The interview had to be conducted in French – but then, we should not have expected her to have much English. Au pairs came here precisely to learn the language. Yes, Aziza told us, she had experience with little boys – she had looked after her two younger brothers back home in Tunisia. She made a good impression – a pleasant girl; very gentle. Pretty too. But would she be tough enough to cope with two obstreperous boys? We decided to give her a try. In the end we asked whether she had any questions for us. We expected her to quiz us about English courses. She didn’t. Puzzlingly she only wanted to know where she would be eating – and what.
“Of course,” said my wife, “you’ll eat with us and you’ll get what we eat – unless any of that is against your religion.”
No, religion was unlikely to cause great problems. In her family they did not take these matters too seriously.
Not until a while later did we discover she had earlier been with a family who had made her eat in the kitchen, all alone, and given her their left-overs.
When my mother phoned we reported that we had a new au pair. When it emerged that she was Tunisian the row started:
“Are you crazy? An Arab! In your house? Think! She’ll murder your children. She’ll put ground glass in their food…!
It was, in fact, a period of acute tension between Israelis and Arabs though the bloodiest incident – the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics – was still in the future.
We told my mother she was being outrageous. She was judging people, not by their behaviour but by their race…. just like the Nazis. Hadn’t we Jews learnt better?”
The row went on for a while. In the end my mother shouted she would never enter our house while we kept “that person”. “Never!” Then she slammed the phone down.
We were nonplussed. We were not going to fire this young girl before she had even arrived. She was only due to arrive that afternoon. In the end we phoned a family friend, a Jewish woman, who had children of the same age as ours. Would she ever consider employing a Tunisian girl?
“Why ever not?”
We said would she do us a great favour and phone my mother and tell her so. Encouraged by her response we phoned a second. She too agreed to phone my mother. For a third we had to leave a message. The next phone call came from my mother: “Stop this cannonade. Just keep that person out of my sight.”
This proved to be difficult. It was a rainy day. Aziza rushed to take off my mother’s wet mackintosh and then her rain boots. She brought her slippers. And wouldn’t she prefer to have the window closed?
My mother’s French was rusty and she struggled with her reply. She related that as a small girl she had always hidden under the table when her father came home. She had slipped off his shoes and put on his slippers. And he had always called out in pretend surprise: “Pixies! There are pixies under this table.”
But what were pixies in French? We struggled to explain. A dictionary had to be found. But the ice had been broken.
Aziza came from a society where age was greatly respected. My mother, alas, had not been used to such reverence in her own family.
They soon got on wonderfully well. Aziza loved my mother and my mother responded. One day I found Aziza rummaging in our spice cupboard. She had found cinnamon, she said, and ground almonds. But where could she find rosewater?
She wanted to bake some Tunisian-style biscuits, she explained. And she did. Our sons pounced on them. The tin was emptying rapidly. Aziza surprised us with her toughness. “No more”, she announced firmly. “The rest are for la mémé.” She guarded them fiercely until my mother’s next visit. She, too, thought they were delicious.
“Mum,” I said, “do watch out for ground glass!”
She cast me a withering look. “I did not think you could be so unforgiving. And for so long. I thought we had brought you up — better. Yes, far better.”