Cover image for There was and there was not : a journey through hate and possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and beyond
There was and there was not : a journey through hate and possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and beyond
Toumani, Meline.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York, New York : Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014.
Physical Description:
x, 286 pages : map ; 25 cm
A young Armenian-American goes to Turkey in a 'love thine enemy' experiment that becomes a transformative reflection on how we use-- and abuse-- our personal histories.
Diaspora. When we talk about what happened ; Summer camp, Franklin, Massachusetts, 1989 ; "How did they kill your grandparents?" ; A real Armenian ; False assumptions ; "With this madness, what art could there be? -- "Alternate realities. "So you are a bit mixed up now" ; "Armenians are killers of children" ; January 19, 2007 -- Turkey. Paradoxes ; Language ; Knowing and not knowing ; How to be a Turk ; Official history -- Armenia. Country on maps ; Hello, Homeland! ; Reunions -- Power. The narcissism of small similarities ; Excess baggage ; Soccer diplomacy ; Terms.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E184.A7 T68 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



A young Armenian-American goes to Turkey in a "love thine enemy" experiment that becomes a transformative reflection on how we use-and abuse-our personal histories

Meline Toumani grew up in a close-knit Armenian community in New Jersey where Turkish restaurants were shunned and products made in Turkey were boycotted. The source of this enmity was the Armenian genocide of 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government, and Turkey's refusal to acknowledge it. A century onward, Armenian and Turkish lobbies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince governments, courts and scholars of their clashing versions of history.

Frustrated by her community's all-consuming campaigns for genocide recognition, Toumani leaves a promising job at The New York Times and moves to Istanbul. Instead of demonizing Turks, she sets out to understand them, and in a series of extraordinary encounters over the course of four years, she tries to talk about the Armenian issue, finding her way into conversations that are taboo and sometimes illegal. Along the way, we get a snapshot of Turkish society in the throes of change, and an intimate portrait of a writer coming to terms with the issues that drove her halfway across the world.

In this far-reaching quest, told with eloquence and power, Toumani probes universal questions: how to belong to a community without conforming to it, how to acknowledge a tragedy without exploiting it, and most importantly how to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place.

