A Lesson in Arabic

What is he thinking about now, the little boy? How much does he really hate me? What does he understand from the other boy's 'ichsa'?

We left the house together that afternoon. My wife took the car and drove our daughter to her music class at the conservatory, and I, seeing that it wasn't too cold, decided to walk with my son to the swimming pool. Moments like this fill me with a sense of triumph: my girl is on the way to the conservatory, my boy is heading for a swimming lesson. These are statements of a kind that I like to describe as "Sayings you don't hear in Tira." Things that reassure me that it was a smart decision to move to a Jewish neighborhood - difficult, but right. A heated swimming pool next to the house, a conservatory 10 minutes away by car - these definitely make a persuasive response to all the critics, Arabs and Jews alike, who attributed political, cultural and national motives to an act that was driven mainly by the search for a better quality of life.

My son and I cross the neighborhood park, and he pulls his hand out of mine and runs across the green grass, stretching his arms to the sides like the wings of a plane and tilting his body right and left in turn. He runs in circles, sometimes returning to me, smiling and again running as hard as he can. "Look how fast I can run," he says, and I, walking slowly, almost asked him to stop running so he could preserve his energy for swimming. I had momentarily forgotten the ability of small children to run and cavort all day long.

Kashua caricature 11.3.11

This is the second year of swimming lessons for my son. I remember how scared he was of the water two years ago and how the elderly Russian teacher gave him a smile and immediately called him a hero, how at the start he persuaded him just to sit on the edge of the pool and splash his feet in the water, then quickly gave him the confidence to join him in the water, "just to stand." Already in the first lesson my son was diving and learning how to make bubbles, trusting his smiling teacher.

This will be the last lesson with the Russian teacher. "The work conditions here are bad," he said a month ago, when he announced he would be leaving. "They don't pay me overtime." My son was very sorry about this. The first thing he said was that he would not go on with the swimming lessons if his teacher left. The other children in his group had already been assigned to other teachers; only my child refused to enter another group and insisted on staying with his teacher until the last minute. The elderly teacher was delighted. "I knew," he said, and the two of them entered the pool for a private farewell lesson.

The pool was filled with children of all ages. In one corner, girls were practicing synchronized swimming, the bigger children who had already taken part in competitions were swimming quickly in two lanes, and the younger ones were practicing first strokes with their teachers in smaller groups. My son knew that this would be the last lesson - more like a hotel pool than being strict about the right strokes. The pool was very noisy, and from my seat among the parents I couldn't hear the conversation between the teacher and my son, though from time to time I saw that they were both smiling, diving and coming back up, laughing. There were also moments when the teacher talked and my son listened sorrowfully, nodding his head and dipping under the water to wash away a feeling of unease or to deepen some fine thought.

"You are a hero," the elderly teacher told my son at the end of the lesson and ran his hand through the boy's wet hair. "You will be a great swimmer," he said before the two parted for the last time. I shook the teacher's hand and then he held my son's hand in a long grip before turning to go.

"He loves you very much," I said to my son as I rubbed him down with a towel.

"What will he do?" he asked.

"He will probably teach swimming somewhere else," I replied.

"So can I go somewhere else?" my son asked. I had no answer. A little boy approached us and shifted the conversation to a different place. The boy came up to us in the way children have, with a hesitant gaze, keeping a safe distance. Seeing him, my son bent his head in embarrassment as he always does, occasionally stealing a glance at the boy.

"He wants to be your friend," I said to my son, who now plucked up the courage to look the new boy in the eye.

"What language are you speaking?" the boy asked with a smile.

My son looked at me as though requesting permission to embark on a new relationship, already forgetting his former teacher, and I nodded, permitting him to take matters into his own hands.

"Arabic," my son told the boy, smiling.

"Ichsa," the boy said in response and went on staring at my son for a moment before returning to his mother's arms.

I will never forget the look that passed across my son's face. It was a look that gave me the chills and made my hand shake as I went on drying his wet body. It was a look that passed rapidly from smile to stunned gaze, affront and finally accusation. A look that I heard telling me, "Why did you lie to me, why didn't you do something, it's all your fault."

What did I do? That was the question that resonated in my mind all the way home and wouldn't let go of me. Because of me and my caprices, my son has to cope with situations like this, and at his age, too. I lied to them when I taught them that everyone is equal, I lied when I said there are no differences between Muslims, Jews and Christians. I cheated when I surrounded them with protective hothouses of mixed kindergartens and pleasant neighborhoods.

"You know," I said, breaking the silence and aware that I was about to utter another lie, "that boy is really dumb." I tried to chuckle, to laugh off the whole incident, to paint it as anomalous, unnatural. He didn't reply.

What is he thinking about now, the little boy? How much does he really hate me? What does he understand from the other boy's "ichsa"? And what will it do to him? Will he now stop talking to me in Arabic if there are strangers around? Will it make him more cautious? Make him ashamed of what he is? Oy, what I wouldn't do for God to tell me what my son is feeling now.

"Please," I said in the most caressing tone of voice I could muster at that moment, "what do you say, eh?"

"Dad," he said, "I don't want to go to the pool anymore."

"Why?" I asked, trying to conceal my sorrow. "You like swimming very much."

He said nothing for a moment and then replied, "I don't want another teacher."