Sunday, November 29, 2015

Muslim women in Montreal by Celine Leduc edited by Norman Simon

My first encounter with a Muslim woman was about 45 years ago at a friend’s house.  I was under the impression because of ignorant journalists that Muslims and Jews hated each other. One of my friends (Jewish and Israeli) had invited me to help her prepare a small party. We were going to play cards which meant lots of talk and a feast. The hostess had food that was filling, appealing and plentiful, the secret of a successful party. The leftovers were distributed when guests were leaving. 

By then I had been properly trained, and she knew I could make falafel, cut vegetables for each dish be it a salad or to dip in hummus.  We had some fresh pita and some was roasted in the oven and served warm and a bit spicy and crispy.

Finally, for desert, we had baklava and good “Turkish” coffee. So I went to her house the day before, because some salads had to marinate. I slept over and the next morning, we were cooking up a storm.  We started by making the hummus and then the falafel and all the salads. Yes, my vegetables were cut in small pieces, my garlic properly crushed and the parsley chopped finely. Onions were marinated that same day with a bit of salt and lemon juice. For the falafels, the tomatoes were sliced paper thin, so were the cucumbers. We made a cabbage salad the night before because the cabbage and onions had to marinate in the lemon and olive oil overnight for flavor and texture. It was flavored with garlic (roasted and raw) and various spices and herbs. Taste and presentation were so important and the pride of all women because we liked to show off our culinary skills, To our mind, hospitality is central to the tradition. Coffee and baklava was to be served last.

Two tables were set up, one on which to play cards, and the other as a buffet that included the all the various salads, falafel, hummus, tzatziki with pita bread and the seasoned crispy pita.  The buffet was dairy and kosher hence, there was no meat so everyone could eat and enjoy. No wine or alcohol was served because a few Muslim women were coming over. They would eat kosher food, but no alcohol.  Cultural etiquette demanded that all guest were to be respected be it dietary needs or religiously. Muslim women were as respectful when their turn came and so were Greek Orthodox women. When they invited Jewish women they went out and bought serving dishes in foil and thick paper plates, to respect dietary kosher law.  The cups for coffee were in fine porcelain to serve the coffee or tea. 

The women came in and introduced themselves; one woman came from Alexandria and was a descendant of Alexander the Great, and she was Greek Orthodox.  Another woman from Yemen was Muslim and a descendant of the Prophet. Yet another Muslim woman was from Iraq. My friend was originally from Yemen was Jewish and had moved to Israel.  As for me, I was born in Canada, Irish and French origins and brought up Catholic.  Religion was a plus and not a problem.
Culture and tradition united the women and the food was known and loved by all, as the hostess made sure that each person had a special dish, such as tzatziki for the woman from Greece and the soft pita.  Hummus, falafel and salads everyone loved. Baklava was Greek and Turkish in origin but all knew it and loved it. Some was flavored with orange water, others with rose water, and honey syrup was used in both cases. The coffee was interesting as I was told the following: Turkish coffee was served to Jewish women, Greek coffee to the woman who was Greek and Arabic coffee to our guests from Yemen and Iraq. Each coffee is similar, but prepared a bit differently due to the technique of boiling and sweetening and the serving.  As a Canadian, I could not see the difference and wondered, "Why so much fuss? Make drip coffee."  My friend told me, "No we do not drink American coffee when we get together, you know that we need to have good coffee." She then explained it is out of respect for the women - Greece had been attacked by the Turks, and they had a war with the Arabs. The Arabs were defeated by the Turks and the Greeks. but Jews had been well treated by the Turks during the period of the Ottoman Empire. 

If you have a friend that is Armenian, serve them Arabic Coffee as they were invaded by both the Turks and the Greeks. So much to remember and to think of when inviting people.  Mediterranean culture is complex and diverse, and it seemed to me that women had found a way to get along and be friends based on respect for each other and knowing one another’s history. Food well prepared, served, and prepared with lots of love and caring, was the solution.  A bit too much caring when it came to eating made these card games interesting and very festive.

Women were great at offering food; actually food was not only offered but pushed on the guest. Have this dish, "You did not eat," and, "You do not like the food," was repeated by every hostess. "Do not be shy, eat, come on you have to eat, try this dish. I made it for you.  Let me make you something you like. Eat, come eat, you are not eating enough."  

If my plate was not full enough, one of the women would add more food. Now, if I happened to say I liked a specific dish, she would go and make some for me and would make sure I had enough for a whole week. At times food fights verbal fights would go on until the guest was so full we would need to go out for a long walk and fast for the rest of the day.  Some women gave me fantastic advice: When you come to an event or card game, do not eat breakfast and you will not to have supper, just enjoy the food. 

Culturally, I found out that to be polite in some groups like in Tunisia or some parts of Iraq, you had to refuse three times before you accepted food. In Egypt, Yemen, and other countries, you had to have seconds and even a third portion to be polite. 

Etiquette and cultural knowledge is what binds women together - it is their strength. Food matters as it is part of hospitality, The saints that women go and pray to in order to ask favors also matter.  Saints were saints they could be Jewish, Christian or Muslim as each saint had a specific role to play in the life of women. 

