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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Israel through the eyes of a child

By Paul Adams
Globe and Mail Update
Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003

When I told my five-and-a-half-year-old son Alexandre the other day that his favourite aunt and uncle were coming to visit in February, his response startled me.

“Tell them not to come in February,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because in Israel there are a lot of wars,” he casually explained, “and February is a bad month for wars.”

I am not sure where Alexandre got the idea that February is any worse around here than the other eleven months. Perhaps it is because as war loomed war in Iraq last February he and his sister were forced to evacuate to Canada with my wife by order of the Canadian embassy. (My wife is a Canadian diplomat).

But what struck me most about this conversation with my son was not so much his peculiar ideas about February, as the way he has come to think of the troubles here as simultaneously grave and routine. After all, he didn't seem particularly alarmed about the prospect of being here himself in February.

We are now in our third year living in Israel. When we arrived, Alexandre was barely three. What I noticed in our first year here was the equanimity with which he accepted the many signs that we had left our quiet little neighbourhood in Ottawa so far behind. The man in front of us in the ice cream queue with a pistol jammed in his belt did not excite his interest, nor did soldiers hitch-hiking with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

In some respects, Alexandre still exhibits what seems to me a startling nonchalance. At the American school where he attends kindergarten, he has never questioned the presence of the short-haired men with wraparound sunglasses and bulges in their jackets who stand silently outside each of the gates in the morning.

At the beach the other day, I told him I had honed in on an army helicopter with my binoculars. “That's a police helicopter,” he corrected me, with a five-year-old boy's easygoing expertise in such matters.

But in other ways, it is plain that the dark truth about this place has begun filtering into his consciousness. One day last January, we drove through the famous Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, where my wife had to drop off some papers. As we waited in the car for her Alexandre suddenly asked with real alarm in his voice: “Is there going to be a bomb?” Whether it was the fact that we were in Jerusalem, or the presence nearby of heavily armed paramilitary Border Police, I couldn't say. But it hit home with me because it was the first time he had expressed such personal fear.

A few weeks later, something happened to Alexandre that is all-too-common here: someone he knew had a near miss. The woman who attends to him after school briefly left the bus stop where she was waiting at Tel Aviv's main bus station to go to the toilet. While she was gone, a suicide bomber detonated his load at that very spot. For a while after that, Alexandre resisted travelling to central Tel Aviv for his regular play date with a friend.

Mercifully, until recently Alexandre never seemed to worry about the places my job takes me, though he knows I go regularly to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Then last month he asked me about the military helmet and armoured vest I always carry in the trunk of my car. I told him that no one ever tries to shoot at me but that I have the equipment just be extra safe – a fairly modest misrepresentation of the truth that he accepted without further questions.

Because his life was tuned upside down by the war in Iraq earlier this year, and because he lives in the news-saturated home of a reporter married to a diplomat, he has developed a precocious interest in world events. After the apparent suicide of the British arms expert, Dr. David Kelly, this spring, he asked a lot of questions. I must have been evasive -- uncomfortable addressing the subject of suicide with a five-year-old. In frustration, he developed his own theory.

“I think that bad boy Saddam Hussein killed him,” he declared definitively, as if he had just wrapped up his own judicial inquiry.

Saddam came up again the other day, when Alexandre asked whether he had died. I told him that Saddam was probably still in hiding. “When the Americans catch him,” he said, “he's going to get a big Time Out.”

It is funny in its way, of course, as it always is watching young minds begin to wrestle with the bigger world. But it is also worries me a bit. Earlier this year, I was researching a story on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among children in this region. Seventy per cent of Palestinian children and more than one in ten Israeli children are clinically diagnosable with the disorder – the modern version of what used to be called battle fatigue. In children, the symptoms may be bed-wetting, sweating, diarrhea, or the shakes.

Alexandre has none of those signs, thank God. In fact, considering he lives in Israel, he is very lucky. Our home is in Herzlia Pituach, a suburb of Tel Aviv heavily populated by diplomats and expatriates that has been blessedly spared any violence since the intifada began here three years ago. (Knock wood.) People talk about living in the “Herzlia bubble” – a reference to the sensation of being insulated from the region's troubles.

But I also know that the truth about this place is beginning to close in on Alexandre, and will gradually intrude more and more deeply on his serenity, as it eventually does for anyone living here. No kid needs that. If for no other reason, I am glad that we will not be lingering here too much longer.

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