Between the Two Rivers [342 pp, $19.95) is the real-life saga of Aida 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.
“It is the stuff of oral history,” Aida says. “My work is ‘creative nonfiction.’ Every scene in the book is a story she told us. Every single one has a line or paragraph that I remember word for word. At the beginning, she sing-songed the loss of her family members into lullabies at bedtime. As we grew up, she incorporated the details that haunted her throughout her life. I heard the stories so many times in so many different ways. All that remained was to make it flow—the smells, the sights, how it came about.”
Mannig and her sister Adrine endured the murders of their parents and siblings, a torturous journey through the desert, and life on the streets of famine-stricken Mosul, soon after the end of World War I. When the sisters were finally reunited in an orphanage, their new bond was challenged by Mannig’s love for a wealthy benefactor.
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 in Mercer Island.
After her father died in 1965, Aida was finally able to bring her mother Mannig to this country. At the age of 69 Mannig was hired by the UW to tutor graduate students in Turkish, Armenian, and Arabic. She retired after seven years, dying at the age of 79. Just before her death in 1985, Mannig was one of 90 survivors who attended the 70th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Washington, D.C.
An excerpt from Between the Two Rivers:
“Get under the quilt next to my feet,” the mistress ordered. “Scratch the bottoms of my feet. I want you to scratch my soles. Y’allah. Get going.”
Scratch the bottoms of feet? Mannig’s eyes widened, for the strangeness rather than ease of the chore. She remembered being stranded in the desert without shoes. What relief after Romella poked a needle to pull the thorns in my soles! The mistress needed similar respite, except she said ‘scratch.’ I’m so lucky to get food for merely scratching feet.
“I cannot sleep at nights unless someone scratches my soles,” the mistress moaned—resignation and pain resonating in her voice, but also with a hint of great expectations. “Lie down on the mattress by my feet and keep warm under the quilt. Then scratch the bottoms of my feet. Scratch, scratch, scratch! Until I fall asleep. Begin!”
Mannig crawled up on the mattress and timidly touched the woman’s foot with her fingers….
The sky in its distant endlessness appeared closer to her than any person within this palatial abode. She fell on her knees and prayed loudly in Armenian so God would hear above the storm engulfing her from within. “Haji-doo, my Haji-doo! You said God listens to children. Tell Him … tell God … that I am praying to Him. He is on my mind. He is in my heart. And His name is between my lips. Dear God, release me from this job.”
“Y’abnayya? Y’abnayya?” the maid called from the lower courtyard. Work beckoned. She dawdled on the stairs to delay the loathsome chore. What if her patron were deprived of her ritualistic nightly pleasure for a few more moments? I don’t care. But what’s the alternative?
When she opened the dividing curtains, the mistress, sprawled on her mattress, waited in her domain. Mannig crouched by her feet and proceeded with the “gentle but firm” scratching with “five fingers on each sole,” routine. She performed her job dutifully, consistently, repeatedly, over and over again, and again, and again until lulled by her own ministration.
She fell asleep.
Not for long.
Kick, kick, kick! Mannig was rudely awakened by the mistress’s thrust of feet. Kick, kick, kick—blows on her head, nose, and temples—non-stop. The insolence angered Mannig. Disgusted by the woman’s cruelty, the question, “What is wrong with this?” transformed into, “Nothing is right.” A strange household I am in, she thought. They call me Y’abnayya here and Hey Girl, there. They stripped me of the one and only heritage I claim—my Adapazar name—and they cast me at the bottoms of feet.
Her free spirit nudged. The need to be someone rather than to have things, finally answered the question. Everything was wrong at the Qasr.
The mistress promised to take an orphan under her wings, instead thrust her under her feet.
Mannig hurled the quilt off.