Last summer, Harvard Bookstore, in Cambridge, MA, sent out a call for submissions for an anthology of travel essays to be compiled, printed, and exhibited by the venerable bookstore. My essay on Ramallah, Palestine, was chosen to be included in the anthology, along with varied, colorful writings from the four corners of the world.
“There’s isn’t much to see here in Ramallah, as you know,” says my friend. She has in mind monuments and cathedrals, waterfalls and forests, majestic libraries and concert halls–all the things that send tourists to the ends of the earth and back with stories and slides and souvenirs. She probably has Jerusalem in mind, too, nine miles south of Ramallah. From its founding in the sixteenth century by Christian Arabs, and until the mid-1990s, Ramallah was a resort town with a higher elevation and more greenery, a place of escape from the zeal and madness of Jerusalem’s sacred grounds and institutions.
Ramallah carries none of the awe of Jerusalem’s great monotheistic sites, but awe (in its original meaning) is a double-edged sword, cuts both ways, points to its opposite. Until the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank, Jerusalem and Ramallah were one continuous weave, the latter often providing calm and respite from the pull and burden of religious faith and duty.
None of that awe here, in Ramallah, with its rolling hills, many now dotted with apartment buildings owned by repatriated Palestinians; its vernacular vegetation of olive trees, bougainvillea shrubs and jasmine bushes; its chaotic, animated town center of pedestrians and cars, video-store sellers and falafel vendors doing constant battle; its traditional homes, some dating back to the nineteenth century, their verandas open to a horizon divided longitudinally by blocks of Israeli settlements.
We have just finished a late lunch, and the afternoon is ours. Despite my friend’s self-effacing words on behalf of her native town, there is enough to see, and see again, in Ramallah if we step out onto the street and hail a taxi: the memorial for the poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Friends School, half a dozen Christian and Muslim religious sites, the Sakakini Cultural Center, the Mukata’a, among others. I have been to some of these places before, several times. Actually, during my adolescence in the 1960s, when Ramallah and the West Bank were under Jordanian rule, we used to come here from Amman, the Jordanian capital, for Christmas or Easter observances in Jerusalem. In the afternoon, we would usually escape the pious crowds, take a taxi north to Ramallah for ice cream and coffee and leisurely times. It was a 15-minute car ride then, the road on both sides thick with eucalyptus and poplar trees. When there were no such religious occasions, on a whim we would drive from Amman directly to Ramallah, a 45-minute whiz of a ride. Yesterday, it took me six hours from Amman to Ramallah, a wretched itinerary of bridge and border crossings, passport checks, bus transfers, more passport checks, questionings, entry fees, exit stamps, and finally a taxi ride to my destination, now a bustling city and the de facto administrative capital of Palestine.
“Or we can just stay here, sit on the veranda, perhaps go for a walk,” I say. “I really don’t want to see anything.” That’s my answer, motivated neither by fatigue from the previous day’s journey nor disinterest in places I have seen before. Something else, something to do with what cannot be seen, perhaps, with what cannot be fixed in words.
We stay, move to the veranda, make some coffee, and begin talking from here and there, our conversation finally turning, as it always does, to literature. It’s a moderately hot June day here, the sky blinding blue, the vegetation near-luminous, the surface of the limestone houses a play of light and shade, and that wind from the Mediterranean, gentle like a whisper, which sways the trees and shrubs, carries the fragrance of jasmine and the faint jingle of an ice-cream truck somewhere in the neighborhood. A bougainvillea petal drops to the asphalt ground of the street below us. A boy speeds down the sidewalk on his scooter as though buoyed and protected by secret hands. We caution him to slow down, he looks up at us, laughs wildly, and charges on.
And like this, time slides slowly, almost stealthily, into early evening, the breeze picking up a little energy, animating our voices, cooling our enthusiasms, improvising an extraordinary afternoon from the most elemental, the most ordinary of natural elements, the wind: tender and comforting, a salve of sorts for the convulsions and roils, the terrors and the wounds, for all that is recorded, spoken, built, captured, all of it awe-inspiring, all of it so far away now. On evenings such as this, the gentle, ancient wind of Ramallah is refuge and home, excitation and restraint, journey and destination.
The Mediterranean wind knows no nationality, no loyalty, no permanence. It comes from the sea, travels over the entire region between its namesake and the desert, turning everything it hovers over into temporary shelter, and disappears in the thick, deep night. But it is the soulmate of the wretched and the fortunate, the occupied and the occupier, the sedentary and the restless. Like intimacy, it is entirely of the present, and dies with goodbye’s moment, leaving behind no visual afterlife.
We have exhausted ourselves with conversation. The gentle wind turns more bone-chilling. We move indoors. Soon it will be time for goodbyes, until the next time, here in the shade of Ramallah, or somewhere else in the country of words.