Book Review: There Was and There Was Not

A comprehensive review of Meline Toumani's book, There Was and There Was Not.

Originally published on The Armenite.

Meline Toumani writes in There Was and There Was Not about her life in the Armenian Diaspora, Turkey, and the experiences she has while searching for depth in her identity.

In the film Pleasantville, the residents of a perfect American town live blissfully in a colorless world. Everything follows an order, life is simple, and everything is, literally, black and white. That’s until two visitors from a parallel universe come to town and one of them has sex – unknown in Pleasantville – with one of the townsfolk. Things are no longer monochromatic; they slowly gain color. They are rejected, as change usually is, but Pleasantville continues to colorize.

Meline Toumani is an author looking for color.

In her first book, There Was and There Was Not, Toumani describes her feeling that Armenian identity is limited by genocide recognition; in her view, it has become all-consuming. “To me, it came to mean that I could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering,” she writes. “ …it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide.”

Uninhibited and even admitting to her lack of certainty occasionally, Toumani indulges us in a way uncommon among the overly reserved or overly confident discussants of Armenian issues. In this regard, she is unique.

She goes down the rabbit hole, questions herself and her reality, and for that she must be commended. She asks if the genocide recognition movement costs Armenians more than it is worth, a valid question for a new generation of Armenians who live in a different world than when the movement first began. There is indeed good reason for the ongoing pursuit of genocide recognition – some of which she encounters on her journey – and that is precisely why it should be asked: so young Armenians understand its logic rather than assume the mindless repetition which so infuriates Toumani.

There are times, however, when the book reads more like the diary entry of a person interested in a topic yet unfamiliar with the nuances of the argument. There are many complicated issues she broaches without much preparation: the border between Armenia and Turkey, closed by the latter; the Karabakh War and its consequences; even genocide recognition itself. Toumani is a journalist, not an expert. Her observations are sharp but they cannot be considered holistic nor necessarily representative.

She begins by describing various episodes during her life in the Armenia Diaspora and how they start to overwhelm her, pushing her to choose between false dichotomies: Was the “Lisbon 5” right or wrong? Was she with the Armenians or against them at UC Berkeley after an altercation with a Genocide denier?

An experience she has in Times Square in New York presents the mechanized rhetoric of some activists in the genocide recognition movement when she encounters “a script so familiar” that she could recite it in her sleep. She becomes motivated by the idea that “our obsession with 1915 was destroying us.”

Feeling suffocated, she wants to escape her Diaspora reality and face what is the subject of it for her: the Turk; so, she goes to Turkey.

Toumani takes us through her taxing journey in this post-genocidal country as a Diaspora Armenian, with all the psychological accoutrements, but with the conviction to try. Toumani meets with Turkish citizens of every stripe: socialists, Kurds, “White Turks,” nationalists, revisionists, intellectuals, historians, faux-historians, townsfolk, and urbanites.

She shares with us the neuroses felt by an Armenian living among Turks: do you tell them you’re Armenian? Are they judging you when you do? Do they care? Should you treat her differently because she’s a Turk? Should you find out their views about the Genocide before deciding whether or not you like them? And the exhaustion this exercise, repeated, causes a person – which ultimately becomes her motivation for moving back to the U.S.

While living there, however, it becomes clear that Toumani is a woman who wants Turkey to have a reckoning with the Genocide and its consequences — she just doesn’t understand how it should be done, though she’s there to try and find out.

But, most significantly, for all the questions she has about the wisdom of genocide recognition – the catalyst of this book – she is either oblivious or consciously fails to acknowledge that the fascinating journey she describes in her book is a direct result of it.

Taking a cue from scholars who eschew the supposed flagrance and simplicity of those who insist that a genocide should be called a genocide – scholars she exalts like Fatma Muge Gocek and Ronald Grigor Suny – she blatantly avoids connecting the dots.

Gocek, for example, would not be studying the Genocide were it not for the radical Diasporans Toumani was trying to leave behind on her adventure. As people who want the status quo to change without erasing the history of the Genocide, neither Toumani nor Gocek concern themselves with acknowledging the impact of the genocide recognition movement on their objectives.

The unfortunate reality is that Turks and Turkey ignored, neglected, or altogether dismissed the Genocide except when forced to confront it, each time as a consequence of force, whether violent or nonviolent.

That forceful radicalism began with the Armed Struggle, which Toumani limits to a discussion about the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), branding it as terrorism, and moving on. She does not bother with the more conscious, if no less violent, manifestations of that movement, starting with Gourgen Yanikian.

