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Layla: An Israeli Parable

ISSUE:  Winter 1990

Names of cities, milages, and political movements are documented and exist as described.

Names and precise descriptions of Layla and her family have been changed at her request.

My God! My God! You knew the way to find me.” Layla screamed with joy when she recognized my voice. I had phoned the last number I had in Nazareth from ten years ago and, when a woman answered the phone who spoke no English, I hollered Layla Ayoub into the mouthpiece. There was a pause: she hollered back a number in barely audible fractured English. I phoned the number and the process was repeated without English until on the fourth call Accre! was shouted at me. But where in Accre? Neither Layla’s last name nor Muhammed’s was listed in the Accre phone book. I phoned Dina, an Arab friend who knew me well and lived in a village 60 kilometers north of Nazareth. She said in good English that she knew cousins of the Ayoub family or at least she knew people who knew the cousins and she knew about Layla’s family in Nazareth: her great grandfather had been a Bedouin sheikh; her father had been a lawyer, no? She also knew of Muhammed’s cousins in Ramallah and some in Nablus, but it was not a good idea to phone the West Bank during the riots. But didn’t Muhammed, the husband of Layla, work as a teacher in an Arab village north of Accre? If she couldn’t find out through the cousins she would phone someone in the village council of the Arab village where she believed Muhammed taught. Or she could phone an Arab newspaper in East Jerusalem where Layla’s uncle was a cousin to the editor.

Within an hour and a half Dina phoned me back with Layla’s telephone number in Accre. Link by link the Arab chain had closed in on vital information—a demonstration, an unsettling lesson of the Arab network within Israel and beyond to the West Bank—a ganglion wound in infinite connecting arteries. What was happening to the cousins on the West Bank and in Jerusalem was happening to the family in Accre, in Nazareth, and in Arab villages spread throughout Israel. Among 750,000 Israeli Arabs, many with the same surname, I had found Layla.

After Layla’s shriek of recognition I said I would come right away from Haifa that very evening. She gave the number on her street. “What was the number of her apartment?” She answered warily, sardonically, “I must meet you outside. We are the only tenants without a name or a number on the door.”

Ten years earlier I went to her wedding in Nazareth where the music of the ayouds and drums were incessant and where we danced the debka and watched exotic belly dancing and where we ate and ate until long after midnight. In the crush and whirl of the festivities Layla found time to tell me: “We are going to live in the Jewish sector,” she said. “Muhammed will have to agree to it. Maybe Nahariya, maybe, we’ll see. . . .”

I knew about some of Layla’s experiences in the Jewish sector, and I wondered that she would want to repeat them: Layla was dogged, she was a person with a mission to defy the prejudices against Arabs; she was determined to live among the majority; she was certain that decency, fluent knowledge of Hebrew, and the understanding of Jewish values would overcome blind prejudice. Weren’t she and Muhammed both born under the Israeli flag—citizens of Israel? What other country, what other nationality was available to them?

And so I found Layla, her husband and her son, Jamal, in Accre, an ancient Crusader town on the Mediteranean in the north of Israel. She met me outside the apartment block in a driving rain. I could hardly see her, but in the clutch of her embrace I felt the anguish she was to hold back later when Muhammed was present. It was as though something burst in her at seeing me again after ten years, that time when I persuaded her that life would get better for Israeli Arabs. The State was not so shortsighted as to limit the rights of its loyal Arab minority, to frustrate them to radicalization, to push them so that every syllable of the National Anthem stuck in their throats.

In the lamplight of their apartment, in the sitting room decorated with rugs and coffee pots and tapestries that once belonged to her Bedouin great-grandfather, I could see Layla clearly; she had grown thinner and she looked taller; her face was pale, drawn more than ten years’ worth, for she was still a young woman of 36; her features were sharper, her long black hair had been cut and styled to shoulder length in what she called modern. She wore tight blue jeans with a black turtleneck sweater. Modern is what she wanted to be—a modern woman, a modern Arab living in an enlightened society, where Jamal (he was so smart beyond his years!) could study computer science.

