Fragments from Ramallahannelys
Andrea Karch (DE, Sandberg Instituut Master student in Design) participated in the 2016 create-shop, and wrote about her personal experiences and observations.
I must say that writing about personal experiences, emotions, especially when connected to traveling, is nothing that I find easy. It is even more difficult when writing about a first-time visit — to Palestine. A people, officially a non-state, a country in constant conflict. I do not want to make empty assumptions about a culture, a way of living or about politics that are not part of the reality I live in. Neither do I want to sound cheesy describing how great of a time we have had as tourists, artists and visitors (which we did indeed). I also do not want to romanticize living in an, to me, intensely beautiful Middle Eastern capital like Ramallah, which tends to immediately put a spell on foreign senses. On vision, smell, audition and taste. The most honest thing I can offer at this point, probably, is a story of fragments, observations, memories that I have taken back to Amsterdam with me.
Everything I thought I had learned, read or known about Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got more complicated with each conversation we had in the group of international and Palestinian visual artists. Just like the cityscape unfolded in its multifarious layers with each walk I took, the conflict grew more complex, personalities exposed strength and weakness, geo-politics, human destinies and diverse, cultural realities intertwined to a complicated mesh of impressions. It is an emotional conflict in every way.
On the other hand though I realized once again how much we, as human beings, have in common regardless of where we grew up or where we currently live. Let me tell you about a chain of associations that came to my mind on a thirty minute walk from Al-Bireh back to city center of Ramallah.
I went along the main street, finally down-hill. It was hot. Everyone I passed by smiled at me. The police man seemed proud and polite. He probably wanted to show off a little, posing next to his car in his uniform, no gun.
A teenager cut my way. He might have been in a hurry. Or he simply didn’t want to be seen. He seemed insecure. A boy, of 15 or 16 years, that was covered in a thick cloud of mens deodorant, “Smells like Teen Spirit”, well — “Axe Anarchy“. He might have been about to meet a girl he liked or his boy gang on their scooters. He smoked a cigarette. Let’s say he pretended to smoke, while he actually only puffed. Pulling one drag after the other, roughly, too fast, amateurish. He wore skate shoes and a dark blue Eastpak backpack that was hanging low until the back of his kneecaps. He wore the New Era Baseball cap backwards and made sure to keep the “59Fifty” logo on it. He looked exactly like me and my friends when I was a teenager, only that I was a girl.
He made me wonder about the image of me walking down a street in the West bank, that my parents would probably have had on their minds if only they would have known I was there in the first place. They might have had the image of people starring at me, gruesome Arab men with long beards wearing slippers, boys covering their faces in Kufiyas throwing molotov cocktails, poor veiled women sitting on the sidewalks begging with their poor babies wrapped in checkerboard textiles, donkeys, ruins and trash, decay, the Israeli flag with that star, military boots and machine guns, Yasser Arafat and the PLO jumping down that building opening fire on me. I don’t know. Anything that would have looked more like setting foot on a battlefield would probably have been closer to their imagination than that boy in front of me.
I walked into an embroidery shop. A tiny space, cramped with the most beautiful handcrafted textiles and ceramics. Red, green, white thread on black fabric, a pattern made out of little pink crosses and flowers, bags, a collection of olive oil soaps, Muslim and Christian home accessoires. I was alone in there. It was literally deserted. Someone just left his or her shop open and trusted the neighbors or passerby’s not to steal, not to vandalize. The shop owner might have gone out to grab a coffee with a hint of cardamom or to have a talk with the man from the flower shop. I stood in a store — all by myself. I took nothing. Later that night the guy from the hostel asked me surprised, slightly shocked, “What do you mean you never got a key to your room?” A week later I left my bag at the luggage shelf a few seats away from where I was sitting on a German train — someone opened it and realized that there was nothing valuable inside.
Half-way to Ramallah center though I spotted a bright red neon sign. Two guys waved at me, yelled something. They stood next to their pimped BMW in front of that store — an H&M. “Take a photo of him, take a photo,” craving attention, wanting to get in touch just because this was the moment to do so. “Is that an original H&M, guys?” I asked. “Sure, what do you think? You think we don’t have H&M in Ramallah?” They laughed and held the door open for me. It was the most beautiful H&M store, indeed not a fake, I have ever been in. Two small rooms, walls and ceiling covered in natural, light wood, an assorted array of clothes neatly positioned on hand-made wooden shelves. The Aircon was blasting. “Do you at least get percentages?” I asked the cashier. “No,” she said and laughed “but I should ask for it, shouldn’t I? I love the fashion.” Capitalism — the only structure that does not know geographical borders.
I continued and came to a halt at an unbuilt-on property with a picturesque view. Although I was already late — the value of taking your time. I stood there for a while. It appeared strange to me that this spot, in between two houses, was completely unused. There was tall grass, dried out bushes. Almost as if something had been burnt down. The mostly smaller family houses and partially bigger residential buildings in front of me were white and squared with flat rooftops, carrying the black water tanks with the white arabic writing on them. In between, trees, dark green and beige, a grey-blue sky. Some families had their pink and blue laundry outside on their roofs. It looked like there was still a lot of construction going on. The buildings seemed rather new, some were yet unfinished, roof and window-less. A few red-tiled roofs in between. Arabic advertisement. Further in the background but not really far, a slight hillside. The typical terracing of earth. Something that looks like a long, high fence of several meters. Behind it the tips of red-tiled rooftops. I guessed it was a more recent extension of the Israeli settlement that was next to it and was very clearly visible on the top of the hillside. I counted five big apartment buildings of maybe five stories, topped in red and unmistakably in Israeli uniformity. Next to these five big buildings around 20 smaller, multi-familiy apartment buildings. Two high towers that were striped in red and white, electricity, navigation, or satellites? Right in the middle of my view, a modern architectural building with a monumental wall all around it.
Especially if you squint your eyes a little, the beige and brown space in-between a Palestinian neighborhood and the Israeli settlement on top of this or that hill visually appears like a buffer zone. Empty land. A weird spot. A weak spot. The hills have eyes. Surveillance. Fragmentation. Division. Apartheid. Control. Power. “I wouldn’t say I’m pro-violence, I actually don’t like violence, I personally would never hurt anyone physically with my own hands — but if someone else does it … you know. Then they get hurt — fine. What do you expect me to say now?” someone told me. Hatred and revenge. Deeply rooted. I have never seen that notion so alive, aware and burning in someones eyes that felt so close to my own.
Back at night in Ramallah we went out to get some Kebab sticks and vegetarian Mezze. Lamb kofta, shish tavuuk, chicken hearts, cripy liver, freshly grilled, smoked from the small barbecue place at the corner. Another foreign traveller joined us and told us a story about how lonely traveling outside of the West Bank was. “I mean in general, who just walks up to you on the street and says “hey should we become friends”? It’s hard to get to know people, in Tel Aviv.”
Just a minute later a Palestinian guy greeted us, shook our hands, did some smalltalk and invited us to a party where he was going to deejay at that seriously hip ‘Snow Bar’ later that night.
Sometimes there is no point to a story, no end to a journey, no need for convenience, no solution to a conflict and no logic to life. Sometimes you simply realize, you don’t need a reason — to be, to travel, to question, to feel, most importantly to share. May it be moments, impressions or worries, consent or discontent. I value these weeks because of the people that were willing to share themselves and their time with me and hope to see ignorance replaced by reason, starting with myself.