During a press conference held at the end of the Ba‘th party congress of June 2005 official spokeswoman Minister Bouthaina Sha‘aban offered a rare Syrian public statement on the question of ethno-cultural diversity within the country. In what appeared as a reference to the issue of the Kurds, Sha‘aban said that “ethnic diversity is national wealth that should be maintained”. She added, on the other hand, that the recognition of diversity should always take place underthe “umbrella of national interest”.(2)
It might be observed that Sha‘aban’s statement hardly announced a revolution in the Syrian approach towards the question of ethnicity, or that it may well represent just another example of “regime cosmetics”, or political window dressing: the statement, and the Ba‘th party’s discussion of the issue of diversity, came in a phase of particular tension regarding the Syrian-Kurdish dossier, and in the context – more in general – of mounting pressures for political change and liberalisation in the country.
Nevertheless, it appears important. It signals that the regime is aware that the question of ethno-cultural diversity cannot be simply swept under the rug, and that efforts aimed at political liberalisation (or simply at the reform of the current political system) are bound to pose the question of how to deal with the country’s plurality of ethno-cultural backgrounds. It also shows that the regime is ready to make references to the question in public, a fact that marks perhaps an interesting change of approach in itself. The question of ethnicity has been in fact one of the most persistent taboos in the Syrian official discourse over the last decades. The regime has granted forms of recognition to the country’s traditionally rich religious diversity, but it has systematically played down the existence of allegiances to distinct communal or ethno-cultural identities and – most crucially – it has severely obstructed their autonomous political mobilisation.
The question of diversity touches in fact the very core of the Syrian regime’s legitimacy. While in Lebanon the coexistence of ethno-cultural groups was structured on the basis of consociational agreements and constitutional practices, in Syria a similar approach was rapidly demised after 1949. In particular, since the Ba‘ath revolution of 1963 the public ethno-cultural identity of the Syrian society has been top-down shaped by the party’s version of Arab and Syrian nationalism (Valter, 2002).
The extent to which the regime has been successful in creating an overarching Arab-Syrian identity may be the object of debate. Surely, a gap between public discourse and social reality continues to be clearly perceivable in today’s Syria:
Syrians are generally well aware of the diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious make-up of their towns and villages, and of the role that ethnicity plays in Syrian politics, but so they are about the regime-imposed red lines concerning discussion on the issue in public spaces. Both the regime and the society at large appear to be aware of the gap, and often find it convenient to resort to a neutral and still not untrue formula: “kulna suriyyin”, “we are all Syrians”.
But what exactly this neutral formula hides is hard to tell. What happens within the diverse communal spheres that exist in contemporary Syria, far from the spotlights pointed at an authoritarian, highly centralised government? If it’s clear that the diverse ethno-cultural identities have not been erased by the project of construction of a national Arab-Syrian identity, in what sense, and in what aspects they were maintained? How did they manage to “survive” and develop, through decades of national ethno-cultural policy?
This article wishes to contribute to answering these questions by presenting aspects of the experience of the Armenian community. The Armenians of Syria, Christian and non-Arab in a prevailingly Arab and Islamic country, can speak their non-Semitic language and write using their own alphabet; they run a number of communal institutions including schools, cultural clubs, welfare and recreational organizations; they maintain links with the Armenian diaspora worldwide and with the Republic of Armenia. By many standards, this community of perhaps 90,000 people3 represents an extreme case of cultural diversity within contemporary Syrian society, one that has seemingly found and cultivated a “diverse” way of being Syrian.
A community with a mission: (re)constructing Armenia in Syria
The exceptional cultural diversity of the Armenians of Syria must be studied with the background of the circumstances in which the bulk of the contemporary community was formed during the twentieth century. Certainly, the presence of Armenians in Syria is considerably older: the Armenians, whose ancient homeland is located in the mountainous plateau between Eastern Anatolia and the southern side of the Caucasus, were for centuries a component of the human geography of Aleppo and of many other centres of the Levant, where they were often engaged in trade and crafts (A.K. Sanjian: 1965). However, there is no doubt that most Armenians of Syria can trace back their family history to the mass population displacements that began during the genocide of 1915-1916. By the end of WWI, and during the eventful years that followed it, large numbers of survivors found themselves resettled as refugees in the new countries formed in the post-Ottoman regional order. Syria took arguably the largest part: by the mid-1920s Aleppo and its environs, the valley of the Euphrates, the Jazeera, but also Hama, Homs, Damascus, and even the far Dera‘a, all hosted an Armenian refugee population (Hovannisian, 1974; Topouzian, 1986).4
From the very first days of their new condition of refugees, the Armenians worked hard to reconstruct and keep alive an Armenian world in exile. In the span of a few years this new Armenian world began to emerge and take shape in the refugee camps or in purpose-built Armenian residential quarters. A new Armenian social fabric made of families, of re-established marital practices, of neighbourhoods and economic networks was gradually formed; a new system of Armenian institutions (including churches, schools, charities, cultural associations, and so on) also appeared, catering for the material and spiritual needs of the community. Ever since, throughout the nine decades after the genocide, the Armenian determination to maintain a distinct communal cultural identity has remained one of the key defining traits of their presence in Syria, almost a communal ‘mission’.
The exilic reconstruction of Armenia that began after WWI raises a number of interesting questions that regard, on the one hand, the causes for the rapidity and relative success of the process, and – on the other – the nature and content of the reconstruction itself. Undoubtedly, the speed of the reconstruction was in part determined by sheer need. Stranded in a dramatically different environment – at least in part hostile – where locals even spoke a different language, refugees tended to rely on each other, to look for (or to try and reproduce) the traditional communal procedures for dealing with crisis. As a part of this, for instance, the refugees regarded dispersion as a threat to their security and preferred to remain concentrated (Greenshields, 1981). But also, the determination to reconstruct was stemming from a strong traditional non-assimilatory communal solidarity, in part reinforced by the awareness of the fact that the genocide could have indeed wiped out Armenian culture altogether.
When speaking of reconstruction one should of course be particularly careful. The re-establishment of an Armenian world in Syria, as well as in all the post-genocide diasporas, was in fact largely a process of construction of a new Armenian cultural identity which was certainly drawing from the past, but which was also inevitably founded upon the immensity of the tragedy of the genocide and driven by the priorities of the refugee communal leadership of the time.
Finally, the leadership itself was far from uncontested. A certain pre-genocide dualism between the conservative Armenian leadership, in part connected with the Armenian Apostolic Church in Istanbul, and the Armenian revolutionary and nationalist parties soon re-emerged in the refugee camps and contributed to make (re)construction a plural process. It may be indeed argued that – rather than just one – several projects of (re)construction were set in motion at thesame time by different subjects.
In any case, and for what is more important in this article, the (re)construction efforts of the Armenian community were somehow facilitated by the political context of the post-Ottoman Levant. The French administration of Syria under the Mandate, characterized by a blend of French colonial experience (particularly in Morocco) and Ottoman legacy (Khoury, 1987), established constitutional and political formulas that created favourable opportunities for the Armenians to develop their social dynamics and pursue their communal strategies in conditions of substantial autonomy.
An area in which these opportunities and autonomies were made available to the Armenians was that of religion. The Mandatory authorities certainly made attempts to rationalize and redefine the relations between civil and religious authorities in the Levant, but the basic tenets of the religious policy of the state showed elements of continuity with the Ottoman past. There is no doubt that the state was broadly speaking secularized, but the French administrators carefully balanced the reinforcement of central government with the need of avoiding measures which could alienate the support of their clientele of religious authorities (Thompson, 2000). As far as the Armenian community was concerned, the religious policy of the Mandate maintained a system of legally-established freedoms and autonomies, particularly in the area of religious affairs and personal status law. Such a legal context, jointly with the political support that the French were willing to accord to the Armenians, played a crucial role in the post-genocide re-establishment of the Armenian Churches in Syria. Historical symbols and sanctuaries of Armenian traditions and cultural distinctiveness, the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Evangelical Churches became, from the early days of the refugee displacements, pivotal institutions in the effort of (re)construction, and landmarks of the new Armenian landscape in Syria. The Churches could also re-establish their role as centres of aggregation and promotion of three, religiously-defined Armenian sub-worlds, each endowed with a separate set of social institutions and practices.
A second area in which the Mandate provided opportunities for the Armenian cultural rebirth was that of education. The text of the Mandate and the legislation produced by the French authorities encouraged the development of public instruction and required the study of French, but also carefully protected the traditional autonomy of the communities in maintaining their specific educational systems. For the Armenians, this context meant that the community was considerably free in organizing and running an Armenian system of schools, including the opening of new institutions and – crucially – in preparing the curricula. In the Armenian refugee camps and quarters, individual school boards or the educational bodies of the Armenian Churches were able to prepare and adopt in full autonomy the programs for the Armenian pupils. The effort for the establishment of schools for the refugees was particularly remarkable and successful: by the early 1930s, Armenian schools were present in virtually all cities and villages that had a sizeable Armenian presence.
The Mandate also provided the Armenians with substantial opportunities in the area of social and political activism. Under the Mandate, the Armenian nationalist parties – which had been active in the Ottoman empire since the 1880s – could re-establish their structures and soon became the main contestants in the struggle for the Armenian communal leadership. At times subject to the authorities’ control and suspicion, if not to their outright opposition, the parties managed nevertheless to operate with great effectiveness among the refugees: by the mid 1930s they were dominating the Armenian political scene in Syria, favoured by a political system that maintained quotas of participation for officially recognized ethno-religious groups. The parties were also able to maintain connections with the respective party branches in other Armenian diasporas, effectively cooperating in defining and pursuing an Armenian transnational political agenda (for example vis-à-vis Turkey, or Soviet Armenia). The transnational connections of the community were also kept alive in the broader, civil society sector. Transnational Armenian NGOs, such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union, actively engaged in the effort of (re)construction. They joined, and sometimes competed with the Churches and the political parties in the provision of social and health services, of education, entertainment and in encouraging an Armenian cultural rebirth.
By the early 1940s the process of (re)construction of the Armenian society and cultural world in Syria was well under way. Certainly, many Armenian families were still struggling at the bottom of Syrian society, but the key communal social institutions were in place, and the Armenians were gradually working their way out of camps and shanty quarters. Meanwhile, politically, they had in good part managed to legitimize their presence in the country in the eyes of the local Arab political forces opposing the Mandate.
Coping with change: the turbulent 1950s and 1960s and the Armenians
The process of Armenian (re)construction, and the communal efforts for the preservation of a distinct Armenian identity in Syria were not interrupted after the independence of the country at the end of WWII. In the early years of Syrian independence the pressure on the Armenians to deepen their integration within Syrian society remained weak, and the barriers high. The daily life of the Armenians, their rhythms and social practices remained substantially removed from the Syrian society at large. The Armenian community’s internal dynamics, tensions and conflicts were driven by a separate set of determinants; solutions or compromises were negotiated within the community – rather than within Syrian, “national” arenas. Even in the economic sphere, where contacts between the Armenians and other Syrians were necessarily more frequent, the Armenians focused on constructing a world of their own, largely composed of independently owned small urban trades (retail outlets, tailors’ or photographers’ ateliers, shoemakers’ and repair shops, etc.), rather than seeking employment outside of the communal networks.
In the political domain, the integration of the Armenians with other Syrian political actors was problematic. To begin with, ethnicity played a key role as a barrier to integration. Existing internal and external pressures to the community fostered communal solidarity and discouraged individual, cross-cutting initiatives. Internal pressures included, in particular, those emanating from the Armenian political leadership: since the 1940s the Armenian nationalist parties gradually emerged as the uncontested leaders of the community, increasingly able to speak in the name of the Armenians, efficient at mobilizing (or intimidating) the public and monopolizing political activities and communal formal institutions. External pressures were no less discouraging of cross-communal initiatives: in a context where ethnic connections were key to political access and networking community “defectors” had to be ready to face and overcome formal and informal obstacles to political participation. In addition to this, the language barrier of Arabic still hindered the credentials of the Armenians as full members of the Syrian political scene. Besides these ethnic factors, the political integration of the Armenians was also made difficult, or at least not encouraged, by factors of class and ideology. The main political actors of Syria were in general socially and ideologically distant from the Armenians. Armenians were not part of the (mostly Sunni) elite oligarchy in power nor could they aspire to join it. At the same time, they had not much to share with the radical middle class which formed the backbone of the Ba‘th or the Syrian Nationalist Party; ideologically, the Armenians could hardly be attracted by the emerging Syrian or pan-Arab, populist discourse of leaders like Antun Sa‘adeh, Akram Hawrani or Michel ‘Aflaq. Nor were the Armenians representing a significant part of the agricultural working class or of the military. At the end of the Mandate their presence in the army, police, and security services was limited to a few long serving, respected individuals of a past generation.
If, on the one hand, the Armenians as individual citizens were hard to integrate with the existing actors, on the other, they were not sufficiently numerous, powerful, interested, or willing to project themselves as a new, distinct group actor in the political struggle over the Syrian state. Among the traits of Armenian politics that had appeared from the early days of the diaspora, was a strong predominance of Armenian, communal and national concerns over Syrian concerns.
Armenian politics focused mostly on the interests and problems of the Armenian people, both at the level of the Syrian-Armenian community and at the wider, international level. The approach of the Armenian nationalist parties towards Syria was generally one of sincere loyalty, combining a sense of gratefulness for the country and people which had in some way provided a new home to the Armenians with the interest to maintain a system of institutions that had offered a number of advantages for the Armenian communal life. Stemming from this was a moderately conservative political position vis-à-vis radical reforms of the Syrian political system. During national parliamentary elections the nationalist parties would be available to co-operate with the main Arab political forces in government or in the opposition. However, the Armenian co-operation with these forces tended to be instrumental to pursue intra-Armenian political confrontations and could hardly be stretched to the point of contributing to challenge the pillars of a political order that ultimately benefited the community. This perceived predominance of Armenian concerns resulted in recurrent accusations of non-commitment, of insincerity, if not of disloyalty, from sectors of the Syrian nationalist political spectrum.
It is not hard to see how these type of accusations could emerge: while the Syrian political debate was dominated by the dualism between the Nationalist Bloc and the Liberal/People’s Party, or by the question of Syria’s “Arabness” and Palestine, the Armenian nationalist parties were caught in a heated confrontation over the issue of the relations with Soviet Armenia and, more in general, over the struggle for communal leadership. The 1947 Syrian parliamentary elections were marked by incidents in the Armenian quarters, resulting in at least one casualty (Torrey, 1964). During the 1950s, the “Armenian cold war” reached its peak, with the Dashnak party eventually emerging as the hegemonic force within the Armenian communities of the Levant. From that moment, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the politically valuable, vast network of institutions that it controlled largely fell under the party’s influence, particularly in Aleppo.5 The Armenian loyalty towards the Syrian state, and the marginality of the community vis-à-vis the national political game were of little avail when, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Syrian political system was radically transformed.
