Tag Archives: Mariette Bermowitz

Shiraz, My Inner Awakening

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Shiraz street sceneI lived in Iran with my partner Ed for several years in the mid-seventies.  Pahlavi University where I taught, was within walking distance of our house. I looked forward each day to teaching French in the foreign language department, and Ed was thrilled with his position as lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine. Due to modernizations under Shah Reza Pahlavi, foreign teachers were welcome in Iran in the seventies. Many of my Iranian students were planning to complete their degrees in America, and already spoke English.

I loved my early morning walk down the dirt roads to Pahlavi University on Abivardi Boulevard. The clear air and bright sun, the outline of cypress trees against the sky, the chants calling the faithful to prayer, the smell of fresh baked bread were the impressions that lingered throughout my day. When I passed by our neighbor Farideh’s house, she always said befarmaid. I thought it meant hello, or have a good day, because right after she said it, she closed the door. Ed and I were officially invited in however, when Farideh’s famous cousin the Mullah came to visit. No one spoke English, yet somehow through sign language and much smiling we got to know each other.

I quickly picked up Farsi, learning a prayer from one of the janitors at school, and the baker who taught me a new word each time I bought a flat bread called nan. The vegetable seller added all the words I needed to know for buying vegetables. I was told to be very careful to wash the greens as they were often contaminated by the feces from the packs of dogs who roamed the fields at night.  Moslems considered dogs unclean and shunned them as pets.

When I finished my last class at two in the afternoon I went to Ed’s lab and waved to him from the door. If he didn’t waveNomad Girls back I knew he would not be getting out early and I faced a long evening alone. As soon as I reached the kuche, (street) where we lived, I took off my shoes. The earth felt so good under my feet, warm and tingling and alive. If Farideh happened to be standing by her window she’d warn me about the dirt and garbage. She didn’t approve of me walking barefoot in the street. She also let me know she didn’t think it was a good idea for a woman to stay home alone. “Too much time to think,” she’d say – khub nist – not good. But in the stillness of my surroundings I felt a fullness of being I had never known before. No radio or TV, no newspapers to divert me from my inner world.

Still, I was happier being alone after we adopted Buffy, one of the stray dogs picked up around the city, thus saving him from his fate in Ed’s research lab. Those beautiful brown eyes gleamed with love when I took him home with me. I told Ed I would feel safer having Buffy for company on those evenings he worked late. Buffy, named because of his dusty beige coat, could hardly walk on one of his hind paws. But I nursed him, and before long he was cavorting around the patio as if he owned it.

Nomad_from_GoogleOne evening when Buffy and I were alone there was a loud knock outside our gate and I saw the strangest group of people, the Quasghai nomads, surrounded by goats and sheep. One man was on horseback holding a chicken. The women were dressed in multicolored, multilayered skirts that glimmered in the waning light. They had been traveling up from the south for days on mules and horses with their flock of animals.  Shiraz was the first big city they had reached, and our house was the first one they came to. I let a group of two women and two men come into the patio to fill their jugs with water. As I watched them, I could barely suppress the urge to ask them if I could join their group. Oh, to travel with these proud strong nomads, so connected to the land and the animals, and leave everything behind! But instead of asking them to take me with them, I invited them to sit down and have some chai. When they were leaving I cut two roses for them from the garden. The women placed their hands over their heart in thanks, and with a swoosh of their beautiful skirts they were gone.

That month I put on a chador, the veil Iranian women wore in public places and went to see the Dervish or holy man who lived in the old caravanserai on the outskirts of town. I was certain that I knew enough Farsi to greet him and ask for his blessing. It was a long walk, and by the time I reached the twisted alley where the entrance was, I was covered with dust from the streets. An old woman with a face like weathered parchment led me through a large courtyard and up some stairs to a balcony. In the corner was a little man sitting with a large blanket draped over him so that I could barely see him.Dervish In my excitement walking toward the holy man I realized I had forgotten all the words I had practiced to say to him. I sat down on the first pillow I found and gathered the chador around me, waiting for him to speak to me. I waited and waited but the Dervish didn’t say a word. He didn’t even look at me. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the words I had wanted to say but the only thing that came to me was the overwhelming fragrance of freesia flowers growing in a corner. I don’t know how long I waited for him to look at me before I realized he was blind. How long I waited for him to speak before I realized he was mute. It wouldn’t have done me any good even if I had managed to remember my Farsi as he was probably deaf as well. Yet he had other senses at work, else how did he know I was getting up to leave? His right hand appeared from under the blanket that covered him and motioned to me. Then he placed his hand over his heart. Tears sprang to my eyes at this simple gesture. His face emanated love and kindness. I felt a great warmth spread through my body. I practically floated home. Words from The Little Prince, echoed in my mind “What is important is invisible to the eyes. You can only see well with your heart. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur.

