Life With Jamila


JAFFA What a week! I’ve been a nervous wreck. No, not about the escalating violence, the scores and scores of people blown to bits. And not about the way both the Israelis and the Palestinians have abandoned “an eye for an eye” and now practice “a baby for a baby.”

Those things make me angry, not nervous.

The problem is my kid, Jamila. OK, she isn’t really my kid, but we pretend. I “adopted” her or she “adopted” me five years ago, when she was 15.

I met Jamila through my friend Hila, a social worker at an Arab girls’ center in Jaffa. (Jamila and her family’s names have been changed for this story.) Hila told me about an extremely bright girl who wanted to drop out of school because she didn’t have any decent clothes. Could she come and iron for me to earn some money? Well, I haven’t ironed anything since I was 15, so I suggested that she give me Hebrew lessons instead.

Jamila thought teaching Hebrew would be easy. She didn’t know me. Our lessons dragged on for months, and we made them more interesting by conducting them in various malls around the city. I learned the Hebrew for every known piece of clothing and makeup. After a while we bagged the lessons and just concentrated on the shopping.

Buying clothes for a teenage girl can be an exasperating experience. Jamila was no exception. I complained bitterly to her about missing the good years, before she was three, when I could have bought her cute little smocked dresses instead of the ugly, black clothes she adored.

She showed up on my next birthday with a little pewter frame holding a picture of her at the age of three. The frame said, “I love Mom.” I had been fond of her before, despite her phone bills, but from that moment on, I was hooked. She was my kid.

She has turned into a real beauty. Bright, poised, and ambitious. She wants to be a teacher and studies at a college nearby. I am really proud of her . . . though the phone bills are still horrendous.

Jamila’s father died when she was just a tot. She has his picture, but she hardly remembers him. Her mother has 12 mouths to feed . . . on a good day. There are fewer at the table on bad days, like when there’s been a drug bust in the neighborhood or a gangland shooting. At Jamila’s house, there are too many bad days.

Jamila’s older brother is in prison, again. So her younger brother Muhammad, the only man currently left in the house, has decided he rules the roost.

Last week, to make his point, he ordered Jamila and her sisters to be home every day by 3 p.m. at the latest.

Since Jamila has classes until late in the afternoon most days, Muhammad’s dictum was unreasonable. Anyway, Jamila, who is 20, was in no mood to take orders from an 18-year-old brother.

So she ignored him and the next day got back from school at around 7 p.m. Furious, he forbade her to leave the house at all. If she disobeyed, he threatened, he would kill her. In Jaffa, we take these threats seriously.

She filled me in on all this the next morning. She had sneaked out of the house before Muhammad got up and was calling from the bus on her way to school. Yikes! My knees started shaking and I told her I would pick her up after school.

I got there early and scouted the area to make sure he was not lurking nearby. I was sure he meant it, and I didn’t want her to go back home. Muhammad has just gotten out of jail and is a very angry young man.

We called Hila, who agreed that Jamila had to stay with me until we found a safe place for her to live. Then we went to the student center and got a list of girls seeking roommates.

Jamila called the renters. “I am an Arab,” she informed them straightaway. “Does that matter to you?” Surprisingly no one seemed to give a damn, but then this was a university crowd.

Late that night, Jamila’s married sister called and urged Jamila to come sleep at her house so that no one could say that she had slept away from the family. There are taboos in this neighborhood that I do not fully understand, but Jamila agreed with her sister. I drove her over. The sister’s husband is bigger than Muhammad, so I felt better.

Then I went looking for help.

In our neighborhood, Rifaat Tourk is a legend. He was a star on the Israeli national soccer team for 10 years and played at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Today, at 47, he is a member of the city council and organizes soccer teams and tutoring for the local kids.

I briefed him, and the next day he went to Jamila’s house to speak to Muhammad.

“I talked to him softly,” Rifaat said, “about how important it is for his sister to get an education. He complained that she does not obey him and comes home late. He is surrounded by friends who are criminals. He doesn’t work. He is nervous. But worst of all, the fundamentalists have gotten to him.

“More than the drugs and the violence that threaten Arab youth,” Rifaat said, “I fear the fundamentalists.”

The rise of fundamentalism in Jaffa is obvious. Five years ago, young girls scooted about in jeans and T-shirts. Today, more and more of them, including Jamila’s mother and two of her sisters, are wearing the head covers and long dresses of the pious and pure. Some are only seven years old.

Jamila is a modern girl, but she won’t wear a bathing suit to the Jaffa beach or go out in a short skirt—and short here means knee-length. Her arms are always covered.

“There definitely is a trend of return to Islam, and Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise among the Arabs of Israel,” explained Eli Reches, an Arab-affairs expert at Tel Aviv University. “Islam is on the march.

“The Israeli version of Islam is unique in the sense that the Muslims are a minority in Israel, and therefore the ultimate goal of setting up an Islamic state is necessarily postponed,” he said.

“Instead, the Islamic movement here focuses on the moral and socio-economic aspects of society. On the one hand, they provide solutions to social economic gaps between Jews and Arabs in the fields of education, sports, and medical services. On the other hand, they impose the moral code of the Islamic culture upon the Arab community in Israel.”

Jamila doesn’t really think Muhammad’s attitude is based on fundamentalist influences.

“He never goes to the mosque, he isn’t religious at all. He’s just afraid people will talk about us unless we stay home,” she said. “He wants to be the head of the family, a big shot.”

Things have calmed down at Jamila’s house, but who knows when Muhammad will erupt again. I know Jamila is smart—I just hope she’s smart enough to know when to run.