Meline Toumani and Arman Grigoryan write opinion pieces about topics they know little about and create clichés – one of a genocide-obsessed people and another of the Turk-hating Armenian – that they then attack to prove their foregone conclusions.
A week before the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, two opinion pieces were published on the same day, one in The New York Times, titled “We Armenians Shouldn’t Let Genocide Define Us,” by Meline Toumani, and the other in The Washington Post, titled “Can Armenia Move Past Its Hatred of Turkey?” by Arman Grigoryan.
The pieces, leveraging the attention on the upcoming Genocide centennial commemoration, take aim at the authors’ perceptions of the Armenian reality and their recommendations for how to move forward. Unfortunately, both end up as remarkably tone deaf wasted opportunities that exemplify how being Armenian doesn’t make one an expert on Armenians.
The articles are so similar that you might mistake them as two parts of the same piece if they didn’t appear in different publications. But the most striking similarity is the total jettisoning of facts and realities by both Toumani and Grigoryan. They have made up their mind about what is and what isn’t and they choose evidence that fits their narrative, ignoring whatever doesn’t.
Toumani, a journalist who recently wrote the book There Was and There Was Not, discusses important issues by couching them among facile and offensive caricatures of Armenians. Indeed, she doubles down on the arrogance that drove the writing in her book. She is surprisingly insistent on conveying a twisted image of the Armenian reality by selectively choosing bits about it that fit a narrative where Armenians are singularly obsessed with their genocide.
She writes that “beneath this limiting agenda is something even simpler and more banal: the desire to prove, as the poet Paruyr Sevak wrote in a line Armenians cling to like a pep-rally cry, ‘We exist and we shall live on.’”
Scout Tufankjian, a photojournalist who spent the past several years documenting Armenian communities throughout the world for her own recently published book, responded to this on her Facebook wall, writing:
“What is banal about Charles Aznavour’s La Boheme? Or Eric Bogosian‘s Talk Radio? Or the photography of Karsh, Diana Markosian, and Karen Mirzoyan? Or Saroyan’s Human Comedy? Or Atom Egoyan’s Sweet Hearafter? Or Nancy Kricorian’s All the Light There Was? Or Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-up? Or Katherine Sarafian’s Pixar movies? … Or do these things not count as Armenian art to [Toumani]?”
The mythical banality of Toumani notwithstanding, the list goes on.
Tufankjian spent six years traveling to Diaspora communities and meeting with Armenians there. She writes that, “I have seen that there is thread that tied us all together, a thread that has a lot to do with our shared history, but our shared history is not just the Genocide, and I did not meet anyone who thought that it was.”
The underlying point here is important: Toumani is not an expert on the Diaspora – or anything Armenian. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is that she writes about these things as an expert. Even though she is a journalist, she makes no apparent effort to try to understand the subject she’s writing about and her only claim to being able to write about Armenians is that she herself is Armenian – that’s not good enough. If there existed an honest summary of her qualifications, it would read, “born Armenian, speaks Armenian, attended Armenian summer camp.”
Due to her ignorance, she writes about complex national issues using clichés she’s invented to replace a gaping void of knowledge. It ends as an example of epic charlatanry: she’s painfully uninformed about the subject but her editors don’t know that she doesn’t know – and she doesn’t tell them.
So, she does things like whittling the Armenian “unity of purpose” to the Genocide, again, to fit her narrow interpretation.
Tufankjian writes about this, as well: “I have seen little of that mindless unity that she [Toumani] seems to think is our national characteristic. Instead, I have met hundreds and hundreds of thoughtful individuals trying to figure out their own place in the world – both the world of their adopted homelands and the world of their Armenian identity. I resent the implication that these people do not exist or do not count.”
Cherrypicking points convenient to her argument is something Toumani does when discussing criticism of her book, as well: she refers exclusively to the wholly negative reviews and ignores all other commentary that might disprove the image of the simplistic Armenian she’s trying to build.
She smartly prefaces her own critiques by discussing the concept of self-hate, to which she then ascribes Armenian disapprobation of her work. She laments that the “label [self-hate] is used not to engage in meaningful criticism, but to dismiss such criticism by chalking it up to shame” – then goes ahead and engages in superficial criticism and dismissing opposing viewpoints.
It’s not her failings, of course, or the legitimate concerns of her critics but their inability to think outside the box, like she can, which compels her to write with such concern about Armenians’ wrong trajectory.
