An Interview with Professor Dawn Chatty

By Erin Hayes

Professor Dawn Chatty is a social anthropologist whose ethnographic interests lie in the Middle East, particularly with nomadic pastoral tribes and refugees. Her research interests include a number of forced migration and development issues such as conservation-induced displacement, tribal resettlement, modern technology and social change, gender and development and the impact of prolonged conflict on refugee young people. Erin Hayes of the OMER editorial team spoke with Professor Chatty on January 19 via Microsoft Teams. 

EH: When interviewing people who have been forcibly displaced, where do you start? 

DC: I’m going to refer to the interviewing that I conducted for the book I asked you to read, Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East. I started first by identifying a local researcher who knew the landscape really well, and we discussed who I might interview, because of course, in that particular project, I was looking for the oldest surviving members of communities that had been forced into the region over the past 100–120 years. So normally, they did the basic introduction to ask this older person whether they would be willing to talk to me about their life, how their family got to this place of displacement, and so on. In a number of cases, the interview was the first time that they had ever spoken about their experience. What I also discovered was that the audience was not myself, the research associate, and the interviewee, but generally included their family, their children, and their grandchildren, gathered around in order to hear what that grandparent, and in some cases even great-grandparent, had to say. For my interview guide, I had modified a life history set of questions developed by a historian who interviewed survivors of the Armenian genocide. You started by asking the person to reflect back and tell you what their home looked like when they were children, what kind of heating they had, how many rooms were part of their house, and so on. It was all an effort to try to open up those memories of a distant past, and then gently move to the experience of the decision that they had to leave and then what the journey was like, where they stopped. So, I guess you would say I started by basically getting them to relax, to reflect on things that they definitely remembered, and then moved forward into the present time. Sometimes these memories were not nearly as traumatic as you would imagine. But that is, I think, the nature of memory. You often forget the deep trauma and you remember other things. So, some of the older generations from the Transcaucasia didn’t remember the horror of having to move, but rather the journey. And then they also very quickly started reflecting on how they became settled, how they created a sense of home, and so on, to the point that often the children and the grandchildren would ask “If you had a chance to go back, would you go back?”. Then of course, these older people would say “No, it’s too late, I’m settled here, this is my home, and so on.” But it was important to lead in so you did not just come in with a question like “Tell me about your forcible displacement.”

EH: Moving more into what you found from your interviews and your research, how do you think the continued lack of recognition of the Armenian genocide affects the diaspora today?

DC: That’s a really interesting question, and I have to divide up exiled Armenians into a near diaspora and a far diaspora. Because I will say, it’s the far diaspora, the diaspora in Europe and Canada and the United States, particularly in California, where you have really radical Armenians who are determined to have every state recognize the Armenian genocide. The near diaspora, those I interviewed, do not have the strong sense of the genocide, the death marches, having to be recognized internationally. The near diaspora is very settled and at home where they are, whether it is in Lebanon, or in Syria, or in Jordan or Jerusalem. There are not that many Armenians left in Cairo anymore, but there were. There are still a significant group in Heliopolis, Cairo, if you were ever to go out there. They were much more focused on being hyphenated nationals. So, the Lebanese would always say “I’m a Lebanese-Armenian,” the Egyptians would say “I’m an Armenian, and I’m Egyptian,” and those in Syria would say “I’m an Armenian-Syrian,” which is quite an interesting differentiation between the Lebanese, where the Armenianness was extremely important. It is recognized as one of the ethno-religious political parties; they have a number of seats in parliament, and it’s a very tight-knit community. In Syria, I would say it is a better integrated, well-respected community, and there is very little discussion in this near diaspora, if you want to call it that, about the genocide. Where it is a very big issue, of course, is in Turkey, where there are many Armenians, and many Armenians want the Turkish state to recognize the genocide. But as with Germany, the Turkish position is that it is a successor state to the Ottomans; it was the Ottomans who conducted the genocide, not us. So, it is a very complex and very difficult, very problematic issue. Although I have to say, I think it was in 2015 or 2016, Turkey had a very big commemoration for the Armenian genocide, even if they did not use that term. I remember that even Keith Watenpaugh, who wrote a very good series of books on the genocide, was invited to speak; his book was promoted. The book is called Bread From Stones. It is interesting. Obviously, there is a universal recognition of the genocide, but I would say that in the near diaspora, Armenians are much more interested in recognizing the resistance that Armenians had to the death marches, to the genocide. There was a wonderful book that came out in 2020 on the Armenian resistance—The Resistance Network by Khatchig Mouradian. At the time, the way in which the Armenians already from Aleppo, for example, really moved and worked with the church to try to save as many people from the death marches, to try to save as many from getting as far as Deir ez-Zor, where there was another huge massacre. So, I would say that the near diaspora of Armenians has a different focus. They are much more interested in focusing on how the Armenians were not passive, and just went along with their slaughter, but that they resisted, that they fought back. It’s very interesting to see how important that has become for Armenians to recognize that they just did not willingly go along for the slaughter, but that a lot of people stood up and resisted the forced marches and the genocide.

