January 03, 2011 Ramallah Fragments

The dangerous qanun and the intoxication of power

We leave the taxi at Qalandia checkpoint and for 50 shekels grab a ride in the back of a truck with Israeli license plates. The truck doors advertise flooring and construction, three scruffy men sit in the front seat, and soon we are staring through dusty windows at the imposing separation wall, massive amounts of construction and garbage, new cream white apartment and office buildings, and a disarray of cars all heading in opposing directions. In Ramallah, people do not give you their addresses; we are in search of Supermarket Baghdad. After a dizzying tour of the rainy, foggy city (it seems that men in this culture do not ask for directions easily), we find the supermarket and discover that Israeli Orange phone cards are no longer sold in the West Bank, (first sign of boycott). After a quick call on the one remaining functional phone, Ali Amr, a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston who is home to see his family after a year, meets us a block from the market. The son of a Moroccan mother and Palestinian father and a talented musician, Ali’s journey home was infinitely more torturous than ours.

He explains, as a Palestinian he has to enter through Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. He is required to renew his Jordanian Military service papers annually in Jordan, in order to enter Palestine or travel back to the US. Arriving several days ago, he and his father headed to the border from Amman at 4 pm, got through the Jordanian border without difficulty after a brief interrogation. It seems that studying music in the US is not an entirely legitimate excuse for avoiding the military, but Ali was armed with paperwork from the music school. They then waited in line for an hour to get on a bus to the Israeli border. Half an hour later, squeezed together with other travelers, “like they do for animals in a cage,” Ali and his father reach the line for the soldiers. I should mention that Ali’s father is a law professor at Al Quds University; he usually dresses formally in a suit and tie, and when I met him I was struck with his dignity as well as good humor. After half an hour, the soldiers checked Ali’s bags and threw his bags and qanun, an Arabic lap harp with 72 strings and delicate inlaid carvings, onto the x ray machine. Everyone was allowed to pass but Ali and he was separated from his father.

Ali was interrogated for a second time, “Where they asked me just the same questions…Seems like they have a list of questions that if you answer one wrong, trouble.” Ali remembers his rising fear and nervousness, and finally stepped outside. ”It felt just like I got out of prison.” They let him go with papers that “me the 19 year old kid that’s coming from America is clean and not terrorist,” but then the terror began. His luggage arrived, but no qanun. After endless waiting, Ali asked for his musical instrument and was told to come for further questioning. The soldiers knew the qanun was from Syria, (imported to the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music when Ali was a student there) despite no evidence on the instrument, and insisted that Ali pay a large tax to bring it back into Palestine. Ali and his father where shocked. Ali has traveled all over the world with his qanun and come back home and has never been asked to pay.

The soldiers insisted that he planned to sell it in the West Bank, despite the certificate confirming Ali as a student at Berklee College of Music, his work as a professional musician, and his instrument. He pleaded, he argued, the soldiers started threatening him. “You wanna pay to take it or we take it.” They took his ID and told him to wait. More pleading and arguing and then the soldier yelled, “It’s your decision.” He grabbed the qanun and threatened to smash it if they did not pay. At this point, Ali’s father said, “Wait!” He asked for the bill and the soldiers came back, 866 shekels ($220). Ali remembers sweating with fear and then took out his emergency money that was supposed to pay for his travel expenses and for repairs on the qanun, and handed it all over. The two hour incident left Ali shaken, fearful, and crying. “But the situation is that there is no way we can get the money back from them…There is no one to talk to. No one to sue. The only paper I have is the receipt that they will never consider when I visit again and they will make me pay again and put it in their pockets and go get drunk with it in some Israeli bar. They are all 19 – 20 years old kids…holding guns.” And so one of Ramallah’s most talented young musicians is welcomed home.

Today an Orchestra tomorrow a State

We are warmly received by Ali’s parents, but the family is in a bit of a frenzy. Ali’s older brother Mohammad has just arrived from Switzerland to play viola in the first performance of the Palestine National Orchestra. Classically trained professional Palestinian musicians from all over the world had converged on Ramallah, often requiring special visas from Arab countries, and after three days of rehearsals, the concert was starting in an hour. Would we like to come?

