Family life in troubled Taiba

Taiba is a city with an uncertain future, but four mothers add to its colorful community.

Suzanne taibe 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Suzanne taibe 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is a cold, dark winter morning. Miriam wakes up before the sun has even risen, warms her hands on a hot cup of tea, and warms her soul with prayer to the God that she embraced 35 years ago. Picking up her purse, she closes the door of the apartment that she shares with her son and daughter and sets off through the empty streets of Taiba to catch the bus that will take her to her cleaning job at Dana Children's Hospital in Tel Aviv. The residents of the apartment across the hall are asleep when Miriam leaves, but wake an hour later. Her daughter-in-law, Falastine, carries her 11-month-old daughter as she gets her two boys ready for school. Soon she will send them on their way, and she will spend the next few hours taking care of her baby and the house. A few doors down, Miriam and Falastine's neighbor says goodbye to her eighth-grade daughter, Huda, as the girl grabs her bag and leaves for school. After Huda has left, Malika, surrounded by pictures of another life, has a quiet breakfast and reads the newspaper. And in another part of the city, Suzanne sits alone, sipping a cup of tea before her four children wake and the house fills with commotion. This is the story of four women living and raising children in an Israeli-Arab city. From a distance, the white houses of Taiba, in central Israel, look like stacked boxes. The shiny-gold domes and the towering minarets confirm that this is a Muslim-Arab city. Taiba has a rich heritage. A tour takes one through tiny old alleys, streets lined with coffee shops crowded with men smoking nargilas (hookahs), and modern residential neighborhoods. Taiba, with a population of approximately 35,000, is a city of contrasts. It has produced Knesset members, doctors, lawyers, social workers, pharmacists, teachers and many other professionals, but remains in a constant state of deterioration. Plagued by high unemployment and other municipal problems, the city has earned a dubious reputation for high crime, drug dealing, and unsolved murders. Residents' demands that police enforce the law seem to have fallen on deaf ears. A prevailing lack of faith in the municipality has led to a sense of despair among the locals. In spite of this, Taiba has, in a way, taken on an international flavor by becoming home to many foreign women. Go into almost any store, walk on almost any street, and you might hear a mother scolding her child in a language other than Arabic, or children giggling and talking in their mother tongue. In this conservative city, in which many women have turned toward religion, foreigners definitely stand out. What makes an outsider leave everything familiar and come to live in Taiba? Miriam and Falastine join Malika in her apartment to explain how fate brought them together. Holding mugs of hot cinnamon tea, each tells her story. Glancing around, one is struck by the photographs that cover Malika's walls. The picture gracing the entrance wall is of Yasser Arafat carrying Huda. Next to that is one of Arafat with Nelson Mandela ("whom I only saw from a distance," Malika says). The pages of the album on the coffee table are filled with many familiar faces: Jordan's Queen Noor, former US Secretary of State James Baker, and others. A former teacher, Malika is the only one of the four women originally from Taiba. She explains that her Taiba-born husband, a prominent journalist, took her to live in the United States following their marriage in 1992. She says that at first, life in the US was difficult, because she knew no English. However, she began to adjust, and eventually gave birth to Huda at age 42. However, her life there was short lived. After only five years of marriage, her husband died from cancer, leaving her alone with a young daughter. "I couldn't manage there, alone with Huda. At least here I felt more secure because I have family who were willing to help me with her. Now that she is older, if I had the chance or a good opportunity, I would go back," she says. Malika's return to Taiba was uneventful. She found an apartment and registered Huda for school. She took a cosmetology course in nearby Kfar Saba, and worked out of her apartment for four years. For now, she lives a quiet life with her daughter, whom she calls her best friend, and stays away from the small city's problems. "Taiba is home and I do worry about its future. Family life has not changed but the people have become more materialistic… They are forgetting their culture and heritage," she says with concern. Miriam, a convert from Judaism to Islam, came to Taiba at the age of 17. She met her husband in Jerusalem through her friend's boyfriend when she was only 15, but they did not stay in touch. Six