Hello from Surreality

Every once in a while I look around myself and think, “Where am I? And how did I get here?”

This might be the aspect of my life for which I am most grateful.

One month ago I moved from Paris to Ramallah, in the occupied Palestinian territories. I moved for an internship at a local development organization, to experience something new, and to continue pursuing that elusive Arabic language. Of course I know the answer to “how I got here” is quite simple: there was some determination and an internship application, but it was largely my overt privilege as a university graduate and an American-passport holder. But this knowledge doesn’t stop (or perhaps it adds to) the dreamlike quality of finding myself in a new place, wondering what I am doing there and whether it will actually make any remote different to anyone (arguably, it will not). Nonetheless. I have the opportunity to share, and so I will.

A view of one part of Ramallah. (Inshallah, many more pictures to come.)

Ramallah is the second largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, but it is quite small, with a population of about 300,000. You can walk most places, but I’m still figuring out how all the main neighborhoods and landmarks connect. I would love to situate myself with a map, but no good one exists of Ramallah. The few I’ve found generally don’t have street names, opting instead for a few select landmarks, though sometimes even these are in the wrong place. It’s as if even Google does not recognize the least contested of the contested space that is the occupied West Bank, as a search for Ramallah yields only a web of unmarked streets. Luckily, most people are more than obliging to give you detailed directions to your destination (if they don’t offer you a ride). But everyone uses names of supermarkets, banks, and hotels–never street names.

Ramallah is known by some, both endearingly and critically, as the “bubble” of the West bank, where it is easy to forget that you are in a land under occupation. The city is full of contradictions. Ramallah is the de facto capital of the heavily-criticized Palestinian Authority, and so is home to the government bureaucracy that helps to make life here function. Added to this is the element of continuous international presence. This is an unverified conjecture, but I’d be willing to bet Ramallah has one of the highest concentrations of NGOs of any city in the world. If you see another foreigner (and indeed you see many), chances are they are in this line of work. And while some do undertake worthwhile projects, there is no doubt many of them are sucking up donor money merely to sustain themselves as they might do in any other conflict zone of the world. Driven along the streets of Ramallah are cars with both green (Palestinian) and yellow (Israeli) license places, yellow taxis and buses, and the occasional white vehicle marked “UN” in big blue letters.

The downtown streets around the central “Manara” square (known by Anglophones as the “lions’ square” due to four lion statues gracing the roundabout) are bustling and lively and loud, depending on the day, and it’s the kind of area you can imagine has probably not changed much in decades. Shops are busy and small and close together, and the food is good, with a falafel sandwich costing 4 shekels (about 1 US dollar). Walking downhill away from the center, though, suddenly everything becomes quiet, the wider streets dotted with a few casual-but-trendy Ramallah cafés, havens for richer locals and expats alike. The ambiance can be great, but here you will pay 15 shekels just for a coffee. Further still is the newer area where my office is located, where the PA has invested a lot of money to build up shiny new buildings and roads that to me feel entirely boring and impersonal. Here is where you will find the new Caesar Hotel jutting up toward the sky, around the corner from the equally opulent Movenpick. But all this is not far from Qalandia refugee camp, which is home to 10,500 refugees originating from Ramle, Lydd, and villages west of Jerusalem that were demolished by Israel leading up to its declaration of independence in 1948.

A seemingly simple task such as my first trip to familiarize myself with my neighborhood grocery store sparked a flood of speculation and internal reflection. Though much of the West Bank is incredibly fertile, due to the occupation and accompanying restrictions on movement and economic activity, farmers are not able to reach as many markets as they’d like. So even in a Palestinian supermarket, local Palestinian products are not as ubiquitous as one might think. Instead the shelves are graced with expensive imported products from Europe, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and even the US (if you feel you really need a box of Betty Crocker cake mix, you can get it here). I wondered how most Palestinians even afford this stuff (answer: they probably don’t). And of course, the most common and cheapest “imported” products are Israeli. Usually there is Arabic or English in addition to the Hebrew found on labels, though sometimes there is only Hebrew. Pay for your groceries at the checkout counter with the multicolored New Israeli Shekel bills that sport the faces of prominent Zionists, and your simple trip to the grocery store is effectively imbued with layers of political meaning.

