Learning the Real Ramallah

A machine gun pointed at my head, a smug look of contempt from a guard, walls designed to keep me isolated from the outside and under control. I am in prison.

From the outside, life is pretty normal. Citizens laughing in a sidewalk café, driving to the shopping mall, lining up to view a first-run movie. On the trip from the city my driver talks of the outside. He talks of people with hopes, futures, and fulfilling their dreams. At the prison checkpoint the mood changes, and we get a quick briefing on the rules of conduct while transferring to the “inside.”

I am now entering Ramallah. The line going into Ramallah is short – takes about 5 minutes. The line waiting to go out is long, and the driver reveals you can expect to wait about 3 hours to re-enter Israel. Cars with a Palestinian number plate are not allowed outside of the West Bank of Palestine, only Israeli tagged cars are allowed on the outside.

As we pass the border checkpoint our driver slowly turns, and says “welcome to our prison.”

I am an American, What do I know?

All I know of Ramallah is what I hear on the news, or read in the papers. I assume every street corner will have a group of terrorists ready to pull me out of the car and hold me for ransom, or execute me on a tape forwarded to YouTube for global distribution. The media has pumped me up to the point I cower behind slightly shaded windows, fearing what may happen to me if pedestrians see a foreigner in the car, and call ahead to those finding amusement harming me.

But what the heck? The streets of Ramallah are fairly wide, in somewhat good shape (at least compared to Tel Aviv), and everything is under construction. Lots of new buildings, all made with a wonderful stone façade, with designs that rival my own community in Long Beach. Even though we are in the middle of Ramadan, people are working hard at the construction sites, and moving about with purpose.

No visible weapons on the street. No groups of young men spoiling for a fight.

At the hotel I am greeted by security, a guard shakes my hand and says “Welcome to Ramallah.” The desk clerk gives me a warm welcome, and gives a quick overview of the area, and quickly fills in a couple of high-level suggestions on the tradition and culture of Ramadan, which is an important period of the year for Muslims.

Nothing harsh or threatening, just giving me a couple tips of what is happening, and how I can avoid causing myself any personal anxiety over making a social gaff. He was worried about my feelings, not those of Muslims who probably expect me to do something culturally silly.

My first Ramadan Celebration Meal

The hotel prepares a buffet. Muslims have fasted all day, and according to the practice wait until the official sunset to feast. The hotel restaurant area has a large screen display guiding evening prayers, and at the official moment of sunset announces to those present it is time to celebrate.

Lamb, a large variety of food, drinks, a true celebration. Everybody is friendly with everybody else, and even show foreigners like myself much accommodation and warmth.

A Ramallah Sunrise

On the first morning in Ramallah I take a sunrise walk along the hills and moguls of the city. Most of the buildings new. Many vacant lots with the foundations of past homes, lives, families, and a culture disrupted over the past 40 years of “troubles.” Most appear destroyed by human hand. Everybody greets me as I walk along the street, somewhat amused by my interest in the buildings and community, but no cold shoulder or indication I am unwelcome.

A new day, and the beginning of a new challenge. The challenge of making sure my visit to Palestine and Ramallah will bring value. I don’t want to be a burden, a tourist, or an ugly American. I feel the history, the spirit, and depth of a region that does not have a single centimeter of land untouched by humans. I look inside for the strength to bring my experience and knowledge to really smart people, who just need reinforcement of their visions.

We are but a snapshot, a sound bite in time. How do we bring value to an area which has ground every effort throughout history into yet another chronicle of struggle?

We will try

John Savageau, from Ramallah, Palestine

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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