Waiting for Obama in Ramallah

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Palestinians from the al-Shafie family protest in Ramallah’s Manara square demanding that police punish the killer of Muhammad al-Shafie, 19 March 2013.

  (Issam Rimawi / APA images)

A 20-year old man, Muhammad al-Shafie, was killed today in Betunia’s industrial zone, northwest of the West Bank city of Ramallah. He was arguing with another worker before the worker stabbed him in the neck with a knife.

The family of the young man made their way to the police station near Manara Square in central Ramallah, presumably to force their way in to deal with their son’s murderer on their own terms. Tires were burned in the city center, with black clouds billowing up to the sky. The Palestinian Authority police suddenly flooded the square with their guns, berets and intentions to restore order and to keep things calm so people could carry on with their lives.

I walk around a lot; aimlessly, it can be said. I can’t bear to walk home after work, passing by the huge white stone walls of the Muqataa compound — the headquarters of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas — every single day, as PA soldiers look down on me from their watchtowers and I fantasize about covering the walls with graffiti, spiteful slogans of “Hamas passed by here” or colorful insults directed at the PA, or spray-painting the names of every single village and town ethnically cleansed 65 years ago.

I imagine a huge wrecking ball suspended from the air, happily swinging back and forth as it crushes wall after wall after wall, the walls that with foreign money were renovated and built and added on to the original structure of what the Muqataa was: a prison run by the British authorities under their Mandate rule, then later an Israeli occupation prison.

To delay this drudgery and these same repetitive thoughts, I walk around. I listen to snippets of conversations as people pass by, oblivious or willingly ignoring the reality around them. Most of the time, the comments I hear are boring and uninspiring. “My wedding is after Ramadan.” “Congratulations man! So the date is set then?” Or “Let’s try Tamer’s store, he has nice purses there.” “Do you think I’ll find one to match the outfit I got the other day?” Or a mother chastising her child: “How many times do I have to tell you not to touch the trash cans as you walk! Filthy germs, does that make you happy?!” Or the beggars sitting on flattened cardboard, calling out their insincere prayers with their palms outstretched, “May God marry you to the best husband ever, may you always be happy and never see misery, may you always be protected from any evil or harm.”

Rarely do I hear golden nuggets spoken. Once I heard a friend calling out loudly to his friend across the busy street over the heads of people rushing home, “Did we receive our salaries yet? Goddamn sulta, a bunch of thieves,” referring to the Palestinian Authority.

Once a very old man was sitting on the curb of another main street, his cane lying next to him. The policeman continued to direct traffic, the students continued to rush to the Birzeit bus depot, the employees continued to walk haughtily to their offices. The old man had his wizened face bowed down on his chest, his plain white kuffiyeh covering his head. He held a black plastic bag in between his hands. He remained like that, and I remained staring at him for a while. Then I walked on ahead like a coward, turning my head every few seconds to catch a glimpse of the old man, as people kept calm and carried on, and no one thought to ask themselves why an old man was sitting on a curb on the busiest street in Ramallah.

I bought a book the other day, a novel about a Syrian man’s experience in prison for almost two decades and the graphic torture and injustice he endured for nineteen years. I flipped it open and read a few pages on the steps — it was so gripping. I walked around with the book clutched to my chest, and stopped in front of a music store to look at the instruments. A man in his 50s stood next to me and asked me why I bought this particular book. I covered the title with my hand. We stared at each other, and I was choked with melancholy and longed for my favorite uncle to be alive again, so he could be the one to ask me that question. Behind his clipped tone, I read the same sadness in that man’s eyes. I walked away.

There are no benches or open public spaces to sit and read. The low stone wall I used to sit on next to the Friends Boys’ School got built up a couple years ago, across the football field and bleachers with the graffiti “All settlers are barstards” spray painted on there. Barstards.

Today, a policeman looked at us with pained eyes as protesters shouted against Obama’s visit, Dayton’s trained PA security forces, and the police who had formed ranks and blocked us from marching on to the Muqataa, with riot police fully decked out in their gear and tens of police vans and cars and jeeps behind them.

We were pushed and shoved and had our posters ripped from our hands. Screams of traitors, Dayton’s dogs, agents of Israel were fired back at them.

“Don’t say these words,” the policeman almost whispered. “It’s enough that you’re looking at me with such furious emotion in your eyes, but please don’t call me a traitor.”

“Let us pass.” That was never the goal in the first place.

“I can’t.” 

It was over, some protesters declared. The message has gotten through.

Comments

Thanks Linah, I loved this piece, so evocative of so many things I saw and heard and felt in the West Bank.

Really loved your article it helped me picture Ramallah.

If you happen to see this, what was the title of the book about the Syrian prisoner? I very much want to read it.