It was only after this period of violence that Turkey suddenly remembered the Armenian Genocide – but continued its policy of absolute denial, methodically continuing to expunge the memory of Armenians from their historic homeland. It then became a test of the wills: Would Armenians submit to anything but what they knew to be true? For those who wouldn’t, several standoffs would ensue over “that dreaded word,” as Toumani describes it: genocide. And the genocide recognition movement was born.

Toumani fails to acknowledge, though, that without the genocide recognition movement, the countervailing Turkish denial movement would eventually be successful in completely destroying a significant part of the Armenian culture for which she expresses sincere love.

Her treatment of the sustained collective rage of Armenians that manifested itself in the Armed Struggle but that also motivated sustained nonviolent pursuits like genocide recognition is so simplistic it borders on the offensive. She even asks early on whether there is “a way to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place.” Really? To compare the eradication of a people from their historic homeland, the attempted intentional erasure of their history, and the incredible psychosis that made it all possible to nationalistic rhetoric and the assassination of officials tasked with continuing a policy of genocide through denial, its last stage, is embarrassing. Perpetual rage is the least that could be expected following the otherworldly proportions of the destruction of the Armenian Nation and the resounding global silence that accompanied it.

It is easy to see cracks in Turkey’s vehement revisionism – which Toumani acknowledges – as well as novelties like the “apology campaign” and Genocide commemorations in Turkey, in distinct vacuums that are a natural consequence of time. But they’re not.

After all, she describes in detail how scrupulously Turkey had moved to eliminate any trace of Armenians from the history of the land where she lived for two years. What would motivate such a shameless institution to take any step toward acknowledging this thing it was trying so vociferously to forget and make others forget but an intransigent and determined foe? It is this very same foe who challenges the Turkish-flag-draped-Ataturk-photo-adorned gestures at reconciliation Toumani experienced, which cause peaceniks and international capitalists the world over to lose themselves in gleeful exuberance.

Ironically, or maybe not, it is a Turkish acquaintance of Toumani who succinctly explains why genocide recognition is important: “The fundamental principles of the Turkish state…could not be changed by anything that was less powerful than the state itself…The only power Turkey would respond to was power from more powerful countries. To that end, Washington had to pass a genocide resolution.”

Although she spends less time on understanding the genocide recognition movement than she should, Toumani gives us a welcome look into a multifaceted Turkish society with diverse people who believe different things. But here, too, she parses her time, energy, and interest into blocks that leave one side of the story unexplored. While the reader learns about Turkey, he is left with the false impression that Armenians are a monolithic mass, bumbling through life with singular purpose – genocide recognition – and its supposed consequence: hate toward all things Turkish.

Toumani does not grant the same immersion and reflection to Armenians as she does to Turks and her book is weaker for it. She grew up in the Diaspora, around Armenians, and we are asked to accept that this is sufficient for an understanding of the Armenian Diaspora’s reality. It’s not.

She goes to Turkey with a mission, interviewing people of every persuasion and even meeting with former denialist-in-chief, the head of the Turkish Historical Society, Yusuf Halacoglu. She travels the country, from Istanbul to Ankara to Bursa to Diyarbekir. But, a similarly deep and methodical immersion into the Armenian reality, not as a participant but as a researcher, escapes Toumani’s project.

She does not take the time to explore why Diaspora Armenians have their chants, their rhetoric, and their radical lectures. She is so obsessed with how her identity fits alongside the Turkish paradigm, she takes for granted her understanding of the Armenian paradigm.

Toumani writes so honestly that it might make you cringe because she openly challenges what she thinks – and what you think – and lets you in on her exploratory venture. That’s why I waited hopefully for her to have a reckoning with her past troubles in the Diaspora, for her to open herself to her formative, if disdained, experiences in the Diaspora the way she freely entered Turkey with a readiness to challenge her beliefs. But it never came.

The point here was not for her to get on the genocide-recognition-is-the-most-important-thing train and repent for questioning whether this was a worthwhile endeavor. On the contrary, her interest in exploring the vastness of Armenian culture without somehow tying it to the Genocide is and should be welcome. The point is that she uses genocide recognition as a scapegoat for why other areas of Armenian culture and history are neglected but she makes little to no effort to rescind any of her initial assertions despite experiences which suggest that would have been appropriate. And, she leaves the reader thinking she didn’t really change her mind much.

Toumani never articulates fully what her conclusion is after all those experiences. She alludes, in the end, to the same hope that her willing self couldn’t realize when she writes, “How much texture and complexity are sacrificed, lost when we retreat to our trenches?”

This is the book’s major flaw. After a gripping, if uncomfortable, account, Toumani offers no defined conclusion. Perhaps this is her way of saying that, for her, it’s not as black and white as this issue is so often presented. I reject that suggestion.

