Exploring the Palestinian side of my family

Surprising Notes

This post is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend
Frank Rettenberg who left this world in December 2023.
I will always remember him fondly.

“I’ve got a big surprise for you and can’t wait to share it with you when you return. It’s an amazing gift for both you and me. Can’t tell you more.”

It was early October 2018 and I was spending yet another summer-turned-autumn in Cyprus, my homeland. In a couple of weeks I’d be returning to my second home in San Francisco. And now this message from my friend Mona made me want to hurry back. 

I ventured a guess but Mona wasn’t game for it. “You can guess as much as you like but my lips are sealed!” In any case, she said she didn’t have “it” in her hands just yet. By the next day “it” had arrived and made her all teary but still she refused to let on. What could it be?!

Afif (L) and Colia (middle)
Jerusalem, ca 1939
(From Mona’s FB page: British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library)

Given our relationship, I knew it had to be something related to my Palestinian story—a photograph perhaps. Mona Halaby and I met through the Jerusalem, We Are Here (JWRH) project. In a previous post I recounted how we first connected and the subsequent serendipitous circumstances that led to the discovery that her maternal uncle Afif was the same Afif that my great-uncle Colia Schtakleff had told me so much about. They both played in the same music band in Jerusalem—the PK (Pascal Kamar) band. Afif played the piano, and Colia the accordion; Colia looked up to Afif who knew more about music chords and had more experience in the music scene. And Afif’s sister Zakia—Mona’s mother—would sometimes sing with the band. Mona and I were bowled over when we first figured out this connection between our Jerusalem ancestors.

The PK band at the Palestine Broadcasting Station (PBS) – Jerusalem
Colia on the accordion (and his cousin Michel Schtakleff on drums)
Afif not participating on this occasion
(Source: Matson Photo Service, Library of Congress)

As it turned out, the rest of this story is replete with more serendipity. 

I returned to San Francisco in mid-October and as soon as I shook off jet lag, Mona invited me to lunch, to catch up and to present me with “it”—the big surprise. She continued to tease me, threatening to wait until after our meal, but finally she presented me with a paper folder: “Open it!”

Inside were three pages of a music score—a Greek song titled Σκληρή Μοναξιά (Harsh Loneliness) translated into English as Dreamy Serenade. And below the title: Music by Afif Jabre. Lyrics by Nicolas Schtakleff. A song—written by Afif and Colia! My jaw hit the ground. Mona had been right: what an amazing gift!

Over the summer, Afif’s daughter Lina, who lived in Florida, came across it as she was clearing out some of her father’s things and sent it to Mona. She had no idea that Mona was friends with Colia’s great-niece. (And I had no idea that Afif had a daughter living in the US.) The copies were of poor quality and I could barely make out the words but later Mona forwarded the original photos and I finally read the Greek lyrics—although, not being music literate, figuring out the order of the lines on the score was a challenge. 

Σκληρή Μοναξιά

Σαν μούπες πως αλήθεια μ’αγαπούσες
Κι η καρδιά σου στη φωλιά μου εζητούσε μια γωνιά
Σε θρόνιασα κι εγώ μεσ’ την καρδιά μου
Κι η ζωή μας σαν πουλάκια επερνούσε μέ φιλιά

Μα τώρα ο καϋμένος βλέπω πως με απατούσες
Με τον πόνο της καρδιάς μου εγλεντούσες
Μα θάρθης ντροπιασμένη να ζητήσεις μιαν αγάπη
Και θα νοιώσεις το σκληρό του χωρισμού

Θάχεις πάντοτε την μοναξιά για συντροφιά
Πίκρες θα σου δίνουνε αντί γλυκά φιλιά
Τότε θα ζητήσεις την παλιά μας την φωλιά
Και ίσως δεν θα τη βρείς ξανά ποτέ ξανά

Ισως θάρθει μέρα που ξανά θα θυμηθώ
Χείλη που μου δώσανε φιλί πολύ θερμό
Μάτια που μου χάρισαν έστω κ’ μια βραδυά
Χάδια απαλά και γλυκά

Harsh Loneliness

When you told me that you truly loved me
And your heart in my nest was looking for a corner 
I settled you in my heart
And our life like little birds went by with kisses

But now, poor me, I see that you cheated me
With the pain of my heart you were having fun 
You will come, ashamed, to ask for a love
And you will feel the harshness of separation

You will always have loneliness for company
They will give you bitterness instead of sweet kisses
Then you will ask for our old nest
And you may never find it ever again

Maybe one day I will remember again
Lips that gave me a very warm kiss
Eyes that gave me even one evening
Soft and sweet caresses

Another challenge immediately popped up, taunting us: what does it sound like?! Neither Mona nor I can read music. Mona proposed asking a neighbour who played the piano to play it and record it. I returned home feeling exhilarated and anxious to hear more from her. 

