Where Going West Means Heading East

Last week I toured a brewery at 11am.

Not the most conventional way to start the day, I realize. But as the saying goes, it was five o’clock somewhere; namely Tokyo, which, coincidentally, is the only city this microbrewery exports to.

The funny thing about this brewery: it was in Ramallah.

Ramallah is the second largest, though most affluent city in the Palestinian territories; the territories themselves being divided between the West Bank on Israel’s eastern border next to Jerusalem, and Gaza, which borders the Mediterranean. After former leader Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, there were parliamentary elections in 2005, deemed fair by international standards, but which resulted in a civil war. Hamas seized control of Gaza, while their political opponents, Fatah, took control of the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas instituted strict Islamic law and have kept their citizens in poverty and danger. As a result, their support is lower than the Dead Sea. Fatah isn’t faring too much better though, but under more organized leadership they’ve made some strides in improving the lives of their citizens, especially in Ramallah. “If you came to the West Bank, and Ramallah, five years ago,” our tour guide said, “you would not recognize how it is now.”

That whole paragraph is far too simple an explanation, and probably factually misleading, if not downright inaccurate. If you want a more complete and accurate explanation, I suggest studying for a Ph.D.

Our route to the brewery commenced in Arab East Jerusalem. We drove through the wealthy neighborhood of Beit Hanina where notables such as Salam Fayyad live. Our guide told us about the lack of housing in East Jerusalem, which has caused some Palestinians living there to move into surrounding settlements. Palestinians don’t like the idea because every move further legitimizes the settlements. And Israelis don’t like it because, well, Palestinians are moving into their neighborhood.

This place is impossibly complicated. Again, getting into only the most minimal details: settlements, in the Middle East sense of the word, are Israeli housing developments on land that goes beyond the original UN borders for the state of Israel—borders which, due to warfare and anthropological realities, never materialized exactly as cartographically conceived. Most Arabs view these settlements as illegal trespasses, yet, like I said, due to realities on the ground some settlements have been around since the beginning of the State and constitute some of the nicest, most entrenched neighborhoods in Israel.

Once into the West Bank, what should have been a five-minute drive to the village of Taybeh, and to the brewery that bears its name, took twenty minutes due to checkpoints and roadblocks along the most direct route. The brewery is small, and it faces unique challenges. It has to market to a population that, on the whole, doesn’t drink alcohol.

There is, however, a sizable minority of Christians in the West Bank that do drink alcohol. Ramallah, in fact, is a historically Christian city. As such, the city has a law that all mayors of the city must be Christian. Currently, the mayor of Ramallah not only is Christian, but a woman. Plus, just like not all Jews keep kosher, not all Muslims refrain from alcohol.

The brewery only has running water three days a week; and a few years ago an angry mob came to the village with torches and alit several houses. The IDF waited six hours before letting through the fire trucks and police to come quell the situation. The beer was delicious though. Their dark beer, especially, is sublime.

Our next stop was to the Security Wall for some photo ops. Two large portraits adorned the wall, one of Good Old Yasser, and the other of imprisoned political leader Marwan Barghouti. It all looked pretty cool, but unfortunately there was no Banksy.

Our guide mentioned how torn down pieces of the Berlin Wall ended up selling for loads of money, so his plan, he said, when this wall comes down, is to come with trucks and collect all he can. “Because,” he said, “all walls come down eventually.” I told him there were some people in China who would beg to differ.

During lunch we heard a bit more from our guide, Aziz. He argued, fairly convincingly, that peace is unattainable, at least in the near future. Responding to the notion of a two-state solution he said, “There will be one state, or two states, but it won’t be a solution.” Since the Second Intifada, the two cultures have been shut off from each other so completely that whereas a generation ago most Palestinians knew Hebrew, and many Israelis knew at least some Arabic, many Israelis in my generation know zero Arabic and Palestinians in the territories simply have no use for Hebrew. The only time the two cultures meet is when one side is dressed in Army fatigues and carrying a semi-automatic.

