Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Questions of identity and community, in the aftermath of genocide

There Was and There Was Not, Meline Toumani

A few weeks ago I read an article in The New Yorker by Raffi Khatchadourian, "A Century of Silence."  The subtitle is "A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath."  I knew of the Armenian genocide, but I knew little beyond that, and I found this an excellent introduction, and a very moving personal story (unfortunately now behind a paywall).  I had not known that the genocide began 100 years ago this month, on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of 200 prominent Armenian men in Istanbul, most of whom were later killed.  Mr. Khatchadourian wrote about traveling to Turkey, to the town of Diyarbakir where his father was born.  There city officials have rebuilt an Armenian church, left in ruins in 1915, where the Easter services were held last year for the first time in almost a century.

Shortly after reading the article, I saw a blurb about this book and added it immediately to my library list.  I can't find the blurb now, but here is the cover synopsis:
     Meline Toumani grew up in a close-knit Armenian community in New Jersey where Turkish restaurants were shunned and anything made in Turkey boycotted.  Diaspora life revolved around commemorating the 1915 genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government, a history Turkey still works hard to cover up and minimize.
     Frustrated by the all-consuming nature of her community's quest for genocide recognition, Toumani decided to do the unthinkable: pick up and move to Istanbul.  Instead of demonizing Turks, she set out to understand them, finding her way over four years into a series of extraordinary conversations that were taboo and sometimes illegal.  There Was and There Was Not offers a vivid picture of Turkish society in the throes of change, and an intimate portrait of a writer coming to terms with the issues that drove her halfway across the world.
     Told with eloquence and power, Toumani's far-reaching quest probes universal questions: how to belong to a community without conforming to it, how to acknowledge a tragedy without exploiting it, and, most important, how to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place.
This turned out to be very timely reading indeed, since on Sunday Pope Francis celebrated a Mass commemorating the genocide, with Armenian church leaders.  He used the word "genocide," and the Turkish government responded by immediately recalling its ambassador to the Vatican.  Commentators have suggested that the Pope's actions may cause problems for the Vatican's relations with the Arab world.

Meline Toumani's book is not about the genocide itself.  In fact, I was glad to have read The New Yorker article first, for the background information it gave me.  Nor does it focus on her family's experiences in it, because her immediate family, living in Iran, had no direct connection with it.  She came with her parents and two sisters to the United States in 1979, just before the Islamic Revolution.  Her parents quickly sought out the local Armenian community, which Ms. Toumani describes as divided on many points, such as Armenia's relations with Russia and a confusing theological split over the murder of an Armenian archbishop in Chicago in 1933 (assassinated in church on Christmas Eve by fellow Armenians).  However, they unite in hatred of Turkey, and insistence on the recognition of the genocide.

Over the years, Ms. Toumani came to question that single-minded focus: "I began to wonder whether our obsession with genocide recognition was worth its emotional and psychological price."  She "could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering, because it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide."  That feeling led to her first visit to Turkey, in 2005:
I could no longer live with the idea that I was supposed to hate, fear, and fight against an entire nation and people . . . I came because being Armenian had come to feel like a choke hold, a call to conformity, and I could find no greater way to act against this and to claim a sense of myself as an individual than to come here, the last and most forbidden place.
But it wasn't until she came to Turkey, both on that first visit and later to stay, researching this book, that she began to understand just how deep the denial of the genocide runs in Turkey, not just as its official policy but among its citizens.  In Istanbul, and in her travels around Turkey, she met a wide range of people from the country's three main ethnic groups, Turks, Armenians and Kurds.  She also traveled into Armenia, a country about which I knew absolutely nothing before reading this book.  In Turkey, she tried to start conversations about Armenians and the genocide, but as she admits, soon "I was doing the very opposite of what I set out to do: not listening but trying to persuade."  Eventually, facing that denial, as well as the negative portrayals of Armenians in the media, the constant unthinking prejudice that she encountered every day, became too much for her, and she returned to the United States.  She came back still wrestling with questions of identity and of the place of the genocide in the Armenian consciousness.

I found this book fascinating, on so many levels: as an introduction to the Armenian diaspora, as a window into Turkey and Armenia, as a meditation on identity (both individual and collective). It feels like a brave book, when writing or speaking about the genocide can bring the wrath of Turkish officials, or even murder by extremists.  On her first visit to Istanbul, Ms. Toumani met Hrant Dink, the editor of an Armenian newspaper in the city, whose murder two years later on the street outside his office led to "Je Suis Charlie"- style protests.  But Ms. Toumani also risked alienating friends and family by moving to Istanbul, associating with Turks, and questioning the focus on the genocide.  And there are extremists among the Armenian community as well, which led to bombing campaigns against Turkish targets in the 1980s.


  1. I saw that Pope Francis has called out the Armenian genocide, and I had heard that Turkey was reeeeeally mad about it. It's interesting -- I don't know anything about the history there, except that there was a genocide, and Turkey denies it. I really need to read a proper book about it!

    1. I was in the exact same boat, Jenny, & I feel like I learned so much from this and the article. The book has a list for further reading that includes some more general books.

  2. "I began to wonder whether our obsession with genocide recognition was worth its emotional and psychological price." - such an interesting point, isn't it, when faced with so much trauma. The statement by the Pope noted the massacre as the first of the big three of the 20th century, which only increases that intangible sense of survivor guilt. Holocaust denial remains a sadly familiar narrative. That sounds a very interesting book.

  3. I am always so amazed that anyone can seriously deny the Holocaust took place, in the face of so much evidence, and people's testimony - it just boggles my mind. I have the same reaction to people who argue that our civil war had nothing to do with slavery. With the Armenian genocide, I am also amazed at the lengths that Turkey has gone to deny it - and still does.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!