The following day I had a dance lesson with my friend Photis, a superb ballroom dancing teacher and many-time champion in competitive dancing. As we were wrapping up, it occurred to me that his dance partner played the piano and I wondered if he might be able to play the song for us. A few days later, Photis reported that his partner found it too complicated. But he’d had another idea: one of his advanced students was an accomplished piano player. He would ask her. So the song continued its travels in search of an agent of manifestation. 

A few days later Mona sent me the recording of her neighbour’s attempt. It was only the right hand of the score—a nice first taste but lacking depth and colour. 

Meantime Photis’s student was already on it and found one part of it, “…haunting, wanted to cry.” An elderly Korean lady, who doesn’t do anything half-heartedly, Young-Ju had really taken to the piece and was practising diligently. I urged him to ask her for a recording but she insisted on giving me a private performance—when she was ready, when she felt she could play it to her standards. And those standards are not to be underestimated if her dance history is any indication. 

Young-Ju Yun dancing at competition
(Source: FB page of Dance Arts Ballroom & Fitness)

Young-Ju Yun began dancing years ago, when she was in her sixties, with her husband, primarily as a form of social entertainment. They danced for about four years but then life got in the way with travels etc. After her husband’s death in March 2008, a despondent Young-Ju, now in her early seventies, moved into a retirement community in Marin County (north of San Francisco). After a 52-year marriage, all she could think of was following her husband to the great beyond. But the muse  (Terpsichore, by name) had other plans for her and summoned her back to the ballroom dancing studio, instilling her with a renewed zest for life. She’d take lessons, practise constantly and then started competing, winning competition after competition, accumulating medal after medal. About seven years ago she connected with Photis with whom she’s been dancing and performing ever since, with plans to continue doing so until her 89th birthday later this year.  

She approached Dreamy Serenade with the same dedication and tenacity. She was not going to play it for me until she felt she had a good grasp of it. I, on the other hand, tend to be restless and was dying to hear it however imperfect. A lesson in patience…

It was spring 2019 before I heard anything more definite from Photis. Young-Ju was—finally!— inviting us to her place in late May for a dress rehearsal: she would play a rough version of the piece. A couple of days before the big day, as Photis and I were discussing logistics on the phone, he started explaining where this retirement community was in Marin. “Wait, what?! Are you talking about Villa Marin?” “Yes,” he replied eagerly. What a small world, I thought. 

I was quite familiar with Villa Marin as my friend Frank had moved there with his wife some years earlier. Only the week before I’d given a presentation there of JWRH on Frank’s invitation. 

Frank Rettenberg was a retired Foreign Service officer with three tours of duty in Turkey which made him rather knowledgeable about the CyProb (Cyprus problem). He was also the chairman of the Marin Chapter of the World Affairs Council (WAC), a public affairs forum[1]. I met him when in March 2004 he gave a talk at WAC on “Turkey, Cyprus & the EU” in view of the upcoming referendums in Cyprus on the Annan Plan for a solution to the CyProb, and the island’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004. At the time, I was playing at US correspondent of The Cyprus Weekly (an English-language newspaper of which my uncle Alex Efthyvoulou was one of the publishers) and I presented myself as such to Frank. He “adopted” me immediately.

Frank sitting on the ancient stones of Salamis – Cyprus, Sep 2006

A most kind and generous man, a true gentleman, with a great sense of humour and a constantly active mind that kept reading and learning, Frank was an indefatigable organiser of events (both at WAC and later also at Villa Marin) and loved to bring people together. We became good friends until he sadly left this world in December 2023. Whenever there was a programme at WAC Marin which he thought would (or should!) interest me, he’d invite me and he’d make sure I was seated next to the speaker at dinner. He introduced me to a host of interesting people—academics, journalists, authors—checked on me regularly, and even visited me in Cyprus when his travels to Turkey in September 2006 brought him to the Turkish-occupied north of the island. 

