Ramallah: Decadent Café Society or Misogynist, Jihadic Stronghold?


A couple dancing at Snowbar in Ramallah

When most people hear the word “Palestine” they immediately think “occupation” and  “oppression.” People imagine that Palestinians are the most impoverished people in the world, living in ramshackle refugee camps—not because their own leaders have stolen their money and forced them into endless war with Israel—but because Israel, is allegedly, a “colonialist,” “apartheid,” and “Nazi” state.

Of course, this is not true. But the propagandists have done their job very well and have infected, virus-like, every area of human communication and in every language. You will find that poets and physicians, diplomats and ditch-diggers,  students, journalists (think: Helen Thomas), businesspeople, the faithful, and the secular all share this view.

Over the weekend, a British journalist claimed that Israel is responsible for “squalor” and “rubble” in the Gaza Strip and that while some cafes and shops in Gaza are well-appointed, and have plentiful menus and produce, that most of Gaza lives in conditions comparable to … East Congo, where some restaurants still serve great food while others are starving to death nearby.

Of course, this is the article that Arts & Letters Daily chose to feature.

What image comes to mind when people hear the word “Ramallah”? Checkpoint “humiliation,” shootouts, Arafat’s headquarters and now tomb?  I myself think about the two Israeli reservists who, in 2000, were lynched in Ramallah; but that’s me. When I saw American newscasters play and re-play the crazy grins and the bloody hands of their murderers without once using the word “barbarians” or “racists,” I knew that the bloody beast was back, that anti-Semitism had, once again, taken the world by storm.

But guess what?  There is another image of Ramallah now being advertised in the very western mainstream media that sells us the propaganda.

This past weekend’s Travel section in the New York Times astounded me. The story title is: “Ramallah Attracts a Cosmopolitan Crowd.” The pull quote reads: “Visitors are drawn to the city’s café culture and thriving night life.” One photo shows the Qalandia checkpoint (from Jerusalem, Israel) to Ramallah. The second, larger photo shows a couple in western dress, dancing. She is bare-armed, with her head thrown back, arms around her male partner’s neck, and she is smiling erotically; he is laughing. Behind them, two or three girls in pants seem to be standing at a bar. This photo is captioned: “The deck at the Snowbar, where bonfires warm spectators.”

Where are all the gun battles, the “refugee camps,” the disenfranchised and angry youth, the ruthless terrorist fighters who live among and hide behind civilians, including women and children? Are they figments of my imagination, or are they now all organizing or boarding Turkish boats to challenge the Israeli “blockade” of Gaza? Are the facts on the ground, and what people actually say and do, privately, in the Middle East, quite different from what they say and do publicly? My friend, Barry Rubin, insists that this is so. Is reality more complicated than the ideologues have allowed us to believe?

The Travel section article tells us that the particular bar in Ramallah being featured is one of the many chic watering holes for “the offspring of the Palestinian elite” and is the “destination for thousands of young North Americans and Europeans.” Live musicians, female lead singers, rhythmic dancing of hundreds of young people, the many music, dance, and arts festivals in Ramallah have rendered it a competitor for the nightlife heretofore available in Amman, Jordan and Tel Aviv, Israel.

The article quotes an American-Palestinian who moved back to Ramallah from San Francisco and who likes the nightlife—“You’re like a celebrity. It’s very easy to meet people.” A Jewish American also lives here; she finds “Ramallah one of the more liberal places in the Middle East.” Indeed, “young couples kiss behind screened-in booths, out of site [sic] of families.” A French woman describes Ramallah as “a mirror city of Tel Aviv.”

Stop me. I must be dreaming.

And yet, we are told, more than one million tourists came to the West Bank in 2009.

Make no mistake: I am glad to hear this. I am glad that young girls and women are dancing and having a night out rather than being beaten, forced into early marriage, or honor-murdered. For that also happens in Ramallah. I am happy if someone quoted in this article believes that women will soon be wearing “bikinis” at a future hotel. (No, I am not a fan of bikinis but they are not forced upon women by the family or the state and are not equivalent to the niqab or burqa. Women are not killed for refusing to wear bikinis).

I wish that the Palestinian economy would flourish. I am glad that tourists are coming to dance and not to violently confront and challenge the Israeli right to defend its citizens and its borders.

So, fellow earthlings, sister earthlings: What will it be? Is the Arab Middle East just like us only better, filled with light, laughter, color, warmth, hospitality, and a decadent, Western-style nightlife—or is the Arab Middle East filled with preachers of hate, shrouded women, “morality” police, honor murders, polygamy, female genital mutilation, warring tribes, the murder of infidels and other vast jihadic plots?

Tell me what you think.