Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ramallah: Heart of Palestinian Culture

Written by Josh:

After being warned that we "won't come out alive" and that "it's not even funny to joke about going there," we were a bit skeptical and worried as we ventured into Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank. Our nervousness wasn't subsided as we drove past a few instances of anti-semitic grafitti sprayed on stoned-slabs, bearing swastikas. But our actual experiences in the city immediately eased our fears.

Three years ago, Israel ended the occupation of Ramallah, thus granting the Palestinian Authority full control over the city. Fatah was well-represented with stoic-lookin policemen bearing AK-47s scatterred around the well-trafficed city. We hired a Bethlehem taxi driver named Toufiq to act as our tourguide and show us around the city. Our first stop was at Arafat's house, now turned into a memorial site for the previous Palestinian president. Toufiq told us that Arafat was popular amongst many of the Palestinian people, with the reason being that he could relate to the average people and feel for them on their own level. He explained that, unlike many current Palestinian leaders, it was not unusual for him to go out and play with the children, and if someone needed money for a cause, he was incredibly generous in granting them it.

Arafat's popularity also rang strongly in the paintings and posters of him found plastered throughout the West Bank. Armed Fatah security surrounded the perimiter. An aggressive looking guard approached us and the language barrier dissolved as Toufiq translated the guard's Arabic to English. Although his harsh disposition may have put us off at first, the guard allowed his curious personality to eminate, asking us questions about American culture and our travels through Palestine. We realized that the law enforcement are not violent radicals as many may believe, but rather, they held many commonalities to the police serving in the USA.

Next, Toufiq drove us to downtown Ramallah, described as the "heart of Palestinian culture." Imagine a typical street in New York City. Replace the American masses occupying the streets and sidewalks with Palestinians, dark-skinned Muslims, and there you have downtown Ramallah. Store-after-store and mall-after-mall filled up the busy streets, and shoppers, both male and female, religious and secular, flooded the stores. Massive flashy billboards sporting new products and Arabic writing stood out amongst the tall buildings. Street vendors selling everything from fruit, to bootlegged DVD'S, to cosmetic products, approached us at every corner. Most costs here are far cheaper than in America; a meal that would cost 15 dollars in the US might cost 8 NIS (2 US Dollars). Unlike other areas we visited in the West Bank, the economy in Ramallah seemed to be doing quite well. This was evident by the number of wealthy Palestinians living there. The dangers many had warned us of regarding Ramallah seemed non-existant in this modern, industrialized Palestinian city.

On the drive back to Bethlehem, Toufiq pointed out the Israeli settlements surrounding so much of the West Bank. Many Jewish settlements, although illegal under international law, are protected by checkpoints, electrified fences, and some even by the infamous wall. Settlers are granted the priveledge of travelling on exclusive Israeli roads, which in many cases, separate West Bank cities. At a checkpoint about 30 kilometers out of Ramallah, our taxi was pulled aside and approached by an Israeli soldier who then took our passports and briefly interrogated us as to why we were in the West Bank.

Driving back along the desert-ridden roads, I realized that Ramallah was a great example of what Palestine at large can be; could be if allowed control of their own economy, could be if allowed freedom of movement, could be if allowed freedom from a foreign military controlling their every move. As they say on this side of the wall: InshaAllah (if God wills).


  1. The wall is recent history. Why have the inhabitants of the refugee camp not left to go elsewhere even before the 1990s and the First Intifada?

    From what are the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades protecting the refugee camp?

    ~ Ben Halpern

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  3. Oh man, this is quite interesting.

    It seems, Ben, that the problem with the wall is the way and place in which it was constructed, rather than the broad concept of a security fence or barrier. It has reduced terrorism, but would have done the same without cutting off Palestinian families, cities, and land.

    Israel has the right to protect it's land- but I don't see a point to having internal checkpoints within the West Bank (not in Israel proper), such as the checkpoint in which Josh and Michael's taxi was pulled over.

    It's interesting that Arafat is still regarded as a hero there. From at least a somewhat objective perspective, it seems that the Palestinian situation overall certainly deteriorated during his leadership.

    Did you guys tell the people at the camp or in Bethlehem you guys were Jewish? Would it have mattered?


  4. We told a few people that we were Jewish, and to them it wasn't a big deal. I think for some it might be, but I've also heard from Jews that have visited that you will be more respected if you let them know that you are a Jew backing them.
    One thing I noticed also was that alot of Palestinians use the terms "Jews" and "Israelis" interchangeably. The reason for this being is that they haven't seen Jews outside of Israel, they don't know that there are Jews other than (what they view as) their oppressors (soldiers with guns occupying their lands representing the Jewish state, settlers (which are HUGE in numbers around many parts of the West Bank).
    When our taxi driver used the word Jew instead of Israeli, we tried to explain to him that there are a lot of Jews inside and outside of Israel that support the Palestinian people and disagree with much of what Israel is doing. He seemed kind of confused, like he didn't understand what we meant.
    I think eventually when we earn the trust of many Palestinians in the area, and then tell them we are Jewish, it will help to change the public opinion, and show that not all Jews support the way they are being treated.

  5. the first sentence coulda been more efffective/exciting if it started at "being warned...", but a wonderful description of ramallah, and thats an excellent wrap up sentence.

    i get why isreali cops would be on edge and aggressive toward foreign kids, why do you think that the fatah cops were? i guess my question would be better asked, " why do you think the fatah cops are on edge or constantly threatening?"