She is frank about her experiences in Turkey, and her difficulties despite her open-mindedness, like her admission that “[n]ot only were people more intolerant than I expected, but my own prejudices had not gone away, either.” This leads her to retreat into the same trench she laments after her return to the United States but which seemed so fitting for a country where respect – and happiness, it seems – is reserved for the Turk; where rights are reserved for the Turk; where history is reserved for the Turk.

Toumani sees not the banality of strict dichotomy – that is, between genocide and not genocide – but its necessity. She does not go to cafes and sit in taxis ready to blurt out “GENOCIDE!” at any denier she crosses paths with, but she is firm in her convictions and unforgiving when it comes to their denial. Why does she end on such a placid note, devoid of the verve that motivated her adventure? My only guess is that she herself has not reached a conclusion. She knows that the world she grew up in was imperfect but perhaps she realizes that not only is it a part of her, she has not completely renounced it.

Or, she may be telling us something without betraying a plain admission: that she believes in the cause of genocide recognition. She ends the first part of the book quoting Leonardo Alishan and his thought on artistic objectivity – “the ability to see a problem or an experience from multiple points of view, to tell a story for the sake of a deeper understanding, not to further an agenda. To inhabit the mind of the villain as fully as that of the victim” – a concept she seems deeply concerned with.

Alishan, she notes, said that genocide recognition was necessary before artistic objectivity is achieved because a fuller exploration of the depths of the Genocide could not be explored without this “coming to terms” on the part of Turkey. Is this not a wish for Turkey to recognize the Genocide so she and others can express themselves about aspects of the Genocide – as she did in a New York Times article about Gomidas Vartabed – without having to concern herself with the usage of a single word? It is this basic tenet – that genocide recognition is necessary – which she presents as the core impetus for this book but which is neither vindicated nor rejected in the end.

Toumani wants to find a new paradigm, one that allows her the comfort of knowing what she does about the Genocide and about her Armenian identity, while allowing her the freedom she desperately seeks as a creative mind, as someone who resents limits. That is why her invaluable experience, not shared by many a Diaspora Armenian, could have done with some coup de grace for the tropes she has worked to transcend. Rather, we’re left with a timid end, unlike the ferocity of her head-to-head encounter with the security guard at Bursa’s soccer stadium during the Armenia-Turkey soccer match.

Even if the book could have been better, it is encouraging to know that a young Armenian-American spent several years so devoted to an issue about contemporary Armenian identity – and then wrote a book about it.

The questions she asks of herself and of others resonate with someone raised in an immigrant American household, adapting to new customs and ways with little familial direction. I may have expected that her politics would lead her to the tired end of many formerly devout Armenian youth whose disenchantment with one aspect or another of their imposed identity leads them astray, into the arms of a more welcoming, more easy life, one without the burden of cultural and linguistic preservation, replaced with the Epicurean fantasy-cum-reality in adopted Western homes. They haven’t. Toumani enjoys being Armenian. She just wants to be Armenian on her own terms.

However incomplete her story, Toumani cannot be accused of going off the reservation. She lambastes the Turkish insistence on the “false equivalence of experience” and reproaches US president Barack Obama’s failure to call the Genocide a genocide, as he promised, calling his decision to use the phrase Meds Yeghern an “absurd maneuver, almost grotesque in its contrived, contorted way.” She’s not ready to dismiss the genocide recognition movement, she’s just unhappy about its effect on her and the limitations it placed on her “expressive freedom.”

Toumani should be credited with exploring a middle ground that few have been able to do with much success. Often, others who want to assert their independence from the current Armenian paradigm behave like a graduate of Catholic high school moving away from home for university, engaging in a philosophical bacchanalia of sorts. Toumani hardly leaves that impression. She questions her beliefs and those of others but she doesn’t sell them off simply because she isn’t sure whether she accepts their logic.

The ultimate value of this book is that questioning what you are taught to find a logic in it or, even, to prove it wrong, is important in intellectual development. There are many ideas in life to which we are devoted because they are either a residue of what we learned when we were young or because communal and societal rhetoric call for them. Occasionally, the response by the inquisitive is to reject this idea like a rebellious adolescent. Toumani displays enough maturity to spare us this sort of puerile nonsense. The truth is that collective belief in an idea produces no inherent falsity in that idea. However, the veracity or sensibility of an idea, like genocide recognition, should not make it immune to pursuing a deeper understanding about it nor should it become an impediment to other aspects of history, philosophy, culture, or identity. In leaving ourselves open, we might find, like Toumani, that there is a reason to the madness.