‘With This Madness, What Art Could There Be?’

‘With This Madness, What Art Could There Be?’

‘With This Madness, What Art Could There Be?’

An Armenian-American writer asks if the Armenian obsession with genocide recognition is worth its emotional and psychological price.


This essay is adapted from There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond, to be published on November 4 by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. © 2014 by Meline Toumani. All rights reserved.

When we talk about what happened, there are very few stories that, once sifted through memory, research, philosophy, ideology and politics, emerge unequivocal. But there are two things I know to be true.

One: I know that if your grandmother told you she watched as her mother was raped and beheaded, you would feel something was yours to defend. What is that thing? Is it your grandmother you are defending? Is it the facts of what happened to her that you are defending, a page in an encyclopedia? Something as intangible as honor? Is it yourself that you are defending? If the story of the brutality that your grandmother encountered were denied or diminished in any way, you would feel certain basic facts of your selfhood extinguished. Your grandmother, who loved you and soothed you, your grandmother whose existence roots you in the world, fixes you somewhere in geography and history. Your grandmother feeds your imagination in a way that your mother and father do not. Imagination is farsighted; it needs distance to discern and define things. If somebody says no, what your grandmother suffered was not really quite as heinous as you’re saying it is, they have said that your existence is not really so important. They have said nothing less than that you don’t exist. This is a charge no human being can tolerate.

Two: I know that if somebody tells you that you belong to a terrible group of people, you will reject every single word that follows with all the force of your mind and spirit. What if somebody says to you that your history is ugly, your history is not heroic, your history does not have beauty in it? Not only that, you don’t know your history. What you have been taught by your mother and your father and your teachers, it’s false. You will retreat to a bomb shelter in your brain, collapse inward to protect yourself, because what has been said to you is nothing less than that your entire understanding of who you are is in danger. They will have said to you that your existence is without value. You, who wondered now and then what the meaning of your life was, who made a soft landing place for those worries by allowing yourself to feel a certain richness about where you came from and who and what came before you, will be left empty. The story you thought you were a part of does not exist. Neither do you exist.

Those accusations and their consequences are the first truths we must recognize when we talk about what happened between Armenians and Turks in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. A century after those events, Armenians and Turks—in Turkey, in Armenia, and especially in the widespread diasporas of both countries—believe in two radically different accounts of what happened. “Believe.” It is not a matter of faith, yet it might as well be for the power that these clashing narratives hold.

What did happen? I will tell you—but I am Armenian. It is almost impossible for me to talk about this history. Not because I find it painful to talk about—for me to claim that particular pain would be self-indulgent—but because the terms of the conversation have evolved to leave me no satisfactory options. To tell the Armenian version of the story goes against every instinct in me, not because I disagree with it—I do not—but because I know that even if I wanted to believe that the thing in question did not fit the definition of genocide, it would be impossible for me to find my way into that belief. Even if you wanted to believe that I am objective, it would be impossible for you to do so. I also know the pleasure of contrarianism; so when I encounter an outsider who has been intrigued by the Turkish version of this history, I understand his desire to fancy himself open to an alternative point of view. But then I find myself inflamed, needing to convince him all the more. I am doomed to be what is known as an unreliable narrator. I hate the way it feels.

* * *

Between 1915 and 1923, in Ottoman Turkey, a history-shifting number of Armenians, probably between 800,000 and 1 million, were killed outright or driven to death on the watch of a government that was supposed to protect them; another million or so survived deportation to the Syrian desert or fled just in time to avoid it.

These events echoed but exceeded earlier pogroms against Armenians, in the 1890s and 1909. The violence happened in fits and starts and was entangled with, though not fully explained by, the circumstances of World War I; and it was complicated by the degrees to which different regional leaders throughout Turkey obeyed or defied central orders. In a few of the hundreds of towns and villages affected, Armenian nationalist committees seeking greater rights or independence staged violent resistance; as a result, about 30,000 Turks and Kurds were killed by Armenians, too. Of the 2.5 million Armenians then living in the Ottoman Empire, a few thousand men in border cities joined the Russian army against the Turks. When the fighting was over, only 200,000 Armenians were left in Ottoman lands—lands that Armenians had called home for twenty centuries. Armenians had faced genocide. And the empire that had contained and then expelled them was itself dissolved and reborn as the Republic of Turkey.