We found ourselves in a massive traffic jam in front of the impressive Ramallah Cultural Palace where hundreds of Palestinians had come to witness the historic birth of this orchestra, a tribute to the arts and cultural identity of the city. The concert logo featured a cello with a red flower in the center and the profile of a woman’s face wrapped in a keffeya. The program announced: Today an Orchestra tomorrow a State. The hall must have held 1500 people, and young people sat on the stairs down to the stage. As the orchestra played a very respectable Ligeti, a Mozart Exsultate featuring a Japanese/Palestinian soprano, an Allegretto by Arnita for oboe and strings, and Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, dark suited VIPs arrived surrounded by heavy security. Although cell phones rang, people whispered in hushed conversations, and clapped between movements (which is not the custom in classical music), Ali said later, “People need to be educated.” For me the most moving response was the tears, probably a mix of pride and pain, a palpable yearning to be whole, to be able to live normally like cultured people all over the world, to celebrate national aspirations without the accompaniment of tanks and apache helicopters. Ramallans were holding their heads high and I could see it on their faces.

Dancing in the prison

There is something uncomfortable for me about having too much fun in a place where there is so much suffering, but it was New Year’s Eve and a friend from the Kennedy School at Harvard who had returned home to Ramallah to do his field work, invited us to a party. We couldn’t resist this opportunity and found ourselves in a lovely apartment near the Bank of Palestine with his gorgeous sister who is studying at Swarthmore, an Israeli friend from University of Pennsylvania, and his aunt, a brilliant sociologist (among other things) with a wildly irreverent tongue. After tea, the aunt went to her party and we traipsed to a local restaurant hired for the evening.

Long tables were set with humus and baba ganoush, rows of party hats, blowers, masks, and a smattering of Christmas decorations. Crowds of 20 and 30 somethings arrived. The women in tight slinky dresses and dizzying high heels, movie star beautiful, shimmered and danced with handsome young men. (My fashion statement tended towards “haute schlep,” but I was old enough to be everyone’s mother and for the record, I held my own on the dance floor). The DJ blared music way beyond my auditory comfort level, but the throbbing beat was inspirational and the hookah smoke mixed with the fog machine creating an other worldly sensibility. Although I got fairly tipsy on a few sips of Arak, I knew I was rubbing shoulders and hips with the educated upper class of Ramallah, graduates from the Friends School, many schooled in the US, sophisticated, upwardly mobile, famous fathers and high expectations. To add to my general confusion, in between the celebrating I had intense conversations with journalists and activists about Gaza and BDS and one state solutions and getting tear gassed in Bi’iln. My friend spent much of the evening dancing, laughing, and enjoying himself with an exuberance I rarely experience. He explained the contradiction: we must never forget we live in a prison, but we cannot behave like we do. We have to put on our clothes and clean our houses and dance with abandon on New Year’s Eve.

Bullets in the kitchen

New Year’s day, Ali’s parents, his father a law professor and his mother a practicing lawyer, take us for a tour of Ramallah. I am struck by the amount of construction, the huge mansions next to empty lots, the roller coaster hills, the fascination with English: “Henny Penny Fried Chicken,” “Yummy Mummy Pastries,” “Birth Café.” His parents came from Morocco for better opportunities for their children who would have been unable to work because they are Palestinian. From 1997 to 2001 they lived in an apartment on the edge of Ramallah and experienced shelling from a nearby Jewish settlement, from 9 pm til morning. “I didn’t see bullets until I came here,” his mother remarked. A bullet through the kitchen window forced them to move to a safer place.

The most striking stories that emerged were from the invasion in 2002. When the invasion started all the children were at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and Ali’s mother ran to bring them home. The family experienced 28 days of total curfew followed by 2 months where they were allowed to leave the house for 2 hours once a week to buy food. Ali’s mother was sure they would be killed so she stayed close to her children at all times so they would die together. Men slept at night fully clothed as they could be awoken at any time and hauled off to prison. At one point 60 neighbors in Al Bireh were placed in one house while soldiers occupied the others.

After the invasion, soldiers were still very present. In 2003 when Ali’s paternal grandmother died in Hebron, the family traveled for seven hours in five different cars, changing at each checkpoint before they got to the funeral. They described Ali’s sister studying at Al Quds University, getting up at 4 am to get to school “before the soldier’s opened their eyes,” running through the hills to get there unnoticed. One time she slept at Al Quds for 2 weeks rather than risk returning home. Before an exam in mathematics, soldiers confiscated her calculator.

For me, the most painful moment came when we drove along a city road and looked down a hill at Area C, to the Jewish-only settler roads, and a settlement looming on the nearby hilltop. At another point, the barbed wire, guard towers, and rows of caravans came right up against the road and Palestinian homes, some now abandoned. Ali’s usually cheerfully gracious mother became clearly anxious and upset as his father’s voice rose with exasperation and frustration, the past merging with present as painful memories filled the car. Even the mythical city of Ramallah cannot escape the fact of occupation.

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