A Know-Nothing In Palestine

Last weekend I visited Palestinian West Bank for the first time.

I have been writing a few travel pieces and reading a lot of them since I moved to Israel. If there is one common theme that typically leads to criticism of these pieces, it’s that an outsider who does not identify with the place is inherently ignorant about its customs and history, so they treat the landscape and its people as exotic objects that are there only to a fuel the outsider’s established narrative.

So I wanted to try an experiment for this particular trip. For my first visit, I would learn as little as necessary before visiting the Palestinian capital, Ramallah (including its language, history, layout and activities), and see how the city naturally presents itself to me (or doesn’t).

The goal was to see how quickly I would be able to understand the pathways and pace of the city on a whim, and how much of the city’s political and cultural history I would be able to learn just from casual encounters and reading the city plaques, architecture and so on.  Then, two weeks later, I will revisit the same spots after learning as much as possible and see how my perspective changes (also, I would see how wrong I might have been about certain assumptions).

Since I have been living in Tel Aviv, I already knew something of what to expect and a tad about the city’s place in Palestinian history. But I know no Arabic nor am I knowledgeable about Palestinian or Islamic culture in any meaningful way.

I also am a bit of a bumbler when I travel and have a tendency to under-pack, so despite my love for fitting in with downtown street cultures, I tend to stick out from the crowd. This time I forgot to bring underwear and I only had a couple of shirts that would keep me cool in the heat. One of them was a Hawaiian button up.

Yes, I wandered around the West Bank with a DSLR in some Safari shorts, a tourist hat from Petra and a Hawaiian shirt from a Portland thrift store. Folks were surprised to see me.

Here are my first impressions of Ramallah, roughly in the order I took them:

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Ramallah only became a de-facto capital of Palestine after Yasser Arafat made it his headquarters in 1996 (this I knew). Walking around Ramallah will give you a sense of a small town that was suddenly built up over a couple of decades. There seems to have been little street planning beyond the older city center and, probably due to the sudden influx of money, the newer buildings look gaudy and out of place compared to their older counterparts.
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Ramallah apparently has a large minority of Christians, made evident by some striking art-deco Orthodox churches throughout the city.
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Yasser Arafat Square. Yasser Arafat is seen by many (especially Israelis) as a terrorist, but he seems to be more of a freedom fighter to Palestinians- equivalent to Nelson Mandela (who also has a square named after him in Ramallah).
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Meat, meat and so much more meat, but it was Ramallah’s hummus that really blew me away.
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The largest mosque in Ramallah, which was built in 1962 (sign on the building), was smack-dab in the middle of the city market. When I visited I was encouraged to take picture of the chandeliers and architectural elements by a friend I made during Iftar (which is the evening meal after a day of fasting during Ramadan).
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Plenty of stalls, candy stores, clothing shops and toy stores open as late as 2AM on my first night in Ramallah. Perhaps due to religion, there were only a handful of bars that I could find and no venues typical of an American city open after midnight.
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It isn’t just cigarette smoke that makes the atmosphere in what is likely the only pool hall in Ramallah. During the game, these kids are the embodiment of Paul Newman Cool.
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Cool they may be, but their pool skills have a long way to go. Far too much stabbing, whacking and bouncing the Q-ball to sink any spectacular shots. Pretty decent at mind games, though.
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These teenagers asked me to keep their faces out of the frame. They didn’t speak English (although one kept calling me “mother” and got a few laughs out of it), but they asked me to sit and watch their card game. One of them showed me an action movie they filmed earlier that day that involved a kung fu cop rescuing a toddler from gangsters.
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He wouldn’t give me his name, but this deaf man asked me to take some shots of him looking cool with the hookah. I believe the flavor was licorice.
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Ramallah is a noticeably age diverse family-oriented city. The downtown is filled with toy stores and candy shops, the merchandise of which is often being sold by children. At night it was the same, with massive crowds of kids running around the city center well past midnight.
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Three bus drivers at the Central Station asked me to take their picture. I was surprised by how many times I was asked to do this throughout my trip, especially since most of my conversations were in hand gestures.
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The landscape of much of the West Bank is dry even though it has decent amounts of yearly rainfall. Because Israel controls access to most of the water supply, it isn’t too surprising to see the West Bank drier than on the other side of the 1967 line and in the settlements. These are probably not settlements (those are typically fortified, based on what I saw), but you can see another reason why water may become scarce: there is very little soil or vegetation in the hills of Palestine, meaning that water drains faster. I am guessing that flash floods might by why most of the ancient towns and settlements I saw are built on the top of the hills instead of in the valleys.
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One of the more famous murals I had seen before welcoming visitors to Bethlehem.
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The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
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The Old City of Bethlehem, which has a Muslim majority despite being filled with a number Christian churches. Also, most of the “old” buildings seem to only date back to the early 19th century, which you can tell by the way the stones were cut and cemented.
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The market in the Old City of Bethlehem.
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The likeness of PLO leader Yasser Arafat can be found everywhere in the West Bank. In graffiti, on street signs and in the names of major squares.
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A major road in Western Jerusalem that features one of the new streetcars. Of course, they do not run on Shabbat so residents have access to a lovely couple of miles of peaceful outdoor space every weekend.

So that is my first trip to Ramallah (with an afternoon in Bethlehem and Jerusalem). I will be going back again next weekend after I study up by reading Wikipedia pages (and other articles, obviously).

Ramallah is the only capital city I have ever visited where I have been offered drinks, dinner and tours for free by folks who came up to me on the street. Even though I look Jewish (compared to residents of Ramallah) and accidentally slipped into Hebrew from time to time, I never once felt unsafe.

Of course, now that we are in the full heat of summer, things might be different next time. But I have full confidence in the five-second friendships I made during my first visit to be enthusiastic about my second.

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