10 July 2011
We live on a side street and the café is the only business here. If a taxi is coming down the street in the evening, they are probably dropping the passengers off at the café. The road is narrow, it’s a hill and the traffic is one way down the hill. Unlike Beirut and Cairo, drivers actually obey one ways, observe traffic signals and stay in their lanes. Once in a while someone comes up the hill against traffic threading precariously through serveeses and taxis. Then angry horns start and often a shout or two.
Vendors set up at the top and the bottom of the hill. At the bottom near the medical center, the fatman and his daughter sell plastic toys: swords, balls and spangly items that are a bit unclear. Every day he pushes the cart up the hill, his body trailing behind it. He has two so he has to repeat the journey/ He is visible from our front table near the door and we watch him silently thinking what’s the point.
The center of the city is Al-Manara a round monument with four lions facing different corners of the square. When I walk uphill and go toward the Manara, I see the angry lion. This path follows a downhill route into downtown passed clothing stores with racks of cheaply made blouses, polyester area rugs and shoes and sun glass carts. The street corners curve into different radii of the circle and after I cross the first one I run into a local bakery that specializes only in ftyoyar which my mother always filled with spinach, but here I can get cheese or zaatar or any number of sweet and savory fillings. They are heated in a pizza over and handed over in the wax bag. It’s one of the few places open on Jum’ah and I ran into some girls on their way to mosque holding steaming pies.
If I go downhill from my café, I walk through a refugee camp to connect to the Manara. Parts of the market here are covered by a cloth roof. The shops are squeezed together in old-style souk fashion. Piles of herbs, racks of sandals, dishware hanging from the doorway, long dresses and scarves and old men sitting in chairs. The road has piles of selvage at the corner and young boys calling Usreen from a cart advertising that these sandals or watermelon is only 20 shekels.
Behind this part of the market is an almost hidden area with produce stalls. Very few foreigners shop here and the little boys moving carts, the mothers loaded with bags and the fruit vendors surround me with the shouts and shoves of commerce. Piles of eggplant and bananas, grapes and casaba are displayed in pyramids. A few times through the maze and I found myself out below my corner.
Each spike of Al-Manara has a different style. The fashion shops are on the upper radius. Sexy underwear and evening gowns are cluttered with elaboration. These are considered wedding stores, clothes for the bride, but looks more like a take on Fredrik’s of Hollywood. Shopping is ongoing and Ramallah feels like a festival of black plastic bags and gangs of women shoving against one another to check out an adorned scarf.
I took a break at an Ice cream shop-one cup of mint chocolate chip. The menu showed picture of towers of gooey, creamy flavors and extravagant concoctions with nuts and syrups and whipped cream which seems to be put on everything everywhere. During today’s visit, 3 nuns in grey habits sat by the front window with sundaes.
Around the corner is the juice man: Dalia, a writer in my class, introduced me to “the best fresh squeezed juice” with a juicer who remembers people by their favorite juice but never by their names.
Servees stations are in every direction. The Servees to Bir Zeit where I teach is across the Manara and down the street with the median strip and the small trees. Off the square is the famous Stars and Bucks, the Bank of Palestine and its neon readout. A blind man sells coffee on the corner across from the Arab Bank where ironically the underground money changers with the best rate hang out. I keep my landmarks in my sights: the microwave tower, the Dana Jewelry store, some dentist and Dallah Rent-a-Car.
Now the square is full of dust because they are ripping up the sidewalk and replacing it with decorative stone. Under the sidewalk are layers of sand usually blowing in circles and landing on my clothes. I never wear open shoes when I go downtown. But ultimately I wash my feet over and over. And my face and hands and arms and neck, like a little kid who just got home from the playground.
No one notices me walking the streets downtown. Not because I look Arab, sometimes a little more than the women here, but because it is a mélange of foreigners and locals. At the ice cream store, the three Swedes had nose rings and bad sun burns. At every café with internet, someone from someplace else is hunched over a computer, or a group of girls are having an argele. The prices of cappuccinos are Euro level, not Palestinian rates. And many have whipped cream.
For that I went with Maya to Ramallah Tahtat, lower Ramallah. It’s an old part of town with some of the older businesses that haven’t changed with the foreign influx. There the ful and humus and bread and some veggies and falafel are 18 shekels. Less than $6. To go to Thatat, I walk up my street and turn toward Sakakini cultural center. Another traffic circle and I take the one where all the serveeses are jamming to Tahtat. It’s a sheer downhill past old houses with gardens and new apartment buildings. Rounding past the hip joints like Café de la Paix and Pronto, I cross into the lower rungs where stores don’t even have names. You just go in and sit down. Something will show up on the table.
Every part of Ramallah feels close. The hills have become part of the fun for me. Now I carry a camera at my hip and shoot into the pedestrian traffic. The pictures have an odd effect of cutting life off in action. I like them because it looks like a film was frozen and so the sense of movement is captured. This city moves.
II Nablus 18 July 2011
On the servees to Nablus we climbed up to Bir Zeit and then started descending. From my back seat window, I watched the terraced hillsides flick by and immediately thought of southern Lebanon. The terrain was so similar and the goats and sheep, the occasional Bedouin camp reminded me how close I was to my family’s home. The feeling is joy and melancholy in a mix. I was excited to go to Nablus and the old city which was my only destination. The day was hotter than usual and I made a plan to avoid exhaustion.
Next to me was a man from Nablus. His English was equivalent to my Arabic so we cobbled together a conversation. Do you have children? Are you married to a Palestinian? At one point the bus stops and the driver jumps out and deals with some vegetable seller on the side of the road. I imagined his wife called to bring some faoosh which is a light green cucumber. Instead he reboarded and passed them to his passengers. I got two.
Nablus is in a bowl. Even inside the covered market, the hills around it seem to loom. Even though I was only in the Medina, I imagined the posher places were up hill, but in the market it was pure suq. Less organized that other markets, the spice shops and butcher shops were intermingled with housewares. Clothes took up a lot of space and seemed to be the major focus of the women.
Spices are definitely the reason to go to Nablus. The powders, concoctions, mountains of nuts and seeds, coffee beans are the scents that tell me stories; they have the possibilities of fresh soil. I wanted to buy Zaatar which is hard to get fresh in the U.S.—the combinations had some variation: thyme, oregano, sesame seeds—I had a recommendation for a shop and headed there with two false starts. As soon as I found the Turkish bath, I knew I was in the right direction.
I loaded with mangoes, spices, coffee and walked from the market to the interior behind it. Stone houses and archways that were camel height dropped me out of the market and the sounds of the noise on the other side and I landed in the past and a kind of quiet abandoned time. Another crazy connection of streets and I followed until I found myself back outside of everything—the past and the market.
Getting back to the servees took only 3 people—my sister calls that the Cairo GPS system. Find a guy in a chair and get directed—then find the next guy. I climbed on with my packages imagining those smells on my fingertips.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports