By Khaled Diab
On a twilight stroll through the still rather deserted town, everyone we came across was incredibly friendly, warm and welcoming, striking up conversations as we walked past and the children asking me to take photos of them. Our 'outlandish' appearance and my accent meant that our progress through the streets was rather slow at times, as we stopped to chat and press the flesh.
Ramallah today has grown to merge with a neighbouring village. Once it was little more than a village itself, but the 1948 refugees made its population swell. It is surrounded on just about every visible hilltop by settlements, some of which are so close to Palestinian homes that all that separates them is a thin brick wall or they can actually see each other through the windows. This leaves very little wiggle room for the increasingly crowded town to expand and the locals told me this makes them feel trapped, surrounded from all sides by Israel.
The closures, restrictions on movement, the difficult economic situation and the encroaching settlements have led to a gradual depopulation of the area, according to one local I met. Usually, the ones who can leave are the more educated and cosmopolitan, and that is one reason why the Christian population in Palestine has dropped significantly.
A little out of the old town, we heard a series of loud gunshots. A little further up the road, a couple of men were emptying out their guns into the open air to express their grief at the death of their fallen comrade whose wake had just taken place in a nearby building. "There goes a week's wages," Tom observed, having earlier explained to me how expensive bullets were because they were often purchased on the black market.
When I pointed my camera at the two men with the guns, their colleagues who were standing behind us tsk-tsked and told us to stop, and not to shoot. Not really in the habit of defying (or even being near) men with smoking guns, I lowered my camera carefully as if it were a weapon.
The Egypt card had served me well so far, so I tried to reassure them by saying: "Don't worry, I'm Egyptian - I just want to take a photo."
To my utter surprise, the demenure burly man who had just been communicating to me with steely coolness softened dramatically and he became all welcoming. "Go ahead and take your photo," he said in the same sort of voice as an Arab offers tea to his guests. To help faciliate my task, he called out across the street to the men with the guns telling them to fire their guns for the Egyptian. One of them was grumpy and unco-operative - probably didn't like doing tricks for strangers - but the other one was only to happy to oblige. Unfortunately, his gun kept jamming or a car would pass in front of the camera, so it took a few attempts and the result still wasn't perfect.
Following the fireworks display, we walked around the posher part of town. Ramallah has a fair amount of ostentatious wealth floating about, judging by the fancy houses and flash cars about. The Edward Said Conservatory, Tom told me, has built up quite a reputation and graduates talented musicians. Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim still comes to perform there at least once a year, infuriating the Israeli right.
The city has a few gaping craters where buildings were demolished by the Israelis, such as when they destroyed a police station after the lynching of a couple of their soldiers on a mission. Many of the walls and shop fronts bear posters of some of the thousands of political detainees being held by Israel.
We went to the 'Muqata'a', which had variously been a British camp, an Israeli prison, the PA's nerve centre, and became an Israeli prison again when Arafat and a group of his dedicated supporters were besieged there. It's interesting that both sides have their own conspiracy theories about his death: some Palestinians think the Israelis found a way of poisioning him and some Israelis believe he died of AIDS and was a closet homosexual.
Rebuilding work was well advanced and a lot of the destruction that Israel had wrought on this symbol of Palestinian weakness, hopelessness and fortitude. A small mausoleum is almost complete for the face that tried, but failed, to launch a nation.
©Khaled Diab. Text and photos