We Just Began a Quiet Year in North Carolina. Now We Are Glued to News From Gaza

Osama is glued to the news and his telephone, anxiously speaking to his family in the Gaza Strip as the onslaught continues ■ Post #31

Umm Forat
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Palestinian men salvaging documents and copies of the Koran from the rubble of the Qlebo mosque at the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip after Israeli airstrikes last week.
Palestinian men salvaging documents and copies of the Koran from the rubble of the Qlebo mosque at the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip after Israeli airstrikes last week. Credit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP
Umm Forat

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, 6-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, but are currently temporarily residing in Raleigh, North Carolina. 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. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com

Raleigh, North Carolina, our temporary home for Osama’s sabbatical. 7:30 A.M. Osama finished his second conversation that morning with his niece, Salam, a mother of three in the Gaza Strip. I looked at him questioningly but he shrugged his shoulders.

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“I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel,” he said. I wrapped my arms around him, trying to penetrate his layers of defense, but he pulled away gently, poured a cup of coffee and went outside to smoke. I spread hummus on Adam’s sandwich for preschool.

“Ima, where’s Baba?” Adam emerged from his bedroom dressed in an inside-out shirt. Despite my disapproval of Osama smoking, I wanted to give him time alone. I lied to Adam.

“Maybe in the bathroom?” I suggested. Adam called Osama’s name, checked in both bathrooms and returned to the living room. “He’s not there!” he said, on the verge of tears. I opened the balcony door and pointed to Osama, on the other side of the parking lot. When he saw us, Osama turned his back to hide the lit cigarette.

Adam smiled, put on his shoes and ran outside. Osama quickly extinguished his cigarette, took Adam by the hand and brought him back to the apartment.

“This boy is more effective than your attempts to hide my lighter,” Osama said.

“Did anyone visit your family today?” I asked. It was the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. During an ordinary year, in the Jabalya refugee camp, the men visit female relatives and bring them and the children money and chocolate.

“No one is coming today,” Osama said. “My brothers don’t leave the house except to go downstairs to my mother’s apartment.”

Palestinians mourning during a funeral in the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip last week.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP

‘The Jews are bombing us’

I couldn’t concentrate on work. I called my friend Michael and he told me they had left Holon for his sister-in-law in Petah Tikva, who has a shelter inside her apartment. His 6-year-old daughter insists on staying close to the shelter, he said. In answer to his question, I told him that Osama’s family was physically unharmed but terrified, because the day before the Israeli military bombed a house a kilometer from theirs and killed two children.

“But don’t they tell the families to leave before they shell the homes?” Michael asked.

I felt a wave of frustration and anger that even Michael believes the propaganda of the Israel Defense Forces. I reminded myself that Michael is sick with worry over his kids, and that my children are a safe distance away, enjoying springtime in the southeastern United States. “They warn when they want to demolish an empty building,” I told him. “They don’t warn when they want to kill.”

I called my mother-in-law and complimented her on the bright henna she had used to dye her hair red. I showed her my own white roots: “It’s your grandchildren’s fault,” she laughed and wished me a happy holiday. She was sitting in her living room with Nisreen, another of Osama’s nieces.

“We tell the children it’s just noise,” Nisreen said, in response to my question about the bombings. “Ibrahim is three and gets annoyed. He yells at the missiles ‘Be quiet already!’ It’s actually funny. But Mariam is five and understands and is terrified. The bombs come one after the other – boom! boom! boom! It’s terrible.”

“What does Mariam understand?” I asked.

“That the Jews are bombing us.”

Holiday cookies

On my way to pick up Adam from preschool, I stopped at a natural foods store to buy semolina flour so we could make the traditional holiday cookies. The saleswoman didn’t know what semolina was, but I found a package of it hidden between the organic almond flour and fair trade, sustainable coconut sugar. In a charming Southern accent, she asked if I needed anything else. Without expectation, I asked for rosewater and was shocked when she seemed to know what it was. She took me to a small aisle and offered me a tiny bottle capped by what looked like an eyedropper.

“That’s for eating?” I asked her.

“Ah, no, you don’t eat it,” she said, taken aback. “It’s wonderful for the face; it refreshes the skin.”

At home, I prepared a festive dinner and insisted that we make holiday cookies. I tried to draw Osama into the decision of what to use as a substitute for rosewater in the dough.

“I don’t like holidays,” he said. His phone rang and I saw Salam’s name on the screen again. I heard Osama encourage her to bake ka’ak il-eid, the same holiday cookies he had just disdained.

After he hung up, he explained to me: “She’s afraid to go to the kitchen.”

The ka’ak il-eid cookies baked by Umm Forat for the Eid al-Fitr holiday.Credit: Umm Forat

“Is the kitchen more exposed than the bedroom?” I asked.

“No,” Osama said. “There’s no difference, but she’s traumatized. I thought it would do her good to focus on making cookies for the children.”

Adam sat in a corner of the kitchen, absorbed in building a Lego tower with his sister, Forat. I wanted to hug them both, to hold them close to me. But Osama was rolling a cigarette, and I didn’t want Adam to notice him leaving the house.

“Try to keep the World Health Organization from following me,” Osama requested.

But on his way out of the apartment, he stopped. “What are you doing?” he asked me.

“Making ka’ak,” I said. Cookies.

“Why are you doing it like that?”

“I don’t have the mold we use in Ramallah.”

“You don’t need it, just roll them like we did in Philadelphia.”

The dough kept getting mixed in with the walnut and date fillings. My failed attempts seemed to motivate Osama to join me in trying to create a holiday atmosphere after all.

He rested his cigarette on the counter and sat down next to me. He began to form cookies into ring shapes, maybe trying to connect to his mother or siblings in Gaza, who at that moment were lying in their beds, waking sporadically when the shelling got close. Or maybe they were lying sleepless as they had the previous night, trying to measure the distance between the bombs and the children’s beds.

Adam and Forat abandoned their tower and joined Osama, rolling dough and mostly licking the spoons, until the baking sheets were full.

I made a quick calculation: This was the third war Osama and I had experienced together, each time outside of Gaza and outside of Tel Aviv, with Osama glued to the news and his telephone. I was also glued to the phone, talking to Gaza, talking to Tel Aviv, worrying about the people I love in both places while also understanding that there is no symmetry between their situations.

As in Ramallah, here we are safe from the bombing.

I placed the trays of crooked cookies into the oven.

“Kul sana wa inta salem,” I told Osama. Happy holiday. This time he didn’t pull away from my embrace.