Ramallah. Walking down the main street in al-Tireh or al-Masyoon neighbourhoods makes you feel you've been teleported to another universe! Fancy restaurants where you need to speak English to read the menu, a young woman jogging by with a fluffy puppy, big houses, new cars, wide streets, trimmed grass, everything that lends the city an illusion of stability and gives the impression of not being under occupation. But the moment you try to get out of Ramallah and bump into the first checkpoint, reality hits you in the face: You're in a prison! A nice prison, but a prison all the same.
What can people locked up inside four walls do to refuse the reality imposed on them? Not a lot, but they can refuse to eat.
All Arabs living in Jerusalem are told that they are proud Palestinians. In geography classes, they study the map of historic Palestine. In art classes, they embrace the colours of the Palestinian flag. Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are symbols of their cultural heritage and values. The ancient Arabic names for the gates in the Jerusalem wall are engraved in their minds. Two primary colors dominate the dynamics of a Jerusalemite Arab’s identity: blue and green. In general, a blue ID card means that you can get to see the beach and a green one means you are hostile and a threat to the ‘state’.
Being part of a Yoga community in Palestine is strange. Having a middle-aged Egyptian woman doing different asanas on the mat right next to me is stranger still. But this is Ramallah, with all its absurdities, an occupied/liberated city filled with European, North American and occasionally Asian foreigners. But almost no Arab visitors. It never occurred to me that we are so isolated from the rest of the Arab world until Nooran – I thought her name was a bit Egyptian – started talking about meditation in one of our Yoga sessions.
I was 15 at the time, but I wasn’t living the typical teenage life. I was living an adventure of my own, the Palestinian way, trapped in the hallway with my family, with no food, no electricity, just a battery-powered radio to keep track of the news. The only sound we could hear was the sound of the bombing, and we could smell the death and destruction around us.
Writing stories in a second language is not something most of us ever try. Safaa Halahla’s piece about the Second Intifada could have been written with less trouble in Arabic, which is her first. She’s one of thirty or forty Palestinians I’ve been lucky enough to meet over the last few years who wanted to see what happened when they tried writing in English. The five posts that will appear on the LRB blog over the course of this week were composed at the 2013 Palestine Writing Workshop.