Title: There Was and There Was Not: A Journey through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, And Beyond
Author: Meline Toumani
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Meline Toumani is a young Armenian American woman whose cultural heritage has been defined by the genocide of her people by the Turks in 1915. And, more specifically, by the Turkish denial that the genocide ever occurred. Toumani, eager to see the Armenian people move forward, rather than centering their cultural history on the genocide, begins exploring the ramifications of the Armenian genocide that extend into the community today, as well as to look at what it means within Turkey.
There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond is a daring memoir, to be sure. I’m not Armenian, so I can only imagine what it’s like to have this ground-shaking earth-shattering event within my community that defined us, that bound us together. But I can also imagine what it’s like to be a young person within this community, who wants to move past the centering of that tragedy—not to forget, of course, but instead to stop letting it have so much power over the culture as it exists today. There are echoes of the India/Pakistan, Hindu/Muslim conflict in this (I’m not trying to compare the two, I recognize the situations are very different, but the cultural hatred is similar), so I can at least empathize with the size of the task and just how entrenched these thoughts are.
The campaign for official Turkish recognition of the genocide has consumed Armenian culture, in Toumani’s eyes. It has taken this vibrant, dynamic group of people and reduced them to a single-issue minority. It’s understandable why she takes issue with this. But the emotions, the legacy of the genocide, are more than one person can overcome. It’s unsurprising that she will face resistance from Turks, but the anger she faces within her own community is telling. These voices have been marginalized, silenced, and they want recognition. They don’t hope for justice; all they ask is for acknowledgment. Who can blame them?
But, at the same time, how can we remember tragedy without it becoming our singular focus for the forseeable future? How can the Armenians have a future that acknowledges the genocide but doesn’t center it, that condemns the actions without condemning all Turks and fostering hatred that will persist through generations? This is Toumani’s true quest in There Was and There Was Not. She talks to many people in her memoir, but the most interesting aspect is the conflict Toumani feels within herself. For the last part of the book, she actually lives in Turkey, exploring and questioning everything she sees around her. And through these experiences she comes to understand what it really means to be an Armenian, to have this loaded history and know that this horrible genocide occurred, yet have everyone around you deny it. It’s so interesting to see her begin to understand the fundamental issues in a way she couldn’t before.
This memoir is absolutely fascinating. It might sound heavy—and there are a lot of emotions that run through it—but it’s actually not. It’s an intriguing exploration of culture and identity, of what it means to be human and to have a past. It may sound like it is zeroing in one one culture only, but the fundamental themes of There Was and There Was Not are universal. It’s a book of sorrows and tragedies, but it’s also stuffed to the brim with hope, possibility, and optimism for the future.