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Meline Toumani grew up in a close-knit Armenian community in New Jersey, and as in much of the Armenian diaspora, life revolved around commemorating and seeking recognition of the events of 1915, and the 1.5 million Armenians who died at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government. A journalist by training, Toumani shocked friends and family by moving to Turkey and embarking on a journey to understand a people and a country she’d been taught were the enemy. The result is “There Was and There Was Not,” part political history, part deeply personal memoir.
- Meline Toumani Journalist; author, "There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond"
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Excerpted from “There Was And There Was Not” by Meline Toumani. Copyright 2014 Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeline Toumani grew up in a close-knit Armenian community in New Jersey. And the worldview was straightforward. Her family and all the Armenians she knew shunned Turkish restaurants and products and political discussions had a single-minded focus marking the year 1915 when one-1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Turkish Ottoman government and getting Turkey to acknowledge the events as genocide. There was a certain comfort in that clarity, that certainty but as she built a career in journalism, a profession of inquiry and questioning, that certainty began to falter.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss her progress or her actions after that is the aforementioned Meline Toumani. She is a journalist and the author of the book "There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond." She joins us in studio. Meline, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. MELINE TOUMANIThank you so much for having me here.
NNAMDIThis book was shaped first and foremost by your background. Can you tell us a little bit how and where you grew up?
TOUMANICertainly. Well, I was born in Tehran, Iran. My family has been Armenian for as far back as we know or can possibly keep track of. And there's a large Armenian community that was in Iran. Most of them, not all, are gone now. We moved to New Jersey in 1978 and I grew up there, and very much surrounded by both American life and other Armenian families that we sought out. So it was a very dual existence.
NNAMDIYou went through a shift yourself in thinking about the issues central to how you grew up in the Armenian community. And so I'm going to ask you to start reading fairly early in this discussion. Can you read from chapter one for us, page three?
TOUMANICertainly. I'm going to read from the part of the book where I've just arrived in Turkey. And in the taxi ride on the way in I start crying. The sight of water was what did it. Istanbul is a city laced by three seas, the Marmara, the Bosphorus Strait, and the Black Sea. This struck me as utterly absurd. From as early as I knew anything, I had known Turkey only as an idea, a terrifying idea, a place filled with people I should despise.
TOUMANISomehow, through years of attending Armenian genocide commemorations and lectures about Turkey’s denial of the genocide, of boycotting Turkish products, of attending an Armenian summer camp whose primary purpose seemed to be to indoctrinate me with the belief that I should fight to take back a fifth of the modern Turkish state, somehow in all of that, it never occurred to me to wonder what Istanbul, or the rest of Turkey, looked like. And here it was, a magnificent, sea-wrapped city, as indifferent to my imagination as I had been to its reality.
TOUMANIWas it anger I felt, something like what James Baldwin described when he recalled descending in a plane to the American South for the first time and seeing the stunning red hills of Georgia below him? "This earth had acquired its color from the blood that dripped down from the trees," Baldwin wrote. I felt something like that, and the thought that now formed in a place I didn’t know I still had within me was: how, after everything they’ve done, do they get to have a place that looks like this?
TOUMANINo, that’s not true. Anger was only what I was supposed to feel, what I perhaps even hoped to rekindle when I arrived in Turkey, alone, looking out the window as the water chased the road all the way to my hotel. What I actually felt was loss. Not the loss of a place, of a physical homeland. That was for others to mourn. This had never been my homeland. The loss I felt was the loss of certainty, a soothing certainty of purpose that in childhood had girded me against life’s inevitable dissatisfactions, a certainty that as a college student and later as a journalist in New York City had started to fray, gradually and then drastically, a certainty whose fraying began to divide me uncomfortably from the group to which I belonged, from other Armenians.
TOUMANIThe embracing, liberating expanse of Istanbul’s waters, and the bridges that crossed them, and the towers on hills that rose up and swept down in every direction, made me realize upon sight that I had spent years of emotional energy on something I had never seen or tried to understand.
NNAMDIA little more, please.
TOUMANIThis was 2005. I had come to Turkey that summer because I am Armenian and 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 it had started to feel embarrassing to refuse the innocent suggestions of American friends to try a Turkish restaurant on the Upper East Side, or to bristle when someone returned from an adventurous Mediterranean vacation, to brood silently until the part about how much they loved Turkey was over.
