By Meline Toumani
Metropolitan. 286 pp. $28
The title of Meline Toumani’s memoir, she tells us, is the traditional opening for a storyteller in both Turkey and Armenia. Like “once upon a time,” it signals to the listener that what follows is not to be confused with history: It happened, and it did not. But unlike the Western fairy-tale opening, which places the story outside recorded time, Toumani’s story is rooted in a specific year: 1915, when — depending on who’s telling the story — there was and there was not the beginning of a genocide.
This is not a dispute about facts. Toumani dispenses in a paragraph with those: In 1915, a “history-shifting number of Armenians” were killed or driven out of the dying Ottoman Empire, until by the time the modern Turkish state was founded in 1923, only 200,000 were left, of 2.5 million who had lived there for millennia. Since then, Turkey has kept silent about or denied the violence, and ever since the term “genocide” was coined after World War II, the global Armenian diaspora to which Toumani belongs has fought to have the events of 1915 recognized as such. As this bold and nuanced book reveals, recognition and denial — there was and there was not — are two sides of the same story, which is far more important than history.
Toumani was born in Iran and raised in New Jersey. Her Armenian identity was forged and maintained through language, religion and an all-consuming hatred of Turkey. She describes attending an Armenian summer camp in Massachusetts as a child, where the joy of spending time among people who looked and spoke like her came at the price of nodding along to a blood-curdling celebration of terrorist violence against the Turkish state. But as she grows up and becomes a journalist, she begins to question the orthodoxies binding her community together and to wonder whether the goal of genocide recognition, from any city or state government worldwide that will grant it, is “worth its emotional and psychological price.”
On a press trip to an Armenian rest home in Queens, she listens to elderly residents struggle to articulate their distant memories of the killings in front of an eager audience of reporters. Over the years, in countless retellings, the stories have either disintegrated into fragments or become rote and repetitive, “condensed . . . into plaintive one-liners.” Toumani soon realizes that no matter how sympathetic she may be to their experiences, these witnesses — women now in their 90s and older — cannot persuade her of fundamental Turkish evil. But without that certainty, that hatred, who is she?
Toumani realizes that if she wants to tell stories without an agenda, to find her way to “artistic objectivity,” there’s nowhere else to turn but in the direction of her enemy. Her first trip to Turkey is a tour of the remnants of Armenian culture in the rural southeast, which turns out to be a “giant, open-air museum,” where Armenian sites and objects are scattered about “like a thousand elephants in the room.” It’s during this trip, in 2005, that Toumani meets Hrant Dink, the editor of a progressive Armenian newspaper in Istanbul. At the time, Dink was dealing with the fallout from a series of articles he had written exploring the psychology of the Armenian diaspora, in which he suggested that Armenian hatred of Turkey had become “like a poison in their blood.” His comments had been misunderstood as insulting Turks by saying their blood was poisonous, and he was under official investigation. Not quite two years later, in January 2007, Dink was shot dead in the street outside his newspaper’s offices, by a 17-year-old gunman who had read online that the editor had insulted his countrymen’s blood.
Dink’s murder was a turning point for Toumani, spurring her to return to Turkey, to live in Istanbul, study Turkish, and interview as many Turks and Armenians as possible to try to understand the range of views on the “Armenian issue.” What follows is the story of a two-month stay that stretches into two years, and the author’s gradual recognition that artistic, or journalistic, objectivity is an impossible goal.
There’s the moment in her Turkish class, just after Toumani has reluctantly admitted she’s Armenian, when a glamorous French student proudly announces that she lives in a mansion that once belonged to Enver Pasha — one of the chief architects of the genocide and thus a part of the “triumvirate of evil” that Toumani has been taught to fear and hate all her life. Her response is a mixture of uncertainty, anxiety and latent fury: Is this ignorance? Deliberate provocation? A power play? Again and again, her interactions in Turkey carry with them this kind of doubt, pressuring even the most innocent daily exchanges and making it clear before long that an objective accounting of the “Armenian issue” is impossible.
Toumani’s emotional responses to her experience in Turkey, and her honesty in navigating and describing them, lend her story the authority that can come only from a storyteller who recognizes that history is a matter of both fact and feeling. Although this book offers plenty of insight — funny, affectionate, often frustrated — into a unique diasporic culture, Toumani is ultimately less interested in what makes a person Armenian, Turkish or anything else than in what can happen when we start to think beyond those national identities.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.