The post-Mandatory “semi-liberal oligarchic” (Hinnebusch, 2001:21) order was deconstructed, and Syria saw the emergence, through a phase of extreme political instability, of a highly centralized, authoritarian state. The events that were characterizing Syrian politics and society at large began to have a dramatic impact upon the Armenian community. In particular, and regardless of the divisions that characterized the community (religious, political), the transformation that took place at the national level dramatically restricted the spaces available for the Armenians to freely pursue their agendas and cultivate their cultural distinctiveness. Effects were felt in every area of the Armenian communal world.
As far as education is concerned, reforms adopted since 1950 placed a significant emphasis on the duty of the government to provide public instruction and assigned to the educational system the task of contributing to build national cohesion under the flag of Arab identity. New legislation established that elementary education must follow a curriculum determined by the government.
This had an important impact on Armenian schools: while in Lebanon Armenian schools were left alone in deciding what to teach and in what language teaching it, in Syria the Ministry of Education prescribed programs to the Armenian private schools. It should be recognised that until the early 1960s the Syrian state maintained special provisions that accommodated the educational needs of the Armenians; but the radicalisation of the Syrian nationalist and pan-Arab public discourse following the Ba‘th take over of power in 1963 precipitated a dramatic crisis of Armenian education in the country. Ba‘th ideology regarded negatively the presence of foreign, or anyhow non-Arab schools in Syria, and prescribed that Arabic alone should be “recognized in correspondence and in teaching” (Suleiman, 2003). Following the 1967 defeat in the Arab-Israeli conflict the Syrian educational policy turned even more radical: the 9th National Congress of the Ba‘th Party (September 1967) called for the “mobilization of all resources” and for armed resistance to liberate the occupied territories. Education was included in the “mobilization” plans and, on 25 September 1967, the Government decided to take control of all private education establishments. A few months later, in May 1968, a number of private schools were seized and confiscated by the government. The seizure of schools was met by opposition from the school ownership, in particular when churches were involved. While in some cases school owners never recovered their properties, the Armenian community was able, through a difficult process of mediation, to regain partial control over the schools.6 The institutions maintained their status of private schools (madares khassa), albeit integrated in a state-centred educational system which rigorously defined their spaces of autonomy. On a formal level, schools had in most cases to abandon their original Armenian names, and adopt Arab names. The governmental policy on the curriculum followed lines similar to those adopted since the 1950s, but the spaces dedicated to Armenian culture were severely curtailed. Armenian schools had also to accept “government appointed inspector-representatives” in charge of controlling that the schools were not stepping outside the lines (A. Sanjian, 2001).
The networks of Armenian self-help, the communal associations, and – in general – the world of Armenian culture were also hit by the effects of the radicalization of the Syrian state. On one hand Armenian associations were hit along with other associations in the country, as part of a strategy to undermine any form of potential organised opposition; on the other, Armenians came to be targeted in the framework of the same climate of hostility towards foreign, or anyhow non-Arab cultures, that had pervaded the state’s changing approach on education. In 1953, under the regime of Adib Shishakli, Armenian associations suffered a first wave of restrictions: closures by decree were accompanied by new regulations aimed at preventing associations from maintaining “all suggestion of an exclusive confessional or racial membership” (Seale, 1965: 121). As a matter of fact, Armenians abandoned the Armenian names of their associations and adopted Arab names instead: the Damascus chapter of the association Hamazkayin – informally the “cultural arm” of the Dashnak party – was registered with the Syrian authorities under the name of Jam‘iyat Al-Taraqqi Al-Thaqafi; the association Nor Serount (the corresponding Hunchak organization) adopted the Arab translation of its name: Jam‘iyat Al-Jil Al-Jadid; the AGBU was registered under the name of Al-Jam‘iyat Al-Khairiya Al-‘Umunia Al-Armaniya; and so on. The union with Egypt in 1958 brought further troubles to the Armenian associations. The Nasserist regime demised the Ottoman law of 1909 that had continued to regulate associations after independence; the recent Egyptian law on association of 1956 was assimilated by the Syrian Law 93 of 1958, introducing severe restrictions to the freedom of association: the Law introduced, among other things, the requirement of a highly discretional governmental authorization to establish associations, security checks on the founders, and the possibility for the representatives of the government to participate in the social meetings.
Furthermore, the governmental approval was to be granted in connection with the correspondence of the organisation’s aims with the “public social needs” as defined by a governmental plan of action (Boukhaima, 2002). In 1963, following the Ba‘th rise to power, the definition “from above” of social needs was further radicalized and the autonomy of association increasingly limited. Finally, in 1969, the government introduced new restrictions, reinforcing the possibility for the executive to dissolve associations, in particular when their activities were deemed to create inter-communal tensions.
