Monday, January 01, 2007

I went to Ramallah on a whim. No real reason I went there, no real impetus other than that my mind had decided at some point during the night that i would wake up when Ameet does around noon and bum a ride with him back to Damascus Gate, the leaving point of the Arab buses to the West Bank.
it was New Year's Day, 2007. i had slept well that night after ringing in the New Year with some Birthright friends.
i hopped on the bus to Ramallah, finding myself the only white person as i had expected. the twenty minute ride included a quick passage through the security gates, into the walled zone, followed by an incredibly inconsistent unpaved road. it seemed as though they had left in unpaved so that no car could move quickly from the city to the security area and vice versa. a way of control, it seemed.
off the bus i wandered through the crowded city streets. i had been to what one could call Palestine once before: Bethlehem on Christmas Day. the difference between the two trips was instantly remarkable. for one, i was clearly the only non-Arab in the city. Bethlehem is a major point of interest on christmas, with pilgrims coming from across the globe to see Jesus's birthplace on his birthday. nobody had any reason to come to Ramallah on New Year's Day. neither did i.
secondly, this was a different city. i was in the downtown area and the bustle of the city was extreme. hundreds of people, mostly men, moved quickly through the crowded streets. people looked at me as i passed. children stared in wonderment, teenage boys pointed and laughed, girls giggled. i still had not seen another white person. i got tired of being the center of attention and so i ducked into what looked like a shopping mall. three of the five stores on the street level were closed. i looked up and realized that the malls in Ramallah are designed differently from those in the states. they are built upwards. five stores on a floor, 10 floors high. very little lighting. i saw a sign for a Checkers and wondered whether it was the same as we have in the US. it was. 25 shekel for burgers, fries and a cola--the menu written entirely in English.
back outside traffic was at a standstill. a police vehicle pointlessly sounded its siren. it seemed as though even if the cars blocking the police's way could have moved, they wouldnt have. this lack of space, this mess, this crowd, all seemed completely normal. nobody acted as though something were different today.
i think something was different that day. i passed through what felt like the dead center of town, a traffic circle where men stood around. they all looked at me as i passed. it was eerie. something felt not right. i started wondering whether i was really safe in Ramallah, whether it was ok for me to be there. above the traffic circle stood metal posts 30 feet high. attached to the posts was a banner with a larger than life photo of a young Saddam. i remembered that a friend had mentioned to me that there had been protests in Palestine, that the Arab community was reacting to his hanging. i was glad that it was today, two days after the hanging, and not yesterday or the day before. i immediately recognized how i would be perceived in the situation. i knew that any trouble i might find in that city would not be improved by the flashing of my American passport, that this was one situation where it would clearly worsen any situation. i wished that i had my hat, something to cover my hair, part of my face, lessen my height and overall make me less conspicuous. i did not have my hat. everyone saw my hair, my face, my height. i hunched my shoulders and tried not to look proud.

i started to walk away from the downtown. i was looking for a little breathing room, some place to sit and eat and not be seen. a few blocks away from the central traffic circle the city became calmer. there were fewer people and i felt the space. i passed a coffee shop and a store with rugs. i heard gunshots and it sounded like they were coming from the outskirts of town. i immediately turned around and headed back into town.
gunshots were not so uncommon to hear, even in Israel. the army trains and you hear them train. it was significantly more unsettling to hear this in Ramallah. i was still calm. i wasnt even sure that it was gunshots i had heard.
i kept walking until i found a nice falafel place. i sat in the back corner of the shop and ate slowly. a man asked me if i spoke English, where i was from, and whether i was married. i tried to avoid saying i was American. he was my age, married with 2 kids. i explained to him that in my world people get married at an older age. i asked him why he was in Ramallah and he said he works there. he works as Police he said, which translates to security. i asked him about how secure Ramallah is---safe/unsafe. yes, maybe he said. and for me, as a tourist i asked. yes, maybe he said. he cracked a smile and we both knew that i wasnt in the right place. i'm not sure if his answer would have been different were it not for the day, the circumstances, the governments.
i paid and left the falafel shop. i heard more gunshots and started to move towards the bus station. it was time for me to go, i had decided. i had never really felt unsafe in a foreign country before, at least not in this sense. i walked slowly and calmly. i was not worried. i decided i was still hungry and considered more food options. i continued heading in the general direction of the bus station. this led me back to the central traffic circle.
a gun fired again but this time much more loudly. i immediately saw the man who was firing the rounds. he stood in the center of the traffic circle and fired his shots firmly and angrily into the air. i stopped dead in my tracks. i watched him finish the cartridge and waited til he gave the pistol a few shotless clicks. the man did not see me. i looked around him and saw many men with many guns. how had i not noticed all these guns around me? a crowd had gathered right below Saddam's image. a protest, a rally, a riot? i had no idea. it was a gathering and that was enough for me.
i knew i was in the wrong place. aside from the safety issue, which i considered at this point to be relatively under control, i had no right to be there. my country had killed a leader, a man that these people respected and thought of in a positive light. these people live in a city surrounded by a 40 foot concrete wall. to leave the city they wait in narrow hallways and pass through heavy metal turnstyles. they are not free. Saddam Hussein is dead. i am white. i am jewish. i am America.
i reached into my pocket and pointlessly attempted to tuck my passport even deeper down. i started to walk towards the traffic circle, the one man's gun empty and no other men immediately planning to fire skyward. i had to pass through the circle. i felt exposed, no city walls to walk along, no sense of protection. i walked quickly and impossibly tried to be invisible. on the other side of the traffic circle i filed into the masses on the sidewalk. i was two blocks from the bus station and i felt safer already. i heard gunshots behind, a machine gun this time, and i instinctively shifted towards the buildings. i kept walking, my pace determined by the crowds around me.
on the bus i felt fine. i knew that i was never in any direct danger, but that i had tested my personal limits and found a line. i was proud of myself for trusting my instinct and getting out of there. i was happy to be heading back to Israel. in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem i felt at home.


Blogger Robert G. said...

Michael, I finally had the opportunity to read this story. You are certainly more courageous and resourceful than I. I am glad that all turned out well. You are having a lifetime of incredible experiences. Most I envy; not this one. See you soon, Bob Szabo

1:38 PM  

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