Farouk parked his car against a concrete wall. It left just enough space for traffic to pass by in the narrow street in Fawwar, a Palestinian town outside of Hebron. Following Farouk, I walked into an alley that was narrow and slightly inclined uphill. At the third concrete building, we paused at a black metal door. Leading the way, Farouk stepped into a small foyer where we slipped off our shoes.
Climbing three steps, we entered the Hamad family residence. Waiting inside, Leya greeted her husband and immediately shifted her attention to welcoming a stranger into her home. In the doorway ahead, I spied several boys’ faces peering around the corner. Laughter accompanied the bobbing of heads. One stern utterance from an older voice drew silence.
“Mr. Ric, salaam alaikum. Welcome to our home. Please come inside and make yourself comfortable.” Leya led me into the family living room and directed me to an oversized comfortable armchair.
“Alaikum salaam.” One of a handful of Arabic words that I knew, my reply was proper etiquette.
With high ceilings, the square living room had little adornment, a picture on one wall and a photo of the Palestinian flag on another. The room was entirely lined around its perimeter with sofas and arm chairs. One large coffee table before my chair was the only other furniture. Evidently, this room was meant to accommodate family gatherings.
In the doorway, Farouk stood silently but alert to family activity. “Welcome to our home. The family will join us soon. But first, some tea to greet our guest.”
Leya reappeared with a tray filled with teapot with cups and a plate of cookies. Behind her, a line of boys filed in order. The youngest twins kept darting ahead, only to be punched by an older brother and returned to their place in the rear.
While Leya poured tea, Farouk introduced me to his five sons. “This is Mohammed, my eldest son.” The thirteen-year-old stepped forward and hesitantly offered a handshake. He was shy but polite. Stepping aside, Mohammed quickly exited the room. I took note. Befriending this boy would require astute attention and deliberate yet subtle effort.
Second son Masood had already bounced forward and was extending his hand with enthusiasm. “Welcome to our home, Mr. Ric.” Masood was proud to display his command of English language. With restrained politeness, he retreated and sat on a sofa across from his new guest.
The five-year-old twins could not be restrained. Darting forward as their father announced them, Sadiq leaned over the armchair to grab my arm, while Habib leaned forward and embraced my knee. Instant rapport!
Farouk had taken his seat adjacent to mine and we began sipping our tea.
Immediately, I realized that we had missed one boy. Standing sheepishly silent and leaning against the doorway, Yakub observed me with something approaching awe. His father had told me that one of the boys loved America and always treasured anything that was labeled USA.
The timing perfect, I drew out the package I had carried into the home. Drawing the carefully wrapped gifts and presenting them to the boys, I had brought each boy a T-shirt from Hawaii and one age-appropriate toy. The twins giggled and exploded with glee as they tore into their presents.
I had given Masood a brain teaser toy–one of those impossible-to-take-apart objects. It had taken me a half hour to figure out. Masood held up his disassembled toy in ten seconds. This boy was a whiz and had no hesitancy to display it.
In the flurry of wrapping paper flying and giggles erupting, I had failed to notice that Yakub had disappeared. Until he slipped quietly into the room and knelt on the floor between his father and me. He was already wearing his T-shirt with a bright image of the American flag. He was definitely the quiet shy one. Age seven, he was too young to accompany his older brothers. And the twins took all the oxygen in the room with their youthful energy and play. Stuck in the middle, Yakub searched to find his place.
These five boys would win my heart over the coming three months. But there could be no doubt. Yakub and I had bonded silently with a pledge of loyalty.
Noise at the door announced the arrival of more family. Nearly time for the family meal, a weekly tradition on Holy Day was set to begin.