Twilight Zone / Child Bride

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The scent of aromatic candles wafted through the crammed, ornate pink-walled room. A painting of a naval battle covers most of the wall behind her. The furniture is very stylized. On her desk - near a laptop, a fax machine, a pack of thin Parliaments from which she pulls a cigarette, and a good deal more - sits a photograph of her between her two sons. These are her two boys: The one she had when she was 13, who was taken from her at birth and whom she did not see again for 18 years, and the one she raised by herself.

Khaleda Ghosheh is out to capture the attention of the Arab reader. After publishing two books (in Arabic) - "The Secrets of Life," the unbelievable story of her own trials and tribulations, and "The Key to Dreams," which she calls a spiritual work - she launched a glossy monthly magazine called Hatun (Hard Rain). The 48 well-designed pages of newly published issue No. 5 contain articles and photographs about a murder in the Old City of Jerusalem, a sheep pen used as a school, the Border Police's "slaughterhouse" at the Atarot checkpoint, minibuses where drivers sell tickets for only NIS 4 but think they are in the Grand Prix, a triple murder in Ramallah and an interview with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' adviser on Jerusalem, in which he "talks about everything," according to the blurb on the cover. There are also recipes for an eggplant salad in tahini and advice on dealing with diabetes.

The cover photo shows a young male model picking olives in a kaffiyeh. The model is Ghosheh's son, Malik, the one she raised alone. The caption: "After Israel stole falafel and za'atar [a mixture of spices], it is now stealing the olive."

Hatun, which costs NIS 10, has a circulation of thousands in the territories and among the Arabs in Israel. "The Secrets of Life" has sold about 10,000 copies. Bassam Eid's Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group is disseminating the book in Palestinian schools in order to encourage reading, especially by girls, who are likely to identify with the author's ordeals.

Wearing perfectly applied makeup, elegant shoes and a well-tailored black suit over a white muslin blouse, and sparkling with simulated-diamond jewelry, Khaleda Ghosheh welcomes us to her office on bustling Saladin Street in East Jerusalem. She speaks Hebrew and English. This is her tiny editorial office, a nearly one-woman operation. A woman whose life story has the makings of at least one television series.

Ghosheh was born in the Shoafat neighborhood of north Jerusalem 35 years ago. When she was in fifth grade, her family moved to the United States, but was unable to obtain a visa for her. They left her in Shoafat in the care of her older sister, who was already in her thirties. One day, when she came home from school, Ghosheh relates now with businesslike detachment, she encountered a group of people in the house.

"This is the man who is going to be your husband," her sister told her, pointing to a man who was 32. "I was dumbfounded," she recalls. "There was no one to protect me, so I waited for the next day, to tell my teachers - maybe they would protect me."

But three days later her sister came to the school and said they were going to phone her mother in America from the post office. Instead, the girl was whisked to the sharia court, to register her marriage.

"My last chance was to try to protect myself with the help of the judge. I kissed his hand and said I did not want to get married. But the groom's father gave him 60 dinars and the judge certified the marriage." She was 13 years old.

On her wedding night she was taken to the Intercontinental Hotel (now the Seven Arches) on the Mount of Olives. "It was my last opportunity." As her new husband was about to get into bed with her, she relates, she asked him to shower first. While he was in the shower she was going to jump out the window, perhaps to escape, perhaps to kill herself - but her husband caught her and flogged her with his belt. Even now, more than 20 years later, she can't even say his name. She told him she hated him, and the rest of that night is a blank in her memory. "It was rape," she says. "It was as though I had been [treated as] a woman and not a girl."

The next day she was taken to the laundry room on the roof of her husband's house and told: This is your home. She was left there, alone, locked in most of the day and night. She was forced to cut her hair and change her attire for traditional garb. Her family was prohibited from visiting.

After three weeks as a prisoner, she managed to escape: In the middle of the night she reached her sister's house and collapsed in a faint. A few days later she awoke in a hospital. Her mother, who had been summoned urgently from America, stood next to her bed and asked for her forgiveness. The news: She was divorced, but pregnant. Her mother promised to get her an abortion and smuggle her into the United States, but when her pregnancy became known to her former husband's family, they threatened to murder her three siblings if she had an abortion. She kept the baby.

She tried to go back to school, but being divorced and pregnant in fifth grade meant that she could not return. She gave birth to a son in Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. The baby, Ghosheh says, was taken from her at birth by her husband's family.

Shortly thereafter she joined her family in Tennessee and remained there for four years. She was unable to fulfill her aspirations there, she adds, because most of the time she was babysitting her niece. She decided to return home with her mother, and studied accountancy.

As a young divorcee, whose honor was sullied in the eyes of the traditional society, Ghosheh became an object of sexual harassment. "I became a toy. Every day men came and asked for my hand in marriage. I started to hate men." A few days after a drug dealer proposed marriage and was kicked out of the house, he left the head of a cat in her refrigerator with a note: "Your head will be in the 'fridge in another two days."

Ghosheh fled to London, where she fell in love with a Lebanese car dealer. She called her mother and told her, "For the first time, I am choosing my beloved." But on the day of her wedding with the Lebanese man, her mother died. When her sister gave her the bitter news she was already in her bridal gown. The party was called off, but the wedding took place. She gave birth to their son nine months later in Shaare Zedek Medical Center, so that the child would have a Jerusalem ID card. Two weeks after they returned to London with the baby, she relates, her husband was run over by a truck on his way to a casino. The young divorcee, suddenly also a young widow, returned to Israel with $120,000 left to her by her husband.

Ghosheh decided she wanted to become a success story. She started her professional life in advertising, marketing Israeli merchandise in the Palestinian media. She then opened a temp agency for workers from the territories, called "The Way to Israel." The business flourished, she explains, but in 2000, after the intifada broke out and work permits were no longer issued, she closed it down. She decided to become a writer, produced two books and then decided to publish a magazine. She is now at work on her third book, "A Woman's Body," based on the lives of a Palestinian couple she knew - a love story that ends in murder, of course. Throughout this period, she raised Malik alone; he is now a 15-year-old high-school student.

Four years ago, while visiting Jordan, her phone rang. Her sister was on the line: "I have a surprise for you: There is someone here who wants to talk to you." The moment she heard the young man's "Hello," she says, she knew it was the son whom she had never seen.

Ghosheh ended the conversation immediately and returned to her hotel, distraught. She started to think about her life. "I didn't like his phone call. What does he want from me? And why now?" She called her sister, who confirmed that it was her son and said he wanted to meet her. They arranged to meet the next day in her sister's beauty parlor in East Jerusalem.

All of Ghosheh's sisters accompanied her to the dramatic encounter. "When he entered we did not rush toward each other. I felt that every step toward him was really a step backward. I think he felt the same way. He hugged me and I hugged him, but I did not feel that I was his mother." All her sisters were crying, but Ghosheh says she had long since lost the ability to cry. She then asked everyone to leave and remained alone with her son, for the first meeting in their lives. He was 18, she was 31.

Ghosheh pumped her son for information. It felt like a job interview, she says. He told her that he had occasionally seen her driving her black Isuzu Jeep and asked people who the good-looking woman was. Finally, someone told him it was his mother. They meet occasionally, but he asked her to keep the meetings a secret from his family. All these years he had been told that his grandmother, who raised him, was his mother. "I ask myself whether I feel toward him what a mother feels toward her son. I have no answer," she says today. "I guess life has made me a tough woman."

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