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:
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.