As I’ve mentioned in the past, historical subjects sometimes track me down, screaming “learn more about me, dagnabbit!”
Over the last few years, the Armenian genocide *–and the controversies surrounding the existence of that genocide in modern Turkey–has been tracking me down in an on-again off-again way.
I first became aware of the genocide, and the controversy surrounding them in Turkey, when I read Elif Shafak’s brilliant novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (2007). Then a freelance assignment or two plunged me into the subject of arrests of publishers, journalists and authors on accusations of violating Turkey’s controversial** article 301, which makes it illegal to insult “Turkishness”. Thousands of authors, including Shafak and Nobel-prize winner Orhan Pamuk, were arrested for statements regarding the genocide. Next up was My Grandmother: A Memoir ( 2004), in which Turkish lawyer and civil rights activist Fethiye Çetin tells the story of her grandmother’s experience as one of the “leftovers of the sword” who survived the Ottoman massacre and was subsequently adopted into a Turkish home.
I thought I had a handle on the topic. I thought I wouldn’t read anything else on the subject. Then Meline Toumani’s There Was and There was Not floated across my desk as a possible book for review.
In 2005, Armenian-American journalist Meline Toumani traveled to Turkey, a place she had previously known only as “a terrifying idea”, with the intention of studying Armenian-Turkey relations for a month or two, three at the most.. She stayed two years–with the help of regular “visa runs” over the border. The result of her immersion in a culture she had been trained to “hate, fear and fight” is There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond: an engaging and deeply personal exploration of ethnicity, nationalism, history and identity.
The conflicting Armenian and Turkish narratives regarding the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 defined the Armenian diaspora community of Toumani’s childhood. On the one hand, Turkey has historically denied that the massacre existed, or at best minimized the scale of the deaths. On the other hand, the Armenian community focuses substantially energy on campaigns designed to pressure the Turkish government to recognize the massacre as genocide. Toumani had reached the point where the dominance of the genocide narrative felt like an artistic and emotional chokehold. She set out to Turkey in an attempt to answer two questions: how could she honor her history without being suffocated by it and why did Turks cling to their version of the events of 1915?
Toumani brings the reader along on a voyage of discovery that begins with her growing doubts about the emotional, psychological and political costs of the Armenian diaspora’s focus on Turkish recognition of the genocide and ends with Toumani defying rules about neutrality in the press box by screaming her support of Armenia at a World Cup match between Armenia and Istanbul. She tells a story riddled with unreliable narrators, unreliable listeners, lost memories, lost history, false assumptions, and real places transformed by the imagination. She establishes the constantly shifting ground of her experience with the first sentence: her plane lands in Turkey and she realizes she has never imagined Turkey as a physical place. She is stunned by Turkey’s beauty, charmed by what she describes as the “particular sweetness of Turkish manners” and actively enjoys learning the Turkish language. (The contrast between Toumani’s phobia about speaking Armenian and her delight in learning Turkish is typical of her skilled use of irony and reversal to enrich her narrative.). At the same time, she is repeatedly dismayed and occasionally enraged by the ways in which Turkey erases traces of the Armenian past: the opening ceremony of a newly renovated Armenian church as a UNESCO world heritage site that makes no reference to Armenians, a museum visit in which she discovers that hundreds of years of Armenian civilization in Anatolia*** don’t appear on the timeline or the map, brochures and travel guides that describe Armenian artifacts in southeastern Turkey but never identify them as Armenian.
Moving between Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, Toumani shares her experiences of events as important as the assassination of Turkish-born Armenian journalist and civil rights activist Hrant Dink and as small as the street vendors who call their wares on the street outside her apartment. She finds friends and allies among the Turkish activists, journalists, scholars and lawyers who have taken up the Armenian issue, often at the risk of prison or worse. She speaks to millionaires, dentists and cab drivers, Turkish scholars dedicated to cooperating across ethnic lines and Turkey’s official historian, Turkish Armenians and Armenians from the former Soviet republic, Kurds, Turkish nationalists and an ethnic Turk who refuses to identify himself as Turkish. She encounters Turks who are uncomfortable with the fact that she is Armenian and Turks who struggle to find a point of connection (described by Toumani as the “narcissism of small similarities”).
Over the course of the book, the clear-cut oppositions with which Toumani begins her project –Armenian and Turk, individual and community, denial and recognition, political and personal—become more nuanced. Even the unity of the Armenian community itself becomes more complex as she examines the different concerns of the Armenian diaspora, Turkish Armenians (described by members of the diaspora community as Bolsahay–a term that avoids describing them as Turkish ), and citizens of the Republic of Armenia, the different experiences of those whose families survived the genocide and those who families were not directly involved, and the ideological divide between those who support the activist Dashnak Party and those who do not.
There Was and There Was Not is neither a history of the genocide nor an examination of its political ramifications for the modern world. It is the story of one woman’s attempt to understand her community, its fundamental assumptions, and herself.
Written in a conversational style that is by turns heart-wrenching and unexpectedly funny, There Was and There Was Not will appeal not only to those interested in questions of the Armenian genocide but to readers interested in the larger questions of how individuals define themselves within communities and how communities define themselves.
If you’re interested in learning more about There Was and Was Not, you can read my interview with Toumani here.
* If you’re looking for the short version, this is a reasonably even-handed account: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/timestopics/topics_armeniangenocide.html
**What can I say, the word comes up a lot when you’re talking about the Armenian genocide.
***One thing I realized as a result of reading There Was and There Was Not was that the Armenian genocide was only thing I know about Armenian history. I suspect that the bigger picture will be tracking me down shortly.
Much of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness Maximum Shelf.