Thoughts on the Book ‘There Was and There Was Not’

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Cover of Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not

I did not buy Meline Toumani’s book, There Was and There Was Not; instead, I checked it out of the public library and read it. The author states early on in her book that she wants to make a name for herself. She describes the Armenian immigrants and other immigrants as “embarrassing.” Of the Eastern and Western Armenian dialects, she exaggerates the differences between the two so much that one would think they are two different languages. She writes negatively of her time as a camper in an Armenian summer camp—a camp where children enjoy the friendship of fellow Armenians, and where, besides enjoying the usual summertime activities, the children learn about their language, history, religion, and culture. Time and time again throughout the book she denigrates and belittles the Armenians—the people that she claims are her people.

The author describes her interview with Armenian Genocide survivors in a nursing home in a detached, callous, and mocking manner, and describes the appearance of one of the survivors, a 98-year-old woman, in the following manner: “The bags under her eyes hung halfway down her cheeks, elongating her face in a way that reminded me of Munch’s The Scream.” If only she could have known some of the survivors, spent time with them, and learned, even a little, about who they were, what they had suffered, and how they had put their great sorrows and losses aside to give of themselves in order to build the Armenian Diasporan communities we all enjoy. If only she had had the opportunity to look into their eyes, those sorrowful eyes that still held glimmers of hope in them even after all they had suffered. If only she had had an opportunity to listen—truly listen—to them as they spoke or as they sang their songs—songs that revealed much, some of Gomidas, who had witnessed and endured the horrors inflicted on his people.

The author writes of the Armenian Patriarch in Turkey and the patriarchs before him in a negative and disrespectful light without comprehending what their situation has always been under oppressive Turkish rule. Immediately, Patriarch Khrimian Hayrik came to mind when I read her reproachful words, and I thought, How sad that the author could not, for even a second, have stopped to think of the enormous difficulties, pressures, and worries these Armenian spiritual leaders in Turkey have always had to endure.

The author ridicules the appearance and mannerisms of the Hayastantsie Armenians (Armenians from present-day Armenia) during the time she was conducting, as she describes, her “experiment.” If only she had spent just a little time—a fraction of the time she spent in Turkey—with the people in Armenia, had done some sort of volunteer work there, particularly in the country’s earthquake zone and remote regions, to understand and experience a small part of what they have had to come to know as “life.” If only she had spent time with the Armenians in Karabagh to see how they lived; if only she could have looked into the eyes of the children and elderly there—in short, lived with and helped these people, whom she claims are her people. These are people who lived, and in many cases still do, through incredible hardships, deprivations, and uncertainty. These Armenians lived through depressing darkness, crippling cold, hunger, and illness for years. If only she could have witnessed and experienced some of these things, especially during Armenia’s “dark days” and beyond. Perhaps then she would not have written that when she and her non-Armenian journalist friend visited Armenia for the first time in 2003, that she was “embarrassed” by what Yerevan looked like at that time. Perhaps then, as she wrote her book, she would have better understood the true meaning of those plastic bags she had seen Armenians carrying at the airport in Turkey. They were her “people’s” only source of bread and butter, shoes and clothes and shelter.

In several instances, it seems that the author deliberately uses certain examples and specific words in such a manner as to portray the Armenians in an extremely negative light, and maintains that the lives of Armenians revolve around genocide recognition, that they are obsessed with it. Sadly, there are very few instances where anything positive is said about the Armenians. The author concludes her book, and thus her “experiment,” with the following words: “And if we move on from genocide recognition, with or without Turkey’s olive branch, what holds us together then? If there is no better answer to this question, maybe the answer is simply, nothing. Nothing holds us together; we are no longer together at all. Now all possibilities are available to us, and that is terrifying. We become individuals.”

Such an ending begs a description of who and what the Armenians are. David Marshall Lang, author of Armenia—Cradle of Civilization, says it best: “The Armenian is one of nature’s individualists, a leaven for the conformist mass of the human race. Logically he should have given up the struggle and lain down to die long ago. But he refuses to surrender, and here lies the key to understanding the nature of this dogged, invincible, little people, whose contributions to human civilization is out of all proportion to its numerical strength.”


In addition to reading Toumani’s book, I attended one of her recent book readings, which included a panel discussion praising her work. It was sponsored by the Evanston Public Library and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where the author’s book is being used in a couple of the university’s classes. As the author read from her book, I noticed that when a non-Armenian asked a question, she answered the person with smiles and sweetness, but when the person asking a question was an Armenian, the smiles and sweetness were quickly replaced with coldness followed by the question: “Did you read my book?”

After the event, as I thought about what the author had written (essentially saying to forget about genocide recognition), which included inaccuracies and degradations, and, in my opinion, some hateful and libelous statements, I came away hoping that perhaps, in time, she will grow to realize what an incredible and wonderful culture she was fortunate enough to have been born into.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Thoughts on the Book ‘There Was and There Was Not’