Nov 5 2013
LEARNING THE HARD WAY: Or what it’s like for an American woman to be married to an Arab Muslim in Gaza
“It was the most relieved I have ever felt,” she recalled of her escape to Israel. “Four years of hell was finally over.” Rogers is not the first Western woman to marry an Arab man and find out how few rights she had once removed to a Middle East country that abides by sharia, or Islamic law. But some are working to make her among the last.
USA Today Gunfire cracked all around Sara Rogers as she climbed to the roof of her high-rise home in Gaza. The year was 2005, and Israeli soldiers were fighting Palestinian gunmen to stop rocket attacks and destroy smuggling tunnels.
Rogers closed her eyes. “Just let one hit me in the head,” she begged. “And make it quick.” It was not the months of violence of the Second Intifada that made the Italian-American college graduate ache for death. It was her virtual enslavement by one of the most feared families in the Middle East. Days later, Rogers was in a taxi with her five children, praying her husband wouldn’t catch her and their five children before she reached the Israeli border.
The ordeal of an American woman who was held captive with her child by her husband in Iran was chronicled in the 1991 book and film “Not Without My Daughter.” And a French woman who escaped her Saudi prince husband has yet to be rejoined with her daughter despite a 2012 French court ruling ordering the husband to turn over the child.
The U.S. State Department does not keep records on its citizens who are kidnapped on foreign soil. Though it does try to put pressure on governments for an American’s release, State has gone on record in the past that it has “very limited capability” in Gaza.
When such kidnappings do occur, it often appears as a surprise to women as it was to Rogers, a bright multicultural studies student from upstate New York. Rogers was living with her mother in Las Cruces, a city on the Rio Grande in New Mexico, when she became enchanted by a soft-spoken Arab man working at the Middle Eastern cafe where she’d often study.
“I was the feminist, the rebel, everything you could imagine,” she said. Hatem Abu Taha proposed to her three days after they met. They were married soon after.
“The morning after we wed, my husband got up to meet his friends,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘What? We’re newlyweds.'” “He just told me he was doing guy things and I could do woman things,” she said in an interview at her home outside Boston.
Rogers worked as a nurse assistant but hoped for better. She completed a master’s degree and was preparing to write a book. Her husband rarely worked. He spoke often of his native land.
The couple had three children and were expecting a fourth when Taha said it was time they traveled to the Middle East to visit his Palestinian relatives. It was 2001. Taha’s family lived in Rafah, a city on the border with Egypt from which Palestinian militants launched Qassam rockets into Israel.
Rogers was surprised to see that Taha’s family appeared to be well off. They owned, he told her, Gaza’s only cigarette patent. She was also not ready for what happened to her husband.
Taha was ultra-patriotic, she said, and passive to the will of his family who were hostile to the American in their home. After two weeks, Rogers said her kids were “breaking down.” Her eldest son was suffering anxiety attacks. Her 2-year-old daughter had contracted dysentery.
When they arrived two weeks before, carpenters were building a third-floor addition to the family home. Taha told Rogers it was for his brother and his wife. But when the work was done, Taha told her the unit was where she would live.
Rogers was distressed and said she wanted the family to return home to the United States. “He just laughed: ‘You have no embassy here. You have no family. No one.’ I was in shock,” she said.
Her mother-in-law was the cruelest, she said, patrolling the downstairs so Rogers didn’t escape. The children were called “Yehudi”(Jews) and bullied constantly at school. Her husband told her the children were his and that she was nothing but “a vessel.” “I did not exist as a person,” she said.
There was worse to come. Rogers said Taha struck her and broke her jaw for not cleaning the refrigerator properly. And she was suspicious that her in-laws weren’t just involved in cigarette trading.
They would have lengthy conversations with members of Hamas, the Palestinian terror group whose urban warfare tactics Rogers witnessed firsthand. “The Palestinians would get inside a local school and start shooting from the windows,” she said. “And the Israelis would just fire back. Then you’d see people holding up dead Palestinian kids.”
When Rogers pleaded to move away from the perilous border with Israel, her father-in-law refused, claiming it would be an honor for them to be “martyred.” It was soon clear the family was active in terror networks. Israeli aerial attacks were common.
“We could hear the helicopter coming a mile away: tick, tick, tick, tick,” Rogers said. “Then it would drop the bomb.”
Rogers’ eldest son was injured by an Israeli tank shell. Her newborn son chewed holes in his feet because of the stress. One night, Taha and his nephew Yahya didn’t return from a trip.
“On the BBC was a report that two Palestinians from Islamic Jihad had claimed an attack and a young man and his wife were dead,” said Rogers. “My sister-in-law came up the stairs crying happily, saying that Yahya was now a martyr and in heaven. I had to get out.”
On a trip to Gaza City to meet a family friend, Rogers slipped away while the men were at afternoon prayers. In her burka, she had heard that illegal taxis brought people from Gaza to Israel and pleaded with a local store owner to call her one.
“I asked the cab driver how long it took to Erez and he said half an hour. I said, ‘If you can make it in 15 minutes, you can have every bit of gold I have.’ He got me to the border.”
Rogers said that speaking about her life in Palestine helps ease the pain. But it will be a long time until she recovers. “I try to take the positives from everything,” she said. “I meet good people and everything makes me grateful.”
“My kids are smart, funny, you’d never have guessed what they went through,” she added. “I tell them that it was a bad thing but that it was given to them for a reason. They can make their lives count.”