Life in Palestine: Choosing to Live on the “Other Side”
The most frustrating thing about living in Ramallah and studying in a graduate program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was that I was never on time. Less than ten miles apart, the two cities are divided by a twenty-foot cement wall and the corresponding checkpoint, Qalandiya, could make an otherwise twenty-minute drive take up to two hours. Any number of variables could affect the passage at Qalandiya, including bad traffic, inefficient soldiers or Palestinians lacking proper documentation.
I chose to move from Jerusalem to Ramallah during my second year at Hebrew University so I could practice Arabic and experience life in Palestine — on the “other side.” I learned that as a foreigner, I was able to live a comfortable life in Ramallah, similar to my life at home. My apartment was nicer than the one I had in college and twice as cheap. But though I woke up every morning hoping for a normal day, the walk from my apartment to the Jerusalem bus station was a sensory overload, reminding me that I was far from home.
Modest dress for women is a sign of respect in Arab societies and helped me to ward off the constant, unfortunate and exhausting phenomenon of Palestinian men sexually harassing foreign women.
My walk ran through the heart of Ramallah, which was dirty, crowded and chaotic. I would hear street vendors hawking their wares, coupled with shouts of “Welcome to Palestine!” or “Taxi?” Then, the smell of frying falafel made my stomach turn at 8 a.m. All the falafel stands were open to serve the popular breakfast food, whose scent often blended with that of trash and sewage due to inefficient municipal services. If I was lucky, I would also get a whiff of freshly baked pita bread from the nearby bakeries.
I was usually dripping with sweat for the duration of the walk because I always wore a jacket, no matter the temperature. Modest dress for women is a sign of respect in Arab societies and helped me to ward off the constant, unfortunate and exhausting phenomenon of Palestinian men sexually harassing foreign women. Being a woman in Ramallah was one of the most frustrating things about living there, and was a major part of why I decided to leave. The harassment was rarely physical, but some men—not all—would stare at me, yell obscenities at me or make a sucking sound with their lips every time I left my apartment. This happens to most, if not all, foreign women, and it didn’t just come from lower-class men; it spanned every demographic.
Despite this, men insisted that they respected women and women’s rights. I came to realize, however, that my idea of feminism was very Western, focusing on individualism, choice and independence. In Ramallah and other parts of the Middle East, women were respected and considered strong, only in a certain, prescribed societal role. An unmarried woman living on her own rarely fit into traditional gender norms in Arab society. When people would ask me where I was from, what I was doing in Ramallah or if I was married and had children—and if I answered truthfully—the fact that I was a single woman living abroad was something inconceivable to many.
I came to realize, however, that my idea of feminism was very Western, focusing on individualism, choice and independence.
Being a woman in the Arab world also had great benefits. The most profound was that I was allowed into spaces forbidden to men, particularly homes and even gyms during women-only hours. These were the times when many women would take off their hijabs and “let loose,” and such times allowed me to gain greater insight into gender roles in Palestinian society.
When I would finally arrive at the bus station, I was treated like a tourist. “Al-Quds?” the drivers would ask me, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem. I would ignore them, pay my three-shekel fare and hop into a shared taxi to Qalandiya. I spent hours at Qalandiya during the past year. Sometimes it was easy: the soldiers checked everyone’s IDs, checked the bus and sent us on our way. Other times, I heard Palestinians cursing “Son of a bitch” under their breath if soldiers were being rude, condescending or wasting time.
Once I was standing in line to cross Qalandiya and the area seemed more crowded than usual. I joined a group standing in a demarcated area, waiting to wait in line, when I heard a loud screech come on the loudspeaker. Before we could figure out what was going on, the screech turned into singing and laughing. I realized that despite the large number of people waiting to go to work, one soldier had decided to sing and scream nonsense words into the loudspeaker. I looked at the woman sitting next to me, her three children confused as to where they were or why they were waiting. The woman just sighed. When I was finally able to cross Qalandiya, I saw one of the soldiers who was supposed to be checking IDs painting her finger nails instead.
