"Mommy is always crying," six year old Suha thought to herself as she came into the house and put her school bag away.
Her older brother Machmud pushed her out of his way, threw his back pack on the floor and entered the kitchen. "I'm hungry!" he declared.
Mommy was crying, but he didn't even glance at her. She served him his lunch and he gobbled it up, demanding more before Suha even finished half of hers.
"How was school?" Mommy asked, her red and swollen eyes caressing her beloved children.
Machmud didn't bother to answer. Suha ducked her head as she remembered the incident on the playground; she would wait until her brother wasn't in the vicinity before she told her mother about it.
Frightened wails from the children's bedroom told them that eighteen month old Maryam had woken from her nap. Mommy went to tend to her youngest child and Machmud helped himself to shvarma from Suha's plate. She had learned long ago not to protest her brother's outrages, and she wasn't very hungry anyway.
Only after Machmud left the table and ran outside to play with his friends did Suha clear and carry their dishes to the sink. She climbed on a low stool and washed and dried them and put them away. Mommy came in with the baby and smiled at her daughter's initiative. "How was school today, Suha?" she asked.
Suha hesitated, lowering her eyes. Hanna noticed. "Did something happen?"
Suha nodded and looked at the floor.
"Did you get in trouble for something?" her mother asked in surprise, because Suha was a very good little girl.
The child shook her head slightly to indicate that the answer was negative.
"You didn't know the answer in class?"
That made Suha laugh. She was the smartest girl in the first grade, and the darling of her teachers; but when she remembered the incident today her expression sobered.
"What happened, dolly?" Dolly was her mother's pet name for her, and Suha loved to hear it.
"There was a fight during recess," she admitted.
"A fight? Who was fighting?"
"Machmud and some others."
"How many others?"
"Four or five. Maybe more."
"What was the fight about?" Hannah didn't really care about boys' fights, but she was worried that Suha seemed so upset just because her brother had it out with some of his classmates. Machmud was a strong child and she was confident that he could take care of himself.
"I don't know." Her denial was not convincing.
"So why is it bothering you so much?"
Suha smiled for a second, loving her mother for understanding what she had not yet said, and then she took a deep breath and said the word she had heard, "Mommy, what's a Yahud?"
Hannah was stunned. "Who said it?"
"Everybody. The boys chanted it and Machmud wanted to kill them. Their sisters in my class were all saying it too. Mommy, what's a Yahud?" Her voice betrayed desperation.
Hannah put Maryam down to play on the floor and held her arms out to her big girl. Suha burst into tears, and Hanna sobbed with her. How could she explain to her little daughter that she and her children were Jewish, even though she had abandoned her birthright to marry their father?
After a few minutes Suha calmed. It felt good to be held in her mother's loving arms, to feel the smoothness of her dress against her cheek, and to hear Mommy's steady heartbeat against her ear. "I don't want to go back to school anymore," she whispered. "I hate them."
Hanna sighed and hugged her closer. She wished that she could protect her children, and felt guilty that it was her doing that their lives were destined for misery. Maryam was playing contentedly at her mother's feet, and Suha's even breathing told her that the child had drifted into sleep. Hanna looked out the window at the brilliant blue sky of Palestine and remembered.
She remembered herself as a teenager, self centered, rebellious and totally lacking in self confidence. Hannah had gone with her friends to the mall. It wasn't something that she especially wanted to do, but she didn't have the courage to stay away when her whole gang were so enthusiastic. Their loud talks interrupted frequently by raucous laughter, the group of girls had wandered in and out of shops, touching everything like toddlers, and trying on clothes they had no money to buy. Hanna had allowed herself to be swept along impetuously from one empty activity to the next.
At one point the group was sprawled over a café table, and they decided to order cokes which was all they could afford. A waiter came over to take their order. He looked like a movie star, tall and athletic with a golden tan and jet black curls that framed his face emphasizing his dark lashed brown eyes. Somehow her gaze met his and she quickly looked away. Suddenly Hanna was embarrassed at her girlfriends' giggles and gum popping, but they didn't notice her discomfort. The waiter smiled and made jokes with all of them. When he returned with their drinks on a tray he handed out the paper cups and on the one he gave to her was a note. She peeked inside and it said "Meet me here at eight o'clock".
She shouldn't have, and she didn't really mean to, but when she got home her parents were fighting and they yelled at her and she couldn't stand it so she left the house. Her feet brought her back to the mall, and somehow she wound up back at the café exactly at eight. The waiter greeted her with a broad smile that warmed her heart. It felt so good that someone was relating to her as a person. Hanna fell into his plans like a ripe fruit.
Ali didn't tell her at first that he was an Arab. He let her think that he was a Jewish boy from a Sephardic home. Over the next few weeks he spent a lot of money on the shy Jewish girl, taking her places to eat and buying her jewelry and magazines. Hannah believed him when he told her that he thought she was beautiful and intelligent and special. The emotional abuse at home and her feelings of inferiority at school receded into the distance when she was with Ali.
