Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Friday, April 16, 2004

MEMORIES OF EARLY FELLUJA - By those who owned the place.....

Up to a year or so ago, few people outside Iraq had heard of the town of Felluja, except, that is, the Kouyoumdjian family. Even though none of us has lived in Iraq for several decades (and some of us, never), most of the land around what was nothing more than a large village, belonged to us for the best part of three generations, from the late XIXth century to the late 1950's, when it was nationalised (without compensation) following the 1958 revolution against the monarchy. In 1988, my late father Jirair (Jerry) Kouyoumdjian wrote a family history to keep the memory alive among the younger generations. Here are some extracts (with comments in capital letters from me) which might put current events in a geographical perspective.

A History and Reminiscences compiled and written by J. Kouyoumdjian
London, October 1988

"Early in the 1920's, it was gradually becoming obvious that Kaloust's (MY PATERNAL GRANDFATHER) business was on the decline..There was only one solution to the crisis, and that was for the entire family to move to Felluja, a village on the Euphrates, forty miles to the west of Baghdad, where in addition to vast agricultural properties which Kerop Agha (MY GREAT GRAND FATHER) had bought jointly with his brother Hagop, there were properties in the village itself.

At the time, Felluja was a fairly large village (TODAY IT HAS 300,000 INHABITANTS), as villages in Iraq went. It was on the East bank of the river and connected with the West bank by a pontoon bridge. The West bank was Kouyoumdjian property running parallel to the river for several miles on either side of the bridge.

Felluja had only a small Arab school which, aside from being completely unsuitable for the sophisticated Kouyoumdjians, also happened to be on the other side of the river, and the pontoon bridge was often disconnected when the water of the river rose too high. Consequently, Siranoush (WIFE OF ONE OF THE UNCLES) ..took it upon herself to give the children the sort of education befitting the "standing" of the family. Therefore, a room in the house was allocated for that purpose and completely equipped with desks, blackboard and all the other necessities.

The land belonged to the Kouyoumdjians, and the best way to exploit all these assets was to go into farming. Unfortunately, they chose the wrong crop. They decided to grow cotton, hoping that they would become rich, like the cotton planters in the USA. It turned out, however, that the climate was unsuitable, with insufficient rainfall and unbeatable pests (SO THERE WERE ALREADY U.S. TROOPS THERE AT THE TIME ?). Another problem was that the land was inhabited by previously nomadic tribes who had settled down and thus by law (ANCIENT ARAB CUSTOM SIMILAR TO SQUATTERS' RIGHTS) had the right of abode. They did not, and could not supply the labour needed, nor would they allow outsiders to do so.

The sophisticated life led by "The People across the River" was in complete contrast to the general surroundings. Their life was not unlike ...the rich planters in the American South. Whereas in America, however, there were many such families, in Felluja there was only the Kouyoumdjians, to whom the locals referred to as "The Landlords".

While the women of the village-all illiterate as there was no school for girls- baked their bread and cooked their meals, the Kouyoumdjian ladies played the piano, discussed the latest Paris fashions and talked about recent Hollywood films (GONE WITH THE WIND, PERHAPS ? MY GRAND MOTHER's DOWRY INCLUDED TWO SLAVES, BY THE WAY).

At the time when both branches of the Kouyoumdjian family lived there, Felluja was a very backward place, both physically and socially. Most of the houses were built with sun-dried mud bricks, none of the streets were paved, and there was no running water, electricity or sewage system (JUST LIKE IN APRIL 2004 AFTER US INTERVENTION). A small generating set was eventually installed, and all those who could afford the cost of wiring their homes were connected to the overhead lines in the streets...About 90% of the people were illiterate, and even those who could read and write had very little general knowledge. It is not surprising, therefore, that Kaloust (MY GRAND FATHER) was regarded as the squire of the village and treated with much respect. Every afternoon, at 4 PM, one of the massive double doors (OF THE FAMILY HOUSE COMPOUND) would be opened and left ajar. One by one, the village dignitaries such as the governor, the judge, the Inspector of Police, et al would begin to drop in to have a coffee and a chat.

No one among the current generation of Kouyoumdjians seems to know the origin of the amity between the Kouyoumdjians and the royal family of Iraq in the 1920's. The reputation of Kerop Agha and Hagop Agha (MY GREAT GRAND FATHER AND HIS BROTHER, ORIGINAL OWNERS OF FELLUJA AND OWNERS OF IRAQ'S FIRST INDUSTRIAL FLOUR MILL), during the Ottoman occupation of Iraq could have something to do with it (THEY WERE GENEROUS CHARITY DONORS IT SEEMS). However, that such an amity did exist and is not in doubt is clearly apparent from the visits paid by King Faisal I to the Palace (NAME OF ONE OF THE FAMILY HOUSES) in Felluja.

On the day of the visits, everybody woke up early. The children were washed and dressed in their Sunday best and told to remain clean. The mothers pressed their husbands' morning suits and their own most fashionable dresses ready to be put on at the last moment. The men-servants collected all the Persian carpets and laid them end to end from the roadway all the way to the drawing room. One of the bedrooms was prepared for the king to have his afternoon siesta in. One other problem, which needed careful diplomatic handling, was the attitude of the Governor of Felluja and his staff, who felt offended that the king had chosen to have his rest at the house of "those Armenians" instead of the Government House..However, the Governor must have realised that in no way could he have matched them.

In the early 1930's, the radio was only a name. No one in Felluja had either seen or heard one. It is therefore not difficult to imagine the great excitement when Kerop (MY FATHER's ELDEST BROTHER, SUBSEQUENTLY HEAD OF THE IRAQI ELECTRICITY COMPANY, AND STILL LIVING IN HIS LATE NINETIES, NEAR VERSAILLES) came from Baghdad, bringing a radio with him. The radio he brought was made by himself..but one had to wait until evening, for reception during the day was impossible. Suddenly music was heard. It came from Bucharest in Rumania. Levon (MY OTHER PATERNAL UNCLE) who was technically minded, was fascinated and sometimes he would stay awake all night trying to get America (NOWADAYS FELLUJA RESIDENTS STAY AWAKE ALL

In 1941, the ruling government in Baghdad, prompted by the Germans, had the crazy idea of declaring war on Great Britain. So they sent the Iraqi army to occupy a British RAF base not very far from the property of the Kouyoumdjian family. As expected, the attempt failed in a few weeks, during which time the family fled to Baghdad for safety. The house was occupied by the army who not only destroyed the entire library, but also plundered and looted the place. The entire family silver, china, glass and a roomful of Persian carpets of all sizes were thus lost. (IF IT IS NOT ONE ARMY, IT IS THE OTHER).

Members of the Kouyoumdjian family are now scattered all over the world. Felluja has grown to twice its original size and a second bridge has been built across the river. There are therefore no Kouyoumdjians living in Iraq now, but the name is still respected by the remaining Armenian community in Baghdad, and some of the old men in Felluja still remember the "great landowners".


FINAL NOTE BY ARMEN KOUYOUMDJIAN : Even before the post-1958 nationalisation, the passing of the generations meant that the family land was divided and sub-divided again. However, the starting point was so vast, that just my sister and I are still technically heirs to 137 hectares of Felluja land. Remember that Mr Bremer, in the process of establishing "democracy" in Iraq, and in the meantime, please note that I have not allowed anybody from outside to walk or dive on it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment