I never told my mother: I am small. Maybe five or six, not more. We are at my grandmother’s house. I am the only child there, everybody else is grown up. My uncle, my mom’s brother, calls me to sit in his lap. He is laughing, telling jokes. His breath is alcohol. He is a large and rough man. At some point, I start feeling uncomfortable, but I remain in his lap. His hands are feeling my small body in a way I know is wrong. Finally, after what seems like eternity, I squiggle out of his lap. I don’t tell my mom or my dad, because I don’t even know what happened, and I don’t have the words to describe it. From then on, I try to avoid this uncle.
What I never told my mother
I never talked to my mother about the countless sexual harassments I have experienced. Now I will never have the chance. When I asked my daughter, after her suicide attempt, why she had never come to me and told me of the bullying she had quietly suffered for years at school, her response was that she didn’t want me to hurt. In her admission, I recognized myself. I, too, did not want my mom to hurt on my behalf. But even if I had wanted to tell my mom when I was five, six, fifteen, sixteen, I simply could not, because back then, in the 80s and 90s, we simply did not talk about sexual harassment. I had no language for it, and there was no internet to access any information about it. Sexual education was all but non-existent.
I never told my mother: I am 15 or 16, it’s either July or August. I’m pedalling someone’s bicycle up a one-lane road in the small town where I grew up. The road curves and bends. Mostly, it is dark, the shadows of tree branches thick on the asphalt. As I reach one particular bend in the road, I take a deep breath, and speed up. I want to pass this spot as fast as my legs can pedal. I don’t understand what it is that frightens me. Nobody will ever know the shadows I have to pass through to reach the end of this road, to come out of them to the dancing sunlight reflected in the lake.
Sometimes I pass the spot without seeing him. But most of the times, he’s there, in the shadows, waiting, lurking, for me to see. When he’s there, he’s always ready. What he doesn’t know: I cannot I will not I do not see anything. I do not see his face, and I do not see the very thing he wants me to see. In my imagination, he is older, maybe in his 40s or 50s, but I have no way of knowing and it doesn’t mean anything. My memory plays tricks on me. I imagine him holding his trench coat open. But when I search my mind, I don’t come up with any clear image of him or his clothes, or a trench coat for that matter, nor that thing which he meant for me to see.
What remains with me – all these years – is the fear, the knowing that he is waiting for me, that journey through the shadows, the fast pedalling, holding my breath, and the relief when I finally emerge from the shadows and reach the lake. The being alone with it. The not being able to tell anyone because I didn’t have the language, the words for describing what happened to me, because this was not something spoken about. I take this memory with me, and smuggle it like drugs, hidden, across the Mediterranean, to another country, another home.
I never told my mother: I am nine or ten. Maybe eleven. My dad takes me to eat falafel on Halutz street in Hadar, Haifa. Mostly men are crowding in front of the small kiosk, taking up the whole space of the sidewalk. I feel something rubbing against my back. I look up at my dad, wanting him to save me, but I have no words for what is being done to me. So I just keep standing there, waiting for it to be over.
I never told my mother: It is the mid-1980s. I am on the 44 bus from school. The bus is packed. I am standing. Someone rubs against my back. I remain frozen, waiting to reach my stop so it can be over and I can get off the bus.
I never told my mother: I am twelve or thirteen. I go to a day summer camp. My favourite activity is the swimming pool. Until one of the men working at the pool asks me if I’d like to learn how to swim properly. I don’t remember if I said yes. He holds my body horizontally above the water, explaining to me how to move my arms and legs. His hands are on my belly, supporting me. Then his hands are on my breasts. He acts as if this is a normal part of his ‘teaching.’ I act as if this is a normal part of him teaching me how to swim properly. I never go into the pool again for the rest of summer camp.
