Between 1915 and 1923, more than 1 million
Armenians were likely killed in Ottoman Turkey. An additional million fled or survived deportation to the Syrian desert. These are the facts that drive Meline Toumani’s clear-eyed, nuanced memoir, “There Was and There Was Not.” Toumani, an Armenian-American born in Tehran, grapples with her people’s tragic history, as well as the “chokehold” she says it had on her identity, in her most forbidden of all places: Istanbul.
Toumani describes a childhood centered on the Hai Tahd, a term translated as the Armenian cause. Fifty weeks a year she lived an American life in a northern New Jersey suburb, but she looked forward to her two weeks at Camp Haiastan in Franklin.
Throughout this intensely Armenian childhood, Toumani was keenly aware of her world’s hatred of all things Turkish. “As the diaspora evolved and assimilated, the only thing that everybody agreed on was that the Turks hated us and we hated the Turks. This trumped everything.”
This hatred came to a head for her on April 24, 1998, at the observance of Armenian Genocide Memorial Day at the University of California at Berkeley, where Toumani was then a senior. A Turkish professor of Middle Eastern studies and a student manning a table of Armenian literature got into a screaming match bordering on a physical confrontation. Toumani, who witnessed the dispute, realizes that her “contempt for Turkey” is part of a toxic narrative of what happened between the Turks and Armenians, a series of historical facts still officially denied by Turkey. It rattles her, and she asks, “What other hazards of perception, what other false assumptions were at play between Armenians and Turks?”
For Toumani the answers to that question could be found only in Turkey. On her first trip there in 2003 she describes how she became keenly aware of the country’s official account of the time, which portrays Armenians as traitors to the 500-year-old Ottoman Empire.
Toumani’s title reflects what is at stake in her book. “There was and there was not,” is both an Armenian and Turkish phrase that illustrates the intersection of these cultures and points to “the layers and complexities of truth in a given story [as well as] the subordination of a storyteller to the tale she tells.”
On Toumani’s second trip to Turkey in 2006 she settles in Istanbul for two years and also visits outlying areas searching vainly for acknowledgments of Armenian history. She learns Turkish hoping to engage in frank discussions about the Armenian genocide with local historians, journalists, academics, and activists.
Among those whom she befriends is Hrant Dink, an Armenian Turkish editor of the influential minority paper Agos. Dink’s outspoken editorials on Armenian issues had made him a defendant in a number of lawsuits accusing him of insulting the Turkish nation. His assassination by a Turkish national in January 2007 generated temporary unity with signs that proclaimed, “We are all Hrant. We are all Armenians.”
Toumani’s Turkish sojourn also takes place against the backdrop of a controversial essay that she wrote for The Nation in 2004. In that piece she contended that the Armenian diaspora’s “obsession with genocide recognition” had become synonymous with hatred for Turkey. She believed that this preoccupation was detrimental to a post-Soviet Armenia, which could benefit economically from diplomatic relations with Turkey.
In her memoir, Toumani admits that this thesis may have been flawed, but she says it was “as close as I could come to finding an argument that would justify a feeling I didn’t know how to defend; that our obsession with 1915 was destroying us.”
As Toumani bravely exposes the fissures in her thinking about identity, she is also cautiously optimistic that Turks are moving toward recognizing what happened in 1915. As she writes, on this year’s genocide memorial day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly noted that the year 1915 was significant for Armenians as well as others. Perhaps Erdogan’s tacit acknowledgment is an illustration of another Armenian saying explained in Toumani’s moving memoir: that water — a symbol of truth and clarity — “will always find cracks it can flow through.”Judy Bolton-Fasman can be reached at www.thejudy