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Mothers Without Borders

I am on the train, traveling south from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva. Three Bedouin women dressed in hijabs (headscarves) enter the train ahead of us, each with a toddler. They see there are no seats together, so they opt to sit on the floor, near the doors. I find seats for my daughter and myself. Across the aisle from us sits a man with a kippah. A Bedouin woman and her toddler sit facing him. The toddler is cranky; she is tired of sitting on mother’s lap. She wants to explore. Her mother holds her firmly, and tries to pacify her, as she squirms and whines. Because she is using simple Arabic, geared to a three year-old, I can understand every word.

It is one of those unpleasant situations that happens all the time, and usually is tolerated in silence, as if it were unnoticed. In this instance, the young man with the kippah reaches into his backpack and withdraws a completed Rubik’s Cube. He hands it to the mother who carefully twists the top row of squares to show her daughter it can move.

When the toddler realizes she will never find out what is inside the cube, she becomes cranky again, and the mother thanks the man, returning it. We sit with the toddler’s discomfort for a while.

Then the Jewish man starts to fold and tear the advertisement flyer that has been left on the table between them. He is making the child something out of the paper using Japanese origami. She becomes engaged in his actions and quiets. He makes a swan and demonstrates how it can flap its wings by pulling on its head and tail. The woman accepts it and plays with her daughter. They are happy. The swan reminds me of a dove. The man speaks to the mother in Hebrew, telling her she has a lovely daughter. The mother thanks him in Hebrew and asks if he has children. He says he has younger siblings. She speaks some Hebrew and they have a simple conversation.

After a while the girl tires of the swan and the mother allows her to squirm off her lap to stand in the aisle beside her. The girl reaches over to my daughter’s armrest, and comes to say hello to us. She has noticed our interest in the unfolding story of the Jew and the Arab. We smile and welcome her to our side of the aisle. My daughter is wearing a skirt and the toddler puts her hand on my daughter’s leg. Her little fingers weave under the wide lace of my daughter’s tights to feel her bare skin. She smiles. Her mother directs her to come back, saying, “ta’ali”. I cheekily contradict the mother in Arabic and tell her, “khalleeki”, stay. “Khalleek” is a central word in Arabic. It is said when a guest makes a move to leave the host’s house. It is polite to beg the guest to stay, even if it is clear the time has come to go. I play with this cultural imperative. “Stay with us.” You have crossed a border into our space, but you are welcome here. We are no longer strangers.

The mom blushes when she hears my Arabic. It is the Arabic of someone who has been welcomed into the intimacy of Arab community. She had seen the American in me, talking to my children in English, reading an academic paper, dressed in torn jeans. Now she blushes and mumbles in embarrassment that I have understood every word between her daughter and herself.

This Bedouin woman had opted to sit in the seats, integrating with others. In this situation, we formed our own community — the religious single Jewish man with origami and a Rubik’s Cube, the American family who understood Hebrew and Arabic, the Bedouin mother and child trying to survive the journey. We Jews intruded upon them, acknowledging the developmental stage of the daughter, one we had all observed in our own families. We connected to the difficult situation of the mother, to keep the child quiet for the passengers on the train while coping with the boredom of the journey.

The child will return to her village, which may be recognized or unrecognized by the Israeli government. But today, she will return knowing that she has been recognized.

Ariel Katz studied Middle Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She now works as a play therapist. A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service.

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