Meline Toumani’s “There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond” is arguably one of the more critically acclaimed Armenian Genocide themed books to come along in years. It has been nominated as a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Awards in the category of autobiography and has garnered an impressive array of glowing reviews from publications ranging from The New York Times to The Economist. Having signed with the imprint Metropolitan/Henry Holt/Picador, part of the McMillan family of book publishers, Toumani has major muscle behind promoting the memoir. Her appearances on various radio talk shows, television programs and a recent high profile Op-Ed have had two overtly consistent themes- 1. Armenians need to get over the issue of Armenian Genocide recognition and 2. They have been brought up to indiscriminately hate Turks. Yet, as many strain to recall exactly who Meline Toumani is, her book has been met with some interest, some anger, and a whole lot of blank stares within the Armenian community.
The main premise of the book is fairly straight forward, while its implications rather sharp. A story in three parts, Toumani takes us through her Armenian American younger years, her time in Turkey and Armenia, and then a final section in the United States where she reflects on her recent experiences and gives us a big reveal. In her early life, Toumani has conflicted feelings on how to view Turks given her preconceived notions. Those notions, she contends, was that of an irrational discomfort and hatred of Turks, introduced and nurtured by the Armenian community both in the immediate and the abstract. As she approached her mid to late 20’s, her intellectual curiosity kicked in and she decided to confront those awkward feelings. In 2005, she takes a spur of the moment trip to Turkey and ends up spending approximately four years there attempting to get beyond the hatred of Turks to understand them, study them, and get over her own prejudices. Toumani then spends a small amount of time in Armenia before returning to Turkey and then “shuts down her science project” and returns to the U.S. in order to write her book. The actual “journey” is not her Turkish wanderlust, rather, her emotional and intellectual evolution during this period of her life. One part catharsis, the other part an act of understanding the Turkish people.
It is during her time in Turkey that Toumani’s book shines. Her storytelling flows, is inspired, and we are taken into a world many of us have never seen. The highlight of the book is her banter with Yusuf Halacoglu, president of the Turkish Historical Society who was entrusted with creating(*) and upholding the official Turkish revisionist history on the Armenian genocide. This riveting section details a duel of wills between Toumani and Halacoglu over history, perception, and debate acumen. She then visits the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations where the word “Armenian” simply doesn’t exist and the official reopening of the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island, which had a circus-like atmosphere in which virtually no Diasporan-Armenians attended. Interspersed between these anecdotes is a travelogue-like narrative where Toumani is in and out of Istanbul and Eastern Turkey. She details interactions with the likes of Hrant Dink (for one hour), the Agos staff, Kurds, Turks, and Armenians alike. I found it all exceptional storytelling and quite inspired. I could genuinely feel the sincerity and purpose with which she took on the “project.”
Yet, as with any storytelling, perspective is important as well as extremely subjective. What is also fascinating is to what length one will go to convey that perspective. The landmark 1950 Japanese Jidaigeki film “Rashomon” by legendary director Akira Kurosawa comes to mind. In the film, a tragic event occurs and is retold through the point of view of four different witnesses. Toumani’s perspective should be taken in the same light, one of many, with underlying reasons for her narrative. She is neither right nor wrong, there was and there was not. Toumani’s reasons begin to reveal themselves throughout the course of the book in a rather unexpected fashion. Toumani believes that those vigorously pursuing Armenian genocide resolutions may be harming Armenia’s relationship with Turkey and are using “hateful rhetoric” in order to chase ghosts of the past. Additionally, she does not believe in the process with which governments legislate terminology as it applies to historical events. In a single breath, Toumani wishes Turkey would admit to the genocide while arguing against putting political pressure on that country to force an acknowledgement. It’s one of many contradictions in her book. One would argue that Armenians using constant international political pressure have been effective in forcing Turkey down the path of its inevitable mea culpa. Others may see it differently. Toumani is in the latter camp. In her piece entitled “‘With This Madness, What Art Could There Be?’” (The Nation, October 21, 2014) , Toumani asks “ I wondered whether obsession with genocide recognition was worth its emotional and psychological price.”
