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New Directions: the five-year plan of the Armenian Communities Department at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Date: Thursday 23 January 2014
Venue: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch)
Speaker: Dr Razmik Panossian (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation)
Welcoming remarks: Mr Martin Essayan (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation)
Introductory remarks: Dr Krikor Moskofian (Programme of Armenian Studies)

If you have been on Dr Krikor Moskofian’s mailing list for long, you may have noticed, and possibly even read, the brief reports that are usually sent out a few days (or if I’m the one writing, more than a few days) following these events that he organises. In order to fully relay to those who weren’t able to make it the content of this important talk (jointly organized by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Programme of Armenian Studies) this report is longer than usual.

As you may know, the UK branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was previously based at Portland Place, but moved to its current address in Hoxton Square in 2009 under the leadership of Mr Andrew Barnett, who was appointed director of the UK branch two years earlier. To illustrate the different sort of context in which the Foundation’s East London building is now to be seen, as my friend and fellow student of Western Armenian, Elliot Bannister, and I were walking from Old Street station to get to the event, we passed by a woman running a stall laden with second hand books, and even though we were cutting it fine as it was, we couldn’t stop ourselves from stopping and having a very rushed browse. My eyes landed on a copy of the Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, and in the heat of the moment I decided to buy it, but I didn’t have enough change, even with Elliot contributing what he had in his pocket too. Just as I was about to put the book back, a woman who had walked past us and overheard our conversation came up to me, got out her purse, and gave me the rest of the money, barely giving me time to thank her before she walked off again. I paid for the book and we set off again. I’m sure our journey would have been less eventful had we been hurrying from Great Portland Street station instead.

We rounded the corner of Rufus Street and Hoxton Square, found the building, went inside, and hung up our coats. After flailing around with my encyclopaedia of mythology, I went and took a glass of wine and caught up with friends I hadn’t seen for a while. There I was chatting and drinking for about half an hour, and then, when everyone had sat down, Mr Martin Essayan, Trustee of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, warmly welcomed everyone to the event. Beginning with an introduction to the UK branch’s work and some of its vital statistics, Mr Essayan made it clear that the Foundation’s mission was not to any particular community, but to humanity as a whole. Indeed, the Armenian Communities Department only constitutes five percent of the Foundation’s work.

Nevertheless, the programming plan which Dr Panossian had put together, and the launch of which this event was marking, was obviously to be shouted from the rooftops. Starting with the announcement in London, the next step would be Paris the very next day, and then the rest of the world (Mr Essayan joked that t-shirts with Dr Panossian’s face and the dates and locations of each gig in his ‘world tour’ would be available at the end of the evening). Mr Essayan also addressed the relatively new location and design of the building, hailing it as a sign of the openness and progressive philosophy which guide the Foundation, and emphasizing the Foundation’s desire to be close to the people and charities it would be working with and to the communities who would most likely benefit from those joint efforts.

Turning his attention to Dr Razmik Panossian’s appointment as Director of the Armenian Communities Department last year, the audience heard how after the departure of Dr Zaven Yegavian the board had realized that in his replacement they needed someone who would both modernize the Department and start working more with other institutions, Armenian and non-Armenian alike. Mr Essayan praised Dr Panossian’s combination of a great passion for Armenian matters along with a measured approach (“Not something that we Armenians are always very good at!”) and his long-standing, non-partisan involvement in Armenian affairs.

After Mr Essayan’s glowing introduction, the speaker took the stage. His clear, ever so slightly colloquial style was evident from the start, and his things-are-going-to-change-around-here attitude carried on eliciting nods from the audience throughout the course of the evening. Dr Panossian started off by briefly explaining the process that had culminated in this programming plan; having visited and consulted Armenian communities all over the world, he was keen to stress the inclusion of a wide range of community members in the consultations, with the plan coming into being through discussions with everyone from ‘Catholicoi to school teachers’. Under the mission statement of creating ‘a viable future for the Armenian people in which its culture and language are preserved and valued’, the results of this inclusive consultation process were then distilled into four priorities, which would underpin the Armenian Communities Department’s work for the next five years:

  1. To promote the preservation of the Armenian language and culture, and the development of the diaspora by linking its different parts and by investing in education.
  2. To develop a viable Armenia through investing in its youth and their commitment to civil society.
  3. To improve Armenian-Turkish relations by sponsoring projects that encourage a common understanding of their long shared history.
  4. To preserve and make available the Armenian literary heritage.

