“Where do you plan on going in Israel?” asked the passport control lady at Tel Aviv airport.
“Um, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazar-”
“Ramallah, why?” she interrupted with an icy cold stare.
“‘It’s on the way to Bethlehem,” I said with doubt and the icy stare increased and lingered for a few seconds.
“Have a nice stay,” she said with all the emotion of lump of rock and returned our passports and entry permits.
Because of the late hour we had to spend a night at a hostel in Tel Aviv. But made a quick get away the next morning to rid ourselves of the try-hard trendiness of the place that hits you smack in the face with the full force of a waxed moustache and plastic-lens glasses.
We boarded the regular bus service for Jerusalem before catching a connecting bus to Ramallah. Ten miles north of Jerusalem it is the de-facto capital of the State of Palestine. Home to feminist movements (women-only cafe http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/.premium-1.569516), Quaker girls schools, various diplomatic missions, larger-than-life kebabs and a familiar sounding ‘Stars and Bucks’ cafe. Not to mention a handful of 24 hour bakeries that bang out fresh pizzas and pastries at all hours.
Whilst waiting for the bus in Jerusalem I caught the eye of a man carrying a dangerously full box of vegetables and a bulging plastic bag. Jessie and Duncan had gone on ahead to save seats and I was on bag stowing duty. This man (Mahmoud) and I helped each other with our things and then went and sat next to each other.
He ascertained with his first view questions that I was studying arabic and I that he was studying for a phD with mine. He proceeded to upturn his plastic bag on my lap which, it turned out, was full of a days photocopying at the library. Copies of historical works on the crusades in french, english and italian. So he was off home, he told me through a gleaming smile, to translate them all into arabic.
This from a man with more degrees than teeth. Then out of nowhere, the man in front turned round and blurted out in a south London accent: “I lived in Tooting for 14 years mate”, and went on to reel off the entirety of his former address including post code and phone number. I congratulated him on his memory and he resumed staring out of the window, reminiscing, I suppose, of all the good times at the lido.
This all seemed a bit strange, I thought, but then the great imposing West Bank Wall (in arabic it’s ‘the wall of the apartheid’, in hebrew it’s ‘the separation barrier’) came into view and thoughts of strangeness morphed into incredulity.
We stayed at Area D hostel, located in the centre and home to volunteers, backpackers, wandering diplomats and the odd French journalist who can be heard tapping away long into the night swearing under their breath.
A day of exploring Ramallah took us through the tinsel-lined streets, passed the enormous central christmas tree and the odd child dressed as santa ringing a bell at passers by. We ended up at the town museum where we met the director, he had just come back from a curator training course at the British Museum and was apologetic for the minimalist nature of the place. But took great pride in showing us the ‘history of light’ exhibition. From stick-on-fire, right the way up to electric bulb, it surely was an illuminating experience.
In the centre of the old town is the aptly named Old Town Cafe, frequented by hot-blooded shabab and veteran shabab alike for some serious coffee sipping and card playing. We got out our worn, and dog-eaten deck of cards and began shuffling for a game of hand (a game similar to rummy that is played all over Jordan and Palestine).
The owner took one look at our cards and refused to let us continue playing until we had accepted his offer of a fresh new pack. ‘I wouldn’t even let a dog play with those,’ he laughed disgustedly.
Whilst playing I noticed a young guy stood staring over my shoulder. I said hi, he said hi, I asked if he played cards, he played cards, i asked if he played well, he played very well, I asked if he wanted to join, he walked away. Such was our conversation.
Before leaving Ramallah we felt it necessary to pay a cursory visit to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. Guarded 24/7 it was the most immaculately clean place in Ramallah. Every detail about the tomb has its own symbolic meaning. Whether it is its distance from the gate (75m – Arafat died at age 75), or the size of the Mausoleum (11m by 11m – he died on November 11th).
That done, and with Christmas nearing it’s yearly outing we boarded the bus to Bethlehem.