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 – IV. My Early Childhood – Heliopolis (1 of 2)

I was conceived in June 1935 on one of those hot nights for which Cairo is reputed.  My mother’s pregnancy was normal.  Nothing alerted her, or her doctor, that the delivery would turn out to be a life and death struggle.  Remember, these were the 1930s, there was no ultra sound, nor any of the other tools doctors and patients today take for granted.  Everything depended on how skilled my mother’s gynecologist*, Dr. Manasseh was.  And thank God, Dr. Manasseh was an extraordinarily skilled doctor (and not only in his specialty, gynecology*).

[*Today, a gynecologist is concerned with problems affecting the female reproductive system; the obstetrician, on the other hand, deals with pregnancy, childbirth, and the ensuing period.  Back then, I surmise, gynecology covered both branches of medicine.  Before coming to Canada, I had never heard of obstetrics.]

When the contractions started, Dr. Manasseh was summoned to our house (hospital deliveries were rare in those days).  My father and grandmother Bida were present during the delivery.

For some reasons, I presented myself with my arm across my face!  The doctor was therefore confronted by my arm blocking the birth canal.  My understanding is that even forceps could not be used in the early stages of the delivery.  The doctor told Nessim and Bida that his priority was to save the mother.  As for the child, he would do his best.  But he expressed pessimism.

Dr. Manasseh had a sixth sense as to the right medical decision to take for the medical dilemma confronting him.  He used it many times over the years when we required his services.  And he used it on that day to save the life of both the mother and the child.

And so against all odds, I came into the world on March 9, 1936.  I did not make my presence known with a lusty cry.  I was silent for a while.  By the time I finally took my first breath, my brain has been deprived of much needed oxygen.  No permanent damage resulted, I retain, however, to the present day a certain weakness and awkwardness.

My early childhood was spent in Heliopolis, a beautiful suburb of Cairo ringed by gardens.  It was also known as Masr el Gedida, New Cairo.  And to the present day, it is still known as New Cairo!  Something akin to New York (still, after centuries, a new version of York!)

We lived in a three-room apartment, with a small entrance and a tiny kitchen.  Besides my parents, my grandmother and/or my aunt Rachel were present to help my mother.  She was a new bride with a baby, and their help was needed.  We also had a maid. Labor was inexpensive, and most households could afford domestic help.

My parents and aunt Rachel spoke both French and Arabic.  They were fluent in both languages.  They could start a conversation in Arabic, proceed to French, and switch back to Arabic again!  My grandmother spoke Arabic only.  She also knew some Ladino (an old form of Spanish used by Sephardic Jews; it parallels the Yiddish used by Ashkenazi Jews).  The maid spoke Arabic only.

Thus I grew with two languages; in effect, I have two mother tongues:  French and Arabic.  Children in some parts of the world, during their early years, hear two languages and acquire two mother tongues.  For instance, many an Indian child will be exposed to English and Hindi and will acquire both languages.

Did I realize I was speaking two different languages?  At a certain level, I did.  To my grandmother and the maid, I spoke in Arabic only.  It was important to clearly communicate with them:  my grandmother protected me if my parents wanted to discipline me!  The maid was the keeper of the cookie jar!  She also acted as a protector.

While on the topic of languages, my parents spoke some Italian.  In my presence, confidential matters were discussed in Italian.  My mother and grandmother exchanged secrets (mainly gossips) in Ladino.  Needless to say, I, and later my brother Robert, learned key words in both languages.  As you can see, in the matter of languages, we had more than one arrow in our quiver.

Unfortunately, for me, at the time I was born, the accepted approach when dealing with a baby was not to pick him up when he cried, unless he was hungry or in pain.  We know today how wrong this school of thought is.  This is the time when the brain makes critical connections.

My mother was the only member of the family who subscribed to this erroneous notion.  My grandmother and the maid largely ignored my mother; they did pick me up and cuddled me when I cried.  Bida told my mother what she thought of her fancy modern theories of child-rearing!  Neither was the maid shy.  She apparently, more than once, told my mother, “ya setti (ma’am) you got it wrong!”

My dad disregarded my mother’s protests; he made it clear he was determined to enjoy the precious first months of his infant son.

The neighbors argued with nobody.  They came in, opened the door (which was unlocked most of the time), took me from my crib and held me until I stopped crying.  Sometimes, they just took me to their home!  It would have been very rude to tell them anything.  Besides, the last thing my mother wanted was to be on bad terms with them.  By now, Flora must have realized that she was in a minority of one.

Thus the damage was mitigated.  But it would be wrong to say that there wasn’t any.  I grew up shy, had difficulty making friends, and to this day, have a limited social life.  I enjoy being by myself, and do not fear loneliness provided I am busy.

As I was growing up, my mother took the initiatives that you’re supposed to gradually leave to your child.  For example, till an advanced age, she fed me.  Thus she avoided the mess a child is bound to make.  Needless to say, I lacked for a long time the ability to do things on my own.  In time, that problem corrected itself.

Do not get the impression that Flora was a mediocre mother.  Far from that.  In most aspects she was a very dedicated mother.  For instance, most days she took me to the park, and played with me; we both spend many happy hours together.  She was also ahead of her time in many ways, and Robert and I greatly benefited from that.

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