I never told my mother: I am 43 years old. I walk into a building, followed by two men in their forties. The three of us are standing, waiting for the elevator. One of the men is talking on the phone, not paying any attention to me. The other one: staring at me in a creepy way, not taking his eyes off my body. I turn away, but I see his piercing eyes in the full-length mirror. I am 43 and maybe because I don’t go out much, preferring to lead my life in private spaces, using public spaces minimally, only passing through them when necessary, I haven’t had this kind of experience in years, so it takes me by surprise. I think to myself he’ll probably realize his creepy leering is making me feel uncomfortable and stop it, but his stare only becomes increasingly creepier as the seconds go by. A minute goes by, the elevator doesn’t come, the man doesn’t stop his creepy staring. At this point I realize there is no way in hell I am getting into an elevator with this predator; I walk outside to breathe and calm down, and come back a few minutes later, when it is safe for me.
I never told my mother: I am over 40. It’s early morning, and before going to my parents’ house to care for my mom, I need to get her monthly prescriptions from the pharmacy. I’m thrilled to have found a parking spot just a few metres from the pharmacy, on the main road, and not having to drive around one-way side-streets. On most days, it takes me at least twenty minutes of frustrated driving through the one way back streets, hopelessly in search of a parking spot. Just as I get out of the car, a young man stops his car near me. At first, I think he’s going to ask me if I’m leaving so he can park, and I wave my hand. He keeps talking, but I can’t hear him, so I take a couple of steps towards his car to better hear what he’s saying. He asks me in Arabic: “How do I get downtown Haifa?” I’m about to reply, when I suddenly register, out of the corner of my eye, the movement of his hand in his lap. I look down, and to my horror, he’s holding his huge penis in his hand and wagging it. My eyes fly back up to his face. He’s now smiling wickedly. My reaction is immediate; it isn’t my mind but my body that responds by immediately turning around and walking away fast. My mind goes blank, my body trembles in shock. I realize that I have just been sexually assaulted, my mind violated.
That idiot has unbalanced me. I should have just laughed at him and his pathetic-sized dick, no matter it was huge. And that I should have written down his plate number and reported him. Being a smart-ass after the fact is easy. I could kick myself in the ass for walking away, but at that moment, my mind just shut down and went that automatic survival-protection mode. I just knew I had to get away.
Contrary to my keeping these secrets from my mother, my own daughter, on at least two occasions that are as clear in my memory today as if they had just happened, came directly to me and folded up into my arms. On the first occasion, she was around thirteen. A boy tried to grab her under water in the sea. She kicked him. On the second occasion, a Haredi man put his hand on her thigh on the bus. She got up from her seat. I was proud of her. Proud that she knew how to react, didn’t freeze like me all those times, and most of all proud that she didn’t keep it a secret and came to me. She did not feel guilt or shame, unlike me and many women of my generation. I learned that we can never protect our daughters from the predators that are out there, lurking at every corner, but we can and must educate them on how to act in these situations, embrace them when they come to us, cry with them, support them, and help them become resilient.
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Dear Khulud Khamis your honesty propels me to share my story honestly. I did tell my mother. One day when I was 14 and at my wit’s end between the bullying from my siblings and sexual assault from adult relatives. She punished me. I told her many, many times that my uncle was torturing me. Begged her not to send me to him for Arabic tutoring. She refused to listen. I never told her about being bullied or assaulted again. Though, she did tell me about her experiences over the years. Turned out the very person who had assaulted her had been my worst tormenter. She never made the connection or acknowledged what had been done to me wasn’t my fault. On some level I think I forgave her. But I never trusted her again. I don’t have any children but I have worked hard to develop trust with my niece which I think has been a good thing for both of us. Thank you for creating this space for truth telling ♥️
yes. we didn’t have the words and we didn’t want to hurt our mothers… though mine was good up to a point, while not describing in specific words she did make clear about where it was not safe to go, where a darkness might be waiting as it were. but there are always unexpected places: once i was in a train with sliding doors. i was the only person in the carriage. the train slid into a station, and the door automatically slide open. a man opened his coat and displayed himself. at that moment, the doors automatically shut, and the train moved on… what things men do! thanks for a good piece.
Thanks for your powerful text. I hope my daughters will be as strong as yours one day.
I’ve always been like you in these situations, just powerless, a bit unconscious.
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