I’ve only spent a week in Ramallah, but I’ve been here long enough to notice a few things. When I tell people at home I’m living in the West Bank in the summer, I get the usual response of “what would possess you to go to such a dangerous place?” While that is a reasonable response from someone who has never been here before and who probably often equates Palestinians with Hamas militants, I haven’t felt any danger. The Palestinian Authority police and military are on every street corner in this city, largely in case Mahmoud Abbas is traveling and requires security on the way. The other day I saw what I think was Abbas, or another high-raking official in the PA, moving through the city. Much like other presidential convoys, there were several black SUVs flanked by marked Jeep Grand Cherokees and two ambulances. The entire road was clear on either end of the convoy. Like I was saying, life is Ramallah is much like life elsewhere, with some variations of course. The other night I saw kids playing on the playground with their parents at around mid-night. Not a care in the world. It’s refreshing to see that even under tough circumstances, kids are still swinging and playing soccer in the street. The only time I was a tad uncomfortable was when my cab driver had at picture of Saddam Hussein taped to his dashboard, but discomfort is expected anywhere you go.
The hospitality here is unbelievable. A request for directions often results in a personal guide to the destination. Some of us went out to dinner the other night, and the owner sat down at the table with us for at least 20 minutes. He wanted to personally welcome foreign students to his country and impart his wisdom. He even promised to take us into the Dome of the Rock someday. Yea right. Last week I went into a cell-phone store, which I visited previously, and half of the employees got up to come shake my hand and welcome me back. I was taken aback by their graciousness. Where else does this happen? The boss at my internship, who I’ve known for all of 5 days, treated me to dinner on Wednesday night. The staff at the Christmas Hotel was largely responsible for the ease in which I was able to get around in East Jerusalem. If they didn’t know the answer to a question, they would find somebody who did. Southern hospitality’s got nothing on Arab hospitality.
I don’t think there are speed limits in Ramallah. If there are, they are definitely not enforced. There are no stop signs, lines in the roads, and relatively few street signs that indicate where you actually are. Maybe that’s why I’ve had such a hard time giving directions here, since no one knows where they are. I’m joking of course. People drive as fast as they want, and often park on the sidewalk. I have to tell myself that they know what they’re doing, since they’ve lived here their whole lives and have grown up used to driving at high speeds through small, urban spaces. Honking is the predominant street-noise. Drivers are either too impatient to wait for someone taking their time or are trying to determine if a pedestrian needs a ride. One hand is one the wheel and the other is constantly on the horn. It never fails.
There is also a largely unfinished nature to the city. New buildings seem to be going up all the time, but none look to be close to completion. It’s like all these construction projects are just taking forever to finish or have been stalled in their tracks. It’s hard to tell. The external steps into my internship office appear to be brand new, and marble, but entire sections of the wall inside are missing and the bathrooms look like the construction workers walked off the job. Things from the outside look great, but things are falling apart on the inside. This is just something that I’ve noticed. I’m not sure if any of this means anything at all or are indicative of larger problems here. It’s really hard to say. But, I do see the enormous potential of this place. So many Palestinians are well-educated and have extensive international ties, often to the United States. If they were able to move freely, both within the West Bank and over international borders. I think Palestine would blossom. Connection with the global economy, and an increasing economic equality with Israel, would make Palestine competitive on the international scene and bring much-needed jobs to the area. Violence and stalled peace talks only delay the rejuvenation of Palestine, so leaders on both ends better get on the ball.