Striving for a Life of Normality in the Occupied West Bank
On the Simple (Yet Incredibly Complicated) Act of
Taking Children to the Beach
“Ana bahib al-bahar,” I love the sea, the girl said. They were walking, stumbling along, on the sand, four children and one grown woman. Backs, shoulders, and hands were laden with backpacks and bags, the woman’s hand and shoulder were pulled down by the weight of a blue picnic cooler, and a red sunshade protruded from under one of the children’s arms. Halfway, in the middle of all this discomfort, 12-year-old Nur stopped in her tracks and announced that she loved the sea.
“Ana bahib al-bahar,” she said, and the other four who were walking, stumbling, stood too and stared at her and then at the sea, still a bit distant but lying before them, and Nur stood motionless and gazed at it. The drive from her village to the beach lasted no more than an hour and a quarter, but she had never seen the sea before, nor had her eight-year-old brother Mohammad, nor her cousins, ten-year-old Samir and seven-year-old Yasmine. These vast marvelous expanses, the waves breaking and foaming and disappearing and gently gathering to the shore, the intense blue under the afternoon sun whose heat was now receding, the breeze fluttering over arms and faces—all this goodness and beauty were not meant for them or their parents under the circumstances into which they were born.
The woman and the four children with her had crossed the military checkpoint near the entrance to their village in her red Ford Fiesta without stopping or being stopped. She had no idea what the rules and regulations said in these parts: were children, too, subject to the orders written on the large red sign in front of the checkpoint, announcing that this crossing is exclusively for Israelis?
No, she really didn’t know—perhaps children were allowed even if they were not Israelis? There was a rumor going around along those lines, she had even heard it in the village, but she still felt her stomach contract and her knees tremble as the car approached the soldiers’ post. She feared that the whole happy plan for this Friday would simply end, vanish like a dream, after the children—and she too in fact—had counted the minutes until it became real, so their parents told her. Indeed, when she had arrived at the village they were already waiting for her with their bundles at the foot of the steps to their house, not the hint of a smile on their faces, stiff with tension and uncertainty.
Yes, she too was nervous, afraid they would be stopped at the checkpoint, instructed to pull over, asked questions, and sent back. For a moment as they left the village, she thought of telling the children not to speak Arabic until they passed the checkpoint, as if they knew any other language. But they didn’t utter a word anyway, just sat there dumbstruck as she slowly approached the military post, her stomach contracted and her knees trembling, lowered her window, waved to the armed soldier, who signaled her to slow down even more and come to a full stop.
She gave him a broad amicable smile and a nod, assuring him that both of them, he and she, belonged to the same side, to this nation, the lords of this land, all of which the soldier presumed anyway in view of the car and the face of its driver, and he returned her smile and greeting, and asked, “Everything all right?” to make sure her accent was the right one too, not just her looks. “Fine, great,” she answered, but as he bent his head to get a look at the rest of the passengers through the car window, she stepped on the accelerator.
Come on, move, why pester me, let live, she said, or rather meant, and the soldier backed off to the side, was almost shoved back, and she drove on and gave a slanted look at the rear-view mirror and saw that he didn’t care. Ugh, who’s got the patience for all these annoyances? she thought. And into the silent space of the car she called out: “We’re in Israel!” and surprised herself with the cozy feeling she had at the sight of all the greenery as they approached Mevo Beitar and Begin Park, in contrast to the mucky yellowish tone of the bare hills and ranges to the east. “We got across, we’re in Israel! Going to the beach!”
All this was over. By now they had left checkpoint country far behind and even passed the pay booth at the entrance to Nitzanim Park, where no one wanted to check who and what they were, this woman and the quiet children with her, and simply received the entrance fees she paid. And she had found a space in the large car park at this beach, and all five of them had extricated themselves and their things from the car and begun to step silently across the sand toward the water.
It was then that Nur stopped in her tracks and declared: “Ana bahib al-bahar.” And the woman looked at her and at the three other children who stopped as well, in different poses, as though playing Statues when the child who is It turns around to see who is moving and will be out of the game. But the woman was looking at the four of them in order to fully experience the moment, its richness and meaning, the moment she had looked forward to so eagerly since the trip was planned: to see them seeing the sea for the first time ever.
Eyes wide open in surprise, beaming, lips slightly parted. A thread of saliva trickled from the corner of Yasmine’s mouth—she was the youngest, and apparently she hadn’t swallowed, Mohammad’s large dark eyes grew almost round with wonder, Samir looked as though he was about to burst out laughing, while Nur, almost an adolescent, was serious, longing, dreamy, her eyes looking far off.
