Guest Narrative: Armenians and Arab American Organizing: Solidarities and Missed Connections

Thomas Simsarian Dolan
April 3, 2024

In the summer of 1971, as Edward Said planned the Association of Arab American University Graduates’ Fourth Convention, one of his most frequent correspondents was the AAUG’s press agent, Levon Keshishian. Said had first come to the AAUG as a result of his college friendship with Ibrahim Abu-Lughod – his “guru” -  and after attending the first meeting of the AAUG’s New York City chapter at the home of Elena Karam, was voted the New York chapter’s President, and then the national organization’s Vice President in 1970. Keshishian, a proud Palestinian Armenian, was a preternaturally active agent and writer, with a foot in multiple communities and conversations: as correspondent for a range of English, Armenian, and Arabic-language newspapers across the MENA region, Europe and the U.S., as well as press agent for the Arab League.

Although Keshishian’s centrality in the early AAUG has been largely overlooked, his connections demonstrate once obvious Armenian-Palestinian solidarities that have recently been uplifted through groups like Armenians for Justice in Palestine, Watan, and last November’s “’Who Remembers?’: Armenian-Palestinian Solidarities.” Tracing the contours of these connections shows that while they have always already been there, these often occluded solidarities paints a picture of state repression, the institutionalization of Middle East Studies, the traumatic afterlives of genocide, and critical need to transcend inward-looking ethnic politics.

Source:Watan Studio

Born in Jerusalem in 1917, Keshishian moved deftly between states, languages, and politics – shuttling between the U.S. and Middle East on a Yemeni passport as a longtime columnist for Egypt’s al-Ahram and on the Executive Committee of the Foreign Press Association. Keshishian had earlier parlayed his multiple identities and affiliations to ensure adoption of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, working closely with Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide”, to rally Armenian diaspora groups, as well as Western and Arab governments.i

For the AAUG, Keshishian prepared reems of press releases, highlighting the AAUG’s groundbreaking research, and impressive array of speakers who lent their voices in support – anti-war priest Daniel Berrigan, Greek Prime Minister Andreas G. Papandreou, novelist Ghassan Kanafani, and presidential candidates Shirley Chisholm and later, Jesse Jackson. It was exactly Keshishian’s deep connections to the Arab League, individual Arab governments, and the UN that facilitated the AAUG’s meteoric rise in diplomatic and journalistic circles, such that it was recognized by the UN as an NGO just three years after its founding.

Source: ARF Archives in Boston, cited in Mouradian "'With the Ink of Their Blood':Lemkin's Armenian Collaborators and the Genocide Convention."

Said had grown up in a world filled with Armenians in Cairo, Jerusalem, and Dhour el Schweir, Lebanon: his piano teacher, riding instructor, father’s unscrupulous accountant, cabaret owners, and teachers at St. George’s College in Shubra and Victoria College in Maadi. In private, Said affirmed that Armenians and Palestinians shared an “urgent need to reconstitute their broken lives, usually by choosing to see themselves as … belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage” and mourned "the gradual disappearance of an era that defined us all together."

It should come as no surprise that Keshishian and Said collaborated, since Armenians were among the first non-Arab members of the AAUG. Although the AAUG technically limited membership to college graduates of Arab descent - or those married to Arabs – early founders disagreed on how exactly to define Arabness. The AAUG oscillated between welcoming those who claimed Arab ethnic heritage or spouses, and those who were Arabic-speaking. In practice, this latter category initially applied almost exclusively to Armenians, who were listed on the organization’s first registries – including Abdeen Jabara’s law partner, Syrian Armenian Victor Papakhian, the son of the pastor of St. Sarkis in Dearborn. ii Decades later, Said’s friend Nubar Hovsepian would join the AAUG’s board, and Said even introduced Hovsepian to David Barsamian, another "non-Armenian Armenian," by which Said meant that they transcended insular, intra-Armenian politics.

However, the Cold War provided many challenges to these solidarities, though as the work of these Armenian Americans demonstrates, Said’s assessment wasn’t quite fair in the first place.

Volunteers Aliya Hassen & Helen Najjar at the registration desk for the AAUG’s Tenth Annual Conference “Critical Issues Facing the Arab World in the 1970’s,” Southfield, Michigan. Source: Association of Arab American University Graduates Collection, 018.AAUG. Eastern Michigan University Archives. (Hereafter AAUG) Box 10, Folder 2 “Photos 1977”

A first explanation for these ruptures was simply one of simple generational forgetting. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Armenians were highly visible because of the Armenian Genocide – and their preeminence within media meant that the most prominent American and European eugenicists suggested the “Armenoid” racial type was the prototypical genetic substrate of the Near and Middle East. Yet, as a result of Turkey’s inclusion in the Marshall Plan and then NATO, U.S. government prevented recognition of the Armenian Genocide, pursuit of reparations, and even adoption of the UN Convention on Genocide – leading to a dramatic erasure of Armenian and Ottoman pasts.  

Source: Betts, Ethel Franklin. “Save the Survivors.” Cornell University Library Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection.

On the other hand, more outward-looking manifestations of Armenian solidarity came at great cost as Palestine, Arabness, and Islam became increasingly stigmatized identities in the second half of the twentieth century. For example, Leftist Armenians, epitomized by Californian Monte Melkonian, Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCOAG), or the Armenian Revolutionary Army (ARA), participated in the Lebanese Civil War, before later targeting Turkish diplomats. As a result of affiliations with similarly marginalized Palestinian and Kurdish freedom fighters, the US government designated these groups terrorist organizations in the 1970s and initially included Armenia on its watchlists after 9/11.

The AAUG also participated, intentionally and inadvertently, in generational forgetting and strategic essentialisms. On the one hand, many of its members diverged over personal memory of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, and particularly a vision of Arabness that privileged Islam as central to Arab or even Middle Eastern identity. Like earlier Armenian groups, generations of Arab American activists and organizations, including the Arab Office and the Institute of Arab American Affairs, faced intense scrutiny as a result of foreign-funding, ostensibly anti-Jewish attitudes, and even censure from competing Arab states. In addition to contesting older members’ vision of a multi-ethnic Ottoman empire, many members of the AAUG were, in the words of AAUG powerhouse (and first female president) Elaine Hagopian “very ethnically nationalist.”iii

Far more influential, however, were strategic essentialisms the AAUG propagated to achieve one of their primary goals: centering Palestine within the newly constituted field of Middle East Studies. The AAUG had been founded in 1967 at the World Congress of Orientalists’ in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in fact, the AAUG’s distinguishing characteristic was its investment in forcing the equally nascent Middle East Studies Association to contend with Palestinian and Arab nationalisms. The AAUG wasn’t alone in these investments, since while the US media had voraciously consumed shocking reports of the Armenian Genocide, by mid-century, a common sense of Armenians as prototypical Oriental subject had been largely eclipsed by assumptions that the "Middle East” comprised, essentially, Arabs, Israel, and to far lesser degrees, Iran and Turkey.

Armenians were uneasy subjects within this analysis, because they didn’t easily fit into parochial frames of the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Furthermore, Said almost categorically sidestepped questions about the Armenian Genocide, instead reiterating the synonymy of the Middle East and Arabness.  In fact, despite many members’ deep personal connections to (and sympathy for) Armenians, it was almost always non-Arab scholars collaborating with the AAUG who linked the freedom dreams of Palestinians, Armenians, Kurds, Afghans and other colonized peoples. Thus, in private, Said might mourn and "the tragic fate of the Armenian people - whom I have long admired and sympathized with" and who helped him "better to understand the equally sad fate of my own people." In public, however, he uplifted Palestinian nationalism, as a nationalist aspiration he intimated had already been foreclosed for Armenians as a result of the Armenian Genocide, and coordinated Israeli, Turkish, American and sometimes, even Arab government suppression.

Armenian Homenetmen at Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (2017)

These choices should not detract from what Said’s life, scholarship and activism actually did, and the profound impact he and the AAUG had on knowledge and political imaginaries that made Palestine central to American understandings of decolonial activism and the Middle East. Said and the AAUG worked to create the conviction that a unified, anti-imperial front was possible – and that is exactly what we again need today.

Therefore, remembering – and emulating - Keshishian and Said’s collaboration enables an orientation and praxis that must inform our present. Armenians and Palestinians face intensified, ongoing, and multifaceted genocides – in Gaza, Artsakh, the West Bank (inclusive of the besieged Armenian Quarter), the Armenian Republic, and diasporas excluded from the Census MENA category. However, Keshishian and the AAUG show us some of the many tools available to leverage governments, build communities of concern, and insist that when we shear away shibboleth, ethnic navel-gazing or factionalism, it’s far easier to see – and do – what’s right. At the very least, a multiethnic, multi-tiered, and multinational coalition modeled on that forged by Keshishian and Said, which finds strength and unity in difference gestures toward necessary solidarities we must forge. Per usual, history teaches us the way; we’ve just forgotten.  


1 For more on Keshishian and Lemkin,see  Mouradian, Khatchig. "'With the Ink of Their Blood': Lemkin's Armenian Collaborators and the Genocide Convention." The Armenian Weekly. 29 April, 2021.

2 Born Aspet Papakhian in Latakia, Syria, Papakhian moved to the US when his father took on this role at St. Sarkis, after having earlier served in Beirut, Qamishli and Latakia. His father Souren had been born in Khatchalouys, north of Lake Van, while his mother Shoushanig Tchaparian in Hama, Syria. “St. SarkisHistory.”; “Shoushan Papakhian” U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015.

3 Although not Armenian herself (having taken her stepfather’s surname), Hagopian initially fretted over running for an officer position because of her Armenian name and the organization’s chauvinism and biases that some members alleged even privileged those who "looked" more Arab.

Author bio

Thomas Simsarian Dolan is currently an American Council of Learned Societies Emerging Voices Fellow in Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University, and Faculty Affiliate in the University of Florida’s Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship. His research focuses on MENA migrations across the Atlantic World, and especially the racialization of these migrants across academia, popular culture and the law. His work has been supported by a range of national organizations, as well as the Bentley Historical Library and Dr. Philip M. Kayal Fund for Arab American Research. Notable current leadership positions include Academic Advisor to the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition, Board Member of SAG-AFTRA’s National MENA Committee, Yale Arab Alumni Association, and Co-Coordinator of the Critical SWANA Diaspora Studies section in the Association for Asian American Studies. He previously completed a year as a Fulbright U.S. Teaching Scholar in History at American University in Cairo, after earning degrees from George Washington University, Yale and NYU.

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