A century later, Armenians have sought recognition of the genocide wherever possible, from the City Council of Milan to the Parliament of New South Wales, Australia. Recognition has been granted in the form of official resolutions, commemorative statements, and board decisions from institutions large and small, including the European Union and at least twenty countries, forty-three US states, various American cities from Santa Fe to Minneapolis, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and The New York Times. The US Congress, meanwhile, remains a stubborn holdout, unwilling as of yet to fully appease the Armenians.

What I started to wonder about was whether “recognition”—propagating the use of the word genocide to every corner of the world like a smallpox vaccination—was what we really needed. Arguments for recognition spoke of “justice” or “honoring the memory,” but these had turned into hollow platitudes for me. Claims that human rights were at stake seemed disingenuous; and when Armenian lobbying groups yoked the cause to a platform of saving Darfur, it seemed motivated more by PR than conscience. Then there was that well-intentioned but unattainable promise, the favorite argument of first and last resort, repeated over and over by scholars and laymen alike: “Never again.” That if a tragedy were recognized by the world, if massacre were transfigured into punishment and compensation, such a horror would not be repeated. Doesn’t all evidence suggest that this is untrue?

Let me put it less coldly: I wondered whether our obsession with genocide recognition was worth its emotional and psychological price. I wondered whether there was a way to honor a history without being suffocated by it, to belong to a community without conforming to it, a way to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place. And as I questioned the underlying needs that drove my own community, I wanted to understand what drove Turks to cling to their view. Why couldn’t they admit it?

In both Armenian and Turkish, a particular phrase signals the start of a story: “There was and there was not.” In Armenian, Gar u chgar. In Turkish, Bir varmış bir yokmuş. There was, and also there was not, a long time ago, in a place far away, an old man, a talking horse, a magical kingdom. Once there was, and once there wasn’t. It is an acknowledgment not only of the layers and complexities of truth in a given story, but of the subordination of a storyteller to the tale she tells. It is my way of saying that this is where we find ourselves now—locked in a clash of narratives that confuses outsiders, frustrates officials, stifles economies and warps identities—and no matter what was or was not, this is where we must begin.

* * *

On November 15 we all have the same plans.” In the fall of 2002, I received an e-mail from a stranger that began with this all-capital-lettered decree. I had just moved from California to New York City for graduate school, a writing program at New York University, and already the local Armenian e-mail networks had me in the loop. You didn’t question how an Armenian organization had gotten your address; our e-mails were collective property, and unsubscribing was useless, as it would quickly be overruled by a new list that someone compiled.

This particular e-mail went on to explain that on the evening of November 15, all Armenians in the New York area would attend the premiere of the film Ararat, by the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan. It was touted as the first-ever feature film about the genocide.

Anticipation had been building in diaspora newspapers and magazines for at least a year. And now, the logic went, if enough Armenians attended the limited opening run in New York and Los Angeles, we would help guarantee wider distribution of the film.

Here it was: the expectation, the obligation, that if a thing were good for the Armenians—which could only mean good for the cause of genocide recognition—nothing else mattered. We would support this film whether we liked it or not.

I went, of course, as much to see the movie as for the spectacle of an Armenian mass descent upon the Angelika Film Center in SoHo. In the hallway outside the screening room, Armenian women in dresses and heels kissed one another on both cheeks and sized one another up as though it were the red carpet at the Oscars.

It was not until the lights went down that a problem emerged: this was Atom Egoyan, director of peculiar, nonlinear films best appreciated by film buffs in art-house cinemas. Although he had by then been nominated for two Academy Awards and three Palme d’Or prizes, he was not known as a crowd-pleaser. And so it turned out to be not so clear that the film was good for Armenians after all.

The plot centered on an Armenian director (played by French-Armenian luminary Charles Aznavour) making a movie about the genocide focused on the Siege of Van, one of the few incidents in which the Armenians put up serious resistance against Turkish forces. Parts of the story are told through the eyes of the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky.

The genocide scenes take place on a cartoonishly colored film set, with crew and cameras visible, creating a sense of unreality and encouraging the audience to maintain critical distance. Mount Ararat is transplanted to the wrong side of the set geographically, because the showbiz-minded film producer (another Armenian performer, Eric Bogosian) feels it looks better there. Throughout the film-within-a-film, scenes of bloody fighting between Armenians and Turks are shown at length and then interrupted by the director’s commands to the cast, which serve as abrupt reminders that the scenes are not the thing itself, but a story under construction.

