Claudia Yaghoobi, Transnational Culture in the Iranian Armenian Diaspora (Edinburgh University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Claudia Yaghoobi (CY): I started working on Zoya Pirzad’s stories and novel in 2012 and published two articles on her works. But it was not until 2018—when I was invited to present on the contributions of Iranian Armenians to the Iran-Iraq war efforts at the Association of Iranian Studies conference—that, during the preparation of this presentation, I came to realize that there is a noticeable absence of recognition for the Iranian Armenian community’s significant cultural impact on Iran. This experience inspired me to write this book, acknowledging both my Iranian and Armenian heritage. In short, the book aims to shed light on the artistic and literary achievements of Iranian Armenians over the past four decades. To avoid the trap of complicit silence, I navigate the intricate terrain of Armenian contributions to the Iranian nation-state by bringing attention to Iranian Armenian cultural productions.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CY: The topics I address in this book include diaspora, immigration, minoritized populations, transnationalism, and nationalism, among many others. However, while I explore various aspects of Iranian Armenian cultural expressions, I introduce a unique concept specific to the Iranian Armenian diaspora, which I term "verants’ughi" (վերանցուղի)—a transformational passage. I argue that Iranian Armenian authors and artists, carrying the legacy of multiple displacements and a history of genocide, grapple with the complex task of shaping their identity within the context of a dual burden. They simultaneously desire integration into their mainstream host culture while maintaining connections with their homelands (Armenia and Iran).
The term "verants’ughi" (վերանցուղի) is derived from the Armenian phrase "verap’okhakan ants’ughi" (վերափոխական անցուղի), which literally means a transformational passageway. "Verap’okhakan" signifies a metamorphosis that transcends rigid boundaries, involving sudden developmental changes in condition, habits, and appearance. This transformation is an ongoing, repetitive process of growth and improvement. In the diaspora context, "Verap’okhakan" can also imply rebirth and renewal, but it is not a final destination; rather, it includes intermediate stages of growth. The Armenian term "ants’ughi" refers to narrow passageways with walls on both sides, facilitating access between buildings or rooms. "Ants’ughi" allows movement in, out, or through, even along the same route repeatedly, but it does not necessarily lead to a final destination. The enclosed nature of the passageway suggests constriction, but it also provides a means of communication and holds potential for change and possibility.
Combining these two Armenian terms, "verants’ughi" describes the liminal space, the bridge, or the threshold where diaspora Iranian Armenians experience shifts in consciousness, cross borders, and undergo transformations in perspective. For Iranian Armenians, liminality represents a space where identity is fluid, a concept that can be challenging and sometimes traumatic. Nevertheless, it maintains an essence of Armenianness as a potent survival strategy. “Verants’ughi” represents the existence of Iranian Armenian diaspora individuals with the capacity for transformation, moving beyond nationalism into the realm of transnationalism, regardless of its limitations. In this phase, a diasporic individual occupies a liminal space where they have limited social power, remain relatively invisible, and adhere to prescribed social norms. However, they remain open to change, growth, and transformation while preserving essential aspects of their core identity. They repeatedly traverse this pathway, constantly evolving but only partially changing.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CY: Throughout my career, I have made several significant contributions one of which has been to challenge the prevailing narratives of Persian-centricity, heterosexism, and ethnocentrism. This book falls into the category of disrupting Persian-centrism. Over time, I have progressively enhanced my capacity to illustrate how various marginalized groups within Iran navigate their positions on the fringes of society and Transnational Culture does this through the Iranian Armenian minoritized community.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CY: To bring this book to fruition, I drew inspiration and guidance from the wisdom of my ancestors throughout my journey; so, first and foremost, my wish for the book is to reach them and for me to have fulfilled my calling and debt to my heritage. The book is a heartfelt endeavor shaped by my own complex awareness, diasporic perspective, and transnational outlook. Being an Armenian who was born and raised in Iran but relocated to the United States in my early thirties, my comprehension of socio-cultural identity extends beyond the confines of nationality and the nation-state. This stems from my own diaspora narrative, which differs significantly from my ancestors' involuntary displacement to Iran and the subsequent pressures of assimilation into a new host culture. I trace my lineage back to the seventeenth-century forced migration of Armenians to New Julfa by Shah Abbas. Historical records reveal that many from this community later resettled in the central province of Arak, Iran. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents all hail from Kazaz, Arak in Iran.
