Beyond the Two Rivers:
The Continuing Story of Mannig
the Heroine of Between the Two Rivers
Following the Armenian Genocide
Between the Two Rivers was a true Cinderella of Mesopotamia story. Young Mannig rose from starving Armenian orphan to the teenage bride of a wealthy philanthropist. Beyond the Two Rivers begins in Baghdad amid the political turmoil of 1958 and then flashes back to where the first book left off in 1922, when Mannig travels to the desert castle of her in-laws. As a young mother, Mannig moves from one isolated farming village outpost to another while her engineer husband makes the desert bloom. Mannig, Mardiros, and their three children eventually settle in Baghdad, where the tumult of World War II has soured relations between the various tribes who have shared these lands peacefully for centuries.
Whether hobnobbing with royalty or escaping from angry Bedouin, Mannig retains her resilience and joie de vivre. This is an Iraq that no longer exists, except in our memories and imaginations.
The e-mail below really picked up my spirits. To receive an honest-to-goodness compliment from a relative (third cousin in the other Kouyoumjian branch who live in Versailles, France) is certainly gratifying. Living relatives can be extremely critical (Armenian relatives, that is), so it was particularly wonderful to hear from Ara:
A month ago I had the opportunity to order your book Between the Two Rivers through a European Internet business site I know. I received the book within a week. It’s the second edition (with very interesting photos).
What a great book!
Needless to say, I enjoyed every page, every paragraph of it.
In addition to the exceptional story, and how the Kouyoumdjians come into the picture, the book gives also a different way to talk about the genocide.
It is not yet another book on the horrible 1915 events, but an interesting story relating the consequences of the genocide.
It fills the gap between the massacres and our generation.
The story is great, but it required your great talent to write it down in such an interesting way.
I did not know of your talent for writing.
Thank you so much for having written and published this book.
Armenians will immediately feel “at home” reading Sergoyan’s The Gathering Place. Wherever Armenians have migrated, they have rebuilt their ethnic community as soon as they founded a “club,” which perpetuates their heritage—language, fine arts and literature.
I was surprised to learn that Armenians migrated East, to Shanghai, for example. Being an Armenian who migrated westward for a new home—as 99% of Armenians did—I had assumed 100% of us went West. This aspect may fascinate other readers, too.
Sergoyan has recorded the Shanghai Armenians’ innumerable contributions; it seems Diaspora Armenians have been valuable everywhere they form communities outside the boundaries of Armenia. Sergoyan is proving the adage, Once an Armenian, always an Armenian. Or, wherever an Armenian migrates, he will build a “club,” where his identity will be born again.
Shahan Shahnour, a respected Armenian novelist, has said, “The world will lose nothing if Armenians disappear from the face of the earth. But the world will gain a great deal if Armenians are allowed to survive and make use of their creative powers.” The Armenians of Shanghai have done this.
It’s interesting to note that the colors on the book jacket are those of the Armenian flag. The Gathering Place will publish on May 15, 2012. You can order it at your local bookstore or from Amazon. The book will also be available in Kindle.
On Saturday, April 21, and Tuesday, April 24, 2012, I will be speaking about my book, Between the Two Rivers: A Story of the Armenian Genocide. Both events begin at 7 p.m., and both are free. Please join me!
The first engagement on April 21st is sponsored by the Armenian Cultural Association. It will take place at the NW Arts Center, 9825 NE 24th, Bellevue, Washington. I will be one of seven participants. The others are either singing, reciting poetry or playing musical instruments. There will also be speeches about how the Armenian Community in the Diaspora is gaining recognition for the Genocide. For more information, please visit ACAWA on Facebook.
The second event will be held at the Armenian Apostolic Church of Seattle, 11505 Redmond-Woodinville Road, NE, Redmond. I will discuss how my book ties into the Armenian Apostolic tradition.
