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The City and the Writer: In Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh

By Nathalie Handal

Author Photo: Mariana Cook, 2010

Special Series: Literary Maps

“In two and a half decades one of the world’s treasures, this biblical landscape that would have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ, was being changed, in some parts beyond recognition . . . . As a child I used to hear how my grandfather, Judge Saleem, liked nothing more than coming to Ramallah in the hot summer and going on a sarha with his cousin, Abu Ameen, leaving behind the humid coastal city of Jaffa . . . . It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn’t have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint . . . . A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would quality as a sarha. Going on a sarha implies letting go. It is a drug-free high, Palestinian style.”

—from Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh

City of Origin: My grandparents are originally from Ramallah but my paternal grandfather moved in the early twentieth century to Jerusalem where my father grew up. My maternal grandfather moved to Jaffa where my mother was born and grew up. My parents married and lived in Jaffa until they were forced out in April of 1948 during the Palestinian Nakba.
City of Birth: Ramallah
City/Cities you grew up in: Ramallah
Current Residence: Ramallah
Your City/Cities: Ramallah and Edinburgh
Nationality: American
Language(s) spoken: Arabic, English, Hebrew
Language(s) you write in: English
Home: Palestine


I was born in Ramallah and I have lived there ever since. These days as I walk through the city, I cannot help thinking of its various incarnations. I can remember the time before the Israeli occupation when its streets were lined in pine trees and most people lived in single-story houses surrounded by a garden. There was so much space then, and no high buildings to obscure the sun. Then I remember the shattered glass of the shop windows in June 1967, and the electricity cables felled by bombs when the city was occupied by the Israeli army during the war.

I cannot walk by the wall behind the city’s main central circle, called the Manara, without stopping to remember when it was smeared with blood from young activists involved in the first Intifada from 1987 to 1992, who were bounced against it by the occupation soldiers. Nor can I ever forget the sight of the Israeli tanks that filled the circle during the more violent second Intifada, beginning in 2000, when some soldier wrote the name of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, on one of the seven lions adorning the Manara circle.

One of the effects of that phase of fighting the occupation was more intensive internal migration into the city from other cities and villages in the West Bank that were suffering from economic strangulation as they were being choked by the Israeli siege. Many came to Ramallah from Nablus, a main center of commerce and industry in the north. More than any of the West Bank cities, Ramallah, whose population now stands at around 110,000 including the sister cities of Bireh and Beitunia, has a mixed population of the original town’s Christian inhabitants, migrants from other areas of the West Bank, and an ever-growing number of foreigners who work or visit and often attempt to extend their stay as long as Israel allows it. There is a level of tolerance amongst the people of Ramallah that makes for a happy mix of people living together in that small area.

But Ramallah is getting crowded. Its possibilities for spatial expansion are restricted by the Israeli zoning schemes prepared right before the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, according to which the area for the city’s future expansion is restricted and cannot be expanded without Israeli approval. The surrounding Israeli settlements, which form a ring around the city, are forever being enlarged at the expense of lands owned by Palestinian cities and villages. This has led to distorted development and inordinate price hikes for the limited land that is available to the city.

It has also made it very difficult for the municipality to allocate open areas and parks, which the city desperately needs. What saves Ramallah for the time being is that it is situated in the central hills of the West Bank at an elevation of 872 meters above sea level, ensuring some degree of openness. Anyone building is required to use limestone, which makes for an aesthetic uniformity among its houses.

Its weather is temperate with four distinct seasons: a dry but usually breezy summer, an autumn of cooler weather with open skies, a rainy winter, and a gorgeous spring when the hills around the city turn green and become carpeted with the most amazing variety of wildflowers.

For now the city is managing to remain vital, with many new businesses and an active nightlife. But should the Israeli occupation continue, and peace continue to elude us, the future of Ramallah would be dismal. The restriction on spatial expansion would mean that overcrowding would begin to choke the city and destroy its pleasant quality of life.  The tolerance that its population now exhibits would be stretched to the limit.

There are no signs yet of a diplomatic breakthrough that could bring peace to our region. The future is too grim to anticipate. Thus far, the inhabitants of Ramallah have not succumbed to despair. They continue to exercise their sumoud, or perseverance, staying put despite the various tactics used by Israel to encourage them to leave. Their tolerance and endurance are legendary. In the face of the many crippling restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation on their life, they remain resolute and undefeated. They manage to keep their city vital, with a large number of very busy restaurants and street cafes and an active cultural scene. All of these characteristics make Ramallah a favored place for most young people in the Occupied Territories to move to.

For me the city of my birth is a constant source of inspiration and strength.

Raja Shehadeh is a writer and lawyer. His books include Strangers in the House (2002); When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege (2003); Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2007), for which he won the 2008 Orwell Prize for Political Writing; and A Rift in Time, Travels with my Ottoman Uncle (2010). Shehadeh is a founder of the pioneering human rights organization Al Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists. His most recent book is Language of Peace, Language of War: Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice.

More on “The City and The Writer” Literary Maps

This map is part of "The City and the Writer" special series “A Literary Map of Palestinian Writers”

Published May 4, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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