And so it was that I had come half way around the world to meet a Dervish who transcended words, radiating love from his heart, fueling the love in my own.

From Mindele’s Journey – Memoir of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust

 

On Writing

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I always wanted to write a book. I remember when the idea first occurred to me.

Mariette I was nine years old and walking home from school. I had always been a model student receiving prizes at the end of the school year for my high achievements. This was in Belgium after the war. Having lost most of my family, my teacher paid special attention to me, guiding me into reading above my grade level. I also spent every afternoon in the library where the librarian recognized me as an unusual but sometimes sad little girl. She was always an attentive listener to my childhood woes and made sure to select books I would love. I knew I could depend on her being there to help me with my homework, greeting me every time I came into the library with her bright and welcoming smile. She introduced  me to the  tales and legends of the ancient Greeks and set my imagination on fire with her explanations of what was waiting for me in the adult section of the library.

One afternoon after my faithful stop at the library, filled with the drama of Charles Dickens in my head, I didn’t realize how quickly I reached the street where I lived with my father, his female companion and her retarded son. It was a very narrow alleyway, impossible for cars to go through. I remember it being cold and misty that late afternoon, which made the alleyway look even more mysterious. I looked up and saw the street lamp-lighter.

lamplighterI watched mesmerized as he lit the gaslights one by one with his long pole. The houses were clothed in mellow colors and the cobblestones glistened like jewels. Suddenly in my mind, the street appeared as a stage and he was lighting the stage lights. I stood there for a while as if in a dream, imagining myself walking onto that stage. I felt as if I was a character in a book that I was going to write someday.

It took a lifetime to accomplish. I wrote about my adventures. I processed my feelings into poetry. I experienced the existential angst of questioning my purpose on this planet. The years passed then flew by, sweeping into my consciousness the gnawing awareness of “the travel of no return” revealing Le moment de verite, that moment of truth when your entire life flashes before you.

I struggled with a sense of meaninglessness until I decided to write my memoir. I owe my friend Nancy Wait gratitude for rekindling that spark I felt as a child who dreamed of becoming an author. As my writing coach and editor, she guided me with patience and certitude, always believing that I would succeed.

The process of writing took ten years of learning a craft I deem sacred. I persevered through the frustrations of understanding what a good writer must do. Which is to invite the reader into this sacred realm of words, knowing that after the last page, a sense of timelessness has been achieved. And the gift of life has been acknowledged.

Love and Light

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The Little PrinceAs we come to the end of 2012 and its dire end of the world predictions, I found it difficult to connect to the joyous occasion of Hanukkah and its celebration of a miracle. And I’m finding it difficult to connect to Christmas, that event commemorating the advent of a savior born into the world.

I reflect upon the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, nature’s revenge laying bare our belief that we have no responsibility for the environment. And then another Sandy…the Sandy Hook classroom where an  unimaginable massacre of children and adults tore the heart out from an entire community. It is beyond words to conceive of such a heinous act. Yet I remember  World War II, children being sacrificed to the gods of hatred, fear, and revenge.

I wonder about a society that has accepted the alienation of those on the fringe. A society that doesn’t question the onslaught of television shows dedicated to murder and extermination, or reality shows expounding our twisted perversions of life, or video games that give sensations of power by the touch of a button, or tattoos that send a message to the  world of a tribal need to belong to something other than the instant messaging of iphones, ipads…I this, I that, I nobody.

Why is it that we have not understood that kindness, compassion, gentleness and love are not expressions of weakness but of that which empowers all of mankind. Why is it that martyred children have become reminders that we as a society have failed to provide hope for a kinder and more beautiful world for our young.

But I also know that the beautiful little faces of so many murdered children have shifted something in the global consciousness.

I believe we have come to the crossroads between dark and light. I am reminded once again of those lines  spoken by The Little Prince, a charming and seemingly frail little boy with curly blond hair and a scarf around his neck, traveling through the galaxies, seeding his words of love: L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. On ne voit bien qu’avec le Coeur.

This is the book that comforts me over and over again in troubled times. When I face my doubts, it reminds me that love and light will heal the world. I wish everyone on this planet (and in other galaxies!) the hope that this will come to pass.

On Friendship

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Mariette and Mariette At this time of the year when most families are gathering to celebrate the holidays, I think about those of us who because of various misfortunes have lost the comfort of family and tradition. These times then become moments of reflection on what we have created to bring joy to our lives. My thoughts turn to the friends I have made over the years. They have sustained me and  have become family. They have given me joy and warmth and the courage that is needed to feel that one belongs in this sometimes cruel world.

