Terzian’s (The Immigrant’s Daughter, 2005) second memoir explores the author’s global quest for independence.
The author was born into an Armenian family in Cairo in the 1930s; her parents were refugees who had fled Turkey in the ’20s. Although the Egyptian capital—at that time—offered ethnic and religious freedom, Terzian was constrained by the misogyny of both her conservative father and the broader community. Her stepmother frequently told her that as a woman, she was “somebody else’s property.” But after getting an English-language education at a Catholic high school, Terzian was determined to become a professional, college-educated woman—not just a traditional Armenian housewife. Her foray into employment and self-sufficiency coincided with an increasingly nationalist climate in Egypt in which Armenians and other ethnic minorities were often denied employment. She explained to a European colleague that she was an Armenian, not an Arabic-speaking Egyptian, despite having been born in Egypt: “If I were a kitten and born in an oven would you call me bread?” she said. Terzian found autonomy—and escape—through a position with the United Nations’ World Health Organization. Her career in international aid eventually led her to an expatriate life in Leopoldville, Congo, and Lomé, Togo, as well as to travel around a rapidly de-colonizing Africa and Cold War–era Western and Eastern Europe. A trip to visit her brother in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic illustrates the complex relationships of diaspora communities to their distant, mythologized homelands. Similarly, Terzian’s exploration of her expatriate status in Africa raises questions about what it means to have a home country—or even a home. The author does have a tendency to fall into the memoirist’s trap of over-documenting details of travel and work assignments, and the book might have made the same impact with a shorter page count. Still, the impact it does have is significant. Through her own story, Terzian articulates the ways in which patriarchy, culture, bureaucracy, and politics challenge but never fully derail an independent woman’s ambitions.
An often charming memoir that intertwines personal and political histories.