In addition, Dr Panossian let it be known that there were some things that they would be doing differently. Whilst remaining balanced, the Armenian Communities Department’s $3.5m annual budget was going to be divided up strategically, not split equally between the four priority areas. Secondly, in order to be more proactive, larger amounts of funding would be allocated to fewer initiatives from now on:

We have a tradition where, to be fair, we give $5,000 here, $10,000 there … and we thought, ‘This is not really the most effective way of doing things’.

Finally, Dr Panossian made it clear that it was the Western Armenian or ‘established’ diaspora that was the intended focus of the first priority area ― the post-Soviet diaspora would have to wait a few more years until it was better understood.

Moving on to address the four priority areas in turn, the speaker clarified that the ‘preservation’ of the Armenian language and culture was not to be taken in its conservative sense, but rather to be understood as preservation together with advancement. Recognizing the plight of Western Armenian, Dr Panossian said that there were only two and a half communities where the language was spoken on a daily basis: Aleppo, Beirut, and Istanbul (the half). Out of these three, Aleppo was gone, swallowed up in the appalling Syrian Civil War, and Beirut was dwindling, and would disappear should war engulf Lebanon again, and it was therefore extremely important that the Western Armenian language be bolstered to protect it against tragedies such as these.

It was also important, continued Dr Panossian, to protect the language against being abandoned by the younger generation in favour of languages that currently have the upper hand when it comes to using twenty-first century technology. This problem, and the lack of qualified Western Armenian teachers, was commonly cited during the extensive consultations undertaken in the preparation of this five-year plan. Dr Panossian mentioned that approximately $2m from the budget would be allocated to this first priority area, and $1m of that would be used to fund university scholarships of these five kinds:

  1. Four fully-funded postgraduate scholarships for Armenian students studying at internationally acclaimed universities.
  2. Six full and several partial postgraduate scholarships for students of Armenian studies, from any background, at recognized universities around the world.
  3. Scholarships for Western Armenian teachers: three to provide teacher training for individuals with mastery of the language and who want to teach it, and three to individuals with a teaching background who want to master the language in order to teach it.
  4. Forty short-term conference and travel grants, mainly for students and young faculty in Armenia to travel abroad, but some also for young scholars from abroad to attend academic events in Armenia.
  5. Forty undergraduate scholarships for Armenian students at a recognized university, particularly those students from less developed countries.

Dr Panossian also mentioned that there would some funds available for ad hoc allocation to Armenian students who find themselves in crisis situations – for example, the current strife in Syria – and a modest amount to support Armenian students at Portuguese universities.

He then moved swiftly through the second priority area; the plan was to spend roughly $700,000 per year in Armenia, splitting the money three ways, with half of the money being spent on the first point:

  1. Civil society, civic education, and the youth in particular, including supporting civil society groups such as environmental organizations, and a summer school on Western methodology and theory. Interesting projects from the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would also be considered for funding.
  2. Exchange programmes and study tours for young academics to go abroad.
  3. Working with the Ministry of Diaspora, especially on Western Armenian issues.

Addressing the third priority area of the programming plan, Dr Panossian said that he was expecting flak from both the Turkish and Armenian sides, but that we should not turn a blind eye whilst Turkey as a country goes through the changes and opening up that it is currently experiencing. Civil society movements, Armenian institutions, Ottoman studies, and the translation of texts between Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish will all receive support to the tune of around $200,000 per year.

The final priority area, the preservation and dissemination of Armenian literary heritage, would have a strong focus on digitization and bringing the Armenian language and literature into the twenty-first century. This aim would also be achieved by encouraging the production of Armenian culture for the modern era rather than restricting the definition of Armenian culture to classic works of literature. In addition, the speaker mentioned how often the issue of translation, or lack thereof, came up during his consultations, with different members of Armenian communities bemoaning the fact that so little Western material was translated into Armenian. Conversely, he made the point that there are also many Armenian texts that deserve to be translated so that they can be more widely read. Finally, Dr Panossian talked of the plan to set up a Western Armenian writing prize to encourage original composition in the language.

