*[Please view my post titled “when blogging strikes back,” which is directly related to this post. I now understand that trips to the West Bank are banned under UC Education Abroad Program guidelines, and would like to stress the importance of exercising caution when making travel plans in Israel.]
Our first weekend, and first trip outside of Jerusalem, lead us to Ramallah, which is one of the city centers of the West Bank. Analucia, Sloane, Jeremy, Andrew, Ibraam, and I hopped on an “Arab bus” from the Student Village at Hebrew University to the bus center near the Old City, and then took the number 18 “Arab bus” to Ramallah, passing through a checkpoint on the way inside. Checkpoints going into the West Bank are basically just glorified gates- no passports needed. It’s the points leading out of the West Bank that make people nervous.
We were the only foreigners on the bus, but were treated graciously and didn’t attract too much attention. The bus dropped us of at the central station in Ramallah, and the instant that we stepped off the bus, one of the other passengers notified us of protests that were going on in the center of town. After looking at each other for a split second, we all knew that we couldn’t help but check out these protests after our history in Egypt. So, we hurried up to a man and a young boy sitting on the street corner and asked for directions to the protest. The boy stood up animatedly and pointed straight to the right. We all immediately turned to start rushing that way, until I heard the man interject, saying “No, no, no! This way!” and point to the left, in the completely opposite direction. The young boy howled with laughter. This is the oldest trick in the book, and one that we encountered countless times in Egypt. The man scolded the boy, shot us an apologetic smile, and encouraged us on our way to the left.
Only a block or so later, we could see a huge mob of people at the end of our street. Everything was decked out in red- streetlights and statues were hung with flags, people wore bandannas and t-shirts, and posters protruded from the crowd. It appeared to be a gathering of the Palestinian People’s Party, or the PPP. The town center was full of people, with no traffic entering from any side. This was a much smaller area than that of Tahrir Square in Cairo, but it was a notable gathering nonetheless. A small stage had been set up in front of the central statues, and people shouted slogans into microphones, while the crowd echoed them back. Buildings surrounding the town center were used for the “Bank of Palestine,” “Palestine Art Center,” and my personal favorite, a coffee shop called “Stars & Bucks”. There was no such thing as “Occupied Palestine” or “Palestinian Territories” around here.
After awhile, we started to get hungry and decided to track down some food. We had gotten our fill of the demonstrations, and luckily, there was a falafel stand every few feet along all of the major streets- we had quite a few options to choose from. We ended up sitting down at a nice, clean, largely empty place that served falafel, shawerma, laffa, and french fries. Laffa was a new item for me- it’s basically like shawerma (the meat cut off of a rotating stick), with lettuce, veggies, and sauces wrapped in a tortilla-like covering, and sometimes pressed like a panini. We all ordered some food and sat down to eat, while I pulled out my handy dandy Lonely Planet guidebook, this time for “Israel and the Palestinian Territories”. We read about a few of the sightseeing options in the area before deciding to try to track down a few- the remains of a biblical church and Yasser Arafat’s memorial.
Stuffed, we made our way back onto the street to try and find the church. The only catch was that most of the street names weren’t marked, the only map in my guidebook didn’t show exactly where it was, and none of us had ever been to Ramallah before. Oh, and no one that we asked had any idea where this place was. We wandered through side streets for a good hour or so, parading through traffic in true Cairo fashion and asking directions from anyone who would listen, until we ended up next to a nice soccer (a.k.a. football) field that a few young kids were playing on. We were lost. Ibraam happened to ask a couple of local guys who must have been in their early 20’s for directions. After conversing in Arabic and English for a bit, the guys called their friends to try to get us more precise directions. They ended up figuring out exactly what we were looking for, and not only gave us directions, but also offered to drive us there. This was the same kind of hospitality that we had experienced from our Palestinian hotel concierge on our first night in Jerusalem, who had offered to take us to his home in Ramallah and show us his hometown. After consulting with the rest of the group, we agreed and piled into their car.