As a former New York Times journalist, Toumani flaunts the use of source materials to assert her objectivity and credibility. In the second chapter of the book entitled, “Summer Camp, Franklin, Massachusetts, 1989” Toumani informs us that she has stumbled upon some rather important documents- summer camp newsletters from her youth. Within these newsletters, she selectively focuses on the feelings of 8 to 19 year olds and what they wrote in these “Hai Lites.” She chooses to extract passages that portray children and teenagers as being singularly obsessed with Armenian Genocide themes. “Many of the newsletter entries imagined genocide,” Toumani writes. “Poems told of orphaned children ‘A red, so red/drips so endless/Why, Daddy? Why?’ or national liberation ‘ but just when they think they’ve got us all/we will rebuild/ One day an Armenian will find another, and red, blue, and orange will raise high/ And not another Armenian will have to cry.’ “ She continues with a few more passages citing these camp newsletters during her specific stint in 1989. In my own examination of these documents, I found the genocide themes the exception rather than the rule contradicting her claim. With each sentence, Toumani paints an improbable picture of a summer camp that seems normal from the outside, yet within its confines, is a place where children are taught to hate Turks through the use of basic history lessons, Ottoman era revolutionary songs taught within context, and guest lectures. This, in between swimming, games, arts and crafts and other routine summer camp activities. Toumani’s deliberately dark undertones in portraying the camp when she was a teenager are intentionally ominous. She uses it as a clever, and misleading, literary device moving forward.
The bombshell story from this chapter she has written about, talked about, and actively promoted in the press is where a guest lecturer was invited to discuss the Lisbon 5 incident (1983) on “Debate Night.” She contends that the lecturer moderated a discussion on the validity of whether such tactics (a suicide bombing) were useful in gaining Armenian genocide recognition during that timeframe (the 1980’s). Towards the end of the debate as things were getting heated, a counselor from San Francisco stepped in and shrieked, “you people are all crazy.” The debate abruptly ends, according to Toumani’s account. A controversial topic to be sure, but not outside the realm of what is teachable and debatable amongst young adults given I was learning about Nazi hunters in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the bombing of Japanese during WW2, and slavery during that age when I was going to middle and high school. When I read the Lisbon 5 passage, I was startled. Not so much as to the story, but more to the fact that I was on staff when Meline was a camper in the summer of 1989. I did not recall this incident during that timeframe. I had heard a version of this story a few months before the publication of Toumani’s book. It was mere coincidence that the person who was recalling this incident was the “counselor from San Francisco” in a casual conversation reminiscing about the past. So, like Toumani, I referred to the camp newsletters and verified that the people she was referencing never in fact attended during the time frame (1989) she quoted in her book. This lecture happened in 1990 but with a tone a bit different than the tale that Toumani tells. Whether Toumani’s error in retelling a story and the dates involved may have been as simple as streamlining her experiences to fit the confines of her book, or sloppy fact checking of summer camp newsletters from a former New York Times journalist, it is nevertheless irresponsible due to the fact that she was looking at the same source materials I was.
As the chapters roll on, another reveal begins. She looks down on many aspects of her ethnic identity. While waiting at the Istanbul airport, she writes, “Standing apart from the merchants, there was usually also a few slender Armenian girls in skintight jeans, amply rogued, with silky long hair, wearing stiletto heels and tank tops, fake breasts distorting fake logos and suggesting a different kind of goods for sale. Yes, here they were, my people.” Or about the work that the Armenian National Committee does, “Claims that human rights were at stake seemed disingenuous; and when Armenian lobbying groups yoked the cause to a platform of saving Darfur, it seemed motivated more by PR than conscious.” Lastly, Toumani’s take on community events, “I had attended awful theater by Armenian playwrights in which young actors faked the accents of genocide survivors in kitschy attempts at representing trauma, tugging the heartstrings of audiences who handed them over expectantly, as if in a prearranged bargain.” Her list of targets also includes Armenian men, Hayastantsi Armenian women, Turkish Armenians of Istanbul, Armenian student clubs, Armenian political organizations, Armenian lobbyists, Armenian volunteers, the city of Yerevan, to anything else you can imagine. It’s in the book, and it’s downright weird. What is clear is that she is above all of it.
