If you enjoyed reading the extract in this week’s Irish Times, we are delighted to be able to share with you, in full, the introduction to The Book of Ramallah, written by editor and contributing author Maya Abu Al-Hayat.
Some cities are built from scratch, on empty land. Some seem to have always been there, deriving their importance from their unique location. While others exist only in the imagination, the stuff of legends and tales handed down by grandmothers. Ramallah is not like any of these; a seemingly modest city with a short and relatively peaceful history, it is a city of ordinary stories, rather than heroic myths. To its many, regular visitors, it’s a relaxing place to spend a summer vacation; to its residents, it’s just home. Historians define it as, originally, merely a village near Jiffna, outshone by all the other Palestinian towns, with their richer histories and captivating legends, cities such as Al-Quds,1 Nablus, Jericho, Al-Khalil,2 and Gaza. Nonetheless it has remained stoical and quiet in its resistance as well as a welcoming place to live.
And yet, with its unassuming nature and convenient geography – sprawling along a ridge of the Samarian Hills, nearly 3,000 feet above sea level – Ramallah has managed to take its place as a pivotal city in modern Palestinian life. To historians from afar, this might seem like an accident, but it’s an accident that a lot of thought and planning has gone into.
Located in the heart of the West Bank, 16 kilometres north of Al-Quds, Ramallah’s city limits cover an area of approximately 18,600 dunams3 and provide home to 70,000 people. Around it are an additional 80 satellite villages, refugee camps and other small hamlets. The Governorate of Ramallah and Al-Bireh (it’s neighbouring city) is home to 370,000 residents in total. Indeed the boundary between the cities of Ramallah and Al-Bireh is indistinguishable; the buildings and streets of the two cities intertwine making them feel like one city. And even though Al-Bireh is larger, both in area and population, ‘Ramallah’ is the common name for the wider conurbation. In reality, the two cities are two completely different places, under two different local administrations with different economies, cultural traditions and social attitudes. Let’s put it this way, you can sip a glass of whiskey in a bar in Ramallah, something that you could never do only a few metres away in Al-Bireh.
Ramallah is host to several important government ministries, not least the Mukataʿa compound4 the Palestinian Legislative Council Building5 and the headquarters of the Palestinian Security Services in the West Bank. This means that Ramallah is the political centre of modern Palestine – a kind of de facto, if unrecognised, capital. The only thing that casts this status in doubt is the historical and political status of Al-Quds among Palestinians. Perhaps because of this uncertainty, Palestinians, in general, have an ambivalent relationship with this city, which acquired its pivotal status only after the Oslo Accords, in the so-called ‘Oslo Years’ (1993-2000). This ambivalence to Ramallah and its status is part and parcel of Palestinians’ ambivalence to the Oslo Accords themselves, which created a short-term peace (of sorts), and allowed for some self-government, but led to no long-term plan, or any restoration of the kind of free movement enjoyed by Palestinians before the First Intifada. (Although Ramallah was designated an ‘Area A’, in the Oslo II Accord, meaning it had full civil and security control, and was out of bounds for Israelis, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) still dominate the network of roads surrounding it, many of which are bypasses that only Israeli citizens can use, servicing the many expropriated land settlements that have sprung up throughout the West Bank in the years since Oslo).
To many writers, Ramallah is an ideal, a dream, a promise. Many expatriates returned to the city in the 1990s, in the wave of optimism generated by Oslo, having spent decades in exile, longing to return to at least part of their homeland. Their expectations on returning were sky-high, and were only shattered by the reality they found in the on-going occupation. In his novel I Saw Ramallah, the poet Mourid Barghouti experiences this moment, looking at the gun being carried by the IDF soldier at the crossing: ‘His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land. In his hand he holds earth, and in our hands we hold a mirage.’ Ramallah represents this mirage, this glimmer of hope that isn’t real, to many writers. Indeed the popular use of Ramallah in the title of recent novels builds on this set of expectations Palestinian readers have of the city: Ramallah Dream by Benjamin Barthe; Blonde Ramallah, and Crime in Ramallah by Obaad Yehya and so forth.