months later, they met again and began dating secretly. After a family member saw her with him, she realized that "it was time to tell her family about [the] taboo relationship. "They did not accept the fact that I loved an Arab, and when I refused to leave him, they disowned me," she says in accented Arabic. The couple married when she was 17. They shared his parents' home, and she "accepted… a very simple life with limited financial means. Few girls from here would accept that, but we had plans to build a house and I felt that our future was bright." Although life wasn't perfect, she was happy, she says. In some ways, "he was a very good husband and father. He was extremely clean, and often helped me with the housework. He would bring me gifts, and help me with the children, doing much more for them then I ever expected." But his help around the house did not make up for the fact that he would often disappear and not return home for days or weeks at a time. Miriam was raising five children, and was forced to seek work. She got a job at a hospital, and still works there, 18 years later. After several tumultuous years of her husband going in and out of her life and her children's, she filed for divorce. According to statistics from the Population Administration and published in Yediot Aharonot, some 70 Israeli citizens converted to Islam in 2006, more than twice the number from previous years. Most cases, according to the report, were of Jewish and Christian women marrying Muslim men. In 2003, 40 Jews converted to Islam; in 2004 the number dropped to 27; and in 2005 it stood at 33. Meanwhile, Miriam's relationship with Falastine is much like that of mother and daughter. In spite of their different backgrounds, Falastine says, they get along "amazingly well." Falastine was born in Germany, but left at a young age when her family returned to a small town bordering Tulkarm in the West Bank. Although her home was a stone's throw from Taiba, she had never been to the city. She met her husband while working in an accountant's office in Tulkarm and they married in 1997. Religion plays an important role in each woman's life. Miriam's husband was Muslim, and she felt that converting was "the right thing to do." However, her decision to abandon Judaism and adopt Islam caused tension and an eventual split with her family, she explains. But time heals all wounds, and her family has accepted her back in their lives. Her mother and one of her sisters are observant Jews, and they often argue about her conversion. Before her oldest son and Falastine married, Miriam, who never felt that she was a stranger in the community, immersed herself in Islam. As a new convert, she fasted during Ramadan and prayed. She felt "the natural step to take was to wear the headscarf," she said. She hopes to participate in the haj pilgrimage to Mecca next year. "Islam is a religion that I feel so comfortable with," she explained. "Three of my children have married Muslims," she says, "and God forbid that the other two marry out of the religion. Everyone should stay with his own religion." Although she now lives very differently than her family of origin, "I am comfortable with the choices that I made," she says. Falastine, who recently donned the headscarf, lives and behaves according to Islam's precepts. She began to pray at the age of 17, and has a deep respect for the religion. "Marriage to someone who came from a different religion or culture from mine was definitely not a part of my plans," she explains. "So marrying a man whose [Jewish] roots were different from my own took some thinking on my part." She has no regrets, for the woman whose original religious background differed from her own has raised her children to be faithful Muslims. Falastine's children pray at the local mosque and are surrounded by Islamic culture. They do not know of their grandmother's past. "When they are old enough we will tell them. It's a part of her history and they must respect that," Falastine says. Malika, like Falastine, feels guided by her religion, but it was not until after her husband passed away that she decided it was time to cover her head. She went on the haj seven years ago, completing her final obligation to God. Her family raised her to believe that if she loved others, that love would return to her. She does not push Huda toward religion; she feels that "Huda has the right to make that decision, and will move in that direction if she feels it's right for her life." Their lives in Taiba are quiet. Miriam's centers around work, her children, and her five grandchildren. Falastine spends much of her time in her three-bedroom apartment. She feels that work is "out of [her] grasp," partly because she hasn't yet learned Hebrew. But she wants to, she says, "because it will make things easier for me when I am in the Jewish sector." Malika also prefers to stay home with Huda or visit her aging