As far as the Armenian media and cultural scene is concerned, the new political climate of the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the exodus of Armenian artists, journalists and authors. By the early 1950s most of the leading figures of the Syrian Armenian literary circles had moved to Lebanon: Antranik Zaroukian, Vahe Vahian, Simon Simonian, Zareh Melkonian, Karnig Attarian, all resettled in Beirut, ideally taking with them the crème of the Armenian Aleppine literary movement of the time. Particularly telling of the new climate for the Armenian community of Syria was the loss, one after the other, of their daily political newspapers. The last of them, the Dashnak party’s Arevelk, was abruptly closed in March 1963, when the Ba‘th revolution suppressed all existing newspapers.
Not surprisingly, the Armenian political parties in Syria were the Armenian organizations which were most immediately affected during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s: the opportunities for the Armenians to organize politically, and to pursue a communal political strategy, both in Syria and internationally, were severely curtailed. In particular, the military dictatorship of Adib Shishakli suspended all political parties and inaugurated a phase of problematic relations between the state and minorities. Between 1958 and 1961 the unification of Syria and Egypt under Nasser further emphasised the pan-Arab discourse of the state and restricted spaces of autonomy for culturally diverse groups. Finally, the Ba‘th revolution of 1963 marked the almost complete retreat of the Armenians from public life: Armenians did not have any representative in the Syrian parliament from 1963 to 1971.
The dimensions of the Armenian presence in Syria that I have briefly considered so far – education, political activism, civil society and the world of Armenian culture – hardly provide a fully exhaustive analysis of the effects of the political transformation of the Syrian state in the 1950s and 1960s upon the Armenian community. They do indicate, however, that the authoritarian regimes that emerged during those years – the regime of Adib Shishakli, the United Arab Republic, the Ba‘th “revolution from above” – placed on the Armenians tremendous pressures to de-emphasise their cultural distinctiveness and to remove what was seen as an obstacle to the construction of a new, state-defined Arab and Syrian nationalist identity. These pressures appear to have been largely unsuccessful. Armenian cultural diversity in Syria was severely damaged, but the Armenians were never “enrolled” by the new regimes. The Armenians’ response to the demands of the state remained largely formal and superficial (for example in the case of the change of names for the schools or associations), and did not affect their profound communal solidarity. On the contrary, when the Armenian “cold war” entered a phase of détente, during the 1960s, external pressures arguably contributed to smoothen differences and increase communal cooperation.
Armenian communal life continued to the extent that it was possible, finding private spaces of expression whenever the public ones were not available. In this new context, the Armenian political leadership saw the opportunity to revive the role of the Churches as sanctuaries of Armenian culture: communal activities – or even the formal ownership of property – could sometimes be deliberately placed under the wings of the Churches, of all the Armenian institutions arguably the less affected by the political transformation of the country, the ones that could preserve a comparatively larger autonomy.
Asad’s Syria and the Armenians: finding a modus vivendi
The conditions for a partial recovery of the Armenian world in Syria gradually emerged after the “correctionist movement” of November 1970. Literature on contemporary Syrian politics has analysed extensively Hafiz Al-Asad’s efforts to consolidate and broaden the bases of his power in the early days of his regime, and it is hardly necessary for this article to go into the details of that phase of Syrian political history. For what is more important here, it was in the context of those efforts that, as Syria quietly shifted away from the Ba‘th radicalism of the mid-1960s, a new pragmatic line appeared to develop in the approach of the state towards ethnicity.
At the official, formal level the state continued to be hostile to confessional or communal activism and mobilization: Asad, the member of a minority himself, was well aware that the legitimization of the new regime and the reinforcement of central power could only be achieved by neutralizing centrifugal forces and de-emphasizing the relevance of communal backgrounds. However, the regime was also aware that the group solidarity characterizing the various ethno-cultural Syrian “families” represented an important asset, and could play an important role in providing the new leadership with support. At the informal level, thus, the regime appeared available to identify a more favourable modus vivendi with certain communal groups. As for the Armenians, while it would be inappropriate to speak of a proper “pact” between the regime and the Armenian leadership, the terms of the new relation became gradually clear: the practice of state control over the communal activities of the Armenians would be relaxed in return for the Armenians’ support, or acquiescence. It also became clear that the control levers of the relation were to remain firmly in the hands of the regime: the informality of any concession being made meant that the state was at any time able to “take back” what had been given. The relaxation of the state control, the development of a sense of “trust” of the regime towards the community and, on the side of the Armenians, the strict formal respect of the red lines imposed upon them have become – since the 1970s, and up to this day – the pillars of the relation between the Syrian state and the Armenian community. Among the imposed red lines, the prohibition of openly displayed, communal political activism should figure highest in an ideal ranking of importance.
The Armenian Community and the State in Contemporary Syria
Any activity of the Armenian political parties remains formally non-existent and strictly unauthorised. The regime would not tolerate political disturbances within, or originating from the community, let alone violent inter-party confrontations of the type that took place in the 1950s. On the other hand, the new course inaugurated under Hafiz Al-Asad has resulted in the return of Armenian representatives to formal participation in the Syrian political life. In 1971 two Armenians were nominated to the constituent assembly in charge of drafting the new constitution; and, since 1973 – the year of the first elections for the Majlis Al-Sh‘ab – the Armenians have maintained an individual, but continuous presence in the Syrian parliament.7 There is no doubt that the choice of the few Armenian candidates who ran successfully in the parliamentary elections over the last thirty-five years represented primarily the preferences of the regime, and that these candidates were by no means freely selected by the community.
