I’m an Israeli-American lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, and author of the Hebrew-language book “Maqluba – Upside-Down Love,” 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 United States, 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. My real name is Sari Bashi, and I’ve been writing this blog since 2019 under the pen name Umm Forat, which means Mother of Forat in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com.
“She’s coming!” Osama shouted, pointing through the window at the neighbor getting out of her car. “Get her!”
Osama is always assertive when it comes to my communicating on behalf of our family when he’s too embarrassed to do it himself. He was pointing to the neighbor who three months ago moved into our building in Raleigh, North Carolina.
On her first evening in the apartment, I brought her dinner on dishes that belong to the owner of our furnished apartment. In Ramallah, when neighbors or friends bring food, you’re expected to return the plates filled with something else – fruit, sweets, anything to avoid returning an empty plate. It’s a custom that filled me with dread each time someone brought us food on a large plate.
We didn’t expect this during our stay in the United States, but I thought the neighbor would return the dishes. Every time we see her rushing from the parking lot to her apartment, her head is tucked down and she avoids eye contact. Still, Osama keeps pressing me to ask for the plates back.
I rushed downstairs and put the key into our mailbox. As she passed by, I greeted her and inquired about the fate of the plates.
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“Oh, yeah, I didn’t know when I would see you, so I washed them and put them into the cupboard,” she said.
“Oh, okay. So, um, when you get a chance …” I said.
“Okay,” she said, and entered her apartment without bringing me the plates.
The only kids in the condo
I went upstairs and reported my failure to Osama.
“Why didn’t you go with her to her apartment and get them?” he asked.
“You’re a real hero, hiding at home and sending me out to deal with her!”
“Never mind,” he said. “We’ll buy John new plates. We don’t need to give him another reason to kick us out of here.”
Forat asked: “Why does John want to kick us out?”
John, a pleasant and polite man who speaks with a charming Southern accent, is our landlord. Every once in a while he forwards us letters he gets from the condominium’s homeowners' association, threatening him with sanctions because of allegedly noxious noise and vibrations from our apartment. We’re told about a girl furiously slamming the door, a boy running around, or both children competing to see if they can jump from the couch to the easy chair without landing on the carpet.
Forat and Adam are the only children in the complex, and our neighbors aren’t particularly happy about it.
After the last letter to John, I waited until our next-door neighbor, who is also president of the homeowners’ association, got home. He had never spoken to us – never welcomed us when we arrived and never complained to us about noise. But our landlord hinted that he was the one behind the letters.
I approached him in the parking lot, apologized for the disturbance and requested that in the future he raise issues with us directly.
“The cans in my pantry fell from the shelves due to the vibrations in your apartment,” he replied. Adam, who’s 3 and a half, joined me, hiding behind my legs and looking up at the neighbor, a tall, 30-something single man.
“My son weighs 35 pounds,” I said, 16 kilograms. “The soundproofing in the building is terrible. I’m trying to teach my kids to be considerate, but I’m asking you to be considerate of us, too. There’s a pandemic. They’re home a lot.”
“Everyone needs to follow the rules,” he said.
“Correct,” I replied, and in advance of this conversation, I had reviewed the rules of the homeowners’ association, as well as state law.
“And the rules establish quiet hours after 11 P.M. My kids are in bed by 8:30 P.M. On the other hand, threatening us because of reasonable noise that children make could be viewed as discrimination based on family status, in violation of North Carolina housing law.”
Since that conversation, the threatening letters to our landlord stopped, but we still didn’t feel particularly welcome. When a new neighbor, a 60-something woman with a dog that she carries in her arms most of the time, moved into the apartment below us, I greeted her with cups of ice water and homemade muffins. I tried to initiate a conversation on the noise issue, again at Osama’s behest.
She was too busy to talk, but a week later, as Adam ran barefoot in our living room, she banged on the ceiling, apparently with a broom. I think it was a model of broom popular with witches.
I went downstairs to talk to her, but she wouldn’t open the door, and when I later bumped into her in the parking lot, she refused to talk to me and said she would “solve the problem on my own.” Since then, we don’t let the children near her or her dog.
Our study of the condominium-association rules gave us another reason to feel unwelcome: Our building doesn’t let residents hang objects from balconies except for “tasteful” decorations during the “holiday season,” defined as the month of December.
Forat asked again why John would want to evict us from the apartment, and I realized she was sort of hoping he would; she’s ready to go back to our home in the Ramallah area. I told her we would have to work harder to make it happen.
“Let’s make Jewish New Year decorations,” I told her. This year, we’re celebrating without my family in Tel Aviv, but, for a change, with Osama, who doesn’t need a permit from the Israeli military to join our holiday meal in Raleigh. “We’ll draw ram’s horns and honey cakes and hang them on the balcony,” I suggested to Forat.
“Are you serious?” Osama asked. “They really will kick us out of here.”
“If that’s the case,” I told him, “we’ll add Ramadan lanterns.”
“No,” Osama said. “We’ll start with the ram’s horn. When they send letters to John, tell them that the Jewish people have been persecuted for thousands of years, and that their condo association rules are antisemitic and violate the North Carolina state constitution. If it works, we’ll hit them with Ramadan.”