Ada Aharoni is a Writer, Lecturer, Sociologist, and Founder - President of IFLAC: The International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace: www.iflac.com/ada. She has published twenty-six books to date that have been translated into several languages.
The following work is copyright © 2010. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
"I recall the velvet sugar-cane juice
we drank together
with the smooth blue air
under the open skies,
the sunflower seeds
we cracked together
echoing laughter in the sun.
How sweet the roasted sweet-potatoes
were in those rainbow days
of pretty sugar dolls.
But unlike you dear Kadreya,
Friend of my sunny schooldays,
I was told that I was just
a visiting guest
though born in the land of the Nile.
Ordered by Egypt my Jewish wings
to search for a new nest,
I have found it on Mount Carmel
and here I mean to stay.
My foremost wish today
is our soldier sons
in the peaceful rays
their mothers wove
when younger than they
in the near faraway rainbow days".
I have often thought of writing to you, there is so much we could tell each other after thirty years of life in “enemy countries.” Tonight, when I finally take up my hesitating pen between my fingers – though the gap over distance, time, and perhaps values, still looms forbiddingly – with the Peace Treaty between our two countries, Egypt my former country, and Israel my present one, I discern a shaft of hope, a possibility of renewed ties between us. Over the oceans of prejudice and blunder, I feel tonight that I can at long last extend my hand to you in a craving for understanding and open friendship.
As I write, I see again my pensive school chum Kadreya of “Alvernia English School for Girls” in Zamalek, with her pale-olive tan, her serious deep gray eyes, and her charcoal curls of web-like softness glistening in the sun. What a bunch of active, tenacious and bright kids we must have been then to be able to write and publish a “literary” magazine all on our own at the age of thirteen! Do you remember the joys and heartaches “The Rainbow” gave us as co-editors? And the oath we solemnly took then to become writers when we grew up, so as “to do good to mankind, and banish wars from the earth forever”? How delightfully uncomplicated, naive, and enthusiastic we were then!
The last time I saw you was in 1949, when you came to bid me farewell before we left for France. My father, Jewish and a French national, had his business permit withdrawn. You whispered wistfully – I can almost hear your tremulous voice – “Why are you leaving Egypt? You were born here, this is your country!”
I couldn't explain then what I shall try to do tonight twenty-five years later, that for me, unlike you, Egypt was not my country. The first powerful impact of that stark fact hit me full in the face when I was only seven years old. This is a part of my childhood that I don't like to remember, as it has left a sore spot in my mind even after all this while, but I feel I have to try to communicate this experience to you as it might lead us towards a better understanding. That forlorn, dazed child, whom I shall try to conjure up, is so remote from me today that I can only recall her in the third person.
A tall, hefty maid, Mohsena, was leading a frail girl, wide-eyed and hesitant, through the bustling narrow streets of Bab-El-Louk Souk. The child was worried and confused; instead of taking her to the park for her usual afternoon stroll, the maid had furtively led her to this sordid and unknown world. The child drew back her small hand reluctantly but the maid pulled it firmly, announcing impatiently from time to time, “We shall soon be there.”
“But where?” asked the child querulously for the tenth time.
“Don't ask questions again, you will soon see,” answered the maid abruptly and she energetically plodded on. With growing fear, the little girl looked forlornly around her. She was sure the sun had been shining when she left home, but here in the tortuous smelly streets it was dark. On every side of the dirty streets vendors in colored striped cloaks shouted their modulated guttural utterances: “Er-essus, Er'r'r'essus, Tamar Hindi, Ter-mess, Ter-rrrmess”; and ragged beggars pushed against the terrified child.
Above the general din, one refrain became more and more distinct, and the bewildered little girl became aware she was being addressed: “Affrangeia, affrangeia what are you doing here?”
She felt the insult in the word “affrangeia”; but why were they insulting her? She had never seen these people before, and there they stood grimacing at her and hating her for no reason at all!
Even Mohsena seemed different; from her usually cheerful submissive self she had become incommunicative, bent on her private pursuits, unknown and unshared by the child. Her lips were firmly set, which made them look thin and pale, and her habitual easy bustle had changed into a nervous agitation. The word affrangeia, however, was repeated so often and in such a variety of vindictive tones, that the child who scarcely dared address the maid in her new mood, finally asked, “Mohsena, what does affrangeia mean?”
The maid turned on her and curtly expostulated: “Didn't I tell you not to ask any more questions?”