TOUMANII 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. Does it sound like I’m exaggerating? Is there such a thing as nationalism that is not exaggerated?
NNAMDINo, there is no such thing that has nationalism that is not exaggerated. That, of course, was Meline Toumani reading from her book "There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond." You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website kojoshow.org where you can read an excerpt of the book or ask a question or make a comment. Are you Armenian or Turkish? Do you see a way forward for the two groups, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIYou became a journalist after graduate school in New York. You intended to write about anything besides Armenians and the genocide issue. You wrote reviews about art. But now you've written a book on this very topic. How did this book come about?
TOUMANIWell, I found that even though I didn't want to write about these subjects, I wanted to sort of prove that I wasn't stuck in my own story and needed some kind of larger credibility. I couldn't get away from it. I kept slicing off little pieces, little stories here and there trying to get at something, something that was inside of me. And I didn't exactly know what it was.
TOUMANIAnd this book came about through a series of steps that involved getting to know a Turkish sociologist back in 2005, a woman named Fatma Muge Gocek who's at the University of Michigan. She took me to Turkey with her. By then I already had it in mind that I wanted to write a book but I understood that I needed to talk to Turks if I were going to do this right. And not talk to them because I was trying to question what happened historically or because I didn't believe what happened in 1915. That's not it at all. And it's very important that I make that clear.
TOUMANII wanted to understand how can we all grow up with these different stories that we believe just as strongly as one another. How do the stories get constructed for us? I really wondered, do people in Turkey really believe what they say they believe? Is there some way that a certain kind of language or way of behaving can open up some kind of mutual empathy or communication? Unfortunately it's not really a happy ending at the end of this project, which took me almost ten years. But that's how I got started.
NNAMDIHopefully we'll get to that in a second. But what was it like for you taking the journey, trying to get beyond what you describe as exaggerated nationalism in yourself? Was it your journey as a journalist and asking questions about -- well, you're supposed to ask questions about everything, asking questions about everything that started you questioning your own sense of nationalism?
TOUMANII think I started to see that -- not so much even as a journalist, really more as a writer in the creative and artistic sense, I started to see that every time there was an Armenian film and Armenian poetry reading and any kind of Armenian event, a novel, you know, a memoir, everything was about the genocide. And everything was so driven by this need to prove what had happened and to respond to the fact of Turkey's denial. And it started to strike me, not as a journalist, but as an artist that this is incredibly limiting.
TOUMANIThere are other things we want to express. There are all kinds of complicated emotions and psychological things that we might want to explore but we can't because there's this burden that every time we open our mouths we have to somehow protect this message and further it. And I started to find that intolerable. And this book was really my way of answering that and trying to make space, not just for Armenians but other people who have that same kind of dynamic in their groups.
NNAMDIYou found after a while that the arguments on both sides were so familiar you say you could have recited them in your sleep, so you picked up and moved to Istanbul. For those who might not understand the significance, how radical an act was that given the community that you come from?
TOUMANIIt was quite a radical act. It was regarded by some as an act of treason. I cannot really remember one single Armenian in my life saying anything like, wow, that's going to be amazing or what an interesting thing you're going to do, or even why. It was really just more a sense of suspicion and discomfort and a certain amount of not really speaking about it at all.
TOUMANIAnd of course I got the same reaction from Turks in Turkey when I had to tell them I was Armenian. So there was a lot of suspicion surrounding this whole undertaking. And just to add one more thing, although I had made my first kind of exploratory trip in 2005, I had planned to return in 2007. I already had a book contract. All my plans were underway.
TOUMANIAnd then an Armenian newspaper editor in Istanbul was assassinated. And he was assassinated because of some comments that he had made actually trying to put forward a kind of peaceful and constructive dialogue between Armenians and Turks. And so that really shook things up and made my decision to move there even more bizarre.
NNAMDIYou felt going into this project moving to Istanbul, talking to Turks, going to Armenia, talking to Armenians that you would perhaps discover what, people whose views were more nuanced than the rhetoric around which you'd grown up?
TOUMANII did hope that I would find that. I really believed that there's got to be a way that if you find just the right words, if you don't hit people over the head. You know, I always had this vision of, if we want Turkey to acknowledge what happened, are we really going to get there by just continuously villainizing and sort of, you know, beating a dead horse, beating the same message over and over, you know.
