Tolerance shaped modern Iraq

By Brook Shielding.

In a talk on Nov. 13, retired school administrator and Iraqi expatriate, Aida Kouyoumjian said to an audience of 15 that Iraq was a civilized country with generous and compassionate people.

The rulers of the Islamic world were very tolerant and very smart, Kouyoumjian said. Christians were not persecuted. They had to pay a tax, and they couldn’t get government jobs, but conversion to Islam was easy.

“Toleration is what I’m a product of,” she said.

The people of Armenia, her ancestral homeland, originally lived around Mount Ararat in present-day Turkey. “When Noah landed on Mount Ararat, the Armenians say he became Armenian. The first thing he did, actually, was plant a grapevine. Armenians are famous for making cognac,” she said. Armenia was the first Christian kingdom in history, converting in 301.

Iraq’s history began, she said, with ancient Sumer. There, the people considered it their purpose in life to serve the gods.

“Since that was so important, if they couldn’t go and pray at their temple,” she said. “They took a little statue of them, that represented their bodies.”

In 1920, archaeologists found some of the statues in the Death Pits of Ur.

“They have huge eyes made of lapis lazuli that show they are in awe and admiration to the god,” she said. “Look at the clasped hands. We still do that in worship of God.”

Baghdad is the site of the ancient Gardens of Babylon. The ruins can still be seen today, she said.

Kouyoumjian considers herself an Armenian, an Arab, and an American. She had two Armenian parents, she was raised in Baghdad, and she chose to be an American, she said.

Her family is Christian, and many members of her family were killed in the “Armenian Genocide,” which she said killed 1.5 million people. Her mother, Mannig, was saved by Bedouin Arabs who took her to an orphanage in Mosul, reuniting her with her sister. After marriage, she and her husband, Mardiros, prospered under the kings of Iraq, in spite of their Christian religion.

Kouyoumjian’s family relocated to Baghdad and lived in Iraq through World War II. She came to America as a Fulbright Scholar with 13 other students.

She showed a photo of herself as a girl handing flowers to the king of Iraq, and described her family hosting the King of Jordan for tea.

Fallujah was her family’s summer home when she was a girl. She remembers roller-skating as a girl on the Fallujah bridge. This was the site where the bodies of Blackwater military contractors were hung in 2004.

She showed a photo of herself as a girl handing flowers to the king of Iraq, and described her family hosting the King of Jordan for tea.

Her 23-year-old grandson, Matthew, is in the Washington National Guard, and left for Iraq last week. He is stationed in Balad, a town 60 miles north of Baghdad. The town has suffered from intersectarian violence since the American invasion, and now hosts one of the largest military bases in Iraq.

She was last in Iraq in 1963 to visit her father, who died soon after.

Star Rush, Director of the Center for Liberal Arts, said the center’s purpose in sponsoring the event was to encourage student interest in the world around them.

“Ultimately, the purpose of any education is to develop our abilities,” said Rush. “[And] to be intellectually curious about the world.”

Wendy Arnett, a BCC student, said she hadn’t known that in the Islamic world “you could stay Christian, you could stay Jewish, but if you converted to Islam, you could have better opportunities.”

She said she wanted to know how Kouyoumjian felt about the Iraq war, a topic which Kouyoumjian didn’t address.