The road out of Bethlehem, taken in one of the yellow minibus taxis that criss-cross the West Bank, descends steeply downhill and, as it does so, the surroundings change abruptly from Mediterranean scrubland to desert. The rocky terrain is mostly empty besides the occasional corrugated iron shack, which our driver points out are the temporary settlements of the nomadic Bedouin. The heart of the social anthropology student in me skips a beat at the gritty romance of it.
Our driver is knowledgeable about the surroundings, and doesn’t hold back on pointing them out however hairy the bend in the road he’s tackling at the time. I’m told by members of our group that it’s far worse in places like India and parts of Africa, where I’m not so well travelled, but Arab driving terrifies me. Impatience is a virtue for most cabbies but ours takes it to toe-curling extremes. During the ninety-minute drive to Ramallah I learn to dread oncoming lines of traffic, as every time we find ourselves behind one the driver swings out and overtakes the lot, blind hills, corners and oncoming traffic notwithstanding. I lost count of the number of times I reconciled myself with imminent death as a truck rose into view over the horizon with no visible break in the stream of traffic beside us.
So it was with a not inconsequential sense of relief that I disembarked at Ramallah and wolfed down a lamb shawarma as if it was my last meal. Then I took in the surroundings.
The main drag through which we’d entered is jam-packed with taxis, trucks and pedestrians, and proves almost impossible to navigate on our way out especially given the locals’ lack of consensus over the whereabouts of the taxi terminal. Ramallah, relatively modern as far as its major town status goes and historically predominantly Christian, is conspicuously liberal (even in the context of the West Bank generally being more liberal than I’d expected). The population is now mostly Muslim and testament to an obvious fact that is all too often obscured by Western media; “Muslim” is not synonymous with “proscriptive”.
In the West Bank generally and Ramallah in particular, while hijabs are predominant they are certainly not ubiquitous, and plenty of women don’t cover their heads (groups of Western tourists, ours included, quickly adopt a caps / headscarves gender divide in the August heat). Ramallah also has an excellent drinking scene; Taybeh, the West Bank’s most popular beer is brewed nearby and the town itself sports some very reputable whiskey bars that we regrettably ran out of time to sample.
What took up all our time? The Yasser Arafat Museum, a profound enough experience to have justified the trip entirely by itself. By now we’d already seen the scars of segregation in Jerusalem and the brutal impact of the wall in Bethlehem, but I still entered the museum feeling shamefully ignorant of the full historical details of the occupation.
The museum is, in effect, one long exhibition (with two noteworthy exceptions) that traces the history of Palestine throughout the 20th Century, starting in WW1 and the end of Ottoman rule, through the British mandate leading, fatefully, to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Naqba and subsequent Palestinian bids for independence, the intifadas, and to the construction of the wall. This narrative is intertwined with contemporary episodes from the life of Yasser Arafat, and the entire display is movingly punctuated with excerpts of exquisite poetry contemporaneous to the events. A shrine to one of Palestine’s proudest sons (a Nobel Peace prize recipient, no less) as well as its ongoing struggle for survival and independence, the display walks the curious visitor through the tragic sequence of events that led to the current destitution of the Palestinian people.
It isn’t dispassionately objective: there are sections where the narrative skips a few years and picks up at a point where former allies are now at war with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) without explaining why; it (rightly) draws a firm distinction between the politics and objectives of Arafat’s PLO and extremist groups like Hamas, highlighting occasions where the former condemned the latter’s actions, but avoiding instances where the boundaries between these different groups were blurred.
It is, however, an irrefutably emotive account of the suffering that has accompanied the geopolitics of the region ever since the Balfour declaration, the UN partition plan, and subsequent encroachments of the Israeli state on the boundaries set by the partition. It showcases the assassination of various Palestinian leaders and occasionally their civilian associates at the hands of the Israeli state, the illegality of the wall and the Jewish settlements in the eyes of international law, and in a completely heart-breaking section accompanies a display on disproportionate arrests of Palestinians with a rolling list of the names of hundreds who died during or resulting from imprisonment and torture at the hands of the occupying state.
The main exhibit finishes with a tour of the rooms Arafat was besieged in during the final years of his life maintained almost exactly as they were when he occupied them, with the museum itself having been constructed around this headquarters. The existence seems depressingly meagre; a jar of instant coffee juxtaposed with sandbags blocking out the windows (and with it all natural light) brings home the extent to which mortal danger had become part of this passionate, albeit sometimes flawed, freedom fighter’s everyday existence.
Besides this and the list of names of dead prisoners, two things, one right at the start and one right at the end, make the museum a particularly sobering experience. The first is the foyer’s showcase of historical Palestine prior to the British mandate. While inter-religious tensions existed, it’s a picture of a multicultural society where Muslims, Jews and Christians co-existed relatively peacefully, boasting a dazzlingly artistic culture which thankfully yet survives a century of carnage. The second was a temporary exhibit after the main display called ‘Uprooting’. This mourned the plight of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who have been displaced during the conflict, and the walls are decorated with 750,000 human-shaped symbols in recognition. At its centre is a haunting sculpture by Ibrahim Mozzain titled ‘Frozen Steps’ depicting the physical steps, frozen in time, of Palestine’s refugees while representing the ineffectiveness of UN sanctions against Israeli incursions; steps that go nowhere.
It’s heavy stuff, and leaves you very introspective. The best cure, we found, was to head to Rukab’s, an ice cream store so good that Israelis are known to risk sneaking across the border for a taste. Delicious.