From Arab to Palestinian Israeli

By | Oct 27, 2011

Unlike Shams’ apolitical tight-knit working-class family, these young Palestinian men and women came from highly politicized families from the Arab Galilee, many of them long-time activists in the Hadash—the Communist party—or Arab parties. And their Arabic was more literate. Having grown up in Jaffa, so close to Tel Aviv, hers is jumbled with Hebrew phrases and words, and her written Hebrew is better than her written Arabic. “I could connect to them but I did not feel a sense of 100 percent belonging,” she says.

As she grew more politically aware, she started feeling isolated from her family. Finally, she found a job at a nonprofit organization called Windows that promotes interaction between Jewish and Arab youth. Shams, the administrative director, works with director Rutie Atsmon, a Jewish woman, and helps oversee the magazine her young charges produce in both Hebrew and Arabic. The 12- to 16-year-olds tackle thorny issues that they must write about together, such as the shared anniversary of Independence Day and the Nakba [“catastrophe” in Arabic] and the recent war in Gaza.

With time, and through her work at Windows, she has gained a clearer sense of who she is: “I am a mixture of everything and that’s okay. It’s a result of how history evolved—I have a new identity and that’s okay,” she says.

Shams has inherited her mother’s deep olive skin and ropey curls and the glints of hazel in her brown eyes, but not her even temperament. Mariam Edris moves languidly from room to room. A smoker like most of the family, her low voice has a raspy huskiness.

Born and raised in Jaffa, Mariam grew up largely unaware of military rule and its restrictions, although her father, Khaled, must have worked hard to convince the authorities to grant him permits to move from Umm-el-Fahm to Jaffa. She remembers an idyllic childhood growing up in the streets of Jaffa, where Arab children—both Muslim and Christian—mixed seamlessly with Jewish children whose parents were recent immigrants from countries like Bulgaria, Syria and Morocco.

“There was no discrimination. There was naïveté. There was fun. We played together—jump rope, hopscotch,” she tells me, smiling at the memories as she dishes out generous portions of her mother’s maklube chicken (a traditional Palestinian dish that includes rice and pine-nuts) from an industrial-sized metal cooking pot.

Mariam’s teachers were almost entirely Jewish immigrants from Iraq who could teach in Arabic, since most native Arab teachers had left in 1948. “What helped me be so open to the world is that I grew up in such a mixed setting,” she says. As for the trauma of war her parents had experienced less than a decade before her birth, she says they didn’t speak about it much.

“They did not say it, but we knew where we had come from and why we were now here,” she says. “But who really suffered? Not us, but the refugees who left the country and were left without money, without homes. I would sometimes think that it could have been me who ended up in Lebanon.”

Having grown up in a traditional home, she was taken out of school when she reached puberty at age 12. “My parents were scared someone would look at me the wrong way and do something bad,” she says. Mariam was relieved when her father refused a marriage offer for her when she was 13, the age her mother married.

But at 18, when the handsome and fun-loving Ahmed Kalboni, a local restaurant owner, asked for her hand, she was ready to marry, seeing it as her ticket into the world. After 14 years of marriage and four children, they divorced, a fairly uncommon occurrence in Arab homes, even more modern ones like theirs.

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