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Night of the Staircase

Body and soul: A new column

One warm evening, in the spring of 1936, when I was on night duty [at the hospital in Alexandria] I sat by the bedside of a pretty, but somewhat sad-looking young Jewish-Egyptian mother, by the name of Emily. She had given birth to a fine baby girl three days before, and therefore her sorrowful looks intrigued me.

“Why are you so sad, Emily?” I asked her. “You seem to have a charming husband, and now you have a beautiful and healthy baby. So why the mournful face?”

Emily looked at me with her bright brown eyes. “It all began on the night of the staircase^ she murmured sadly. “Would you like to hear the story?”

“Oh, yes!” I nodded enthusiastically. These stories I heard from my patients gave me a deeper insight into what growing up Jewish in Egypt meant.

“Well, one afternoon, when I was seven years old’,’ Emily began to relate, “my mother came to my room and said, ‘We’re going to Nona, [Nona means grandmother in Ladino.] your grandmother Regina’.

“To my surprise, when we got there, Nona stood in the doorway, barring it with her big impressive body, and was firm in her refusal to let us in.

“What’s happening tonight?’ I asked myself in bewilderment. Nona was usually so glad when we came to see her, and she always had such delicious cakes and chocolate for us.

“Don’t be silly, it doesn’t pay to be zaalana. Go back to your husband,’ Nona chided my mother coaxingly. ‘All husbands in Egypt are the same, they all end up by sleeping with these wanton girl servants. Is this a logical reason for you to leave him?’

” ‘I’ll never go back, never, never!’ my mother repeated in a voice as if the world had come to an end. I didn’t know what the meaning of zaalana was, but I supposed it was something like stupid, and I was angry with my grandmother for calling my mother names.

” ‘It never pays to be zaalana,’ Nona repeated firmly, still refusing to let the three of us in.

“Years later I learned that to be zaalana (hurt) was a widespread social convention in Egypt. When a wife had been deeply hurt by her husband and felt she had to do something drastic, instead of throwing herself into the Nile, she used to pack herself and her children away to her mother’s. You could recognize a zaalana woman because she usually carried a boga, a round bundle comprising some clothing and belongings, as one takes camping. True to form, my mother and I were each carrying our boga. My two-year-old brother, Dodi, was too small to carry any, so my mother was carrying him in addition to her boga. My grandmother just saw the bogas and understood what had happened. Afraid that the ‘camping’ at her home might be too prolonged, she took a firm stand right from the beginning.

” ‘And what will you do with yourself and the children?’ she continued. ‘You know I can’t support you, your father is drunk again, and what I earn as a private nurse is barely enough to live on and to go on keeping this house. Princess Fahida, my present patient, is generous enough, but with those tuberculosis lung cases, there’s no knowing how long she’ll last. And what she pays me is not enough to feed three extra mouths. So be wise, and go back to your husband, Mona, before it’s too late, mon chou-chou!’

“She hurriedly kissed the three of us, pushed us away, and shut the door energetically behind us.

“My mother, still holding Dodi in her arms, sat on the doorstep and wept an ocean. My heart broke. I was all on my mother’s side, without really knowing what it was all about. In my mind mother was always right, especially when she cried. My father had done something to hurt her, and this something was linked with sleeping with our maid, Sayeda. I didn’t see why it was such a terrible thing, when my mother had been away in Alexandria to visit my sick Aunt Becky; I had slept with Sayeda myself. Why my father wanted to sleep with the maid was another puzzle. He was big and strong and wasn’t afraid of the dark shapes under the bed, like me. But nobody asked me, so I kept silent, faithful to the prevalent educational motto in Egypt that children should be seen but not heard.

“But mother’s tears flooded my heart, and I cried with her, feeling waves of pity surging, and a deep frustration at my inability to help her.

” ‘I’ll never go back to the house again!’ she wept. ‘But what will become of us? What in the world will become of us?’ Little Dodi woke up and quickly joined the crying choir; the three of us cried together in three different notes. My brother wailed the loudest, astonished that this time he had an unusual accompaniment, without of course having the faintest idea what it was all about. He was always ready for a good cry and had never had the opportunity before of having a general one in which his elders readily participated of their own free will. He therefore bawled out loudly to his heart’s content, until he got tired, sucked his thumb, and fell asleep on my mother’s heaving breast again.

“I was just seven years old then, but I still remember the dead, lost feeling, as if we were abandoned by the whole world. Nobody loves us, nobody wants us, my heart cried in pain. I wiped my mother’s tears with my smudgy fingers, and they left two dark blotches like a delta on her cheeks, spreading all over her delicate face. I kissed her and tried to reassure her, ‘I’m here, mamica, and will always be with you. And so will Dodi,’ I added.

” ‘Why didn’t I learn a profession or trade?’ mother sobbed. ‘Why didn’t he allow me to go on teaching my music lessons? Why did he have to sell my piano? I could have supported you if I had a job, and we wouldn’t need him. If I could only work, if I could only be free!’ She wept and sighed heartbreakingly.

