The Armenian genocide Seeing through fire

Untangling the hatred between Turks and Armenians

There Was and There Was Not. By Meline Toumani.



ANNIVERSARIES have become the party theme of our time, especially over the past year, as the world was reminded of the start of the first world war. At least two further historic moments will be marked in 2015. One is the battle of Waterloo, which on June 18th will be accompanied by triumphal chest-beating (at least in Britain). Elsewhere, the centenary of the Armenian genocide is likely to arouse rage as well as recrimination.
On April 24th 1915 scores of Armenian intellectuals and artists were rounded up in Istanbul, the capital of the collapsing Ottoman empire, and later killed. The killings marked the start of a protracted period of persecution of the empire’s Christian subjects, who were subjected to state-sanctioned murder, rape and huge forced deportations to the Syrian desert. At least 1m people—mostly Armenians—died.

In an audacious first book, Meline Toumani, an Armenian-American journalist who grew up in suburban New Jersey, describes spending two weeks every year as a youngster in an Armenian summer camp in Massachusetts, where she and fellow schoolchildren were ordered never to forget what happened to the Armenians. She offers a compelling account of the hatred she was encouraged to feel towards Turks. But the former New York Times writer also had a rebellious streak that prodded her to draw her own conclusions about historic nationalism.

Already, as a young student, Ms Toumani “wondered whether there was a way to honour a history without being suffocated by it, to belong to a community without conforming to it, a way to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place.” Alarmed at her own ambivalence Ms Toumani decided that “the quickest way to remedy this would be to cut through all the lobbying and hateful rhetoric and sit down with some elderly Armenians to hear what they had suffered.”

That method failed to answer her questions. Her depictions of nonagenarian Armenian ladies being trotted out by publicists to recite fading and confused memories of the slaughter, are biting, even cruel. But Ms Toumani is not questioning that the genocide took place. Rather she is interested in the “why” or the “how”.

Her quest connects her to intrepid Turkish academics, such as Taner Akcam and Fatma Muge Gocek, devoted to deconstructing Turkey’s official line that in 1915 more Turks were killed by “treacherous” Armenians than the other way round. Emboldened by “the strange exhilaration of talking on the phone with a Turk”, the young writer took the plunge and travelled to Turkey for the first time in 2005. She returned to write this book in 2007, shortly after Hrant Dink, an outspoken Turkish-Armenian newspaper owner, was gunned down by an ultranationalist youth outside his office in Istanbul. Ms Toumani was confident that her “ability to be self-critical as an Armenian” would help her win people’s trust. She swiftly learned Turkish.

What ensued was a brief spell of enchantment with Istanbul and the warmth of ordinary Turks. But this wore thin as she crashed into a wall of denial that seemed to arise at almost every turn. Turkish museums left out Armenian kingdoms and dynasties from their timelines. When a female opposition politician claimed that Turkey’s then president, Abdullah Gul, had Armenian blood he took her to court. The faux tolerance displayed by liberal Turks (they all loved topik, an Armenian dish) began to grate. “Each person who said it seemed to glow with pride for having found such a graceful detour around his own prejudice,” she writes

Ms Toumani also touches on the fraught relations between Turkey and the neighbouring post-Soviet Armenia (Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are sealed; its borders with Iran and Georgia are not). The author travelled to Armenia and is gruffly affectionate about the place, though she came across a further twist of intra-Armenian racism when a local sports team called an Istanbul Armenian opponent “a Turkish dog”.

For all her disillusionment Ms Toumani acknowledges that there has been a shift in Turkey. Using the word genocide no longer lands people in jail. Thousands of “hidden Armenians”, whose ancestors converted to Islam so their lives would be spared, are reclaiming their identities. And on the eve of the genocide’s 99th anniversary, April 23rd 2014, Turkey’s president (and then prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered an apology of sorts when he acknowledged the suffering of the Armenians. Ms Toumani’s stirring memoir lends hope that reconciliation, imperfect though it may be, can at last be achieved.

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