Looking back through history, references to Ramallah can be found in records as old as Crusader artefacts. Archaeological evidence suggests there was a village here at least as early as the 16th century, under Ottoman rule, and that it began to thrive towards the end of that era, with the first town council recorded convening in 1908. The name ‘Ramallah’ can be traced back to at least 1186 and is formed from the conjunction of the words raam, meaning hill, and Allah, meaning God. Thus the importance of ‘God’s hill’ might always have been its geography being perched on a hilltop ridge, with cool updrafts, and spectacular views in all directions. People in Ramallah will swear that, standing on their roofs they can see the beaches of Yaffa, Akka and Haifa, beauty spots most Palestinians can never see.
When you travel to Ramallah from the south, from Al-Quds or Al-Khalil, before you reach it you are confronted with a crowded road, traffic jams, a checkpoint, towering buildings and chaos everywhere. You know immediately that you have arrived at the famous Qalandia Checkpoint, separating Ramallah from Al-Quds. If it weren’t for politics, the journey between the two cities would take just 15 minutes, but in reality it takes 1½ hours. From the checkpoint you pass through Al-Qalandia Refugee Camp and then Kufr Aqab which eventually brings you to Al-Quds Street which is officially the entrance to Al-Bireh. For all intents and purposes, though, you can say you are now in Ramallah.
Alternatively if you travel to the city from the north, after similar, if less famous, checkpoints, you pass through the villages of Birzeit and Jifna until finally you reach Al-Irsal Street, to be greeted by the infamous Mukataʿa complex where Arafat was besieged by the IDF for two years and almost entombed by the Israeli bulldozers. Then you head for the heart of the city, to a confluence of roads and noise that people call Al-Manara Square, where today four lions sit or stand in various poses. Originally the monument consisted of five lions at the base of its pillar6 which, according to legend, represented Jerias, Shqair, Ibrahim, Hassan and Haddad, the five families descended from Rashid Al-Hadaddin, who is said to be the progenitor of all the Christian families that founded the city. The story goes that ‘Rashid Al-Hadaddin fled from Al-Karak (in present-day Jordan) in the middle of the 16th century after a disagreement with a Muslim family there. He led his small caravan across the barren hills of Jordan to a forested area 16 kilometres north of Al-Quds and, between the caves and remnants of Roman villages, the caravan settled and built their new home.’
The oral tradition indicates that Rashed Al-Hadaddin later returned to Al-Karak, but his five sons were determined to stay in Ramallah and so became the grandfathers of its people and the namesakes of its lions.
Al-Manara roundabout is at the meeting point of six roads, the foremost amongst them being Rukkab Street, named after the famous ice cream parlour, known for selling the tastiest ice cream in Palestine.
As Al-Manara is the destination of many roads, so Ramallah seems to be the destination of many people new to the country. Travellers come first to Ramallah and rest here, before exploring further. As one folk song puts it: ‘Where to? Ramallah! Tell me traveller, where to? Ramallah! Do you not fear Allah, tell me traveller, where to? Ramallah!’7
Among such travellers was Palestine’s most famous literary son, the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Returning from his exile, he settled in the Al-Teerah district and worked in the Khalil Sakakkini Cultural Centre in the Masyoun district. On Ramallah’s streets, you might also catch a glimpse of other writers who have returned, like the poet and novelist Zakaria Mohammed who, after 25 years of exile in Tunisia, returned. You might see him walking on Maktaba Street, for example, or heading down to Ramallah Al-Tahta8 where you can find street vendors selling falafel, hummus and grilled meat. There you might also bump into the short story writer Ziad Khadash sitting with a group of writers in the Insheraah Coffee Shop or the Ramallah Coffee Shop. If you’re lucky you’ll see the serene figure of lawyer and author Raja Shehadeh, passing through the streets with such gentle politeness you would hardly even know he was there. Or perhaps you will catch sight of architect and author Suad Amiry on her way to the Riwaaq Centre for Architectural Conservation, or Salim Tamari on his way to the Institute for Palestine Studies. There are authors on every street, this being a city teeming with culture where not just writers and artists have made their home, but also arts organisations. Here you will find the Abdel Mohsen Qattan Foundation, the Al-Qasabah, the Al-Sareyah, the Cooperation Institute, the Palestine Writing Workshop, the Tamer Institute for Community Education and nearby in Birzeit is the Palestinian Museum and Birzeit University.
