Amira was a tomboy of classic proportions. Her brother Amir was bright eyed and rambunctious, but Amira had spirit like a wild stallion. If you, or any of the children at the Arab-Jewish community center wronged her, her eyes would flash like fire and she’d yell with the strength of a woman wrongfully imprisoned. She wasn’t afraid of getting dirty by bellying along on the classroom floor with the other boys, playing the high-stakes card- slapping game, when the kids would lie face-down like frogs in the middle of the classroom and cup their hands together to slap pictures of D-list European soccer players, making the cards jump ever so slightly in the air. I could never understand the thrill of the game’s outcome, but this was success, in Jaffa…
When it came time for gym class, Amira was the first one on the basketball court where the children played—sliding recklessly at high speed in her socks to get a place smack-dab in the center where she could be seen reaching her hand oh so desperately into the sky, waving to be picked as a volunteer to demonstrate the day’s first activity. Her sentiment about not being picked by Danny (the military style gym instructor with a heart of gold that shone through in the absent-minded head-pats he bestowed upon children who followed directions, always resulting in grins of pride and idolatry on their faces…) is better characterized as unpardonable betrayal. Her eager wide eyes would slowly narrow into slits, her arms crossing. You could see the sobs threatening to burst out of her stubborn heaving chest, but Amira refused to cry: unless of course she brought the tears on herself—intentionally trying to engender sympathy and alliance from one of the teachers.
Amira loved me. She’d run at me with full speed every morning I entered the daycare, grabbing me in an overly aggressive hug, and impromptu show-and-tell of whatever tomboyish toy or trinket she had brought in that day to play with. I could only imagine the dismayed look of her mother, who in my mind would try to struggle a dress onto her in the morning, or send her off to school with a doll in hand. (These were my stereotypes about Arab culture popping up to direct my imaginative speculations once again, darn them… I was always swatting them away like annoying flies that buzz just out of reach and won’t go away until you stand up and address them head on, once and for all. And even then, you always miss…such that they return when you’ve just settled back into what you thought was a comfortable state of laziness…)
Amira would struggle her way into my lap– inevitably catching me in the stomach or kidney with an elbow along the way– and settle, perched and pleased with herself atop my knees as I bounced her up and down like a bucking bronco—unavoidably inhaling the smell of her baby powder and cheap hairspray as her fluffly ponytail curls tickled and brushed against my nose. She spoke no English whatsoever, and I understood no Arabic, but we managed to communicate through blunt Hebrew expressions– each of us new to the foreign vocabulary we determinedly needed to survive in Israel. In any case, Amira was headstrong and mischievous, and I admired these quintessential Jaffa-hoodlum traits in her precocious seven-year-old personality.
Lyri was also headstrong and a mischievous. But she was Jewish. Which wouldn’t matter, except for that it in Jaffa it does. Lyri was 17, and never showed her face at Muzot High School without a daring ring of raccoon eye makeup and a thick dark layer of red lipstick. Her curly, dark hair probably hadn’t been cut since she turned 13, and her clothes were tattered and bordered on the style that would be coveted by the best of Israel’s prostitutes. She was an amazing photographer and sketcher, except she only drew faces of ugly wrinkled old alien men that had sunken eyes and absurdly skinny necks. She drew these in blue ball point pen while she wasn’t paying attention in class, only pausing to smile ironically to herself anytime someone made a particularly inane comment to draw laughs. Lyri was eerily dark and captivatingly beautiful: it was impossible not to stare at her.
My first day working with her one-on-one, we sat down in the stuffy Muzot attic computer lab to take on the task of writing a movie review of her favorite film: the video rendition of Pink Floyd’s song “The Wall.” When I asked her why she wanted to write about “The Wall,” Lyri replied predictably that she didn’t know, she just liked the song. I tried to ask follow up questions, eagerly wanting to draw out her literary critique of the movie and trying to direct her toward analysis. She lifted her head from where she had been resting it face-down on the desk, focusing her dark captivating Egyptian looking eyes directly on me, and said “I know you want to help, but I don’t want to work. I’m tired and I want to go home.” Point blank. Honest, to the point, polite. Check-mate.
I paused. I had been feeling frustrated with my volunteer program for a few weeks now, wondering why the program staff were underestimating not only our maturity and intellectual curiosity in class, but also our abilities as volunteers. We had been placed, I felt, in positions that underutilized our potential to make a real difference. We were babysitting and taking up space. We were “helping” marginalized populations rather than working alongside them as true partners. I was fed up, and tired from dealing with the antics of Amira and her posse at AJCC since 8 in the morning. I didn’t want to work with Lyri either, I wanted to go home and take a big nap, drawing the curtains and dreaming of my busy and important life at home in California. I had half a mind to dismiss Lyri early and tell her teacher Rosanna that she had refused to work and that I had given up.
Instead, I looked Lyri in the eye and asked her why she was tired. She looked taken aback that she was being challenged. “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep. What?” (Israelis use “what” in place of “why,” as in “what do you want from me, why don’t you stop asking me useless questions and just do it my way so we can move on from this time wasting business!”)
“Were you up late?” I asked her, “Do you have insomnia?”
“No,” she said, with a dead but slightly interested shake of her head. “I’m just tired!”
“Ok,” I said, thinking quickly, “Why don’t we switch places? You sit here and I’ll sit at the computer. You can just talk and I’ll type for you.”
“What? No!” She exclaimed, looking surprised, “I don’t want to do this, I can’t! I don’t… I can’t…..” she trailed off, seemingly panicky and frustrated, but smiling ever so slightly, knowing she had been caught.
“It will be easy, I said. You can even close your eyes, just talk to me about why you like the movie. I’ve never seen it. Why don’t you tell me how it starts and who…”
She cut me off. “No!!!!” she shrieked, desperate now. “I’m sorry, you’re very nice and everything but I can’t do this. I’m stupid! You don’t get it…” and pushing quickly out of her chair she stood up and ran down the stairs, out of the stuffy attic and to god knows where in the streets of Jaffa. Anywhere but here…