The Meaning and Power of Memory Are at the Heart of ‘There Was and There Was Not’

As the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaches, a new generation struggles to understand its meaning, and role, in their lives

In a world that seems caught up in ever-growing waves of violence, with conflicts where tens and hundreds of thousands suffer persecution and death on the basis of ethnic or religious origin, one might be forgiven for thinking the events of 100 years ago would lie long forgotten outside of the history books where, it seems, the memory of terrible events goes to die.

But the Armenian genocide is not forgotten. The memory lingers powerfully among the more than three million Armenians in Armenia, and even more powerfully perhaps among the estimated eight million Armenians living in diasporic communities around the world (the majority of ethnic Armenians live outside of the country, which today comprises a mere sliver of the lands they formerly inhabited).

The meaning and power of memory, and the truths and doubts which drive it, are at the heart of Meline Toumani’s new book There Was and There Was Not. Comprised of equal parts reportage, memoir, travelogue and history, it achieves a perfect balance of these elements, and offers a moving and powerful exploration of the fraught and tragic history of the Armenian genocide, and the struggles and conflict its memory stokes today.

Between 1909 and 1923 (and with greatest intensity during the years of the First World War) the millions of Armenians living in Turkey (then known as the Ottoman Empire) experienced an unrelenting wave of persecution, dispossession, deportation, imprisonment, terrorism, and mass murder, orchestrated both by government authorities as well as non-government groups and individuals inspired by the regime’s open persecution of Armenians. Scholars argue over exact figures, but it is estimated between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of this violence.

It was, in fact, the Armenian experience that inspired Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin to develop the definition of ‘genocide’ that was adopted by the United Nations after the Second World War: “Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation… It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”

Of course, Turkey – the country which rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire – denies that a ‘genocide’, as such, took place. And so the struggle continues to this day, over what precisely happened and how it ought to be acknowledged and remembered by the world.

Toumani’s book offers a powerful and thorough consideration of the complicated motivations, attitudes and realities surrounding ‘recognition politics’ (efforts by Armenian groups to gain official recognition of the genocide by as many governments and other official bodies as possible). But it also offers a useful and insightful introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the subject, and uncertain where to start in their efforts to learn more.

She chronicles her childhood growing up in Armenian diasporic communities in the United States, traveling as a journalist to Turkey and Armenia, and then eventually moving to Turkey to conduct the more in-depth research which resulted in this book. Her style is professional and accessible; her prose is compelling and presents a well-constructed and vivid narrative comprised of interviews, first-hand reportage, and historical analysis coupled with revealing anecdotes and incidents from politics and everyday life in both Armenia and Turkey. The book packs a powerful punch, and leaves the reader grateful for Toumani’s skilled and gentle guidance through a complex social history.

Indeed, Toumani deserves credit for producing such a powerful and comprehensive text out of such a complicated and fraught history. Although she’s been widely published as a journalist, this is her first book, and her talented writing impresses. Her forays into memoir are rich and full of perspective, yet never dip into personal irrelevancies. She renders a complicated web of historical events accessible in clear and moving prose, and the well-constructed narrative flows smoothly and keeps the reader’s interest hooked from the first chapter.

Reconciling Past and Future

For many – especially those outside of Armenian and Turkish communities – there inevitably arise questions around what point there could be behind the fervent, passionate, and sometimes fatally violent efforts to either secure recognition of, or to deny, the genocide. In the ’80s there was a wave of fatal attacks on Turkish targets by Armenian terrorists, which in turn stoked violence against Armenian communities in Turkey. Even today violence erupts: one of Toumani’s own informants, an Armenian newspaper editor, was shot and killed by a Turkish nationalist while she was doing the research for this book.

Amidst the violence the question lingers: what is the point of dwelling on events, however tragic, that took place 100 years ago?

Historian Taner Akcam is one among the growing ranks of Turkish academics who refuses to accept the state-sanctioned denial of the Armenian genocide. In his 2004 book A Shameful Act, he offers a useful reflection on why this type of work is so important; on why it is so important that these events not be forgotten, swept under the historical carpet, or sacrificed in the name of social cohesion and of ‘moving on’:

…all studies of large-scale atrocities teach us one core principle: To prevent the recurrence of such events, people must first consider their own responsibility, discuss it, debate it, and recognize it. In the absence of such honest consideration, there remains the high probability of such acts being repeated, since every group is inherently capable of violence; when the right conditions arise this potential may easily become reality, and on the slightest of pretexts. There are no exceptions. Each and every society needs to take a self-critical approach, one that should be firmly institutionalized as a community’s moral tradition regardless of what others might have done to them. It is this that prevents renewed eruptions of violence.

