When hatred of the other becomes a religion, when evil becomes a faith and cruelty a reality, when racism is the supreme social value, children's world is destroyed. It collapses all around them.
This happened two weeks ago in Haifa, the ostensible city of coexistence, the town currently celebrating its Festival of Festivals. I got on a bus after a long day of studies. I sat by a window and a pretty woman in a hijab – a head covering for those who don’t know – sat beside me. Across sat a mother and her son. She was wearing a red dress and the boy had shiny blond hair.
It was a routine day. The bus continued along its route and the woman next to me (whom I didn’t know) asked me in Arabic about certain stops in the area. I replied in Arabic that I didn’t live in Haifa so I didn’t know the area well. She smiled and thanked me and got off after a few minutes.
The boy sitting across from me looked at me – a good-looking boy with a winning smile. I smiled back and he plucked up the courage to ask if I was an Arab. I answered with a smile that I was.
Complete silence followed. He looked out the window and then gazed back at me, this time with an embarrassed, lost, bashful look. He asked: “Do you have a knife?”
The role of the immediate suspect isn’t new to me; I’ve gotten used to playing it. Still, I wasn’t expecting this from a small child. I remembered something I had written on Facebook in November 2012 after a bus attack in Tel Aviv.
I wrote about a conversation I had had with my younger brother, Mohammed. I told him about the attack and he got angry and asked why people did such things. In an attempt to evade a direct answer I told him about what the occupation had done to us Palestinians for decades and what it still does.
And my brother Mohammed, with the angry look of a 9-year-old, a pure soul all innocence and naiveté, still unsullied, said killing was killing and that we’re all people. If the occupation is evil, he said, we won’t be like that. We’ll never let it defeat us.
Today Mohammed is 12 and he’s changed. I’ve changed as well. Maybe we’ve switch opinions; it's possible.
While the boy’s mother was reprimanding him for his question, I thought about Mohammed. He also has blond hair and the face of an angel. Something made me reply without hesitation: “No, I don’t have a knife, but I have something else for you.” The boy’s eyes grew large. “What?” he asked. “A hug” I replied.
I’ll never forget that little boy who slid off his seat and gave me a big hug. I’ll never forget his tiny hands at the back of my neck. I’ll never forget how that little boy, who a moment earlier thought I might have a knife, left behind his Jewish mother and rushed toward an Arab passenger with the innocence of a child, burying himself in her arms.
I’ll never forget the tears streaming from his mother’s eyes as she said “I’m sorry,” while her son’s arms were clasped around my neck. “It’s not your fault,” I whispered back.
Saja Abu Fanni is a student in communications and political science at the University of Haifa.
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