While this book primarily serves as an academic monograph, its content (which includes personal vignettes), the introductory and concluding sections, as well as its language, have been crafted to be accessible and engaging for a broader readership. My hope is that it will readily be integrated into courses at all levels that focus on literature, film, art, diaspora studies, and cultural studies. However, more importantly, my desire for the book is that it transcends the borders of academia and reaches a broader audience interested in the above-mentioned concepts.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CY: Currently, I am working on a book project which delves into the hidden stories of Iranian Armenian women, a unique group that faces double marginalization both in Iran and the United States. In Iran, the Armenian community is recognized as an ethnic and religious minority, but Armenian women also experience gender-based marginalization, making them marginalized within a marginalized group. When they migrate to the United States, they become part of racially marginalized groups, such as Middle Easterners, transitioning from being ethnic and religious minorities to being categorized as "brown" or "women of color.” For this project, I use a combination of autoethnography, oral history, and archival research to shed light on the lived experiences of Iranian Armenian women in both Iranian and American contexts. My own autoethnographic account traces my personal journey, starting during the pre-Islamic Revolution era and the Iran-Iraq war, as a Christian from a working-class Armenian family in Muslim-majority Iran. I navigated not only the challenges of being an ethno-religious minority but also the complexities of class and gender discrimination in Iran. My move to the United States in 2006 adds another layer to my identity as I embraced the label of a "woman of color" among other "brown" women. However, I go beyond my narrative by conducting oral history interviews with Iranian Armenian women, each with their unique yet relatable experiences. These intimate interviews provide a more comprehensive understanding of the lives of Iranian Armenian women in both nations. The stories are placed within the socio-historical and political context of Iran and the United States, particularly focusing on the transformative events of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, enriching the narratives further.
Excerpt from the book (from “Epilogue: Where is home?,” pp. 221-228)
My goal in this epilogue is to transform my painful experiences into something beneficial – for myself and the collective – by reclaiming the pain of negotiating between multiple nations, identities and consciousnesses during times of crisis and sharing it with others to empower them, which is the essence of living in the space of verants’ughi. In this liminal diasporic space, where different perspectives intersect, I reclaim my multiple consciousnesses and refuse to be categorised into conventional identity labels. Through critical thinking and writing, I embed my personal experiences – both mental and somatic – in the larger collective, creating a bridge between my personal struggles and the public.
As I was working on this book, the global COVID-19 pandemic was raging through the entire world; meanwhile, different forms of turmoil occurred in Armenia, Iran and the US – the countries that have shaped my multiple consciousnesses.
In September 2020, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), an Armenian-controlled enclave, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan for three decades, flared up yet again amid the global pandemic of COVID-19. The leaders of the two countries came to ceasefire agreements several times; however, these agreements were breached every single time. This re-ignited a conflict that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Azerbaijani civilians: many lives were lost, and a large number of Artsakh people were displaced from territories captured by Azerbaijan and then sheltered in Yerevan, Armenia. The rise of COVID-19 cases in Armenia only further exacerbated this perilous situation.
When the conflict began in September 2020, the inflamed and violent rhetoric used by Azerbaijani and Turkish officials about wiping Armenians off the face of the earth brought the collective memory of the 1915 Genocide vividly to mind. The entire Armenian population in the homeland and the diaspora quickly switched to survival mode – the conflict became an existential crisis. …
During this time, I witnessed how the Armenian diaspora community from around the world came together in solidarity to fight yet another war in hopes of holding on to the territory called Artsakh as a continuation of the homeland lost in 1915. But more significantly, we came together in support of an end to this war, in the hope of saving lives. …
In times of crisis, Armenians gravitate toward the Armenian Apostolic Church as a centre to keep them grounded. As I have discussed in this book, the Armenian Apostolic Church has always been one of the main Armenian national identity markers, and it has held the Armenians together for over 2,000 years. At times of conflict and struggle, the church has been a place of not only hope and protection but also collective solidarity. The incident in San Francisco followed another act of vandalism against the Krouzian-Zekarian Vasbouragan Armenian School and its community centre in July 2020. Anti-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijani graffiti were spray-painted on the walls. I have also discussed in this book the significance of the Armenian language and the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots’ as a national identity marker. Hence, this attack on an Armenian educational institution was another blow to the core of Armenian existence. Historically, every time Armenians come under attack, it is Armenian churches and schools that are targeted first.
