Soul Searching, or Self Serving?

Garen Yegparian

BY GAREN YEGPARIAN

I’ve been torn for weeks now over whether to write this piece, perhaps you might even say months. The dilemma arises from the conflicting responsibilities of speaking truth to power (in this case the American publishing establishment) and informing our community about matters that impact it while not creating potential harm to that very community.

The topic is a book and its author about whom I first learned early in 2014. I do not recall what bit of pre-publicity I saw, but it was enough to motivate me to start inquiring about who this author was and what she was up to. I reached out as far as Bolis, where the author spent some two years about a decade ago. My initial impression/worry that this book might be a Foggy Bottom (U.S. Department of State) and Çankaya (Turkish government) wet-dream-come-true has turned out to be correct.

By writing this, I’m giving this “project,” as the author refers to it, undeserved credence. Yet the damage it is causing necessitates a response.

Meline Toumani’s “There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond” fetishizes hate. It seems to me the author never matured enough to deal with her emotions, and now she’s foisting her problems on us while simultaneously (though unintentionally) serving anti-Armenian interests. She contends, according to all the reviews and her own comments, that she was raised being taught to hate Turks.

Really? Let’s consider this. If any human is informed that another human has done grievous harm to her/his family, friends, community, nation, etc. s/hewill end up hating the harmer. Then, they think it through, digest the information, and based on that, act to restore justice. Simple.

She asks us to perceive her book as a work of literature, of art, depicting her “journey” of self-discovery while spending time in Turkey. She insists it is non-political. Yet, she refuses to acknowledge that she is playing in the political field and, at least, accept responsibility for the ramifications thereof. Her own comments and writings betray her, exposing her as NOT being “non-political.”

I attended a book event for “There was and There Was Not …”, hoping I would be proven wrong about my concerns. There, she read aloud the first chapter of the book, in which she has a very damning juxtaposition. In two sequential paragraphs, she describes what an Armenian feels when confronted with denial, and what a Turk feels when confronted with a heinous past. This creates a false equivalence between the two. If this isn’t enough, how about Toumani’s rhetorical question, heard during her radio interview with Kojo Nnamdi, “Is there such a thing as nationalism that is not exaggerated?” Yes, Meline, there IS such nationalism, azcaseerootiun in Armenian. My pride and involvement in my nation is constructive and non-disruptive or antagonistic to others’ equal pride and involvement in their own nations’ lives. Nationalism is what helped break the tyrannical chokehold of empires over the last few centuries.

And, speaking of chokeholds, since that’s how she describes current Armenian identity, she finds that identity is based exclusively on hating Turks and Genocide recognition. Without that, allegedly we have nothing in common. I’ll let that contention kill itself on its own demerits.

Since Toumani seems to wallow in psycho-babble, let’s address her defensiveness. At the book event, she described feeling beset by other Armenians questioning her “loyalty” (my word choice, strictly for compactness). She repeatedly emphasized she was not questioning the veracity of the Genocide when no one made such an assertion. While most of the questions and comments from the packed audience were damn-near fawning, three were not. In two of those cases, she interrupted the speaker before that person had a chance to complete their thought. The third instance was my own. When I spoke, I identified myself by name and cracked a self-deprecating joke to defuse any potential tension. She recognized my name, that I wrote these articles, and immediately said something to the effect of “there’s probably very little we’ll agree on.” Why this defensiveness? If we’re all there to learn and engage in an exchange of ideas based on her book, why the aggression?