These moments of intense wonder aside, I integrated into the “bubble” quite quickly in my first week, getting used to the strange routine of full-time employment and trying to settle into my new spacious flat that is enormous compared to my previous shared Paris accommodation. I guess I was in Ramallah, but I could have been in a number of other places. It was only in my second week that I left the city, to go one evening with a friend to visit the nearby Christian village of Taybeh (for an Octoberfest, believe it or not). It was the first time I passed by the Qalandia checkpoint since I visited Ramallah briefly two and a half years ago. This is one area of Ramallah where you can see the Separation Wall, and to see it still gives me chills. The cover of night obscured much of the West Bank landscape on our drive, but there was still evidence of the absurd, divided reality in the lights dotting the darkness: the soft glowing yellow lights emanating from settlements contrasted with the harsher white lights of Palestinian towns, marked occasionally with the green light of a mosque.

The Wall at Qalandia checkpoint.

It’s hard to believe how much I’ve experienced in the few weeks since then—experiences showing different extremes of reality here and often at odds with each other. On a trip to the Jordan Valley, I was able to witness the extreme poverty of Palestinian villages that are often cut off from their land and resources by the Israeli military, to the benefit of the neighboring Israeli settlements. In that area there is no such semblance of Palestinian “autonomy” like the one you find in Ramallah, where days later an unexpected dinner with an old family friend led me to a new upscale rooftop bar that looked like it could have been transplanted from the trendy Los Angeles night scene (and I felt as out of place there as I would have in a corresponding LA venue).  On a different day, an obliging coworker drove me to see multiple settlements and towns of the Northern West Bank, finally allowing me to see for myself what I have for years only read about. And while much of what I’ve seen thus far has confirmed what I already knew about “the situation,” I’ve also had challenging debates with co-workers that have brought me back to thinking I know absolutely nothing.

Then, in addition to experiencing some of the famed Ramallah nightlife, I’ve also had glimpses into its art scene: first when a new Palestinian friend had me stop by a community art center where a group of young artists, architects, and engineers were working tirelessly to build a “pixelated” model cow out of tiny wooden cubes. As with most things here, there is a political message in there somewhere. And then a couple chance encounters led me to spend the evening of the otherwise-quiet Eid holiday with a prominent Palestinian hip-hop artist and an Italian rapper, where on the drive home they each freestyled over an Aaliyah song, one in his native Arabic and one in his native Italian.

Where am I? Ramallah, I guess. And it is surreal. And also wonderful.

Sounds of Fes

The Place As-Safarine, in Fes.

I haven’t posted much about my trip to Morocco in April and part of the reason is a fear of trying to sound authoritative about a culture and history that I am not really a part of and that I am only just beginning to learn about. It’s not that the trip wasn’t striking, inspiring, and fulfilling–it certainly was. I just don’t want to sound like a neo-colonial travel blogger expounding on what a great time I had discovering all the great Moroccan wonders, when really it was a trip that followed a pretty typical touristic trajectory.

I did want to share one of my favorite moments, though. On our first day in the country, my friend A. and I wandered the incredibly intricate and notoriously confusing Fes medina in an exhausted, sleep-deprived daze. Vendors called to us in French and English and ventured guesses as to where we might be from. We tried to give fellow pedestrians enough space to pass in the narrow paths but still got caught in more than one bottlenecked crowd. We dodged men pushing carts filled with various goods and yelling the typical “balak!” (“look out!”) and on numerous occasions, we narrowly escaped being trampled by small-but-feisty donkeys that seemed to appear from nowhere. A number of young children competed persistently to act as our guide and though we were acutely aware of the poverty around us, we also remarked how much better these kids’ English was in comparison with our students back in France. (In passing a famous medersa/mosque, one boy stated in a matter-of-fact way: “Would you like to go in there? Well you can’t. It’s only for Muslims.”)  Between whiffs of fresh-baked pastries and other food items at every corner came the all-encompassing leathery smell wafting from the tanneries.