EH: Do you find that there’s dialogue between the near and the far diasporas about that, or do they both have siloed approaches?

DC: I think it’s quite siloed. I haven’t done that much research on it, but I know that one of my doctoral students who was a Lebanese-Armenian did research on the Republic of Armenia’s efforts to bring the far diaspora to come and settle in Armenia. They had real problems with it, because for many of those from the far diaspora who had spent a couple of generations in Europe and the in United States, they really found it difficult. And until 2011 or 2012, many in the near diaspora also did not recognize the Republic of Armenia as being anything to do with their homeland or their mythical Mount Ararat. Because of course, the Republic of Armenia had spent nearly 70 years as part of the Soviet Union. And they felt it was just too far away from who they were. So, there are different blocs and different positions and different attitudes amongst Armenians throughout the world. Obviously, that’s changed a little bit because now there are parts of the Republic of Armenia that are called “Little Aleppo,” because of course they have allowed Armenians from Syria, from Aleppo, to be granted sanctuary in Armenia, and they’ve all got particular areas that sort of recreated their neighborhoods from Aleppo in the Republic of Armenia. What will be interesting to see whether they remain, whether once the conflict in Syria is over—it has to be one day, it cannot go on forever, I do not think it will go on forever—whether they stay or they return to Syria.

EH: Turning to a different question of migration, can you talk about how borders in the Middle East have become less permeable over time and its implications for groups such as the Kurds?

DC: I don’t know how much less permeable they have become. Of course, there is more and more frontier land that is now strung across with barbed wire. About 10,000 Kurds came into Syria but remained along the northern border of Syria. And I interviewed a number of them, and I did ask, “What about these borders?” Because obviously, many of these Kurds originally were herders, so they had flocks of sheep and goats to move across borders, which they were able to do, and they still are able to do, not always using official border crossings. Of course, because the PKK and the Peshmerga operate in these areas, when individuals want to cross, they contact these groups and they are carried cross. We think of borders as basically only running along roads and then you have roadblocks. But in mountainous areas, there are always paths and ways of getting across. It’s the same for Syria. In fact, between Syria and Lebanon, there was no officially demarcated border until 2005. That was a particular agreement between Lebanon and Syria. I would say that the actual border between Lebanon and Syria along the Anti-Lebanon Mountains was not clearly defined until 2005, when the UN Security Council as a response to the assassination of Rafic Hariri insisted that there had to be a border, and there needed to be proper visa controls. One of the reasons why you had nearly 1.1 million Syrians, probably even more, flee Syria and enter Lebanon after 2011 was because they could easily cross the Syrio-Lebanon frontier. The border between Jordan and Syria, for example, is very hard to cross if you don’t actually go across by road at the border crossing, because the desert is very inhospitable. So obviously it has become less permeable over time, because all of these states have found ways of trying to regulate migration movements of people, but I would say it is still quite porous. And Kurds have networks as always, so it’s possible for them to move through Kurdistan as they cross the different frontiers of these four modern nation states that were set up across the region known as Kurdistan by the League of Nations after World War I. So, there remains some permeability; still porousness exists across these borders and these frontiers. 

EH: Do you see a trend of decreasing permeability, as you with saying with the 2005 border between Syria and Lebanon, or do you think that porousness is here to stay for the foreseeable future?

