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 – LIII. My Years at 12A Rue Khantaret Ghamra – My Paternal Family (6 of 9)

Aunt Angele

Angele was a very skinny woman. This was not due to any health condition; she was simply an extremely poor eater, and was very fussy. If she liked the meal, she ate more than usual, if she didn’t, she consumed a minuscule amount of food. I used to tell my parents that tante Angele ate less than our canary!

At the risk of being accused of exaggeration, I’ll give you a typical example. When eating grapes, she would take a bunch, count 8 grapes and put them on her plate. And that’s all she would eat! If nonna Helene insisted that she eats more, she would take two more grapes for a grand total of 10!

By the time I was born, women were seized by the folly of being as thin as possible, comme un haricot vert (like a string bean). Aunt Angele represented my only chance to say that at least one woman in my life didn’t diet. Alas, it was not to be, for her doctor ordered a diet to put on weight!

But nothing helped. She remained a slight woman for the rest of her life. Later, many times, I asked myself the question: “How can she sustain life?” But sustain she did, and the life energies somehow continued to burn bright in her. And for many more years, a beloved aunt continued to spoil her nephews and nieces.

The life of a young woman in those days (late ’30s and ’40s) was a waiting game. Most did not work and were looking forward to getting married and having children. For a young Jewish maiden, getting un bon parti (a good catch) required a sizable dowry. A small dowry meant having to make concessions. Sad to say, it was often a case “of getting what you paid for!”

(For Muslims, the situation was reversed. The young man had to give a chabaka. The only analogy I can find for a chabaka is a deposit you put down to, say, eventually buy a piece of land. The chabaka could be goods such as clothing or foodstuff; lands and/or buildings; horses or camels; money; or all of the above if the bride was very attractive and came from a good family).

Being Jewish, tante Angele was the one that had to pony up the cash. Easier said than done. When nonno Zaki quit so abruptly his job, she had a small dowry. At this point, there was obviously no possibility of setting aside any more money. Indeed, the Ezri household found itself in such dire financial straits, the money saved for the dowry was gradually spent. The day would come when my aunt didn’t have any dowry. A dire situation indeed.

What saved the day was the fact that she was so thin. It proved to be a lifesaver. Men greatly valued her “skin and bones” frame. This was a complete reversal from the (not so far away) days when the male of the species preferred a “well padded” mate!

Matters took a life of their own. One day, a Semsara (matchmaker) knocked on Helene’s door. In essence, this is what she told my grandmother: “I understand that you have a daughter that you want to marry; wait till I tell you what I have for her; but first, let us remember that time is of the essence.” Why? Angele was in her early twenties, therefore, for you and me (as modern people), there was no rush. But as you have figured by now, the rules of the game were different in Egypt. A young woman had a cut-off date of 22! At 23, she was considered past her “best before date!” Nobody intimated that the onset of senility happened at 23 and beyond! It was simply that at 23 she was considered “old.” Of course, if the dowry was substantial, or if she was a major beauty, well, there was room for negotiations.

Back to the Shadkhena ( another synonym for matchmaker). She dismissed my grandmother’s concern that her daughter had no dota (dowry). “Maalesh ya set Ezri, di moosh moshkela.” (Never mind Mrs. Ezri, this is not a problem). And so, this woman was given carte blanche.

The semsara became a frequent visitor. Many conferences were held accompanied by cups of strong Turkish coffee. After drinking the coffee, the cup of Angele was turned over her saucer, left for a while, and then the pattern left by the coffee grindings were “read” by that woman. She had a gift that allowed her to determine what “higher powers” were reserving for my aunt. Do I need to tell you that the gods were always smiling down on Angele?

Rain or shine, cold or hot, she always came with her umbrella. Why? Simply because it was the custom for a semsara to always have an umbrella with her. It was part of her professional image!

To be fair to this woman, out of her “inventory” she found good prospective husbands despite my aunt’s “handicaps.” Angele, according to her, had many assets: A European ancestry, looks, a French education, and above all she was so thin.

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