Ramallah: A Stop and Start Life Full of Checkpoints

The fall of Jerusalem to the First Crusade in 1099 stunned the world of Islam, which was at the peak of its achievements. Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad were large cities with combined population of over two million—advanced urban civilisation at a time when the citizens of London and Paris numbered less than fifty thousand in each case. The Caliph in Baghdad was shaken by the ease with which the barbarian tide had overwhelmed the armies of Islam. It was to be a long occupation.

– Tariq Ali, The Book of Saladin

Applied Empathy (i.e., caring) regarding events in the Middle East has taken a beating over the decades. Fatigue has set in and we don’t really care anymore — an indifference has been exposed that is up there with Climate Change for imminent demise. Maybe they are linked. Maybe the real pandemic underway is mental. Some kind of fight-flight-freeze intuiting of catastrophic danger ahead for us all as we hurdle toward the Singularity.

This fatigue point has been reached incrementally over the years since the end of WWII, which ended with the Big Bang of our unnecessarily nuking the Japs to spite the Russkies. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Robert Oppenheimer quietly noted.Gods of Death, as Freud, and others, figured we’d end up as. After WWI, newly discovered Middle East oil became the most prevalent source of world energy, leading to “skirmishes” for its wealth, after the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. And the other major transformative event for the region was the Jewish demand, after WWII and the Holocaust, for a homeland — based upon historical precedence.

The world has been delighted to watch the wilderness religions — Christians, Islam and Judaism — duke it out for millennia, like three irascible siblings each intent on domination. The Three Abes (they all derive from Abraham) have, individually or together, shaped the way the world has progressed economically, spiritually, militarily, and morally for at least 1000 years, going back to the Crusades. So, though we are fatigued with the whole lot of them, the Three Abes still hold our attention, and what happens in the Middle East today still has far-reaching consequences for our collective future. Arab oil, especially plastics and carbon emissions, has filthified the world, maybe beyond rescue. Tensions between Israel and its neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, threaten to act as a catalyst for apocalyptic destruction. In this still developing regional denouement with global consequences, the human rights violations in Palestine / Israel, that we hear about almost every day, just don’t move us; we no longer expect much to change.

The Book of Ramallah, a collection of 10 short stories from the West Bank city, attempts to stir our interest again. The book, part of the Comma Press (UK) ‘Reading the City’ series, focuses on human stories that emphasize people and their environs over a strictly political posturing. Part of the deadening of our response to the so-called Israeli-Palestinian Question, over the years, has been the MSM filtering of events there as “political” rather than human. Always we talk about the “two-state solution,” even when there is no hope of that now. We don’t talk about America’s role in the demise of that “Solution.”

But what is Ramallah? I pictured a dust town of cinder block barrios, because destruction and cheap construction seem to be the only images we are provided by the MSM in the telling of the region’s story. But it’s a modest modern city worth getting a true picture about before reading the stories. A quick glimpse is provided by LivingBobby at YouTube. Palestinians are not dust monkeys, as is suggested by some MSM accounts, but vibrant and as materialistic as the rest of us. They’ve tasted of the sugar, and want more. Israel says to them, you can have more sugar, but first…. kow-tow.

But, as Maya Abu Al-Hayat, reminds us in the introduction to The Book of Ramallah, ancient frictions act as a frisson to affairs there:

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.

It’s a quiet book, but there’s tomfoolery going on in the background that brings disquiet.

The first thing that struck me about the stories is their relative narrative simplicity; there are few lyrical flourishes to amaze, although there are certainly plenty of spirited flashes of imagination, inclusions on the whole are stoical — we are dealing with ordinary people, with limited material wealth and dealing with the everyday stress of the Israeli occupation of their homeland, and this subjugation comes across in their often subdued utterances.

In the opening story, “Love in Ramallah,” a bus and several cars are held at the Uyoun al-Haramiya checkpoint, and the passengers are forced to get out of their vehicles. While they wait for the slow and deliberate wheels of bureaucracy to move them through, an Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldier decides to have some sadistic fun. He tells the passengers that nobody gets through the checkpoint until a young Palestinian boy kisses a young girl, a violation of cultural norms:

In front of the checkpoint, the soldiers were giggling to themselves. Rummaging for change in their pockets and passing it around, they began placing bets on whether he would kiss her or not.

Amusement and humiliation. Fascist delight and schadenfreude. All that’s missing is a bitter lemonade stand.

When Na’eem, the boy, refuses, the IDF soldier beats him —

the rifle butt struck his thigh. Everyone heard the thud on his femur before he fell to the ground, only for the soldier’s jackboot to follow up….