I just received a note from Mania, my 2nd cousin on my dad’s side. Mania was just in Beirut, visiting her aunt Hilda who lives there, and reports that Between the Two Rivers is selling in many bookstores there. Mania bought a book for Hilda, and this was her response: “Tell her I love your book. Bravo Aida! I’m very happy that I got to know Mannig up close and am proud of both you and her.”
How wonderful to know that my book is for sale all over Beirut!
Once a year, the Holocaust Resource Center of Washington in Seattle honors the members of its Speakers Bureau by inviting them to a bagel and lox brunch. I am on their speakers’ list, not as a survivor of the holocaust as are the other guests, but as the daughter of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. When they introduce themselves, recalling firsthand experiences at Auschwitz or Dachau, I, as ‘one generation removed’ from the Genocide, feel uncomfortable speaking about my mother’s experiences in Turkey.
Hoping to blend in with the other guests, at least superficially, I decked myself out in my mom’s heirloom jewelry of diamond rings, pearl bracelets and turquoise pendants, even though I had fleeting doubts about the wisdom of flaunting gold in downtown Seattle when its price has sky-rocketed.
I drove into a coin-operated parking lot a block from the Holocaust Center. When the machine refused my cash, I debated whether to drive away or try using my credit card on this newly installed contraption. Following the instructions, I inserted my credit card. Nothing happened. I resisted giving it a couple of swats as Armenians tend to do at anything inoperative – instead, I sighed.
A young fellow loitering nearby, with his ear-buds corded to a cell-phone hooked to his belt, approached me to help. He slammed his whole torso against the machine and punched a few numbers. “It’s done,” he said.
“What did you do?” I asked wanting to learn the process.
“I punched my code,” he said and stepped into the crosswalk.
Punched my code?
Something was amiss. The machine remained inactive and this guy was already on the other side of the street.
Anxiously, I waited for the green traffic light to flash while I watched him walk uphill without once looking back. Instead, he bent down for something on the sidewalk. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry.
As soon as the crosswalk lights changed, I dashed across, yelling, “Hey! You,” knowing quite well, he couldn’t hear me over the busy traffic and the distance between us. I ran uphill, in my stack-heel shoes. Normally I would look down at the ground, stepping ever so carefully, lest I trip. But here I was running—uphill, to boot! The keys to my car were in one hand, and my small clutch-bag was in the other. Later on I realized my credit card case and loose dollars were exposed halfway out of my unzipped purse.
The guy had slipped off my radar. Where did he go? What happened to him? Why couldn’t I see him? Nevertheless, I maintained my momentum uphill. At the sight of an alley between the two main streets, I stopped. Aha! That’s where he had slithered. I ran into the alley.
Midway, next to colossal, commercial, orange garbage cans, he was talking with three similar-looking guys.
The dangers of being in an alley with enormous trash containers, surrounded by four or five gangster-looking kids, in downtown Seattle, never occurred to me.
“Hey, you!” I yelled again, knowing quite well I’d likely be heard in this secluded, noiseless backstreet.
He turned around, surprised to see me.
“I want to talk to you,” I said. “What is your name?”
“Paul what?” I asked and he uttered a common one.
“Do you have a card, Paul?” I asked, knowing quite well the futility of my question. But when he said, “Yes,” I quickly asked for one.
“I don’t have any on me,” he said, patting the pockets of his khaki pants.
I handed him a Between the Two Rivers postcard about my recently published book and a pen. “Would you please write your name?”
He pressed my pen real hard, and traced his name several times, as if his scribbled letters wouldn’t be legible otherwise.
Is he making up a name? Is that why he’s going over P-a-u-l and then over his last name?
“Would you write down your phone number, too?” I urged him.
At that moment, one of his buddies with a naughty twinkling eye, said, “Do you want my number, too?”
Paul, my gangster, looked at him and said, “Shut-up, Bro. She’s too old fer yo’.”
I wanted to laugh with the total capacity of my heart, lungs and libido, but my concern was my felon’s phone number. Again, Paul retraced the numerals of his phone – reasonable local digits.
