From Jenin to Ramallah
After a few days teaching in Tel Aviv I have some time today to return to my notes from the West Bank.
We left Jenin a week ago, April 11. I’m driving with my friend and student W, who’s come to join us from his home in Haifa. Also in the car is H, who lives in Jenin and is the brother of the Freedom Theatre’s artistic director. He’s come to support us and also to see family members in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he was born. L, a photographer from Finland, is squashed into the back seat with H along with some of our bags.
The outskirts of the town are very green and beautiful, with olive trees and eucalyptus. Hills on one side of the road, flat cultivated fields on the other. A camel saddled with a carpet ambles along on the main road amid anarchic traffic. I comment on the greenness and W thanks me for noticing—it’s one of the Zionist myths, he says, that the land was arid and neglected before the Israelis came. The Arabs have always been a farming people.
Most of the hills are topped by villages. Or settlements, with their red-roofed houses in neat rows. In the Arab villages all the houses have big black rain barrels on the roofs.
W is talking as he drives, eloquent, poetic, measured but heartfelt. He talks about how the Palestinian identity has been fragmented by the events since 1948. He feels that Juliano Mer-Khamis’s contribution was to help to rebuild identity, with people standing beside each other and feeling commonality.
He mentions internal refugees—people expelled from their villages “inside,” meaning within Israel (everyone here says “inside” to refer to Israel), but not sent to refugee camps in the West Bank. His family was among them. They were compelled to leave their home and ended up in a village where 10 people had to live in one very small room. They and others were dependent on the goodwill of the people who already lived there, sharing their already sparse resources of food, water, and housing. Some welcomed them, some did not.
W’s elderly car crawls up the long hills at not much more than walking pace. There are not many cars on the road, fortunately. Other drivers honk and pass us in exasperation. We are trying to get to Ramallah by 11am. W, philosophical, thinks we’ll make it.
We pass by more olive groves. H in the back seat says that 10,000 trees have been cut down. This particular brutality, like the demolishing of houses, seems entirely sadistic to me. W says that when the army demolishes a house, the family is billed for the demolition—many thousands of shekels. They also have to pay for the rubble to be carted away, or do it themselves.
W is looking back to how it all started. After WW2 the Europeans just wanted to “lose the headache” of the displaced and traumatized Jews, he says. And the Jews wanted and needed somewhere to go. Other places were considered, not just Israel. Land in Uganda was approved by some of the Zionists, but those advocates were assassinated.
I ask them W and H what they see in the future, and what they would like to see. “Palestine has no future,” says H passionately. He is 42 but looks much younger. “I see no future for myself. I can see the present, and the past. But there is no future.”
He has lived all his life in refugee camps. He tells me that he has not seen the sea for eleven years, though it is so close.
I try, and fail, to imagine what it might be like to live with no sense of a future.
W says: “I don’t need a country. I don’t need a flag. I want to live without fear. If the Israelis want to control, let them. If they recognize my narrative, my dignity, that is enough.”
He does not see the viability of two states. He predicts that if a clash will come it will be with the Palestinians inside Israel. They are 20% of Israel’s population and they are like a volcano. Palestinian citizens of Israel have rights, but there is discrimination. Their ID cards are a different color from the Jews’ cards, proclaiming their difference.
H says, “We don’t have problem with the Jewish religion. We have problem with the occupation.”
As we drive through another village W points out a garage called “Haifa Garage.” “That means that it’s run by refugees from Haifa,” he says. “They remember their home with the name.” This village, like the others, has mostly rather stark, utilitarian cement houses, but in a few favored spots there are imposing houses with arches and pillars. I also see many buildings that appear to have been abandoned before they were completed.
We drive by another small village surrounded by fields and olive groves. W and H explain that this is a 3000-year old village, populated by Palestinian Jews—a living embodiment of this ancient and shared history. They are Jewish by heritage and religion, but culturally they are Arabs.
Then a new-looking settlement, surrounded by Arab land on which the settlers have cut down all the trees.
A donkey, escorted by Arab women, pulls a cart laden with garlic.
We drive through Bir Zeit—“well of olive oil.” In the town square there is a photo of Saddam Hussein. H says, “I like this man.” W, sensing my surprise, reminds me that before Saddam turned into a murderous monster he achieved good things for Iraq, including supporting women’s rights. In the distance are the large, modern buildings of Bir Zeit University. Most of the students are Arab, but there are also Jews, Christians, and internationals.
We finally arrive in Ramallah, cars and people jostling each other on the busy streets. It is high up and you can see nearby Jerusalem from some places. “We can see Jerusalem but they can’t see us,” says a woman I meet later, smiling ruefully. Some of the women on the street are in tight jeans and stiletto heels, along with their fashionable-looking headscarves. A few have uncovered heads. They look very different from the women in Jenin in their elegant but stiflingly hot head-to-toe garments. We pass Mahmoud Abbas’s residence, which is also the seat of the Palestinian Authority. W and H are sarcastic about Mahmoud, as they refer to him. They say that opinion is divided about him: some say he is a collaborator with the Israelis. Others respect his leadership.
After the performance I go to meet a woman who is a distinguished Palestinian theatre director. We have been in email contact and looking forward to meeting each other. She is waiting for me at the door of her theatre. I feel as though I’ve known her for years. We have dinner, along with her husband and professional partner, and two friends from Jenin. Soon she will bring her production of Richard 2nd to the Globe Theatre in London as part of the Globe to Globe festival, with 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages. She lives in Jerusalem, a 10 or 15-minute drive from Ramallah if you have an Israeli passport: an hour--or more, depending on checkpoint delays--for any Palestinian no matter how distinguished, because they are not allowed to use the four-lane highway that connects these cities.