To prevent further bloodshed, the young runs to the boy and tells him to kiss her; he does, and the ordeal is almost over. They are free now to cross the checkpoint, but on the bus,

the passengers’ eyes reflected a mixture of shame, oppression, anger and disapproval. They stared brokenly at the floor; silence was the new passenger they had taken on.

This simple, editorially well-placed story sets the tone for the reader’s expectations. And when the authors depict a lifestyle of multiple checkpoints per day.

In the ironically titled, “A Tragic Ending,” Mahmoud Shukair titillates the reader with the tale of Hatem, a man in search of women. A kind of subplot sees his friend Muawiya, a local wannabe politician who goes around “loudly pontificating about ‘the nation’ and ‘the people’ so everyone could hear.” Dramatic tension is built in his suspicion that he’s being tailed by an “informant,” a possibility he might find useful as he runs for local office. We get pictures of Hatem’s hirsute neighbor girl who frequently comes on to him, lifting her dress to reveal her hairy legs. “He had never taken a liking to her, even though she was so kind-hearted that it verged on stupidity.”

Instead, he longs for Randa, who he has peeped on without drawing her attention, and realizes his love for her will be unrequited when she moves to America after marrying her cousin. Aziza is a married woman with a surplus of sensual commodities with whom Hatem carries on an affair, until she is almost caught red-honeyed by her husband; Hatem climbs out a window and hears screams of torture coming from the honey pot. He moves to the city. He ends up with the hairy woman. Shukair’s tale is a clever and comical suggestion of the idleness (and boredom) of men in Ramallah — they’re either getting laid or running for office. (In America, it often amounts to the same thing.) Shukair seems uninterested in promoting any seriousness regarding politics — Palestinians have no power, and Muawiya is no resistance fighter. But the subtle humor suggests Boccaccio or 1001 Nights.

But there is no humor in the Occupation of the West Bank and the ‘lifestyle’ it imposes on Palestinians. The swisscheesification of the West Bank has led to communities separated by private Israel roads with checkpoints everywhere, a situation making a two-state solution almost impossible. The Oslo Accords, on paper, provided more autonomy and self-rule to Palestinians, such ‘progress’ is subverted by the infrastructure that connects Israeli settlements. As Al-Hayat notes in the introduction,

(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).

It is hard to grasp the accommodation required to make this situation palatable or even practical from the point-of-view of centralized governance.

The absurdity of this situation is brought out wonderfully in “At the Qalandiya Checkpoint,” by Ameer Hamad. The reader is introduced to an irascible narrator who was born at a checkpoint, his father running in his underwear from Jerusalem to Nablus to get there for the birth. The father nicknames his son Salah al-Din, after the legendary anti-Crusader who defended the Holy Land from invaders. Salah al-Din grumbles and grouses about all the time he and others have spent at checkpoints. He tells us about checkpoints in other countries, their relative humanity:

There they will try to force you to read, study, listen to music or do yoga for hours on end; someone has even opened a pop-up café called ‘Love at the Checkpoint’.

But for al-Din and his compatriots, anthropologists reckon they’ve lost years waiting at checkpoints.

Hamad reflects on time, one of the things people do while waiting, and trots in Samuel Beckett for a cameo tap dance about time:

To be fair, this checkpoint has its advantages, most notably the fact that waiting here makes you experience time in its purest form. As Samuel Beckett famously observed, it doesn’t get purer than this. Indeed, to quote Ronan McDonald in his Cambridge Introduction, Chapter 3, page 67, second sentence: ‘Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in the hours he spent at the Qalandiya checkpoint between 1948 and 1949 while he was teaching Absurdist Literature at Birzeit University.’

The Palestinians, too, are waiting absurdly for their Homeland to arrive and pass time aimlessly. For Salah al-Din days at the checkpoints have become theatre, full of dramatic tensions. He let’s a woman cut in line, only to see that line close a minute later. He observes “jetsetters” given priority processing.

Al-Din enters into a revealing dialogue with a checkpoint guard, a Russian Jew emigre, who takes a liking to al-Din’s wit, but who is an unshakeable bureaucrat. Al-Din refuses to tell the guard about his past but is invited to project the future:

‘I am the one who will free Jerusalem, and bring the sun back to Haifa. I’m the one who will demolish this whole damn checkpoint and bulldoze it over your grandfathers’ graves. I’m the one who will single-handedly bring back all the refugees, and deliver self-determination to the entire Arab world, I’m the one –’

‘But you’re Kurdish. Why are you bothered about the Arabs?’

‘And you’re Russian. What do you care about Palestine?’

Pasts and futures merge into a frictional present. But mostly diaspora Jews come from everywhere to settle in the Promised Land — at the Palestinians’ expense.

