Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Forbidden City

We left Jerusalem at dusk and reached the wall 20 minutes later.

By nightfall we were here:

Palestine is a prison. The Gaza strip is hermetically shut - a mass dungeon. The West Bank is nearly engulfed by the notorious seperation wall and choked by countless roadblocks. Palestinians can only travel out of their small territory to Jordan, via a tedious process that involves much humiliation. Then they can continue further, but who has the energy?

Israelis can travel into the West Bank to visit Jewish settlements and settler-dominated central Hebron (which is an abominable ghost town). The big cities, though easily reachable by car, are forbidden to us. If we are caught there by the Palestinian police, we will be transferred to the Israeli authorities for interrogation and possible imprisonment. Leaving such places is the real problem: get caught at the checkpoint and you're in trouble.

Bereft of foreign passports but full of curiousity, we said: who gives a damn, then travelled to Ramallah.

Being illegal in a rustic city where a lot of people hate your guts is fun to begin with (makes you feel cool!)

Being there with Itka and Helene is the very definition of fun.

Helene the Quebecoise lived in Beirut and Damascus before and spent a spell in Ramallah as well. She knows her way around and has friends in town. I'll give only people's initials out of regard for their safety and omit photos of our Palestinians friends.

The first friend who came to join us was S. a true cosmopolitan and a very funny guy. He runs an NGO and smokes like a locomotive. His friend O., who put us up for the night, does important environmental work and smokes too.

Incredibly enough, I had a friend in town too. J, who rears from a remote island in the Baltic sea, volunteers for the Palestinain cause. She only came by briefly to have one beer with us at "The Blue" (Ramallah's equivelant of Tel-Aviv's Riff Raff), but that was enough to enchant her with Nordic salt lollies.

From the Blue we moved on to "Jaffar's" for to fill our stomachs, then to "Sangria", a delightful bar, then to "Zan", a trendy downtown spot. I was delighted to see women smoking the Nargila pipes, wining and dining in all the different nightspots. This is uncommon in the rest of the Arab world, including Palestinian communities in Israel, and cements Ramallah's reputation as a relatively liberal, fun-loving city.

Zan, we were told, tends to be more fun loving. The previous night a party was held and the house was rocked. The night of our visit was mellow. The DJ was horrible and spent most of the evening checking his Facebook page. We fought the mellowness with a few rounds of Ramallah-appropriate drinks: Taybeh beer and Arrak. When an Israeli and a Palestinian raise a toast, something's bound to spill.

The male clientelle did not remain indifferent to the fair-haired girls. One suitor posessed a very hawkish political mind. Luckily we made up foreign identities for ourselves (Itka was Ukranian. I was Gabor, or Gabriel, from Hungary.)

But lo and behold, there were other Israelis there. Such as S, a West Jerusalem girl, who is about to be married to her Palestinian beloved and may move to live accross the line.

Don't get too deep into that Hallmark woosieness, though. This is Palestine. O's living room wall is adorned with a bullet hole. Our late night conversation touched on some of the scarier aspects of our mutual history. It was a great conversation, no banal bullshit, and none of the PC politeness that often castrates such talk. I was awed by everyone in the room.

It was at about this point we started really worrying about how we would get out. If the soldiers wave us through, all will be well, I could even post the story on my blog without much worry. If they don't, we'd have to come up with a tall-tale. What would be credible? What would give us away? How can we pretend to have come from a settlement when settlers don't drive on Saturdays? Should we hide the memory cards of our cameras? delete the photos altogether?

All the worrying made us tired. We gave one last yawn and faded out.

The following day, the city was gloriously hectic.

I've never been in a town so rich with baloon vendors.

We learned incredible stuff about Ramallah, for instance: that Tel-Aviv is clearly visible from it. Here, zoomed-in for your blog-reading pleasure, but visible also to the naked eye, is the Ramat-Gan skyline, 40 Km. away.

and here's Jerusalem to the south, with the Holiday Inn tower and Callatrava's bridge sticking out as landmarks.

We were climbing out of downtown, towards the Muqata'a - the Palestinian presidential palace and the location of Arafat's tomb. This was one place Itka and I were definitely not allowed to approach. even the IDs of passersby are checked. We decided to give the place a peripheral glance.

Then, by some manouver that included switching into another set of made-up nationalities and momentarily leaving all of our belongings (including our hidden Israeli IDs) in the hands of two Palestinian policemen, we were inside.

This was as good as it gets. We left the Muqata'a breathless - and not only us two Israelis. S. was nervous as hell within the walls and was now beginning to regain himself. Helene was brimming with love for Ramallah. Look at her face and look at all our faces on the last photo of us taken in the city.

How I would have loved to conclude the post with this photo, but in reality the last image of the trip is that of that o so aesthetically pleasing seperation wall and the checkpoint personnel.

We made it through quite easily. one friendly wave at the soldier, and she waved us through. This is a wave that S. and O. can't give. The illusion was broken. For 24 hours we got an inkling of what it feels like to be Palestinian, to always fear uniformed presence, to be forever trapped between hostile checkpoints, to feel that you have something to hide, that you are guilty, even if you never hurt a soul. Then, suddenly, we were safe.


מאשה said...

מעולה מאוד

Yaelian said...

A very interesting posting:-)

Avi said...


Zach Wheat said...


L8 said...

Hi! I am still following you blog now and then…

Was it an Åland friend? I just have to aske since ther notsooo many “remote island in the Baltic sea”?

Greetings from Lotta, Åland woman from Hebron :)

Yuval said...

She is from Åland, you Ålanders run Palestine. I should get the two of you in touch. expect an email.

L8 said...

Wow! Please do! Do you still have my e-mail!?

27000 inhabitants and we are all over the world ;)

Yuval said...

I'm sure I have your email but I can't locate it. email me at

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