Aziz is trying to change that. He runs a tour company that presents a dual narrative. Half the tour is spent in Israel with an Israeli tour guide, and half is in the territories with a Palestinian guide. Also, along with two American Jews, he’s in charge of the Conflict Resolution masters program at George Mason University. During the Second Intifada he set up a blood drive for victims of attacks; Palestinians gave blood to bombing victims and Israelis gave blood to Palestinian victims of IDF retaliation. “Better to give your blood to someone who needs it,” he said, “than to spill it on the ground for nothing.”

He’s just one person among many, and he recognizes this. He used a better metaphor than this, but it was something like drops in a bucket: one drop of water won’t do much, but get enough drops and eventually you’ll fill the bucket. What’s truly amazing is that he seems to have a legitimate reason to be angry. At least from the way he tells it, the IDF murdered his brother. He was 10 when the Israeli Army took away his 18-year-old brother. They accused him of throwing stones at soldiers. He (the brother) denied it, though Aziz said, “He probably did at some point; everyone was throwing stones back then.” Israel detained him for a year until his health disintegrated so completely that it was pointless to detain him any longer.

Knowing what I know about the Intifada and the Conflict in general, I’d bet that Aziz’s story is not unique. I’d also bet that other boys faced with a similar situation are now either dead or in jail themselves for committing crimes far more severe than throwing some stones. So to take the path that he did, to set up a Conflict Resolution program and lead tours that try not to take sides (or at least try to show that there are sides), is a testament to the hope that peace truly is possible.

Our next stop was to the tomb of the hero of the territories, the icon of the oppressed, the paragon of the Palestinians: Yasser Arafat. Aziz told some noble tale about how Arafat is a model and hero to the Palestinian people. I’ll admit: he got me to understand how reasonable people could view Arafat as a hero. But in my book, Arafat was a terrorist. When we were asked if anyone wanted to take a picture with the ceremonial guards in front of his tomb, I had to stop myself from retching.

Our next and final stop was to a pastry place for some delicious Kanafeh. To get there we walked through the city center of Ramallah. Have a look at the pictures below. Notice the designer clothing, wide selection of shoes, and the Stars & Bucks café!

If you think they’re worried about copyright infringement, Aziz said it best: “When you’re not a State nobody can sue you anyway!”

(Click on a picture for larger view)






My impression of Ramallah was not of a city that’s suffering, as some in the media would have us believe. Granted, I wasn’t taken to any of the more run-down areas—what 8-hour tour guide would ever take a group to such places?—but the Ramallah I saw seemed to be thriving. I walked through a city that had packed sidewalks and a traffic jam worse than I-94 entrance ramps. And a poverty-ridden war zone doesn’t have a bustling “Café De La Paix.”

Aziz described Ramallah as a bubble compared to the rest of the West Bank, which is funny because that’s exactly how Israelis describe Tel Aviv. Since the end of the Second Intifada both cities have been more-or-less insulated from the tragic realities of the conflict. Both cities have an emerging restaurant scene, vibrant nightlife, and cultural activities befitting a prosperous city (Ramallah just got its first Picasso). A popular quote made its way around Israel during the early years of her existence. General Joseph Trumpeldor said on his deathbed: “It’s good to die for your country.” Countless soldiers carried that cry into battle in 1948 and 1967. Today the Palestinians seem to be fighting for a similar idea. The only way to have real peace is if we can change the conversation from what’s worth dying for, to what’s worth living for. For me, a Summit Seasonal at Target Field is worth living for; the crisp cold air in those couple weeks between fall and winter is worth living for; my mom’s banana bread. I saw things in Ramallah, too, worth living for: Taybeh Dark, nargila in a carved out orange, that artery-clogging Kanafeh. Peace won’t come easy and it won’t come quick, but it must happen. There’s too much at stake.

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2 responses to “Where Going West Means Heading East

  1. I enjoy reading your interpretations of your trip. I will miss them when
    you come home. You seem to have a very objective interpretation
    of what is happening.
    Hope we see yoou in the west!

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