Death marches, rapes, the torching of a circle of Armenian brides doused in kerosene and forced to dance, all are started and then stopped short, with the equivalent of a “Cut! Let’s run that again” or a “Let’s break for lunch and then redo the rape scene.”

A half-Turkish character named Ali, an aspiring actor who happens to be gay, wins the role of Jevdet Bey, a notoriously brutal Turkish governor during the genocide era. (Ali is actually played by a Greek, Elias Koteas.) We see Ali at home preparing dinner, chatting with his boyfriend about the film. At first he feels uneasy playing such a villain, but when he begins reading about the history, he finds there are people who argue that the Armenians had it coming, a notion that helps him embrace his part more freely.

Several intense side plots explore the theme of manipulating stories to serve emotional needs. An Armenian art historian named Ani (played by Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian) is hired as a consultant on the film; she is obsessed with Arshile Gorky’s life, and especially with explaining his death. Ani herself has been widowed twice. Her first husband was an Armenian terrorist, and their son, Raffi, is seeking a way to honor the legacy of his father, whom he prefers to call a “freedom fighter.” Ani’s second husband, not an Armenian, supposedly killed himself, but his daughter Celia (Ani’s stepdaughter) believes Ani killed him. Both offspring are consumed by their fathers’ deaths. The two of them have an affair that threatens to destroy Raffi’s relationship with his mother. (Given the extreme sexual repression in Armenian culture, a graphic sex scene between the step-siblings could have been the film’s undoing if the stakes were any lower.)

But the most haunting story line unfolds when young Raffi returns from a secret trip to what he calls “Western Armenia”—Turkey—where he has gathered footage for the film-within-the-film. At an airport in Canada, a customs officer (played by Christopher Plummer) interrogates Raffi for hours on whether his sealed film canisters might contain heroin. The interrogation drags on well beyond what the conventions of entertainment would seem to allow and generates a creeping confusion for the viewer about where Raffi has been and what he has done. Egoyan seems to be demonstrating the inherent instability of a narrative whose goal is to persuade—such as the narratives on both sides of the Armenian genocide. When Raffi tries to tell the truth about his trip—and to explain why the film’s director can’t bail him out, because Raffi did not tell him he was going to gather this footage—his story sounds so convoluted that he resorts to lying to make it seem more true. In the end, the officer turns off the lights, opens a film canister, feels for the contents and then—leaving mysterious what was inside—lets Raffi go. Later, telling his son (who happens to be the boyfriend of the half-Turkish actor Ali) about the incident, the officer muses on the question of whether the canisters indeed contained heroin. “What difference does it make?” he says. “He didn’t believe he could do something like that.”

Through all of these threads, the film grapples with a question that Egoyan later articulated in an interview: “How do you know what you know?”

* * *

At the Angelika Film Center, for a brief spell after the credits rolled, the Armenians allowed themselves their disappointment. Many said they wished it had been a more clear-cut rendering of the story of 1915, that Egoyan blew our big chance—to secure genocide recognition via Hollywood, that is.

“Why couldn’t he have done something normal, like Schindler’s List?” people asked.

“It was too confusing” was a frequent refrain, another way of saying that the film wasted its capital on ideas and emotions that were not politically instrumental.

Meanwhile, in The New Yorker, critic Anthony Lane concluded his review of Ararat with an observation that explained perfectly the Armenians’ sense of a lost opportunity: “If I were a Turkish official, I would not be too worried by this picture. Nothing so slippery can stir up indignation.”

Brandon Judell, a critic from Indiewire, took this further, accusing the filmmaker of abdicating a moral duty. “If only Egoyan took a chance,” he wrote. “The main problem with his Ararat is that it’s a subject that should overwhelm us intellectually and emotionally. Egoyan’s already made his point time and again that modern technology has increasingly distanced us from experiencing the joys of life and the ability to cope with everyday sorrows. But the Armenians don’t need any more intellectual game-playing with their past. They need a catharsis.”

How enormously this missed the point. We had no shortage of catharsis. I had been reading tragic memoirs and gruesome eyewitness accounts from genocide survivors since I was old enough to read Dr. Seuss. I consumed them greedily and bawled like a professional mourner. I had attended awful theater by Armenian playwrights in which young actors faked the accents of genocide survivors in kitschy attempts at representing trauma, tugging the heartstrings of audiences who handed them over expectantly, as if in a prearranged bargain. Egoyan had taken a huge artistic risk by diverging from this well-worn path, whereas attempts at catharsis of the sort Judell recommended had catered to our most superficial feelings for years already and had led to something very much the opposite of relief.