I could see that Muhammed was uneasy as he had always been uneasy in my presence, and I could feel the tension between them because of me. We made small talk about ourselves, but with every inquiry about how life was for them, Muhammed’s reply now, ten years after we danced at the wedding, smouldered with resentment of Layla’s insistence that they remain in this so-called assimilated block of flats in Accre; the two other Arab families had already moved out, and he and Layla were left alone with their child to pioneer the struggle for social equality. Muhammed wanted to live with his own people in the Arab sector of Accre or in the Arab village where he taught; he was sick to death of how his nine-year-old son was looked upon as a thorn under the skin, as a potential Fifth Columnist, as a generic terrorist. Layla and Muhammed tore at each other on every facet of the way they lived, including the psychological hardships imposed on Jamal and Layla’s refusal to segregate herself.

“Our differences could end in a divorce!” Layla said; she was solemn when she glanced at Jamal whose expression remained impassive—the English word was not yet in his vocabulary.

Jamal sat in a chair opposite us while we ate lamb baked with artichoke and olives; he was like his father, tall and wiry, dark-skinned, intense. He wanted to show off his English and he leaned across the table to me: “You enjoy to eat Arab food.” he said. It was not a question; my appetite was obvious. And then: “You are Jewish. Why do you like us so much?” I told him that his mother was my friend, and Jamal shrugged with a trace of scorn. Layla was embarrassed. “Don’t mind him,” she said. “He had a bad experience only yesterday.” I pushed her to tell me. Jamal belongs to a “mixed” basketball team and there was a fight between two Jewish boys over the right or the wrong of a certain play. When Jamal went to the aid of his Jewish friend, David, who was getting the worst of the beating, David cried out: “Don’t you dare to help me! Go away! It will be worse for me if you help!” And Jamal went home with the wound in his heart that it would go badly for his friend if an Arab were to help him.

Muhammed was quiet, and when I looked at his face I sensed that they would have another argument after I left. Even ten years before, when we three sat together in Arab cafes in Nazareth while Layla told me stories of what life was like for Israeli Arabs, Muhammed would gesture to her, shrug, shake his head, murmur, it’s not so bad, it’s not so bad, and once Layla turned on him, enraged: “Be quiet! She’s not a spy!” And she went on talking and talking while Muhammed stiffened and tolerated.

Stories: how she could not find a place to live when she was a student at the university; how Jewish students refused to share a room with an Arab girl; how private houses wouldn’t consider her as a tennant. Layla had to drive the distance to Tel Aviv from Nazareth and back every day until her faculty advisor noticed her exhaustion and took matters into her own hands. The dark-haired Layla Ayoub was renamed Leilah Ziv and introduced as a Jewish student to the owner of a private home near the university, an aging and childless widow who rented a room in her house. In appearance, in manner, in language, one could not tell the difference between Layla the Arab and Leilah the Jew. Malka never found out that Layla was an Arab, but over the years Layla and Malka grew greatly attached. “My second mother!” Layla used to tell me, a mother who worried that in four years her slender tenant never went to social functions, never brought home friends, never had telephone calls, never used her key after eight o’clock.

“Anyway,” Layla said, “Every year Malka and I used to make jars and jars of pickles.”

But Malka was not satisfied. She marched herself off to the faculty advisor: it wasn’t normal for a beautiful young woman of such refinement to do nothing but study and study and make pickles with an old woman. Malka demanded that the advisor talk to Leilah, ease her into a social group, explain to her parents who lived allegedly in Netanya, that their daughter would wither with loneliness and overwork if something wasn’t done.

And where were her parents? They had taken the hard line: if Layla insisted on behaving as a Jew she needn’t come home to Nazarath, either. Her father had accepted the Jews in 1948; he had made his peace with them by deciding to stay in Nazareth and trust in the principles of Israeli democracy rather than becoming a refugee somewhere. But as the military laws continued to control the movements of the Arab population in Israel through a military government and permit system from 1948 to 1966, as it became clear that Arab petitions of redress would go to the departments of Arab affairs in all branches of the Israeli government, that there was no point in trying to work as an engineer or a physicist or in any sensitive area of national defense, that housing was largely restricted, educational opportunities unequal, that because Arabs were not drafted into the army, jobs were even further restricted because of required army service for priority hiring, to say nothing of other fringe benefits, it became clear to Layla’s father that he had allowed himself to capitulate to a status without dignity or a future—he grew old and ill with bitterness. He trusted no Jew; he trusted no Arab who fraternized with Jews—he accepted his fate and unwittingly created in Layla the obssession to overcome the barriers. It was as though she had to prove to her father that she would win the trust of Jews and be accepted as an equal. The Jewish university had given her a scholarship, hadn’t they? She was well on her way to becoming a social worker. Layla did not tell her father how she had been counseled and recounseled to gear her career to servicing the Arab sector and how she had denied the idea in her heart at the risk of not finding a job at all. “When I got the scholarship, my father sneered at me,” Layla told me, “of course you got a scholarship,” he said. “They need doctors, lawyers, social workers, nurses, teachers, to work in the Arab sector! You think they are training you to work with the Jews?”“

She had graduated and gone back to her parents house, and it was then that I met her on a bus in Jerusalem and that we struck up a friendship. Afterward, I traveled to Nazareth at least once a week to meet her and her boyfriend, Muhammed, whom she would marry that summer of 1978. She never invited me to her home—her father, her mother, she said, would be nervous and suspicious and there would be arguments later. Muhammed, too, tried to muzzle Layla from confiding in me: I was a Jew and a de facto enemy of Arabs, an American whose country had a brutal dislike for people of color, I was a writer snooping for a story—why should any of them trust me? His very fear of me, the Jew, the American, resonated in the experience of living in the USSR when my husband was an exchange scientist there. People who spoke to me were never sure I wasn’t KGB. They scrutinized everything I said. They searched my face. But they talked. They had to trust someone. The need to trust, the need to talk, is the marrow of survival.

Two weeks before the wedding, Layla, Muhammed, and I sat in the cafe in Nazareth. We had ordered pitta and hoummous and olives. Layla was solidly downcast, agitated, unresponsive. She told what was to be her last story with tears running down her face, with an olive poised in her fingers, with black eyes turned on me as though I had the power to fix her life. The job she had applied for, the job she desperately wanted, was with Jewish immigrants from Morocco. Arabic was her native language; she spoke Hebrew as a second language; she spoke fluent French and English; she knew Arab customs, Jewish customs. Who better than she could deal with transplanted Moroccans who spoke Arabic and French and came from a Jewish culture so different from European Jewish culture, so akin to Arab culture where the music, the food, the social customs were similar, and where the extended family was central to life itself. And who knew better than she the psychological cost of displacement?

But she didn’t get the job. She wrote a letter to the University Placement Office. She demanded a hearing with an official on the Jewish side of the Department of Labor and refused to be shunted off to the Department of Arab Affairs. She got her hearing, and the Jewish official explained that a young social worker from New York, a new Jewish immigrant who was learning Hebrew, had to be hired. No, the New York girl didn’t know Arabic or French. No, the New York girl didn’t know anything about the extended Moroccan Jewish family—it didn’t matter; it didn’t matter. The responsibility of the Jewish Agency was to provide jobs for Jewish immigrants. There was no point arguing about qualifications; it wasn’t a matter of qualifications. Think of the Moroccan immigrants, think of how they would feel after having given up everything to escape their wretched lives in an Arab country only to be met by an Arab social worker in Israel? He knew it wasn’t the same—he knew. It was unfair, the official told her, and she felt he meant it, that he would have wanted to change the system; Layla said that their eyes met and that his were full of pain but there was nothing he could do. Nothing.

And it was then while tears ran down her face in the cafe in Nazareth and the olive was poised in her fingers and while Muhammed sat by red-faced with anger that I persuaded Layla not to give up: Israel would not be so shortsighted as to leave such a wound neglected. If only for practical reasons, if only for the sake of real politic. Didn’t the government understand that the Israeli Arabs could be the great bridge to peace?

Now, ten years later, Jamal’s eyes were on me. “Do you know my grandfather?” he said.

“I never met him,” I said. “I wish I had.”

“I’ll tell you something,” Jamal said. “Now when my grandfather goes to Jerusalem, he wears his kaffiyeh.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant and I glanced at Layla. “What this foolish boy is saying is that my father now wishes to be known as a Palestinian, that his kaffiyeh is the one active step he can take. It is a symbol. Believe me, it is better for his heart.” Layla laughed, eyed Jamal, looked away. “Our fathers and mothers accepted everything.” she said. “Everything. But we don’t accept. We were called Israeli Arabs and we accepted that name for a long time. No more. We are Palestinians—we call ourselves Palestinians. The Jewish Israelis don’t like it because there are too many of us inside Israel and when we call ourselves Palestinians it is a menace to them.”