Sometimes, I would be indifferent to what I saw at Qalandiya. If I were to get upset at everything I saw, every day, I would have gone insane. I came to understand that as a coping mechanism, Palestinians had become obedient and indifferent to the laws of the occupation, turning them into a broken and defeated people. They laughed at the peace process not because they weren’t ready for peace or didn’t want it, but because they knew it would bring little change to their daily lives.
Arriving on campus, I took off my jacket, releasing the heat and frustration of the long commute. It did not matter if it took ten minutes or forty-five minutes to cross Qalandiya, how the soldiers were behaving or if they sent a Palestinian back from the checkpoint. Life at Hebrew University went on as if Qalandiya was not just down the road, as if you could not see the separation barrier from campus, as if there were no occupation. Student life on campus was eerily normal. It was that very normalcy, coupled with my increasing visits to the West Bank and my growing familiarity with Israeli human rights organizations, that inspired my move to Ramallah in the first place.
I came to understand that as a coping mechanism, Palestinians had become obedient and indifferent to the laws of the occupation, turning them into a broken and defeated people.
In Ramallah, I could enjoy the perks of practicing Arabic, learning about Palestinian culture and living the expatriate life of frequenting upscale cafes and cultural events. I also had the advantage of commuting to Jerusalem to stock up on tampons for me and my Ramallan girlfriends (they were almost nonexistent in Arab cities), wear sleeveless shirts outside, buy tofu at the grocery stores and momentarily escape the images of occupation.
As I became familiar with my commute, the lines between Israel and Palestine began to blur. Despite the presence of the cement wall, I noticed that houses split by the wall looked the same, seemingly across the street from one another. I realized that I did not have to go to the other side of the wall to see a world that we were supposed to forget, to see the discrepancy between what was “normal” and what was not.
Passing through the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, I could see evicted Palestinians living in a tent outside of their occupied home. Driving through the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina on the way to university, it became apparent to me that the Israeli bus system did not make it that far east, nor did the municipal garbage collectors, street cleaners or community parks and other public spaces. My commute served as a constant reminder of the privilege I had of being able to forget. I could escape to Jewish areas of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or the U.S. any time I had had enough.
The occupation did not always affect us within Ramallah like it did in the rest of the West Bank. There are no checkpoints inside the city nor are there Israeli soldiers. Every Palestinian, however, had a story to tell about how the occupation affected him and his family. One owner of a nearby shop had a four-year old daughter with leukemia. She was hospitalized in Jerusalem but her father had trouble obtaining permits from Israel to visit her. This often left his Arabic-speaking daughter alone in a largely Hebrew-speaking environment while she was sick without parents near her.
My commute served as a constant reminder of the privilege I had of being able to forget. I could escape to Jewish areas of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or the U.S. any time I had had enough.
But the most profound thing I learned living in Ramallah and commuting to Jerusalem was that no matter how much we forgot or how blurred the lines were, in Palestine you could not forget. Palestinians could see Tel Aviv from the hilltops of Nablus and Jerusalem from Ramallah, but most are forbidden to visit these cities. Even an educated and wealthy Palestinian who could go the fancy cafes that I went to and could live a comfortable life could not forget. The checkpoints, evictions, night raids, land expropriations, house demolitions and road blocks served as constant reminders to Palestinians of the other world. Even if a Palestinian wanted to forget, it would be impossible.
I thought that the separation barrier and the ensuing Qalandiya checkpoint would be the marker between Jerusalem and Ramallah, Israel and Palestine, but I was wrong. I had wanted to live in Ramallah to see the “other side.” My year in Ramallah showed me that I did not have to cross any physical barriers to get away from the comforts of West Jerusalem. I lived across a wall, but I also learned that there were different kinds of barriers everywhere, separating people from families, families from their homes, and two peoples from living with each other.
This article was originally published in New Voices Magazine :Life in Palestine: Choosing to Live on the “Other Side”