Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Egypt – CXXXIX. The Mahmal

One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood is the mahmal.

The mahmal is shrouded in the mist of time and mysticism. So many legends surrounds it, that even with the help of some research, I can only give you an approximate – but fascinating – picture of this ancient ritual.

The mahmal is a procession that travels from Egypt to Mecca to carry the Kiswah* in a palanquin (a litter with 4 handles carried by 4 people). Legend has it that a granddaughter by marriage of Saladin seized the throne of Egypt, and travelled to Mecca in a covered litter to perform her Hajj*. The Mahmal is a symbol of that long-ago pilgrimage. In time, the mahmal acquired a protective role for caravans of pilgrims going from Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and other countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire, to Mecca. Early on, the tradition of making and taking a Kiswa to cover the Kaaba* became incorporated.

[* The Kiswa is a cloth used to cover the Kaaba; it is typically embroidered with verses from the Koran and encrusted with gold and jewels. The Kaaba is Islam’s sacred shrine at Mecca; it contains a black stone which is considered holy. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every healthy Muslim who can afford it, must travel, at least once in his or her lifetime, from his country to Mecca to participate in the prayers and rituals performed by the Kaaba. Upon his or her return, out of respect, for the rest of his or her life, you call that person ya hag for a man or ya hagga for a woman.]

There is nothing sacred about the mahmal, indeed, some Islamic sects question the need for the whole ceremony.

For me the mahmal evokes a procession of camels with the central one carrying a symbolic Kiswa (since the ’20s, the actual Kiswa has been made in Saudi Arabia); the participants are donning colorful clothing; and beautiful music is played on the zamamirs (a kind of short clarinet). The haunting song originally sung by Asmahan, Allek Salat Allah Wou Salamou (You Have The Prayers And The Peace Of God With You) is sung by the crowd. On this day, you’re sure to hear it on the radio numerous times.

In our modern age, obviously, the pilgrims are not going to Mecca walking; where the “caravan” eventually ends, I do not know. Is there still a mahmal in Egypt (or other Arab countries)? Again, I do not know.

The mahmal went through the main thoroughfares of Cairo, one of them was Abbas street where relatives of my mother lived. Needless to say, we had a standing invitation to join them on the day of the mahmal. I have beautiful memories associated with this family, and this is my opportunity to briefly talk about them.

As a child, Joseph, left a deep impression on me. He was an amazing raconteur with a sense of humor that was second to none. He was a connoisseur in food and drink; he could eat anything with a grace that cannot be taught; you’re either born with it, or you’re not.

He first married Alice and had three daughters with her: Adrienne, Simone, and Mireille. One day, as both were out, Alice started crossing the street and Joseph, to his horror, noticed that a car was bearing down on her; he opened his mouth to warn her, but it was too late.

A grief-stricken Joseph was left with three very young children; Adrienne the oldest was only 6.

When a door closes another one opens; and through that door walked Esther, for us children she was the much-beloved tante Esterina. Joseph and Esther had two children: Claudie and Raymond.

A visit to their home was a treat for me; both were such jovial people; and, of course, we played for hours on end with our cousins. They lived in a beautiful, and tastefully furnished, apartment; and they had an elevator – a rarity in those days.

The work that Joseph did, intrigued the whole family. He was a censeur (auditor) with a well-known British firm (the full name escapes me, but it included Russell). What on earth does an auditor do, I wondered? I could have never guessed back then that I would enter that profession many years later.

When we all left Egypt, this branch of the family immigrated to the U.S.: Joseph, Esther, Claudie, Raymond, Simone and her husband, and Mireille and her husband. The exception was Adrienne; together with her husband Victor, and their three young children, they went to Canada. As for us, we settled in Israel. But we were destined to be reunited once more.

In 1964, Robert and I immigrated to Canada; and two years later we were joined by our parents. Thus the families had occasions to reunite and once more pretend that we were still in the apartment on Rue Abbas waiting for the mahmal to go by.

When I met the Brooklyn girl who would one day become my wife, I could not get my parent’s opinion since they were still in Israel; an equivalent view was secured from Esther and Joseph. I took Norma to their apartment in Queens; they highly praised my choice and without reserve gave their seal of approval.

Joseph and Esther went on to live to a great age. All the rest of the family are alive and well.

Adrienne named her first daughter Alice. Thus, while I never had the privilege to become acquainted with the first Alice (she died before I was born), I had numerous occasions to meet her delightful descendant.


1) Mahmal – Oxford Islamic Studies online

2) Cairo’s Mahmal Ceremony. – The Englishman’s Report

3) Mahmal – English Sabla

4) JSTOR: The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. No. 1 (Jan. 1931), PP. 117 – 127 The Mahmal of the Moslem Pilgrimage Arthur E. Robinson

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