Reflections on National Identity

By Maria Karapetyan

From times immemorial, human beings have sought to bond with others on the basis of kinship and develop a sense of belonging. The sense of belonging is an inherent and valid need in all humans. As a result, over millennia, a hierarchy of identities has developed. The range starts with personal identity followed by social identity (family and community) and collective identity (nations and civilizations). The hierarchy is topped by the most philosophical and universal identity: humanity.

Personal and social identities are easy to define and are singular. A healthy human being cannot have two personal identities or belong to more than one mutually exclusive families or communities. National identity is by far the most complex in terms of both definition and belonging. Yet, it is also a most fulfilling form of identity. It is comforting and reassuring to know that all we need to gain the hospitality and disposition of a family or a community is to have a last name ending in a certain way. By smacking our lips pronouncing the names of certain foods and stomping our feet with certain songs, we enhance our national identity. Group bonding and solidarity satisfy our essential need in building identities.

However, unlike other lower levels of identity, national identity can sometimes admit of plurality.  Hence we have many hyphenated forms of national identities such as Lebanese-Armenian, Jewish-Americans, Iranian-Azeri, etc. Very often the plurality of national identities opens valuable opportunities for an individual to enrich himself/herself with elements of more than one cultural paradigm, be multilingual, and become a global cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world, of course if the individual chooses to enhance his/her multiple identities. Sometimes, unfortunately, national identity finds its demise in its plurality.

The following is an account of how multiple national identities can cause enormous distress to an individual.

One fine evening, at the end of summer 2010, tired from walking around in the city of Batumi, Georgia, my cousin, her friend and I sat down at a café table to refresh and continue our most entertaining cultural talk. My cousin and I (from fairly homogenous Armenian families) and our guest for the day, Emil (who according to my cousin’s humorous but precise description is a “Caucasian cocktail”) had started talking about our origins and cultures. I carefully stirred the course of the conversation in the direction most interesting to me: so how exactly it feels like to be Azerbaijani-Armenian.

Both my cousin and the friend of her family live in a community of Azerbaijani and Armenians in Russia, living side by side, building families, doing business and helping each other in the struggles of expat life. Like Emil said, Armenians greet Azerbaijanis with the familiar “Salam,” and Azerbaijanis address Armenians with “Axper jan.” After sharing little stories, some happy and some sad, about the daily life of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in their Diaspora community, I dared to ask Emil to tell me the history of his family. Emil is the son of an Armenian father and an Azerbaijani mother. He was born in Armenia. His family had moved from Armenia to Azerbaijan, then to Georgia and finally settled in Ivanovo, Russia, in search of a more peaceful existence. Supplanted from the cultures of either of his national identities, Emil’s family could not find peace and foster a future in either of the birthplaces of Emil’s parents. So their hopes for a happy life had led them out of both countries into a new place that they learned to call their new home.

Emil’s life story, illustrates, how double national identity can be a liability instead of an asset. Here’s a juxtaposed account of Emil’s reflections on his national identity.

“[…] I am a battlefield; my life is charged emotionally with all the hatred that exists between the two nations. Can freedom be oppressing? Every day I stand in front of my freedom to choose an identity. I am confined to this freedom. Am I Armenian or am I Azeri? I suffer form an excess of this freedom to choose. If I choose one do I exclude the other? Whichever I choose, I feel rejected by my fellow-compatriots. Then, I am rejected by both and called a traitor.”

It was obvious that this young man had too much identity and not enough identity. Instead of using his unique background as a source of self-realization, enjoying benefits of citizenship of more than one countries, membership to more than one cultural worlds, he  faces a daily struggle within and without. He was able to escape the struggle without by changing his place of residence, but he cannot escape his struggle within.

There are numerous socio-political reasons why Emil’s fate is not one of a kind. Let’s pinpoint a few areas that can be improved considerably through individual efforts from both sides.

Considerable changes can be made in the sphere of bilateral relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the individual level. Firstly, the stigma associated with establishing normal human relationships across borders needs to be fought against. If by bonding with an individual of a nationality other than one’s own is betraying your nationhood, then let us say bluntly, then not bonding with that individual is betraying one’s humanity. If we show our affinity to our nationality by petty signs of hatred that effectively result in nothing positive, then we disqualify as a human being. By criticizing the culture of the other we show our insecurity and uncertainty about the vitality of ours.

A small psychological exercise is suggested to anyone who is about to make a contribution to the field of communication between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Use your imagination to picture war in all its manifestations: heroic acts of patriotism and sorrow for lost lives, devastation and victory.  The image that is built should be alerting enough to suspend any thoughts that will instigate furthering antagonism in the attitudes of both nations towards each other.

Another culprit in the relationships of both countries, that can easily be ameliorated, is the joy that the general public feels when they hear about the failures and errors that the other side makes on its path to a democratic society and a better economy on the national and international levels. It’s time for all to realize that declaring that we have an undemocratic and barbarous neighbor would be just as bothersome for us as it is for that country. If the democratic structures fail in that country, each is going to end up having to deal with a possibly radical leadership that doesn’t respect international law. We need to learn to appreciate any progress made both in our country and in our neighboring countries.

And lastly, it should be borne in mind that the defining characteristic of a healthy, prosperous and progressive nation should be based on positive national ideology. It is very unhelpful to make having an enemy the defining principle of nationhood. Building and embracing national identities is a universal human need and the best practices should be employed for this process; practices that will not go counter to identities that lie on higher levels, the latter being the universal identity of humanity.

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