mother or her sisters. Falastine says the move to Israel was not difficult for her because she was living in an Arab city. But although she has been married for 10 years and her husband and children are Israeli citizens, she has to renew her visa each year. This makes her insecure about her residency status in Israel. When Falastine first married, she could enter and leave the West Bank easily, but now, her biggest frustration is that although she is so close to her family, "the drive, which should take five minutes, often takes an hour to an hour and a half. My parents have not been able to visit me for five years. My children feel afraid every time we go to visit my family and pass the soldiers at the border. If the political situation was [what it is now] when I got engaged, I never would have left my family and town." Indeed, Falastine still feels different from most Taiba residents because she is from the West Bank; but living across from her mother-in-law has its advantages. The doors are always open and her children go back and forth between the two houses. A five-minute drive away from Falastine, Miriam and Malika take me to the city center and to Suzanne, a Swedish woman who has lived in Taiba for 10 years. Suzanne met Abdul Hakim while vacationing in Israel in 1987. In 1991, they got engaged and she converted from Protestantism to Islam. In 1992, they married in a traditional Arab wedding in Taiba. "He invited 1,500 guests and there were only five from my side!" she recalls laughingly. For the first six months they were married, they lived in his parents' house until their own - next to his mother and brothers - was built. Her house, filled with things from her homeland, looks like it could be in the middle of a Swedish, rather than an Arab, town. Aside from a painting of Jerusalem, it is free of Middle Eastern touches. Blue and white items scattered around give the house a light, airy look, and hand-embroidered pillows, floor-to-ceiling bookcases and family pictures spread warmth around the living room. Suzanne's family is her life. Creating a stable environment for her four children, ages five to 14, is a high priority. If she were still in Sweden she would have to work, but in Israel she never has. "I appreciate that I'm able to be home with my children," she says. Housework and cooking don't begin to fill her days. "I always seem to be behind the wheel of my car," she laughs. "The kids have English lessons, religion lessons, gymnastics and football training," she explains. But they all manage to get together for meals. "It is an important aspect of our family life. I insist that they speak Swedish then. My children are bilingual," she explains. "I keep busy with family and friends, and I have hobbies." She is making a mosaic tabletop, and the family is building a "retreat" on the roof. "That will be my place for relaxing," she says. Suzanne has a refreshing attitude toward life in Taiba. "A person should not stand outside society, but instead should be a part of it. One has to decide that this is the life that they have chosen and enjoy it, and make the best of it in spite of its frustrations," she explains. "I attend weddings, and visit women when they have new babies, and try to take part in all the traditional ceremonies just like the women here do," she says. The fact that she and her husband live so close to his family poses no difficulty when it comes to her raising her children. No one interferes. Her relationship with Abdul Hakim is exceptionally good. "If it [weren't], I wouldn't be here!" she states. They are more then husband and wife - they are partners and friends. For Suzanne, life in Taiba is much more social then in Sweden. Here, she is in touch with many more people; there, she says, one feels alone. Although she has converted to Islam, it has not taken over her life. She accepts and respects the religion and its teachings. When asked if she will ever wear a headscarf and go on the haj, she smiles and says, "Insh'allah" (if God wills). Taiba is a city with an uncertain future, but Miriam, Falastine, Malika and Suzanne add to its colorful community. They start and end their days much the same as most women around the world. Each has grown and changed while living here, taking the good from their surroundings and trying to avoid what does not suit them. All four women emphasize the importance of family. Regardless of nationality or religion, each has dreams for her children. Suzanne hopes that "her children will be just as happy in their future marriages as she is." Malika, Falastine and Miriam want much the same. They want their children to feel that they can think and believe for themselves. They all echoed in agreement that despite the crime and poverty in Taiba, "there definitely is positive, and we do our best to raise our children to be good people, study hard, and hopefully they will contribute something good to society."