This is an interview that the author of the blog themommyhood.com asked me to do for her blog. It was a great opportunity to express some thoughts about being a mom here in Palestine. An abbreviated version appears on her blog, here is the full text:
Where are you originally from and when/why did you relocate to Palestine? How old were your kids at the time?
I am from Michigan but lived the last 13 years in Austin, TX. My husband is from Ramallah, Palestine. We moved to Ramallah 6 months ago because the economy in the US had tanked and there was a good job offer here in Ramallah. The prospect of living in a country that is half my children’s heritage was attractive, and Teta and Sido (Grandma and Grandpa) are here so there was a strong pull to be with family as well. Mostly I wanted to experience life in Palestine.
What kind of mom are you? How would you describe yourself.
I would have once said that I am a “Granola” mom or that I am an attachment parenting mom. But now I describe myself as a DIY Mom. What I do is attachment parenting–but I do everything in my own way.
I wear my babies, do EC, co-sleep, practice extended breast feeding, am a SAHM…and yet the best part of what I am as a mother is intuitive. Instead of faithfully following the principles behind any of those parenting choices, I adapt them to meet my own family’s needs and the personality of my 2 children.
What do you like about raising kids in Palestine?
I like the love people have for children here. It is not unusual for my kids and I to be out and get stopped by a 20 year old guy who just wants to fawn over them. Shop owners always have a little treat for kids and its not scary or weird when they offer your child a balloon, a cookie, a sticker or some little treat. This is challenging if you don’t want your kids to eat a lot of sugar, but we are managing. I also love the sense of integration with the community. It’s true that kids here face incredible challenges and I don’t want to romanticize their situation, but for better or worse kids are always visible in a way that I didn’t notice in the states. They buy groceries on their own, they go out late with their parents and sleep wherever their parents are visiting, they play late into the night until they are tired, and I hear their voices at all hours of the day. I am now used to seeing kids of all ages whatever I happen to be doing. In the states it seems kids were more insulated from the world (which of course can also be a good thing). But here there is a more cohesive feeling of community made of all ages– I like that feeling.
What are some of the challenges?
Everything has a flip side. While Palestinians love children, the Israeli military occupation is choking the economy and starving Palestine of natural resources like land and water. The result seems to prove Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs. Unless basic human needs like freedom, clean water, and safety are met, one cannot think or act beyond their basic needs. What that means for us is that while Palestine struggles toward freedom, water rights and a self-perpetuating economy, the environment children grow up in is suffering. Green space is very rare so children have few options for where to play. Playgrounds are a mess. They are covered in trash and broken equipment that was built without safety codes (my then 15 month old daughter once slipped through a space at the top of a slide and was caught only by her chin and head. She was fine, but we were very lucky).
Kids here play in the streets–literally in the streets. For a SAHM like myself the days are LONG trying to find something fun and safe outside our home to do. In the states it was nothing to get in the car or stroller and go to a great playground, but here it is a real challenge to find anywhere to play.
I think my biggest challenge, though, is finding playmates for my kids and mom friends for myself. The culture and economy don’t support SAHM-hood. Almost without exception children are in daycare and moms are working. I have been pretty lonely, day in and day out only seeing my children. I firmly believe that families need community and in particular that mothers are not meant to mother their children in isolation. I write about these challenges a lot on my blog (way more than my MIL would like).
Describe your home. How is it different than your American home.
This is a great question. Homes here are different in a couple of significant ways. The older homes are beautiful, 100+ year old structures with surrounding yards. But these are slowly being replaced by apartment buildings. The severe limits imposed on available land by the Israeli government means that we cannot expand outward, so we have to expand upward. Most people now live in and own an apartment.
We have the ground floor of an 10-unit high-rise. Building materials are exclusively stone or cement, not wood. Floors are stone, walls are cement, and everyone lives with having to store their own water in big black plastic tanks on their roof for when Israel shuts water off to us and when we conserve during the summer.
Every home also has solar panels, which struck me as odd since in the states solar panels are expensive. In order to get hot water we wait until the sun has been over the panels for a few hours, or we flip a wall switch and heat a small boiler tank that holds enough for a fast shower. It requires planning. We also have to store our own gas for cooking. Now that I write this it sounds a little like camping, and it does feel a bit impermanent. Another difference is that all lower level windows are barred with decorative bars.