In 2010 he asked me to fill in for a former UN diplomat who was scheduled to talk about Cyprus as a case study for “Peace Building and Conflict Resolution” as part of  the Great Decisions programme sponsored by the WAC at Dominican University. Given who I’d be replacing, I was totally intimidated. To overcome my hesitation, Frank offered to contribute to my talk by covering the role of the US in the CyProb. I spent a good month-and-a-half studying and drafting my talk, and it all went swimmingly. 

My JWRH presentation at Villa Marin in 2018 included an invitation to dinner before the show and, as always, introductions to everyone we encountered between the dining room and the auditorium and beyond. “Marina is our speaker this evening. Join us!” So many new names and faces, I couldn’t have retained them all. That evening I also discovered another of Frank’s passions: music. As we were prepping, he sat at the piano and played some old Turkish melodies. 

Presenting JWRH at Villa Marin, with Frank Rettenberg standing (R) – May 2019

So when I realised that Young-Ju was at Villa Marin, I rang excited to tell him. “Oh, of course I know her,” he said. “Her apartment is right next to ours.” And asked if he could join in on the day. I relayed this to Photis and when he told Young-Ju, she exclaimed: “I met her! Frank introduced us! But I couldn’t make it to her talk.” Can the world get any smaller? 

In mid-morning of Friday 24 May, 2019, Photis and I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to Villa Marin in San Rafael. A sprightly, petite octogenarian, impeccably dressed, with perfect posture and porcelain complexion was waiting for us outside the building. Young-Ju was thrilled to see Photis and received me with much warmth. We followed her inside the building and up the stairs (she never took the lift, she stressed) to her apartment—a carefully appointed, comfortable unit with a view of the wood at the front. A knock on the door next to hers summoned Frank to join us for the proceedings. 

Young-Ju sat at the piano. A chunky bunch of medals from dance competitions was hanging from the shelves next to it. And on the music stand, on one side a book with Beethoven on the cover, and next to it the pages of Dreamy Serenade. After warming up a bit, Young-Ju was ready. I started shooting video, as the Serenade came to life at last, rolling off the piano and filling the room with notes and melody. 

It was beautiful: sweet and wistful with a distinctly Greek/Middle-Eastern flavour in the chorus. I asked Young-Ju if she could hum along so I could figure out where the lyrics were. She couldn’t understand why Photis or I couldn’t just sing along since we could read the lyrics. “We don’t know when,” we explained. “We can’t read the notes.” Having come to terms with that, she started to hum along, carrying the rest of us with her, with Frank reading directly from the score. A South Korean woman, a Jewish American man, a Greek Cypriot, and a Greek-Palestinian Cypriot in the San Francisco Bay Area humming to a tune composed by an Arab Palestinian and a Greek-Bulgarian Palestinian several decades ago in Jerualem. Far from the harsh loneliness of its title, this song elicited warm companionship, camaraderie and connection.

I was deeply touched by Young-Ju’s efforts and dedication to make this piece come to life. But her generosity didn’t stop there. She treated Photis and me to a sumptuous lunch—despite my protestations that the treat should have been mine. As we munched, she told us more about her life story: Her family was close to the royal family in Korea. When hard times hit the royals, they offered one house in the royal compound to her father as a means of raising funds. So she grew up next to the princesses and princes. At seventeen, she came to the US to study music. 

Young-Ju didn’t stop thinking about the piece, and continued searching for ways to give it full embodiment, complete with lyrics. The following year, she asked a dance teacher if her father George, a Greek professional guitarist, would play the song on guitar. George agreed and started working on it. He changed the key so one of his daughters could sing it and coached her on how to properly pronounce the Greek words. Later on George sent it to a friend of his in Turkey, with whom he’d played and recorded previously, to improve the arrangement; but he believes that it’s better played on the piano rather than the guitar. So Dreamy Serenade continues its travels across the globe, bringing together people from different countries and cultures. ❖


[1] The World Affairs Council of Northern California recently merged with The Commonwealth Club of California, forming Commonwealth Club World Affairs.


  1. Anne Rettenberg

    Thank you so much for posting this, Marina!

    • Marina Parisinou

      It’s my pleasure, Anne. It was an honour calling your dad a friend.

  2. Nadia Aboussouan Tyson

    Thank you, Marina. Love the story. I am musically inane but I really enjoyed all these international connections.
    My nephew is a ballroom dancer thanks to his mother who also is one. They live on the Riviera. My brother going with them on a regular basis to competitions decided to be the group’s physician. He passed away over 5 years ago otherwise he would have been in everyone of our zooms.

    • Marina Parisinou

      Thank you, Nadia! Very glad you liked it!

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