TOUMANILet's try something different. Let's try to communicate. And I'm certainly not the first person who's tried to do that across some kind of ethic boundary between two people. But there wasn't a lot of that in this particular conflict. And, as I mentioned earlier, it's important that people read the entire book because none of it turned out the way that I hoped. And making my own peace with that is really actually what the book is ultimately about.
NNAMDIThe book is called, "There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond." We're talking with the author of the book, Meline Toumani. She's a journalist. And don your headphones please, because we're going to go to the phones and jump right into the middle of fray, if you will. We'll start with Maggie, in Tacoma Park, Md. Maggie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAGGIEHi. Thank you for taking my call. And I'm very much looking forward to reading your book. I am also an Armenian American. I was brought up very differently. I did not grow up in the kind of atmosphere that I know very well from what you describe, a very kind of inward-looking Armenian American community. And that was very lucky for me because I did not grow up despising Turks.
MAGGIEInstead, the focus was on the reality of -- you know, and we spoke about Armenian history and our heritage. We talked about what actually happened, which was absolutely -- there's no question it was genocide. I'm sure you don't dispute that, despite whatever feelings you may have about how Armenians regard Turks at this point. But -- so that was very lucky for me. I didn't have the same kind of perspective. I wasn't afraid of traveling to Turkey, which I did when I was -- I don't know -- 23 years old.
MAGGIEAnd my teenager is planning to go herself. So that hasn't been a big issue right now. But the main thing I want to talk about is how I very clearly see in the last few years a huge change going on, mostly among intellectuals and left-wing university students and communities like that. I see something that I never saw before. It may be on a small scale, but there is discussion and recognition of what happened to the Armenians. It's happening.
MAGGIEAnd I think the assassination of Hrant Dink -- I think you mentioned him earlier. I think that that may have kicked it off. There are demonstrations. There are…
NNAMDIOkay. We don't have that much time, but allow…
MAGGIEOh, I'm sorry. There are all kinds of things that are going on.
TOUMANIAnd that's what my book tells about, as a matter of fact. So…
TOUMANI…fortunately that's all in there. And I'm so glad that you're tuned into that. And I hope other people continue to tune into that more.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We do have to take a short break. If you have called, when we come back, we will get to your calls. We're discussing the book, "There Was and There Was Not," with the author Meline Toumani, journalist and author. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think there's been more hope in recent years towards a reconciliation? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, read an excerpt of the book there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Meline Toumani. She is a journalist and the author of the book, "There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond." You had a number of misconceptions or shall I say blank spaces when it came to Turkey, the actual country, its people. I'd like to hear a little bit about what it was like to live there, make friends and experience the place. It's my initial -- it's my understanding that initially your name made you feel like you belonged in Turkey. That last place you would expect that.
TOUMANIYes. It's true. My name, Meline, although it's very much an Armenian name, it sounds very much like the Turkish name Amene (sp?) or the Turkish name Melike (sp?). And a funny thing would happen where people had no idea that it was an Armenian name because your average Turk doesn't know very much or anything about Armenian culture. But they said the name in such a natural way because it sounded like their names. And this was -- in the U.S. I've spent my entire life having to correct people's pronunciations.
TOUMANIAnd so these kind of little details that created an irony and a paradox between belonging and, you know, of course not belonging, because I was there as an Armenian, were an interesting part of the experience.
NNAMDII'd like you to read a little bit about that from Page, I guess, 134.
TOUMANIYes. In this part of the book I'm talking about my language classes, which I took for four hours a day, every day, for about a year, Turkish language classes. And I've just talked about the first day of class when my teacher found out I was Armenian and the sort of extremely awkward reaction he had. And then this is just after that. "I gathered a vast collection of responses and categorized them over time, like a scientist on an expedition.
TOUMANI"On good days I saw these reactions as butterflies, with fascinating patterns. On bad days, more often, I saw them as strains of a virus. As it turned out I was forced to reveal I was Armenian constantly without the benefit of preambles or introductions. And the reason was simple, on appearance I could pass for Turkish. So people spoke to me in Turkish. When I opened my mouth to reply, and they discovered that I was foreign, they always to know more.