That moment probably grew very long only in the woman’s own memory. In fact they must have hurried to find a spot among all the many people on the beach, the sunshades and chairs and mats and Styrofoam coolers and children and dogs and inflatable rings in all colors and sizes, among the sounds of portable radios and the clicks of wooden rackets hitting balls and shouts and talking in Hebrew and Russian and English, which would soon be mixed with the Arabic voices of Nur and Mohammad and Yasmine and Samir—for a little while they would still speak quietly among themselves so as not to stand out, but later they would forget and shout and yell at each other in these guttural tones that the elderly woman who accompanied them had such a hard time learning to pronounce correctly.
They fixed the red umbrella pole in the sand and spread a blanket in its shade. The woman told the children that here was their camp and they could put down their packs and bags and take off their shoes and go over to the changing stalls and change, and come back right away, and they must not go off without telling her and getting permission. They came back one by one, still obedient and disciplined. Nur now wore jeans and a T-shirt—she was only 12 and already obeyed the rules imposed on her gender in her society. Samir returned wearing bermuda shorts down to his knees, under which, when he finally began to scamper and skip around, a broad stripe of dark red underpants showed at his hips, giving him a rather fashionable look.
Only Mohammad and Yasmine came back in bathing apparel—he in short phosphorescent green bathing trunks and she in a yellow-green bathing suit decorated with a kind of yellow skirt so short that it could by no means be regarded as concealing anything, perhaps quite the contrary: a mischievous provocation meant to reveal rather than conceal, to display the cute body of a healthy little girl, still retaining some of its baby fat.
This detailed description is being written from memory based on the hasty notes she took soon after the trip, that is to say a long time ago—Nur has married since then and is about to conclude her university chemistry studies, Samir dropped out of school and is working at a garage as a mechanic’s apprentice, Mohammad is a high school senior and has grown up considerably since he appointed himself full caregiver to his elder brother, who was seriously injured in a traffic accident, and Yasmine has grown into adolescence and is not seen out of the house with her head uncovered.
Now that the woman realizes her memory has retained so many details, she wonders why she watched them so intensely back then, so precisely that their movements and speech and clothing have been preserved in her mind. She has no doubt that aside from being curious as to how their parents equipped them to spend their first trip ever to the beach, that careful gaze of hers had a practical purpose: to etch in her mind the appearance of every one of them and remember special marks so that she wouldn’t lose them, God forbid.
So that if they suddenly discovered their freedom in these expanses of sand and sea and get separated and distant and ran off each in a different direction, she would be able to catch them at least with her eyes, if not actually with her hands, which really wished at the time to hold them on a leash somehow in order to keep her promise to their parents to bring them back home that evening safe and sound. She had made them this promise without being asked, and they assured her they were not at all worried.
“Why worry? After all, the children are in your hands,” Nur’s father said and spread his own hands a little and then placed his right hand over his heart, and they knew they could rely on her as if she were their own mother. What nonsense, she thought—when had she ever had four children to look after at the beach, and what’s more, children who didn’t swim?
In the hours that followed, her careful gaze indeed helped her search and find them: the jeans and blue shirt on Nur’s slim body, standing out of course among the bare girls on the beach, and Yasmine’s very short yellow skirt, and the red strip of Samir’s red underpants, and Mohammad’s phosphorescent green bathing trunks, he who was the one to disappear from her view several times, as he was no different from several other children in green bathing trunks.
One, two, three, four, she repeatedly counted them at first, one, two, three, four . . . No, just three, where’s Mohammad? “Mohammad’s running over there”: Nur pointed. One, two, three, four . . . No, that’s not Samir, where’s Samir? “There’s Samir, buried in the sand,” Yasmine showed her.
But she also recalls, she remembers and knows that not just curiosity, not just some practical motive caused her to observe so carefully and to let her gaze linger over the four children. It was a yearning, a desire to see these children as normal children, whose smooth skin was shiny with sea water, children whose ice cream mixed with sand was getting smeared over their flushed faces by the kiosk, simply children at the beach.
For at home, in their village—where they are also simply normal children, in fact—she practically never saw them this way. From her point of view they were first of all part and parcel of that warped and distorted reality of a place fenced in with barbed wire and military jeeps driving to and fro along its main street, a place where armed soldiers often stop children on their way home from school to see if their hands show traces of hurled stones.
Reprinted with permission from A Small Door Set in Concrete: One Woman’s Story of Challenging Borders in Israel/Palestine by Ilana Hammerman, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2020 Ilana Hammerman. All rights reserved.