Some are no longer friends, some have died, some may not always be available but they all have a place in my heart. But the most painful is the memory of friends who have died too young. It reminds me of the way my mentor and creative source, Michel de  Montaigne, dedicated his work to his best friend, La Boetie. When La Boetie died all too young, Montaigne wrote: ce jour qui pour moi sera toujours amer, toujours sacre. (That day which for me will always remain bitter, always sacred) And so I think of my friend Mariette, who died in her early twenties.

Mariette was the first friend I ever had. Sharing the same name gave us a special bond from the beginning. It was during the war in Belgium. We were both six years old at the time. Even then she was la grande and I was la petite. I had no other friends in those days because as a Jewish child hiding in a Catholic community, it was dangerous for everyone concerned that I not say anything that might connect me to being Jewish.

Mariette and I never discussed such things. We were children, and then young  adolescents sharing the joys and moments of celebration in the village where I returned every year to be with my benefactors. Then I left for America when I was twelve and never saw Mariette again.

I looked forward to our reunion when I went back “home” for the first time after ten years of separation. I was ecstatic to return to Belgium, and looking forward to seeing Mariette again. No one had told me that she had died a tragic death three weeks before I arrived.

Mariette,Flore,Ghislaine1She carried with her the memory of her own mother, blown to bits before her eyes. Mariette’s mother had taken too long to vacate the cellar where they were hiding and was struck by the fragments of a grenade. Now my friend Mariette had taken her own life.

I cannot forget her. I recently found a picture of her and her two cousins. She is sitting at the head of a wheelbarrow holding the handle which looks like a cross. For me it represents the cross she bore of having witnessed her mother’s death.

I dedicate this holiday to all the children suffering from the aftermath of war.

And I dedicate this memory to all those who are blessed, like myself, with friends dear enough to be family.

And lastly, I dedicate these words to my beloved friend, Mariette.

In Remembrance

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Images of the devastation  Sandy  leaves behind is a searing reminder of how vulnerable we are before nature. It is beyond  belief  and through it all we are  learning  that we as people care for each other. Yet I still find it hard to forget Katrina.

I still see that oil rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico and the destruction of a habitat filled with wild life that is gone forever.

Our world is so wounded. I wonder what it will take to heal. I wonder.

In Remembrance

The sea fans out

iridescent

tear drops

across the beach

where birds

try in vain

to wash the stains

that glisten on their wings

They are

dying

lying on the sand

Their feathers

stretched out

like hands

begging

to be set free

… But their bodies

lie limp

in a pool of tar

Dying birds

who once soared

to the stars

© Mariette 2012

 

Pomegranates for Thanksgiving

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With Thanksgiving approaching and guests announcing themselves, I head for the bookcase where my cookbooks tempt me with fabulous titles. I bought several of them while traveling and living in foreign countries. That in itself allows me to reminisce and dream about the journeys that led me to learn about different foods, ingredients and fragrances that linger in the mind.

I choose from among the glossy covers tempting me, the fabulous cookbook by the Iranian born chef, Najmieh Batmanglij, entitled Silk Road Cooking. There, next to a dish of  Pilau (rice) infused with pomegranate seeds I am smitten by the sight of two crimson colored pomegranates. The appellation of the word comes from ancient French pomme grenate or crimson apple or more mysterious still, somber red.

Painting by Patrick Flynn

The first time I ever saw this tempting fruit was in a Flemish still life of the seventeenth century. I will always remember that open pomegranate in the forefront of the painting emptying its scarlet seeds and sensuous color onto a white porcelain dish. But it was in the Iranian city of Yazd that I discovered its origins.

I had traveled three hundred miles through a barren landscape to visit the last center of Zoroastrianism and learned that Marco Polo had visited this city on his journey from Italy to China in the thirteenth century. And it was in one of the quaint restaurants along a dusty main street that I first tasted Yazdi Polow , a rice dish from Yazd, with Khoreshe Anar(Pomegranate sauce).

Yazd, Iran

According to Najmieh Batmanglij, “The red pomegranate is native to Iran and the tastiest ones come from Yazd, where it has been cultivated for at least 4,000 years. It is considered the fruit of heaven; in fact, it was probably the real “apple” in the Garden of Eden. The ancients commended it. Among them were King Solomon, who had a pomegranate orchard. And the prophet Mohammed said, “Eat the pomegranate, for it purges the system of envy and hatred.”

That being said, recalling my journey and exotic discoveries in Iran, fills me with sweet nostalgia. And so I will share that extraordinary gustatory experience with my version of Khoreshe Fesenjan (Pomegranate sauce) which may be added to either chicken or turkey for Thanksgiving.