By the time he revealed his ethnic origins, it didn't seem especially important any more.
It's hard to keep secrets. Word got to her parents about the Arab she was seeing and they confronted her. With newfound confidence she retaliated verbally and told them what miserable people they were and how she hated them. Their response was to throw her out of their house and tell her they never wanted to see or hear from her again. The satisfaction she felt from finally speaking her mind was short lived. She had nowhere to go except back to Ali, and he welcomed her with open arms.
They were married in his village after she went through a ceremony that officially converted her to Islam. Ali knew how to assuage her conscience with sweet words and presents, and she was happy at first. A few months later things changed. Arab women are expected to live very restricted lives. They may never step out of their homes unchaperoned, they must fill their husband's desires without argument, and when in public they had to wear head coverings to hide their faces. Now that compliments and gifts were no longer necessary, Ali helped Hanna adjust to her new role with his fists. In her parent's home she had been unhappy, but nothing compared to the misery she now endured. She found herself missing her mother and father, brothers and sisters, even the exams at school—but she could not imagine returning to them. Staying with Ali was better than shamefully admitting her failure.
Hanna learned to adjust. "I can't bear the sound of a woman crying," her husband threatened, and so she obediently stifled her tears when he was around. From the early morning until the night she was occupied cleaning and cooking, washing laundry, hanging it up and bringing it in. There was no electricity in the house, and they had to use kerosene lamps for light. There was no telephone to contact the outside world. When Ali came home from work he never noticed that the floors were washed and the house was clean and orderly. He hardly even acknowledged her existence until she had poured water over his hands, given him a towel to dry them, and put his dinner plate on the table in front of him. In the beginning Hanna had been afraid that he would be disappointed.
"Is everything all right?" she would ask timidly. "Perhaps it needs more salt?"
Ali had regarded her sternly and answered, "If I eat it, it is good. If it is not good you will know it soon enough." She understood his intentions and every meal became an endurance test. Ali never complained, but he beat her whenever he was not satisfied.
Occasionally women from her husband's family came to visit. They sat in her living room and drank black coffee while they gossiped. From their high pitched chatter it seemed to Hanna that all of them had married men who mistreated them, as if it were self understood. Their complaints went around and around in circles in a kind of plaintive ritual punctuated by shrill laughter.
Things got a little better for awhile when Machmud was born. Ali took her to Siroka Hospital in Beersheva where many Arab women go to give birth. Afterwards the whole clan came to visit her and there was someone beside her bed at all times. They brought food and sat around eating and gossiping, heedless of her need to rest. There were Jewish women in her room too, but she was afraid to talk to them. With the constant presence of her Arab family, there was never an opportunity anyway. Hannah's husband brought her flowers and chocolates. Later when the girls were born Ali sat beside her stoically, but he didn't bring any presents.
The years passed in a blur. Hanna's only joy was her children. After he went to school, Machmud became increasingly distant except when he was sick or hurt or tired and then he let her cuddle him and sing lullabies that her grandmother had once sang to her. Sweet Suhu was a pleasure, such a bright child and always eager to please. Chubby baby Maryam was adorable. Hanna wondered if her parents knew that they were grandparents. She wished she could share their grandchildren with them, but knew it was out of the question. Her years in the village had opened her naïve eyes and taken away any hope she ever had of being happy.
Now Suha inadvertently informed her that her precious children would suffer because of her sins. Tears followed their regular tracks down her cheeks, and her heart was caught in a vise that squeezed it without mercy. The blue sky out her window was so beautiful. From somewhere up there G-d was looking down at her. She was sure He was punishing her for being unfaithful. "Hashem!" she suddenly cried aloud, "I deserve Your anger, but what did the children do?" Hanna's parents had not been religious, but their family observed traditions. Now the words of the Shema came to her lips. She could barely remember it, but she repeated over and over the parts that she knew by heart.
The next day while the children were in school Hanna took Maryam and went with her sister-in-law to the shuk. As she chose vegetables to put into her basket, her eyes were drawn to a heavyset woman she didn't recognize. The woman's eyes were following her intently, and Hanna sensed something kind about her. Hanna smiled, but of course it couldn't be seen through her head covering. Instinctively she moved nearer to the stranger and was surprised to see the woman bend over a bin nearby and gesture for her to approach.
"You are Hanna Levy, from the Kiryah?" the woman asked in a soft whisper.
Hanna startled. "Yes," she whispered back.
"I can get you out of here if you want," her words electrified Hanna.
Hanna looked around furtively to make sure that no one was watching. It was just a routine day. The few people in the shuk were each intent on their own business, and no one paid attention to a woman with a baby speaking to another woman. "I could never leave my children," Hanna whispered hopelessly.
"We can get them out too, bezras Hashem."
