Neighbors

 

Neighbors

By Susan Susser

 

In the early years after I moved to Israel, the Arab women in the English classes I taught at university did not come to school wearing a hijab. They dressed in jeans and t-shirts and summer dresses in bright colors. Maybe this is what led me to think that my friendship with Amna could be simple and straightforward. There was little in her outward appearance to discourage closeness. She liked burgundy and deep brown colors which accentuated her olive complexion. Her hair was a wavy, thick, ebony-black that fell loosely over her shoulders. Her eyes were large and darkened with kohl, but she used no lipstick. There was a strength in her face, in the curve of her cheekbones and around her mouth.
 
We met in the maternity ward where I stayed after giving birth to my daughter, Daphna. This was in the 1980s when babies were brought in at feeding times, then whisked away so their moms could rest. Curtains around the beds were rarely drawn and comradery among the women developed easily as a result.
 
Amazingly, Daphna’s birth occurred exactly on my husband’s birthday. Ben sat on the edge of my bed, bursting with excitement. “Can you believe it, Miriam? This is definitely the best birthday gift I’ve ever gotten!” He spoke so loudly that both Amna, who was in the bed next to mine, and Taher, her husband, looked up. Amna had just given birth to her son, Mahmoud.
 
“Here’s something else you’ll find hard to believe,” Taher (to whom we’d just been introduced) called over to us in Hebrew. “My son, Mahmoud, was born on my birthday, too.”
 
“No!” Ben said. “Imagine the odds. Two women in the same room with two babies and two fathers all with the same birthday!”
 
“Hard to believe,” Taher agreed.
 
The first thing I had noticed about Taher was his row of straight white teeth, in stark contrast to his black mustache and shock of dark hair. I’d taught Arab men at university, but never anyone as handsome. He reminded me of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, with his mischievous smile and easy confidence. “Your Hebrew is excellent,” I told him. “So much better than mine.”
 
“Well, that’s no surprise,” he laughed. “I grew up here.”
 
I nodded.
 
“Where are you from?” he asked.
 
“America,” Ben said. “We live in Kfar Saba now.”
 
“Ah,” Taher said. “We’re from Tira. Close by.”
 
After our husbands left, I replayed our conversation in my mind. It had seemed so natural: two couples sharing their joy. But we were Jewish and they were Arab. Yet unlike many Israeli Jews, I was used to interacting with the Arab citizens of this country. In the English classes I taught, Arab students talked about their culture: the customs of Ramadan, the importance of the clan, Muslim wedding rituals. I’d been invited to a family dinner in Tayibe and I’d attended a wedding in Kafr Qara. I cherished these moments when the hostility between our peoples was pushed aside and we could meet as equals.
 
I thought about Amna as I lay on my side facing her. Her husband, Taher, had chatted with us so easily, but she hadn’t said much. Did she have other children? A profession? I hoped she would speak with me now.
 
“How was the birth?” I asked her when her gaze finally met mine.
 
“This is my eighth child,” she sighed. “Enough.” Then she smiled, and her eyes revealed a tenderness around the corners.
 
When the babies were brought in, Amna took her son, held him to her breast, and smiled down as he latched on to nurse. My attempt at nursing little Daphna was less skillful and it took a while before she began to suck. This didn’t surprise me. Mothering had never come easily to me. True, I already had my three-year-old daughter, Keren. But throughout her development, I’d spent so much time worrying that I’d hardly been able to enjoy her growing up. My own mother hadn’t been much of a model. She and Papa worked long hours at their small grocery store. By the time they’d got home, they’d had little patience for me.
 
I suppose one of the things that drew me to Amna was the ease with which she handled her new baby. But it was more than this. She also knew how to take care of herself. I noticed this later that day. We were both suffering from the stabbing pain of post-natal contractions. I lay in bed and moaned. But Amna forced herself to sit up and slide into her slippers. “I’m going to make myself some tea,” she told me. She was taking the initiative, doing something to make herself feel better. I admired her for this.
 
