In the Middle of Our Palestinian Neighborhood, My Daughter Started Yelling in Hebrew

I’m trying to resist the appropriation of the Hebrew language by the Israeli authorities, who have ingrained Hebrew in the Palestinian consciousness as a language of violence and occupation ■ Post #44

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Umm Forat
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Palestinians walking past a Hebrew-language sign at a checkpoint in Hebron last year.
Palestinians walking past a Hebrew-language sign at a checkpoint in Hebron last year. Credit: Hadas Parush
family
Umm Forat

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 4-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.

A week had passed since I’d brought our daughter Forat home from the hospital where she was born. Friends visited us in our apartment in the Ramallah area. They admired Forat as she slept in the living room, and we all drank coffee until she awoke, crying. I picked her up and told her, in Hebrew, that I would take her to the bedroom and breastfeed her. Our guests froze in the middle of their conversation. There was a brief silence and then they laughed, breaking the tension.

They had never heard the Hebrew language spoken lovingly.

I never made a conscious decision to speak Hebrew to Forat, who is now 7. She was born early, before we had a chance to make a lot of decisions. She and I spent the first weeks of her lives together in the neonatal intensive care unit at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, while my partner Osama was barred from entering Israel. Within the hospital – surrounded by devoted doctors and nurses – it felt natural to speak to her in Hebrew, and I continued doing so after she came home.

As Forat grew older, she began answering me in Hebrew – and not very quietly. It happened for the first time as we were about to leave a neighborhood market in the Ramallah area. Forat, then 3, began to scream in Hebrew: “Mom! You didn’t buy me a lollipop!” I felt like crawling into a hole.

I had to justify our use of Hebrew in a place where the language is perceived as threatening, as are those who speak it. I found ways of explaining that I’m an Israeli Jew, married to a Palestinian man, and offered assurances that I’m not a settler but instead a guest in a society that my country is occupying.

When people ask where I’m from, I sometimes respond: “From among your cousins.” That’s a reference to the religious belief that Muslims are descendants of Ismail or Ishmael, while Jews are descendants of his brother Isaac.

When Osama first heard this, he asked why I choose that answer. “Do you remember how you felt, after your divorce, when people asked how Nisreen is doing, and you had to explain you’d gotten divorced?” I asked him in reply. Osama flushed and nodded.

“That’s how it is for me,” I said. “I’m not ashamed of who I am, but I don’t proudly announce my identity here.”

I’m trying not to give up the Hebrew – at least until we reach the day, if we reach it, when Forat asks me to stop speaking it in public.

I’m trying to resist the appropriation of the Hebrew language by the Israeli authorities. They have ingrained Hebrew in the Palestinian consciousness as a language of violence and occupation, used to shout at people at checkpoints or to humiliate them at border crossings and military coordination offices.

But Hebrew is not the private property of the military, the Zionist movement or the State of Israel. It is rooted deep in Jewish and Hebrew heritage – a heritage that did not begin with the establishment of the State of Israel or the Zionist movement. Hebrew belongs to my children and me too.

The cover of “Maqluba - Upside-Down Love”Credit: Design: Nadav Shalev / Asia Press

A Hebrew literary award

Earlier this week, I won the “new authors” prize from Israel’s Culture Ministry for my book “Maqluba – Upside-Down Love” (Hebrew, Asia Publishing, 2021). I felt a mix of shock, pride and excitement, but also confusion.

“Maqluba” is a love story in two voices: mine and Osama’s. It tells of a crazy, impossible, insatiable love, struggling to find its place in the shadow of the occupation. The book is also critical of basic principles of the Israeli regime. While a panel of independent literary experts determines who gets these Culture Ministry prizes, Israeli ministers have not always respected the independence of the awards panels.

I took the fact that the government awarded me this prize – despite our differences of opinion – as a welcome sign that there are still spaces within Israeli society where people support and celebrate independent Hebrew culture. I am grateful.

I want to reclaim the Hebrew language as something that belongs to me too, and to other Hebrew speakers who oppose its appropriation as a tool of oppression.

I want to imagine a world in which we cultivate Hebrew without cultivating the domination of those who speak it over another people. I want to find a way to continue to speak Hebrew with my Palestinian-Israeli children.

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