Artists, writers respond to “vile city” of Ramallah in new book

It is somewhat ironic that artist Emily Jacir’s contribution to the book In Ramallah, Running includes this passage: “Every day there seems to be a new international group coming to do an art project … I am too exhausted. This feels like an onslaught of art missionaries. All of a sudden there seems to be a plethora of projects using Palestinians as subject matter” (148).

The irony lies in how In Ramallah, Running is itself a collection of written and visual artistic works on the loose subject of Ramallah, centered around an extended text by British author Guy Mannes-Abbott and featuring contributions by both Palestinian and international figures. The fact that Jacir’s comments can sit within this volume, while also potentially criticizing its very existence, is testament to the book’s quality. It is a set of thoughts, questions and responses, an excerpt from an ongoing larger conversation.

Mannes-Abbott’s central text takes a quasi-diary form, recounting a series of runs and walks undertaken around the Ramallah area, exploring and observing the West Bank city and the villages its sprawl is rapidly absorbing. These expeditions become a point of departure for meditations on limits and boundaries, social and physical, class-based and between would-be colonizers and colonized, both within Ramallah and imposed by the Israeli settlements, walls and checkpoints around it.

Learning with every step

The obvious comparison is with Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, which also uses rambles around Ramallah and elsewhere as a starting point for discussions of the wider Palestinian situation. The equally obvious difference is that Shehadeh is a Palestinian himself, with a wide knowledge of and long acquaintance with the land he passes through, and all the vulnerabilities of a man who can be attacked with impunity by the occupation forces which pepper that land. In contrast, Mannes-Abbott openly admits his “naiveté” and inability to “read” the situations he passes through, in relation to both local inhabitants and the threat from soldiers and settlers. His perspective is very much one of somebody who is learning every step of the way.

This approach has the potential to be irritating to anyone who knows anything about Ramallah or Palestine, but Mannes-Abbott’s questioning, noticing style and willingness to hear — if not obey — those he encounters along the way mean that instead his clean, elegant writing forms an engaging piece of reportage, description and enquiry. The almost whimsical note of how “nomadic Bedouin tend the weary terraces, their children’s voices charm the silence” contrasts with the note that Psagot settlement looks “positively fascistic,” and that any Palestinian doing what Mannes-Abbott is doing, walking along a road, risks “routine arrest, violence or murder — like the boy shot last week by a settler on a road linked to this 15 kilometers north” (29, 41).

Teamed with Mannes-Abbott’s reflections are several shorter pieces by Palestinian writers. Prize-winning novelist Adania Shibli offers In Ramallah, On The Borders, an excerpt from a novel in progress. Her Ramallah is a “vile city” (101), a place of boredom, depression and self-imposed isolation. The crippling everydayness of occupation violence is epitomized in her character’s reaction to the bombing by Israeli soldiers of a building containing three resistance fighters.

The deaths of the young men are by-the-by; the main concern is the coating of dirt the explosion leaves in the narrator’s office (104). And the distortion of Palestine’s economic and social systems under occupation and Palestinian Authority rule are symbolized by the recurrent figure of an “amateur greengrocer” trying to sell a rotting lettuce “for a king’s ransom” in a closed vegetable market (102, 106).

An odious period

In Ramallah Vs Ramallah, meanwhile, poet and critic Najwan Darwish examines “a city I’ve long been angry with because of its status as a symbol of an odious political period: the Oslo period” (107). In the most directly “political” work in the book, Darwish’s writing is excoriating, depicting Ramallah as a political, cultural and architectural embodiment of the ill-thought-out, chaotic Oslo accords, with the city’s “desecration of nature, the absence of urban planning and the predominance of slapdash building … It was meant to … make us forget Jaffa, Haifa, Acre [and] … to overshadow the importance of Jerusalem” (108-9).

The final section of the book offers a series of visual pieces. As well as the aforementioned Emily Jacir work, titled Some things I probably should not say and some things I should have said (fragments of a diary), notable contributions include Iraqi-Irish artist Jananne al-Ani’s City, a series of naive-style paintings whose rough surfaces are reminiscent of refugee camp murals (118-121). Berlin-based Olaf Nicolai offers items from a project in which Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia was translated into Palestinian Arabic and broadcast on local radio; the artist’s notes include the poignant information that Freud’s text “deals with the two basic psychological mechanisms to handle the loss of objects” (131).

A series of images from Nazareth-born Sharif Waked’s Beace Brocess, meanwhile, turn Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak’s unseemly tussle over who would enter the negotiating chamber at Camp David first in 2000 into cartoon-like shapes. Only Arafat’s kuffiyeh (the traditional checkered scarf) is easily recognizable, but the outlined green and white blobs are also reminiscent of the shifting borders on maps of Palestine, the Palestinian sections shrinking under the weight of settlements and walls.

This book makes no claims to definitiveness. It is a set of (sometimes divergent) literary and artistic responses to a transient moment in time and history. Some contributions are angry, some beautiful, some resigned; some are clear and some more esoteric. All are thought-provoking.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.