The Book of Ramallah

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Read 29/05/2022-02/06/2022

Rating 5 stars

Comma Press in Manchester publishes a series called Reading the City, in which stories from cities around the world are brought together in an anthology, often stories that have not been translated into English before. I picked up The Book of Ramallah at the recent Northern Publishers’ Fair at Manchester Central Library.

During the pandemic, I’d watched Mayor, the 2020 documentary by David Osit that follows Mousa Hadid as Mayor of Ramallah over a two year period. Hadid comes across as that rare thing – a man of honour in politics. It’s a moving, funny, heartwarming look at what it means to be a Palestinian in a city hemmed in by occupation. It made me want to know more about Ramallah. This collection seemed a good place to start.

In the introduction, Maya Abu Al-Hayat explains that Ramallah is not like most cities. It is, she says, “a seemingly modest city with a short and relatively peaceful history … a city of ordinary stories, rather than heroic myths.” It’s a cultural place, home to numerous Palestinian writers, returned from exile, full of arts organisations and museums, a city of music, performance art, theatre and film, and a starting point for visitors who are new to Palestine. It’s also a city under siege, designated as off-limits to the occupying Israel Defence Forces under the Oslo Accords, but with its surrounding roads largely controlled by the IDF, meaning only Israeli settlers can use them. Although Ramallah is only 16km from Al-Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem), the presence of the Qalandiya Checkpoint means that a 15 minute journey takes 90 minutes. Within the city area, too, are three refugee camps. It’s a city of contradictions, then; something that is highlighted in the stories in the collection.

The settings of the stories range from the 1960s under Jordanian rule through the Second Intifada at the start of this century to the coronavirus pandemic that we are emerging from globally, capturing the different ways in which life can be curtailed and yet still find a way to go on, and the way independence and individuality can still be asserted.

There are two stand out stories in the collection for me, both by women.

In ‘A Garden that Drinks Only from the Sky’ (Liana Badr, tr. Alexander Hong), a small woman with mismatched eyes tends a small garden. Because she is small and has mismatched eyes, she is the subject of gossip and speculation about whether she has entered into a pact with the King of the Djinn. A holy man appears to her in a dream and instructs her to visit The Cave of the Patriarchs. Here she will pray to Ibrahim for rainfall to water her small garden. The story is partly a meditation on gardening, and the loss of trees and crops caused by land grabs and erosion caused by the bulldozing of tracts of land during the occupation, but also a testament to the brutality of the IDF and some Israeli settlers. The sanctuary in which the woman prays was the site of a massacre, by a settler, of Muslims at prayer. In the story, the woman is brutalised by an IDF soldier before being rescued by a local woman. She gets to know the woman and her son, who like her and don’t appear to notice that she is small with mismatched eyes. She visits them regularly, and dares to dream that she might be accepted fully into their family, until a new Settler road divides her not only from her new friends but also from her patch of land.

‘Badia’s Magic Water’ (Maya Abu Al-Hayat, tr. Yasmine Seale) highlights the differences in culture and social attitudes between Ramallah and Al-Bireh, the neighbouring city whose suburbs intertwine with the unofficial capital. It also contrasts superstition with science. Badia works in the morgue at Ramallah hospital, washing and preparing bodies before they are released back to their families. She saves the water from washing the bodies to use as both remedy and threat, a potion that she claims can cure skin complaints as well as cause them. She is held in high esteem even among the doctors with their scientific training, and her Al-Bireh neighbours come to her with their complaints and pleas for help. Through her work, we learn about traditional attitudes in Al-Bireh towards women and especially women who become pregnant outside of marriage. We discover what the consequences can be for those women, and what role Ramallah plays in their circumstances.

Both of these stories are lyrical in the way they release the narrative and they share something of the openness that I found in the prose of The Dove’s Necklace, Disoriental and The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons.

Roads are an important element in most of the stories, whether it’s as conduits that connect or barriers that separate, or as routes towards discovering a different you or familiar places that confirm the person a character knows themself to be. Identity and how it is fostered through community and tradition, often in defiance of the occupying Israeli forces, or squashed by those same factors, is also an important part of the stories.

