Ramallah! (plus the Regional Fulbright Conference in Amman) / by George Bajalia

Well it’s been a while, but I have legitimate excuse this time. This past week, the Jordan American Commission for Educational Exchange hosted the regional enrichment seminar for Fulbright grantees in the Middle East and North Africa. Following the conference, I took a few days to travel to Jerusalem, and my grandparent’s old home town of Ramallah, Palestine. 

The conference itself was full of presentations by grantees about their experiences in various countries and, while the 10 hour days got a bit tiresome by the end, it was indeed quite enriching to hear about contemporary issues in the MENA region. The region itself always occupies quite a bit of time in the News media, but what we heard here was different. We heard about the political situation in Bahrain, and the unnerving proximity of civil war. We heard about the fault lines present underneath Amman, and the potential devastation should an earthquake occur (a looming possibility, but one rarely talked about). We heard about graphic artists in Cairo, and one grantees search to develop a typeface wherein the Roman letters reflect Arabic Calligraphy, instead of Arabic fonts always seeking to look like Roman fonts.

Throughout the conference, each country became a much more real place to me, a place beyond the news articles that I peruse regularly. Except for the Emirates. The Emirates now seem even more like something out of a science fiction novel, but that’s another post entirely. Altogether, it was a great opportunity to meet colleagues from around the region, and to compare just what about these countries comprises a region we call “The Middle East and North Africa.”

And then I crossed the border. Crossing into Israel via Jordan was a surprisingly simple process. I, along with another Morocco grantee, took a bus to the King Hussein Bridge and crossed out of Jordan and into a no-man’s land. Jordan doesn’t officially recognize this crossing as a border, so that stamped a piece of paper and sent us across the bridge (a 4 foot crossing over the River Jordan) and into the Israeli station. After waiting in line, we eventually made it to the passport control. After a couple looks, it was clear that my friend would be crossing right away, but I would have to wait. I handed my passport over, and didn’t see it again for 2 hours. In the scheme of things, it could have been much worse. A young woman questioned me about my family and our heritage (they knew all the answers already), and about just why I was living in Morocco. Thankfully, I had brought along my Fulbright award letter and that seemed to be enough to explain it. Even so, I was sent to a waiting room. Along with about 20 other Palestinians, we awaited our clearance to cross. Most of the men were crossing for work reasons, and got their permission relatively quickly. I sat and watched the hordes of tourist buses cross while I waited in a room that was initially created for Palestinians to cross separately from tourists. Nearby, I could see a smaller “VIP” room with full of European and American travelers, and stocked with bottles of water and fresh fruit. 

Eventually, it was just me left in the room. About halfway through the waiting period, I discovered there was an unsecured WiFi connection nearby, so I sat around checking my email for a bit. Eventually, another young woman wandered into the VIP room looking around for me. When she didn’t see anyone, I waved to her from where I was told to sit. Slightly surprised that I was in that waiting room, she hurried over and handed me my passport. “How do I get out of this area?” I asked. “How should I know…” she responded and went on her way. I eventually figured it out and found my friend waiting for me on the other side. We had both expected that it would take much longer, and he was debating how to get in touch with me should night fall and the station close while I was still being held. Slightly frustrated, but thankful for the comparatively short waiting time and the free Wifi, we got in a shared taxi to Jerusalem. 

And then it started to rain. And it didn’t stop. Well, at least until it turned into snow. So our time in Jerusalem, as beautiful as it was, was full of finding indoor sites, and figuring out cafes to stop in as we walked the Stations of the Cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was incredible in its own right, and seemed even more amazing as the Orthodox Priests struck the bells and spread incense through the Christ’s tomb and the surrounding chambers. The most unbelievable thing though? Pretty much everyone we met assumed my friend and I were Moroccan. I guess Darija has pretty much irrevocably permeated throughout our Arabic. Honestly, I really tried not to use it, but I guess it’s time to just give up…

After a night in Jerusalem, we hopped on a bus and headed to Ramallah. As we passed through the borders of West Jerusalem, the difference was striking. The fertile farmlands of Israel gave way to borders and tin roofed huts. The joggers and cyclists became underfed livestock and pickup trucks full of goods. And as we arrived in Ramallah, the urban sprawl revealed just how much the city has become the one source of viable income in the West Bank. The city passed from village to town to city decades, if not centuries ago; now, however, it has emerged as the go-to place for anyone in the territories who can. From Stars & Bucks, a West Bank coffee chain based on the ubiquitous Seattle coffee chain, we looked out of the main square. Prominently located was a pavillion that said “Palestine’s Right” across the top. Below it saw a United Nations chair with the name “Palestine” written across it. Across town, the presidential palace is under construction, right next to Yassir Arafat’s mausoleum. 

From “Charlie Fried Chicken” to “Checker’s Fast Food” and “Stars & Bucks,” the city has a clear Western influence. The most interesting thing to me, however, was that many of these places seemed to be vital parts in the city’s cultural and social life, not to mention the numerous bars, restaurants, and cultural centers. For me, one of the most striking things was to walk into a cafe and see people who looked just like my uncles, aunts, and cousins. And most everyone seemed to have some family, extended as they be, in the US. Especially in Ramallah, where many of the old families had unique opportunities to emigrate. Now, as Palestinian Americans return, they are mixing with the city’s already vibrant culture to make it a world-class city. Free WiFi was everywhere, and Palestinian Investment companies seemed to be everywhere. It’s a city with the potential to make a difference, and the energy and will to do so. 

There’s much more to say, but to be quite honest, at this point it’s still too fresh. Stay tuned for more updates soon, with the story of the rest of my time in Ramallah and the long journey home.