After the formal program ended, her admirers, including her parents, approached me and engaged in discussion. I was variously told I was closed-minded, didn’t know/understand English well, that I couldn’t appreciate literature, etc. There was this need to address the “hate” question from a mother concerned about her kids. Fair enough. But must that be done in a way that damages our community’s interests? How can a book do that you ask? Here a few quotes from book reviews. They bear out my earlier contention about a wet dream…

Being with other Armenians “came at the price of nodding along to a blood-curdling celebration of terrorist violence against the Turkish state;” describing Toumani listening to Genocide survivors, “Over the years, in countless retellings, the stories have either disintegrated into fragments or become rote and repetitive, ‘condensed. . . into plaintive one-liners.’;” “But with this book, she gives her people a bit of what they are asking for — recognition — while considering that there is always another side to a story.”— Another side to the story; Isn’t this one just what Turkey asserts?; and here’s another example of the false equivalences Toumani disseminates, “she investigates a double-edged intransigence: Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide, and the Armenian Diaspora’s obsession with getting them to do just that;” another Çankaya pleaser, “conflicting Armenian and Turkish narratives regarding the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915…” it’s just a question of “narratives,” right?

I’ll close with some questions, a silver lining, and request to the Armenian community.

My question is addressed to Meline and all her book’s reviewers who fetishize anti-hatred. Do you dispense the same advice to Jews who sought and now receive recognition, reparations, in a word—justice—from Germany? Do you call them “German haters?” What about black South Africans, Cambodians, Tutsis, rape victims, Islamic State beheadees’ families, etc.? Are they, too, “obsessed” in such a way as to damage themselves?

But in all this, perhaps there is a silver lining. Perhaps this book’s ramifications will stir the majority of Armenians from the torpor of focusing on Genocide recognition to the exclusion of demanding reparations and lands AS WELL. This is something I have long advocated and has, recently, perhaps during the last half dozen years, minimally entered our public political discourse.

Finally, I call on our community NOT to support the damage this book is causing by NOT buying it. I am proud to say I have NOT read it, and likely will not since the broader ramifications it has are evident already. If Meline Toumani feels the need to resolve her issues, I’ll gladly help her find a shrink, her book won’t help. Please join me.

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25 Comments

  1. Daron said:

    I’m glad that you took the time and wrote this article. I also came across to several book reviews of the book mentioned above, and it left me with the same impression. For a second I thought the reviews were engineered to sound pro-Turkish, apparently not, they reflected the book itself. Of course, the author of the book does not shy away to speak on behalf of Armenians, by generalizing her thoughts and feelings. I have friends who were interested in buying her book, I suggested to them to buy Peter Balakian’s books instead. Another thing, when I read her biography and her “progressiveness,” I thought she could be good friends with Sona Tatoyan.
    Good work Garen, always pleasure to read your thought provoking articles.

  2. Random Armenian said:

    “while considering that there is always another side to the story.”

    Wow, she actually said that?

  3. Gurgen said:

    Thank you for the review Greg, and I’m sure most people share your thoughts exactly. However the important question that is being left out is who (if anyone or group) has funded this young lady’s book and her 2 year “research” in Turkey. Was there any private funding from a particular organization or was it all self funded. If she received private funding then the organizations or individuals must be pointed out so we can see what the real motives behind the book are. And this includes payments for any “articles” she may have been writing while in Turkey. If it is truly self funded then it only speaks of her intellectual capabilities, which I normally wouldn’t criticize except that she seems to have no qualms about projecting her personal psychological problems onto the entire Armenian community, and in the process doing a lot of damage to the Armenians’ collective struggle for justice. Kind of like the old saying, “one idiot throws a rock into a well and 10 wise men gather around the well trying to figure out how to get the rock out”.

  4. Mesrop khoudagoulian said:

    Garen, i agree. It’s difficult to shake the slave mentality some enjoy. However, in order to bring closure with Turks, we need the truth to be accepted, instead of appologizing as victims.

  5. LJTanzer said:

    Well said Garen jan… But please, don’t confuse patriotism with nationalism.

  6. Norin said:

    Meline Toumani first and foremost seems like a self-hating Armenian, she definitely fits the profile having cropped her last name from Toumanian to “Toumani” which is an ugly new trend in our community and the first sign of a self hating Armenian. If you want to hide the fact that you are Armenian via last name cropping then you don’t deserve to be one.

