By Khaled Diab
On Friday morning, I set off to Ramallah. While I was waiting for the bus driver to return from Friday prayers, a group of young lads hit off a conversation with me.
They had got to Jerusalem by jumping out of the minibus just before the check point and taking back routes. On the journey back, there would be no problem because the Israeli military didn't really care who entered Ramallah.
Like so many other Palestinians I have come across, these younguns informed me eagerly that they loved Egypt and Egyptians - believing the celluloid myth that we are all friendly, kind-hearted, care for others and have a wicked and biting sense of humour.
In fact, travelling around this land has made me somewhat self-conscious because I seem to draw attention as if I were some kind of minor celebrity - nothing major, just someone who features in a crappy soap opera about a bitter, generations-old feud between two families: a rich and powerful one and its poor cousin.
The boys who worked at a shopping mall in Ramallah joked with me about their dead-end lives, smoking, Egypt and wanting to get out of Palestine. "Take me to Europe with you. Everything here is so messed up - the occupation is humiliating and the PA are pimps!" one of them maintained.
A do-good busy-body type standing near by decided to give them his Shekel/Dinar's worth. "How are we ever going to build a country, if every young person wants to get out and is going to bad mouth it?" he asked, although he was not actually interested in a reply.
I could not really blame the young men for wanting to flee the misery and madness around them - who wouldn't? In most of the Occupied Territories, if I recall the stats correctly, unemployment is running at over 50%, the majority of the population lives under or near the poverty line and they can barely move from one town to the next without an Israeli permit.
Just before I got on the bus, I got a message from Tom, my Belgian friend who lives and works in Ramallah for a Palestinian NGO, informing me that there had been a gun battle the previous night and the city was not only quiet because it was Friday but was also dead because of a curfew on shops and businesses.
When I arrived, Tom led me through Ramallah's semi-deserted streets. Most of the shops were shut, or had their shutters down but were working surreptitiously behind doors left ajar for their customers. The so-called 'strike' was apparently by order of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Tom suggested that we sit out the strike in his favourite cafe. En route, we chatted about his work and life in Ramallah.
Inside the cafe, we met a group of his NGO friends, such as Gareth, an Irish lawyer with Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation, and Emma, a Palestinian-Brit with Save the Children.
First bottle up against the wall
With the cafes shutters down, it felt like we were in a kind of American prohibition and clandestinely drinking a toast to the revolution of Palestine's best beer. Al Taybeh, whose slogan is 'taste the revolution', is a quality local poison and a successful Palestinian export.
When I told one of the punters that many Israelis find it hard to believe that Palestinians drink alcohol, he retorted: "They'd better believe it. Israeli beer is so bad that even Israelis don't drink it. Our is good enough for us and good enough for export."
He said that the Israelis lived a few kilometres up the road yet they knew very little about the realities of Palestinian society. To him, this was proof of a willful ignorance - he believed Israelis would rather not know because that makes living with the occupation easier.
We sat around discussing Israeli abuses of human rights, the security wall, Tom's theory that an Egyptian pyramid could not have been possibly built in 20 years (at which point, we all got out our phone calculators to disprove him). Gareth provided us with access to his on-brain log of weird legal precedents under eccentric English common law.
The cafe's colourful Palestinian owner gave me his political punditry on everything from the Sykes-Picot agreement to the wall in Israel and now in Iraq. "Who are the Israelis trying to kid?" he asked eagerly, his eyes blazing with excitement. "The man who shot the policeman yesterday was a car smuggler. If criminals can get around the wall, do the Israelis really think it will keep out a determined killer? The wall is about land, not security."
©Khaled Diab. Text and photos.