She Is In Sudan and I Am In Israel and Every Day We Are Talking By WhatsApp

I've been so busy lately setting up my cookery workshops (see here for details) that my wonderful interviews have had to take a backseat for a while. Well, no more! This one is a little different. It's an extract from a conversation between two fantastic sisters Lily and Esther. 

E: 
…it wasn’t hard to leave because all you needed was an exit visa and permission from the Ministry of Finance to take a certain amount of money out. We didn’t have that much money anyway so it wasn’t a problem, they let us go! (laughs)

But I am telling you we were lucky, we had a very good childhood. Period. Others didn’t have it so good and it was very tough for them. We were happy. 

L: 
Yes, but it was still difficult to be a girl in Sudan, we had the Club and there we had mixing between the boys and the girls and whenever they saw a girl laughing with a boy or speaking too much with a boy that’s it! They decide that she is his girlfriend and he is her boyfriend and they make a big fuss. 

There was a rumour once that a Jewish girl was having an affair with an Italian man and when she went to school the next day the school threw her out! They wouldn’t let her go to the school. In the end somebody had to go and explain that it wasn’t true and all that and so they took her back because she was a very good student. 

E:
It was relatively strict. But it was not so bad. And I enjoyed school very much, even in the boarding house, although we were far from home, I enjoyed myself. It was nice. 

L: 
Yes, I was a very good student. Very good. I also enjoyed it very, very much. I had good friends, I had a Palestinian friend, I will never forget her. In the second or third grade her father was called to a different university in Beirut and so she had to leave. When she had to leave and we said goodbye she was crying hysterically. When she was in Beirut we corresponded and I have all her letters up to now in their own file. It is fifty-five, no, fifty-seven years and I still have them. I had very good schooling years, we had good friends. 

I remember a school show that we did. We were the Holy Rosary Society and we did dancing under the supervision of Sister Claudia. Every Sunday she used to gather us together and we did plays. I remember we made Fabiola, it was a film, I don’t remember what it was about. I was only there for a couple of scenes and I don’t remember much. I only remember that I was going to make a terrible mess of it because I was supposed to come on the stage through the corridor with a tray of cups and saucers and I made a very bad noise because the corridor was relatively small and I was making a very loud noise for the stage!! I was about twelve or thirteen I think. 

Really I loved school. Only the fact that I did not pass my examinations made it a misery for me. I sat for four subjects, French, English, Biology and something else and I passed only in French so I have a biiig certificate and on it is written only ‘French’ (laughs), but that’s how it is. In any case I had the love of my teachers and the adoration of my Arabic teacher. He was a Copt and in class when he asked the students a question and nobody answered and then I answer he comes to me and he claps like this and he says, 
‘Well done! Very well done!’
In front of all the class. 

Really, I had the love of all the Nuns, even Sister Leyna who was the gymnastics teacher. You know every year at the end of the year we used to make a very big gymnastics display. What a display! What a display! Unbelievable! All of us dressed in white, the whole school! Not just our class. The whole school dressed in white doing a big display. Our families in the audience. I have pictures of it to this day. 

E:
After school finished I worked at the Air Handling Agency. They were the agents of SAS, Alitalia, Air Liban – that was the Middle East Airlines, and then we had two airline companies from East Africa, they were the ones that took all the people on the Hajj to Mecca and back. They stopped in Khartoum for refuelling. It was a very good job and I flew free! They gave me a free ticket to leave in the end because when I left I went through Athens. I had a return ticket from Athens but I went one way only and then I came here.

L:
I was working as a shorthand typist secretary. I have five certificates for shorthand. First fifty words per minute, then sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety. I did all those in Sudan and I had them framed. Then when I came here in 1964 I insisted that I will go back to school so I went and I told the manager of the school that I studied in Sudan and I want to do a test for one hundred words a minute. He was very surprised but he let me do it and I passed with distinction! He kept the test paper to put it on the wall. (laughs)

E:
(laughs) She was the good one and I was the naughty one (laughs). Oh I quarrelled a lot! If somebody wasn’t to my taste at school I made some quarrels. You know, an argument, and then you start using your hands…a few times at school. They were very strict, the Sisters. They had to be. Nuns! But I didn’t care anything about them.  

L:
Wehoooweh how strict they were! But I was talking about work. I remember two companies I worked for. The first one was a Greek company. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name, but I remember the people faintly. I don’t know what happened to that company, I can’t remember. After that I started working with an Armenian company, Sarkis Izmirlian Corporation Ltd. They were two brothers who owned it and they named it for their father. They were lovely people and the staff were excellent. There was this one Coptic guy who worked there, he was deeply in love with me. I don’t know how, I don’t know.

E:
How can you say you ‘don’t know how’? Everybody loves you! 

L: 
He wanted to get married to me! I told him, 
‘What?? Are you crazy! You are a Copt and I am a Jew. No way. No way!’
So at the end he got acquainted with a Greek girl and they got married. I think in the Coptic Church. He invited me and I had picture with them. It was really nice, and I don’t know, when I left the company he gave me his photo, it was a passport photo and on the back he wrote, ‘remember me’, or something like that. I had it in my purse all the time. 

E:
Maybe it was ‘forget me not’ (laughs)

But when I think about Sudan…we had a good life. A good life. The Sudanese people are not like any others. They are very kind, very loyal, very good. And besides, the Jewish community was very small. Maybe five, six hundred people in the whollle of Sudan – I mean, what are we going to do? Make a revolution? (laughs) You know, we grew up with the Sudanese. We ate with them, we slept with them in their houses, they slept with us in our houses, they took care of us. You know, when we were school children we didn’t have a baby sitter, so what did our parents do? One child to this neighbour, one child to that neighbour...and they go out! I remember my favourite was the wife of the judge, I used to go to her. She was so kind, so nice, and I remember her house was so clean it was unbelievable. Shining, all of it. And you know, I was a child so if I was crying that I want my mother she used to take me and rock me and sing to me. I remember her very well. 

L:
She is right, the Sudanese people they are so warm, so considerate. And they keep a friendship. After fifty-five years I contacted two schoolmates who are still in Sudan, I found them through another friend on Facebook and up to now we have contact. I am still chatting to her on my WhatsApp. We sat next to each other in class and we send each other pictures of flowers – look, these are the tulips I sent her – and sometimes nice prayers and sayings and so on. She is in Sudan and I am in Israel and every day we are talking to each other by WhatsApp. 

E:
But we didn’t have tulips in the Sudan! We had roses, gardenia, bougainvillea…what else?

L:
Roses, carnations…and tulips, yes. We had tulips for sure otherwise how would we know what tulips are? With a bulb like an onion…

 

Lily (left) and Esther (right) with a young relative, c. 1960

Lily (left) and Esther (right) with a young relative, c. 1960