    • Alex Postallian said:

      Or Armenians name ends in orglu, CHANGE IT…its turkish,for son of….I like IAN,classy….orglu sounds like a pig..grunting….

    • Alex Postallian said:

      Or Armenians name ends in orglu, CHANGE IT…its turkish,for son of….I like IAN,classy….orglu sounds like a pig..grunting….

      • Hratch said:

        What about blatantly open Turkish names that have the IAN (YAN)…..Demirdjian (Metal-ian), Boyadjian (Painter-ian). Nalbandian (Farrier-ian), Kzelgozian (Redeye-ian), etc…

        And not to mention Bible (Hebrew) based names, Hovanessian (John-ian), Hagopian (Jacob-ian), Bedrossian (Peter-ian), etc….

        You see, it’s a mess and all too confusing and on top of all that add names like Hamlet, Arthur and Ruben and you got yourself a completely dazed and confused people.

  7. Laz said:

    Thank you, Mr. Yeghpairian, for this article. I have noticed for a long time that the US book publishing establishment jumps at the chance to publish works that undermine the aspirations of victim groups. Even better if the work is written by one whose background is from said victim group.

    Should we conclude that if Ms. Toumani were indeed “taught to hate” that her teachers were those in her immediate circle, such as her parents? If that is so, it is strange that the parents should now cast the blame outward…on the Armenian community at large. And, one must question the dynamics in the Toumani family.

    From what you report above, it strikes me that Ms. Toumani seems quite willing to patiently engage with Turks, but does not afford that same luxury to Armenians. That right there is another red flag.

  8. Vahe said:

    I bet that when it comes to American domestic, non-Armenian political issues, Toumani is very, very antagonistic to those with whom she disagrees. I bet she thinks they are “haters” and engage in “hate speech”. You know the type.

    Do you recall a man named Edward Tashji, the American half-Armenian who became an ally of the Turkish government and who went around calling Armenians liars and haters?

    Toumani reminds me of him.

  9. Bill Turgerian said:

    I was referred to this essay expecting a critical view of a provocative new book. But as a reader and a thinker, I found nothing but propagandistic fake outrage.

    Garen’s bizarre unwillingness to accept, much less engage, the personal experiences Tournani relates….his eager glee to dump a young Armenian woman under the bus because she doesn’t share his views…all that might be remotely justified by differences in opinion if he’d even read the book. But he hasn’t. He hasn’t even read Tournani’s book, and he’s proud of it. And then he has the gall to asks his fellow Armenians to steer clear as well!

    Garen, what are you so afraid of? What ideas are you so afraid to have your brothers and sisters exposed to?

  10. Mike said:

    Toumani is frustrated because for some crazy reason Armenians refuse to forget that Turkey tried to erase them from the face of the world and that Turkey sits on top of 80% of historic Armenia, not to mention Cilicia. Toumani would like to see Armenians overcome their “Turkophobe obsession” and make peace with denialist Turkey which to this day, with ally Turkic Azerbaijan, would like to finish the job it started in 1915. Wasn’t “touman” an Ottoman money denomination, as in pieces of silver Judas was familiar with?

  11. Vahe said:

    Toumani is well-known over the many years for her anti-Armenian articles in places such as The New Republic. TNR is/was Jewish-owned and not friendly to Armenians.

    I am surprised some of you do not know of her.

    Why do all these publications publish her? Because they (Pro-Nato, Pro-Israel, mainstream, etc.) like Armenians who want to toss the genocide issue onto the trash-heap.

    They usually don’t want to hear from Armenians who have a case against Turkey.

    So here comes a nice liberal woman who seems to like Turks and directs her anger against … Armenians.
    How refreshing, they think. Yeh, they love it.

    Who are the people behind her book? Well, go look at the editors and owners of Metropolitan Books. As for her funding, I don’t know who, but I doubt she could live in Istanbul for years on a free-lancer’s income.

  12. Peter Musurlian said:

    Bill Turgerian might or might not be a friend of Toumani’s. He misspells her name, so he probably is a friend of the Brooklyn-based bully. She and he are simpatico in getting their facts straight.

    She is not “a young Armenian woman,” as he writes. She will turn 40 next year. She has been around the block. She is not some teenage airhead, writing a blog. Do not defend her by citing her “youth.” That is a non-starter.

    If you think Mr. Yegparian is unwilling to “engage” or “accept,” you should have seen the middle-aged author (Toumani) at Abril Bookstore treat polite pillars-of-the-community with dismissive disdain. That’s how she lost some members of the audience…through rudeness and evasiveness.

    BTW, Mr. Yegparian is afraid of nothing, as you suggest. It is the intellectually immature Toumani, who is defended, as if she is a school girl, when, in fact, she is an over-the-hill mental transient prone to childish outbursts. I saw those traits at Abril Bookstore. I was not impressed. I was shocked. It was all captured on video.

    I have read the book and will welcome 2015 with a further analysis of Toumani’s torturous tome.

    The hate that emanates from the words of that globetrotting dilettante must not go unreported.
    http://www.keghart.com/Musurlian-Toomani

    Peter Musurlian

    • Vanoush Khatchaturyan said:

      From what I am reading here and on Amazon review, the majority of Armenians I know don’t share Ms. Toumani’s assumption that Armenian “hate” rather than progress forward. First of all it’s not true, show me another diaspora like Armenians that have progressed as much as we have (individually and as groups) Secondly, I resent Ms. Toumani thinking she knows what is in my heart or that of my fellow Armenians, I don’t recall Ms. Toumani coming around and interviewing any of us for our views on Turks. Lastly, our groups do not teach Turkish hatred we teach history, and share information like the historical records of the American Near East Relief voted in by US congress to care for 134,000 Armenian Orphans.
      I am from Fresno, I don’t believe Ms. Toumani will be welcomed to speak at any of our lectures, or book authors. However Turkish Professor Dr. Taner Akcam is speaking at our Town Hall meeting at the Fresno Convention Center Saroyan Theatre (named after a good Armenian writer and Pulitzer prize winner) on March 18, 2015. Dr. Akcam is a guest of the Armenian community.

  13. Alex Postallian said:

    The two faces of meline toumani,who professes Armenian on the outside, turk on the inside.For one who denounces her heritage,shows little credibility,and honesty. She has to be a monkey turk……..Remember,the turks,mongol simian features,look a erromonkey(without a cage) looks like a REAL MONKEY.. Crazy too.

  14. Lori said:

    I came across this title last week in my local library. Thank you for this article. I was considering checking it out over the holidays to find out what it was about but since “there’s probably very little we’ll agree on” is what came out of her mouth… I won’t be wasting my time on reading such a closed-minded person’s book.

    To each their own. Being ambivalent about the issue or not sharing the views of others is acceptable, but writing a book about your “personal journey to self-discovery” is narcissistic. I would challenge this person & her supporters to realize how closed-minded they are for feeling the need to even question the views of others. What she thinks or feels about this issue is unimportant to me and I would wish for the same courtesy from her. Iren eench what we all feel/think?

    I am younger than her and my life was directly impacted by the Genocide. My grandfather was a survivor. Hearing him recount his UNFRAGMENTED memories about the experiences and the atrocities he saw through tears and a quivering voice did shape my life. His history is MY history. I won’t be writing a book about Armenians who change their names, or those who don’t seek Genocide recognition. I wish she would do us the same courtesy.

    • Vanoush Khatchaturyan said:

      Lori you are so correct, same with my grandparents – My grandfather memories are in my mind forever. Especially him tearing up at the sound of the Duduk,it brought back many memories. He would also tear up at the sight of all his grandchildren together, they were tears of joy that not only did he survive the Hamidian massacres by Bloody Sultan Hamid and successfully bring his sister to the USA to marry. My grandfather left the USA with a group of other Armenian men to fight under Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence) against the Ottoman / German alliance. We owe our ancestors nothing less than progressing and honoring their memoring. We must insure that everyone does and is educated on the Armenian Genocide.

  15. Hamasdegh said:

    I have read the books and the reviews. Frankly,what is being written here about the book is not about its critical content but rather impressions of an impression.As far as my reading of the book is concerned, I did not like the simplistic approach of the author, nor her inability to engage a broad spectrum of Turkish and Armenian societies in Armenia discussing their perspectives about Armenian-Turkish relations. Her interview/meeting with the so-called Turkish historian Halacoglu showed her inexperience as an interviewer because she let a glib person to hijack the process, rather than force him to think critically about what he was saying.
    Where to place this book? in 1989 Thomas Friedman published a book titled “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. Friedman had lived in Beirut for over a decade and being of Jewish origin had seen the broader picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict,its impact and implications on Arabs, Israelis and the Middle East from two different perspectives and had drawn certain conclusions which irritated Israeli and Jewish quarters as knowledgeable Arab intellectuals.In one respect Meline Toumani has tried to emulate this example but she is no Friedman, at least for now. Perhaps it is unfair to draw a parallel between the two authors in this matter and in this fashion but what I am trying to illustrate is that such books written by journalists are based on quick,shallow observations and generalizations and can not be considered scholarly works.
    As far as Meline’s work is concerned I think we have to give her a certain credit for expressing her views as a young Armenian-American on an important topic that is central to diasporan life and existence. I find her views quite common among numerous young Armenians who question traditional stances,outlooks and sometimes views that could easily reflect a very narrow perspective that conflicts with their upbringing, education, professional experience and inter-racial relations. My experience is that the number of such young people who question established wisdoms,views and categorical pronouncements is pretty large : they are the future opinion makers of our community, and it is good that we have dissent of this caliber and content. I think we have really and seriously to understand what they are saying rather than rejecting their views because they do not follow a “party” line. It does not make them less Armenian than the ones who espouse a more established view depending what our background is. My main concern is that experiences such as Meline describes in her book as a young woman growing up in an Armenian community in New Jersey (or elsewhere) are similar to the ones I have seen in communities I have visited: Mine could be a narrow experience but I assure you that teen agers of Armenian origin are having difficulty reconciling what they learn in American society with the views expressed in Armenian communities across the United States.You are welcome to scream murder but that is a fact I have witnessed over and over again. It bothers me because it indicates a failure on our part to understand our children in the society they live in.
    By the way “odar” reviewers in important US publications have given good reviews to this book and have acknowledge author’s success in portraying the dilemma of a generation caught between the painful memories of the genocide related past with the realities of the political life of modern days.

  16. Raffi Meneshian said:

    Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book.

    I have purchased and read “There Was and There Not” and have a special connection to some of the content of this book. I was one of Meline Toumani’s councilors at the summer camp she describes in chapter 2 (summer of 1989) and am keenly aware of the wonderful atmosphere that was (and still is) created there. I have first hand knowledge of the setting. She has cleverly created a distorted and negative image of a summer camp it does not deserve. Her exposure to history, current event debates, and music somehow affected her in hindsight and she feels that her camp experience planted the seed of hatred against Turks. This is simply not true.

    In reality, the summer camp was a fun and educational experience for most young Armenian-Americans where in between sports, arts and crafts, and summer dances, campers were taught Armenian history, participated in lively debates, and were exposed to Armenian culture. Much like American Jewish summer camps where Hebrew is taught, the Holocaust is discussed, and Israeli-Palestinian issues are debated, the Armenian summer camp was a unique place for those of Armenian heritage. Her inclusion of the summer camp is clearly a literary device, in my opinion.