Afterwards, Dr Panossian moved on to some plans that were less directly related to the four key areas outlined above: using the Armenian Communities Department premises in Lisbon as a ‘hub of connections and strategic thinking’, a place for people to meet others who might be working towards similar goals in another part of the world and who they might otherwise not have come across; an annual Armenian-related conference or workshop; Armenian cultural events at the Foundation in Lisbon to increase awareness of Armenians and Armenian-ness; and a small fund for unforeseen circumstances.

Of course, such an ambitious plan is not without its challenges, and Dr Panossian went on to describe the kinds of challenges he was expecting the plan to face, the first and most obvious challenge being simply getting the work done, although it seems from his CV that Dr Panossian’s organizational skills are more than up to the task. Another challenge would be to break down the ‘sense of entitlement’ that some Armenian organizations have in relation to funding ― ‘Just send the cheque, don’t ask questions, we know what we’re doing’; you know, it just doesn’t work that way! Other issues included the great need for reform, pedagogical and financial, in Armenian schools across the world; streamlining the Department to avoid duplication of effort; the political risks of engaging in Armenian-Turkish dialogue; and in Armenia, maintaining the right balance between working with civil society on the one hand and government elements on the other. Bringing the talk to a close, Dr Panossian quipped that his personal challenge would be go through the whole thing again the next day, this time in French.

After the audience showed their appreciation, it was time for questions and comments, the most relevant of which I have summarized below:

  • How constant is the figure of $3m per year that was given earlier ― is it likely to fluctuate with market conditions?
    Dr Panossian deferred to Mr Essayan on this subject, the latter clarifying that the figure was an average of a certain percentage of the last three years’ endowment, so it may fluctuate a little from year to year, but that it was stable.
  • What are some of the risks in engaging in Armenian-Turkish dialogue?
    There are domestic political risks: the current trend towards opening of discourse in Turkey could open further, or it could close, and the same could be said for the openness of Turkish civil society. The problem is that things can get politicized very easily, especially when taking the Kurdish angle into account, and the Foundation can’t engage in advocacy or any kind of political work, so that needs to be avoided. It’s a question of mitigating risks, but some risks are worth taking because they sometimes pay off.
  • Translation may be a good way of breaching the ‘wall of silence’ that exists between Armenians and Turks.
    Dr Panossian agreed with this sentiment, and went on to explain how he sees the process of translation funding changing from the current reactive situation, whereby individuals approach the Foundation with a proposal and then the Foundation decides whether to fund it or not, to forming a committee of experts to proactively draw up lists of important works to be translated (either from or into Armenian) in the fields of history, literature, politics, etc.
  • What about the relations between Armenians and Kurds?
    This is an important distinction to make, and we must not lose sight of events in Diyarbakır because we have our eyes on Istanbul, but we must equally not play politics.
  • What pedagogical materials are you aware of using new technologies, and what resources do you envisage for the future?
    Whilst admitting to not being an expert on the technologies in question, Dr Panossian mentioned a few examples that he had come across: multilingual interactive books, for example, and a phone app that helps you to locate centres of Armenian interest nearby.

After the questions session, Dr Panossian gave his thanks to Mr Andrew Barnett and Dr Krikor Moskofian, and invited Dr Moskofian to the lectern to say a few words. Dr Moskofian, always a stickler for doing things the proper way, spoke in Western Armenian first, and then in English. He praised Razmik in his role as director of the Armenian Communities Department, and then outlined the work of the Programme of Armenian Studies, its main purpose being the teaching and promotion of the Western Armenian language and the promotion of Armenian studies in academic circles, with the aim of creating a viable academic programme of Armenian studies in London.  Dr Moskofian went on to mention that courses relevant to Armenian culture and history were also in the pipeline, and to announce the intensive summer courses in Western Armenian that would be taking place for the first time in July and August 2014 (beginners’ and intermediate, respectively).

Finally, with gracious thanks to the speaker and the co-organizers of the event, Dr Moskofian wrapped the evening up, and directed everyone’s attention to the buffet that had been laid out, inviting all present to eat, drink, and celebrate the launch of an ambitious yet realistic and meticulously designed five year plan, which will empower and inspire individuals and Armenian communities across the globe.

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