In America, We Found a Common Ground for Israelis and Palestinians

Out of the 50 apartments in our building, just one other houses a teenager, and ours are the only children here. In Israel, if you don't have children, they criticize you, but in North Carolina, it's the opposite ■ Post #41

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Illustration. “Do you think one of the neighbors would try to hurt the children?” Osama asked.
Illustration. “Do you think one of the neighbors would try to hurt the children?” Osama asked.Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock

I’m an Israeli-American lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, and author of the Hebrew-language book “Maqluba – Upside-Down Love,” which describes how we met and fell in love. This blog is about raising our two children, 7-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, in the West Bank and more recently in the United States, where we’re spending a sabbatical year.

We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you. I have changed people’s names to protect their privacy. My real name is Sari Bashi, and I’ve been writing this blog since 2019 under the pen name Umm Forat, which means Mother of Forat in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com.

Children should be seen and not heard

After we moved to North Carolina, we confronted a stark difference between Americans and Israelis and Palestinians: their attitudes toward children. In the United States, you have a right to have children, but they are your personal responsibility. If you happen to work for a large employer, you can get maternity leave. If your employer is generous, you’ll even get paid for it. If you have money, your children can attend daycare and preschool. Just make sure they don’t disturb anyone.

The apartment we rented is part of a complex populated mostly by the elderly or young single people. Out of 50 apartments, only one other houses a child, a 14-year-old girl who lives on the first floor. Our apartment is on the second floor of a 50-year-old wood building, made of cheap construction materials. Every movement reverberates throughout the neighbors’ apartments.

We managed to stymie the first round of the neighbors’ noise complaints by reminding the homeowners’ association that federal and state laws prohibit housing discrimination based on family status, including have young children. But as the weather cooled and our kids spent more time indoors, the homeowners' association began to threaten to take action against our kind landlord, John, because of “slamming doors” and “stomping.” John came to the apartment to talk to me about the complaints.

“That’s the new neighbor!” I told John, pointing to a 60-something-year-old woman, wearing heavy makeup and carrying a little dog, who was dressed in a checkered red and gray doggie sweater.

“I know that type,” said John, who lived in North Carolina all his life. “I grew up with these white Southerners. They need to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them.” I considered reminding John that he, too, is a white Southerner, and that the president of the homeowners’ association, a leader of the movement to oust us from the building, is actually a young bachelor of Columbian descent, but I didn’t want to dampen John’s enthusiasm to defend our children’s right to be children. The lease allows him to terminate our tenancy at any time.

Adam, 4, and Forat, 7, arrived home from preschool and school and jumped in excitement when they saw John.

“I made a dinosaur mask!” Adam screamed, and pulled from his school backpack a paper plate, on which he had glued eyes and colorful triangles in the shape of a stegosaurus. Forat ran to get her Wonder Woman cape, and the children marched in circles in the living room, singing, “We are the dinosaurs, marching, marching!”

I checked John’s reaction.

“Yeah,” he said. “Right now, the neighbor’s ceiling is vibrating. The soundproofing is terrible here.”

Solidarity from a neighbor-mother

The homeowners' association announced that it would hold a hearing about the noise from our apartment and began collecting statements from the other residents. One day, on my way back from a morning run, I saw Terry, the mother of the teenager living on the first floor. I asked her for advice.

“I moved here because of pressure from the neighbors at my previous apartment,” Terry said. “When my daughter was four, she fell off the couch and burst into tears, not from the pain but from the fear that the neighbors would evict us because of the noise she made.”

“The downstairs neighbor complains about the noise that Forat makes when she wakes up in the middle of the night and runs into our bed, because she’s scared,” I said. “When our kids fight and slam doors, in addition to the anxiety we feel because they’re fighting, we’re afraid it will get us evicted.”

Terry nodded. “I refused to give a statement against you,” she said. “And I’ll tell you if I hear anything else from the homeowners’ association.”

Israeli-Palestinian solidarity

It was 9 P.M. My partner Osama and I lay in bed, exhausted. It had been particularly hard to get the kids to sleep that night. Adam had refused to brush his teeth and ran into the living room, shouting, “Try and catch me!” Forat had joined him. Their enjoyment of the game made us smile, despite our frustration at the lateness of the hour and our concern that the neighbor-witch downstairs was adding another entry to her book of complaints.

“Do you think one of the neighbors would try to hurt the children?” Osama asked, trying to decipher the societal codes of America, which are foreign to him. He grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, where the families were large and the walls so thin, he could hear his neighbors fart from his own family's apartment. There was no homeowners’ association to register complaints.

“Absolutely not,” I said, trying to reassure him. “They’re not used to children, but there’s no reason to think they’re violent.”

In the United States, women give birth to an average of 1.6 children. In Israel, the average is 3.1 children per woman, and in the West Bank and Gaza it’s 3.8 children. In Israel, if you don’t have children, neighbors and passersby don’t hesitate to remind you that your biological clock is ticking. In Palestine, people are named by reference to their children: Umm Forat means Mother of Forat, because parenthood is an honorific title. Of course Americans love their kids, too, but we seem to have landed in a place where the residents have never met a child.

“At least we found another commonality between Israelis and Palestinians,” Osama said. “On the subject of children, we’re united against the United States of America.”

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