Also, it may be noted that, given the nature of the regime, the election of representatives to the parliament does not bring the community significantly closer to where “real” power lays: the presidency, the Ba‘th, the army and the security services. What is significant, on the other hand, is that the regime, both under Hafiz Al-Asad and Bashar Al-Asad, while formally denying that members of the Majlis Al-Sh‘ab should ever speak or act on behalf of specific ethnic groups, has appeared to be willing to ensure that the community is represented within that institution. The position of the Armenians in the country, as a marginal, trusted Christian minority, is arguably given a symbolic recognition through the “nomination” of one representative in the parliament, who is elected where the community is larger, in Aleppo. Other Armenians sit regularly in the Majlis Al-Madina and the Majlis Al-Muhafaza of Aleppo.
But the role of the Armenian representatives – at least at the national level – is perhaps not merely symbolic. Over the last 35 years or so, the choices made by the regime for such “nominations” may be interpreted in the sense of providing the system with informal, discreet, state-community “liaison officers”. For about twenty years, until the early 1990s, such a role would be performed by Judge Krikor Eblighatian, a veteran member of the Syrian parliaments since the times of Adib Shishakli. From the point of view of the regime, Eblighatian possibly combined the value of experience with the quality of being formally independent from the Armenian political parties, but still able to connect with the key decision makers within the community. The role of Eblighatian – now retired – has been, most recently taken over by another lawyer, MP Sounboul Sounboulian, who was, in fact, allowed to receive a sort of pre-electoral “communal blessing” during the run-up to the last parliamentary elections in 2003.8
If the regime is obviously on the one side of the liaison channel, who or what exactly lies on the other – the community side – is harder to tell. The scarcity of information combined with the sensitivity of the issue make it difficult to understand in the fine details. In general, besides a façade that denies their existence, it appears that – in the framework of the new modus vivendi inaugurated under Asad – the regime has in some way implicitly recognized a certain continuing role of the Armenian parties in Syria and pragmatically decided to make a political use of it. In fact, that the parties’ role has not evaporated during more than five decades of political authoritarianism is not hard to tell.
It is suggested, for instance, by the continuing sense of party “affiliation” that many families preserve; where the term “affiliation” does not stand for formal adherence to an ideology and formal participation to an organization, but rather for the feeling of belonging to an Armenian cultural sub world, whose symbols and boundaries are connected – directly or indirectly – to a party. Manifestations of these “feelings of affiliation” may include the regular attendance to a particular recreational/cultural club, to a particular church, or the choice of the Armenian elementary school that the children will attend, or the discreet display – inside the family house – of party symbols, the playing of national songs, etc.
This indicates that the parties – and particularly the largely dominating Dashnak party – are allowed to survive, and not only as mere ideas: they are present as partly-virtual, partly-material networks that connect the community internally and with the external, transnational Armenian world, providing for some of its needs. Paradoxically, one could argue that the regime-imposed restrictions on Armenian political activism have actually contributed to shed the parties from the phenomenon of erosion of their symbolic capital that has characterized other Armenian diasporas, including Lebanon. Certainly, the restrictions imposed upon the explicit, open expression of Armenian political allegiances have inhibited and created obstacles to the ability of the Armenians of Syria to participate in political questions and debates that have dominated the broader, transnational Armenian world (from the revival of militant anti- Turkish nationalism during the 1970s and 1980s, to the questions posed by the independence of Armenia in 1991, or the war in Nagorno-Karabagh). But these obstacles hardly prevented participation at all, as channels of political communication always remained open, particularly thanks to the “bridge” provided by the solid Armenian institutional world in Lebanon. Travel to Lebanon became a price to pay in order to participate to certain type of communal activities, part of the agreed state-community modus vivendi.
The idea of an enduring role of the Armenian political affiliations is consistent with the scarce success, within the community, of regime-promoted political identities. Armenian enrolment and involvement in the affairs of the Ba‘th party has remained negligible: it is estimated that, at the beginning of the 2000s, only about 400 Armenians were members of the Syrian Ba‘th party. Not much is known about the nature of these memberships, and on how these are reconciled with the Armenian identities of their bearers. But it appears that Ba‘th affiliations would hardly improve an individual’s credentials within the community; on the contrary, “opportunistic” enrollments in the Ba‘th, as opposed to those instrumental to benefit the community at large, might contribute to marginalize an individual.