Finally we came across the Place As-Safarine, or Square of the brassmakers, which we had read about. At first the noise was near deafening, as men crafting brass products by hand pounded at misshapen metal. It was a moment that we came to find increasingly common in Morocco, as we wondered how much of this display of a thousand-year-old tradition was still legitimately producing brass products and how much was just that–a display. But it was too loud to think much about how globalized capitalism has affected local craftwork anyway. We found a rooftop cafe on the square (another common and wonderful feature of Moroccan cities, though it is sadly limited to the sector of society that can afford them), ordered mint tea, and listened to the sounds of the metalwork. We didn’t exchange words for a long time.

View from the roof.

You would think the sounds of pounding metal would be utterly distracting: sometimes melodic, other times completely out of sync. But it occurred to me recently how much that travel-induced exhausted daze can be just the right thing at times, for in that moment I was not grumpy or displeased but merely too tired to think much of anything, or do anything beyond just be. We had no inkling of what the rest of the trip might bring, nor any idea what it would be like to spend two weeks with only each other. But it’s always a good harbinger when you can comfortably sit in silence with someone. Or if not silence, mind-numbing (in a good way!) noise.

Dickensian Paris

The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in  muddy wine lees—BLOOD.

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

It feels like people don’t read Dickens much anymore—at least I can’t remember anyone I know recently having read him. The last I remember was everyone having to read Great Expectations in high school and hating it (since I enrolled in my high school late I somehow avoided reading it). In the mood for some classic literature over the holidays, I decided to remedy this mysterious Dickens absence with A Tale of Two Cities, which I chose due to its relative brevity and its subject matter—London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution. I wasn’t disappointed: because the novel was written in installments for a newspaper, Dickens uses common literary devices such as plot twists and cliffhangers, and the characters are rich and complex despite the short amount of time taken to develop them (though the central young female character is an annoying idiot who faints due to overwhelming happiness/sadness depending on what is happening to the various men in her life. Naturally.) But the best part is how the cities themselves act as characters in the novel—Paris of course being the bloodthirsty unstable force that pulls the characters towards it and forces them to unleash their suppressed guilt/rage/heroism…and that threatens to behead you at any moment. Yeah, pretty awesome.

I adore how Paris is introduced in the novel, with a scene in which a cask of wine is accidentally spilled in the street, and every man, woman, and child in sight struggles to drink the wine directly from the ground lest it be wasted, cupping hands to bring up wine and mud from in between the cobblestones in a hungry frenzy that culminates in the wonderful foreshadowing passage above. Given the overwhelming decadence of today’s Paris, where the satisfaction of every sense is available on every corner, there is always a certain fascination that comes with reading about the periods in Parisian history when the city was under siege or on the verge of revolution, when people were driven to survive by eating rats, or something of that nature. This is more the sort of portrayal that Dickens offers, with everyone so impoverished (though some can still afford wine) and haunted by that other personified force, Hunger:
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“The river is still swollen, muddy, streaked with lights. I don’t know what it is rushes up in me at the sight of this dark, swift-moving current, but a great exultation lifts me up, affirms the deep wish that is in me never to leave this land. I remember passing this way the other morning on my way to the American Express, knowing in advance that there would be no mail for me, no check, no cable, nothing, nothing. A wagon from the Galeries Lafayette was rumbling over the bridge. The rain had stopped and the sun breaking though the soapy clouds touched the glistening rubble of roofs with a cold fire. I recall now how the driver leaned out and looked up the river toward Passy way. Such a healthy, simple, approving glance, as if he were saying to himself: “Ah, spring is coming!” And God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise. But it was not only this–it was the intimacy with which his eye rested upon the scene. It was his Paris. A man does not need to be rich, nor even a citizen, to feel this way about Paris. Paris is filled with poor people–the proudest and filthiest lot of beggars that ever walked the earth, it seems to me. And yet they give the illusion of being at home. It is that which distinguishes the Parisian from all other metropolitan souls.”

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1934