The Center for Armenian Studies (ASP) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor began the academic year by organizing and hosting a rare conference. A diverse group of scholars all of whom had been trained at some point in their careers by ASP came together not only to present their ongoing scholarly work but also to celebrate the remarkable legacy of Louise Manoogian Simone (1933-2019), former president of Armenian General Benevolent Union (1989-2002) and the visionary patron of ASP. The gathering took place on the evening of Friday, September 13, in the 10th floor of Weiser Hall, with its majestic view of Ann Arbor.
The conference opened with “Reflections on Four Decades of Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan.” In her opening remarks, the current director of the program Melanie Tanielian, Associate Professor of History, not only thanked the Manoogian family for their lasting contribution to ASP but also shared data compiled with the help of Naira Tumanyan, ASP Program Specialist that highlighted the program’s impressive accomplishments in the areas of scholarship and education. The audience learned that since 2007 ASP has hosted 27 post-doctoral, 5 pre-doctoral, and 10 visiting fellows. It has organized some 160 public events since 2008, including 101 lectures, 23 workshops, 19 conferences, symposia and colloquia, 7 performances and exhibits, and 12 film screenings. Since 2002, ASP has awarded a striking 99 fellowships and grants. The program is built on the foundation of two endowed chairs, The Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History (1981) and the Marie Manoogian Chair in Armenian Language and Literature (1987). With six current faculty since 2008, the program has had 13 graduate students, and 6 are currently enrolled. Since 2011 ASP faculty have collectively taught a whopping 3411 undergraduate and graduate students!
Following this glimpse into the history of ASP, its former directors joined Professor Tanielian on stage. Each of them gave an overview of the work accomplished and the directions and innovations undertaken during their leadership. Kathryn Babayan, director from 2012 to 2019, highlighted the new research directions taken by the program, engaging with gender and sexuality, Mediterranean studies, and most recently materiality studies. Gerard Libaridian, director from 2007 to 2012, spoke of his memories of Louise Manoogian Simone. He commented on her informed, demanding, but non-interfering style of philanthropy, and the expansive vision with which she led. Kevork Bardakjian, director from 1995 to 2007, drew attention to the important expansion of the archival holdings of ASP from 1,000 to 18,000 books, making it one of the major centers of Armenian Studies research worldwide. Ronald Suny, the founder of the program and director from 1981 to1995, began by sharing his memories of working with key supporters of the program, the Manoogian family in particular. He insisted that the program would not have been possible without the push and work of ‘the big three.’ He named Alex Manoogian, Louise Manoogian’s father, Alice Haidostian, and the Beirut-born and Detroit-based writer and intellectual Edmond Y. Azadian. Dr. Suny emphasized Mr. Azadian’s paramount role in informing and encouraging the Manoogians to create ASP. Suny playfully but accurately referred to Azadian, seated among the audience, as Alex Manoogian’s ‘Minister of Culture’. At the closing of the first evening, the audience realized that with the five former and current directors of the program sharing their insights and a large number of its research cohort present, they had a window into the history of not only ASP, but also of the university and Michigan Armenian community.
Day 2, Saturday, September 14, was an intense and eye-opening conference. The four panels were comprised of former ASP graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who presented cutting-edge and field-defining work. It started with a fresh look at two generally well-studied periods through the lens of gender and sexuality. A recent graduate of the program Dzovinar Derderian’s presentation analyzed Armenak Haikouni’s (1835-1866) polemical texts regulating marriage and hygiene in the name of science and God among Armenians for the sake of the reproductive health of the Ottoman Empire. Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee, Alison Vacca, examined the practice of two elite marriages in the medieval Caucasus comparing their accounts in Arabic, Armenian and Georgian sources. Former ASP Director and Associate Professor of Iranian History, Kathryn Babayan’s insightful remarks highlighted the power dynamics involved in regulating late-Ottoman Armenian reproductive behavior or in fashioning brides as exchangeable goods in the medieval political imaginary of the Caucasus.
The second discussion of the day was concerned with Armenians’ relationship to language, poetry, and literary culture. Murat Cankara, a faculty member at the Social Sciences University of Ankara, spoke of his ongoing research on the Armeno-Turkish literature, that is Turkish language texts written in Armenian script. Cankara’s analysis focused on the relationship of Ottoman Armenians to the Turkish language. ASP’s current Language and Literature Lecturer Michael Pifer, connected Konstantin Erznkatsi’s (13-14th centuries) Armenian theological poems to a larger Anatolian practice of spiritual instruction. Pifer used the image of the rose and nightingale, which also appear in the well-known Persian poet Rumi’s verse, and spoke of an Anatolian poetic practice of the everyday that crossed religious traditions.
From poetry and language, the discussion moved to trace the history of Armenians and Kurds in Turkey. Ohannes Kılıçdağı, a Research Affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the relations between Kurds and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Kılıçdağı concluded by arguing that today local Kurds know and speak much more openly about the Armenian Genocide than Turks. While at times mobilizing an economy of guilt and taking responsibility for the Genocide, Kurds often insist that their ancestors were instrumentalized by the (post-)Ottoman-Turkish state. The current Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History, Hakem Al-Rustom, shared with the audience a chapter of his forthcoming book. Based on anthropological research that he conducted in post-Hrant Dink Turkey and diaspora Armenian communities in Paris, Al-Rustom found that in post-genocide Turkey Armenian survival was “accidental and random,” some individuals having slipped through the violent machine which destroyed most of their compatriots and had no intention of sparing those that survived.
Christopher Sheklian, now the Director of the Zohrab Information Center in New York, delved into the theology of the Orthodox Armenian Church. He offered a fresh look at Christology through the lens of theories of anthropology and philosophy. The Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History, Sebouh Aslanian, interpreted the extensive archive of the Armenian book production in print from 1512 to 1800. Inspired by the Annales school of history, he stressed the importance of confessionalism as well as the sustained nature of the early modern print revolution involving and shaping ports and port Armenians. Vahe Sahakyan, a Research Scholar and Senior Information Resources Specialist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, deployed theories from sociology and diaspora studies to analyze institutional, discursive, and communal spaces of difference in the United States, France, and Lebanon, and the cultural objects signifying the presence and permanence of these diasporic spaces.
The exhibition of the innovative and unconventional work that has defined ASP over the past four decades culminated in what was titled “Future Flashes.” The audience was presented with a potpourri of 5-min-long presentations by nine current students and postdoctoral fellows of the program. The young scholars in a fast and furious, back-to-back race presented their burgeoning research ranging from Armenian medieval poetry, late Ottoman language politics, the legacy of Vahé Oshagan, oppressive heteronormativity in Ottoman Empire/Turkey during World War I, conflict studies and democracy, Kurdish and Armenian encounters in Van, the medical discourse among Armenians, the afterlives of the ruins of Van, and the acquisition of Western Armenian as a heritage language. Throughout the two days, the public witnessed the myriad ways in which ASP has not only produced and provided a home for forward-looking scholars and exceptional scholarship but also forged a space wherein community of intellectual exchange and support is practiced.
Melanie Tanielian, Director, Center for Armenian Studies
Karen Jallatyan, 2019-2020 Manoogian Postdoctoral Fellow