tumultuous early years of the Republic of Armenia. All that makes a difference in how you understand history, language and culture. "Our job is to talk about it," Ghazarian says. "Our job is to give body and substance to our history."

The past met the present in a variety of ways throughout the event. Guests could check out "Undeliverable: Postcards and Photos of Lives Interrupted," an exhibition that runs through Dec. 18 and sheds light on the years leading up to the Armenian genocide. In one of the day's talks, professors Lerna Ekmekçioglu and Melissa Bilal, both from MIT, shared their research on feminist Armenian writers. It's a history that bounces across locations — from the Ottoman Empire to the Soviet Union to the United States to Lebanon — and one that has been largely understudied. They discussed how uncovering the past can help shape feminism today and in the future. Outside, attendees could taste wine made in Armenia, check out live music from a cross-section of contemporary artists and check out booths from students and organizations engaged in work ranging from tech to education.

Looking at intersectional Armenian identity, though, isn't just for the benefit of people who are part of this diverse group of people. It's about connecting Armenians with Los Angeles and California as well. "It's not just about us," Ghazarian says. She mentions the Armenian genocide and how it's not just a matter of one group's history. "When we're talking about genocide, we're really talking about trauma, we're really talking about state violence, we're really talking about man's inhumanity to man," she says. Ghazarian added that, particularly on a regional level, it's important to look at the Armenian diaspora in relation to other groups who settled in the region. "Understanding the Armenian story in California is impossible if you don't also understand the Latino immigration wave and you don't understand the Chinese," she says. "We're very similar. We started out as these labor migrants."

And that all leads to a present issue, one that Ghazarian stresses affects multiple ethic groups: "Other than your immediate issues for survival, how do you remain interested in the heritage in a way that's contemporary and relevant?" At Innovate Armenia, that's happening through cultural fusion and challenging conceptions of history and identity.

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