Toumani outdoes herself when she quotes Russian-Jewish writer Vassily Grossman, writing in 1962, and smugly whitewashes the whole of Armenian culture: “poetry, architecture, science and history no longer mean anything to these people. They matter only insofar as they testify to the superiority of the Armenian nation.”
Did she just use a half-century old observation of Armenians in the Soviet Union, written barely a generation after the obliteration of Armenian culture to describe Armenians in 2015? Yes. Yes, she did.
Reading her piece, we are left with one conclusion, at which Toumani has already herself arrived: Meline Toumani is an Armenian, version 2.0, and the rest of the Armenian Nation is stuck in beta.
In The Washington Post piece, Grigoryan, a scantly published academic, seems to confuse Armenia, Armenians, and the Armenia Diaspora, discussing them interchangeably or ambiguously at times. In the end, he uses his platform for an unoriginal hit piece about all of it: Armenia, Armenians, and the Diaspora. But, his preferred boogeyman is the Turk-hating Armenian.
Sometimes copying the language from Toumani’s book verbatim, he writes that “we can hardly hope to win their solidarity if we continue to indulge in anti-Turkish rhetoric…or portray Turks as a race of bloodthirsty barbarians to our children in schools and summer camps.”
Let’s be clear: the Young Turks, the organizers of the Genocide, were bloodthirsty barbarians. There is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching this history as it is. If the barbarism of the Young Turks draws unwanted attention to modern-day Turks and Turkey, it is their own responsibility, and not that of Armenians, to dissociate themselves with their violent past by making amends.
Likewise, the modern-day Republic of Turkey, in its reprehensible drive to continue denying the Armenian Genocide and to permanently erase Armenian culture from the territory of its current state should be condemned at every possible instance for its attempts to rewrite history. This is not radical, extreme, or anti-Turkish. For Grigoryan to equate speaking truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and its subsequent denial with virulent racism is, put lightly, dishonest: remembering genocide and working toward justice is not hate.
Grigoryan also has a problem with what he calls “hardline” Armenians and, true to an apparent rite-of-passage of ambitious pseudo-intellectuals, takes aim at the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the ever-popular whipping boy of the Armenian world.
He writes that “when the first post-communist government of Armenia adopted a course for normalization with Turkey, it became the target of a vicious campaign by some organizations in the diaspora, including the most powerful one [the ARF].” As a member of that first post-communist government, this is where his intentions in the article come into full bloom: the man has a bone to pick.
As might be expected, Grigoryan presents the rosy picture he wants people to remember. While later accusing them of supporting the “anti-democratic” government in Armenia today, he fails to mention that the government of which he was a part had, quite anti-democratically, banned the ARF.
Seemingly unaware of developments in the community he’s criticizing, he suggests that “ordinary and decent Turks should be our allies in the struggle for recognition by the Turkish state.” In what seems to be a trend, he forgets the Progressive Politics conference at which he was a presenter in 2012 (and to which he was invited, incidentally, by the ARF): in previous and subsequent years, Turkish academics and intellectuals Umit Kurt, Asli Bali, Ragip Zarakolu, and Bilgin Ayata were also invited.*
But these facts don’t adhere to Grigoryan’s straw man of the ubiquitous Turk-hating Armenian, so he doesn’t include them.
In a total disregard for the integrity of his statements, he falsely states that it “should be painfully obvious the Turkish state will never soften its stance on recognition in the face of these claims.” Outside this alternate reality, it is indisputable that it has been in the face of unyielding Armenian demands that Turkey has progressively softened its denial. It’s embarrassing for an academic, but facts are secondary for Grigoryan.
“Turkey, in fact, has undergone some important changes with respect to the ‘Armenian issue.’ Literature on the Armenian genocide is freely available there, many Turkish scholars and intellectuals have acknowledged and condemned the genocide, commemoration ceremonies are held annually in Istanbul and the Turkish state has even moved from its preposterous position of flat denial to acknowledging the Armenian tragedy and offering condolences,” he writes. Did this progress fall out of the sky?
If it were left to Grigoryan, he would have you believe this was a function of random chance, not that of the prolonged, obstinate effort, emanating largely from the hardliners he bemoans, which has led to these changes.
The problem with both Toumani and Grigoryan is the same: they don’t know what they’re talking about – and they don’t care to learn. They have their minds made up about what is and what isn’t and their interest is in finding anecdotes that confirm their predetermined conclusions.