In any case, the Armenian community’s dissatisfaction with Ararat was short-lived: within a few months all was forgiven, and Egoyan and his leading-lady wife, Arsinée Khanjian, were honored at a black-tie affair at the New York Yacht Club. It was sponsored by the Armenian Prelacy, an arm of the Armenian Apostolic Church loosely aligned with a nationalist group called the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. The head of the Armenian lobby in Washington served as master of ceremonies and spoke about how the film might aid in the campaign for genocide recognition. The Archbishop His Eminence Oshagan Choloyan admitted that it was the first film he’d seen in seventeen years. Then, apparently willing to overlook not only the movie’s challenges to the party line but also its depictions of homosexuality, incest and nudity, he blessed the project with a prayer and bestowed a medal of honor.

Was this reversal of attitude governed more by cold political strategy, or was it shaped by a kind of denial—a denial of the uncomfortable feelings, complexities and questions that Egoyan had tried to articulate? Either way, it amounted to a neatly tautological lesson: first, there is only one acceptable way to talk about the genocide; second, what you actually say is irrelevant, because no matter what questions you ask or what answers you give, you will either be ensnared, appropriated and controlled, or simply rejected. Even an artist of Egoyan’s stature could not escape this system entirely. It was some kind of clan velocity, some law of ethnic physics by which everything would be swept into the same story in the end. You’re either with us or against us. In the case of Ararat, the balance had fallen toward the first option, a calculation reached, no doubt, because of Egoyan’s clout in the wider world; the solution was to ignore the “slippery” message and replace it with a less confusing one.

These forces left little room for individuality, which meant they left little room for art—a high price to pay for membership in the group. (And speaking of high prices: the Yacht Club event, a few hours on a weeknight, cost $100 per person to attend. The prohibitive admission fee was typical for Armenian community gatherings, a kind of tithe that all but guaranteed the absence of artists, since only those with corporate salaries would be able to pony up on a regular basis. Each time I received an invitation to another of these black-tie affairs—whose ticket prices served to underline a message I had struggled against all my life: that my passions were merely hobbies, and that a real job needed to have the initials MD, JD or CPA attached to it—I felt a wave of rage.)

Yet somewhere in the midst of all this, a possibility had taken root in my imagination. I had spent a couple of hours of private time with a Turk—a Turkish character on the screen, a fellow named Ali. In the safety of a dark theater, I had been allowed to observe him and consider his behavior, his humanity or inhumanity. Wait—to consider whom? This Turk whose character was somebody’s thoughtful gay boyfriend one minute and an actor playing a génocidaire the next; this Turk whose actor character was only half-Turkish; this half-Turkish character played by Elias Koteas, an actor who was Greek, of all things? But his name was Ali, and he was tall, with broad shoulders, black hair and a pasted-on mustache. He was as Turkish-seeming as I needed him to be in order to carry out what my professors in grad school would have called a thought experiment—a thought experiment that could be summarized as follows: so, there’s a Turk. So what?

* * *

One week after the Yacht Club event, I attended an academic conference about the film, sponsored by the City University of New York. A few scholars of Armenian descent spoke analytically about the film’s complex handling of narratives. Some compared it to Egoyan’s other work. There was a discussion about the reaction of Armenian audiences to the film. Confounding my expectations, the conference was riveting. But the biggest shock came when a man named Taner Akçam took the floor.

Akçam was Turkish. How this was communicated I cannot remember—but since the proceedings took as given the idea that the Armenians had faced genocide, his participation was strange enough that there may as well have been a flashing purple neon sign that said Turk, with an arrow pointing at the small man with glasses and thinning gray hair who stood alone behind the podium.

Now a historian, Akçam had fled Turkey in the 1970s after getting into trouble as a political activist. He would later explain to me that it was while he was in exile in Germany, pursuing his studies at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and working alongside Holocaust scholars, that he went “through a certain process” to become comfortable referring to the Armenian massacres as genocide. He was one of the first Turkish scholars to have done so openly, and for that he was facing death threats from Turkish diaspora nationalists in the United States. If he seemed out of place in a conference hall filled mostly with Armenians, it was nothing compared to the alienation he risked among his compatriots.