DC: Well, you have to think about the nature of the state. Lebanon is a very weak state. The government does not really have a very broad reach. In fact, the state exists often without a government. I think it went two or three years without a government between about 2012 or 2013 to 2015. It has a military, but the military is very limited in size and also equipment. Obviously, the military was used to put down what was an Islamist attempt to take over one of the refugee camps in the north of the country, in the Nahr el Bared camp. So that was a very enclosed, small place that the military could manage. But you go to the very broad frontier region around Wadi Khaled in the north of Lebanon, and people can cross it back and forth easily, even today, because it cannot all be patrolled. The military, government structure, and internal security do not have the capability for controlling its borderland. And it is the same in almost every country. Even look in the United States along the Mexican-American border. Whatever Trump might have dreamed of, there was no way that he was going to actually be able to build a barrier that was going to successfully keep migrants out along such a long border. The separation wall in Israel probably works because it’s a very confined space, and obviously Israel has a very well-equipped, well-organized military and internal security force. But very few countries in the Middle East could match that. Certainly, Lebanon probably is the weakest when it comes to its effective military force. I just think about the shootout on October 14 in Lebanon in 2021, which started with the Lebanese Forces—I use that in brackets because it is the name given to the militia associated with the Phalange-Maronite militias—open fired on Shi’a peaceful demonstrators. And then from the back, a Shi’a militia came and fired back. There was a shootout that was about four hours in the middle of a modern city, and it took the Lebanese military until the evening to basically shut that down. They did shut it down, but that was a long time before they were able to do that. 

EH: You noted in the chapter on Palestine in Displacement and Dispossession that there’s a sense of “Palestinianess” that is kept alive through informal education. Did you find that this informal education was also important for other diasporas, and if there’s differences in the ways diasporas tend to educate people about their identities?

DC: Education is fundamental. It is about socialization, it is about acculturation. In the Palestinian case, the UNWRA schools set up for Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank, and Gaza are only permitted to teach the curriculum of the country that they are in. In Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, they have to teach Lebanese history, Syrian history, Jordanian history. So Palestinian youth only learn about their own history through what I call informal education, through what their parents tell them at home about their villages or their neighborhoods of origin, about the poems of Mahmoud Darwish. Informal education is extremely important. For Palestinians, obviously, it is the same language. But for Armenians, Circassians and others, they maintained or relearn their languages, through efforts at home and also, in the Armenian case, through the church. And these kind of considerations continued through the generations. When I was interviewing Armenians in the early 2000s I asked about, “How do you maintain Armenianness?” Many replied: “If our sons or daughters decide to marry someone who’s not Armenian, we only insist that they learn to speak Armenian, and we have regular classes in the church.” You see that throughout the Armenian communities. Circassians are the same. In the 1920s, there was a move to homogenize and nationalize, and instruction other than Arabic was prohibited. That is when the Circassians and Chechens decided to move the instruction of their languages to their charitable associations. They set up charitable associations where their languages were taught, and where they also looked after the poor in their community. Language instruction became a very important part of informal education in their charitable associations. So, there are different ways that these diasporas look to maintain their language, because of course, language is also about culture, it’s a way of thinking. It becomes an integral part of how you maintain your sense of belonging and your identity. 

EH: Are there any future trends that you think we should look for in forced migration in the Middle East today?

DC: What I call the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, the way in which the millet system was permitted to rediscover itself during the Mandate period, that colonial period in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, meant that the kind of rights that were granted to these ethno-religious communities within the new modern states of Lebanon, Syrian, Jordan, and even Egypt continued to exist for a very long time. These ethno-religious communities knew that they could integrate but did not have to melt; they didn’t have to assimilate. They could maintain their difference but still be part of the social fabric of the country. In the legal books of Syria, for example, Greek Orthodox citizens can follow the rulings of their church when it comes to marriage, to divorce, to inheritance, or to disputes within the family. If they do not like that, they can then go to the Sharia court. So, there’s this kind of legal plurality that emerged from the Ottoman Empire that still exists, especially in Lebanon, that I thought for the longest time helped to create a sense of local conviviality towards the other. These were not homogenous societies, but societies that celebrated their multiculturalism, the sense of being different, but accepting differences amongst each other. In Syria, there’s a great example of that. In terms of future trends, certainly this last decade has really battered that sense, particularly with the Assad government, really directly or indirectly trying to push as many of its Sunni merchants and merchant families out of the country and prioritizing the rights of Alawites and other minority groups within the country. It’s really dealt a deep blow to that kind of local conviviality and cosmopolitanism that existed. As that conflict continues and Syrians are displaced for longer and longer in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Jordan, and elsewhere, people’s patience draws thin. There’s a point where they say, “When are you guys going to go back?” But I think that, hopefully in the future, what we’ll see is a renewed effort at creating a sense or recreating a sense of social inclusiveness of difference, of celebrating difference, of recognizing that this area of the world was the birthplace of all the Abrahamic religions and that all of these religions should be celebrated. We really need to fight against the extremism, the radicalism, that has emerged in Salafi Islam, as well as the radicalism that’s emerged in some of the Christian movements, particularly in Lebanon. I’m not sure that that’s a trend, but it’s certainly what I would wish to see happen in the future.

EH: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.