THE ROAD TO TAMRA
The road to the other side of Israel is not signposted. It is a place you rarely read about in your newspapers or hear about from your television sets. It is all but invisible to most Israelis. In the Galilee, Israel’s most northerly region, the green signs dotted all over the highways point out the direction of Haifa, Acre and Karmiel, all large Jewish towns, and even much smaller Jewish communities like Shlomi and Misgav. But as my taxi driver, Shaher, and I look for Tamra, we ﬁnd no signs–or none until we are heading downhill, racing the other trafﬁc along a stretch of dual carriageway. By a turn-off next to a large metal shack selling fruit and vegetables is a white sign pointing rightwards to Tamra, forcing us to make a dangerous last-minute lane change to exit from the main road. Before us, stretching into the distance, is a half-made road, and at the end of it a pale grey mass of concrete squats within a shallow hollow in the rugged Galilean hills. Shaher looks genuinely startled. “My God, it’s Tulkaram!” he exclaims, referring to a Palestinian town and refugee camp notorious among Israelis as a hotbed of terrorism.
A few weeks earlier, in November 2002, I had run the removals company in Tel Aviv to warn them well in advance of my move to Tamra, a town of substantial size by Israeli standards, close to the Mediterranean coast between the modern industrial port of Haifa and the ancient Crusader port of Acre. Unlike the communities I had seen well signposted in the Galilee, Tamra is not Jewish; it is an Arab town that is home to twenty-ﬁve thousand Muslims. A fact almost unknown outside Israel is that the Jewish state includes a large minority of one million Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship. Making up a ﬁfth of the population, they are popularly, and not a little disparagingly, known as “Israeli Arabs.” For a Jew to choose to live among them is unheard of. In fact, it is more than that: it is inconceivable.
When I told my left-wing friends in Tel Aviv of my decision, all of them, without exception, were appalled. First they angrily dismissed my choice, assuming either that it was a sign of my perverse misunderstanding of Middle Eastern realities or that it was a childish attempt to gain attention. But as it became clear that my mind was made up, they resorted to more intimidatory tactics. “You’ll be killed,” more than one told me. “You know, the Arabs are friendly to start with, but they’ll turn on you,” advised another. “You’ll be raped by the men,” said one more. Finally, another friend took me aside and conﬁded darkly, “I have a telephone number for a special unit in the army. They can come in and get you out if you need help. Just let me know.”
The woman at the removals company was less perturbed. “Will it be possible for you to move me from Tel Aviv to Tamra?” I asked, concerned that as far as I could discern, no one was living as a Jew inside an Israeli Arab community. I told her that if they had a problem with the move, they should tell me now. “Madam, we will deliver your belongings to anywhere in the state of Israel,” she reassured me.
I arranged for Shaher, whom I had used often in Tel Aviv, to collect me from my apartment on the day of the move. On the two-hour journey north we would lead the way in his taxi, with the removal truck following behind. Shaher phoned the day before to reassure me. “I have been looking carefully at the road map and I’ve devised a route to the Galilee which won’t involve passing too many Arab villages,” he told me. “But we are heading for an Arab town,” I reminded him. “Why on earth would I be worried about the route?” Shaher did not seem to get my point.
We set off early the next day. Shaher was soon announcing, unbidden, his concern over my move to Tamra. What followed was a surreal exchange, the ﬁrst of many such conversations I would have with taxi drivers and other Jews I met after I started living in Tamra. “So why are you moving there?” he asked several times, apparently not persuaded by my reply each time: “Because I want to.” Finally he changed tack: “You know it’s an Arab area?” Yes, I said, I think I know that. “So have you got an apartment there?” Yes. “How did you get an apartment?” I rented it, I said, just as I had done in Tel Aviv. Under his breath I could hear him muttering, “But it’s an Arab area.” Then suddenly, as though it were a vital question he should have asked much earlier, he said, “Do you have a gun?” Why would I need a gun? I asked. “Because they might kill you.” I told him he was talking nonsense. Silence separated us until his face changed again. “Ah,” he said, “you must be working for the government and I didn’t know it.” No, I said, I work just for myself. “But it’s an Arab area,” he said again. It was a cold winter’s day, but by the time we reached the road into Tamra I could see Shaher starting to break into a sweat. In a ﬁnal offer of help, he said, “Susan, you have my telephone numbers. If you need to come back to Tel Aviv, just call me.”
We followed the only proper road in Tamra to the central mosque and then negotiated our way up a steeply sloping side street till we reached my new home, hidden down a small alley. I was renting the top-ﬂoor apartment in a three-storey property belonging to a family I had already befriended, the Abu Hayjas. Several members of the family came out to greet me, including the matriarch of the house, Hajji, and one of her granddaughters, Omayma. I went into the ground-ﬂoor apartment and had been chatting for maybe twenty minutes when Omayma interrupted. “Susan, why don’t they get out and start moving your furniture?” I went to the door and looked at the removal truck for the ﬁrst time since we had entered Tamra. The two young men sitting in the cab looked as if they were afﬂicted with total paralysis. I turned to Omayma and replied, only half jokingly, “Because they think you are going to eat them.”
I went over to the truck, knocked on the closed window, and told them it was time to get to work. They didn’t look convinced, and could only be coaxed out when Hajji proved the natives’ hospitality by bringing a pot of coffee, two cups and some biscuits and placing them on a table close to the truck. Once out in the street, the removal men opened the back of the truck and did the job in no time, running up and down the stairs with the boxes. Finished, they hurried back into the truck and raced down the steep street towards the mosque and on to freedom. I never saw them again. The reinforced cardboard packing boxes they were supposed to return for a week later remained in my spare room, uncollected, for weeks. Eventually I rang the company. “I’m sorry, but they won’t come back to an Arab area just for the boxes,” said the woman I spoke to.
