Beyond the Two Rivers, by Aida Kouyoumjian: a Story of a Lost Iraq

beyond_2riversBeyond the Two Rivers: The Continuing Story of Mannig the Heroine of Between the Two Rivers Following the Armenian Genocide (246 pp, $15.95, ISBN: 978-1-60381-151-4),  is the sequel to Between the Two Rivers: A Story of the Armenian Genocide, the account of the real-life saga of Ms. Kouyoumjian’s mother Mannig, who as a young girl was one of a small minority of Armenians who survived the massacre and deportation from the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I. Historians estimate that 1.5 to 2 million Armenians perished.

“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, Just Reviews

** Click the cover image to order online **

** Or order it in Kindle or Nook*

Critics had high praise for Between the Two Rivers:

“From the first page of Between the Two Rivers, your attention will be captured,” writes Carol Hoyer, PhD, for Reader Views. “Readers won’t be able to put the book down. You will hiss at the villains and cheer for the underdogs.”

In ForeWord Reviews, Elissa Mugianis writes, “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.”

“An absorbing account that confirms the adage, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ ” says Mary Terzian, author of The Immigrants’ Daughter.

Between the Two Rivers won first place (Washington State) in the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) At-Large Communications Contest in the nonfiction: history category.

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 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.

Says the author, “Ever since Between the Two Rivers was published, I’ve been asked about a sequel. Did the Cinderella of Mesopotamia get to enjoy a Happily Ever After? Well, the answer is complicated, as you will see. She certainly had a wonderful husband, who also became a loving father to his children. But those were turbulent years, and what began as a luxurious idyll in the castle of her husband’s family soon turned into an itinerant existence far from her friends, her in-laws and her sister. During my childhood, my father’s engineering work took us from one remote outpost to the next, and eventually we had to flee for our lives. Mannig’s life was full of adventure, and it was certainly happier than most. It had its moments of fear and tragedy, but she was tough; anyone who survived what she did as a child had to be. I think many will find it fascinating to relive those years with her, in an Iraq that struggled to find its place in the twentieth century, fell into the hands of a dictator, and now continues to reel as violence breaks out in surrounding countries. What’s going on in Syria these days is so reminiscent of what has been happening in the Middle East since the beginning of human history—in Babylon, which is only a few miles from where I was born.”

Aida Kouyoumjian was born in Felloujah and raised and educated in Baghdad, Iraq. In 1952 she came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington on a Fulbright Scholarship. Aida married an American and eventually settled on Mercer Island. Click here to find Aida online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

Mannig never learned how the friendly association between the Kouyoumdjians and the Royal Family of Iraq began. From conversations in the drawing rooms she assumed that the two brothers, Kerop Agha Kouyoumdjian and Hagop Agha Kouyoumdjian—the father-in-law she never met—earned their reputations from their philanthropy toward the Ottoman Empire. The Agha brothers retained their aristocratic status by contributing to the welfare of their ancestral land even after it formed a country all its own—Iraq.

Mannig’s curiosity was piqued when the family received the courier from the royal palace bearing the king’s regrets that he could not attend the forthcoming reception for the wedding of Mardiros and Mannig. She never doubted the existence of the relationship between the royal family and the Kouyoumdjians. Some family members recalled joining the royal hunt for mountain lions; others bragged about riding race horses on royal grounds. Any doubts she might have had were removed by the visits paid by King Faisal and his brother, Ali at the qasr in Felloujeh.

As was their custom to escape the summer heat, the Kouyoumdjians had moved to their Felloujeh qasr on the west bank of the Euphrates River, forty-five miles west of Baghdad. Like their permanent home, this one was designed to house the families of the five brothers in separate compartments. They would gather together at suppertime and chat afterward on the balcony, often past midnight. The taupe ceramic-tiled balcony jutted out of the drawing room and cantilevered over the riverbank. They relished the cool breeze off the river’s bend along their peninsular property.

The balcony was Mannig’s favorite location, not only because it was the perfect setting for a cool evening but because she, as the most recent bride, was no longer the focus of the family’s attention. Everyone had so much to talk about. Their summer place offered a lot of space and many opportunities during the days for the fourteen children to expend their excess energy. The adults seemed to relive their youths when their offspring spoke of swinging from trees, riding horses or donkeys, swimming in the river and playing the sort of games children invent for themselves. Their juvenile dramatizations of how the cook slaughtered a lamb for dinner or strangled chickens for Sunday’s supper were far more entertaining than finding a turkey egg in the chicken coop. Armen liked to brag about how he almost trapped a jackal. “We chased that wowie to the edge of the farm,” Haig would add, completing his cousin’s story. Mannig, only sixteen then seventeen years old, loved listening to tales of the children’s shenanigans, wishing she could be with her nieces and nephews rather than her in-laws.

All this, however, did not stop the children from suffering the occasional reproofs from their parents, especially if Managuile Hanum shouted from her room, “Send for Mardiros to deal with these delinquents.” The children feared him, but Mannig could not imagine her husband even stepping on a cockroach.

Knowing her place, Mannig refrained from entertaining ideas of childish adventures. She hoped to familiarize herself with the caprices and idiosyncrasies of the adults of her family.

One day, the supper bell—an empty three-inch cannon shell—was gonged several hours before the actual meal. The adults dashed out of their compartments and headed downstairs, Mannig in tow.

