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Arabs, on the train


I'm sitting on the train, it's late, and I'm on my way home.
Far too exhausted to be paying attention.

I step past a family of Arabs, their boxes spreading into the aisle.  There are grandparents, parents, a little girl.  They chatter all the way north.

I may be exhausted, but I can't help paying attention.  My life depends on paying attention around Arabs, I've been told. 

Even when they're travelling as a family?  Even when they've got a little girl babbling on their laps?

I don't understand their language.  Are they talking about me?  Arabic sounds horrible, guttural and strange.  I know Hebrew must sound that way to others; to me, it sounds like the Tanach, like poetry.  The Arabs' Arabic is sprinkled with Hebrew here.  They say "b'seder," and other Hebrew words.  Do other Arabs outside of Israel feel like they are contaminated with Jewishness?

I don’t know if they’re talking about me, but I’m thinking about them.  Not them, exactly. 

You know:  Terrorists.

Oh, yeah; that.

I'm writing a blog post about terrorism in Israel.  I start hunting for a picture of a knife to go with the post, then realize my screen faces towards them.  Will they know what I'm thinking about?  Will they think I am thinking about them? 

I quickly search for the word "girl" even though I do not want a picture of a girl to go with the post.  Slowly, I creep back towards the pictures of the knives, choosing a relatively tasteful one instead of something bloody and garish.  Not my style, anyway. 

The child is facing away from me, sitting with her parents.  The older people are facing in my direction.  Perhaps their eyes are old; perhaps they can’t see what I’m doing.

I modify the picture in furtive bursts,

hoping none of them look over, and discover what I am thinking about, writing about.

"Kiryat Motzkin," the father says to the daughter, rattling off the names of the train stations all the way north to home - where is their home?  Maybe Akko?  Maybe some village farther off where they will travel late at night by taxi once they get off the train.  "Kiryat Chaim."  She giggles and repeats these Hebrew words after him.  "Kiryat Chaim."

These are my towns, my stations.  It feels strange that their names can be spoken in Arabic, too.

They are all taking turns singing to the little girl, a little too loud, some tuneful lullaby that makes me happy, though I cannot understand the words.  The words could be “Death to Jews, death to Israel, death to America,” and it would still sound beautiful and peaceful to me.

It feels strange that theirs is an official language here in my country, but that my children may never learn it. 

It feels strange that they are the murderers, while the streets of my almost-too-quiet suburban neighbourhood are graffitied with "Death to Arabs."

It feels strange that they are the murderers, when they are just a tired family, too tired, like me, to be travelling at all.  But happy and excited, like me, to be coming home at the end of a long day which, for them, perhaps began in another country, where none of these problems exist.

The train slows, pulls into Kiryat Motzkin, and I get up to tiptoe sideways past their boxes and boisterousness once again. 

“Excuse me,” I say.

“Sorry for the disturbance,” says the mother of the little girl, suddenly.

“No disturbance at all,” I say in my Hebrew which is far less fluent, far more accented than hers.  I glance over my shoulder at the girl, who is smiling and happy, in pigtails, at 11:00 at night.  “She’s so cute.”

Goodnight, fellow Israelis.  Have a peaceful, safe trip home.

p.s. Want to know something weird we have in common?  If you search for “Arabs” or “Jews” on Google’s image search… the first few pages of search results are all male.  Apparently, our cultures are alike in this odd way, too.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. I did not like this ! I am sorry you are so negative, Jews spoke Arabic for many centuries lady.

    1. Hi!
      I appreciate your expressing your views (can I call you "lady," too?). I realize that Arabic was the common language here in Israel and for many Jews in places like Yemen for centuries.
      However, I can't help feeling curious about whether you live in Israel and/or understand anything about the cultural context and what's going on over here at the moment.
      If all you picked up on in this post is my comment on the Arabic language itself, I think you're probably missing something. :-/


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