There it was, in the middle of the grocery store (a regular one, mind you, and not Whole Foods), with a huge sign announcing its discounted price, in one of these cardboard boxes with the fruits all stacked one on top of the other. There it was, sitting modestly between the three dozen varieties of apples, and the resigned, flaccid bags of grapes. There it was–ready and eager, and not a single shopper approaching it, touching it, or even looking at it for all the beauty of its glistening red skin, its sensuous navel.
No, no one, not even I, for whom pomegranates were an occasion for supreme joy when I was growing up. There was a season for the pomegranate (as there were for all sorts of vegetables and fruits) in my part of the world, and we waited impatiently for its arrival at the vegetable market. And then some–until the price came down. My mother would buy three or four of the strange, mysterious fruit. That very evening, we would sit around and patiently, slowly–almost devotionally–we would begin the ritual. With a tiny knife, my mother or grandmother would make a thin line from the navel to the base of the fruit, and then cradling the pomegranate with both hands, would slowly tear the thing into two.
That was always the big moment, when the two halves of the fruit were suddenly ruptured revealing an intricate interior of honeycombed seeds. Sometimes, the fruit would begin to bleed from the violence it had been subjected to. Perhaps it was the fleeting violence which made that moment so mysterious, so full of apprehension, but also anticipated joy.
Then we would divide the two halves into smaller portions. We would take out one or two seeds at a time, making sure that the white membrane was detached from the seed, and that the seed was not discolored. Then, we would place the seeds from a fruit or two in small bowls, sprinkle it with sugar.
The taste was like nothing else in the world. Pungent and sweet, it would linger on for a while afterward. I always swallowed the seeds, to my grandmother’s consternation, but it did not matter. It was a small sacrifice to pay for such a ritual which engaged the senses so subtly but so completely, and with such enduring power.
That was then. But today, at my local grocery store, I was as oblivious as the next shopper, except for the guilt I felt afterward when I was driving home–the guilt of passage, the guilt of treachery perhaps, the guilt which fuels these words.
But truth be told, what have we done to the pomegranate, this most strange, this most marginal of all fruits? The assault has been two-pronged, and well-intentioned on both counts: an artistic assault and a commercial one. Between them, they have squeezed the pomegranate dry, sucked the mystery and energy out of it, used it in so many contexts and justifications that it has become a hollow shell, a word with no resonance, no texture. (In Arabic, the word for pomegranate is rumman; in Armenian it is noor–the very words carrying its otherness, searing its memory in my mind. Her cheeks are like rummans, the saying goes in Arabic.)
What have we done? On the artistic front, we Armenians have to share the blame though most of the shoppers at my local grocery store would not even be able to pronounce the word Armenian. When the great Soviet film-maker Sergei Paradjanov made his Nran Gooyne (The Color of Pomegranates), the fruit entered our lexicon of hushed, exiled usage. We watched the film with bated breath, our eyes unable to take in the saturation of the images which the film displayed. There was that primal scene of the pomegranate bleeding onto a white background, and the fabric slowly absorbing the redness. What to make of that image? How to understand its titular significance in the context of the film’s ostensible subject, the life of Sayat Nova, the Bard of the Caucasus.
Books and articles have been written on this question, and a blog is not the place for this discussion, except for one, clear fact: It was the opacity, beauty and complexity of the image (both in the title and in the film itself) which sustained and encouraged its endless variations. We, as a community, latched on to it like there was no tomorrow, and for decades used it and abused it, stretching its delicate meaning thin, but also simplifying it beyond recognition. There it was, the name of a record label. There it was again, the inspiration for post cards. There it was the name of a film festival. There it was as a poster. There it was as small mementos which friends brought back from Armenia (crude not in a studied way, but simply crude, put together in haste.) There was a time when everywhere you turned, you saw a pomegranate. But none of it seemed real, authentic, doing justice to Paradjanov’s usage and to the fruit itself. None of it.
When the health food industry’s claws reached the tender seeds of the pomegranate, we Armenians were too happy to oblige. We have a genetic predisposition to being “the first,” as the cultural anthropologist Levon Abrahamian has noted: the first Christian nation, the first genocide of the twentieth century (not really), the first growers of apricots, the first shoe-wearers, and so on. We were proud and happy, and we walked into health food stores with added dignity and national pride. It was not an apple that Eve gave her man, but a pomegranate, we proclaimed, and believed our words. We were the growers of the pomegranate, the cultivators of its theraputic powers. And the variations kept multiplying (as they did in the 1980s with yogurt), and soon there was the juice and the juice of the juice, and the smoothie, and the ice cream, and on and on like this. (I read somewhere recently an article on how to open the pomegranate, how to eat it! I saw an ad for the juice, foregrounded by the image of and man and a woman in a vigorous, pre-coital embrace. I was livid.)
The promoters knew next to nothing about our civilization much the less about Paradjanov’s film, and they are not expected to know. But we are. John Berger writes that sometimes to be naive is to be an accomplice. In the case of the pomegranate, to be enthusiastic was to be an accomplice.
Before long, the circle was complete, the noose tight. Our national symbol (yes, after a while many were talking about the pomegranate as our national symbol–all the seeds separate but united, and such drivel) had become an international nutritional sensation. Now if we could just turn that into some public relation campaign for our national cause, we’d be all set! Because, let’s face it, if it cannot be turned into a public relations tool, it’s days are limited.
But the market operates on surplus, on making things obsolete and irrelevant while making us crave more of what we cannot have. And so too with the magical, complicated pomegranate. We’ve run out of aesthetic extensions; we’ve run out of milking the poor fruit, and the market has turned to other commodities. And so the pomegranate sits in the grocery store, its skin having lost some of the past’s vibrant sheen, its navel turned sideways. And we pass by it these days, never giving it a second look, the good consumers that we are.
But in my memory, the pomegranate will always be the emblem of the moment–the moment I first saw the image on the screen, in that darkened basement, before the petitions for Paradjanov’s release from prison; the tomes of commentaries and conferences (some of them pretty bad, pretty narrow, chauvenistic even); the volumes of books in several languages; the collapse of the Soviet Union; Paradjanov’s uneasy entry into the world; then his slow, painful death; the mass funeral and the outpouring of national grief; the construction of the luminous Paradjanov House-Museum in Yerevan; and so on and on.
But before all this, the moment when we are seated around the table: the fruit cracks, bleeds, revealing something near-perfect, something utterly new each time but also something ruptured, broken, dispersed, scattered, bittersweet.