Once inside the drawing room, they found that instead of the eldest brother Khosrof, Mardiros had issued the unusual summons. He motioned to Mannig to sit on the divan closest to him while he remained standing in front of a silk Sajadah—Persian carpet—hanging on the wall.

“We have been given several days’ notice that the King is about to visit,” he began with no preliminaries.

Soprano and baritone oohs and ahs echoed about the room, which was as exuberant as the adults allowed themselves to get.

“King Faisal, His Royal Highness,” Mardiros said with self-assurance, “is returning to Baghdad from Damascus. He will need a short rest when he drives through Felloujeh.”

Managuile Hanum called attention to herself by clicking her prayer beads. Speaking in Turkish, she said, “I assume you’ve arranged for him to rest in the qasr.”

“Of course,” they responded unanimously, making Mannig question her own understanding of her in-laws’ position. She had assumed the departure from Baghdad society and the decorum required there would give her respite from learning the rules. Suddenly Felloujeh was becoming the site of a royal visit.

“Furthermore,” Mardiros said, waiting for them to quiet down, “His Majesty’s brother, Prince Ali, will come from Baghdad to meet the King here.”

Prince Ali, still with no kingdom of his own to rule, was anxious to learn from Faisal about his own future duties. Faisal, crowned king of Iraq since 1922, had been meeting in Damascus, Syria and Amman, Transjordan—now Jordan—with the British and the French emissaries to determine which territories ought to be ruled by whom. He and his two brothers from Saudi Arabia had assisted the Allies against the Axis during WWI, and each claimed the right to rule the territories lost by the Ottoman Empire. Ali had traveled to Baghdad, counting on Faisal’s influence with the European leaders.

Mardiros raised his arm for attention. “Most major arrangements are done, but there is one problem. The Governor of Felloujeh feels offended that the King should take his rest at the qasr of “those Armenians,” as he called us, instead of the Government House. So I invited him to pay us a visit to see for himself if his Government House could offer better accommodations for his Royal Highness.”

“Good diplomacy,” the men in the room affirmed Mardiros’ handling of a sensitive situation.

“But when is he coming?” The women needed to know if they had enough time to prepare for an outsider.

“Considering the lateness of the day, we agreed he should come sometime tomorrow.”

“There’s much to be done.” Khosrof stood and grabbed his redingote from the coat tree. “This is a first. We have entertained many dignitaries, but never two kings at once—even if I’m stretching the truth about Ali. I’m sure his kingdom will be Transjordan.”

The family scattered and plunged into a thousand and one tasks and arrangements. The gentlemen of the qasr saw to it that every detail of protocol was taken care of. They assigned Siranoush, Dikran’s wife who hailed from Moscow and a girls’ finishing school, to practice how and where on the King’s route to the drawing room they should curtsy.

“Felloujeh cannot offer proper cakes,” Diggin Hermine said. She was Toros’ wife and revered for her culinary expertise. “I’ll order the cakes and the gateaux from Baghdad.” She saw to it that Mahmoud the chauffeur would deliver them on the exact day so they would be as fresh as if made locally.

The biggest problem was that none of the servants in the qasr was of sufficient standing to serve the coffee and the tea which, according to local custom, were served already poured in the cups and set in saucers on a large round tray.

“How about Farid Abbosh?” Diggin Sara, Khosrof’s wife suggested. Farid, an acquaintance living in Felloujeh, had spoken of previous experiences serving dignitaries.

Farid consented to do the honors and the Kouyoumdjian ladies began training him the proper way. He was told that under no circumstances should he turn his back on the King and that, after serving the coffee, he should withdraw backwards. Farid, being a man of considerable girth, found it difficult to get his bearings when walking backward. Even Mannig couldn’t control her mirth at his “test runs.”

When the Governor visited the qasr, he saw the extent and quality of the preparations and realized that in no way could he have matched them.

“It will be my honor,” he confided to Mardiros, “to direct His Royal Highness to your qasr.”

On the day of the visit everybody woke up early. The ruckus the children made while being washed and then dressed in their Sunday best filled the courtyard.

“You better stay clean,” Mannig heard one mother after another warn her child, “or else Uncle Mardiros will see that you never sit on your buttocks without pain.”

Mannig gave her husband a puzzled look, but not for long. “I’ve become …” Mardiros explained, brushing the velvet collar of his redingote. “No, they’ve made me the disciplinarian of these children. Ever since I spanked one of my nephews, the reputation stuck with the rest, making the mothers quite content to associate my name freely with the threat of the rod.”

“I noticed Diggin Hermine pressing Toros’ morning suit,” Mannig said. “Should I do the same to yours?”

“It’s not necessary,” Mardiros said. “But perhaps you ought to attend to your own clothing.”

“Oh, I will,” Mannig said, showing him her yellow silk dress, dotted with pearls. Maggie, Khosrof’s seventeen-year-old daughter from his late wife, had chosen it for her at Orozdi Bek, the Swiss department store in Baghdad.

“That’s a perfect outfit for tea,” he said, face brightening and eyes shining.

“Maggie said this was the most fashionable style these days,” Mannig said.

“Maggie has good taste,” Mardiros said. Then, walking out of their compartment, he leaned on the banister and called the men-servants, who dashed to the courtyard, looking up. “Collect all the Persian carpets in the qasr,” he instructed. “Dust each one and examine their condition. Then lay them end-to-end from the roadway all the way to the drawing room. Do you understand? His Majesty’s feet should not touch the bare ground.”


Comments are closed.