Speaking Hebrew With My Kids in Downtown Ramallah

While we unpacked our new home in Al Bireh, we discovered the differences between us and our local friends. But we don't hide who we are because the strange truth of our circumstances is my strongest protection ■ Post #2

Downtown Ramallah
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I'm an Israeli lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah. After years of wandering throughout the world, we returned to the West Bank with our two children, 5-year-old Forat and 2-year-old Adam. We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you here. (click to read all previous posts). I have changed the names of people in the blog, including my own. "Umm Forat" means "Mother of Forat" in Arabic.

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The house was upside down. But ours. An apartment that Osama knew well, bought from a friend who left town and left us most of its contents. A beautiful solid wood table. Chairs and lanterns in the private garden, surrounded by fruit trees. Toilet paper in the bathrooms and a broom in the kitchen. But there were also 15 years of junk in the drawers and food stains in the sink. And – a lot of furniture. Big, heavy pieces, some made of fragile glass with sharp corners that crowded the apartment and prevented Adam from riding his scooter in the living room. It took days to clear out and unpack the place. I stayed awake until 4 A.M. most nights, taking advantage of the few hours in which the jet-lagged Forat and Adam slept.

On Friday, Osama took the children to visit his friend Lubna and her 5-year-old daughter Nuran, while I took advantage of the time to unpack and organize. Osama sent me photos of Forat and Adam sitting around the table in Lubna’s house, eating maqlouba, a traditional dish of chicken, rice and vegetables. I sighed in relief. Since we arrived four days ago, the children had not eaten a home-cooked meal. I observe the Jewish dietary rules of kashrut at home, and I wanted to set up the kitchen before arranging my dishes in the cabinets. Also – for the life of me, I couldn’t find the box of dairy dishes.

Osama called and asked me to bring Forat and Nuran to a story-telling event at the cultural center, for children aged five and older. I drove to Lubna’s house in the car I borrowed from a friend.

“Thank you so much for feeding my children,” I told Lubna.

“Anytime,” she answered with a smile. Osama left on foot for an errand in the Old City. I put Adam and Forat into their car seats, and Lubna seated Nuran next to them.

“Put a seatbelt on her, please,” I said.

Nuran looked at me, horrified.

“It’s OK,” Lubna said. “It’s not necessary.”

“Please.”

Lubna extended the seatbelt, and Nuran began to wriggle and squirm, her hands and legs flailing. Forat got an elbow to the shoulder but stayed quiet, listening closely to the conversation.

“She’ll throw up if we put a seatbelt on her,” Lubna said apologetically. “It’s not necessary, she can hold on to the door handle.”

I emptied a container of dried mango that I had in my bag and handed it to Nuran. “If she needs to throw up, she can throw up into this,” I said. Nuran looked at the box and wrinkled her nose.

“It smells,” Nuran said.

I extracted a second box from my bag, this one with an uncut apple, and emptied it as well.

“Try this one,” I said. Nuran wrinkled her brow and gave me back the box.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Lubna. “I’m not willing to take responsibility for her getting hurt if we get into an accident.”

Lubna fastened the seatbelt over Nuran. The trip took seven minutes, during which Nuran did not throw up. I dropped off Lubna and the girls and took Adam, who was too young for the story-telling, to a playground in the community center.

We got lucky – they were hosting a festival, one of the many events for children in Ramallah/Al Bireh in summer time: inflatable jumping floats, a clown and an ice cream truck that played, “Jingle Bells.” Hundreds of children ran around in the cooling early evening air.

Their parents sat around wooden tables, ran after them with sandwiches and water bottles, waited for them at the bottom of the slide and yelled for them to stop the merry-go-round and let Mahmoud get off, because can’t they see that the boy is crying?

I paid the five shekel ($1.50) entrance fee and bounced with Adam on a jumping float modeled after Queen Elsa’s castle in the movie “Frozen.” I crawled after him while roaring like a lioness, held him close and listened to the ring of his laughter, laughter that I barely heard since we moved back to Ramallah. I could glimpse a window of hope. On the other side, we would have a good life, in a house with a toy closet and a kitchen in which we know where to find the colander and lemon squeezer.

“Come here, sweetheart!” I called when Adam ran toward the exit. I spoke to him in Hebrew. That’s what I had done before we left Ramallah for the United States a year ago, and that’s how I decided to continue. I don’t want Adam and Forat to learn to hide things. And also – it’s safer if people know who I am. The strange truth of our circumstances is my strongest protection. But it was our first outing since we returned. I spoke with Adam quietly and mostly roared like a lioness.

When the sun set, I drove Lubna and Nuran to their apartment and took my children home. In the foyer of the building, I met our neighbor from the apartment across the hall. He was smoking. I guessed that was a partial explanation for the stench of cigarettes that clung to the walls of the elevator. The elevator doors opened, and our neighbor motioned for us to enter first.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “My son has asthma. Could I ask you not to smoke in the elevator and hallway?”

“I hope he feels better,” the neighbor said. “No problem.” He extinguished the cigarette and joined us in the elevator. The door closed. Adam looked up at him with big eyes. The neighbor smiled, took a small chocolate bar from his pocket, and offered it to Adam.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “But he also has diabetes.”

Forat tried to grab the chocolate from the neighbor’s hand. I pushed her hand away. The elevator door opened.

“Ima, what’s diabetes?” Forat asked.

“Goodbye!” I called to the neighbor and pushed the children into our upside-down house.

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