This is the first of a series of articles about women from the Levant and North Africa. I am going chronologically and starting with Egypt.
For more than 50 years, I have had friends that came from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Israel and Lebanon. Because politics was the problem, we talked about the problems that politicians created. Their views were often backed by uneducated journalists, historians and anthropologists. These men focused on politics and religion that created in our conscious and subconscious a subliminal message of war; whereas my friends and I focused on getting to know each other by sharing the best of our culture and stories that are often never reported or recorded.
I got to know these incredible women and communities because I met a young woman from Egypt who was Jewish. I was around 15, and we met in secretarial school. We would meet every day at recess in school, and we used to walk to the bus together. I was living outside Montreal in a small village, Léry; and she lived in the Cote des Neiges area of Montreal. We all migrated to Montreal for various reasons: I to attend school, and her family came as refugees and were landed immigrants, soon to be Canadians.
Language was never a problem, I was bilingual French and English and they were polyglots as they spoke, French, English, Arabic, Ladino, Hebrew, Bulgarian and Syriac. As to religion, I was brought up Catholic and they were Jewish. I knew very little about Judaism except some prejudices that were told culturally, such as Jews killed Jesus. This prejudice did not stop us from being good friends; and in time I got to know the truth about Judaism. My friends, however, knew about Catholicism as their mothers had attended Catholic School, in Alexandria. Their moms had a very high opinion of the Nuns because they were by Catholic nuns from France. Their moms thought nuns were the best teachers as they were disciplined and made sure language was respected and well spoken. Hence, the reason their daughters were enrolled in the Notre Dame Secretarial school.
The school was run by nuns from the Congregation of Notre Dame. The dress code was strict: skirts that covered the knee, hats and gloves were required as we were young ladies. Plus we needed to have excellent skills in typing, dictation, shorthand, economics, and accounting. I never liked typing nor shorthand, so it was an unpleasant chore. But, we knew we needed those skills to earn a living as a secretary or as a clerk. We were being trained to assist men in their work, follow orders, and do the manual work - or as I call it the grunge and boring work.
Our friendship is something I cherish and remember fondly, and this made my studies palatable, bearable, and even enjoyable because my weekends were spent one week at my friend’s house in Cote des Neiges and the other week she came to me.
In Cote des Neiges at my friend’s house, I had such a good time. I was treated as part of the family - no difference between the girls as we all shared in duties of the house. First we had to study and excel in our schooling; second we needed to learn how to cook, and then learn how to serve the food and entertain guests. Everything was done in coordination, as a community where each person was assigned a job.
As the new person, I had to learn how to cut vegetables, and her mom taught me to cut in small pieces while her dad from Algeria, showed me how to prepare olives, so they would be flavorful and delicious. I had been used to eating olives out of a jar full of brine. He taught me how to desalt the olives and then marinate them with garlic, some herbs, and put them in a jar full of olive oil and lemon juice.
Her mom showed me the fine art of making stuffed vine-leaves (dolma). Vine-leaves stuffed with rice, onions, meat (ground beef or lamb) and cooked in a sauce made of water, spices and lemon with a tomato. Later, another friend from Iraq gave me her mom’s recipe which used pomegranate juice or syrup.
We sat around a table, all the girls, and worked together under the watchful eye of the mother. The role of the mother was of a guide and a teacher. Women were in charge of the house: it was their kingdom and they were the law as they passed down tradition.
Mothers are the law and religion must be respected. Therefore, we went to synagogue for Shabbat and we would go to Catholic Church. There was no way of going against my friend’s mother. Synagogue was quite different from Church as we sat in the woman’s section and we could talk during the service.
One , it was the Bar Mitzvah of a young boy who was becoming a man. The family was from Morocco and as per their tradition, the women did the traditional song of joy and threw candies. The rabbi was not very happy, but the women told him off that it was part of their tradition and their mothers and grandmothers did it as a sign of joy and elation for the Bar Mitzvah boy who is now a man. Tradition trumped the law and the rabbi relented grudgingly as he knew that tradition was important. The rabbi was Ashkenazi from Europe and the women where Sephardi from North Africa, and they came from Andalusia, Spain.
An example of how women were respected and could argue with a rabbi, made me aware of my power as a woman. Well, I tried this method in a Church, when a priest during a sermon reminded the parishioners that Jews had killed Christ; and my friend who was Jewish, was sitting next to me. I stood up in Church and corrected the priest, I was told to sit down and I decided to voice my opinion. Unlike at the synagogue, I was shushed and pulled down to sit, and was even escorted out of the church. I guess no one liked my new tradition of telling the truth as no other woman had done this and traditionally men were the uncontested voice. Interestingly, a few years later after Vatican II, the Pope told Catholics that Jews had not killed Jesus after all: it was the Romans. Mothers in Catholicism are not the law and are told to follow the law and to never question it.
In the past 50 years, I have met women from the Levant and North Africa from various religions who have shared culture and tradition including a great oral tradition. Women from Egypt told me that a woman needs to have a good education - a minimum of a Master’s degree, and men need to know about business. The reason why a woman needs a Master’s or Doctorate is that it is her job to educate her children, both boys and girls - hence her need of a good solid education.
Men, on the other hand, need to earn money and need to learn business. In Quebec, it was the reverse: a woman did not get a good education, the man had to go to university and get a good job. Today, it has changed. There are more and more women who get a university education. However, it is still not the main focus.