Women from Egypt living in Montreal by Celine Leduc edited by Norman Simon

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 on Saturday for Shabbat and on Sunday 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 Saturday, 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. 

Friday, November 6, 2015


By Celine Leduc edited by Norman Simon  

Two suitcases is all that is left of a life. For the Katbe family. One suitcase for the wife, the other for the husband.  They had four sons: they loved them, taught them the ways of their world, educated them, and made sure they married well.  The sons immigrated to Canada became Canadian citizens and yet have remained faithful to their country of birth and their parents.  Their sons want the best for their parents.
They are from Syria and are Christians. Syria is imploding and exploding. Civil unrest creates a very unhealthy climate that degenerates into pandemonium, into civil war that turns into a full-fledged war. Bombs explode, homes become empty shells. A bomb falls on the shell of a deserted, abandoned home - a house explodes in thousand pieces.  Whole streets turn into rubble; the man-made tornado of war circles around like a hawk looking for food. Those warmongers are hungry for power, for control. They kill the innocent, the unprotected, for a piece of land, for greed, as they are hungry for power and control so they can claim victory, plant a black flag tainted with the blood of those who died. Their victory is built on death, the death of the innocent regardless of religion or culture. Warmongers are warmongers - they worship the god of war, of destruction, the god of hell, for their bombs create hell on earth.
Two suitcases for survival linking the peaceful happy past with the traumatizing insecurity of the present and the uncertain, traumatizing future. They have to leave their home as war rages on, a civil war erupted, and a new enemy emerges making their flight an imperative. They flee war to find safety and hopefully be able find peace and join their children in Canada.  A stopover in Lebanon, a visit to the Canadian Consulate to make an application for immigration in order to become residents of the country chosen by their sons, their wives and their grandchildren.
 Family reunification is the order of the day, reunited families is on their minds.  War has caused division that ripped families apart, forced some to flee to refugee camps full of horror and fear, where intolerance is the weapon of choice and brutality becomes the reality as life rarely matters and death is the release.
At 80, the old couple think what they should bring.  What matters is legacy.  They leave behind their locked up home; and, key in hand, they say farewell, not goodbye as they are hoping to come back soon.
Two suitcases are packed carefully; two suitcases, hopefully, a short stay at a relative’s home in Lebanon. They are lucky they can avoid the danger of the camps. They have family in Lebanon, a house to stay at for an ailing father and an aching worried mother. They make their way to Lebanon, leaving their home near Aleppo for a dream of life in Canada to spend their last days with their sons.  The sons want them and work for their parent’s safety. Personal tragedy, their father is ill very ill; his dream of return is but a dream his death is a nightmare for his mom.  She is a widow, without a husband to care for her to make sure she can be protected.  She has her sons, four sons, who now are head of the family. Their duty is to do for their mother what their father can no longer do: care for her, make sure she is protected and fulfill the dream of going to Canada.  

In her nightmare, her grief, she has a dream: she can be a grandmother and a doting mother to her loving sons.  Her sons, all Canadians, have jobs, and make a pact, a promise, a pledge: their mom will not be alone. They will come stay with their mom for two months each.  Petition the Canadian government to fast-track the refugee claimant, so their loving and beloved mom can come to Canada as a resident.
The two suitcases were packed with love and are the keepers of the past, are for the present and open the door to the future.  Legacy and origins matter. You can see that past matters by the content of their suitcases. Two lives packed in the suitcases filled with papers, birth and marriage certificates and last will and testament. Photos of their wedding, their children which is the legacy of their children growing up in Syria for their grandchildren living now in Canada.  The other part is their clothes and travel items.  One person now has the two suitcases full of memory with one wish, one hope, to be reunited with family.
 We hear of men doing evil deeds. They thrive on hate, create hell for all those living on earth. Yet, there is another reality which is love, the love of a son towards his mom, and the love of a mother for her sons. War causes not only confusion, but also hate, anger, division, unrest, and even death. Families are broken: fathers are killed, mothers abused, and children see what they should not see or feel.  War can also bring about the reunification of a family - especially in Canada where we as Canadians pride ourselves because of our humanitarian principles.  We offer refuge to those who have none. There is a fear of invasion or radicalization, of unrest and uprising.  An old woman of 80 is not threat to security. She saw war, she lived through it, and she now wants a few final years to dote on her loving sons and grandchildren.
 Her sons will not forsake her as they live the commandment to "honor thy parent."   They will leave their own wives and children to go and stay with their mom in Lebanon. In those two months, the sons make sure they have enough money to care for their home in Canada, pay bills, feed their family over here. No salary coming in, living off savings. Money is not their motivation; it is family, it is life, a good life for their mother. The hope she will be there to be a doting grandmother, a mother-in-law and a mother. 
On humanitarian grounds and for the love of family, of surviving love please help this family, and fast-track their humanitarian request. Make sure that a family is reunited out of love for an older woman with two suitcases, who has four loving sons.

Video from CTV that speaks Mrs. Katbe

UPDATE: Mrs. Katbe will be coming to Canada hopefully soon by the end of the year ---  we ask that her application be fast tracked so she can be reuinited with her loving sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.