Ayşenur Korkmaz lectures about the notion of home in Armenian genocide testimonies

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 12:00am


“Narratives of ‘Home’: Violence, Spatial Belonging, and Everyday Life for Armenian Genocide Survivors”
Ayşenur Korkmaz (PhD candidate in European Studies, University of Amsterdam)
2019-2020 Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies
November 19, 2019

Ayşenur Korkmaz, the Center’s 2019-2020 Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies, gave a public lecture about narratives and conceptions of home among Armenian genocide survivors who fled to the south Caucasus during the Armenian genocide. The lecture is based on Korkmaz’s research with video and audio testimonies of Armenian survivors available in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, and is part of her larger dissertation project on post-genocide articulations of the Armenian homeland (Yergir) through materiality and rituals.

Korkmaz started her lecture by providing some background information on her topic. She noted that, although around 300,000 Ottoman Armenians fled to the south Caucasus during the Armenian genocide, their experience of refugeedom and their conceptions of home remain largely overlooked in the scholarly research. Korkmaz explained that these survivors settled in towns and villages in the western part of Soviet Armenia and in Yerevan, only a few miles from the modern Turkish state. This close proximity to their pre-genocide home(land) prolonged possibilities for creating new futures and new homes. While these survivors became Soviet Armenian or Soviet Georgian citizens and established connections with their adopted countries, they still maintained a sense of nostalgia for their lost homes. What became significant, according to Korkmaz, is survivors’ multilayered conception of home. In particular, Korkmaz highlighted the concept of “Yergir,” or the concept of Armenian homeland. She noted that “Yergir” has a twofold meaning: it can refer to an abstract political and national homeland, perceived to be lost to genocide, or it can refer to a local homeland, and be related to specific localities in western Armenia. Thus, Korkmaz explored understandings of “Yergir” among survivors and their descendants. Considering that survivors themselves are no longer living, Korkmaz consulted VHA testimonies to examine their narratives about home.

Korkmaz then turned to detailing her research questions and methodology. When it comes to her research in the Visual History Archive, she explained how she navigated the archive to locate the narratives related to her topic. During this process, Korkmaz realized the advantages offered by the collection of Armenian genocide testimonies, as she discovered a wealth of material on survivor experiences in Armenia, which also enabled her to compare experiences of survivors in Armenia with those in diaspora. Korkmaz then presented her two main research questions: How do the survivors in the Caucasus understand the myriad ramifications of their flight and how did they adapt? How do the Armenian genocide survivors relate to their ‘place of origin’ and ex-social networks after the violence and forced displacement, and how do they remember their homes and lost families? After examining survivors’ narratives in the Visual History Archive, Korkmaz discovered that they confirm the existing scholarly findings about survivors’ experiences of refugeedom, especially in terms of experiences of famine, epidemics, child abandonment, escape routes, and refugees’ participation in Armenian paramilitary units. To illustrate these discoveries, Korkmaz shared and reflected on the testimonies of Richard Ashton and Shoghig Khasoyan. 

In the second part of her lecture, Korkmaz focused on survivors’ conceptions of home. First, she detailed her theoretical approach by grounding her research in the existing scholarship on the concept of home, including the works of Benedict Anderson, Arjun Appadurai, Liisa Malki, and Paul Gilroy. Korkmaz explained her preference for the term ‘home’ instead of ‘homeland,’ because the former is less politically charged. In addition, she emphasized that the concept of home needs to be understood in the context of violence and forced migration, because its meaning is emphasized in those contexts. Korkmaz also highlighted the importance of a conceptual relevance of home: how people relate to the place they’ve been displaced from, how do they refer to it, how do they describe it, and similar.

Korkmaz outlined a typology of home (after Helen Taylor, 2015) that she applied to her findings, with four types of home: spatial, material, temporal, and relational home. When it comes to the spatial home type, Korkmaz found that survivors conceive of their home differently in their testimonies, ranging from historic, or Wilsonian Armenia, to Turkey. However, almost everyone referred to specific localities, including their village, town, and similar, as their home. The perspective offered by the material home type, on the other hand, enabled Korkmaz to learn about socioeconomic status of families, and their understanding of family and kinship. She found that survivors tend to be especially emotional about individual objects or properties related to their lost home, citing again an example from Richard Ashton’s testimony. When it comes to the temporal home type, Korkmaz discovered that time is central to the meaning of home, and that different temporalities shape the understanding and experience of home. To illustrate this, she cited an example from Gegham Gevorkian’s testimony. Finally, the emphasis on the relational home type enabled Korkmaz to learn about survivors’ social networks, for which she cited an example from Chenorig Shehirian’s testimony. She noted that this type is often combined with the material home type, because survivors talk about their relatives when talking about their property.

Korkmaz concluded her lecture by reiterating her intention to make sense of survivors’ experience of refugeedom. She pointed out that home can not only be political and abstract, but that it can also be material, spatial, temporal, and relational. Korkmaz ended with a reflection on the future of her research, including her plans to further assess the testimonies from the Hovannisian Oral History Collection housed in the Visual History Archive.

Korkmaz’s lecture was followed by a long and informative Q&A session, which included questions about the cases of refugees crossing borders on their routes; differences in conceptions of home among Armenian diaspora and Armenians in Armenia; convergences in the meaning of home between Armenians in diaspora and Armenians in Turkey; whether those survivors who refer to Turkey as their home come from a specific region; whether descendants still speak dialects spoken in their historic places of origin; whether descendants attempt to buy back their ancestors’ properties lost to the genocide; whether Korkmaz encountered any survivors narratives that do not fit into the typology she applied; whether her methodology can be applied to other diasporic groups; whether she encountered any narratives about family reunifications, or reunifications with Islamicized relatives; how Korkmaz’s own identity affects her ethnographic research with descendants of survivors; and questions about the relationship between lost language and lost home.

Summary by Badema Pitic

"Narratives of 'Home': Violence, Spatial Belonging, and Everyday Life for Armenian Genocide Survivors" - Public lecture by Ayşenur Korkmaz (PhD Candidate, University of Amsterdam), 2019-2020 Center Katz Research Fellow

In this talk, Ayşenur Korkmaz explored how the survivors and their descendants reflect on their ‘place of origin’ and ex-social networks in the former Ottoman Empire. What did or does ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ mean to them when it no longer exists in the way that they imagine(d)? How do we make sense of their site of memories and imaginations of the material and relational ‘home,’ and everyday life before the genocide? Drawing upon the video and audio testimonies of Armenian survivors available in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, she reflected on some of the critical concepts such as homeland, displacement, socio-spatiality, home, and materiality to understand the post- Armenian genocide period.


Badema Pitic