Thursday, February 16, 2006

Your President has a funny hat

I remember the day I became aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it was at a very specific moment. Like any Israeli child born in the early 60s, I grew up knowing that our enemy were the Arabs around us, the Arab nations whose constant wish, so we were told, was to annihilate us, “to throw the Jews into the sea”. I was in kindergarten during the terrible weeks before the Six Day War in 1967, when the Israeli population was preparing for the worst. Around that time, we were asked in kindergarten to make a drawing for Air Force Day, which isn't really celebrated any more. Or it might have been right after the war, when victory was celebrated. Many years have passed and I don't remember the teacher's instructions, but I do remember the painting I made: blue stick-crosses high up in a sunny sky, over green meadows dotted with red-roof houses facing black stick-crosses which were flying in the opposite direction, in flames, their tips facing down, signalling that the burning planes were doomed. The planes were Arab, dark and ominous, and belonged to the Arab nations around us. It was in 1967 that I first saw the insignia on Egyptian and Syrian fighter-planes and learned to tell them apart. We all knew that “the Arabs” had showed blatant inhumanity in 1948. We were trying to create a state, to begin our independence after so many years, and – go figure! - they chose that very moment in order to attack us, instead of empathizing with our human project, so natural and right. It was 1967 and I was four years old.

Still, I knew nothing about a conflict between us and the Palestinians. Even up to the mid-70s we'd fervently argue whether such a people existed, about criteria for a people being a People. Anyway, in the late 60s all this was still in the future. So it was a big surprise to discover it directly for the first time. And in a swimming-pool, of all places.

It happened around 1970, when I was living with my family in Honduras. Many times we'd go to the lovely swimming pool at the capital's best and brand-new hotel, the Honduras Maya. One Sunday, as I was in the water and the air was thick with the smells of the brunch that was being prepared outdoors, I met a girl from my second grade class. I knew she was an Arab. In Spanish we called the local Arabs turcos. By then I already knew why: they were descendants of Arabs who'd left the Middle East during the late days of the Ottoman Empire, usually in order not to serve in the Sultan's army during the First World War. Anyway, I was glad to see the girl, and she approached me. The sun blinded me, but I remember her body in a one-piece swimming suit as she waded and came closer. We must have talked about our families having come to the pool, maybe about lunch as a tempting prospect. By now they were grilling the meat and the smell of frijoles made my mouth water even more. Then someone called her, someone I couldn't see because of the sun. She went and then she returned with two older kids, boys. The trio stopped just under the string that ran across the pool, marking the place were the water became deeper. I was in the shallow part, still a hesitant swimmer.
“Where is this one from?”, asked one of the older boys, half spitting the question, half directing it to my friend. He looked like he could be her brother. I knew how to identify turcos.
“He's from Israel”, she said.
“There's no such place!”, he retorted in a flash. I protested saying there sure is a place called Israel, especially since I happen to come from there. He didn't wait much and went on:
“If you say you come from there, tell me the name of your capital.”
“Jerusalem”, I said, happy at the easy question. This was beginning to look like a quiz and sweet adrenaline ran through my skinny body.
“No way!”, said he. “It's Tel Aviv! Ha!”
We pingponged: Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Tel Aviv. The other boy backed him up: “Your capital is Tel Aviv!”, and added a new piece on the board: “And it's Palestine, not Israel!”
I knew Tel Aviv was not the capital of Palestine, and to the best of my knowledge, neither was Jerusalem. But they were so vehement. I thought for a moment. All I could use as a response was the historical facts I knew:
“It used to be Palestine, but now it's the State of Israel. Palestine is the name of la Tierra Santa, the Holy Land, but the State is Israel”. Feeling encouraged but what I took as ironclad logic correcting the mix-up, I added: “And its capital is Jerusalem! Why, I even have an aunt living there, so I know what I am talking about.”
The boys grunted loudly and motioned my friend to come with them, back to the other side of the pool. And then, as they made their way to were their family was, the older one turned his head back towards me and yelled: “And your president has a funny hat!”

I really had no idea what sort of headgear our president might prefer. In fact, I didn't even know we had a president. I went to where my parents were sitting with some Jewish friends and asked my mother: “Do we have a president? Is it true he has a funny hat?” My mother laughed and told me that in fact we do have a president and told me his name. She made no reference to hats. When I told her about the argument I'd just had she told me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had started – so she explained in her meticulous way – in 1882, when we started to return to the Land of Israel after 2000 years.


moon said...

You do remember so vividly the painting you made back then,
do you still have it, other then engraved in your mind?
did your mom kept it?
can you draw it again, for us to see? :)

So sad to see the vice, penetrating kids world, and to realize, that our violent existence forced it self into their lives so brutally.

I can't forget the sad tragedy of the Palestinian child, holding a toy gun this week - that cause him to be shut to death by Israeli soldiers, and so many tragedies as this little boy one, that happened and is shattering.

i will end by, directing you to a blog of an Israeli photographer, that made some photos of her daughter playing in the yard with a neighbor girl friend of hers, an Arab, who lives near by.
hope is in their eyes, and only by living and believing and over coming the tragedy with Hopes and Actions!, will we be able to make the life of both countries livable

Noam and Ranha:

Anonymous said...

A few months ago I needed to change the front headlights in my car and the mechanic recommended I drove to that area as ‘it was filled with junkyards owned by Arabs and your being dark, they will believe you are one of them and will give you a good price’.
I called several offices and finally found one who had what I needed.The man who had answered the phone spoke very bad Swedish and I understood from his dialect that his was an Arab, most likely from Lebanon. I felt secure and safe. At least not a Palestinian, I thought to myself.
The junkyards’ street was filled with Arab names: Yussof’s Cars, Mustafas’ details, Achmeds’ retails etc.
Being a woman, and knowing they will look at me wondering whether I am an Arab or a Jew, I did not feel very comfortable but I needed the headlights…I drove down that street and finally approached the M’s junkyard.
Standing there, surrounded by young Arabs working and listening to a tape produced in a mosque and extaling jihad, mumbling AllahuAkbar, I felt the fear growing within me and started considering leaving the place without my headlights.
The guys spoke in Arabic and from time to time would look at me.
The owner and I started chatting about how it feels living in Sweden, the differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’ (foreigners) when one of the young guys who had worked in the garage came in and started talking in Arabic to the owner telling him he should consider charging me extra since I ‘did not understand anyway’.
I looked at the young guy and smiled.
The inevitable question came up: where are you from? I answered with a question: where are you from? Yes. The owner answered: We are Palestinians. Oh, I said, what part? He answered: Lebanon.
He added: “Our father is originally from Magdel Shams, near Akko. He left the country 1946 because he married his first wife. He has 4 wives, all Lebanese.”
The young guy looked at me with inquiring eyes and finally asked the BIG question: Were you born in Sweden? I replied: No, I actually come from Israel.
There is no such country, he shouted at me. There is no Israel! Well, I replied, you say you are a Palestinian and as far as I know there is no such country.
I wished I had not said a word. But, it was too late. The words had been said.
The young guy kept on talking when I suddenly looked at him straight in the eyes and said: Listen, I came to buy headlights not to argue with you. Is it possible to get a cup of coffee here?
I got my first cup and by the second cup I told him my parents were from Yemen which actually means I am an Arab, just like him.


ps. Thanks:)

Hattori Hanzo said...


Just want to say that growing up in Syria, they used to teach us in school that Israel wanted to annihilate the arabs. They even came up with a slogan for Israel which goes (translated losely by me) "Your borders Israel, are from the Euphrates to the Nile". It rhymes well in arabic, so it worked out pretty well for them.