This is so that we can keep our windows open during the summer months and not worry about break-ins. Before the occupation, Ramallah was a vacation destination renowned for its cool summer breezes. Still, the bars make this mom nervous. I know my house is made of stone, but I have grown up worrying about smoke alarms and house fires and exit strategies that always included a window. Most buildings are surrounded by a stone fence and iron gate.
Finally, my house has no less than 30 keys for its various doors and this is not unusual here. No 2 doors have the same key! And it takes a key to both get in AND to get out–as in if my front door is locked and I can’t find my key I can’t get out. I don’t recall ever having to have a key to get OUT in the states.
Do you have a babysitter or preschool for your kids to attend so that you get a break?
Um…no. I wish I did. Teta (grandma) takes my son for 3 hours once a week so I can have time with my daughter. Sweet, but not a break. I am not comfortable with the schools here, particularly for very young children like mine and babysitting is something that I would explore if I were more comfortable with discipline methods and had been here longer. My kids are quite young and close in age, which means they are quite a lot to handle.
I actually wrote these questions at an iHop. Can you get a pancake in Palestine? (Hopefully, that is not a dumb question!)
Not a dumb question! We searched high and low for pancakes (my son LOVES them) and found one place that does them. ONE. And there is no real maple syrup anywhere (I don’t count Aunt Jemima). We eat grape molasses (“dibess”) or nutella with them. Oh how I miss a great breakfasts place! I make pancakes here at home all the time now. *sigh*
And I seriously miss doughnuts.
Do you make American food at home? And can you get what you need to do so?
Sort of. I’ve made sushi with spanish rice and lasagna with cottage cheese… The things we can get here are very limited. Shopping here is SO different, maybe the hardest thing for me. First off, grocery stores are small. Fruits and veggies come from a Green grocer, meats from a butcher, fish from a fish monger, etc. Imagine lugging two babies through 4 stores just to do your food shopping!
Palestinians make incredible food, but they don’t mess around. A recipe is a RECIPE here, and you don’t improvise. Groceries are tailored to meet the needs of people cooking seasonal Palestinian foods, meaning availability of ingredients varies by season which is something I never had to think about before. All my recipes assume that I can get Bok Choy and tofu anytime and that I have a choice of which kind of fish to buy. For example, right now there is no good spinach available and no other greens of any kind. Fish is only available on Friday’s and Saturdays when fishmongers get them from the coast–and even then we only get 2 kinds. Often when I need something the only option is an Israeli product because a huge part of the occupation is economic. Palestine can’t make certain goods, so Israel sells it to Palestine or Palestine imports it at 3 times the price. The upside? I am now baking my own bread and making my own pasta sauces. Downside? I am now baking my own bread and making my own pasta sauces. And of course I am learning how to cook Palestinian dishes.
How has living in Palestine changed you – and how does that affect you as a mom?
I have been here just 6 months but the change in me is equal to the intensity of my experience here. It goes without saying that I am much stronger than when I got here. Boy, have we dealt with some challenges! But my view of the world and my concept of my place in it has changed dramatically. Living under Israeli military occupation means serious difficulty and being forced to accept substandard infrastructure, restricted and substandard water sources (Palestine is not even allowed to gather its rainwater in cisterns), and being unable to move freely. Even a simple 15 mile drive to the next town requires that I cross a checkpoint and could take anywhere from 1 to 4 hours, and that I will have to (nervously) see guns in the hands of bored and hostile Israeli teenagers serving their time in the military. It makes me feel just as it is designed to: scared, helpless and frustrated. All of this with my children in tow, so of course we don’t travel much here. I detailed our crossing of the major entrance checkpoint from Amman, Jordan to Jericho, Palestine on my blog in a post called, “Hello, America. Ramallah calling.”
I don’t think I realized just how fortunate I was living in America, or how insulated. Here there is no insulation. Every time I leave the house I see beautiful hills (Ramallah means “Mountain of God” and the views are incredible), lovely ancient stone buildings and friendly faces.
But I also see poverty, graffiti, stray animals, oppression, and trash. I feel connected to the struggle of people in this world who don’t have freedom and who live with challenges that we don’t even think about in the states. I feel more a part of the world as a whole; my perspective is much broader.