TOUMANI"'Come on, you don't seem American. Is your mother Turkish? Is your father Turkish?' Their sense of recognition was primal in its enthusiasm and had to be gratified with a commensurate explanation. Inevitably I would end up confessing the truth. Many people reacted by ignoring what I had said altogether or they changed the subject in a farcical manner. 'I'm Armenian,' I'd say. 'The weather's been beautiful lately, hasn't it?' But the most complicated response consisted of just one word, a word I learned in Level I Turkish class, but whose nuances blossomed over time.
TOUMANI"The word was olsun. A conjugation of the verb olmak, to be, olsun is the third person subjunctive, let it be, so be it. But it's not a defiant so be it. And not entirely a resignation either. It's the sort of thing you say if a waiter in a restaurant tells you he's sorry, there's no lentil soup today, but he can offer you tomato soup. Olsun, you reply. You had hoped for lentil soup, but you'll make do. Or if a friend calls to ask whether your meeting can be postponed by an hour, olsun you tell her. You're not in a big rush.
TOUMANI"Depending on the context, olsun can mean no problem, or it can mean, fine, if you must. Over and over, when I told people I was Armenian, they said simply, olsun. Olsun, we'll manage. Olsun, it's not your fault. Olsun, so you were born into a traitorous and unpleasant people, what can you do? Olsun. It's not as if I'm some kind of racist and I'm going to treat you differently because of this unfortunate new information."
NNAMDIMeline Toumani, reading from her book, "There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenian and Beyond." It seems you found yourself feeling either invisible or feeling too conspicuous, as was the case for many of your friends, who were mostly minorities themselves. What kind of catch-22 is it to be Armenian in Istanbul?
TOUMANIWell, yeah, because the Armenian community in Istanbul, generally speaking, has been a sort of quiet, under-the-radar community. People don't go around talking about the fact that the Armenian -- up until recently -- certainly up until the murder of Hrant Dink in 2007, people could have been friends or neighbors for years and never have ever spoken out loud about the fact that they were Armenian. So I was sort of this bizarre case because I just kept blurting it out so many times a day. And nobody was really prepared for it.
TOUMANIBut at the same time I would find that if people out of awkwardness or just not knowing what to say would ignore it, well, that's very uncomfortable, too. And I think this is -- it gets to one of the larger and more universal themes of the book, which has to do with being honest about all of the different emotions that are involved with these things, pretending that racism isn't' there in a society is not fooling anyone.
TOUMANIAnd we talk -- Armenians talk a lot about denial in the context of Turkey and its historiography on the genocide, but there's all kinds of other layers of denial. And for me that was interesting. In the book, denial simply of things -- the identities and unique experiences of the people around you, there's also this thing that would happen. In the book I sort of joke about it as some of my best friends are Armenian. You know, people are always trying to say, I have no problem with Armenians or, you know, Armenians are great cooks, Armenians are great doctors.
TOUMANIAnd all these sort of well-intentioned, but disingenuous ways of trying to make it seem as if things are better than they are. And Armenians will often do the same thing. I have no problem with Turks. It's the Turkish government. But I think people would do well to just be honest about some of the hatefulness that we were all raised with. And once we air it out, then we can do something with it. But if we're just going pretend it's not there, then there's really nowhere to go.
NNAMDIIt does seem like an interesting moment to open up these issues. The door may be opening when it comes to Turkish/Armenian relations, if only a sliver. Earlier this year, Turkey's president, for the first time, marked the anniversary of 1915, although without using the word genocide. And Armenian communities around the world are gearing up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of 1915. Can you talk a little bit about that and whether there may be something like hope for the future when it comes to Armenian/Turkish relations?
TOUMANII'm glad you asked about that, in particular the statement that former prime minister, now President Erdogan made in April of 2014 about the events of 1915, let's say, because he certainly didn't use the word genocide. That was a very complicated statement. And I don't want to give it more credit than it deserves, and I also don't want to give it less credit than it deserves. It was a very politicized political statement, you know, perfectly crafted to get as close as he could come to acknowledging something.
TOUMANIBut at the same time he did something that's very painful for Armenians and just really very disingenuous, which is to pretend that everybody suffered equally and it was a difficult time and they did a pretty expert job at putting that across in a way that even the media and the New York Times and a lot of people kind of bought as if Turkey has now done something tremendous.
