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 – CXXXVIII. Welfare Egyptian Style

Our prosperous North American society can afford to help those of us who are down on their luck. Thus we have welfare, free medical care, social housing, food banks, kitchen soups, job retraining, and many other ways to provide social assistance to the poorer members of our society. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that Egypt had no equivalent safety net.

So what is a poor person to do? Where possible, they relied on the charity of relatives. We had such a case in our family. I can therefore describe to you the predicament of relatives who were battered by life and what we did to help them.

Halima was my maternal grandmother’s cousin. Having no dowry and no looks, she had to settle for second best. Moussa, her husband, earned very little; accordingly, they were no stranger to poverty. To make matters worse, of their two daughters, one died at a young age, and the other one was sickly all her life; she married a mostly unemployed man and Moussa, out of his meager wages, had to support them. We say that life is not a bed of roses; if so, surely Moussa and Halima slept on a bed of thorns! But the worse was yet to come.

Moussa was felled by a stroke; it didn’t kill him but it left him paralysed. Even as a child I understood the plight of this unfortunate man. He was in bed all the time. He could never go outside. Wheelchairs in those days were quite primitive, as well, the facilities that we have today to accommodate disabled people (example, a ramp at a building’s entrance) did not exist.

Moussa could not spend part of his time reading for he was illiterate. Television didn’t exist. A friend gave him one of those monstrous radios that existed in those days; he kept it in his room and listened to it for hours on end. Mostly, though, he relied on human companionship.

My mother often send me to their home with a package, therefore, on many occasions I saw Moussa lying on his bed and talking to visitors. One day, a friend was reading the newspaper to him in a halting Arabic; his interpretation of the news left a lot to be desired. As well, since the newspaper was obviously written in classical Arabic, many words were not understood. On this particular day, I was asked to “translate.” Moussa went on to live under these conditions for another 10 years. But that was not the only cross this family carried.

Shortly after he became sick, Halima met with my mother. She told Flora that they have become indigent. She had no idea how she was going to pay the rent or buy food. While the story was told to me at a later date by my mother, I had no doubt that the utmost diplomacy surrounded the whole discussion. Halima was a fiercely proud woman, and Fola was certainly not going to hurt her feelings at such a difficult time. That said, the immediate problem needed to be addressed.

Mom had some money saved, and it was kept in the house. She asked Halima to accept a “loan” until a solution could be found. After a lot of pleading, Halima reluctantly accepted the amount proffered.

This situation was first outlined to my father; next she wrote a long letter to her brother Maurice in Alexandria. Maurice in turn talked to a rich relative, Haroun.

Reluctantly, the parties agreed to help Halima by providing her with a monthly living allowance. Haroun being the wealthiest contributed 2 pounds (at the time an Egyptian pound was equivalent to $5); Maurice and Nessim each agreed to give 1 pound each for a grand total of 4 pounds a month. All the money would be collected by my mother and remitted to Halima at the beginning of every month.

Because of the pride factor, Fola could not just hand her the money. An interesting ceremonial took place; there were occasions when I was home, I am therefore in a position to describe it to you.

Halima drops by for a “visit.” A fair amount of small talk and gossip take place. Next my mother proposes a coffee and Halima invariably takes her up on her offer. Chatting continues and topics that were started pre-coffee are now explored in more depth; it’s more or less a case of “as I was saying before…”

(Note that she always called my mother Fifi and not Flora or Fola. Why? Because the daughter that she lost was also named Flora, and nicknamed Fola. Therefore, to “protect” my mother, she gave her a different nickname).

If I am home, I also get a coffee, but throughout that whole visit, I am instructed to make myself scarce. I come out of my room only after I drank my coffee, for now another ritual takes place. My cup and mom’s cup are given to Halima who turn them upside down on their saucers; and they are left there for a while. The coffee grindings of the Turkish coffee will form a pattern which supposedly will allow Halima to foretell our future. The future is always promising as far as Fifi is concerned. As for me, I am doing well in school, and will be doing even better in the future. (Since you have been informed of my sorry scholastic record, you can safely conclude that Halima was not a good fortune teller).

After we have been apprised of our future, my mother announces that she has to wash the coffee cups; however, instead of going to the kitchen, she heads to the bedroom. Eventually she emerges with a knotted handkerchief which she discreetly places on the end table near Halima.

In only one instance did I witness what happens next. I was coming out of my room just as Halima was taking the handkerchief, so I retreated and hid behind the door. Halima untied the handkerchief which as you have guessed by now contained the money. She counted it carefully, placed it in her purse, and neatly folded the handkerchief. She then told my mother that she was leaving; after some big hugs and more chatting at the door, Halima departed. The whole play was sure to be featured next month, the following one, and so on.

There is a twist to that story, for Egyptian affairs are rarely simple. One day, Flora received a letter from her brother. It seems that Haroun (the wealthy relative) was reducing his contribution from 2 pounds to 1. “How could he be so niggly?” was the reaction of the family. However, the immediate question was what to do? Halima’s rent was 1 pound; that left her 3 pounds, barely enough to buy sufficient food to keep body and soul together. Dad and uncle Maurice temporarily increased their share to 1.5 pound. And then, another twist to this sorry affair took place. Act III was destined to be truly tragic.

Haroun had a daughter whom he loved more than life itself. One day she took ill, I believe it was typhoid. Within weeks, despite the efforts of the doctors, she passed away. When he emerged from the darkness, Haroun called Maurice and told him that he was reinstating the 2 pounds he was giving to Halima. Did he think that God has punished him for his avarice? Very likely judging from his sudden change of heart.

Halima lived a few more years after her husband’s passing. She died before the second exodus took place.

What I remember about this unfortunate couple, was the fact that they never complained. They fully placed their trust in God. Every time a misfortune visited them they simply said, “amr Allah” (it’s God’s will). They had the pure and simple faith you no longer encounter in our modern age.

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