My Palestinian Arabic tutor taught me more than the language

When the pandemic began, I found myself searching for a new Arabic teacher who could teach me online. I found Dima. She teaches me the Palestinian dialect. For more than a year now, we have met biweekly. While initially we kept a polite distance, our conversations broadened to include linguistic comparisons between Hebrew and Arabic, as well as comparisons of Israeli and Palestinian culture, religious norms and rules.

Dima describes Muslim practices, and I tell her about Jewish ones. Often, we are stunned by the overlaps and parallels. Only recently did she tell me that I was her first Israeli student, and that she now has five. She hopes to work with more in the future. Over the past few months we realized how close we have become.

Dima is 27 years old. She is Palestinian. But despite being born in Amman, she is considered stateless and not an official Jordanian citizen. During the Nakba, her family fled from their homes in Palestine in 1948. After finishing high school in Jordan, Dima went to stay with family in Gaza, where she completed her undergraduate and graduate education in English literature and Arabic, respectively.

I’m an Israeli-American. My teacher is Palestinian. This is what she’s taught me in the last year.

I am a generation older; I was born in Germany to Holocaust survivors and made Aliyah soon after I finished high school. I’ve spent my life pursuing my Jewish and academic interests in Israel, U.S., Germany, and France.

There is no symmetry to our lives, just as there is none in the trauma that surrounds Dima and me. But rather than driving us apart, the recent war has made our friendship tighter.

Dima and I both lived through the 2014 Gaza war, experiencing it from different sides of the wall. Dima was in Gaza, while I was in Jerusalem.

Though Dima was not in Gaza during this most recent war and I was not in Israel, we both relived the traumas of 2014, as well as—for me—the Second Intifada and the 2006 Lebanon War. Beyond following the news—Dima the Arab and Palestinian media platforms, and I through the Israeli papers and TV news channels—we both stayed in constant touch with family and loved ones.

Two days into the war, Dima shared with me the death of a close friend she had met during her time as a student in Gaza. Sitting in her home, reading a book, she was killed. Two days later Dima’s sister-in-law’s house was destroyed. Other family members were told to evacuate their homes as tunnels located below a main street were going to be bombed. As in most of East Jerusalem, other than in the Jewish buildings, there are no real shelters in Gaza. Dima told me of a new trend that emerged during this past war in Gaza. Families exchange their children in order to increase the likelihood that at least one of the family members will survive the night.

Although I was aware that statistically the chances of my family in Tel Aviv being hurt or killed from a rocket was minimal—indeed much smaller than being hit in a car accident or while riding an electric scooter— I insisted that my two sons and my sister text me or call me each time the sirens went off. I needed to know that they made it safely into the shelters.

From the start of the war, Dima and I were in touch daily. Neither of us slept much and our exchanges also sometimes extended through the nights. We spoke about Netanyahu’s motives for inflaming conflict and violence. We noted how his and Hamas’ popularity among their respective supporters was interdependent. We learned about the destruction of buildings, and most importantly the deaths of 213 Palestinians, among them 61 children in Gaza, and 12 Israelis, including one child.

I’m an Israeli-American. My teacher is Palestinian. This is what she’s taught me in the last year.

But, beyond exchanging news, it was mostly our families and friends we inquired about regularly. One day, when Dima hadn’t heard from me, yet she wrote: “Hi Katy…. I am worried not to have heard from you today. I hope you and your children are OK. I pray this ends soon.” I too was anxious when her responses to my texts took longer than usual, fearing that she might eventually report especially difficult news.

This war, as all the others beforehand, stresses the asymmetry between Israel and Palestine: in warfare, political organization and most of all in the safety and well-being of the respective populations. And while Dima and I were somehow able to overcome these differences—building a caring relationship of trust, warmth and generosity—our lives have been undeniably marked by the stark inherent structural differences of our societies.

Dima met her husband Farid while studying at the Islamic University of Gaza. It was during the Gaza war in 2014 that Farid first proposed to Dima. But it was only the third time he proposed after moving to Belgium in 2019 that Dima’s parents agreed to the marriage. Neither, however, has an official passport or citizenship. They cannot travel, and their hopes of finding a way to live together other than in Gaza, the world’s largest open air prison, diminishes daily.

Despite the obstacles she faces, Dima has remained patient and hopeful, graceful and kind. When I talk to her, I see nothing but kindness and optimism in her eyes. She tells me that reading the Quran gives her strength. I envy her for her faith. I am deeply attached to my Jewish roots. But I have completely lost faith and hope for peace.

I’m an Israeli-American. My teacher is Palestinian. This is what she’s taught me in the last year.

Katharina Galor is the Hirschfeld Senior Lecturer of Judaic Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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My Palestinian Arabic tutor taught me more than the language

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