Beyond the Two Rivers: Aida Kouyoumjian
Creating a new life at fifteen years old should have been more than difficult for Young Mannig. Living in an orphanage after her parents and family were brutally murdered at the hands of the Ottoman’s left her and her sister alone in the world Although befriending many of those within the walls of this orphanage, learning to enjoy and cherish music as well as playing the piano. While at the orphanage she meets a wealthy philanthropist and things begin to take on anew meaning for her and her sister. Our journey begins in Bagdad, as the world is Iraq is about to undergo a tragedy that would impact an entire nation. The year is 1958 and the time period is highly volatile as Mannig and her family face the harsh truth about the changes within their country, their government and their lives. Families like hers only see each other at specific times and decided occasions. They do not infringe on their privacy nor ask to remain or stay with other family members. But, when the entire Royal Family is slaughtered, all those with the government killed in the streets and their bodies desecrated and defiled in public Mannig and her husband Mardiros realize that things are about to change and her idyllic life is over. As we hear her voice told through her daughter Aida, our author, she relates the story of her mother and father as they moved from one farming village to others while he worked as an engineer. We flashback to 1922 and we meet this young 15 year old girl taken from the orphanage and headed straight for marriage along with her sister about to meet an extensive family ruled by one mother. As she enters his world and we learn more about his family we meet Diggin Rose his sister who resents him and has no great feelings for Mannig. We learn more about the rest and their backgrounds and find out why some feel he is to blame for the strive that others have endured and why some feel that he should have died and not their husbands or brothers in war or from illnesses. But, when we meet his mother and she sees Mannig an instant connection is made and things seems to change.
Rising from starving as an Armenian orphan and being a teenage bride the story endears you to her from the start as he only wants to be accepted by her new husband, be a part of his family and assimilate within their culture. The pictures that are included help take the reader back in time and we get to meet the Prime Minster, the new King, see the family and witness her wedding picture as we get to know those that impacted her life. But, let’s flash to 1958 and we hear the voice of her husband and her son as they explain their fear, the revolution that has come and the terrible end result of the Royal family. What would you do if everything you had were gone in a flash? What would you do if the government took your retirement fund money, your pension, and your bank account and left you and everyone else with nothing? What is all you had was a motorcar to sell and you needed to enlist the help of friends and family but did not know whom?
A story so powerful that he captures you from the first page and draws you in for the entire journey. The political changes, the realities of what the Ottoman’s did and the lives of so many changed on July 14, 1958. Meeting her in-laws in 1922 and then feeling alone missing her family Mannig learned where terrors of WWII and how it destroyed the tribes who has shared their lands for many years.
Meeting Hanim-Effendi the Madriros’s mother, his family and learning more about the different feelings we find her at dinner with so many strange faces. Looking around her as she was attired in her uniform from her orphanage it was understandable that she too wanted new clothes, a new hairstyle and much more. Feeling out of place and inferior at first she and her sister Adrine had the same wants and faced the same issues. Promising her new clothes the following day but aligning herself with his three nieces much to the chagrin of their mother, they felt more like her friend that she as their aunt. Facing the situation in Iraq today we get to learn and realize that many were no different than today.
The story flashes ahead once more as we hear the concern of both Mannig and Madiros for their son’s welfare. Setrak does not work or have any skills. All he likes to do is listen to music and spend time with his friends. If they do not get him to Germany or somewhere safe he will be forced into the army. As the author shares a special day in time with readers as His Majesty the King Faisal I comes to tea and spend some time with their family. The event is quite remarkable, the protocol interesting and the customs quite unique. Both the King and his brother the Prince came to stay with them for a short time and Mannig only wanted to be included in some way and cherished that moment as we see the picture on page 23 that she had to hide along with others in order for the new government not to learn of their allegiance with to Royal Family. But, this was just the beginning of the end, as her family had nowhere to go and now they too had to remain with her against their own will.
The author brings to light the importance of music as Setrak listens to Dick Haymes sing who was one of my mother’s favorite artists who sang: Till the End Of Time a special song that she loved. Recapping her special times, tea with the king, hosting the Iraqi monarchy and leading a life of a socialite how would they adjust to having nothing and added in her sister Adrine and her family coming to live with them?
The story flashes back to Mannig’s life in many different places as the family moves to Bagdad, then to a home of their own out of the qasr and dealing with their own situations. With a young son at hand they are finally a real family. But, tragedy strikes and young Hagopig dies along with another family member and the dynasty seems to be fading and the main stay of the family, the farming needs to be addressed. With parcels of the land sorted out to each of the five families and Mardiros distraught over losing his son, Mannig envelops herself in her music and the piano as her own way of releasing her grief. Things change and Aida is born and then another daughter as Mannig along the way takes a job sewing at Sebouth’s store. At the same time the doctor that cared for her died and her husband stated that his family and their Neh-Neh would now live with them.
When the author flashes to what the book would call the present and the revolution and the end result their son Badrig is gunned down on his way to Baghdad from Felloujeh by an assassin who wanted to call Mardiros and got the wrong person. But, Mardiros is sent to seek the Mayor’s help to find a doctor to help with their child’s birth and he is asked to work at the Iraqi Irrigation Department and their life changes in many different directions as it requires more moves, more people to care for and we get to know just how inventive and creative he is. Mannig love the lifestyle and spent hours playing the piano and enjoying her music. But, she wanted more for her life and the author relates how important it was for her to be educated and she soon became proficient in many areas. A formidable bridge partner and learning to read about tennis, comics and learning tennis, he life became more than just being a wife and mother. With a new king in place Mardiros became the Head Regulator and once again he had to commute great distances. There is so much more I can say as we learn about their meeting with King Faisal, why she wanted to teach Aida about proper social etiquette and as she describes in Chapter 25 flowers for the King. Look at the photo on page 161 as we see the opening ceremony of Abu-Ghraib where Aida presented a bouquet of flowers to the late king of Iraq. Next we learn that Mardiros has a heart attack and he needs to take on a different assignment not so stressful at the Irrigation Department. Tempers flare and she becomes short with her daughter and once again things change as the King dies and a new monarchy is installed. In Chapter 27 the author allows readers to learn more about the changes and their move to Kut a future site for a dam. But, life did not remain the same for them as the author explains as they return to Felloujeh and in 1941 their was a coup d’état and the fear of seeing Bedouin Arabs surround their car brought back memories of the past. The incident is frightening but he finds a way to control the outcome as they find themselves in another prison or war of their own. No longer living in luxury and with family things change and their lives are more difficult but the children seem happy to have their cousins. There were many other moves before things became rough as we learned at the start of this memoir of Mannig’s life. Like all mysteries I won’t reveal what happens next as they move to Baghdad and meet up with some difficulties. Finding a new school for their children, worrying about their daughter and hoping to send her to America for her education this novel spans many decades, places and finally just where does she wind up in the present?
Would you think that she was like a Cinderella living in the palace of Prince Charming? Did she really live Happily Ever After or did he life take on some difficult turns. From the age of 15 she lived under the roofs of so many you might wonder just who she really was and whether she ever established herself as the person she wanted to be. An ending so heartwarming and a woman whose goal was to reach America and create her own life as she no longer lived with her in-laws, relatives or her sister. Her husband’s job took them to many places and at times caused them to leave on a moment’s notice. Whether it was times of strive, war, tragedy or joy she managed to withstand it all and survive. What happens to her son you will have to learn for yourself and where she is now read the Epilogue? A memoir so memorable it will haunt you forever. This is one book that will enlighten readers about a country so many know so little about.
Fran Lewis: Reviewer