Toumani possesses a gift for conveying the power of those subtle roots which lie below the surface and give rise to the tangled, confused contradictions of the present. Interviewing an elderly Turkish philanthropist who’s trying to bring Armenians and Turks together through music, yet who dismisses recognition of the genocide and sagely preaches that there are two sides to every story, she reflects: “…[his] words weren’t so far off from my own. I had written that the genocide recognition campaigns were hindering diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey. I had started to question the value of repeating the same sad stories over and over. But coming from him, the message sounded very different.”

She may be trained as a journalist, but Toumani possesses the skill of an anthropologist when it comes to discerning the complex power relations conveyed through words and action; even her own. It’s one thing for her to challenge her Armenian community on their historical traditions; quite another for the Turkish establishment to do so.

But it works both ways. After publishing an article on a famous Armenian musician – in which she deliberately did not insert the word ‘genocide’ – she was criticized by some Armenians for failing to use the term. “And that was part of the problem: genocide had become a term, a phrasing to be allowed or disallowed,” she writes.

“As a writer…I resented the requirement to use a word as a political statement, especially when I was writing about music, the one little corner of my Armenian life that had been safe shelter from politics, lobbying, hatred, nationalism, protests, the one private Armenian pleasure from which I had never felt alienated.”

The incident provokes a profound reflection for Toumani, which leads her to question what identity means when it becomes irrevocably associated with political agendas.

“How much texture and complexity are sacrificed, lost when we retreat to our trenches? We produce a press release instead of a poem or novel. This shrinks us, in the end, makes us less alive. If survival, the future, the avenging of a genocide should be manifested in the flourishing of a people, what makes the soul flourish? Let it all live.”

And yet, such sentiments are mediated by the inevitable presence of power. Ironically, it is after talking with a Turkish sociology professor that she comes to this realization.

Yes, it was all about power, but not about governmental power, and not about brute force: the issue was the disparity of power between individuals. This was how I came to understand why I had not become genuine friends with Turks who didn’t acknowledge the genocide: because if they believed a story in which Armenians were not the persecuted but persecutor, they were doomed to discount the current oppression that Armenians in Istanbul lived with every day. If a Turk didn’t acknowledge what happened in 1915 he was also denying an entire complex of discrimination and power dynamics that defined the minority experience in Turkey.

There’s a message here that reaches beyond the Armenian genocide. Toumani has tapped into an issue at the heart of reconciliation struggles the world over. Some, of course, have a lengthier and bloodier heritage than others, but ultimately that familiar barrier inevitably arises: how to move forward? What importance should be attached to recognition of an atrocity by its perpetrator?

In Canada, the conundrum evokes the plight of aboriginal and First Nations peoples. Fewer and fewer Canadians these days would deny the terrible heritage the Canadian state has wrought in its dealings with indigenous peoples. Fewer and fewer would deny the immense material deprivation and ongoing discrimination that many First Nations communities still face.

Yet when terms such as ‘settler’, ‘colonialism’, or even – increasingly – ‘genocide’ are invoked, the response is a defensive flurry from the mainstream press and politicians, denouncing such language as inflammatory and not constructive in the process of working toward a reconciliation. Coming from majority white commentators, paternalistic denunciations of this sort tend to inflame feelings more than assuage them.

There Was and There Was Not is a remarkable book. It’s a profound and important contribution to the history and cultural study of Armenia and Turkey alike; and a vital intervention into literature on the Armenian genocide. But it is more than that: it’s a beautiful and perceptive book that tackles the even broader challenges of historical and ethnic relations, of coming to terms with atrocity and genocide, and of reconciliation. Toumani combines the assertion and doggedness of a journalist with the perception and analysis of a social scientist. But what emerges is a truly profound expression of humanity.

Impressively researched, passionately pursued, and elegantly written, There Was and There Was Not is a beautiful and important read not just for Armenians and Turks on the 100th anniversary of the tragic genocide; but for all of humanity in an era when we face difficult decisions on how – and on whose terms, and with what ends in mind – to move forward toward a collective future.

RATING 9 / 10