Author Notes

Meline Toumani has written extensively for The New York Times on Turkey and Armenia as well as on music, dance, and film. Her work has also appeared in n+1 , The Nation , Salon , and The Boston Globe . She has been a journalism fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria, and coordinator of the Russian-American Journalism Institute in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Born in Iran and ethnically Armenian, she grew up in New Jersey and California and now lives in New York City.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Toumani grew up in New Jersey reflexively hating and avoiding anything Turkish, like most Armenians in the diaspora, and holding onto an obsession for recognition by Turkey of the massacre of more than a million Armenians. The massacre was part of the clash between Turks and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, in the years leading up to WWI. Yet Toumani also felt vaguely uncomfortable about the certainty of the Armenian version of what had transpired. On a quest to find peace with the atrocities of a century ago, she set off to travel to the hated Turkey. Craving some recognition of the genocide, what she found was minimal recognition and complex views of the past and what it might mean going forward. For four years, she traveled repeatedly to Turkey, fascinated by its beauty, meeting extraordinary people, on all sides of the ongoing dispute, with a longing to get beyond the far distant past. She learns to acknowledge commonalities, including the Armenian and Turkish tradition of starting a story by saying, There was and there was not, itself an acknowledgment of conflicting narratives.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Born in Iran and raised in the United States, Toumani always knew that she was first, an Armenian. Her childhood was punctuated by commemorations of the 1915 killing of Armenians by the Turkish government and resentment at Turkey's refusal to admit that this was an act of genocide. As Toumani enters adulthood, she begins to wonder if "there was a way to honor history without being suffocated by it." This leads to a two-year odyssey across Turkey in search of, not truth, but explanations. She learns that rather than acknowledging slaughter, Turkish history classes brand Armenians as traitors who had fought against Turkey in WWI and had been deported as a result. She makes Turkish friends who are eager to help her search but when she tells her aunt how kind they are to her, the woman is horrified. In the end, Toumani concludes that, if hate is all that holds a group together, there is no reason for it to exist. This book doesn't take sides but it does show what these old grudges do to people living. This is a powerful memoir with a message for all who were raised to see only one side of a story. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Starred Review. Born in Iran and ethnically Armenian, Toumani (former journalism fellow at the Inst. for Human Sciences, Vienna, Austria; former coordinator of the Russian-American Journalism Inst. in Rostov-on-Don, Russia) grew up in a diaspora in New Jersey where the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government came up daily in conversation. Her neighbors boycott Turkish products, refuse to patronize businesses owned by Turks, and constantly talk about the genocide to anyone who will listen. So when the author leaves her job at the New York Times and moves to Istanbul to confront and understand her historic enemy, she is forced to explore complex questions of ethnic identity and how to memorialize a tragedy without letting it consume her. She loosens the shackles of her past by immersing herself in the culture of her sworn enemy, a lesson many readers will relate to. VERDICT This brave and balanced personal narrative will be a welcome addition to the canon of books written about the century of hatred between Turks and Armenians. [See Prepub Alert, 6/2/14.]-Erin Shea, Darien Lib., CT (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 When We Talk About What Happened I had never, not for a moment, imagined Turkey as a physical place. Certainly not a beautiful place. But it was all I could do to get through my first taxi ride from the Istanbul airport into the city--the first of perhaps a hundred on that route, as I came and went and came back again and again over the span of four years before I was finished--without letting the driver see me cry. I shifted a bit so that my face would not be visible in the rearview mirror. 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. Somehow, 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. Was 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? No, 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. The 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. This 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. I 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? * * * WHEN WE TALK about what happened, there are very few stories that, once sifted through memory, research, philosophy, ideology, and politics, emerge unequivocal. But there are two things I know to be true. One: I know that if your grandmother told you that she watched as her mother was raped and beheaded, you would feel something was yours to defend. What is that thing? Is it your grandmother you are defending? Is it the facts of what happened to her that you are defending, a page in an encyclopedia? Something as intangible as honor? Is it yourself that you are defending? If the story of the brutality that your grandmother encountered were denied or diminished in any way, you would feel certain basic facts of your selfhood extinguished. Your grandmother, who loved you and soothed you, your grandmother whose existence roots you in the world, fixes you somewhere in geography and history. Your grandmother feeds your imagination in a way that your mother and father do not. Imagination is farsighted; it needs distance to discern and define things. If somebody says no, what your grandmother suffered was not really quite as heinous as you're saying it is, they have said that your existence is not really so important. They have said nothing less than that you don't exist. This is a charge no human being can tolerate. Two: I know that if somebody tells you that you belong to a terrible group of people, you will reject every single word that follows with all the force of your mind and spirit. What if somebody says to you that your history is ugly, your history is not heroic, your history does not have beauty in it? Not only that, you don't know your history. What you have been taught by your mother and your father and your teachers, it's false. You will retreat to a bomb shelter in your brain, collapse inward to protect yourself, because what has been said to you is nothing less than that your entire understanding of who you are is in danger. They will have said to you that your existence is without value. You, who wondered now and then what the meaning of your life was, who made a soft landing place for those worries by allowing yourself to feel a certain richness about where you came from and who and what came before you, will be left empty. The story you thought you were a part of does not exist. Neither do you exist. Those accusations and their consequences are the first truths we must recognize when we talk about what happened between Armenians and Turks in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. A century after those events, Armenians and Turks--in Turkey, in Armenia, and especially in the widespread diasporas of both countries--believe in two radically different accounts of what happened. "Believe." It is not a matter of faith, yet it might as well be for the power that these clashing narratives hold. What did happen? I will tell you--but I am Armenian. It is almost impossible for me to talk about this history. Not because I find it painful to talk about--for me to claim that particular pain would be self-indulgent--but because the terms of