If we were ever going to visit the West Bank, this seemed like the time. The fighting between Israel and Hamas had ended months earlier, and although the hostility lingered, no large-scale violence had broken out in the Palestinian Territories since. So after a few days sightseeing in Jerusalem, Mardena and I crossed into East Jerusalem, found the New Arab Bus Station, climbed on bus 18, and settled in for the ride to Ramallah.
Ramallah was a city I especially wanted to see. For one thing, since it was the de facto political and cultural capital of the West Bank, I thought it would give us about as unvarnished a view of Palestinian life as we were likely to find. Later that week, we’d be spending a few days in Bethlehem, another West Bank town, but given the importance of Christian tourism there, I had a feeling it might affect a cheerier demeanor to appeal to Western visitors.
There was plenty of reason, of course, to be cautious. In recent weeks I’d read occasional news accounts of politically motivated stabbings or shootings in Israel or the occupied territories. The US State Department was still advising travelers to exercise “extreme caution.” I had no idea how, as Americans, we’d be received.
So as eager as we were to see Ramallah, in light of the uncertainties we didn’t plan to stay long. A few hours, we figured, would probably do it.
After the hour-long ride, we walked out of Ramallah’s bus station and started down Sharia Al-Quds, the street that led to the city center. The first thing that struck me was how cramped it all seemed. The sidewalk was teeming with people, the shops were narrow and dark, and two blocks ahead of us, Al Manara Square, the central downtown roundabout, looked dusty and crowded.
I wasn’t quite comfortable enough yet to plant myself in the middle of the square, as I’d like to have done, and watch the passing parade. Instead, we kept moving, making a half circle around the square and continuing a few blocks beyond until the crowds thinned out. It helped; the more we walked, the more relaxed I felt. It helped, too, that people seemed generally indifferent.
Eventually, we started to lose track of where we were, so we turned back. As we did, I noticed coming toward us, three college-aged boys dressed in shorts, flip flops, and colored tee-shirts, one of which read “Hollister” (as in California). They couldn’t have looked more American if they’d wrapped themselves in the stars and stripes.
Actually, though, I was impressed. They looked like guys you’d expect to see on a beach in Tel Aviv, beers in hand, checking out girls. Instead, here they were in Ramallah, tramping the dusty sidewalks, getting a feel for Palestinian street life. Myself, I’d have given them at least an A for curiosity. As it turned out, in fact, they were the only people we saw in the town who looked like Westerners.
It was nearing noon, and the streets were getting busier. We decided to find somewhere to eat.
We wandered past a couple of cafes, peered in, moved on, and finally stopped at one with a menu posted out front. It was in Arabic, but colorful pictures showed the options. “Can you find something?” I asked Mardena? “I think so,” she said.
A slim, serious, dark-haired guy in his thirties in faded blue jeans, dark tee shirt, and sneakers stepped out and motioned us in. We followed him into a bare room with ten or twelve tables, three or four of them occupied. He gestured toward one in a corner and handed us menus.