This is Ramallah for you: a horizontal city – ranged along the contours of a hilltop ridge, where so much is new – surrounded by much more vertical cities, whose topography tips over the sides of steep, vertiginous valleys, or gathers around mountain tops, cities deep with history.
It is a city of contrasts, with a sophisticated café culture and modern restaurants as well as working-class falafel shops and markets. A city of businessmen and NGO staffers, modern companies and haphazard buildings that almost obliterate the historic limestone houses hidden among them, with their ancient, subtle architecture whose original families have since been lost to the diaspora. It is a city with three refugee camps in its centre: Al-Am’ari, Al-Jalazon and Qalandia. A city of deprivation and neglect, not to mention continuous raids, demolitions and arrests by the IDF.
People commute from the towns and villages to the north and south for work, many of them living in Ramallah during the week and only returning to their homes at the weekend. So come Thursday night9 the place changes, almost becomes a ghost town compared to the hustle and bustle of mid-week. Ramallah is also home to many foreign NGO employees who add a different vibe and way of life and also add a premium to the price of everything. So the city has a new class of middle-income workers struggling to pay off loans for luxury cars and other consumer products.
Ramallah is also a city of aspiring pop groups, hip-hop producers and experimental musicians who you might see perform at venues such as The Garage or Radio or Al-Muhatta or Shams. It’s a city of performance artists, theatre producers, film-makers and actors, many of whom can be found in cafés like Zamaan and Al-Inshiraah.
Because of all of this, it is also the city that is always testing how far it can go, experimenting with what’s possible, and being judged in the process. A place of tension as well as excitement, with its many tower blocks and mosques, churches and bars, and where gunfire can always be heard in the distance, resounding to a backdrop of curfews, arrests, sieges, strikes and martyrs.
The stories gathered for this anthology highlight the contradictions that make up Ramallah – a modern city but an occupied city; a home but also somewhere to escape. Roads feature prominently in many stories, including the time of the Second Intifada (2000-2005) when the official routes between Ramallah and the neighbouring towns were blocked or too dangerous, necessitating unusual modes of transport for hundreds of commuters – like donkeys to traverse the dirt tracks and circuitous mountain routes – who would arrive at their workplaces in ministries and corporate offices splattered with mud. This was a profoundly traumatic time for all Palestinians, which saw the invasion of Ramallah and a two-year-long siege of Palestinian Authority President and PLO leader, Yasser Arafat in his Mukataʿa compound and curfews that could last for over two months. This era is the setting of Ibrahim Nasrallah and Khaled Hourani’s stories – a time when love and death competed for the heart of the city. In Ibrahim Nasrallah’s historically accurate, but seemingly implausible ‘Love in Ramallah’, we read about love stories blossoming in very different places: on the road from Nablus to Ramallah and in the city itself; always outside, never indoors. We read of the man who is forced by Israeli soldiers to kiss a girl he doesn’t know so their packed bus can pass through a checkpoint, and of the man who blows a kiss to his wife through the window as military jeeps invade their neighbourhood to make an arrest. In Hourani’s story, ‘Surda, Surda!… Ramallah, Ramallah!’, a man tries to finish his physiotherapy session in the Mukhmas building on Al-Irsal Street before Ramallah closes down for yet another curfew, but ends up being stranded at the clinic with other patients unable to leave.
