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We Saw Ramallah

- by Abe Asher, USA - 

The first time I came across the title of Mourid Barghouti’s account of his return to Palestine after 30 years in exile, I Saw Ramallah, I was mesmerized. There was something almost magnetic about that title, its suggestion that Barghouti stole a long look at a forbidden place, and left it with a story to tell.

The cover art of one of the newer editions of the book, my edition, does nothing to dispel this notion: its central figure is a man walking through an old street carrying a bag, past fruit stands and boarded buildings, his back turned to the camera, perfectly anonymous but for the red and white checkered kifayah that pops against the pale light and dull, dark colors which surround him.

I Saw Ramallah. Accomplishment. Poise. Pain. Loss. So much communicated with such little language.

When he returned in 1996, Barghouti walked into Palestine from Jordan, stalled only by Israeli security. When my two friends and I entered Palestine this spring, we did so on a bus hurtling down a four-lane highway, carrying worshippers back across the border after prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

It was the second Friday of Ramadan, and, coming from Jerusalem, Ramallah was blissfully calm. There were no soldiers surveying us from rooftops, strapped with guns the size of their torsos, no church groups or tour busses. Al-Manara Square was congested, but the residential streets sloping up and away from it were vacant and quiet, the views from their heights enchanting.

The mood, our mood, at least, was reflective. We strolled through the city, past young men bundling spongy qatayef pancakes into plastic bags, to the new city hall, with its manicured lawns, its colorful fountain. We sat and gazed at the luxury hotel down the street, reminded that the occupation has had its perks for the powerful, here as anywhere.

After he visited his home village more than 20 years ago, Barghouti wrote that the occupation has robbed Palestinians not of “the clay ovens of yesterday, but of the mystery of what we might invent tomorrow.” If any of the country’s cities could serve as an antidote to that theory, Ramallah, liberal and international, would be the one. But Ramallah too is evidence, perhaps not of a future stolen but of one distorted – an accidental capital, 12 miles and a galaxy away from the real thing.

The real thing, indeed. On the next day of our trip we walked through the ruins of a IDF-demolished home, and admired the work of a painter in the Am’ari refugee camp. The artist’s family was from Jaffa, a city long since closed to him, and made its living in the Mediterranean, a body of water he cannot access. He paints fish.

We saw Ramallah. The Western restaurants, the vegetable market, the dusty Abbas posters, the gleaming Arafat mausoleum, the contradictions, the construction, the swarming taxis. We did not see it as Barghouti did, and cannot carry it as he does, but we saw it nonetheless, and will carry it too. We were lifted by the exhilaration of reaching a forbidden place, that small act of defiance, and crushed by the stories we heard there.

It doesn’t particularly matter how we felt. But this, it seems, is the tension in places where injustice is overbearing and uncordial, a fact of life as lived through days, years, and generations: defiance is possible, if dangerous, resistance is improbable, by design, and you are always at risk, whoever you are, of being consumed.

And yet, life, somehow, some way, retains some of its balance. After we left city hall we walked to the Dar Zahran Heritage Building, an old family home that has been converted into a museum showcasing Palestinian art, outlining Palestinian history and tradition.

We ducked into this beautiful, austere house, cool in the sweltering late afternoon, and let our eyes run over the pictures of old Ramallah dotting the walls of the main room, Ramallah before the P.L.O. and the P.A., before the green line and the British, Ramallah when it was small and scarcely developed, Ramallah before it needed to be seen.

Our host, the proprietor, offered us tea. He apologized for his cough, the result of a lingering cold. We talked about the space, about the heat, about Ramadan. He told us he had been married just a week ago, for the first time, at the age of 41. We congratulated him.

“Thank you,” he said, laughing. “Finally.”


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