BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
I’ve been torn for weeks now over whether to write this piece, perhaps you might even say months. The dilemma arises from the conflicting responsibilities of speaking truth to power (in this case the American publishing establishment) and informing our community about matters that impact it while not creating potential harm to that very community.
The topic is a book and its author about whom I first learned early in 2014. I do not recall what bit of pre-publicity I saw, but it was enough to motivate me to start inquiring about who this author was and what she was up to. I reached out as far as Bolis, where the author spent some two years about a decade ago. My initial impression/worry that this book might be a Foggy Bottom (U.S. Department of State) and Çankaya (Turkish government) wet-dream-come-true has turned out to be correct.
By writing this, I’m giving this “project,” as the author refers to it, undeserved credence. Yet the damage it is causing necessitates a response.
Meline Toumani’s “There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond” fetishizes hate. It seems to me the author never matured enough to deal with her emotions, and now she’s foisting her problems on us while simultaneously (though unintentionally) serving anti-Armenian interests. She contends, according to all the reviews and her own comments, that she was raised being taught to hate Turks.
Really? Let’s consider this. If any human is informed that another human has done grievous harm to her/his family, friends, community, nation, etc. s/hewill end up hating the harmer. Then, they think it through, digest the information, and based on that, act to restore justice. Simple.
She asks us to perceive her book as a work of literature, of art, depicting her “journey” of self-discovery while spending time in Turkey. She insists it is non-political. Yet, she refuses to acknowledge that she is playing in the political field and, at least, accept responsibility for the ramifications thereof. Her own comments and writings betray her, exposing her as NOT being “non-political.”
I attended a book event for “There was and There Was Not …”, hoping I would be proven wrong about my concerns. There, she read aloud the first chapter of the book, in which she has a very damning juxtaposition. In two sequential paragraphs, she describes what an Armenian feels when confronted with denial, and what a Turk feels when confronted with a heinous past. This creates a false equivalence between the two. If this isn’t enough, how about Toumani’s rhetorical question, heard during her radio interview with Kojo Nnamdi, “Is there such a thing as nationalism that is not exaggerated?” Yes, Meline, there IS such nationalism, azcaseerootiun in Armenian. My pride and involvement in my nation is constructive and non-disruptive or antagonistic to others’ equal pride and involvement in their own nations’ lives. Nationalism is what helped break the tyrannical chokehold of empires over the last few centuries.
And, speaking of chokeholds, since that’s how she describes current Armenian identity, she finds that identity is based exclusively on hating Turks and Genocide recognition. Without that, allegedly we have nothing in common. I’ll let that contention kill itself on its own demerits.
Since Toumani seems to wallow in psycho-babble, let’s address her defensiveness. At the book event, she described feeling beset by other Armenians questioning her “loyalty” (my word choice, strictly for compactness). She repeatedly emphasized she was not questioning the veracity of the Genocide when no one made such an assertion. While most of the questions and comments from the packed audience were damn-near fawning, three were not. In two of those cases, she interrupted the speaker before that person had a chance to complete their thought. The third instance was my own. When I spoke, I identified myself by name and cracked a self-deprecating joke to defuse any potential tension. She recognized my name, that I wrote these articles, and immediately said something to the effect of “there’s probably very little we’ll agree on.” Why this defensiveness? If we’re all there to learn and engage in an exchange of ideas based on her book, why the aggression?
After the formal program ended, her admirers, including her parents, approached me and engaged in discussion. I was variously told I was closed-minded, didn’t know/understand English well, that I couldn’t appreciate literature, etc. There was this need to address the “hate” question from a mother concerned about her kids. Fair enough. But must that be done in a way that damages our community’s interests? How can a book do that you ask? Here a few quotes from book reviews. They bear out my earlier contention about a wet dream…
Being with other Armenians “came at the price of nodding along to a blood-curdling celebration of terrorist violence against the Turkish state;” describing Toumani listening to Genocide survivors, “Over the years, in countless retellings, the stories have either disintegrated into fragments or become rote and repetitive, ‘condensed. . . into plaintive one-liners.’;” “But with this book, she gives her people a bit of what they are asking for — recognition — while considering that there is always another side to a story.”— Another side to the story; Isn’t this one just what Turkey asserts?; and here’s another example of the false equivalences Toumani disseminates, “she investigates a double-edged intransigence: Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide, and the Armenian Diaspora’s obsession with getting them to do just that;” another Çankaya pleaser, “conflicting Armenian and Turkish narratives regarding the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915…” it’s just a question of “narratives,” right?
I’ll close with some questions, a silver lining, and request to the Armenian community.
My question is addressed to Meline and all her book’s reviewers who fetishize anti-hatred. Do you dispense the same advice to Jews who sought and now receive recognition, reparations, in a word—justice—from Germany? Do you call them “German haters?” What about black South Africans, Cambodians, Tutsis, rape victims, Islamic State beheadees’ families, etc.? Are they, too, “obsessed” in such a way as to damage themselves?
But in all this, perhaps there is a silver lining. Perhaps this book’s ramifications will stir the majority of Armenians from the torpor of focusing on Genocide recognition to the exclusion of demanding reparations and lands AS WELL. This is something I have long advocated and has, recently, perhaps during the last half dozen years, minimally entered our public political discourse.
Finally, I call on our community NOT to support the damage this book is causing by NOT buying it. I am proud to say I have NOT read it, and likely will not since the broader ramifications it has are evident already. If Meline Toumani feels the need to resolve her issues, I’ll gladly help her find a shrink, her book won’t help. Please join me.