Only after retrieving my postcard, did I exhale the pent-up exhaustion from running uphill a downtown Seattle street, so steep that a Ford Model T could only climb it in reverse.
Now that my mission was accomplished and my lungs refreshed, the faculties in my head began to function again, and I realized my predicament—alone in an alley with gangsters and garbage receptacles.
Like an aged gazelle of the Sahara, I sprinted back into the main street.
A driver in his parked truck looked at me and asked, “What was that all about?”
Thank God! There was a witness to my reckless pursuit, after all. “That guy may have photographed the number of my credit card,” I said.
“I noticed something funny about him, too,” the truck driver said. “He was piddling with that street sign for no reason. I thought he was goofy. You better call the police.”
If this Paul somehow stole my credit card number, I had his name and phone to pursue him. But the police? Although I doubted he had given me accurate information. I’d think about that tomorrow.
I returned to my car, debating whether I should find an old-fashioned parking lot or maybe just return home. A fellow was at the machine and reaching down to get his receipt.
“What’s this?” I heard him say. “I got two receipts?”
Looking over his shoulder, I said, “Maybe one of them is mine…what is the parking space number?”
He said, “25.”
“That’s mine!” I was jubilant, now suspecting the whole episode with Paul was probably for naught. Perhaps I had been too impatient to wait for my receipt, which meant that chasing Paul had been akin to punching a hole in a bucket of water.
Eventually, when I entered the fortified Holocaust Resource Center, I was breathless, but rational enough to call the credit card company and cancel my account, just in case.
When it was my turn to introduce myself during the reception, I said, “Being the only Armenian at these occasions, I’ve always felt like an outsider. Furthermore, you are all survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, while I am only the daughter of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. But today, I’m happy to declare that as of this morning, I too, am a survivor … for I have survived a Seattle Heist.”
Orphaned by the Armenian Genocide in 1915, Mannig and her sister Adrine struggle to stay alive in what is now eastern Iraq. Mannig lives on the streets and trades camel dung for bread; her sister works as a servant for an Arab family. With the help of Barone Madiros, a wealthy philanthropist, Mannig and Adrine eventually find their way to an orphanage for surviving Armenian children. In this refuge, after years of hardship, the two sisters find compassion, joy, safety … and love. Told by Mannig’s daughter, Between the Two Rivers is a candid and moving account of a mother’s triumph over adversity. This revised 2nd edition includes a map and photographs.
I have received two very good reviews for this edition. Here are excerpts and links:
“From the first page of Between the Two Rivers, your attention will be captured. Readers won’t be able to put the book down. You will hiss at the villains and cheer for the underdogs.” Read more …
—Carol Hoyer, PhD, for Reader Views
“With this writing, Kouyoumjian joins authors Thea Halo and Peter Balakian, whose finely penned accounts of family members’ survival of the Ottoman atrocities are essential reads for the understanding of these genocides.” Read more …
—Elissa Mugianis, ForeWord Digital Reviews
I do have diversified audiences! One day I’m speaking to senior citizens, the next, to seniors graduating from college. Like a chameleon, my presentation of Between the Two Rivers adapts to the environment.
Speaking at the Delta Zeta Sorority at the University of Washington last evening proved to be delightfully a unique experience and very unlike all my previous presentations. My audience was comprised of my sorority sisters—89 college students and two dozen alums.
While I always take pride in talking about my book and emotionally recalling my mom’s experiences, at the DZ House, the main subject was the book’s author—me. The undergraduates wanted to hear about my experiences when I first came to the U.S. as an Exchange Students living at the sorority house.
How could I help but indulge their curiosity? After all, I’ve spent my happiest days at the DZ House.
Besides, as I stood in the same parlor (now remodeled and expanded) and faced those gorgeous young girls, I felt as if I was stepping into the sorority 56 years ago—not fumbling through life as the newcomer to this country, but as someone who has experienced so much good fortune.