As a mother, I think the most visible change is one that I’m almost embarrassed to admit: I am less uptight with my kids about dirt and trash and strangers. I am more willing and happy to stop and help my kids interact with a curious stranger who wants to give them a squeeze or a kiss (is this making you American moms uncomfortable? It would have done that to me 6 months ago). I am more willing to go try something I am not sure I can do and push our boundaries as a trio of mom and 2 young kids out together. But I am also more keenly aware of my responsibility in choosing the environment they grow up in.
How are Palestinian mom-friends the same or different than the mom-friends you knew in the states?
Mothers here love their children just like we do and talk about their kids achievements and firsts with the same love and pride.
Moms here may tend to be less involved in their kids emotional lives from what I can tell. They don’t intervene on the playground, they don’t talk through meltdowns or reason with their kids. They tend to be stricter with discipline but more lenient about naps, bedtime, and letting their kids go play alone outside the house. I have often felt that Palestine is like America in the 1950s: spanking is normal, kids roam freely in the back (and front) seats of moving cars, and there are high demands for kids to behave and be polite. Gender roles are strongly enforced. There is nothing like an attachment parenting movement here. But for all that, kids are loved and valued. They just aren’t as protected from the dangers of the world, maybe because its impossible to do that here.
What’s something you have learned by being a mom in a different country that surprised you (or that might surprise us)?
It surprised me to find that in comparison, America is not as kid friendly as I thought! I assumed with all our kids museums, alternative schooling options, parenting books and awareness of our children’s emotional and psychological development that we were kid friendly. Here kids are way more present in all parts of adult life (for better or worse). Adults are much more tolerant of the presence of kids in restaurants, in stores, and everywhere. That was a real shocker to me.
What do you want other people to know about Palestine that they might not know?
Wow. I have asked this question of other expat friends of mine over these 6 months. I didn’t think I could capture it all so I will include things we want you to know:
We want people to know how friendly Palestinian people are and how welcoming the culture is. We want people to know that Israel is holding Palestine under ongoing military occupation because the rest of the world is condoning it. It is ludicrous. Palestine really exists despite all efforts to convince you that it doesn’t, and it has existed here for ages. Refugee camps are inside Ramallah city limits and full of people who have lost their homes due to this occupation. Checkpoints are all over the place and stop us from going between the small towns that make up Palestine. This increases the isolation of people from each other. At checkpoints we have to show ID to Israeli teenagers in uniform who point guns at us while they flirt with one another. We in the West Bank need a permit to visit our own consulate in Jerusalem, separated from us by the wall and a major Israeli military checkpoint. We don’t have citizenship because we technically are not a country, and all our travel is contingent on the whims of the Israeli government. Literally they can stop us from coming back in if we visit anywhere outside Palestine and we have to submit to humiliating interrogation about who we are and why we are here whenever we move between cities or go visit family outside Palestine. There is something called, “Administrative Detention” that Israel uses to simply scoop people up in raids in the middle of the night and hold them whereabouts unknown and no charges for 6 months. It happens in Ramallah all the time despite agreements/laws against it. It happens to normal people living non-political lives. There is a 26-ft tall, concrete segregation wall being built by Israel throughout the West Bank that is huge and ugly and it literally divides a house from its land, family from each other, and kids from their schools. It does not increase security for Israel, it secures more land for them.
In Palestine there is a big problem with pollution, overcrowding, aging and overburdened infrastructure. Just across the checkpoint and wall are Israeli settlements with swimming pools, good health care, parks, good schools, and affluence. The contrast is stark and very sad. Read about my experience traveling in Israel here.
Women dress in everything from tight jeans and tight shirts to full covering “hijab” and everything in-between. There is a christian population here! There are churches beside mosques coexisting peacefully. People try to lead normal lives with work, school, mortgages, cell phones, cars, gym memberships, kids, and grocery bills. There are chinese and mexican restaurants. There is a national orchestra. The arts are highly supported and valued here. It gets cold in the winter and the landscape is nothing like a desert. Doctors don’t always want payment for their services and healthcare is affordable to all, though often doctors have to work in Israel and travel one day a week to treat people in Ramallah who greatly need them.
Mainly we want people to know that this place and people deserve and need their freedom.–
(I want to thank Heather at themommyhood.com for the opportunity to answer these questions! It was really fun for me, and nice hearing her thoughtful questions. Feel free to comment!)
Here is a video I put together of my drive home in Ramallah. It has some nice views!
And here is one more video of a soundscape of living here. Ramallah is a city of unique sounds.