The little girl felt more and more forlorn and gradually the sickening feeling inside her seemed to spill over and overwhelm her.
She stopped, refused to go on, and pleaded tearfully: “I want to go back home now; I want my mama.”
"We shall soon be there," came the prompt and decisive retort, and she was pulled firmly along again, through what seemed to be an unending nightmare.
The child gazed mournfully at the hectic activity around her. Some ragged barefoot children had tied an old baby bathtub to a hanging pole and were swinging it dangerously, while a screaming boy inside it madly gesticulated to the mocking children to stop. As soon as they saw the little girl however, the bathtub was forgotten, and pointing menacing fingers at her, the noisy bunch circled around her shouting the same infuriating chant of affrangeia, affrangeia. She fled. The painful odyssey continued. The dazed child started to wonder if something strange had happened to her in the last half-hour, something she was not aware of but which had rendered her so despicable that everybody stared at her in amazement. She furtively touched her ears and backside. “Had she suddenly grown ears and a tail like Pinocchio?” But this clutching fear subsided as her trembling hands moved over her ears, and she breathed in relief.
Suddenly she was arrested by a horrible cry, piercing her ears. She felt a chill creeping up her spine, a warning in her blood that violence and mutilation were in the air. On the pavement before her a young shaggy donkey had laid his bleeding head while a bunch of rollicking, barefooted brats were lashing his back and behind. The donkey's large brown liquid eye stared at the child's pale face, and again it emitted a long heart-rendering heehaw. The child had never heard or seen anything like this before. The hideous scene seemed to be in some strange manner linked with her own misery and part of her own experience. She couldn't keep silent any longer. She tore her hand away from the maid, and shouted with all the power of her young lungs, “Stop, stop, you're killing him!”
The boys stopped in surprise, then, noticing the frail little girl they waved their whips threateningly: “Affrangeia, go away, what business is it of yours? Or do you want to taste our whips too?”
The sight of the donkey's blood pouring from his wounds overwhelmed the child and she burst out in trembling defiance, “I'm not affrangeia, I'm not, you're affrangeia all of you!” She was still streaming at the astonished children when Mohsena swiftly carried her away. The maid seemed somewhat more affable now; she wiped the child's tears and said in a soothing voice, “We're there now; that's it, it's this nice shop with the pretty sugar dolls, I told you we'd get there in no time, didn't I?”
The little girl's sobbing gradually subsided, and she gazed with wonder at the rows and rows of white and brown sugar dolls of all sizes dressed in gaily-colored sparkling paper. With tear-stained face she stared at the expressionless multitude. Here at least was a silent world that did not threaten to affrangeia her. The shop-owner beamed with flaming face at the now coy and strangely excited Mohsena, while he reiterated under his profuse mustache, “Welcome, Ahlan Wesahlan,” with overdone cordiality. He patted the child mechanically on the head and said off-hand, “You brought the little affrangeia to visit us, heh?”
This time the evil word was so unexpected that the little girl just stood there petrified and looked at him unbelievingly.
"What's the matter?" laughed Mohsena nervously, annoyed at the stare. “Affrangeia is not an insult!” The man guffawed, “Is this why she gapes at me so? I thought I had trod on her toes or something.”
“It means,” the man explained gallantly, “European.”
“What?” the child asked in unbelieving dismay, not comprehending how this could apply to her.
“It means that you are not an Arab like us,” he continued condescendingly. “Your face is white, not brown like ours; you are a foreigner, a stranger.”
“But I was born in Cairo; my parents were born here--I'm not affrangeia, I’m not!”
“There's no reason for you to cry,” said the man soothingly, throwing meaningful, amused looks at Mohsena, “If you want to think you're not then you're not, but how will you convince the others?”
With that he stopped bothering with her, and turned his exclusive attentions towards Mohsena.
So that was it: she was different, she was an outsider, a stranger, and she could do nothing about it. Whatever she would do she would never be able to convince anybody in the land where she was born that it was not so, she would always be considered a foreigner, an intruder, and a freak. She sighed sadly at the new revelation, and yearning for the warmth of her protected life at home, she looked for consolation at the crowded rows of white and brown dolls. “You will not tell your parents that Mohsena brought you here, will you?” asked the man with a suave smile. “Here, I'll give you a nice Muled El-Nabi doll and we'll forget we were here, won't we? They're for the feast of our prophet, our Nabi. I'll raise you up so you can pick one yourself,” he said coaxingly, “You'd like that wouldn't you?”
