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.