    Keep in mind that students in the US are taught about the Holocaust, Nazi Hunters, the bombing of Hiroshima, Slavery and the treatment of American Indians as part of their history curriculum. Books from Eli Wiesel, John Hersey, and Ernest J. Gaines are good examples of books young adult are assigned in school, and asked to discuss. History, and its aftereffects are not an uncommon topic for teenagers. In debates on these subjects during the school year, the moderator/teacher allows for a free flow of discussion as an outlet to discuss difficult subjects.

    Ms. Toumani also seems woefully out of touch with the contemporary movement of the Armenian Diaspora and Armenia herself. The word myopic has been used to describe her book, and I must concur. Most Armenians focus on nation building in the form of volunteerism in Armenia, repatriation, and business ventures. There are fundraisers designed to improve the quality of life for those in Armenia in areas such as farming, clean water, building roads, etc. That’s not to say that Armenian Genocide recognition has taken a back seat. It hasn’t, however, her book creates a false image that all Armenians are solely focused on recognition, which simply isn’t true. It is factually incorrect. Additionally, during her time frame in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Armenian Earthquake was also on the front burner of most Armenians and helping them out. Turkey’s response? Sending cargo items filled with trash to Armenia disguised as relief help.

    Toumani’s tone and voice in this book is arrogant, petty, and extremely selfish. It is designed to sell books at the expense of just about everyone she has ever had contact with. It was a complete turnoff to have to read her disparaging comments on the summer camp, Armenian boys, Hayastansi (native Armenian) women, Armenian volunteers, Armenian lobbyists, Armenian historians, the Armenian Community, Diasporans, Armenian atheletes, Armenian students club, the City of Yerevan, and just about anything that was Armenian. This is all in the book, not my opinion. It’s downright weird.

    To Meline’s credit, her passages in Turkey are interesting. Her writing style is easy and flows. The explanation of the denial process of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey is fascinating. This, in my opinion, is where the book shines and her talent clearly obvious. However, to describe her two year trip to Turkey as a “brave journey” is really stretching it. She met Hrant Dink for an hour. Swam in Lake Van, goes to Akhtamar Island, interviews a few people from across the socioeconomic spectrum, goes to a soccer game, and then “shuts down her science experiment” and comes back to the States and writes this book. Her final chapter where she describes her anguished decision not to tag a term the Armenian Genocide in a NY Times article she penned (she had editorial control) is pathetic as she tried to explain her evolution from a Community member to an Individual.

    I don’t believe personal attacks on Toumani outside the confines of the book are appropriate or professional. She is a seasoned writer, educated, and clearly passionate about getting her point out. I respect that. However, the content of the book should be fair game for critique. I have read some reviews of people who have not read the book who have given it a negative or positive review, that’s not fair either.

    I have read comments in various online periodicals stating that it takes someone with an “open mind” to read the book. After all, “what’s there to be afraid of?” For those who have not given it a positive review, they are considered “closed minded”, “extremist”, and having a lack of “nuance”. These are also hot button marketing words designed to sell books by the Metropolitan/McMillan team. Nothing wrong with it. Business is business and there is a product to package and sell. I get it. However, keep in mind that the contents may not actually align with the hype it is getting.

    Meline is clearly positioning herself as a “controversial” author speaking of “taboo subjects” in the tradition of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak. She isn’t in their league and does not have anywhere near what they have at stake to lose.

  17. Ara said:

    In a market economy, whenever we buy a product, we endorse the production of that product. In a sense we cast our vote in favor of the production of that product. Therefore if I don’t like a movie, a beverage or a book I don’t buy these products and advise you friends not to buy them. Advising friends not to buy a bad book doesn’t reflect closed mindedness. It just discourages the author or others from writing similar books. On the other hand when we buy a bad book, we encourage the author and others to write similar books.

    This implies that Garen’s advice about not buying this harmful book doesn’t imply that Garen is afraid from the validity of any idea mentioned in the book. It is just common sense of preventing the propagation of bad ideas. Please do not buy this book and cast your vote in favor of publication of similar books.

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