It started to dawn on me that I had crossed an ethnic divide in Israel that, although not visible, was as tangible as the concrete walls and razor-wire fences that have been erected around the occupied Palestinian towns of the West Bank and Gaza to separate them from the rest of the country. Nothing was likely to be the same ever again.
I had no intention of hiding from Tamra’s twenty-ﬁve thousand other inhabitants the fact that I was a Jew. But from the moment I arrived in the town to teach English, I began redeﬁning my identity, as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a human being. The ﬁrst and most apparent change was that I was joining a new family, the Abu Hayjas, who immediately accepted me as one of their own, as integral to the family’s life as any new daughter-in-law. In keeping with Arab tradition, I was soon renamed Umm Daniel (Mother of Daniel), after my son, a status conferred on older, and wiser, parents.
The family I live with is small by Tamra’s standards, consisting of only six other members. The eldest is the widowed Fatima, sixty-eight years of age and called Haj ji by everyone because she has completed the hajj to Mecca, one of the duties incumbent on all Muslims during their lifetime. She married at seventeen and lived with her husband for four years before he died. For a woman of her generation there was never any possibility that she could remarry, and so she has remained a widow all her adult life. Hajji has two children, a son and a daughter, but in Arab tradition only the son stays in the family home after marriage, while the daughter goes off to live with her new husband. So Hajji’s son, Hassan, ﬁfty, and his wife, Samira, forty-seven, live with her in the building, and the couple’s two unmarried grown-up sons, Khalil and Waleed, have their own apartments there in preparation for their marriages. Hassan and Samira’s two eldest daughters, Heba and Omayma, are married and so have left home to be with their new families, though they spend a large part of their time visiting their parents and helping in the house. That leaves only Suad, aged seventeen, the one daughter still at home.
Although that is the core of the family, it extends much further. Hajji’s own father married twice, so we have a vast network of aunts, uncles and cousins, and half-aunts, half-uncles and half-cousins, who come to visit and drink coffee with us in Hajji’s apartment. They are all related in complex patterns that I cannot even begin to unravel but that the rest of my family understands intimately. Unlike me, they are helped by a lifelong familiarity with their extensive family tree and by the Arabic language, which has adapted to accommodate these relationships in more sophisticated ways than English. Aunts, uncles and cousins have titles which denote the blood relationship to each parent’s side of the family. For example, the word “ami” tells any Arab child that one of his father’s sisters is being referred to, while “hali” reveals that one of his mother’s sisters is being identiﬁed. The English equivalent for both words, “aunt,” is far less helpful.
And then beyond the extended family there is the bigger family structure, known as the “hamula,” or clan. There are four main hamulas in Tamra–the Abu Hayja, the Abu Romi, the Diab and the Hijazi–with each controlling a portion of the town, its quarter. My own family, as its name suggests, belongs to the Abu Hayja hamula, which dominates the southern side of Tamra. The hamula system means that everyone in our neighbourhood is related to us, even if it is in some very distant fashion. The importance of the hamula cannot be overstated: it is the ultimate body to which members of traditional Arab society owe their loyalty. In the West the hamula, or tribal system, is seen as backward and a block to progress, but I soon realised that this is a gross simpliﬁcation. In Middle Eastern countries the tribe still fulﬁlls a positive role (one usurped in the West by the welfare state), ensuring that its members have access to land, housing, jobs, loans and a pool of potential marriage partners. The hamula is the best protector of its members’ rights, and it provides an impartial forum for arbitrating disputes. It is revealing that in Israel, where a strong welfare state has developed, at least for Jewish citizens, the hamula still plays an invaluable role in many Arab citizens’ lives. Because the state continues to behave as though the Arab citizens are not really its responsibility, many choose to rely on the traditional tribal structure for support.
The hamula serves other functions. It is a crucial point of social reference, a guarantor, if you like, of an individual’s good family name. For example, I soon noticed that when two Arabs met for the ﬁrst time, they would spend several minutes trying to establish a signiﬁcant mutual acquaintance. Evidently it was important for them to identify each other’s place in relation to the various hamulas. Sometimes there would be a series of “Do you know so and so?” questions until both parties could relax at the discovery of a common bond; things could be tense if it took them some time to reach that point. Now, when people are introduced to me, they ask similar questions of me and are reassured by my link to the good name of the Abu Hayja hamula and my immediate family.
For me, as for the rest of my family, the centre of gravity in our lives is to be found in a single ﬁgure: Hajji. Her ground-ﬂoor apartment is where we often congregate for food, and I like to sit with her on a stool outside her front door ﬁrst thing in the morning while she makes us strong black Arabic coffee over a stove. The ritual of coffee-making is taken very seriously in all Palestinian households, and Hajji is an expert practitioner. Over a gas ﬂame she dissolves a home-made mixture of coffee and cardamom powder with water and sugar in a small open pot. Just before the liquid boils over she pulls it away from the heat, stirs it until it settles and then heats it again, repeating this process up to half a dozen times. Finally the pot is left standing for ﬁve minutes, with a saucer over the top, as the sludge sinks to the bottom. When the coffee is ready, it is poured into tiny cups.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Other Side of Israel by Susan Nathan. Copyright © 2005 by Susan Nathan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.