The church ended up being a much smaller site than my Lonely Planet book had made it out to be- it was literally just a small, excavated area with a few stone blocks and column bases, and a mosque built almost on top of it. Regardless, we were able to see one of the few archaeological sites in Ramallah (this was apparently where Mary realized that she had lost Jesus within their caravan), and met a few Palestinians in the process. As we snapped a few pictures, the call to prayer began echoing out of the minaret in front of us- it was almost like we were right back in Cairo. The longer we stood there, the colder the weather got, and before long we were anxious to move on to the next point of interest. The group agreed that Yasser Arafat’s memorial would be a cool place to check out, and our new Palestinian friends/guides offered to accompany us there. So, I walked the fifteen minutes to the memorial with half of our group, while the rest opted for the car. Along the way, we chatted with one of the Palestinians, and admired the sun as it began to set through a heavy blanket of white clouds.
Once we arrived at the memorial, we found that Jeremy, Sloane, and Andrew had been busy talking to the guards at the front entrance. Apparently, they had asked to take a picture with these guys, who looked like real-life G.I. Joe action figures, and this had somehow launched into an excited conversation about current events. Jeremy and Ibraam spoke with the guards in Arabic, asking them what they thought about the recent overthrowing of Mubarak, their feelings towards Arafat, and their roles in the armed forces. One was much more outspoken than the rest, and told us all about his pride in being a presidential guard and his loyalty to Arafat. We eventually managed to part from the guards, and made our way inside the bare white walls of a large, grassy courtyard. In front of us, an immense white cube of a building stood, its glass doors open. Two guards stood sternly in full uniform, guarding a granite slab with Arabic calligraphy carved into its surface. Flowered wreaths lined the corners of the room. We took a guess at translating the Arabic, snapped the obligatory photos, and thanked the guards before making our way back outside to our new Palestinian friends’ car.
At this point, we had seen all of the major sites within Ramallah that we wanted to check off of our list- the downtown square, an archeological find, and Arafat’s memorial. So, the Palestinians took over from this point. They could tell that we were a little tired after our site-filled morning, so we made our way towards a tiny coffee shop to rest for a bit before continuing the adventure. We walked into a doorway, past a couple of tables, and up some narrow stairs to sit in a smoke-filled upper level of the cafe. Men sipped on tea and smoked cigarettes in the corners as we pulled together a few tables to fit our entire group. We ordered mint tea, shisha, and water, and grabbed a loose stack of playing cards from the table next to us. The Americans wanted to play Blackjack, and set our sights on teaching the Palestinians how to play. I personally thought that we had done a pretty good job of showing them the object of the game (which isn’t exactly complicated…), but something must have gotten lost in translation- one of the guys proudly showed us a ‘2’ and a ‘4’ before excitedly asking if he had won. Oh well.
By the time we had finished our tea, another Palestinian had shown up, and he offered to let us use his larger car so that we could all fit into one. So, we climbed in and enjoyed a long tour of Ramallah. As the sun set, our new guides showed us great views over the city, Berzeit University (which is where my Perspectives on Islam professor also teaches), and introduced us to new Arab pop music. Finally, they decided to take us somewhere that they thought we would really love to see- a Christian church. Since we had told them that we were not Muslim, and the majority of us were not Jewish, they understandably assumed that we were all Christian- it’s almost unheard of to be atheist, agnostic , or not very religious here. So, a church was their offering to try to make us feel at home in Ramallah. In this kind of situation, it really was a thoughtful thing for them to do. We were all a little confused at first, but appreciated their effort and walked around the church for a bit. It was beautiful- huge mosaic pieces of art depicted Jesus on the cross, stained glass filled the windows, and bibles in Arabic graced every pew.
By this time, it was getting a little late and dark. The Palestinians asked if they could show us anything else in their town, but we all hinted at the fact that we were tired and ready to head home for the night. So, after a quick stop at a convenience store to grab some snacks for the road (Analucia and I stocked up on “Crazy Bars,” which can only be found in the West Bank), we climbed in the car and made our way back to the central bus station. The Palestinians dropped us off about a block away from our bus stop, and we said our goodbyes after spending the past four or five hours together- they had really dedicated their day to showing us around Ramallah. Jeremy and Abraam exchanged phone numbers with the guys, and eventually attempted to pay them for their help throughout the day. These guys had given us rides, brought in a bigger car for us, showed us sites and restaurants, and answered our questions, so we obviously wanted to give them something in return. Despite our insistence on giving them some kind of payment in thanks, the Palestinians refused to take our money. They told us that it was their pleasure and duty to show us what their home is like, and give us a proper introduction to a Palestinian city. The more we offered, the more it was refused, until eventually they said that if we offered again it would be considered rude. The only thing that they asked was that we call them next time we’re in Ramallah.