Armenians living in the diaspora all around the world similarly came together via the church and Armenian organisations to volunteer and help their fellow Armenians fighting in Artsakh. Many volunteered to help find shelter for the displaced women and children of Artsakh in Yerevan, Armenia. …
As the war came to an end with Armenia losing another piece of land, the struggle for our existence in this world continues. During these few months, I witnessed that the long-term effects of this conflict inspired the younger diasporic Armenian activists, many of them from Southern California, to ensure that Armenia remains safe and that we do not face another blow to our collective existence.
All the while, in the United States, the nation faced a heightened risk of political violence with the looming 2020 general election. In addition to the many hate crimes and killings during the summer of 2020, George Floyd’s murder in police custody in May of that year sparked a massive wave of protest across the country. With the COVID-19 pandemic, a disrupted economy, a health crisis, racial injustice and politically motivated violence, the nation grappled with many overlapping risks. Pursuant to George Floyd’s murder, demonstrations and protests became widespread in the US. Most significant were those organised by the Black Lives Matter movement. The government and media focused on looting and vandalism to illustrate that the protestors instigated violence. While the US government responded violently to these peaceful protests, demonstrations broke out around the world in solidarity with the BLM movement. Many diasporic Armenians came together with BLM in solidarity, realising how the two communities’ historical exposure to genocide and slavery continues to this day. Articles problematised some Armenians’ view of themselves as Caucasians, pointing out that this is not only an illusion but detrimental to the collective. BLM became an inspiration for various nations to address their own racial and ethnic inequities, including in Iran. In the US, the situation deteriorated as protestors took to the street to demonstrate over a number of other issues related directly to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as unemployment, evictions and unsafe working conditions. With two months left before the election, the US grappled with deep divisions over racial inequality, the role of the police and economic hardship exacerbated by an ineffective pandemic response.6 After the elections, the US went through another extreme shock when they witnessed the events of 6 January 2021, propagated by white supremacy.
As if all these conflicts were not enough, turmoil in Iran was heightened, too. In addition to calamities due to COVID-19, in September 2020 authorities executed the Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari, who was arrested during protests against economic and unemployment issues in Shiraz in September 2018. Regarding Afkari’s case, Iranian authorities had obtained from Afkari a confession coerced under torture and had sentenced him to death without a fair trial. After signing multiple petitions and a popular online campaign using the hashtag #Don’tExecute, on 10 July the lawyers representing Afkari announced that the judiciary had halted the execution. Those of us in the diaspora, who had invested time and energy in this matter, felt a ray of hope. However, shockingly, Afkari was then executed on 12 September 2020. Afkari’s execution caused a global outcry and condemnation of the Iranian regime, including individual and national statements. Iranians held vigils in the diaspora around the world, … to commemorate Afkari’s life and condemn the regime’s violations of human rights.
… Very quickly, it became evident to me that what I was working on as a scholarly book was also my lived experience and an ongoing living struggle for diasporic communities such as mine. Lost lands, blurred borders, multiple identities, transnational activism – they have all become my lived day-to-day experiences. One minute I was invested in US anti-racism protests and the imminent elections, the next I was drawn into Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. …Yet, this is not the end of it. The universe is ever-changing, and the ‘pulse of existence’ is transformable – and with the universe, humans change, identities shift, and affiliations become malleable.
Two years later, in October 2022, as my book is in the copy-editing stage, I once again find myself torn between all these conflicts and turmoil. Azerbaijan attacked Armenia once again. A video and images of an Armenian female soldier who was raped and mutilated by Azeri forces after Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia began circulating on social media. In Iran, protests broke out spontaneously across the country after images appeared on social media of a twenty-two-year-old woman named Mahsa Zhina Amini (#MahsaAmini), unconscious on the hospital bed where she would be declared dead on 16 September, three days after being arrested by a ‘morality guard’. ... In the US, GOP governors are treating migrants as disposables, the supreme court has banned women’s abortion rights (Roe v. Wade), and the primaries are again looming large. This is the everyday life of a transnational individual with three national affiliations but global belonging. Where do I go from here? What do I do? I have been, I am, trying to remain afloat but . . .
… For me, home is within myself as I maintain a core version of my Armenianness and Iranianness within my verants’ughi. I have built a home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the US; yet, when I want to refer to home, I either say Glendale or Tehran – interesting yet strange. Rebuilding this home is a constant endeavour. Removing the old affiliations and creating new inclusive ones, I aim to build bridges to change and transform within my diasporic, transnational, liminal, uncertain and uncomfortable space of verants’ughi.