Ahlam Bsharat’s story is set much closer to the present day, in the current pandemic, and the only one in the book set wholly indoors. It depicts the isolation of a woman who has left her village to work in Ramallah, now living alone in a flat in Umm Al-Sharayet, one of Ramallah’s more run-down neighbourhoods. Denied the love and companionship of an ordinary relationship, she embarks on an affair with a horse. In the surrealism of Bsharat’s well-woven tale we could be forgiven for thinking this love story is the city’s only reality.
Ameer Hamad takes us back to the roads, in particular the chaos of the route between Ramallah and Al-Quds, where Ramallah might seem like a city in a bubble floating on air, compared to the harsh reality of Qalandia Checkpoint. Where you wonder what fate has in store for you, every time, as if it’s the first time.
In Anas Abu Rahma’s tale, the protagonist is a villager who yearns to see the sea, in a city very far from it, and to be loved by a city girl before strange nightmares overcome him. Ziad Khadash’s story, ‘Get Out of my House’, tells of a man who comes home to find a strange woman in his house who is adamant that it’s her house and that he has to leave before her husband returns. Here we glimpse the ephemeral life of the refugee, returning from his home in the camp, leaving his library behind to be ruined by soldiers going through his stuff, and living alone in a city he doesn’t belong where he has to continually prove his identity or his innocence. The issue of identity resurfaces in Mahmoud Shukeir’s story where the protagonist tries to convince himself that he is a man of the city now and that he can do anything that the city’s residents do. Set in the 1960s, before the occupation of the West Bank, when Ramallah was under Jordanian rule but with Israel’s expansionist war drums beating over the horizon, it portrays secret political parties and movements and the first acts of resistance heralded by revolutionary communiqués and protests: a time when identity transcended all other tensions, such as that between town and country.
Liana Badr’s story ‘A Garden that Drinks Only from the Sky’ goes to the roots of life in Ramallah and the unique experience of being occupied. Here we see the Ramallah that has its land expropriated for the construction of Israeli settlements that now surround it on all sides. In this story, we meet Najaah living in her house on the western reaches of the city, making all her food at home from the bounty of the small plot of land that she lives off, along with her mother: Labnah, cheese, apricots, olives and home-baked bread. When the rain stops falling on her tiny paradise, she travels to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Al-Khalil to pray to Allah for the rain to return and there she finds love for the first time.
The tales of independence, personal identity and individuality in this collection mirror the allowances Ramallah makes for your life. It is a city that allows you to think freely, unlike many other Palestinian cities. But it also questions absolute freedom from the outset by asking about the limitations on freedom and what is acceptable, what is original and what is incidental, what is real and what is as Barghouti says, a mirage. It brings us to the bigger and much more intractable question (as Palestinians we are obsessed with the big questions): what kind of a Palestine do we want as a people and as individuals – as artists, writers, blacksmiths, carpenters, politicians, business owners, prisoners, the lost and the found? A Palestine in our image, far from the vision others want for us to embody? Ramallah is a city that is being suffocated by settlements and checkpoints from all sides, yet is filled with a desire to open up and advance. It is a city with an ability to adapt and blend in, to take on the forms around it, and it has enough hustle and bustle to let you disappear in it and feel like you have all the freedom in the world. And yet it can deprive you of this freedom as quickly as you turn a corner.
Maya Abu Al-Hayat, October 2020
Translated by Mohammed Ghalaieny
3. A unit of area with Ottoman origin. In Palestine, a dunam is equal to 1000 square meters, or 0.1 hectares.
4. Muqaata’a is a generic name for the central administrative building in Palestine. Al-Muqaata’a in Ramallah was the Palestinian Authority HQ and also where the offices of President Yassir Arafat were.
5. The Legislative Council is the Palestinian parliament.
6. For a full history of the lions of Al-Manara Square, see
7. Wein a Ramallah, ‘Where to, Ramallah?’, a song made popular by the Jordanian singer Salwa Al-Aas.
8. Lower Ramallah.
9. The start of the Muslim weekend.
The Book of Ramallah is out now, and available in paperback and eBook from all good retailers.
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