I looked at Jamal. “And you?” I said, smiling. “Are you a menace?”

“He is not doing anything wrong!” Muhammed broke in. “He is going to school. He is growing up without trouble.”

“Are you a menace?” I asked Layla.

“Of course I’m not!” she laughed. “Israel has given me a lot. Israeli democracy is real. I want to be part of it. I want to give back. I already have given back but only what they let me—my work and my silence.”

Layla looked at her fingernails and then she looked up at me, “But there is a menace here. . . .” she said, “Here within Israel, radicalized, fanatic Arabs, even Islamic Brotherhood . . .they are here now, in the Triangle district not far away. Fanatics—go see for yourself what a miserable village they come from. Thirty thousand people living in neglected, crowded conditions, Israeli citizens who get little or nothing from the government and who are told that they never had it so good. Now there are two groups there, one is called Sons of the Village, the other is an Islamic Brotherhood, and both want nothing to do with the Israeli political process. They don’t accept Israel as a state. They proslytize for other Arabs to withdraw, not to vote, to behave as Palestinians and as though the Jewish State didn’t exist. And, yes, they are a menace—as much of a menace to me as to the Jews. Our hope and our work is to make the democracy in Israel include us. If we were included in Israeli democracy, what a wonderful country we would have. All of us. We do not need those people. They are not progressive; they are bloodthirsty, reactionary.”

“You know nothing about them!” Muhammed cried. “Why do you make mischief with your talk when you know nothing? What happens in Umm al Faham is none of your business,” And then he stopped himself. His face grew red, and it was as though by revealing the name of the village he had betrayed secrets to the enemy. But Umm al Faham was no secret: I had heard about Umm al Faham before I came to see Layla.

“Don’t silence me!” Layla snapped back to Muhammed. “I know more than you want me to know. You know that I know. And, yes, they are a menace.”

There was silence. And then something broke in Muhammed, something roiling in him that had to erupt. He was shaking his head. “Menace! Who is the menace?” he sneered. “Only two weeks ago the Kahane mobs came around here. They fixed a loudspeaker to the square: Shalom Yehudim, Shalom Klevim. You know what is klevim? Dogs. Dogs is klevim! We are the klevim. So who is the menace, who, we or Kahane?”

“Kahane is a perversion,” I said. “Who listens to him?” Muhammed snorted. “Enough so that I won’t let Jamal go out at night by himself.”

It was a blessing that Layla got up to clear the dinner plates. I got up to help her, and it was as though I had been rescued from a burning house. We didn’t speak while I brought desert plates and Layla brought yogurt Muhammed made himself and fruit and preserves. When we sat down again, I tasted the thick, chunky yogurt. “Muhammed!” I said. “What a taste!” He smiled. Then silence again; silence was swelling in my ears. I turned to Layla.

“What’s happened to Malka?” I asked, hoping to lighten the atmosphere, aware that no subject we could talk about would lighten the atmosphere. “Malka,” I repeated. “Your second mother?”

Layla’s expression turned somber. “She died. Two months ago.”

“I m sorry. . . .”

“Yes,” Layla said. “She died without knowing who I was.”

“It was better for her,” Muhammed said.

“Perhaps, yes,” Layla said. “I tried once to tell her. . . . I made up a story that I met an Arab girl in my class and that I liked her, that I could be friendly with her . . .and Malka told me to be careful, to be friendly, yes, and not to hate God forbid, but not to get close, not to be seen with her. . . . Malka said I had to remember who was a Jew and who was an Arab, and that the two were fire and water. Malka said that I should be afraid of the Arab girl. What if she put a little bomb in my satchel? Malka made me promise. She said if the Arab girl put a bomb in my satchel and if she lost me she would have nothing left to live for. She began to cry like the Arab girl had already killed me. After that, I never told Malka the truth.”

“It would have made her crazy,” Muhammed said. “She would have thought that you tricked her and used her.”

“I did trick her!” Layla said. “It couldn’t be helped but I did trick her. I didn’t go to her funeral because I felt such heavy guilt for that. I’m not a religious person but that night of Malka’s funeral I prayed that she would forgive me.”

