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.
“Imaaa!” As usual, Forat awoke screaming. Five in the morning. I was sitting near the front door, tying my running shoes. Osama sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and planning his lecture for that day. He glanced at me, got up from his chair and went into our bedroom, which Forat had snuck into in the middle of the night.
“Habibti, speak quietly, please.” There was another shout and then a furious sentence in amazingly precise Arabic:
“Inta, ismak Ima?” Forat screamed. You, is your name Ima?
Osama retreated from the bedroom. We burst out laughing.
“Are you still waiting for the day when she will want to murder you and marry me?” he asked.
- But Ima, we’re Jews. Why can't we cross the checkpoint?
- Speaking Hebrew with my kids in downtown Ramallah
- Israeli, Jewish, and raising my kids in Ramallah
“Maybe next year,” I offered. “Yalla, I’m going for a run, bye!” He began to protest but I escaped out the door into the stairwell. I entered the morning quiet, the sleepy streets, the barking of stray dogs and here and there a passing taxi. Before Forat was born, I used to revel in morning runs, time for myself, when I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. Since she was born, every run has become an act of subversion for which I must apologize to Osama, Forat, and her brother Adam.
“Be careful,” Osama would warn me, especially during the too-frequent incidents in which I lost my patience with Forat. “She’s very attached to you.” As I ran, I tried to understand why Forat’s clinging to me in the morning makes me so angry. It had been nearly six years since she was born, but I still haven’t come to terms with the infringement on my freedom.
I returned an hour later, refreshed. We fed and dressed Forat and Adam.
“Owww!!” Forat screamed while I brushed her long hair into a ponytail. “Stoppp!!”
“Quiet!” I shouted. “You need to stop screaming!”
At the end of the day, I took Adam with me to pick up Forat from kindergarten, which she had begun the week before. She was in the playground with the first grade girls. I tried to persuade her to climb down from the slide and get into the car.
“What language are you speaking with her?” asked six-year old Lian.
“Hebrew,” I said. I tried to meet Forat’s gaze, but she was busy with the water bottle in her hand, the one with the image of Hello Kitty.
“Shalom, Shalom!” Lian called in Hebrew, and the other two girls joined her. “Shalom, Shalom!”
I smiled at them, but I wondered how Forat experienced it. On the way home she was quiet, calm. She asked if we would take a bath that night and if she had to wash her hair.
At night, Osama and I sat around the kitchen table. We spoke softly to avoid waking the children.
“I think Forat likes the new kindergarten,” he said.
Forat’s kindergarten was in a new French school in the city, a joint venture between the French government and a Palestinian businessman. In addition to the local kids there were children of foreigners and Palestinian children who had spent time abroad. A school for the children of elites. We hoped that Forat would be more accepted in a place where the children had experienced different parts of the world and different languages. Forat would now speak four languages: French, Arabic, English and Hebrew.
I never made a conscious decision to communicate with Forat in Hebrew. I speak to Osama in English, and he speaks to the children in Arabic. I had thought about the language issue when I got pregnant with Forat, but she was born early, before we had a chance to make a lot of decisions. I was with her alone for a month in the neonatal intensive care unit in a Tel Aviv Hospital, because we couldn’t get Osama a permit. There, in an Israeli setting, it was natural for me to speak to her in Hebrew. I used to chat with her as she slept in my arms, connected to various monitoring devices. Later, Hebrew became a kind of connection between her and me, our private language. Talking to Forat also connected me to Israel, to the life in Tel Aviv that I left behind when I joined Osama on the other side of the Separation Wall. I was happy and surprised when Forat grew up and communicated easily with relatives at holiday meals or with my friends’ children during visits to Tel Aviv. Hebrew was a kind of present I gave her and myself.
I told Osama about the first grade girls’ “Shalom, Shalom”.
“Lubna asked me if I really allow you to speak Hebrew in the street,” he said.
“Yeah. And she’s supposed to be a feminist.”
“Maybe she meant to say, how can you not see that it’s problematic,” I said.
“Probably,” Osama said. He swallowed. “I’ll tell you something. I hate it when you say, Sheket!” The Hebrew word for quiet.
I flushed. “It reminds you of prison?”
Like many young Palestinian men during the first Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, Osama improved his Hebrew in an Israeli prison. I now had another reason to stop screaming at Forat.
I remembered the first visit of friends from Ramallah after Forat came home from the hospital. When they heard me speaking to her in Hebrew, they froze. And then they burst into laughter. I assumed it was the first time they had heard someone speaking Hebrew with tenderness. When Forat was a baby, in public places in Ramallah and Al Bireh, I would speak to her softly. But when we returned from South Africa, where she had answered Osama and me in English only, she began to speak Hebrew, and loudly.
“Ima!” Forat would yell in the supermarket. “You didn’t buy me anything!” I would cringe and look around, trying to gauge reactions. I quickly realized, against all odds, that most passers-by didn’t recognize the Hebrew words. Beyond the impossibility of an Israeli woman being present in their neighborhood grocery store, for them, Hebrew was the language soldiers used to demand their ID cards at flash checkpoints on their way home. It had nothing to do with a dispute between a mother and daughter over whether to buy her a lollipop.
“Are you sorry we came back from Philadelphia?” Osama asked.
“No. But I wonder if – maybe when – the day will come when Forat will be ashamed of me. I won’t blame her. She will have to forge her own way forward.” But we should build up her confidence, I thought. I should support her, even when she’s throwing a fit. Especially when she’s throwing a fit.
“Forat is a powerful girl,” Osama said, and rose from the table. On his way to the bedroom, he stopped and kissed my forehead. “She reminds me of someone.”
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