The reputation of the Armenians as a politically “trusted” community has allowed a certain recovery of Armenian communal autonomy in other areas, notably in the key sector of education. The legal framework in which Armenian schools have operated since Hafez Al-Asad took power and – today – under Bashar Al-Asad, has not significantly departed from the philosophy adopted in the second half of the 1960s. The Syrian national educational policy has continued to be characterized on the one hand by a strong emphasis placed on the nation-building and Arabising mission of education, and, on the other, on close state control over private educational establishments. It may be worthy reminding that Art. 23 of the Syrian constitution of 1973 states that “Socialist national education underlies the building of a united Arab socialist society. It tends to consolidate moral values and to realize the higher ideals of the Arab nation […]”.
However, in the daily practice, the interpretation of the conditions of the informal compromise reached during the crisis of the end of the 1960s has become increasingly relaxed and characterized by a spirit of cooperation. On one hand, the government requires – and obtains – the participation of the Armenian schools to the national educational programs and to the formal promotion of Syrian identity and of the Ba‘th regime: Armenian institutions, as any other Syrian school, follow closely the curriculum, display national and party flags, portraits of the president, actively celebrate Syrian national festivities (Independence day, anniversary of the Correctionist Movement, etc.), and participate to the activities of the Ba‘th juvenile organisation, the Tala’i‘a Al-Ba‘th (Vanguard of the Ba‘th). On the other hand, the government has consistently sought to minimise interference with the Armenian schools and appears to regard benignly a certain liberal interpretation of rules. As far as the curriculum is concerned, Armenian teachers have been allowed more flexibility in the time they could allocate to the teaching of Armenian language. The distinction between the weekly periods dedicated to religion and to Armenian language remains often blurred, the teaching of the language being privileged; periods dedicated to music are also used to extend the pupils’ exposure to Armenian culture and heritage. A similar relaxation in the relations between the Armenian private schools and the state may be observed with regard to the selection and the role of the government-appointed school principals. The practice has developed in the sense of the selection by the government of Arab school principals who would be eager to minimise interference with the Armenian ownership of the school.9 In addition to that, the role of the Ministry-appointed principals has become limited, in practice, to the formal – rather than substantial aspects of the running of the schools, the latter remaining in the hands of the Armenian “representative of the owner” and of the school board. The exhibition – alongside Syrian, Arab, and Ba‘thist symbols – of Armenian symbols, is tolerated: in an Armenian school visited in November 2003, portraits of Hafez and Bashar Al-Asad were displayed along those of Avicenna, of Tigrane the Great, of a number of Armenian literary figures, and of a poster dedicated to the “martyrs of Nagorno-Karabagh”. A similar combination of Syrian and Armenian symbolism could be observed during the celebration of the end of the school year 2001/02 of the Miatzial/Al-Nizam school of Damascus: in front of a large audience of parents and relatives, Armenian pupils performed an elaborate show which included the singing of the Armenian and Syrian national anthems, traditional dances, the reading of Armenian and Syrian poetry, and a drama representing Syria’s mission as a guide of the Arab nation.10
Besides the improvement of the educational sector, the new modus Vivendi inaugurated under the Asads has created a certain stability and security for a vast and diversified Armenian NGO sector. Under Hafiz Al-Asad organised civil society certainly continued to be regarded as a potential threat to central power and remained subject to intense governmental control, particularly during the 1980s. Armenian NGOs made, in general, no exception. As in the case of the schools, Armenian associations had to adopt elements of the Syrian national rhetoric and drop – or conceal – the most visible or “political” aspects of their programs. Certain activities, like scoutism, were often restricted, arguably on grounds of their “para-military” tones. Clearly NGOs could not, as in Lebanon, be managed openly as social branches of the Armenian political parties, as these remained unautorised. The Churches have continued to play, in this context, a key role in shedding Armenian associations: comparatively autonomous institutions (by Syrian standards) the Churches have both, provided protected spaces for Armenian communal cultural activities (such as theatre, or dance), and served as useful interfaces for the state, when concessions to the Armenians had to be made without attracting too much attention from other communities. On the other hand, non-political Armenian NGOs, like charities, cultural, and sports associations were never specifically targeted by state censorship, and have been increasingly allowed to quietly maintain their identity and role. This trend has continued under Bashar Al-Asad, and participation in Armenian associations remains today a common fact among the Armenians of Syria. Many Armenian families participate in the activities of Hamazkayin, Nor Serount, Tekeyan, AGBU, all chapters of larger transnational networks of the Armenian diaspora aimed at the promotion of Armenian literature, music, dance, and theatre. Attendance of the club of respective “family affiliation” (Hamazkayin-Dashnak, Nor Serount-Hunchak, Tekeyan-Ramkavar) is a common way of spending spare time and weekends. The clubs – for example the large Spitak centre in Aleppo - are true islands of Armenianness, and attraction poles for the youth, who finds spaces of socialization and entertainment. Clubs are also important connections of the community with the wider Armenian cultural world, and place Aleppo on the map of the inter-Armenian cultural exchanges.
Besides these larger organizations, traditional “compatriotic unions”, also survive. These are associations originally founded by refugees from specific regions of the Ottoman empire. The Marash, Kilis, Tigranakert, Ourfa, Zeitoun, Palu compatriotic associations of Aleppo – all founded during the 1920s – maintain regular social activities, manage small clubs, libraries, organize celebrations and commemorations.
