Have you heard the one about a Jewish student at a Jesuit university travelling to Ramallah? This is no Scheherazadian tale: against the advice of my summer program and my parents (love you, Mom and Dad J), two friends and I decided to visit Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank.
Beneath my J. Crew sweaters, Sperry’s and standard Georgetown swag, I am pretty badass—remember this when you see me on a Friday night in Lau 3 proudly sporting my watermelon-patterned retainer! Besides a twenty-one-year-old’s futile attempts to cling onto some semblance of a teenage rebellion, I felt strongly about overlooking the program’s warning and visiting the Palestinian city. While studying at Hebrew University, I have mostly interacted with the Jewish-Israeli population. Even if I didn’t plan on discussing politics with any Ramallans, I, as a diplomatically minded Georgetown student, aspired to at least relate with an alternate perspective.
The bus echoed with the penetrating trill of Arabic music and the whispers of my Palestinian-Milwaukeean friend preparing us on what to expect at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank. Entering the West Bank is easy: after we left the bus at the checkpoint and passed through three revolving doors similar to the ones at the exit of the Metro, we immediately were greeted with black-charred rocks and a putrid smell. My friend explained that soldiers spray “skunk-water” to disband protests, particularly repulsive for Muslims who fervently wish to maintain cleanliness in the final ten holy days of Ramadan. (It should be noted that only upon leaving the West Bank did we have to show our IDs and undergo security checks.) After passing through the checkpoint into the West Bank, a group taxi dropped us off in the middle of a fruit market. As we mingled between cars lurching forward in insurmountable traffic and fruit vendors hocking their mangoes, it hit me that I actually was in Ramallah.
The craziest part of my experience in Ramallah was the city’s apparent normalcy. Under overhanging lights, narrow streets, passable to two lanes of cars, merged into larger roundabouts; men and women, many of whom didn’t wear head-coverings, shopped in stores like Nike, which lined the street. Loud, overwhelming, yet simultaneously alluring, Ramallah has the atmosphere of a SAC fair (admittedly, this is hyperbolic, but you get the point).
Initially, we went to the Stars and Bucks Café. Replete with red velour and crescent-shaped couches, the café takes Starbucks to the next level: let’s see when Starbucks offers cheeseburgers, hookah and a view of Al-Manara Square. After our bout of touristic fervor, we went to a local clothing shop to pick up my friends tailored Abaya, a long dress for women. She even let me try hers on: putting on the black and red embroidered gown, I envisioned myself looking fly at Dip Ball. To wrap up our speed Ramallah tour, we tried Arab style ice cream: basically ice cream without milk, Arab style ice cream stretches and sticks more. Any ice cream that offers a Nutella flavor falls under a win in my book.
After we survived—aka made it back through the checkpoint and bus to campus— I sat in my Jewish history class, finding it impossible to concentrate on our lesson about nineteenth century rabbis. Pulling up Time magazine (because surfing the internet during class always seems better when you are not on Facebook), I stopped at an article about violent rioting at the Qalandia checkpoint, or the place I had just been two hours before. Not going to lie: this freaked me out. Looking back on the experience, I probably should have done more planning before I just YOLO’ed a spur of the moment trip to a politically volatile area. Yet, especially considering that we encountered no security issues, I am still glad I visited Ramallah. To understand a different group’s perspective, it’s essential to walk a mile in their Abaya.