Neither of these people are part of the Armenian quotidian – and that is their claim to authority. The subtext is that their ability to get a book published or to get a professorship or to have access to national newspapers suggest that they know something their plebeian co-nationals do not. This might be true if they took any interest in writing about the subjects they’re writing about honestly. Sadly, they don’t.
Both are given a license to write about these topics by The New York Times and The Washington Post because they are Armenian and not much else. It’s like inviting Albert Einstein’s progeny to write about developments in physics because they’re Einsteins. It’s a silly proposition but it’s the same logic that got Toumani and Grigoryan published in these national papers.
Without much background in the topics they’re writing about and uninterested in looking for anything even slightly beneath the surface leads them to create fantasies based on social media posts and worn clichés, especially their preferred muses of the genocide-crazed Armenian and the Turk-hating Armenian.
Former Director of the National Competitiveness Foundation in Yerevan, Armenia, Pegor Papazian, wrote on his Facebook wall about Toumani’s piece, noting that although he was a fan of the book, he was not a fan of the article: “[Toumani is] stuck on some notion form [sic] decades ago that Armenians are being brought up to hate Turks, for which I can find no evidence in Armenia or the Diaspora. It’s just bad journalism. And poopooing genocide recognition on the eve of the Centennial is bad taste.”
The same can be said about Grigoryan.
Armenians, rather than being hateful, have been all too tolerant of hatred toward them. Even after the Genocide, they continued to live in Turkey where they have been continuously harassed and subject to violence to this day. It is not Armenians who have methodically worked to erase Turks or their history from this earth.
Neither mention the unbelievably horrifying statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deport Armenians living in Turkey – for the second time. They forget the 91% of Turks who don’t think a genocide ever took place, including the president and prime minister of the country.
Do some Armenians say nasty things about Turks or identify solely through the Genocide? Yes. But is that really enough to make it some national malaise? For Toumani and Grigoryan, it is.
Both are impressively devoted to portraying Armenians as Turk-haters while pointing to the infinitesimal minority of Turks who, quite progressively, are not complicit in the ongoing trauma of Genocide denial. This is like saying all Armenians hate Turks even if an overwhelming majority don’t. Wait a second…
Indeed, if anyone has a right to hate, it’s Armenians. But they don’t.
Despite it all, Toumani and Grigoryan’s concern is the Armenians who remember their ancestors being tortured, raped, and massacred, dispossessed of land and other property, and expelled from their homeland of four millennia – and who remind the country that immortalizes the architects of that mass murder (however difficult it may be, I trust my recollection of this history will not lead anyone to extrapolate that I am obsessed with the Genocide, Armenian victimhood, or hating all things Turkish.) These two see reason to assail a respite for the unresolved trauma of genocide: memory. They are blaming and shaming the victims – and it’s ridiculous.
Meline Toumani and Arman Grigoryan are not self-hating Armenians; on the contrary, they love themselves. They are entranced with their own opinions and believing that they have achieved an enlightened state, neither seem to have much interest in being part of the community they so freely advise. If there existed an Armenian ivory tower, they would be residents of its top floor.
It’s ironic that neither have much of a reputation in their chosen fields but are both trying to make a name for themselves by becoming arbiters of opinion in non-Armenian settings by tying themselves to the things they disdain the most: the Genocide for Toumani and the Diaspora for Grigoryan.
Tragically, if they were actually sincere in their efforts, they could find an audience among a new cadre of young and forward-thinking Armenians who are interested in moving the conversation forward. Instead, their offensive and combative tones that reinforce stereotypes and build clichés based on falsehoods are more likely to enrage and annoy than lead to some productive discussion.
With no other discernible explanation for the purpose of these two opinion pieces, we’re left with the feeling that that they were exercises in the writers satisfying themselves about their advanced state compared to their pedestrian compatriots, less interested in progress and more focused on seeing their names in prestigious publications.
There are so many real problems in the Armenian Nation that need to be exposed, discussed, and resolved that pieces like these by Toumani and Grigoryan, shamelessly riding the wave of a centennial genocide commemoration, waste precious energy on what might otherwise be a productive effort. These types of pieces shift the attention to baseless and dishonest soliloquies that resolve nothing with their presumptuousness and ignorance, driven by their authors’ narcissism. Frankly, they’re useless.
What did you think of the opinion pieces of Meline Toumani and Arman Grigoryan? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
*The original version of this article incorrectly listed Ayda Erbal as a Turkish academic who was invited to the Progressive Politics conference in 2012. In fact, Ayda Erbal is an Armenian academic from Turkey. Thanks to our reader AK for the correction.