Associations also act as a safety net, providing crucial support to the most vulnerable sectors of the community. In Syria, where the provision of social and health services by the state is often limited, or inadequate, and where the private sector’s offer is generally expensive, the Armenians can rely on some communal structures of self-help. The Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation (HKCC), the Armenian Relief Cross (ARC), and the Jinishian Memorial Program run reliable networks of medical centres and dispensaries, and provide no-cost or low-cost services to thousands of families. Housing, the support to the children, the disabled, the elderly and the poor, vocational training are some of the areas in which Armenian associations have also been active, effectively contributing to absorb the impact of economic crisis.
“National wealth that should be maintained”. A conclusion
The fact that Armenian cultural diversity was able – under the Asads – to recover in part its spaces of autonomy does not imply that the current modus vivendi between the community and the state is sustainable, or that this formula responds to the needs of the Armenians, today and in the future. In fact, the recovery remains partial, and its results cannot be said to be secure once for all.
If one looks once again at the example of the schools, the key institutions for the future of Armenian language and culture in Syria, the atmosphere of relaxation and co-operation described in the previous paragraph, however helpful,cannot fully undo the effect of the restrictions that have affected Armenian education since the crisis of the second half of the 1960s. In the case of the teaching of Armenian, the limitation imposed by the current system make it difficult for the pupils to acquire a perfect knowledge of the language. Flexibility allows teachers to bridge the gap, but only in part: an experienced Armenian teacher, interviewed in November 2003, stated that “the level of knowledge of Armenian started to be poor since 1967”, and that “the old generation used to think in Armenian; The new generations think in Arabic and write in Armenian”11.
When considering the future of Armenian cultural diversity in Syria, two main questions appear to structure the discussion. The first certainly regards the extent and nature of the freedoms that the state will grant to the Armenian community to respond to its cultural needs. This regards all those areas in which existing restrictions directly limit the reproduction or development of Armenian culture: norms on the curriculum of the schools, on the printing and distribution of books and newspapers, on public performances, etc.; but, also, it concerns the transnational connections that the diaspora maintains, and regards the extent to which the interaction with other “Armenian worlds” in the diaspora will be allowed (for example the possibility to receive and manage autonomously funding from abroad, of engaging actively and productively with the diaspora and with the Republic of Armenia, etc.).
The second question touches a more subtle problem: what if the community is granted freedom to “help itself”, to pursue its cultural strategy, but cannot afford to do it? The question is more than just an academic speculation, particularly during recent periods of acute economic crisis in Syria and in the region.
The fact that schools and associations have been so far able to continue their role cultural promotion and support to the community should not overshadow the reality that this has been for some increasingly difficult. As the economic crisis has eroded the income of the Syrian Armenian middle class, the local resources available to support the vast communal cultural and social apparatus have become scarce. Migration of Armenian families towards other countries of the diaspora (particularly North America and Australia) has also contributed to weaken the Armenian community of Syria. Under these conditions, not only does the supporting role of richer Armenian diasporas become crucial; but also questions are raised on the capacity – and, most importantly, the willingness – of the Syrian state to play its part in the support of the “national wealth” that “should be maintained”, as Minister Sha‘aban indicated. Few observers are probably ready to believe that the Ba‘th congress of June 2005 has announced major changes in this sense, and that the Syrian government will be following that path anytime soon. Ironically, should the state engage in the search for a “Syrian way to political multiculturalism”, it could count on a long-established and lively tradition of ethno-cultural coexistence.
1, Nicola Migliorino earned his PhD from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. His research has focused on Lebanon, Syria, and questions concerning ethno-cultural diversity in the contemporary Arab world.
2. ‘Baath Conference Ends with Mild Recommendations’, The Syria Report, 16 June 2005.
3. Estimate put forward by the Armenian Apostolic Prelacy of Aleppo, November 2003. Author’s interview.
4. Topouzian (1986) puts the figure of the Armenian refugees in Syria in 1923-24 at circa 96,000.
5. In Damascus, by contrast, forces supporting the socialist-leaning Hunchak party maintained the control of the Armenian Apostolic Prelacy in Bab Sharqi.
6. Particularly in the case of the schools owned by the Armenian Apostolic Church. Author’s interview with an Armenian member of the team negotiating the question with the Syrian government.
7. With the exception of the short period 1990-1992.
8. A sort of “convention” took place in an Armenian theatre of Aleppo and was attended by ca. 500 persons, including representatives of the Armenian Churches and of several Armenian associations. Sounboulian ran as an independent in the “Independent National List of Aleppo”. Author’s interviews.
9. In a recent case, in Raqqa, one of the Directorates of Education has appointed an Armenian to the post of principal of one of the Armenian schools.
10. Syria, represented by a young girl, would liberate herself from chains, and – with the help of stone-throwing boys – lead the other Arab nations to the rescue of the prisoner Palestine. The celebration took place at the Russian cultural institute of Damascus on June 14, 2002.
11. Author’s interview with an Armenian teacher, Syria, 6 November 2003.