One story I recalled concerned my arrival at the DZ House from Baghdad, Iraq. I had no idea what to expect. My parents and I had thumbed through several dictionaries to understand the word sorority, because part of my Fulbright Scholarship included living at the Delta Zeta Sorority. My dad, knowing some Greek, deciphered Delta Zeta but the meaning of ‘sorority’ remained ambiguous other than ‘a social club for females with a designated housemother who exercised strict curfew.’ When my brother heard the word ‘curfew,’ he blurted, “Aida is going to jail?”
When I rang the doorbell of the House for the first time, a tall, blond and handsome guy opened it. Oops! I checked the address. It was the one written on my piece of paper. Nevertheless, I stepped back, uncertain what to do. Then the handsome guy said, “Oh, Miss Aida. Welcome to UW.”
He was the houseboy and all the girls were expecting me. I was relieved that my mom didn’t have to know about the doorman.
At dinner time, I was seated at elongated tables for 12 each in the dining room with 60-plus girls. The housemother invited me to sit on her right, as the guest of honor.
For the next 30 minutes, several houseboys came in and out the kitchen, serving the girls our delicious dinner of baked ham, mashed potatoes, green peas and lime Jell-O. Silverware clicked and goblets glistened beside the candelabras while the girls chatted. My English was minimal and the context of the girls’ chatter mostly unfamiliar. But I heard the word ‘dance’ so I guessed they must be discussing a joyous occasion.
Mary-Lou, who was seated across from me, caught my eye and asked, “Aida, do you have a date?”
Well, I knew what ‘have’ meant. And I knew everything anyone needed to know about dates. After all, Iraq produced three quarters of the world’s dates. Furthermore, my mom had given me several small packages of dates to pass on as gifts.
So when Mary Lou asked if I had a date, I said, “Yes. In my bedroom.”
The housemother got red in the face, spitting the lime Jell-O onto her buxom bosom, and everyone who overheard was stunned. Remember, this was in 1952.
Donna, my roommate who had already gotten one of those gift packages, immediately broke the silence. “No, no, Aida,” she said. “We’re not talking about the kind of dates you eat …” And so she began to explain what to have a date meant.
From what I could gather, the custom sounded lots of fun. So, sadly, I said, “No. I don’t have a date.”
Mary Lou jumped into the discussion again. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll get you a blind date.”
That hour of reminiscing about my first days at the sorority brought the house to laughter and more laughter.
Just before closing, one of the girls said, “You should become a stand-up comedienne.”
It was a fun evening for all of us.
Last Tuesday, May 17th, I was invited to speak at the Lively Saints luncheon held at the fellowship hall of the Mercer Island Covenant Church.
What a phenomenal occasion for me to speak at the hall where Mannig, the heroine of Between the Two Rivers, celebrated her U.S. citizenship party!
The forty plus guests and staff at the senior citizen gathering enjoyed a specially prepared lunch. The decor was mostly yellow—yellow tablecloths on the round tables, yellow miniature dahlias in vases. Yellow was a memorable color for Mannig during her childhood. Every time she faced adversity, during the Armenian Genocide and after, she pulled herself up by remembering her happy and careless days twirling in a yellow dress in her family’s parlor while her mother played violin.
The Fellowship Hall itself also made me nostalgic. In that very location, now remodeled and expanded, we enjoyed Mannig’s greatest achievement in her journey of seventy-nine years: she had just passed the (then) grueling examination to become a United States citizen. The year was 1982. The epilogue in Between the Two Rivers describes this event.
To conclude my presentation about my book at the Lively Saints, I showed a video clip taken at Mannig’s citizenship party. Seeing Mannig in motion, all dressed up in a flowing blue skirt (to represent the tri-colors of the American flag), a red rose pinned to her white blouse, made the audience ooh and aah. When she spoke about her gratitude for the United States, she opened a flood-gates of tears.
All in all, it was a nostalgic day.