The child saw all the dolls staring at her face indifferently, and she grabbed the nearest, a brown one with a green and white outfit.
“Are you sure you want a brown one?” the man asked slyly gazing at her intently, “I think it's preferable to have one of your kind,” he said with a wink at Mohsena, and grabbing the dark doll he exchanged it for a white one wearing a sky blue robe with white stripes, and a shining star over her forehead. The child pressed the sugar doll to her quivering lips, and its taste was sweet.
The whole traumatic experience related above, had a very powerful effect on me and on my attitude to life, in spite of my tender age. After that painful revelation, my first Epiphany, I spent most of my life in Egypt until we left, trying to figure out where I belonged.
If I was not an Egyptian, what was I? Though my mother tongue was French and we were of French nationality, I did not feel French; I had an English culture for I had gone to an English school since I was a tot, and I had fallen deeply in love with English literature, but again I did not feel English. Thus my roots not being tucked in any soil, dangled painfully in the air, unprotected, sending spasms of uncertainty and emptiness through my being.
By 1948, to the word affrangeia was added the more spiteful and emotionally laden one of tsahiuneia (“Zionist”), which was often hissed at me for no reason at all, for I was not a Zionist then. I got my bitter taste of anti-Semitism, and it brought back the revulsion I had felt when I first discovered that I was different and did not belong. Now the yearning to identify, to become part of something bigger and more important than just myself, became still more acute. I yearned for the birthright of every being: for a country where I could feel “this is my land, I belong to it, and it belongs to me; this is where I mean to plant my roots.”
In France, I found no solution to my identity problem. My general unrest was rather diffused. As you can well understand, it was very hard for such a young girl to put her finger on the right spot among a multitude of others and say, here, this is precisely where it hurts. When I talked to my family about my strange “malaise,” this uncomfortable, gnawing feeling of being where I did not belong and with which I could not identify myself however hard I tried, they laughed and belittled my fears. “So what? You're not the only wandering and uprooted Jew. We're all like that and always will be.”
My spirit revolted against this placid injunction. “Why always?” I asked at first incredulously and then, as time went on, more and more obstinately. Seeking solutions to counteract the “always” I started to look towards Israel, the young Jewish state.
One day, I was trying to hitchhike to the Cote d'Azure together with a French friend. A driver slowed down and thrusting his head from his window shouted at us: “sales Youpins!”
Puzzled, I asked my friend what youpin meant.
“Oh, it's just a French derogatory word for Jews, like 'yid' or 'kike' you know,” she explained lightly. “I don't pay any attention to that kind of thing anymore, you have to learn to live with it, they're not all like that, thank God! France is a very liberal country, and the Jews in it can live their lives in peace if they don't take every silly expression to heart.” That night I couldn't sleep, and the old fears wracked my brain and heart. I decided at length that I couldn't and wouldn't “live with it.”
In 1950 I left my family in Paris and came to Israel, alone, at the age of sixteen, and joined Kibbutz Ein-Shemer. Here at last, to my boundless joy, I found that I belonged. I took to the country and it took to me; I planted my roots deeply in it and they bore fruit. This does not mean there were no problems of adaptation. I had to learn a new language and absorb a new culture, and I suffered all the characteristic difficulties of periods of transition. But I felt that I was wanted, that at last I was home, and that wonderful new feeling of belonging magically smoothed the jagged path. Today I feel myself an Israeli in the full sense of the word. The problems of my country are my problems, and everything that happens here means and means intensely. Life becomes so much richer and more significant when you do not live it only for yourself and for your narrow family circle. So you see, dear Kadreya, Israel just had to exist, for rootless people like me.
My son is due to go into the army next week, and if a peace treaty between our two countries is not signed soon, he may perhaps one day be facing yours, and they might both see death in each other's eyes! This is not the bright future we had planned for them in “The Rainbow” years and years ago, when we were younger than they are today. The whole absurd situation we find ourselves in nowadays seems to me to be so senseless and unnecessary.
Having told you all this, I suddenly feel very near to you dear Kadreya. I would very much like to see you and chat with you at length again as we often did in the past. Perhaps somehow, some day, this wish may become a reality, and we shall be able to meet again in peace and friendship on the calm banks of the magnificent Nile, or among the green splendors of my beloved Mount Carmel.
With my profoundest wishes for a full salam-shalom,
Your loving and faithful friend,
(Former Andrée, Ada Yadid)