In the final section of this memoir, Meline Toumani drops another bombshell on the audience. The big reveal, as it were. She has moved on from being part of a community to evolving into an individual. Justifying a controversial decision she made omitting the word “genocide” from her 2008 NY Times article on Komitas, she writes, “I received an e-mail from an Armenian colleague asking me why I had not used the word genocide. He wanted to know whether I had made that decision or whether the paper had declined to use it. In truth, the choice was mine. After thinking about it for a long time, longer than I spent on the article itself, I had decided to avoid the word.” The ultimate irony here is that Komitas became mute and lost his mind as a direct consequence of being a witness to the Armenian genocide. It was the defining part of his life as both a victim and survivor.
Meline Toumani is an author who wants it all. She is apolitical yet plays petty politics. She disassociates herself from the Armenian community but uses “we” and “us” when it is to her commercial advantage. She wants to be that independent observer yet can’t help being the story. In her April 17, 2015 NY Times piece entitled “We Armenian Should Not Define Us,” Toumani comes out swinging against everyone from Kim Kardashian, ANC’s Aram Hamparian, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan to two of the Armenian diaspora’s largest newspapers, Asbarez and Armenian Weekly. Again, a victim. She writes in the NY Times op-ed, “Armenian culture is deeply conservative, even prudish, so there could be no less likely hero for this tiny nation and its diaspora than a woman who is perhaps known for her outlandish personal life and erotically charged public image.”
“There Was and There Was Not” cannot be recommended. She throws out some provocative ideas but never really follows through with fleshing them out. Her scope throughout the book is too narrow, her assertions lack context, and her tone is acerbic and arrogant. She lacks credibility in areas where heavy-handed statements are made, as in her throwaway statement on Nagorno-Karabakh. I suspect many of the reviewers fawning over the book have taken Toumani at face value and construed her opinions as fact. Well-written press releases and a nice universal story can do that sometimes. However, what is more disturbing is the way this book has been marketed. In her own mind and in the eyes of her publisher, Meline Toumani has emerged a hero after suffering as a victim of alienation from the Armenian community. She and her marketing team have set out to blame the victim and portray them as genocide obsessed simpletons in order to conjure up sales. An old marketing trick, controversy sells. Those who don’t like it are considered “close minded,” “ultra-nationalists,” and “lack nuance,” a calculated response to brush away valid criticisms. And yet, for an author who bemoans the politicization and commercialization of the Armenian genocide, she has chosen to release the book during the general timeframe of the centennial. Commerce has no shame.
During my latest visit to Armenia in April and May 2015, I was inspired by what I saw around me. Whether they were past colleagues, old summer camp connections, friends, or new acquaintances, the sheer scope of people in Armenia was impressive. Some were building a new life there while others, like me, were there to salute the living while paying respect to the dead. Nation builders, entrepreneurs, musicians, thinkers, technology innovators, etc. were all transforming Armenia in the present. Today. Right now. The mood in Armenia was upbeat, positive, and determined. A few days after April 24, I passed by a familiar spot on Abovyan called Artbridge Bookstore Café. There was a book reading and signing taking place. It was Meline Toumani hawking her book to a very small handful of people. Without missing a beat, I kept walking.
"Asbarez," June 1, 2015
(*) Actually, Halacoglu did not create Turkish revisionist history. As the long-term president of the Turkish Historical Society, the guardian of "official" history, he was entrusting with the task of upholding revisionism ("Armeniaca").