This was a kind of alienation I was testing out in my own life, not exactly by design. I had begun publishing my first articles as a journalist, and although I thought I wanted to write about anything but Armenians or the genocide—and although a favorite professor in graduate school warned me that the subject of Armenians and Turks and their “little quarrels” (which cost several million dollars a year in lobbying money and inspired the occasional assassination) would interest no magazine editor—the Ararat events had lured me back in. Even as I cast about my journalistic bait, pitching articles on healthcare in prisons and immigration reform, I kept coming back to the same story.

Except that, for me, the story was changing. Within a year of the Ararat screening, I was writing about the issue with a new outlook, interviewing Armenian scholars and politicians and, starting with Taner Akçam, communicating with Turkish historians as well. In the fall of 2004, I wrote an essay for The Nation arguing that the Armenian diaspora’s obsession with genocide recognition had become its raison d’être, that it had become inextricable from a general hatred toward Turks, and—here was my big hook—that this was actually harmful to the fledgling post-Soviet Republic of Armenia, which desperately needed the economic benefits of diplomatic relations with Turkey.

Turkey had sealed its border with Armenia in 1993, ostensibly in response to Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan, a Turkic nation and thus Turkey’s national next of kin, if there could be such a thing. But I had interviewed Armenian officials who were concerned, privately, that the diaspora’s vilification of Turkey—the lobbying, the protests, the boycotts—was the real obstacle to Turkey’s ever opening the border. Thus, Armenia was in a bind; diaspora philanthropists were financing everything there—new streets, schools, hospitals and an array of NGOs—but the diaspora also fueled a climate of animosity that prevented Armenia and Turkey from establishing neighborly ties. The diaspora obsessed with its homeland was in fact hurting that homeland with its efforts.

* * *

With that essay, I had crossed a line, arguing—more or less, not directly but implicitly—that the genocide-recognition campaign was destructive. Several Armenian publications ran articles asserting that my moral fiber was damaged, that I had no understanding of the diaspora, that I was playing right into the hands of Turks. The author of one of these retorts began almost chivalrously, before going on to dispute everything I had written: “I choose to believe that [Toumani] did not intentionally insult the diaspora and demean the citizens of Armenia. Her conclusions indicate that she generally contacted sources who would provide her with answers she apparently was programmed to hear.”

While a few friends and relatives confessed they agreed with me, most expressed something like fear.

“Why did you have to publish it in The Nation?” several people asked, wishing that I had raised the issue in a community magazine rather than in a national, American one.

“The people on the Hill read that shit,” one of my old Armenian friends told another, who reported the concern back to me.

I told her that The Nation had seen better days. But the truth was that I had no interest in community magazines. While there were countless Armenian-American publications that circulated throughout their diaspora audience with an efficiency and reach that The New York Times might have envied, I wanted to make a name for myself outside the community.

As for my parents, they encouraged me—more or less—and that meant a lot, even if it wasn’t clear how much of their attitude was simply relief that my ambition of being paid as a journalist was bearing fruit (kumquat-size fruit, in the case of pay rates at The Nation). But they had to answer to their friends, too. What happened to her? whispered the men and women gathering in living rooms for tea. She was always such a nice girl.

My argument about the effect of the diaspora’s genocide-recognition campaigns on Armenia’s economy was probably flawed, or at the very least incomplete. But it was as close as I could come to finding an argument that would justify a feeling I didn’t know how else to defend: that our obsession with 1915 was destroying us. Emotional logic seemed feeble; I thought I needed geopolitics to make the case. But the case, at its heart, was emotional; it was about the cost to our spirits and our imaginations, to our psychological well-being, and to our ability to flourish creatively as individuals.

The Armenian poet and scholar Leonardo Alishan had framed the problem twenty years earlier in his essay “An Exercise on a Genre for Genocide and Exorcism”: “Without art, there was madness. But with this madness, what art could there be?”

Alishan argued that telling the story of the Armenian genocide was impossible because the Armenian artist would be placed partly in the position of propagandist, always struggling between serving his art and serving his community. Until the world—and Turkey—recognize the genocide, he wrote, Armenians (and especially Armenian artists) cannot digest it. And until it is digested, the story cannot be told in a way that preserves artistic objectivity.

Artistic objectivity: the ability to see a problem or an experience from multiple points of view; to tell a story for the sake of a deeper understanding, not to further an agenda; to inhabit the mind of the villain as fully as that of the victim.

The villain, for me, had always been the Turk. It was time to try to understand him.

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