Jamal interrupted. “She made you trick her! She is the one to get forgiven for thinking about us like she did!”

“Malka didn’t hate,” Layla said.

And then nine-year-old Jamal came out with it. He lifted his head and looked into my eyes. “Then Malka is not like me,” he said. “I am not like my grandfather. . . . I am a new generation of Palestinian.” He looked at his father as though he had carefully left out that he was not like his father, either. When he glanced at Layla, his eyes sent the message that, surely, he was not like his mother.

“Jamal!” Muhammed cried.

Later, after Jamal had gone to his room to study, Layla served coffee in tiny bowls from a finjan. “Don’t mind Jamal,” she said. “He gets excited; he had a bad experience only yesterday and his feelings were hurt. The anger won’t last with him.”

I was asking myself, for how long, incident after incident, would the anger not last? How long before other Arab villages would have political movements where citizens of Israel did not recognize the State of Israel? What if 750,000 Arabs within Israel did not recognize the State? Now, Jamal’s cousins were throwing stones on the West Bank. Would the stone thrown from within be the same as the stone thrown from without? Whatever might change for Israel and the West Bank Palestinians, what more would change for Israel and the Israeli Arabs? Could Israel be so shortsighted as to not ask themselves questions when the Israeli Arabs had already evolved in their identity to Palestinian? Didn’t Israel understand that while the Arabs were a minority in Israel they were a majority in the Middle East? Did such a paradox escape them?

I remembered Kahane’s loudspeaker message and I felt suddenly afraid for Layla, for Israel. “Maybe you have to get away from here,” I said to Layla. “If there is a Palestinian state will you and the family go there? For a new life, I mean . . .a new start. . .you deserve something better, I mean.”

For the first time I felt a certain defiance tinged with hostility directed at me. “No,” she said. “We want our rights in Israel. This is our country. We are not going anywhere. We believe in Jewish democracy when it will extend to us. We won’t go. Never. For an Arab the home they were born in, the tree, the water, is their country. To go five meters from the border of their homes makes them refugees. Here is our home. We will not make the mistake of 1948. And because the Jewish Israelis are afraid, there is now a new war, the war of the womb, the war of the maternity wards.”

And then I felt afraid for everyone. I thought about the trick played on Malka. In the year 2000 there would be one million Israeli Arabs. Layla spoke of radicalized, fanatacized, Arabs within Israel. Would the consequences of the stone thrown from without be the same as the stone thrown from within? And what was happening to Jamal, the third generation who was not willing to accept second class citizenship? Where would he go? To Umm al Faham or toward building a tolerant and inclusive democracy in Israel?

I finished my coffee and looked at my watch. It would take me more than an hour to wind my way back to Haifa. I had a heavy feeling in my heart that Muhammed and Layla would have a bitter argument after I left. Their marriage was a thin red line. Their family was being chewed up in the conflict between Arabs and Jews. Still, we made a plan to meet in Quesarya the following Saturday. I wanted to see the Crusader ruins again. Crusader ruins built upon Roman ruins. Ruins upon ruins. Layers upon layers. Layla walked me to my car parked on a Jewish street in Accre while an eerie question haunted me. Which layer was I treading upon at that moment?

It was raining hard. I felt cold with understanding of how Arabs in Israel had changed in ten years, since before the war in Lebanon. I had the image of fragments broken off the edges of a great rock, polished by time, transforming themselves through the harsh elements acting upon them into hard soil on which a nation could stand. I remembered Jamal’s face when he said, “My grandfather wears his kaffiyeh now,” and Layla saying, “This is our country and here we will stay!” and I knew then that the future of the Jewish State was here with the Israeli Arabs and through them to the ganglion of their kinfolk on the West Bank and beyond. Still, I kept asking myself why Layla persevered in her dream of equality? What motivated her to endure? Did she believe the Israeli Arabs would win the war of the womb?

It was dark, and I tensed myself to keep alert so I wouldn’t take a wrong turn and find myself headed toward the flames of the West Bank. Perhaps it was only the windshield wipers sloshing back and forth that were conjuring images of war in the maternity ward, and then of Layla and Malka putting up pickles, and of their love for each other, and of the pain of Layla’s guilt at having tricked an old woman imprisoned by fear.


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