Jerusalem as Memory and Place: Itzhak, Igor, and Aaron

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Fruit of the Gods # VIII, Krikor Agopian, Acrylic on canvas, 71×91 cm.

Memory is like a pomegranate layered and compacted in segments redolently rich. Each kernel is attached with a tiny nodule, its own umbilical cord. Place is also that umbilical cord that links you to the same spring.”

Every once in a long while I read a text rich in imagery, metaphor, symbolism, and creativity and, taken by its resonant expressiveness and poignancy, I copy it on any available sheet of paper and add it to my treasured file of quotations.

The image affixed at the top of this article is the image of a pomegranate painted by one of my closest high school friends. As far back as my 1960’s high school days at the all-male Beirut, Lebanon-based National Protestant Secondary School, Krikor Agopian (friends know him as Koko) exhibited class, talent, and a joie de vivre that augmented the richness of his character, intellectual prowess, artistic abilities, and great sense of humor. Of Armenian descent, Krikor, like me and other Armenian, Palestinian, and other refugees to Lebanon, banked on acquiring a decent education that was to become our resounding passport to a better future.

From the summer 0f 1964 until eight years ago, I’d lost contact with Krikor and many high school classmates. And thanks to digital technology, reconnecting with many high school buddies has paved the way to crack into the metaphorical pomegranate of my life to isolate and delineate each experience as it had unfolded in a time frame cast on the many theater stages of my migratory life across the world.

Krikor Agopian is currently living in Montreal, Canada and spends a few weeks in Lebanon. He is a prolific painter and has won numerous awards; he’s also the author of two books published by Hamazkayin Printing and Publishing, Beirut, Lebanon.

I wish I knew who penned the quotation cited above. The three short sentences are a perfectly executed tableau in words “compacted in segments [so] redolently rich.”

Every fall La Belle Femme buys me pomegranates which are consumed with yogurt, cereal, ice cream, or just plain mouthfuls of the delicious crunchy kernels whose richness in antioxidants is noted. And every time I cut a pomegranate in half, I am amazed at the compacted compartments separated by thin whitish tissues that segregate each compartment into a motherlode of mouth-watering kernels of the richest hues of red.

To avoid the lingering hand stains from a pomegranate’s peelings, one is advised to briefly rub lemon juice and salt on one’s hands, and then finish the cleansing with running tap water.

The author’s likening the tiny nodules that attach the kernels (“its own umbilical cord”) to the inner core is truly a stroke of genius. And likening Memory to a pomegranate kernels’ attachment to their inner cores to Place (as in location) is further proof of the author’s meticulous ability to observe and interpret the natural world. Consigned to the temporal lobe’s hippocampus, Memory and Place are but one and the same. Hence, individual episodic Memories and the physical Places in which these reminiscences unfold are dispatched to that memory bank for later recall. William Wordsworth so eloquently described this memory reservoir as “the Spots of Time,” a deep spring where memory and place cohabitate in a unique cohesive universe and partnership of their own.

Way back in 2018 and for just over a year, PBS ran a weekly segment under the title “We’ll Meet Again” which reconnected long-lost friends in one-hour segments during which mostly interrupted childhood friendships were reignited after decades of separation. Serving as a host, the indefatigable Ann Curry navigated the hour by providing biographical information about each individual or group of individuals and events that caused the fissure to occur. After years of separation, sometimes as long as 75+ years, Ann and her team were the catalyst that helped breathe life into never forgotten friendships. In her very charming and warm voice, she utilized the last 20 minutes to bring long-separated entities (brothers/sisters/friends/Nazi camp survivors, interned Japanese Americans) together at a park, a botanical garden, a restaurant, a library, or a museum. The reader is invited to view these edifying narratives with Ann Curry serving as the high priestess of a conjugal session of Memories and Places that bring long-lost friends together in heart wrenching and uplifting episodes and narratives.

Taking Ann’s invitation to viewers to send their stories for consideration to heart, I sent the following email:

From: Raouf Halaby <halabys7181@outlook.com>
Sent: Wednesday, December 26, 2018 3:10:44 AM
To: MeetAgain@stories.pbs.org
Subject: Help Finding My Childhood Jerusalem Friends  

Dear Ann,

For a while now I have wanted to contact you to help me locate 3 Jewish childhood friends from Jerusalem and 1 friend from my high school days in Beirut, Lebanon.

My twin brother and I were born in Jerusalem in 1945 to Jamil and Katrina Halaby. Mom and Dad met while she was teaching at the Friends Girl School in Ramallah. Dad was a businessman. My twin brother and I were the youngest of five; an older sister and two older brothers, along with our mother (Dad passed away in 1947) lived in the Upper Baqaa neighborhood of Jerusalem. We were the only Christian Palestinian family in a neighborhood of newly arrived Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and several other Eastern European countries.

Down the street from us lived Sephardic Jews from Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco.

 One day a young Moroccan teenager was dragging concertina wire behind a makeshift wooden cart with wheels borrowed from skates. A car rolled down the street and ran over him. After the front wheels rolled over the lad and the wire, the car’s momentum was arrested with the rear axle resting on his chest. To this day I vividly remember my mother marshalling several men (who froze in shock and inaction), ordering them to lift the rear of the green roadster Austin Healy, while she gently pulled the young man from under the tires. Some forty years later I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the first time, and, as I stood there, mesmerized, I had the feeling that I’d previously seen the same image. That day the flashback [Memory] took me back to either 1954 or 1955 Jerusalem [place], and a carbon copy image of a woman holding a bloodied 15-16 year old son of Moroccan Jewish immigrants came to life. The whole experience was much like an unfolding movie reel from my past.

