CURIOSITY by Mariette Bermowitz

The memoir I have longed to write is now available. It has been a long journey to publication. Meanwhile, I am allowing myself a brief hiatus, a moment where I can pause and reflect on what will come next.

Questions and thoughts come tumbling in abundance. I am aware of paths taken and not taken. In the writing and revising of my story, and the re-reading of the manuscript (I can’t even count how many times), I discovered a road map filled with challenges and stumbling blocks, defeats and victories. In owning my past, I feel I am on my way to transcending it.

In the process I have become a witness to my own life. And in that process I asked myself, what was the élan vital, the driving force of my existence?

It is interesting to see that the guiding force behind me has always been CURIOSITY. It started with the question I asked my mother when I was three years old. She was holding me in her arms and we were watching the rain fall on the rooftops in Brussels. I looked up at the gray sky and said, “ Momma, what’s above the sky?”

She hesitated before answering, then said, “More sky.”

“But Momma, where’s the end?”

“There is no end,” she answered.

Somehow that answer, as well as the warmth of my mother’s arms, has remained with me throughout life. There is no end. I have never stopped asking questions, my favorite one being WHY.

When I began my studies of French literature I became acquainted with the work of the sixteenth century writer Montaigne. I was enthralled with Les Essais, the essays he wrote where he observes and questions everything surrounding him. I was swept up into a world of ideas and thoughts that still resonate with charm. Perhaps something of my own insatiable curiosity, and that unforgettable moment in my mother’s arms, connected me to this writer I imagined as a kindred spirit.

Recently I passed the window of a bookstore and was immediately drawn to a  title, When I am playing with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me?  Having a cat named Minou, I immediately understood the depth of the question. When I leaned in closer I saw that it was a book about Montaigne! The subtitle was, Montaigne  and Being In Touch With Life. It was like an old love coming back to me.

When I was in college I remember reading about Montaigne’s cat and the comfort he derived from its presence. I imagined myself becoming a writer one day, and having a cat to keep me company too. How strange, all these years later, I became a writer with a cat.

And now I am savoring his work again, following him around the chateau in Saul Frampton’s book, “…where Montaigne began to write, giving birth to the Essays—a series of reflections on life in all its profundity and triviality.”

He asked what is it to be a human being, and he savored every moment. Everything in life had meaning for him. His lasting contribution was the thought provoking question, Que Sais-je? What do I know? An inspirational conclusion that reminds me that indeed there is no end to the mystery of life.

“Traveling is dancing lessons from God.”

Cat’s Cradle  by Kurt Vonnegut

…….and so CURIOSITY led me on……

Afghanistan, 1976

Afghanistan, a land that summons endless warfare and horrifying pictures of maimed and wounded people and soldiers was quite a different place when I was there in the Spring of 1976. It was the Eid-Noruz (Moslem New Year) holidays. My partner Ed and I were on vacation from our teaching positions at Pahlavi University in Iran. I was intrigued about the vast territories beyond the Iranian border I had been told were even more remote than Iran. I never expected to enter Biblical times, where I felt humbled by a land so connected to rugged beauty, simplicity, innocence of being and hospitality.

Yet when we crossed the border and were greeted by the sign, “Even God Can’t Help You Here,” I was apprehensive of what lay ahead. But this was addressed mostly to foreigners smuggling hashish, the last of the international hippies. Opium and homegrown hashish were so plentiful that they were bartered for blue jeans and aspirins.

Our hotel room with its faded elegance and high ceilings had an overhead fan that whirred erratically. The porcelain tub was most inviting, although the marble floor around it was full of cracks.

Over the next few days of sight-seeing, Ed and I learned that the ancient city of Herat was fought over by different tribes and hordes, kings, emperors, sultans, and in particular Genghis Khan, who in 1221 killed off the 12,000 defenders of its citadel. The massive citadel that once protected the city from its enemies, survived. Nearby were the covered bazaars with weavers and craftsmen at work. And beyond the bazaar was a magnificent tenth century mosque, Masjed-I-Jam, meaning Friday Mosque. We rode through the dusty streets lined with pine trees, in one of the small horse drawn carriages known as “gaudis.” They were decorated with red tassels and bells to announce their presence. I remember how clear the light was, how it played through the branches. We passed mud brick houses that smelled of wood burning fires, and women draped in colorful burkhas. All of it lending a feeling of peace and gentleness.

I think of Mohamed and his brother Massoud standing in front of their shop on Shar-I-Nau Street near the bazaar. They waved us in, inviting us for tea. I was thrilled to be able to speak Farsi to them. I had learned the language in Iran, although in Herat it was known as Dari, an older version. The two brothers seemed to be just as delighted to speak to us in their language, mixing in words in English. After what seemed like hours of discussion, I bought a colorful Susaneh, a needlework rug of such exquisite geometric detail, that I hung it as a painting on my wall, where it still hangs today. Massoud wanted to seal the deal by offering us a small glass of Glenfidditch scotch from the bottle he had hidden in his safe deposit box. It was another hour before we left the shop, mellower than when we arrive.

After a hardy handshake and glowing smiles, the two brothers directed us toward the breathtaking sight of the historical Mosque, the Masjed-I-Jam. What lingers most in my mind is the cemetery of Gazargah, a place of pilgrimage several miles outside of town, and the resting place of Abdullah Ansari (1006-1088), a Sufi poet and mystic. It is also where we saw “Haft-Kalam,” or Seven Chisels, the black marble tombstone for Hussein-I-Baiqara, the Timurid king, which the guidebook said is among the world’s most beautiful works of art, and said to be an architectural feat that defies description. It took the sculptor seven chisels and eleven years to complete the tombstone. When he was finished, he carved a dog with his own face to stand guard before the entrance of the poet’s tomb.

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