Chicken or Turkey with Pomegranate Sauce

2 ½-3 lb fryer (cut up);  2 cups walnuts (finely chopped); 5 tbsp. shortening

3 ½ cups water; ½ tsp. poultry seasoning; 1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. cinnamon; ½ tsp. pepper; 2 tbsp. lemon juice

1 large onion (finely chopped); 1 cup fresh pomegranate juice or

2-3 tbsp. pomegranate molasses; 2 tbsp. tomato sauce; 3tbsp. butter

1 tbsp. sugar; 2 whole pomegranates

Wash and prepare the chicken pieces (or turkey breasts) for frying. Sauté the chicken with seasoning in shortening until light brown on all sides. As an alternative method the chicken may be baked in a 350oF oven for 45 minutes instead. Put aside. Sauté the onions in 3 tablespoons butter until golden brown. Add tomato sauce and sauté for a few minutes. Add walnuts to the sautéed onions and sauté over a medium fire for about 5 minutes. Stir constantly and be careful not to burn the walnuts. Add water, seasoning, lemon juice, and pomegranate juice (or pomegranate molasses). Cover and let cook on a low fire for about 35 minutes. Taste the sauce and if you find it a little sour add sugar.  Arrange the sautéed chicken in this sauce. Cover and let simmer for 20-25 minutes. Serve rice.

The trick to serving this beautiful dish is to cut the pomegranates into slices . Add some seeds into cooked rice, then place the rice  into a mold. When you remove the rice from the mold, the red seeds will add a beautiful touch to the rice crown. Arrange the rest of the pomegranate slices around the rice or use to decorate the chicken or turkey dish.

NOOSHEJAN       BON APPETIT

St. Emilion 2012

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St. Emilion 2012 by Mariette Bermowitz

Travel is a profitable exercise. The soul is there continually exercised in noticing new and unknown things, and I do not know a better school.

“Les Essais”

Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne (1500’s)

During the seven weeks I was in Europe this summer of 2012, I was inspired by the thinking of this admirable writer and found my daily life as filled with new insights and discoveries as his must have been.

It began when I left the comfort of a rented apartment in Paris and headed for St.Emilion, where I had been invited to attend the jazz festival. My friends, Monique and Dominique had launched the musical feast. For four days and four nights I felt as if I had stepped into a dream. First there was the music reverberating against the medieval setting of St. Emilion, then there were the colors, the lights, the musicians rehearsing, the invitations to local chateaux, the taste of fine wine, and glowing faces amidst the festivities.

During rehearsals I sat next to Ustad Zakir Hussain, the percussionist and virtuoso of the Indian tabla. On the back of his album cover I read, “Music is the play of aesthetics, beauty, sensitivity, creativity and divinity in sound and in the soundless realm between and beyond sounds. Music is expression. Music is life. Music is the manifestation of every emotion of the human heart, every sense of the human body and every nuance of the spirit. Music is nature. Music is God.” And so I learned from this master about vocal expressions that can bring one closer to that divine state. Vocal expressions such as Raga, Thaya, Gamak, Meend, Choot, Murki, Taan, Prabandha, and the angas-s and Dhatu-s of Prabandha. Vocal manifestations that are rivulets of energy.

For me it is a new language that transcends words and transposes me into another realm.

I also met Steve Shehan, a man whose presence evokes Lawrence of Arabia. Tall, handsome, gifted, an adventurer who collected the music of distant and unknown places to transform it into sounds of love. In his album “Safar,” I felt transported to those places where I lived and traveled in Iran, Afghanistan and Nepal. I also spoke with Thierry Maillard, a virtuoso pianist. What skill, and what an extraordinary presence! And above all so humble, so generous with his time. I think I fell in love with Yoran Hermann, another musical genius who set my heart aflame with the exuberance of his performance and sound. Feelings I once held as a romantic young woman were rekindled.

And then to conclude that amazing journey I had the greatest pleasure getting  to know the musicians of Earth Wind & Fire. Al McKay, the instrumental force behind the music of Earth Wind and Fire is an unforgettable figure in the music world. To me he will always remain that gentleman who held my hand as I stepped out of the van on the way to the festival.  There are names I will not easily forget: Tim Owen, Ben Dowling, Freddie Flewelen and Claude Woods, whose incredible knowledge and thoughts reminded me of an ageless philosopher.

I returned to Paris renewed and energized with awe and joy. Of course a dinner date with Yoran Hermann was part of it. Travel is indeed a profitable exercise. New and unknown things are revealed and enrich our lives. And like Montaigne, I do not know of a better school.