And for years the young lad would meet my mother at the bus stop at the top of the street and carry her grocery bag/s to our house. Unfortunately, I do not remember his name. The lad’s English was limited to “Johnny get your gun,” probably from an Audie Murphy movie.

My twin brother and I had three very close neighborhood Jewish childhood friends. All of them were the children of European immigrants. We shared Hummus, Baba Ghannouj, pita bread, garden vegetables, pears, figs and pomegranates with our neighbors. My twin brother and I served as the Sabbath Goys, performing chores our neighbors (the practicing Jews) could not perform after Shabbat began at 5:00 p.m. on Fridays. 

Aaron Lichtman, Yizthak Serok, and Igor Vanik, my twin brother, and I were inseparable over weekends and during summers. Igor’s grandfather father taught us children how to play chess, and after two years we teamed up to beat him. Angered, he banished us from the second story balcony, and he never wanted to play chess again with young upstarts. I understand that Igor’s family moved to Australia. Aaron’s mother was a seamstress, specializing in women’s undergarments, especially brassieres, discussed by “we boys” only in tittering, hush hush syllables.

Several things stood out about Igor’s Grandfather: with a broad chest, he was of gigantic stature; a large bushy moustache that stretched from ear to ear gave him a medieval kingly look; and the tattooed numbers inscribed on the inside of his arm were a glaring reminder of former days in Europe where Nazis kept up with their victims in myriad ways. Grandpa Vanik’s wit, dignity, and humor bore testament to his heroic character.

When we left Jerusalem for Beirut, Lebanon in April 1959, all the neighbors stood in the middle of the street with glazed eyes. Tears were shed, and goodbyes and best wishes were exchanged.

In Beirut, Lebanon, one of my very best friends was Kifah Fakhouri. He was a very talented musician and had his own children’s TV puppet/marionette program at age 18.  Our friendship during high school and in the Boy Scouts Beirut 2 troop was very profound. Kifah made a name for himself in the field of music and, from what I understand, he became the director of the Jordanian Government’s Music Conservatory. I believe his son teaches music at a NC university.

In 1965 I came to the US, attended college, was awarded a doctorate in English, and taught (for 42 years), until my retirement, at a private liberal arts university in Arkansas.

I am happily married and have been blessed with two boys. Two weeks before our 60th birthday, I lost my twin brother. This had to have been one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, even greater than the loss of my Palestine and identity.

Realizing that at age 73 the journey to the finish line is getting closer, I’d give anything to reconnect with any or all of the above childhood friends. I have several photographs.

Please let me know if you need any additional information.

Thank you in advance.

Sincerely,

Raouf J. Halaby
Professor Emeritus, English and Art

Unfortunately, within a few days I received the following response:

Dear Raouf

 Thank you very much for contacting We’ll Meet Again on PBS with your story.  

Unfortunately, we aren’t currently in production at the moment and won’t be able to help you with your search.  If we do start up again and feel we can help you, we will be sure to get in touch again.

 In the meantime, thank you for your interest in the show and do check out all the episodes of We’ll Meet Again which are available to view on the PBS website. 

 Best wishes 

 We’ll Meet Again Team 

Since that time I have been able to reconnect with Kifah Fakhouri. And repeated attempts (Google and otherwise) to reconnect with my Jerusalem childhood Jewish friends has run into a dead end.

And to this day I wonder what happed to Aaron, Yitzhak, and Igor. Did they join the army, as every Israeli male is required to do? Did they fight in any of Israel’s brutal wars? Did they stop, intimidate, and harass Palestinians at check points? Did they demolish Palestinian homes and villages to make room for illegal Jewish settlements? Did they ever think (or even hope) that one day their government would envision a pluralistic and harmonious society in which Jews and Palestinians are treated equally? Are they ashamed of their country’s systemic racism and Apartheid?

Did they attend any of the Israeli universities, and in what field did they specialize? Did they marry and have children? And, if so, are their children and grandchildren serving in the same army that espouses and practices violence on a daily basis?

And finally, did they, like me, leave Palestine to live in other climes?

Did? Did? And so many Dids chime in and out in leitmotif fashion that present themselves in a never-ending search for my three childhood Jewish friends.

Should any reader anywhere around the world know Aaron Lichtman, Yitzhak Serok, or Igor Vanik, or, if they are deceased, should anyone know their families, please send me their contact information. I would be most delighted and grateful to reconnect with them and to arrange either a zoom or a face-to-face meeting to reminisce and relive our childhood days, a time when we were carefree, innocent, idealistic, and full of hope about our futures, and to reawaken memories frozen in our childhood cocoon spun by us on Reuven St., Upper Baqaa, Jerusalem, Palestine.

In a few short weeks pomegranates will be added to the grocery list. Always in November, the month during which I celebrate my birthday (75th this year), La Belle Femme always makes sure that a small crate of pomegranates finds its way to the Halaby house.

And this year, like no other, pomegranates will take on a more profound and personal meaning.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com

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