"I work for Yad L'Achim, an organization that helps Jewish girls like yourself."
Hanna's heart was beating so hard she was sure it was audible to everyone in the shuk.
She had to think fast. If she stayed too long in one place, someone would suspect something. She moved a few rows over to choose tomatoes and cucumbers. The strange woman passed by on her way to the tubs of olives, accidentally on purpose dropping a folded note into Hanna's basket. Hanna swiftly transferred it to her pocket to read later, the glimmer of hope competing with abject terror in her heart.
That night she read and reread the message until she knew it by heart, and then Hanna burned the paper and surreptitiously scattered the ashes in the flowerpots in her courtyard. She looked out the front window at the narrow unpaved road meandering between the crowded flat roofed houses and imagined leaving this village forever. It took her breath away to visualize it. Could it be true, could she start over with a new life? She looked up at the velvety black sky sparkling with stars. "Hashem," she whispered, "Are you answering my prayers? I promise that if I get out of here with my children, I will come back to You. I will learn how to keep Your mitzvahs and I will raise my children to be religious. I promise!"
The woman's name was Laila, or maybe that was an alias. She spoke Arabic without any accent. Hannah guessed that Laila was Jewish and had escaped from an Arab husband. Now she was endangering her life to help others still trapped in the villages. Her message had explained that Yad L'Achim would be willing to help her if she wanted to get away. In another week a man by the name of Habib would be in the village and Hanna only had to pass him a note with her acceptance. They would do the rest. She would be contacted as soon as a plan was formed.
Ali noticed a difference in his wife, and it made him suspicious. He had her watched closely over the next few days, but nothing in her behavior changed. The night before Hanna was supposed to meet Habib, her husband entertained a group of men. Dressed in her headcovering she served them refreshments and quickly went into the kitchen. From there she could hear their vocal discussion and the subject froze her blood.
"It is time to take revenge!" Jalil proclaimed. "The cursed Israelis do not understand negotiations. They only understand spilled blood."
"We have a plan." Hanna recognized the high, warbly voice of Khalid. "The Israelis have a weakness for children. Jalil has prepared a schoolbag with explosives. It's not too heavy for an eight year old to carry."
"We have a special belt for him as well!" Jalil added.
Suddenly Hanna realized that they were talking about her Machmud. "NO!" she screamed, and then clapped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late. "Oh no, no," she whispered as her husband's form appeared in the door. He was so angry that his face was red and his eyes seemed to shoot sparks. Ali raised his hand and the slaps could be heard from where the men sat in the living room. Hanna didn't scream. She didn't want to wake the children, and she knew already that none of the adults would come to her aid. She fell on the floor and curled up into a ball, absorbing the blows until her husband was satisfied that his point had been clearly made.
If she didn't know that Habib would be there tomorrow, she would not have lived through the night. Now it was imperative to get her children away from here as soon as possible. The hours lasted much longer than sixty minutes as Hanna waited for the appointed time. Habib was right where Laila had told her. She gave him the signs as she had been instructed and he nodded imperceptibly and left.
The next day she spotted Laila in the shuk. In the few minutes they managed to whisper a few words together, Hanna told her new friend where her husband worked and when he was supposed to be away from the village. Laila told her to pack and be ready. Tomorrow she would be free!
The next morning Machmud woke up with a fever. Hanna got permission from her husband to take a taxi to the Health Clinic. She kept Suha home from school and filled the children's school bags with their clothes instead of books. Mid morning the small family group trudged out to the main road where a taxi with Arabic license plates was idling. The driver was Habib, and Laila was sitting in the back seat to welcome them. Hanna felt that she had never been so happy in her life as she cradled her sick son on her knees and stroked her frightened daughter's hands. The taxi sped away, taking Hanna and her children to a safe house where they would be protected from her husband's rage when he discovered that they were gone.
They lived in several such houses over the next year, moving periodically to make sure Ali could not follow after them. Hanna and the children changed their names. Machmud was Moshe, Suha was Sarah, and Maryam became Miriam. At first it was very hard. Machmud especially missed his doting father, and hated all the changes. It took months before he began speaking Hebrew and answering to his new name, but the warm treatment the family received from the Yad L'Achim workers overcame his hostility in the end.
Hanna was beside herself with joy when her children were considered acclimated enough to go to a regular Israeli school. They had learned Hebrew sufficiently to communicate, and their appearance and behavior were the same as any regular Jewish child. "I want my children to attend a religious school," Hanna requested of Leila, who was more than pleased to consent. A week after Moshe bravely underwent his bris milah, he proudly entered his new school with a yarmulke on his head and tzitzis dangling under his shirt. Hanna stood to the side with Leila as the teacher welcomed her son to the third grade class, unable to hide her tears of happiness. She looked out the windows at the beautiful blue sky and whispered, "I kept my promise. Thank you, Hashem. Please continue taking care of us, and please bring home all the other girls like me. Bring us all back to You!"