Wednesday, April 29, 2009

رام الله RAMALLAH: so NOT what I expected . . .

Ramallah surprised me.
I went there in the dark of night and was amazed at what I saw in the next day's light.
I'll share a bit with you . . . but, first, why go there?

All my images of Ramallah were
bleak at best . . .
A very crowded, dirty, rundown town that I walked through in 1971. Old rickety
diesel buses belching black fumes in tightly packed streets, people hawking wares in your face, all set in the beautiful softly rolling hills north of Jerusalem.
Exotic, fascinating for 19-year old me, but not at all comfortable.

I would have gone back.
I would have, but outbreaks of fighting, renewed war, tensions and fears got the best of me. I never saw Ramallah again.

Even without ever being there again, images of Ramallah formed in my mind.
Michal and I were living in Jerusalem with our two youngsters, Yehuda and Sophie and baby Miriam in 2000. In October, the intifada took a horribly ominous turn for the worse. Two Israeli reservists made a terrible wrong turn on their way home from the army. They found themselves unexpectedly in Ramallah. An enraged mob attacked and nearly killed them. Palestinian police rescued them and held them in the lock-up in a Ramallah police station for their own protection. I remember that morning. It was breaking news. I watched CNN bulletins with a dozen other men waiting in a greasy, smoky car repair shop Talpiot in Jerusalem, only a few miles from the scene. All of the Jews in the shop were Israeli reservists. The Palestinians in the garage, obviously, were not. Horror gripped us all as the TV showed mobs overwhelming the police. They broke into the lock-up and butchered the two errant Israelis. I remember the scene clearly: in real time on CNN from only a few miles away, a Palestinian man ecstatic with blood on his hands from personally killing the Israelis . . .

. . . and then, as we watched, the Israelis launched helicopter-borne missles at the police station and blew it up, killing God-only-knows how many, introducing a new level of weaponry into this latest escalation of violence, opening the possibility of the surrounding Arab militaries using missiles of their own against us in Jerusalem.
RamAllah. Not a place I'd want to be.

An even more recent image: Yasir Arafat holed up in the Muqtada, his headquarters in RamAllah, fighting breaking out there, the building itself a scorched, burnt out hulk.

And yet, since then, I've known several Jews who have gone to live in RamAllah. One is a Canadian-Israeli activist who married a Palestinian. One is a conscientious, devoted young American Jew who actively brings other Jews to see the realities of the occupation . One is the son of one of my hero-rabbis. I could hardly imagine living in Ramallah and thought of them as making a great sacrifice so that they could fulfill their ideals.

And now, I've known that Ramallah is the seat of the Palestine Authority, the place where Palestinian intellectuals, artists and entrepreneurs find each other. It is the portal to Palestine for the international community. It could not be like my mental images. I wanted to see for myself.

Just before midnight on Sunday, Fadi Rabieh, a young man I have learned to deeply respect, picked me up at Abu Leil's felafel stand just outside Yehuda's dorm on the north side of Jerusalem. Fadi and his wife Suha stayed with us last summer when they co-lead the Palestinian kids in Vancouver's Piece It Together program.
Fadi drove me a couple of miles through the orderly Jewish neighbourhoods of expanded Jerusalem. We then went along the separation Wall which I'd never seen except in pictures. It seals Palestinian areas off from Jewish ones. You can't even see what is on the other side. We crossed checkpoints into the Palestinian area and immediately entered a different world -- one obviously untouched by municipal services despite having been annexed by Israel. Fadi slowed the car as three horses leisurely wandered across the street on their own in the middle of the night. After only a few miles, we were in the centre of Ramallah. Fadi took me to his and Suha's apartment.

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