I arrived in Ramallah on Aug. 30. My first stop was the office of Abu Amjad, or Abed Hajj al-Kiswani, who manages and rents houses and apartments. A friend stayed in a basement apartment attached to his house last summer. Abed, as he asks me to call him, took me to his home and showed me the basement apartment as well as a small house, both for $500 a month, including utilities. He showed me a couple others that were more expensive, and simply too big. Rents in Ramallah are very high, compared to Cairo, Amman or Damascus. I chose the little house for $500 a month, which is above a French engineering office. Outside the house is a large rooftop deck, with extraordinary views to the west. Everyday, I see a spectacular sunset. On clear mornings and nights, I can Tel Aviv. Abed says in more peaceful times, he could drive to Tel Aviv in 50 minutes from Ramallah. Now, he’s not allowed to enter Israel or Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, even with his American passport.
The home is well-furnished and I’ve got about everything I’ll need, except heat. I’m going to need a heater once it gets colder in a month or so. The weather is still dry and hot during the day, but is already cooling off at night. I’ve got a satellite dish, which receives lots of channels in languages I can’t understand, including Russian and Chinese. I mostly switch between BBC World, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabeeya. I’m lucky to understand half of what I hear on the latter two, but they have excellent programming and it’s good practice.
I’m here to study Arabic at Birzeit University, which is the most prestigious four-year university in the Palestinian territories. It’s situated outside the village of Birzeit, a 15-minute drive north of Ramallah. The campus buildings are all made of native stone, arranged on a rocky hill top, with views of Palestinian villages in valleys and on hillsides, and one Jewish settlement, distinctive for its red-tile roofs. The building where I have classes was recently constructed and, aside from Arabic classes for non-native speakers, it is dedicated to women’s studies. It was donated by the Kingdom of Bahrain.
There are 7,000 students at Birzeit and no dormitories. Almost all commute from elsewhere, mostly from surrounding villages, or Ramallah, which is the defacto administrative capital of the Palestinian territories. My commute to school takes a half hour, but doesn’t seem that long. It takes me through the center of Ramallah, where I walk a couple blocks between service taxis. It costs a total of $1.25. The service taxis are yellow-painted Ford vans which hold between 7 and 10 people and run so frequently I rarely wait more than a minute for one to leave. I enjoy taking public transportation in foreign countries as a glimpse into the daily life of ordinary people. In the past several years, the Israeli military has frequently set up a temporary checkpoint on the road from Ramallah to Birzeit, which can make the commute hours long. They’ve only done so once since I’ve been here, and it wasn’t when I was on the route.
My first class, Third-year Modern Standard Arabic, was Thursday and I’m pleased with the structure of the course and the professor. His name is Moussa Khoury and he received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. We’ll be reading authentic texts, including contemporary Palestinian poetry, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m also taking second-year Palestinian Colloquial Arabic. My first colloquial class was today. Dr. Khoury introduced the class structure and spoke with each of us to gauge our conversation levels, but a different professor will teach the course. I'm at a higher level than the other students, since I took a course this past year at Texas on the Levantine dialect, which includes Palestine, and I spent the summer in Jordan, where spoken Arabic is very similar to the West Bank. There are only four students in the class, which is great. It's the smallest Arabic class I've ever taken.
Since I’ve been in Ramallah, I haven’t seen the Israeli military at all. They are not currently occupying the center of the city, but control the flow of people and goods to and from Jerusalem, as well as between cities in the West Bank. Ramallah, like most places in the West Bank, isn’t far from Jewish settlements, built on confiscated Palestinian land and considered illegal by international law. They continue to be expanded, despite longstanding, repeated objections from the U.S. government, the United Nations and the European Union. They are considered a provocation by Palestinians. The Jewish settler who killed four Palestinian laborers last month lives in a settlement between Ramallah and Nablus, about 30 miles to the north.