Checkpoints bookend the collection and are sites where identity is routinely challenged.

In the opening story ‘Love in Ramallah’ (Ibrahim Nusrallah, tr. Mohammed Ghalaieny), IDF soldiers force a young man to kiss a young woman he doesn’t know before they will permit the bus they are travelling on to pass the checkpoint; this is a humiliation to both, and the young man refuses until the girl gives him permission to transgress by asking him to comply. Elsewhere, an older woman looks out on the communal yard where she lives, noting that fewer children are playing there, before remembering the missile that destroyed her house, and shattered the glass in that of her neighbour, killing the children as they waited for breakfast. The woman remembers a conversation she had with her nephew, who visits her from Ramallah, bringing her roses, and she shouts out to her husband that she loves him, watched by a patrol of IDF soldiers. It’s a moment of tenderness in a brutal existence.

The final story in the collection, ‘At the Qalandiya Checkpoint’ (Ameer Hamad, tr. Basma Ghalayini), is an absurdist tale that concerns a person of interest to the Israeli occupying forces. His reputation, recorded in the computer system, earns him regular detentions until one day he is afforded an interview with a captain in the IDF. The man is of Kurdish heritage and the captain asks why he cares about Palestine. His response is to point out that the captain is Russian and, by his own logic, has little reason to care about Palestine himself. And yet he is there, in Palestine. It’s a moment that brings to the fore what a contested region Israel and Palestine is.

Each of the remaining stories has something interesting to say about Ramallah and the Palestinian experience.

I was fascinated by ‘A Tragic Ending’ (Mahmoud Shukair, tr. Thoraya El-Rayyes) and its 1960s setting. Full of secret politics and informers, it could have been any Eastern Bloc country of the 20th century. Not knowing enough about Palestine’s history, it was a portrayal of the country that I found unexpected. My husband has a copy of David Fromkin’s book A Peace to End All Peace, which examines the end of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the modern Middle East. It’s a book I know I should read. The tragedy in the story, though, lies less in the Jordanian suppression of Palestinian freedom and the imminent threat of Israeli occupation, and more in the way men behave towards women.

‘Secrets Stroll the City’s Streets’ (Ahmed Jaber, tr. Adam Talib) brought to mind Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace, with narration by the city itself, observing the comings and goings of its citizens, keeping their secrets. It’s a perfectly compact tale full of quiet connections. It might be no coincidence that the translator of this story also translated Alem’s novel.

‘Get Out of My House’ (Ziad Khadash, tr. Raph Cormack), in comparison, is all Kafkaesque weirdness, centred on a battle to be recognised as the tenant of a house between the writer of the story and a woman who claims that her husband will return home imminently. It takes the landlord to resolve the issue, with the story shedding light on the transience of existence and the chances people are willing to take to find comfort and shelter.

‘The Horse’s Wife’ (Ahlam Bsharat, tr. Emre Bennett) is an odd little tale, focused on the solitude and dislocation of the pandemic. It’s a cautionary tale, too, warning against wishing for things unwittingly. Your heart’s desire for companionship might be answered by a horse.

In ‘Surda, Surda! Ramallah, Ramallah!’ (Khaled Hourani, tr. Andrew Leber) we see how life goes on as best it can even in a time of war, dodging bullets and missiles to attend appointments and go to work. It made me think of Ukraine and Syria, the devastation created by bombardment, the danger generated by snipers. Not just Ukraine and Syria, but anywhere there is war and occupation and people trying to carry on as usual.

‘The Sea’ (Anas Abu Rahma, tr. Raphael Cohen) explores a fraternal relationship that includes rivalry over a girl and a shared longing for the sea that only the truly landlocked would understand.

This collection has made me want to buy other collections from Arabic-speaking cities in the same series, along with the speculative fiction collection Palestine +100.

6 thoughts on “The Book of Ramallah

  1. This sounds a fascinating insight into the place, its people, and the conditions thy are living in every day. Reading your review especially made me realise how little I know about it. Will look this up. Thanks for highlighting it.

    Liked by 1 person

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