By breakfast the next morning, we both felt well enough to eat in the dining room. Amna chose an empty table and I joined her. As we began our breakfast, I noticed a group of women sitting at a table along the opposite wall. They were looking in our direction and whispering to each other. I winced as I heard one of them mutter, “Who do they think they are, coming to our hospitals as if they belong here?” I hoped Amna didn’t hear what the woman had said. She seemed to be concentrating on her meal. Or was she pretending not to notice?
 
I’d grown up in America hearing racist remarks about black people. But when I tried to compare the prejudice they faced to the situation of Arabs in Israel, my husband, Ben, disagreed. “The black/white analogy from America doesn’t work when it comes to Israel,” he told me. “Arabs deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In their minds, Jews are foreign settlers who have robbed them of their land. Do you know how many Jews have been killed by Arab terrorists?”
 
“Yes, but the Arab citizens of Israel have not been the perpetrators,” I argued. “Some of them have also been hurt in terrorist attacks.”
 
“Look, Miriam,” Ben said. He spoke slowly and there was sadness in his voice. “They may be Arab citizens of Israel, but they also identify as Palestinians. From their point of view, Jews are responsible for what they consider to be the catastrophe of ’48, the war that forced their relatives to flee their homes. Is it any wonder their loyalty is suspect?”
 
“But they are citizens nevertheless,” I protested. “They work in Israeli companies, study at Israeli schools and universities, vote in Israeli elections. They’re a part of this country.”
 
“A part of this country that is not trusted,” Ben sighed. “Even Jews from Arab countries experience scorn – ‘so primitive, uncultured, ignorant’ – not to mention the way the term ‘Arab work’ is used to mean ‘shoddy work’.”
 
I argued with Ben. “But we can educate against this,” I insisted.
 
“La di da di da…Why can’t we all just get along?” he teased me.
 
 
The next day, when Ben came to visit in the afternoon, Taher was already sitting on a foldout chair by the side of Amna’s bed. I noticed that his jeans were splattered with mud. As if he sensed what I was looking at, he told us he’d just come from working in the fields and hadn’t yet managed to change his clothes.
 
“I teach agriculture in the elementary school in Tira,” he explained. “Today I was teaching the kids how to weed.”
 
“Wow, agriculture wasn’t even taught in my school in New York,” I said.
 
“Really?” Tahir raised his eyebrows in surprise.
 
“You have a great job,” Ben said. “I’m an accountant. My work is indoors. But any chance I get, I love puttering in the garden. Frankly, it’s what keeps me sane.”
 
“Come to Tira one day and I’ll give you some tips,” Taher offered.
“Be careful. I might take you up on it,” Ben joked.
 
“Any time,” Taher said.
 
 
Early the next day, after Amna and I had packed our belongings, we kissed each other on both cheeks and wished each other well. “I hope we’ll see each other again,” I told her. “We’re almost neighbors, after all.”
 
Insha’Allah,” Amna said with a smile. “God willing,” she added in Hebrew.
 
Was she simply being polite at that moment? It crossed my mind that the two days we’d spent together in the maternity ward may have meant more to me than they did to her.
 
 
I don’t remember what gave me the idea of hosting a joint birthday party for the two babies, Daphna and Mahmoud, and their fathers. It had been almost a year since we’d last seen Amna and Taher, but I hadn’t forgotten them. The babies were almost a year old now and memories of our excitement over so many birthdays falling on the same day came flooding back. I wondered if it would be possible to...
 
“No, it’s not because they’re Arabs,” I told Ben when he questioned my motives. “I really liked Amna, and Taher seemed very friendly when we spoke.”
 
Ben gave me a skeptical look.
 
“Well maybe also because they’re Arabs,” I admitted. “If we Jews and Arabs are ever going to stop being afraid of one another, we’ll have to start by becoming friends.”
 
“You don’t know how they think, Miriam,” he warned me. “For all you know, they may support Palestinian terrorism. They may think a suicide bomber is simply a freedom fighter who…”
 
“Okay, okay,” I interrupted him. I was thinking of my colleague, Widad, who despite having studied at the Hebrew University, had made it clear she wished the State of Israel did not exist. “My grandfather’s land was confiscated in 1948 and given to Jews,” she’d told me. “Today my family and I are citizens of Israel. We obey its laws. Do we wish we could get our land back? Yes. Do we wish this were not a Jewish country? Of course.”
 
This hadn’t been easy for me to hear. But I knew that if I’d been in Widad’s place, I would feel the same way. Our history and our allegiances were entirely different. Yet Widad and I continued to work well together. We’d recently co-authored a research article which was accepted for publication. Wasn’t this co-existence? Didn’t it prove that despite opposing political views, friendship on a personal level was possible? “Someone has to try,” I told Ben.
 
But how could I contact them? The infrastructure for landlines was poor back then. I didn’t have a telephone and neither did Amna. Sending a written invitation was my only choice. I knew that most Arab villages in Israel did not have street names, so I addressed the letter in Hebrew to Amna Kassem, Tira Village, Israel. To my surprise, the letter was returned the next day. On the envelope was a handwritten instruction: Please write the husband’s name.
 
“I warned you about cultural differences,” Ben told me when he saw the stunned look on my face.
 
“Well, maybe so,” I said, raising my hands in mock surrender. “But Amna and Taher are teachers. They’ve studied at an Israeli university. There has to be common ground between us.”
 
I took a deep breath and readdressed the letter, hoping that this time it would arrive. To my delight, a warm response followed. A date was set and I ordered a cake. At the bakery, when I dictated the mix of Jewish and Arab names to be included on the topping, the clerk looked up in surprise. I couldn’t help but smile just then, for I knew how unusual this was. My city, Kfar Saba, was a city of Jews, while the neighboring village of Tira was exclusively Arab. I felt as if I were pushing against a barrier meant to keep us apart.
 
The party was scheduled for the evening of the actual birthday, which turned out to be a weekday. I prepared a small buffet of salads, bread, and cheese. When Amna and Taher arrived with little Mahmoud, we greeted each other warmly. Amna had brought a small pot of meat-filled vegetables. I worried that perhaps in her culture a more elaborate meal had been expected.
 
We sat around the living room and ate, Mahmoud on Taher’s lap, Daphna on one of Ben’s knees, and her sister, Keren, on his other. When I offered Amna a glass of grape juice, she hesitated. “Is this wine?” she asked. “No,” I smiled. I knew Muslims are forbidden to drink wine. “It’s just juice.” When it was time to serve the birthday cake, I took out my camera. In the photo I would look at often in the days to come, Amna and Taher were smiling. Yet something about the way they held themselves, sitting stiffly on the couch, gave an impression of cautiousness and a sense of uncertainty.
 
“Now you must come visit us,” Taher told us as we said goodbye by the door.
 
And indeed, not long afterwards, we visited Tira for the first time. Taher met us at the entrance to the village and guided us toward his house. As we drove along the main street, signs in large Arabic letters caught my eye. We drove slowly, watching out for passing donkeys pulling carts filled with old appliances. A strong fragrance of cardamom-spiced coffee filled the air. Older women in traditional dress crossed the street while carrying heavy baskets on their heads. “It’s only the older people who dress like this,” Taher told us. Turning off the main road, we drove along narrow, winding alleys, sometimes backing up carefully to allow room for a car coming in the opposite direction.
 
Amna met us at the door of her home, her face flushed with excitement. She kissed me on both cheeks and shook Ben’s hand, then she bent down and hugged my daughters, who responded warmly to her embrace. After serving cold drinks and introducing her children, she gave us a short tour of the village. “Yahud?” a stout woman in a white hijab and dark galabeya queried as we walked by. Amna nodded and answered something in Arabic, which I didn’t understand. Even the names of Amna’s children were hard for me to catch: Su’ad, Tariq, Esam, Malaak, Jamil, Samih, Marwa – simple  two-syllable names, yet I had to have them repeated many times before they settled in my brain.
 
After this, mutual back-and-forth visits continued. Becausesome of their children were old enough to babysit the younger ones, Amna and Taher were free to spend time with friends in the evening. Since neither of us had a telephone, they sometimes popped over unexpectedly. While we were used to people visiting without warning, the spontaneous appearance of Amna and Taher was not something I took for granted. “They obviously enjoy our friendship,” I told Ben. “You see, it’s possible.”
 
Over time, conversations between the four of us came to have a more natural feel. Taher shared stories of having been the only Arab in his class in a Jewish high school. “The best part of the day was being excused from Bible lessons,” he laughed.
 
“Didn’t your village have a high school?” Ben asked.
 
“Sure, but the level was awful, and my parents wanted me to get a good education.”
 
“Looking back, was it a good experience?” I asked him.
 
“Well, yes and no,” he said. “When I left school in Tira, my Arab friends dropped me. I didn’t mind so much because I made good friends at the Jewish school. But then, after graduation, when the Jewish kids went into the army, I ended up alone again.”
 
Amna told us she’d studied at a Baptist high school.
 
“Did they try to convert you?” I asked her, remembering the Evangelicals who’d roamed my college campus back in New York.
 
“No,” she said, smiling at my question. “Never.”
 
Daphna and Keren sometimes interrupted our talk. They’d become attached to Amna, and would refuse to go to sleep unless she came into their bedroom to hug them good night.
 
One day, Keren returned from pre-school crying.
 
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I asked her.
 
“Eitan Etzioni said that Arabs are bad and they all want to come here and kill us.”
 
Apparently, Keren had told her friend about Amna. This was his response.
 
Explaining to Keren that there are bad Arabs and good Arabs, just as there are good Jews and bad Jews came easily to me. What continued to irk me were the derogatory comments Eitan’s father, my neighbor down the block, often made about Arabs. Not long ago, a young Arab boy had tried to steal his motorcycle, which was parked in front of his house. The boy had managed to start the motor and had begun driving away, but Eitan’s father ran after him, caught him in an empty lot nearby, and beat him up badly. Filthy Arabush is what he called the boy when he retold the story.
 
What confused me most of all was that Eitan’s father was not a bad man at all. When my car battery died just as he was pulling out of his driveway to leave for work, he didn’t think twice before stopping to attach his cables between our two cars and get mine started again. And when my washing machine broke down after Daphna was born, he fixed it free of charge. He was a down-to-earth man with a joke up his sleeve and an ear-to-ear smile, and I knew I could count on him for help at any time. Yet his prejudice against Arabs was like a vicious virus.
           
 
Our next visit to Tira was a spur-of-the-moment thing on a late Friday afternoon. Keren had been asking me when we would see Amna again and I’d suggested we all pop over then and there. When Amna opened the door, I was surprised to see her wearing a floor-length summer bathrobe. She looked weak and her face was pale. When Taher came to her side, I saw that he too looked under the weather.
 
“Oh, this isn’t a good time,” I immediately apologized as we stood by the door.
 
“No, please come in,” Amna insisted, urging us to follow her into the kitchen. It’s just that it’s Ramadan and we haven’t eaten all day. The sun sets so late during the summer, and it’s so hot. Not easy to fast.”
 
“Don’t worry,” Taher assured us. “It’s almost sundown and we can eat again soon.”
 
I could have kicked myself. During the school year, I would have known about Ramadan from my Arab students who would be fasting. But this was summertime and I’d been caught up in my own world.
 
While Ben was still standing by the door with our girls, I followed Amna into the kitchen. A sweet and pungent smell rose from the pot of rice mixed with yogurt that she’d been preparing for the break-the-fast meal. “We’ll come another time,” I told Amna.
 
“It’s all right,” she said. “Stay a while.”
 
But when I insisted, she nodded, admitting her fatigue. In the kindest, warmest, friendliest voice, she told me, “Right after Ramadan. We’ll meet again soon.”
 
I understood something when she said this. Something encouraging, heartening. Amna really meant every word she’d said. I could tell. Despite our differences, we had really become friends.
 
 
Not long after Ramadan ended, our South African neighbors approached all the families living in the two rows of duplex houses on our street. Would we allow them to host a bat mitzvah celebration for their daughter, where tables and chairs would be set up on the pavement in front of their house at the bottom of our sloping cul-de-sac? With much goodwill, everyone agreed.
 
On the evening of the celebration, Ben and I joined the neighbors, friends, and relatives of the bat mitzvah family, who were sitting at round tables illuminated by street lights between the two rows of houses. Food was abundant, tables lay adorned with vases of colorful flowers, and a buzz of excited chatter filled the air. We’d hired a babysitter for the evening so we could chat with the other guests and enjoy the event.
 
Our neighbor, Avi Epstein, was the first to greet us. “What a wonderful idea to have a party right here on our block!” He was a professor of Jewish history and he told us he had ended his class early to get home in time. His wife, Chava, joked that if word got out about our block party, we might set a trend. She was a school principal who sometimes needed my help translating articles written in English. The Azizis, our babysitter’s parents, joined us. They were carpet merchants from Iran and had given us a big discount on our living room rug. “Miriam, Ben, how good to see you both,” they said. “Our daughter, Talia, loves taking care of your little girls.”
 
When the bat mitzvah girl’s grandfather got up to speak, all eyes turned toward him.
 
“My dear granddaughter,” he began in European-accented Hebrew. “Tonight, we are celebrating your coming of age as a full-fledged member of our Jewish community. For too long we Jews have been a wandering people. Your grandmother and I were born in Lithuania. Both of your parents were born in South Africa. And you, my dear, were born here, in the Land of Israel. Our time of wandering is over.”
 
There was the sound of a car as it entered the cul-de-sac, and parked at the top of the sloping pavement in front of my house. Heads turned. I got up from my seat quickly and walked to the top of the slope to see who had come.
 
The bright lights that shone upon the celebration at the bottom of the hill did not reach the top. From a distance, the two figures standing in front of my house had a shadowy look. As I approached, their shapes became clearer. Amna and Taher had stopped by for a visit.
 
In the night air, beneath a starry sky, the three of us stood: Amna and Taher, who realized that a party was taking place, and me, unsure of what to do next. Should I invite the two of them to join the celebration, in spite of being merely a guest myself? I tried to imagine the scene: the looks I would see on the faces of the guests when they realized my friends were Arabs. What would they say? Would some get up and leave? The Azizis had lost a nephew in the Six Day War. Avi Epstein’s father was killed by an Arab workman he’d hired to help on his farm. “I was a child when this happened,” Avi had told me. “To this day, whenever I meet an Arab, a spark of fear rises inside me.” I knew that my South African hosts believed in co-existence, but in various conversations, other neighbors had voiced doubt that co-existence was possible. Recently, there had been signs of an Arab uprising against the Israeli occupation – there was throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails. Unrest was in the air. Not knowing how the celebrants would react scared me.
 
Yet not to invite Amna and Taher to join the party was not only impolite; it undermined the belief in co-existence which I’d been trying to sustain.
 
“Why don’t you join us?” I blurted out. My voice was tentative, my smile forced.
 
Taher turned toward Amna with a questioning look. But Amna looked straight at me and shook her head.
 
There was certainty in her face, in the smoothness of her brow, the tightness of her lips. “No,” they both said at once. “We’ll come another time.”
 
“Of course,” I said.
 
I waved to them as they drove away. Then I stood for a while by the jacaranda tree in front of my house. I remember waiting for my anger to rise. Anger at myself for my fearfulness. And at my Arab friends for turning away. But what I felt instead was my body relaxing, the rhythm of my breathing slowing down.
 
Back at the party, the guests were singing: “Siman tov u’mazel tov, mazel tov u’siman tov, yeheh lanu.” May auspicious signs and good luck be with us, u’lechol Yisrael, and with all of Israel. “All of Israel” – that included me, but not my Arab friends; my community, but not theirs. I realized that Amna and Taher had understood this, the sharp divide between what could be and what was.
 
“Who came?” Ben asked. He had walked up the hill to join me.
 
“Amna and Taher.”
 
“What happened?”
 
“They left,” I said, steeling myself against what I thought he must be thinking. Don’t say a word, I wanted to tell him – imagining, rather than seeing, his “I told you so” look. But there was no need. Ben just nodded.
 

Oh, Ben, I wanted to say, and longed to lean my head against his shoulder because the world around me had begun to spin. But I stood next to him quietly at the top of the hill and waited for the sensation to pass. 

         

Copyright © Susan Susser 2021

Susan Susser has taught English at Beit Berl Academic College in Israel for over thirty years. She has an M.A. in French Literature from Queens College in New York and is a graduate of the creative writing program at Bar Ilan University. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, Kaleidoscope, Tel Aviv Short Stories, Jewish Currents, Jewish Literary Journal, and Collages & Bricolages.


 

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