“I hated my father then for selling my mother’s piano. If I had money I would have bought her a fine large piano right on the spot; even in the middle of the night.

” ‘But why can’t you work?’ I asked.

” ‘Ca ne se fait pas. it’s not done. A Jewish woman of my standing cannot work. It’s this stupid society of ours!’ she sighed deeply, as if she had lost all the hope in the world.

“I pondered what she said. If it was stupid, then why abide by it? Why did grown-ups like doing stupid things, sometimes?

” ‘Will Dodi work when he grows up?’ I asked suddenly.

” ‘Of course Dodi will work. He’s not a woman. He will be a man,’ she said proudly, holding my baby brother affectionately. I looked at the sleeping Dodi, sucking his thumb. It seemed so ridiculous that he, with his small hands and feet and such few teeth, Dodi, with his plump thumb in his tiny mouth, would work and be free to do whatever he wanted, and mother couldn’t and neither could I, because she was a woman, and I was a girl. The injustice of it struck me like a slap across the face. I made a decision there and then that night on the stairs, a major decision in my life, perhaps one of the rare ones to which I have always been true: I would work. Whatever they say, ‘done or not done,’ I would never be dependent on anybody, or on any man, like my mother. I would be free, like Dodi.

“I kissed my mother reassuringly again on her beautiful chestnut hair and looked deeply into her honey eyes. ‘It’ll be all right, Mama,’ I whispered. ‘I will work. I won’t be stupid. I will work like Dodi and bring home money, and we’ll both be free.’ She smiled in the darkness through her tears, but her smile contained a fountain of sadness. She patted me over the head and sighed. Her sigh sounded like the wailing of the sea in Alexandria where we went every summer.

” ‘Je n’ ai pas de la chance,’ my mother muttered, rocking little Dodi. ‘I have no luck; I was born on a star-crossed night,’ she wailed. My mother never agreed with me on the subject of free choice: She had a blind faith in fate.

“That night I talked to my mother, there on my Nona’s staircase, almost as if I were an adult; as if I could really help. I nodded my head and hated my father. There in the dark, flattered by my mother’s confidence in me, I became almost a professional confidante, with an ear as big as my small fist. I tried to ask the right questions and answer the right replies, in a solemn, serious voice. I became overnight, on that staircase, my mother’s keeper, my mother’s mother. This feeling of deep responsibility toward my mother, born on the night of the staircase, has accompanied me all my life.

“And now, at the age of twenty, and myself a mother, I ask myself again: perhaps my mother was right about the impossibility of free choice, and I was wrong!’ Emily ended bitterly. At this point I interrupted her.

“But why are you so unhappy now?”

Emily heaved a deep sigh and her fingers trembled slightly on the flowered bedcover. “David, my husband, doesn’t want me to work anymore’,’ she burst out.

“Probably until your baby grows up a little, and then you’ll be able to go back to work” I suggested.

But she complained tearfully, “No, we had a row yesterday.” Her lips twitched in pain. “He made it clear that now I was a mother, he didn’t want me to ever work again, even when our daughter will be grown up! It’s simply not done, he says. The same words my mother used on the fateful night of the staircase!’ She started sobbing quietly.

“Do I ask him to leave his job because little Anette is born? How unfair men can be! Mother was right. It’s a man’s world, and we women are forced to become helpless bystanders in the kitchen, chained by pots and pans and diapers!”

“Don’t worry, Emily,” I comforted her, “you will work; in your home and outside of your home, too, if you want to. You will always work!”

“But how?” she cried, looking at me with a startled look.

I smiled at her reassuringly. “When the time comes, you’ll know how.”

A few days later she left the hospital with baby Anette and David, both proud of their fine baby. I lost sight of Emily for a couple of years, until I entered one of the big travel agencies in the center of Alexandria one day to get a train ticket. There was Emily, typing happily away and giving instructions to a new secretary.

“How did you convince David?” I asked, relieved to see her so happy.

“I told him about the night of the staircase, and that from that night onwards my work and my job had become part of me. He could either have both parts or none. He chose both!’ she smiled merrily. “You were right, Sister Thea, when you told me then not to worry, and that I would always work. I didn’t tell you then, but your firm words were for me like an injection of energy and hope. I never forgot what you said. When I left the hospital with my baby girl Anette, I already knew then, deep in my heart, that you were right, and that I would indeed find a way to return to my job!”

“I’m glad my injection worked!’ I laughed. Emily flashed her beautiful smile at me, and her happiness lit a flame of joy in my heart.

Ada Aharoni is a writer, poet, scholar and editor of the literary magazine Galim: The Waves. Thea Wolf was born in Germany, moved to Egypt in 1932 and immigrated to Israel 1947. She currently lives in Jerusalem