When 77-year-old Jacqueline Erani swims laps in The Center pool twice a week, she is reminded of her days as a youth, swimming in the sea at Sidi Bishr, a beach town in Alexandria, Egypt. Her family would spend summers there, just 45 minutes from their winter home, also in Alexandria.
“We had a small, wooden chalet across from the ocean and we used to spend every day, all day from June to September socializing there with relatives and friends who came from Cairo. Every morning at 6:30 my aunt, cousins, siblings, and I used to swim with my father before he went to work. It was a nice life.” Jacqueline wistfully recalls.
Throughout our conversation, Jacqueline’s delicate brows lifted gracefully as she recounted happy memories and depressed into tight, straight lines as she spoke of the more troubling times.
Her eyebrows tightened, “Everything changed when Nasser came to power.”
Jacqueline was referring to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt who served from 1956 till his death in 1970. Nasser introduced a constitution under which Egypt became a socialist Arab state with a one-party political system that claimed Islam as its official religion. He abolished civil liberties and allowed the state to perform mass arrests without charge. His government arrested Jews and seized their businesses and bank accounts.
It was in 1961, when Jacqueline’s family began to feel the repercussions of Nasser’s policies. One morning, when her father and uncle went to open their store, as they did daily, they saw upon the door a 2 1/2” red wax, government seal. This menacing mark meant her family’s retail operation, which sold men’s undergarments and linens, no longer belonged to them. She said, “From then on, my father and uncle could not go into the store without a government official and were ordered to stand far from the register. They had to sell merchandise to the clientele, but received little or no pay.
“That was when we knew it was time to leave. With the clothes on our back, a small suitcase each, and fifty Egyptian pounds (the equivalent of what would be about twenty dollars today,) we left the building we owned, our two homes, and all our belongings. With the other members of my immediate family already in America and Israel, my mother, father, brother and sister, along with my uncle, aunt, and cousins, boarded a small plane to Cairo and then onto France.”
Parisian living was made pleasurable for Jacqueline’s family thanks to The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, better known as HIAS, a division of the UJA. HIAS gave them kosher food, coats; paid the rent in a hotel in the city, and then relocated them to an apartment in the suburbs. “They were a big, big help.” Jacqueline stated.
While in Paris, they took in the sites. Jacqueline’s lips formed a sweet smile and she said, “We walked everywhere! We saw The Louvre, The Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, and Le Seine. Then, I began to get bored. I was twenty-one years old and wanted to do something, so my friend got me a job at Printing Development International. We were eight people employed there, each one of us of a different nationality.“ Since Jacqueline had attended both French and British schools in Egypt, she was able to converse and build friendships easily.
Jacqueline used her language and office skills to advance in the work world once she and her family came to America a year later. She worked at American Express, was promoted quickly, and then left her job when she married Robert Zetouni. Jacqueline and Robert had two beautiful daughters and then their paths split.
A few years later, Jacqueline met and married Albert Erani, someone who she discusses with a noticeably raised brow and a definite twinkle in her eye. She spent 22 happy years married to him until complications due to his smoking habit led to his passing.
Today, Jacqueline spends most of her time with her daughters, her grandchildren and great grandchildren. When she is not busy with them, she can be found at The Center exercising in the gym, making waves in the pool or, along with approximately 20 other women in her age group, taking “yoga with Diana” or Constructive Exercise with Michael. These activities add a lot of structure to her week and keep her spirits high.
She described the good vibes she gets each time she enters The Center foyer. She enjoys seeing all the young children sitting against the walls waiting to go to class. Jacqueline said with a giggle, “They’re so cute. One is crying, one is laughing. One is saying, ‘eh eh.’ I feel so good when I see them.” She also spoke of the help at the front desk as well as the guards. “They’re all so nice. They’re willing to help with anything I need. It’s a warm, wonderful atmosphere.”
Jacqueline appreciates her life in Brooklyn, New York as well as her memories of that other life long ago. When I asked her to impart some of her wisdom, she said, “Don’t smoke, share a smile,” and then she recited a quote taught to her by her father, first in Arabic and then in English: “You should cover yourself with a blanket from your toes to your neck.” Puzzled, I asked for an explanation. She said, “Ah, it means that you should always live within your means.”
Even though Jacqueline described her father as a serious man, in my mind’s eye, I saw him acting out these words for her, pointing his feet toward the ocean and pulling a towel up to his chin–as they lay back on the Alexandrian sands.
By: Renée Beyda
Renée Beyda is a freelance writer, tweeter, and artist. Visit her on Instagram @Reneebeyda and on Twitter @Reneebeyda1