TOUMANIAt the same time, it was a huge statement and what it did was it allowed other people -- it gave a little signal in Turkey that acknowledgements of this are not going to be criminalized in quite the same way that they have been. So I've -- I try to make it clear in the book, toward the very end, that that was a very important step, it wasn't enough. Let's not give it more credit than it deserves. But it was something.
TOUMANIAnd I don't know what's going to happen in Turkey in 2015, but Armenians all over the world have been planning for a couple of years already how to mark the centennial year of the Armenian genocide 2015. April 24th is the date that all of that will be centered around. Nobody really knows exactly how that's going to play out in Turkey. But I know that Armenians are doing all sorts things with all sorts of different approaches. It'll be an interesting time.
NNAMDIJust five months off. Here now is Era -- put on your headphones, please -- in Oakton, Va. Era, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERAYes. Thank you for having me on the show. And, Kojo, thank you for having the courage to put Meline on the show because you -- and the Turkish lobby might retaliate. But I tried to teach my children that it's usually corrupt officials that perpetrate these massacres, genocides, which are even happening today. And it's not culture or race. So I don't want to pass the hatred like most Armenians or any other victims -- including slave victims do to the next generation. You need to focus on the individual personalities who are creating lies and perpetrating these atrocities.
ERASo having said that, I still feel uncomfortable going to Turkey. Even though in Istanbul there are a lot of Armenian churches now and Armenian day school. A lot of Armenians living there. But if you go to the eastern part where the Armenians were kicked out -- and you don't really need proof because there's 1,000 churches there, but no Armenians. So that's proof enough itself.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for you call. Care to comment, Meline?
TOUMANIWell, I -- that all makes sense to me, as certainly there is evidence all over Turkey and Istanbul and in the Southeast of the Armenian population. And things are changing. People are doing all kinds of -- there are groups and individuals in Turkey that are risking their lives and their reputations to bring these things out and to try to break the silence. I would say -- I know that a lot of Armenians, more so than even three, four, five years ago, are starting to make a certain kind of pilgrimage to see the places that their grandparents, great-grandparents came from in Turkey.
TOUMANIAnd I think that's good. The only thing I would say is I have spoken to a lot of people that have done that and if you're going to go it's important to go with an open heart. I spoke with one young man who had gone to some of these villages in southeastern Turkey where the Armenians had had such a strong presence. And, you know, he spoke of seeing children and said, you know, it breaks my heart because when I see them, all I can see is future genocide deniers. And I thought, well, I'm not sure what the point of going is, if that's what you're going to see.1
NNAMDIHere now, Lisa, in Rockville, Md. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAThank you for taking my call. That's a perfect segue because I was supposed to go to that exact part of Turkey this summer. I'm a survivor, in a sense. My grandmother was orphaned at the age of five in (unintelligible) that part of Turkey. And I actually think that's a very good question to ask, whether or not that's going to be a future genocide denier because -- I never did go on the trip because of health reasons.
LISABut during that period of time, in August, there were people on top of a mountain in Irbil, and the word genocide was used. And our country swooped in and dropped, you know, resources from helicopters that those folks needed and walked them down the mountain. So genocide, almost 100 years later, wouldn't be repeated. And so my grandmother's no longer with me. I have her oral history on tape. And I have a lifelong obligation to make sure that story is told by the Turkish government somehow. And I…
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because we're running out of time very quickly. But in this book, Meline, you lay out the challenge for the Armenian community, how to mark and remember the events of 1915, without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it. After this journey, this book and the discussions it's clearly sparking, are there any answers emerging for you?
TOUMANIWell, it's a difficult question, but…
NNAMDIYou only have about a minute left.
TOUMANI…the answer for me -- how do you keep a community alive? Well, what we want to do to commemorate those tragedies is to live and flourish as a community and keep our lines of communication and expression open. And I could go on for a long time about what that means, but I hope that my book will give people some food for thought about what it means, to not just keep talking about the suffering, but to open up new avenues. And that's how we'll live on and…
NNAMDIWell, everywhere you go to talk about this book, you know that this is the issue that you will be discussing. Meline Toumani is a journalist. She is the author of the book, "There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond." I would highly recommend it. Thank you so much for joining us.
TOUMANIThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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