Journalist Meline Toumani’s first book ‘There Was and There Was Not’ was recently published in the US and was met both with high acclaim and strong reaction. Drawing from her own experiences, Toumani’s book holds a critical mirror to Diaspora Armenians, and has received criticism from Armenian circles in the US, with some even calling for a boycott. We spoke to Toumani in New York.
Meline Toumani is a journalist who was born in Iran, and grew up in the USA. She has written extensively for the New York Times, and her first book ‘There Was and There Was Not’ was recently published in the US, almost immediately receiving a strong reaction because of its unique and unprecedented viewpoint on Armenians, Genocide and the relationship between Armenians and Turks. In her book, Toumani holds a critical mirror to Diaspora Armenians based on her personal experiences, while recounting her confrontation with her own prejudices, her experience of living in Turkey and her effort to understand society in Turkey, and ultimately, her journey towards becoming an individual without severing her ties with her Armenian identity. Throughout the book, Toumani seeks answers to questions such as, “Is it possible to remain a member of a group if you do not feel comfortable with its discourses and behaviour?”, “How is it possible to recognize a tragedy without exploiting it?” and “How can the Genocide be remembered without succumbing to hatred?” The book received harsh reactions from Armenian circles in the US, and some even called for a boycott. We spoke to Toumani in New York, where she lives.
How did the need to write this book develop? What kind of a journey was the writing process?
When I started writing this book I had a specific vision, and the book turned out to be something completely different. I started with the vision that there must be a way to show Armenians to the Turks, and Turks to the Armenians, in a sense, opening a window for both sides.
I was going to travel to Turkey as a Diaspora Armenian, be patient and open-minded, and not antagonistic. I'm not talking about being open-minded about the Turkish version of what happened in 1915; I wanted to be open-minded about understanding society in Turkey, and I wanted to understand what kinds of views ordinary Turks really had about Armenians and the Genocide, outside of the official statements.
But that was a long time ago, because I realized very quickly that the situation in Turkey was a lot worse than I thought. The issue was no longer about Armenia or Turkey, but about creating a space for myself; a space where I didn’t feel that my way of thinking was defined by any political group, lobbying group, or my family. Being a part of a community is a strange and distorting experience, and this is my story of how I grappled with it.
You write about how Diaspora Armenians are full of hatred. Most of the reactions are related to this. Did you hesitate before openly writing about the hatred?
I did and didn’t at the same time. It has surprised me how much people focus on that word, and it bothers me. The US media were really fixated on this word, too, and conversations began with, ‘Oh, so you are raised to hate Turks’. I realized that this was becoming too distracting, so I started to rephrase it, saying, ‘Yes, there is hate, but there is a very specific reason for it. It’s very natural for a community to feel this way as their ancestors suffered from a Genocide and Turkey continues to deny it, it is not a random expression of hate.”
Were you also trapped by hatred? To what extent was the hate significant in your own experience?
It was there and didn’t fit with who I was. When I was 25, I had an American boyfriend. Once we were in San Francisco, there is a street called ‘Turk Street’, we took a cab to a movie theatre on the intersection of Turk Street and another street. The driver asked us whether to drop us off at Turk Street or the other street. My boyfriend replied, ‘We are not getting off at Turk Street!’
It was as if I had trained him to think this way. Then the driver turned around and said, ‘I am a Turk’. Instead of apologizing for my boyfriend’s remark,I said something along the lines of ‘In 1915, your ancestors massacred two thirds of our population’. I wasn’t a child anymore, I was 25, but I would still say something like that at that age. When I was 28 or 29, I started to realize that this kind of behaviour is not funny, it’s embarrassing, and it’s being idiotic, racist. It wasn’t who I wanted to be! The book, and the experience of living in Turkey, liberated me from these feelings; it liberated me from perceiving Turks as evil. Still, it doesn’t mean that I have lost every bit of prejudice; because it’s a long process.
In the book, you say being Armenian is an obstacle for your identity, was your Armenian identity becoming a burden for you?
The word burden sounds bad; it is the feeling that every time you try to create something, there is this mission and agenda that you are supposed to serve, every time there was an assignment in school I would find a way to make it about the Genocide; for me this is a problem. For instance, if you want to write a novel about genocide, then a politicized framework drives that process; and that framework has largely been created by Armenian Genocide recognition campaigns. There are things that you can explore, but in the end you know where the story has to end. This is antietical to the process of curiosity and discovery that must be at the heart of artistic creation.
You write about your experience at Camp Armenia in Massachusetts, and how you were taught Genocide doctrines. What kind of an experience was that?