Americans aren’t all that keyed-in or motivated to “help” the Palestinans fight the Israelis in courts and at the United Nations to secure their native homeland. People seem to have forgotten that the area of occupation — the whole region now known as Israel — was once, not long ago, on the map as Palestine. As mentioned earlier, settlers to West Bank have ruined Palestinian society and self-governance with their settlements, which expropriate Palestinian lands by armed and often-fanatical Zionists, who divide the West Bank with private roads. According to a 2015 Newsweek piece, Americans Jews are “over-represented” as settlers and, since the Oslo Accords in 1993, have helped grow the settler population from 110, 00 to 400, 000 and “helping make the two-state solution impossible.” “Why are so many US citizens moving to the West Bank?” is a recent and brief interview with settlers worth watching for its exploration of motivations.

What’s left out of those interviews is the hypocrisy and unmitigated evil some of these settlers bring with them to the West Bank. These Americans could not do, and would probably fight to make sure it never happened, what they do in the West Bank — bulldozing homes, creating barriers, and jigsaw private roads that cut off Palestinians from each other and require hours spent at checkpoints. A lot of these settlers go to Israel because the land is cheap, they are welcome, and it’s beautiful where they are going. But they are helping participate in an Apartheid system to obtain and sustain a contradictory lifestyle. This seems to be a facet of ugly Americanism that is common throughout the world — American middle class expats going to other countries, living often rent-free, and lording over the locals, enjoying the privilege of hiring the locals as servants for paltry wages, etc.

There’s been resistance to such treatment over the years. Plenty of American Jews are vocal in their opposition to settlers participating in a system that smells of hypocrisy and apartheid. Palestinian resistance to the Occupation began in earnest with Yassir Arafat, the first president of the Palestinian National Authority, and co-winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Arafat, for all his alleged faults, undeniably pushed for autonomy and self-rule — a struggle that continues, but without effective or visionary leadership. He called for the First Intifada (‘uprising’) in December 1987, following an incident at the Erez checkpoint during which four Palestinians were accidentally killed by an Israeli and set off an emotional firestorm. It lasted until 1993. The Second Intifada (known as Al-Aqsa) went from 2000-2005.

From Carl Jung to Margaret Mead, we ‘ve learned as humans over time that we will seek answers to continuous horrible events by collectively believing in supernatural forces, which often coalesce around atavistic figures imbued with special mysterious powers to be feared. “Badia’s Magic Water” by Maya Abu al-Hayat is a story of sympathetic magic — word gone out — rumors that — there’s talk — people are saying that this woman Badia has a magic potion that heals. Born of a dead baby lost during the First Intifada, after which she developed eczema, Badia’s herbal potion cures it, and as she takes a job washing the dead, providing their last ablutions and shrouding, she gains a rep as a healer.

Folks come from all around Ramallah to get some of Badia’s holy water. Sometimes they go to extremes, Badia recalls, with regret:

the woman who once snuck into the autopsy room to steal some of the magic water that had spilled off a girl’s corpse, to use it for some spell or ritual, who, when Badia tried to remove her, had bent down to where the water pooled on the ground and tried to lick it up.

You can’t help but interpret such extreme behavior as a failure of modernity to take hold in a culture beset by the mindset of ancient and tyrannical bugaboos. There’s a biblical apocrypha feel to it. It seems like it will take a miracle to save the Palestinians. But, at the same time, though Badia can’t help “those that don’t believe,” she is self-amused at her power. Al-Hayat expresses it with simplicity:

No dead today: the schedule is blank. Badia sighs, removes her coat, puts on her clean white gown, and drinks the special tea of herbs she brewed herself.

Superstitions, right? They are even behind the Occupation, when you think about it.

The Book of Ramallah is a simple, concrete collection of tales that reveals some of the ‘tender mercies’ and often-humorous day-to-day travails of Palestinas going about their business under Israeli occupation. The tales humanize and almost laugh at political solutions to anything. In doing so, they help us re-realize, paradoxically, that a political solution is a decision of people, not autonomous systems of power. It’s a gentle, non-confronting set of stories that bring refreshing energy to the ongoing crisis for Palestinians in the West Bank and elsewhere in their diaspora.

Readers who want a deeper, more engaging (but entertaining) understanding of how the region fell so miserably into conflict between the Palestinians, largely displaced from their homeland, and Israelis who see their state as a historical and spiritual manifest destiny, may want to watch the 4-part BBC series The Promise (2011), which recounts the events that led to the turmoil, beginning with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the realignment of Arabia by the British, the promise made to Jews in The Balfour Declaration, and the Never Again militancy brought to Jewish emigration to the region by the Holocaust.

The Promise, Part 1

The Promise, Part 2

The Promise, Part 3

The Promise, Part 4


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.