In September 2005 Mary Terzian, an American Armenian, originally from Egypt, published in Los Angeles a book that will surely bring a notable addition to the genre of memoirs related to immigration, survival and search for ever shaping identities.
The book which comes in 296 pages is distributed through Ingram and is available in e-book and paperback formats at major online bookstores, including Booklocker.com, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com.
The photo on the cover of the book speaks a lot in itself: from the left to right it depicts author Mary Terzian's mother, Rebecca, with sisters-in-law Esther and Ovsanna, shortly after the family's arrival in Cairo.
"The Immigrants' Daughter' is Mary Terzian first book. It is dedicated to her mother Rebecca, ("whose love and wisdom I sorely missed") and her parents ("who directed the course of my life down a road I did not take�).
Mary Terzian discloses in the beginning of the book:"Reading was always an escape for me, my little Garden of Eden, where I took refuge from life�s difficult moments. Writing poetry or keeping a journal took my mind off from daily pressures. As I grew up hoping to embrace the writing profession, I was told to find a rich husband first, or get myself a real job. In the
absence of the former I opted for a business career".
The book comes in 38 chapters. Some of the titles of these chapters reveal the stories behind them: "Life in Cairo", "Sham el Nessim Celebration", "First Lesson on Survival", "Dealing with Change", "Caught in the Crossfire", "Graduation and Uncertainty", "Forever an Outsider", "Conflicts of Interest", "Disillusions", "The Real World", "Changing Times", "Expatriation", "Looking for a Niche".
Mary Terzian was born to immigrant parents in Cairo, Egypt. Her childhood was haunted with the specter of the Armenian Genocide. She started learning English at age 11. Her first article was published in an Armenian daily in Cairo.
At twenty-four Terzian accepted an assignment with the United Nations World Health Organization in Alexandria, Egypt. She also worked in the Congo, Togo and Lebanon before immigrating to the United States in 1967.
She went straight to Columbia University to realize her dream of becoming a writer. Adverse circumstances forced her to move to California and select a more practical major like Business Administration. Writing remained a sideline.
Terzian has contributed numerous freelance articles to Arev in Cairo, Nayri in Beirut, the Armenian Mirror-Spectator in Boston, Watani International of Cairo recently and several newspapers, magazines, anthologies and online websites in the United States.
Mary is a member of the California Writers' Club since 1995. She has won a number of awards for her writing. She now lives in Los Angeles.
In a statement to www.azad-hye.com she says about the content of the book: "I must caution that the rebel therein deviates from the conventional profile of an Armenian woman raised in the Middle East. Needless to say I am expecting comments and critiques by the truckload".
"The Immigrants' Daughter"was a result of what Terzian believes is the obligation we have to expose the Armenian world to the global community, which now speaks in mostly in English.
About her feelings after the publication of the book Terzian confesses that she is "overwhelmed, elated, anxious, apprehensive, just like a new mother hovering over her baby". She had tremors when she first opened the actual book to see her thoughts written on plain paper. She is dealing now with marketing, advertising, selling and publicizing the book, a domain where her
shyness does not help much.
There are other good news that involve her emotionally. She has recently started her travel to Europe to witness the birth of her grandson this month, the most important event of 2005 (besides the publication of the book). Celebrating success with family members is a priority. "Success is not worth two hoots if one does not have friends and family to celebrate it
with", she concludes.
As we will notice from the following excerpt (taken from the Prologue of the book), Terzian captures the tribulations of the generations born in foreign countries. Sprinkled with humor and pith, the book relates the struggles of cross-cultural adaptation familiar to any immigrant who crosses national boundaries:
"Where do you come from?" asks the teacher of the adult class in Leopoldville, where I am registered for a course in Lingala.
I hesitate. It is a simple query that puts me in a quandary.
Should I state my origins, nationality, or citizenship?
"From my mother's womb," I want to tell him in short, but resist the urge.
Nobody asked me that kind of question in Cairo where I grew up. We were a known minority. The usual question was, "Are you Greek?", "Italian?", "Armenian?" or "What nationality are you?" if my name had not given it away already.
Now in Leopoldville, on an expatriate assignment with the United Nations, I stand out with my foreign accent, wavy hair, and possibly body language, gestures and all.
"From Egypt," I mutter, to keep the conversation short. I wonder why he doesn' t ask the same question of the other students in class - half a dozen from the United Nations, five from the Swiss Red Cross, and two businessmen.
"Egypt! C'est vrai?" he exclaims in French, "I thought they were all black!."
I feel uncomfortable in my skin but remain silent.
"Is your husband Egyptian, too?"
"I don't have a husband," I blurt out, embarrassed to my core.
At the ripe old age of thirty I am shelved as an old maid, all hopes gone.
"I want to show you to my friend. He has never seen an Egyptian."
My cheeks burn. Am I the first Egyptian in town, the discovery of the century, or an antique from Pharaoh's tombs? Should I be put on display with a distinct label slapped at my feet, "Imported African. Rare species. Handle with care"? How can I explain to my Congolese teacher that I am not a real specimen? More than three thousand years of history define me as an
Armenian, a descendant from the people living at the foot of Mount Ararat where Noah's Ark settled. The mountain was in Armenian territory for centuries. Politics moved it beyond the national boundaries and we became immigrants. How shall I explain that the DNA in my Armenian blood will survive forever, irrespective of the citizenship I have?
"I'm . . . not a real Egyptian," I mumble, trying to avert a misconception.
Fourteen pairs of eyes stare at me, as if I have just come out of ghost town.
"Not a real Egyptian? What do you mean? Where do your parents come from?" asks a man who eyes me curiously, taking over the queries from the teacher.
The determination of my nationality takes precedence over Lingala.
"They come from Turkey."
"Are you Turkish?"
"Then what do you consider yourself?"
Good question. I have been a floater all my life, a thin cloud flirting with the sun, daring it rather to disperse me. How can I explain my ethnic longevity?
"Armenian," I say, with a smirk. I know it will not register.
"Armenian? With an Egyptian passport?"
"It's complicated. I'll explain after class."
Mary Terzian has contributed the following article to the readers of our website:
In 1987 I joined Toastmasters International, a forum that helps overcome nervousness in public speaking. During my maiden speech I mentioned that I was an Armenian from Egypt. It was the spark that lit the bonfire of curiosity. "Where is Armenia? How come you are Armenian and Egyptian at the same time? Where were you born? How did you learn English? Not in the
States?" A plethora of questions followed, ending with "Why don't you give a speech about this?".
I was surprised and touched by such outburst of interest. I felt accepted. In every speech thereafter, whenever my national heritage came to the surface, different evaluators sent me the same clear message: "We want to know more about you." Pretty soon the messages grew into a recommendation: "Why don't you write a book about your experiences?"
I had written articles in my itinerant life but I had no book in me. Besides, a book is a major commitment. Who would be interested in the common life of an Armenian born in the Diaspora, living under the shadow of genocide, grappling with foreign languages and struggling to adapt to the conditions of her adopted country. Wasn't this a familiar story?
Questions expanded in my brain like fermented dough. Yes, it was a familiar story but to whom? Very few Americans and people around the world knew much about the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians, the first genocide of the twentieth century, and its repercussions on the following generations. At first we were traumatized, trying to survive. Next, our instincts of
self-preservation alienated us from the societies with whom we interfaced. And now? If members of the communities we live in are unaware of our history, whose fault is it? My colleagues were more than eager to find out about me. Perhaps my story would help others understand the dilemma of immigrants with split loyalties to heritage and to their host country.
I registered for writing classes. I joined the California Writers' Club. I signed up with two critique groups and voila , "The Immigrants' Daughter" became a palpable project. As I read chapters to my class and critique groups, baring my soul, old fears came back. "Will they reject me? Will they think any less of me?"
Sharing my life was emotionally taxing as poignant memories unfolded. In the Middle East boys are the favored gender, with all pertinent privileges. Girls are not so welcome. They do not benefit the family because they are eventually "somebody else's property." Their education is not important.
Mother did not share these opinions but mother died young. Stepmother arrived soon thereafter, with her own ideas of what girls should and should not be doing. College education became a dream. The gossamer threads that tied our family together disappeared. Brother's departure to Armenia was the last straw that turned me into a rebel. The break-up of emotional attachments prompted me into seeking solace in work and in career advancement.
It took time to incorporate Western attitudes into a Middle Eastern lifestyle and to face challenges head on. I had to replace fatalism - the ubiquitous "Insha allah" - with realism, taking responsibility for my life.
There was no need to overload the Lord with my problems. I shifted direction from grieving the past to planning the future, treating hatred with tolerance, harnessing anger with techniques of dealing with frustration, and submitting subjective opinions to objective analyses. I learned that, quite often, the solution to problems lies within ourselves, if we dedicate enough time and energy to finding answers.
Thus I realized that traditions are created for a purpose. That purpose may no longer be valid a decade, a century or a thousand years later as civilization progresses. We need to update traditions to keep pace with advancement. Today educational barriers for women are being knocked down.
Gender roles have undergone drastic change. Yes, Mr. Mom exists. Also, women architects, engineers, consultants, stockbrokers, pilots and women in the trades are visible in the labor market. The fair sex proved that they are capable of thinking and rising to life's challenges, where necessary.
In a free world the sky is the limit for those who pursue achievement. Of course, a supportive environment accelerates the process of ambitious projects to fruition.
I am grateful to the bright, sensitive and judicious critics of my writers' groups that kept me on track. They supported me all the way with their kudos and recommendations. They fuelled my enthusiasm. They made sound recommendations.
One of the members summarized it all.
"We hear of disasters on the news," she said, "but they are distant. We empathize and help, of course, but with your book we felt the immigrant experience on our skin. We lived it. We laughed and cried with you all the way."
I hope you will too.