Of All Places

Sayed Kashua accompanies his wife and baby to a pre-nursery play group for the first time, and wonders, why raise my children here, of all places?

That morning, after I took my kids to school, instead of going to the office I went back home, so I could accompany my wife and the baby to a pre-nursery play group for the first time. My wife had already been there and was favorably impressed. This was the first time she was taking the baby. "At first for a few hours," she said, adding, "You should come, too, so you'll at least see where it is."

I parked in front of the building and climbed up to our apartment. The baby was all ready, strapped into his car seat, and my heart melted at the sight of the smile that lit up his face. I would rather he stayed home at this age and be with his mother or with me, but I know there is no choice. Since the bed rest during the pregnancy and the long maternity leave, I have been running around between the kids' schools, enrichment groups, doctors and the supermarket, and working no more than five hours on a really good day.

Illustration by Amos Biderman

My wife is also losing her sanity. She completed her psychotherapy studies a week before giving birth, and wrote the dissertation in the hospital bed. She is eager to start her new job in one of the city's mental health clinics. "Sometimes I'm afraid I have forgotten what I learned," she said last week, an anxious look on her face. To which I replied, partly as a joke and partly to tease, that probably everything she learned can be boiled down to three words: "Mother is guilty."

I strapped the baby's seat into the car, and before getting in I noticed a note stuck under the windshield wiper. I raised the wiper a bit and picked up the note. "Why here, of all places?" it read. Giving my wife a look, I immediately crumpled the note. "What is it?" she asked as I started the car. The engine emitted an unfamiliar sound. "Nothing," I replied, trying to control the shaking that had seized my body. "Just a flyer."

"What's that noise?" she asked, as I pulled out and the noise from the engine grew constantly louder.

"I don't know," I said, "I don't know, all right?"

"Are you in a bad mood?"

"I am not in a bad mood," I replied. "Why do you say I am in a bad mood?" "I know you don't want me to send the baby to the playgroup, but what do you want me to do? What am I supposed to do? I'll go crazy staying home, I'll climb the walls. Do you think it's not hard for me?"

"That has nothing to do with it," I said.

We were silent until we got to the playgroup. I lugged the heavy car seat and tried to smile at the baby and send him a message that all was well, that this life is worth living. I tried to believe in all the theories that say playgroups are good, that it's good for the baby's social, mental and physical health to see other children. I tried to persuade myself that babies need to get sick in order to develop immunity, that babies are destined for this life and will get over the obstacles, that being abandoned by his parents at the age of half a year will only steel the kid and make him a better, healthier person, especially psychologically.

"Look at me," I thought to myself, the words on the note still echoing in my mind: "Why here, of all places?" Look at me, taking my little boy to a playgroup close to home, a Jewish playgroup, a lovely caregiver, but Jewish; sweet children, but Jewish, taking my son to be different, other, at the age of half a year. Suddenly it sounded a lot more threatening, a lot more serious: "Why here, of all places?"

I couldn't stay in the playgroup very long. My son's puzzled look, the sweet children, but still with that look of helplessness with which they greet the new stranger, another one like them, another one who will have to be steeled, have to get used to it, get to like the new conditions and start to understand that life isn't so great, but especially my son's look, to which I attributed a type of understanding, a type of resignation.

"Look," I said to my wife. "I have to take care of the car, all right? I'll call the leasing company and let them know."

"All right," she said in a tone of relief.

"It sounds to me like a torn alternator belt," the leasing company guy said when I phoned and told him about the noises from the engine and the red battery light that lit up when I started the ignition. The tow truck could take three hours to arrive, and the leasing guy suggested I go to a garage and promised I would be out with a new belt in half an hour.

They sabotaged the car, too, I know it. "Why here, of all places?" Because I'm an idiot, that's why. Because I am living in an illusion, because I think that if I have nice neighbors and a bilingual school for the kids, then life in this country is also like that. There is no reason to be here, of all places, I thought, starting to justify the person who wrote the note. Suddenly, I realized that he wasn't so much trying to threaten me as help me: Is a neighborhood in the western part of the city, a Jewish neighborhood in which I am the only Arab, really the place where I want to raise my children? After all, the note didn't say, "Arabs out - Price Tag." It was no more than a sincere and persuasive questioning of the place I had chosen to live. Even my father had asked, "Why there, of all places?"

"It will take at least three hours," the garage guy told me after he opened the hood and immediately saw a torn belt.

"I was promised half an hour." "At least three hours," he intoned.

The leasing guy apologized and said he would send a replacement vehicle. "It usually takes three hours for a replacement car, but because you agreed to go to the garage I will speed it up."

An hour later, with me waiting in the garage, the replacement car still hadn't arrived.

"We don't have an executive car ready, would you mind a smaller car?"

"No," I told him, "any car will do." I waited in the garage for three hours and no replacement car showed up. The garage guy came to the waiting room and said the car would be ready in half an hour.

"Tell me," I asked him very tensely. "Do you know why the belt tore? Was it sabotage?" "Cats," he said. "In the winter they like to hide there and keep warm. You start the car and their claws rip the belt. Try to remember to knock on the hood before you start the car." My wife and the baby spent nearly four hours in the playgroup. "He screamed nonstop," she said when I picked her up. "I'm not taking him back there."

"We have to move," I said to my wife on the way home.

"What?" she exclaimed. "What's got into your head now?" When I parked in front of the building, there was a car parked in the place where I had been before, when I came home to pick up my wife and the baby. There was a note on its front windshield, in the same handwriting as my note: "Why here, of all places? You're blocking access to the garbage bins!"

I laughed out loud. "You're a nutcase," my wife said, "you're a complete wacko, and you know why?" "No," I said. "Why?"

"Your mother is guilty."