The first thing I remember is sitting in the back of my family’s station wagon, reading David Kherdian’s novel for young adults titled ‘The Road from Home’. I read this book over and over again all the way to the camp, and all the way back, and cried. When I went to libraries when I was 10 I sought out Genocide memoirs and read them. I felt very clear about the fact that Turkey was the enemy; it was the part of the air we breathed at the camp. One of the common reactions I get from Armenians after they have read the book is “We weren’t raised to hate Turks!”; but I don’t think they are being honest.
You also openly write about many difficult issues, like commemoration events held for the Lisbon 5, the Armenian Revolutionary Army militants that killed Turkish diplomats; and you are quite outspoken about your criticism of Armenians; did you find it difficult to write about such incidents?
I was very aware that people would be upset, but I also had no hesitation about being honest in writing about such issues. For me the only way that I can justify writing several chapters that are very critical about Turks is to also criticise my own community, my own experiences. If you are an Armenian and you are critical of Turkey, who is going to listen to you? Of course you’ll be critical of Turkey, you are not interesting, you are just another Armenian who is criticizing Turkey. We talk a lot about Turkey’s denial of the Genocide, but there is another kind of denial, and that’s denying the truth about how we behave and talk amongst ourselves. This book is a call to be honest; we have to talk about events like the Lisbon 5 commemorations, and about our own psychological state.
There have been harsh reactions against you, and even calls for a boycott, what do you think about these reactions and the psychology that lies beneath?
What astonishes me most is that they criticize me without even reading the book; they produce lies and invent scenarios; and even try to make it look as if I were opposed to the recognition of the Genocide. If they had read my book, they would see why I believe in the recognition of the Genocide, and the reasons I put forth for it. What makes them uncomfortable is that my reasons are not the reasons that I was raised with, and that they are different from the framework that Armenian nationalist groups define. They even called me a Turkish spy; a Jewish spy and they even accused me of being a self-hating Armenian because my surname doesn’t end with –ian. I was born with this surname, and my father was born with this surname.
The voice of those people who are attacking me was in my ears for years, they created the environment I grew up in, and it was that environment that motivated me to write this book. Falsifications and accusations are the only problems that disturb me, because they take from me the control over the message the book wants to convey. By making such false accusations, they force me back into using their language to set the record straight.
At one point I thought maybe I should place a banner at the top of my website, stating, “Important notice! I am not opposed to Genocide recognition! I just wanted to find my own reasons for believing in Genocide recognition, and to understand the impact of this issue on Armenian identity” -but then I said ‘Just leave it’. This book was a way to say “Don’t force me into your agenda.” If I posted such a notification on my website I would be trapped in that agenda again!
What do you think about Erdoğan’s condolence message?
I wasn’t expecting it. I thought it was unsatisfying, but it has a constructive function. The text was very carefully written; but he said it after all, it was April 24, and he acknowledged that something had happened. Then again, it annoyed me when the New York Times ran an article, which made it sound as if he acknowledged the Genocide, because Erdoğan did not acknowledge the Genocide. But at the same time it annoys me when people dismiss it and treat it as if it were nothing. By contrast, the real emotional reaction I had was for the apology campaign IN 2008; that was something big for me.
I find the discourse of brotherhood fake and patronizing
In Turkey, especially after 2007, a new social group emerged with a high awareness regarding the Armenian Question, and who proclaim, ‘Armenians are our brothers and sisters’. What is your view of this new discourse?
Although some people mean well, I find this discourse fake and patronizing. We don’t need to be siblings or friends. Reconciliation means to having an honest discussion about different experiences and different prejudices around the same table. The book ends up being quite cynical, because I was getting frustrated with all this talk of “We are friends, we are brothers…”. Bringing together musicians from both countries is not reconciliation, it’s a nice thing, but it is not the end goal, it is just part of the process. The end goal here is a democratic society with freedom of expression, and an honest account of history.
Hrant Dink opened up new questions in my mind
You also have a chapter on January 19, 2007. What does Hrant Dink mean to you?
I met him in 2005; it was a brief meeting. I was looking for a language that would correspond to my feelings as an Armenian in the Diaspora. Being so focused on a country that you don’t know and don’t have any contact with, being so focused on Genocide as part of your identity, without questioning what had happened, it wasn’t easy to find an ethos that corresponded to such feelings. Meeting Hrant Dink was very important in the sense that he looked at the situation from a similar perspective, and openly said that this hatred running through the Diaspora is toxic and not constructive.
Talking to Hrant Dink, and reading his articles gave me a sense of validation, and the sense that there is a way to talk about these things using a different language. He opened up a lot of new questions in my mind. 19 January 2007 was my last day at the New York Times, I was planning to travel back to Turkey soon after. But the moment I heard about his murder, my hopes took a kamikaze dive. Hrant Dink made strong statements that went against received knowledge, but he didn’t use hateful language. For a person as compassionate, openhearted and forgiving as he was to be assassinated, it is so painful…