By Shayna Plaut
I sat in her house--back pressed uncomfortably against the stick-straight chair, hairs poking from a not so tight bun--laughing as her five-year-old daughter stuck her foot in my face. I poked the little girl's nose with my Census 2000 pen, which she gleefully grabbed from me and inspected. "Arabic? The pen has Arabic! You speak Arabic?" Her eyes widened and she showed me an almost full set of teeth. I shook my head. "No. But a lot of my friends do." She seemed to understand that and, holding on to my pen, wrote words in squiggly English and boxy Arabic on the back of a flyer for an Arab cultural event.
Her mom eyed me. "Jewish, huh?" She was obviously taken aback. I had signed "Shuk-ran"--thank you--on the note I left her, so I obviously knew she was an Arab before I came. I had hugged her children, gently nudging my way through them to the kitchen table as they grabbed at my bracelet and examined my 13 earrings. I was here to do my job, just a research assistant for a women's health study. Bloody boys thousands of miles away--dismembered soldiers to match dismembered peace treaties--should have no bearing on our meeting on a sunny day in southwest Chicago.
"Yes," I said. She missed my eye. "Do you have family there?" she asked. "Yes--I don't talk to them right now." She began fiddling with the consent form she had just signed, her agreement to be part of this study. I had pummeled her into agreeing, pressing the need for diversity. "Come on! We need more than just middle-class white women. We need immigrants, we need people of different social backgrounds..." She nodded but asked, "Aren't women women?" Then she found out I was Jewish.
Her children were playing with my backpack. We finished the orientation for her admission into the study. I pushed my notebook away. Her son, between spoonfuls of Lucky Charms, asked, "Are you going home now?" He wanted to practice writing his name in English. She put a hand on my notebook. "Now I just want to ask you a question, and my English isn't so good, but whose fault do you think it is? Is it the Jews' fault? It is, isn't it?" Her eyes met mine.
Flashes of being in Jerusalem ricocheted around my mind. Me all of 13 years old and asking a very big and very tall Muslim man guarding the Dome of the Rock his opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told me about his brother killing Israelis. He told me about his brother, killed by Israelis. He told me all he wanted was peace. I told him how I was taught to hate him. Flashing through the years I thought of the last time I had worked in Chicago Lawn, teaching ESL. Of all the time I spent at a local cafe plotting to kill "all the fanatics" with a Palestinian waiter-activist. "We will become fanatical about killing fanatics! Here, want more coffee?" I thought of the prayer said every Friday night at temple services for the protection of Israel. I thought of my family living throughout the tiny, creviced country. I looked down. "I don't know."
We talked about the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, Sharon and Arafat. She told me about Muhammad al-Durrah--how she had let her children see the tape of the 12-year-old's killing every day for the past three weeks and they cry every day. "They hate Jews now." And in Arabic she turned to them and asked what they thought of Jews; in unison they responded, "Bad." Meanwhile I nudged the eight-year-old to wipe off his milk mustache.
"But maybe, maybe it's more important that we have this conversation," she sighed, leaning against the refrigerator.
"Yeah," I said. "Arafat's not killing Barak. Barak's not killing Arafat."
"No," she replied, "they are safe. It is the people."
I packed up my bags and asked her if she would still be meeting me in two weeks. She nodded. I walked toward the door, turned to face her, and tousled her youngest son's hair. "Shuk-ran. A salaam." The children followed me. "You speak Arabic? You speak Arabic?" She pulled them closer. I walked down to the front door alone. "No, she's Jewish," she said in English.
I opened the door cursing my self-righteousness. Why? Why did I even tell her? My chest tightened. I'd never be able to walk into that house again. I walked to my car and then I heard a little girl's voice calling from the upstairs window, "Bye-bye--we'll see you soon."