How to Explain to the Kids That Bigotry and Love Aren’t Mutually Exclusive (While Frying Falafel)

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A Black Lives Matter sign on a lawn in North Carolina.
A Black Lives Matter sign on a lawn in North Carolina.Credit: Sari Bashi
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Umm Forat

I'm an Israeli-American lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, and author of the book “Maqluba – Upside-Down Love” (in Hebrew), which describes how we met and fell in love. This blog is about raising our two children, 7-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, in the West Bank and more recently in the U.S., where we’re spending a sabbatical year.

We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you. I have changed people’s names to protect their privacy. I used to write under the pen name "Umm Forat," which means "Mother of Forat" in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com.  

Hada hummus!” Adam insisted. “That’s hummus!” I was surprised to hear him speak Arabic, a language he abandoned in favor of English six weeks after our arrival in North Carolina for a sabbatical year at the start of 2021. Sometimes early in the morning, still in bed, he speaks Arabic with his father, Osama, before he fully awakes and remembers where he is.

“No, habibi, I’m making falafel,” Osama said, pointing to the chickpeas in the food processor. At home, in the Ramallah area, I would buy falafel on weekends on my way back from a morning run, delighting the children with the brown paper bag filled with hot balls of fried chickpea paste. We hadn’t eaten falafel since arriving in Raleigh, and Adam seemed to have forgotten what it is.

His older sister, Forat, decided to explain. “Adam!” she screamed at him, her face close to his, “falafel!”

Insulted, Adam stared at her, took a step backward, rebutted, “hummus!” and escaped to the children’s room to build a Lego tower.

“At least he didn’t slam the door,” Osama said, comparing Adam’s anger with Forat’s. Lately Forat has taken on behaviors characteristic of adolescents: teenage-level rage that explodes if we make a mistake in preparing her sandwich, proclamations that no one loves her, and expressions of a deep wish to exchange her family members with improved versions. She’s growing up.

Ima, can we watch that movie about the people who weren’t allowed to get married?” Forat asked. She must have remembered the conversation we had driving through Virginia, about Mildred and Richard Loving, a Black woman and white man who fell in love in the 1950s in Caroline County. Policemen broke into their bedroom and arrested them for violating a law in force at that time in all states in the Southern United States, outlawing marriage between Blacks and whites. The couple launched a legal battle that ultimately invalidated those laws.

“That’s not a movie for children,” Osama said.

“Pleaaaaaaase, Ima!” Forat begged.

Meanwhile, the smell of falafel filled the apartment. Adam came out of his room, searching for the source, and stared at the balls frying in the pan. “Falafel!” he yelled, smiling in recognition, and Osama, Forat and I burst into laughter.

A guns and ammo store in North Carolina.Credit: Sari Bashi

Loving Mildred

In the evening, we sat on the couch and watched the movie Forat had requested, “Loving.” The couple had fled to Washington to escape prison, but snuck back into Virginia toward the end of Mildred’s pregnancy so she could give birth close to her family, aided by her mother-in-law, who was a midwife. The white mother midwifed her Black daughter-in-law gently and expertly. But in response to her son’s expression of thanks, she told him, “You should never have married her.”

Loving, 2016 (trailer)Credit: YouTube

The son was confused: “I thought you liked her,” he said.

The mother didn’t blink: “I like a lot of people. You should have known better.”

Forat was also confused. She asked me to pause the film. “I thought the mother liked Mildred,” she said.

“People usually aren’t completely racist or not racist at all,” I told Forat. “The mother liked Mildred, but also thought that whites should marry whites.”

Signs in Raleigh, North Carolina, a long way away from Ramallah.Credit: Sari Bashi

I searched Forat’s face, trying to understand what she understood. One of the few things I conceal from her is the opposition that some members of my family have to my relationship with Osama, a Palestinian refugee from a Muslim family forced out of Majdal, now part of the Israeli city of Ashkelon, in 1948.

Like the white son in the film, I was also confused to see that genuine affection for Osama did not change the racist views that some members of my family maintained about Arabs. The issue was even more confusing, because one relative – the one who informed me that Arabs suckle hatred of Jews in their mother’s milk – was himself an Arab who fled his native Iraq together with the rest of the Iraqi-Jewish community.

Over the years, he learned to accept Osama and our children, who, as far as I know, suckled protein, fat and antibodies from my breasts, not hatred.

Although that family member treats Osama with kindness and respect, he continues to make racist statements about Arabs. I had worried about the day when Forat would understand that and ask me questions.

I hoped our stay in the United States would open a window for Forat to realize that people evolve and are capable of change, also for the better. In North Carolina and throughout the South, there are attempts to grapple with the history of slavery and the present of racism.

We see Black Lives Matter flags on our neighbors’ lawns, read about the civil rights movement in Forat’s textbooks and witness a lively public debate over school curricula that emphasize persistent structural racism in the United States.

Toward the end of the movie, the camera zoomed in on the white mother, now a grandmother, playing with her mixed grandchildren.

“Does she love the children?” Forat asked me.

“Everyone loves the children,” I told her, and that was true in our family as well.

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