So, our first experience in the West Bank wasn’t too bad. It was really cool, actually. I never felt scared or threatened, and we managed to meet some Palestinians along the way. We hopped back on our bus, and headed towards a checkpoint to pass back into non-Palestinian territory. I got my first glimpse of some of the graffiti on the Palestinian side of the West Bank “Security Wall,” which was pretty cool- a portrait of Arafat and passages urging a “Free Palestine” lead us right up to the exit. This gate, however, was a little more trouble than the first. The bus was stopped, and riders without passports got off and walked across the checkpoint on foot. Israeli soldiers came onto the bus, guns in hand, and had us hold up our passports- upon seeing that ours were all American, they walked back off and allowed us through. Just a few minutes later, we were out of the West Bank and on our way back to Jerusalem.
After a full day in Ramallah, I thought that I had my fill of adventures, but apparently I was wrong. Andrew mentioned something about a Beatles cover band concert on the bus home that night, and I pounced on the idea. He had been invited to go with some friends, and didn’t have many details, but said that I was free to come. My decision was kind of made for me- there was no way I could miss out on an Israeli Beatles cover band in Jerusalem. I had no ticket, no knowledge of where this concert would take place, or who I would be going with (aside from Andrew), but at 9 PM I met in front of building 2 in the Student Village, as instructed. Andrew introduced me to a few new people, a couple of which went to UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley- a huge percentage of the study abroad students here are from California. We all exchanged names, and quickly piled into taxis to take us to the venue. I ended up riding with a couple of boys, one of which was fluent in Hebrew, and one who had just returned from a day with JStreet touring Israeli settlements. They told me a little more about this whole cover band thing- apparently, the venue was called “The Yellow Submarine,” appropriately enough, and most of the group had already purchased their tickets.
So, once the whole group had arrived, those with tickets waited in line for a couple of minutes before going inside. The rest of us, a.k.a. Andrew and me, waited in yet another line. This is where my Cairo skills came in handy. A huge group of concert-goers were queued up in front of three or four cranky venue employees, all waving their tickets in the air and guarding their place in line. I made my way towards the front of the line, making full use of my elbows to maneuver my way to the front and ask about getting tickets. The ticket-taker at the front informed me that we should just wait a few minutes until more ticket-holders showed up, and then they would give us further instructions. Five, ten, and then fifteen minutes passed by, and we still had no idea what was going on- it didn’t help that neither Andrew or I spoke much (or any) Hebrew. So, I squirmed my way back to the front of the line, where I overheard that there was actually a waiting list for tickets going around. I chose to approach a different (and friendlier-looking) employee this time, asked to be put on the waiting list, and held my place nearby to ensure that we wouldn’t miss our chance. A few more minutes of waiting ended up with me pushing my way to the front a couple more times until finally I just waved my and Andrew’s money and student ID’s at the employee and demanded tickets. It somehow worked- just a few minutes before the concert was set to begin, we walked in, tickets in hand.
The concert was great. It was a small venue with standing room only, and most of the audience was full of students. I didn’t think about the fact that this would be an Israeli cover band, which meant that the band members spoke in Hebrew in between songs- a number of times, they shouted excited things to the crowd, and the crowd responded, but we had absolutely no idea what was going on. Most of the lyrics were also a little strange because of the musicians’ accents and a few details seemed to be lost in translation- for most of the concert, there were between five and seven band members on stage. Regardless, we got to sing along to some classic Beatles songs and have a great time.
So, our first weekend was a success. We managed to maneuver through the bus system, checkpoints, the West Bank, and were able to fit a concert in there too. Not a bad start! Ramallah is the jumping-off point to most other cities in the West Bank, so our first visit to the area definitely wouldn’t be our last.