The last time I was in Ramallah was in the spring of 2002, during the Israeli military siege of West Bank cities, in response to a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. Buildings were destroyed, cultural centers ransacked and cars flattened by tanks. The city was under a strict curfew. Today, it appears to be thriving. Several upscale restaurants have since opened, the center of the city bustles with people shopping for clothes and electronics. It is the economic capital of the Palestinian territories and is burgeoning with Palestinian migrants looking for work. Some of the prosperity comes from wealth accumulated in the West, particularly America. Almost everyday, I hear a conversation on the street between Palestinians in American English. Many people here have American passports and travel frequently between the two.
Abed, my landlord, told me five of his seven children live in America. His sister lives there. His parents live in Chicago, after spending 13 years in Sweden. I met a grocer yesterday who used to live in Houston, then the U.S. Virgin Islands, but returned so that his children would spend their adolescence in Arab society, away from temptations of drugs. My dry cleaner’s brother has been living in Chicago for 30 years. His son’s name is Bob.
Maybe partially because of the connection between Palestine and America, Palestinians here have been extremely friendly and helpful to me. I have encountered very gracious Arab hospitality elsewhere – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt – but Palestinians have struck me as overly helpful at times. Abed purchased a very nice table and four chairs for my house, and tells me that I can call him at any time of the day or night if I need him for anything. Every time I come to his house, I am given coffee or tea, and often food. I still haven’t paid my first month’s rent because I’m waiting for my first fellowship check at the University of Texas to be deposited into my account, and he won’t let me apologize – as if he’s embarrassed that I feel the need to apologize. You will pay when you can pay, he says. I was with an American friend the other night in Ramallah and we were asking for directions to a coffee shop. A man gave directions, and five minutes after we set off, he was running after us to tell us he had made a mistake and corrected himself. As I walk down the street, I receive waves and hellos, in English and Arabic, as a white visitor might receive in small town America. This good will comes despite the fact that my government provides Israel the attack helicopters, bulldozers and other military hardware that are used against Palestinian people.
I’m about a 10-minute walk to the Old City of Ramallah – a several block area of fruit and vegetable stalls, groceries, churches and a mosque – where the buildings are made of large stone blocks and date mostly to the Ottoman era. It’s another 10 minutes to the modern downtown. The city and surrounding area is home to maybe a couple hundred thousand people, almost all of whom are originally from somewhere else in the West Bank or what is now Israel. There are a couple refugee camps in Ramallah, but almost everyone here are refugees, the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of refugees from 1948, when Israel was founded, or from 1967, when Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The city today is overwhelmingly Muslim, but it was originally a Christian village and it retains a certain Christian identity. The peal of church bells is never far from ear shot, and many groceries and restaurants sell beer, wine and liquor. There are also Christian-affiliated private schools. Many of the old stone homes have crosses carved in the keystone above the door.
Ramallah is also the least socially conservative place in the Palestinian territories, and, aside from Beirut, the least socially conservative place I’ve visited in the Arab world. Probably less than half of women wear the hijab, or head scarf. I’ve only seen one woman wearing the niqab, the face veil. It’s a far cry from Gaza, the stronghold of Hamas, the Islamist social movement and militant group. Christians here are concerned that if Gazans are allowed to travel to the West Bank, Hamas will shut down the drinking establishments in Ramallah.
I met yesterday with a Palestinian human rights lawyer, as I start my thesis research, who is not hopeful that the current lull in violence will lead to a peace process. Since dismantling Jewish settlements in Gaza and three settlements in the northern West Bank, the Israeli government has approved expansion plans for at least one West Bank settlement, and continues to expand the largest settlement, near Jerusalem. It also continues to build the separation wall, which is constructed inside the West Bank and isolates Palestinian villages and hinders the agricultural economy. Israel also continues to build permanent checkpoints that slow, or at worst, restrict Palestinian travel within the West Bank. I will be traveling through some of these checkpoints during my stay here.