the conversation have evolved to leave me no satisfactory options. To tell the Armenian version of the story goes against every instinct in me, not because I disagree with it--I do not--but because I know that even if I wanted to believe that the thing in question did not fit the definition of genocide, it would be impossible for me to find my way into that belief. Even if you wanted to believe that I am objective, it would be impossible for you to do so. I also know the pleasure of healthy contrarianism; so when I encounter an outsider who has been intrigued by the Turkish version of this history, I understand his desire to fancy himself open to an alternative point of view. But then I find myself inflamed, needing to convince him all the more. I am doomed to be what is known as an unreliable narrator. I hate the way it feels. Newspaper articles dispense with the controversy in the first or final paragraph of any news report concerning Turkey and Armenia: "Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, contending the toll has been inflated and the casualties were victims of civil war. It says Turks also suffered losses in the hands of Armenian gangs" (AP). "Turkey accepts that many Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks but denies that up to 1.5 million died and that it amounts to genocide, as Armenia views it" (Reuters). "The Turkish government says massacres took place in the context of clashes that related to Armenian groups supporting Russia against Turkey during World War I" (Bloomberg). This expository shrug is the peace that copyeditors the world over have made with the issue that, more than any other, defines the collective psychology of Armenians and of Turks, defines their educations, the development of their cultures, their political horizons, and--let me not call it any less than it is--their souls. Because what else but your soul can we speak of when, one hundred years later in your otherwise liberal and tolerant life, the very sound of the name of a country makes your head blur and your limbs tighten? Now and then governments get involved, by participating in what Armenians refer to as "recognition." In my life, this general word, "recognition," with its various potential applications in the vast and flexible English language, had by the time I was eleven or twelve come to denote, with Pavlovian consistency, only one thing: recognition of the Armenian genocide. Recognition: It is sought and secured anywhere possible, from the city council of Milan to the parliament of New South Wales, Australia. It has been granted in the form of official resolutions, commemorative statements, and board decisions from institutions large and small, including the European Union and at least twenty countries, forty-three US states, various American cities from Santa Fe to Minneapolis, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the New York Times . Their usage of the word genocide is tracked on lists that are ranked and counted each year in the run-up to April 24, Armenian genocide remembrance day. For Armenians, recognition is not only institutional; tacit acknowledgment is expected on an individual basis, too. There was the thesis committee in college who reviewed my eighty-page paper about--what else could it be about?--the genocide; and there were friends (the subject has a way of coming up if you are Armenian) and boyfriends, too, and God help them if they tried to tease or argue. Recognition means all of that, but what it really means is the United States Congress, that mysterious holdout, at once powerfully stubborn and surprisingly malleable and, as of yet, unwilling to fully appease the Armenians. Recognition means an official shift in terminology by the US president and the State Department, and one administration after another has withheld reprieve. On another level of importance, separated by an order of magnitude that straddles the realms of the possible and the inconceivable, recognition means Turkey. To some Armenians, recognition means reparations from Turkey: to the true zealots, land; to the slightly more pragmatic, money. To most, it simply means the official usage of the word genocide. To me, it came to mean that I could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering, because it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide. Or was it? At some point I started to wonder. Not about what had happened, exactly, and not about whether the term genocide was applicable. It is clear that between 1915 and 1923, in Ottoman Turkey, a history-shifting number of Armenians, probably between eight hundred thousand and one million, were killed outright or driven to death on the watch of a government that was supposed to protect them; another million or so survived deportation to the Syrian desert or fled just in time to avoid it. These events echoed but exceeded earlier pogroms against Armenians, in the 1890s and 1909. The violence happened in fits and starts and was entangled with, though not fully explained by, the circumstances of World War I; and was complicated by the degrees to which different regional leaders throughout Turkey obeyed or defied central orders. In a few of the hundreds of towns and villages affected, Armenian nationalist committees seeking greater rights or independence staged violent resistance, and as a result, about thirty thousand Turks and Kurds were killed by Armenians, too. Of the 2.5 million Armenians then living in the Ottoman Empire, a few thousand men in border cities joined the Russian army against the Turks. When the fighting was over, only two hundred thousand Armenians were left in Ottoman lands, lands Armenians had called home for twenty centuries. Armenians had faced genocide. And the empire that had contained and then expelled them was itself dissolved and reborn as the Republic of Turkey. What I started to wonder about was whether "recognition"--propagating the usage of the word genocide to every corner of the world like a smallpox shot--was what we really needed. Arguments for recognition spoke of "justice" or "honoring the memory," but these had turned into hollow platitudes for me. Claims that human rights were at stake seemed disingenuous; and when Armenian lobbying groups yoked the cause to a platform of saving Darfur, it seemed motivated more by PR than conscience. Then there was that well-intentioned but unattainable promise, the favorite argument of first and last resort, repeated over and over by scholars and laymen alike: "Never again." That if a tragedy were recognized by the world, if massacre were transfigured into punishment and compensation, such a horror would not be repeated. Doesn't all evidence suggest that this is untrue? Let me put it less coldly: I wondered whether our obsession with genocide recognition was worth its emotional and psychological price. I wondered whether there was a way to honor 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. And as I questioned the underlying needs that drove my own community, I wanted to understand what drove Turks to cling to their view. Why couldn't they admit it? This was the simple (or simplistic) question that took me to Turkey. In both Armenian and Turkish, a particular phrase signals the start of a story: "There was and there was not." In Armenian, Gar u chgar . In Turkish, Bir varmis bir yokmus . There was, and also there was not, a long time ago, in a place far away, an old man, a talking horse, a magical kingdom. Once there was, and once there wasn't. It is an acknowledgment not only of the layers and complexities of truth in a given story, but of the subordination of a storyteller to the tale she tells. It is my way of saying that this is where we find ourselves now--locked in a clash of narratives that confuses outsiders, frustrates officials, stifles economies, and warps identities--and no matter what was or was not, this is where we must begin. Copyright © 2014 by Meline Toumani Excerpted from There Was and There Was Not by Meline Toumani All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.