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Where is Ramallah?

June 13, 2013

On Sunday afternoon, the group from Buena Vista UMC who recently traveled to Palestine gave a report back. I shared a piece about a short road trip that happened near the end of our time in the Holy Land. Those of you who know the the geography of the Holy Land know that Ramallah and Bethlehem are not far from each other, which makes the notion of an all-day road trip a little surreal. The piece mentions the popular Palestinian song “Wein a Ramallah”, or “Where is Ramallah”. This is the best version I’ve found online so far.


On a good road trip, time and space part ways for a moment moment. According to Einstein, time doesn’t stop until one is traveling at the speed of light. Einstein’s work is incomplete. One can stop time if one is moving at 50 kilometers per hour. One only needs a particular van with particular people. One only needs to be on the road to somewhere.

Time stopped and space kept moving outside the window; mountains into fertile valleys, into mountains, into green fields P1030562
speckled with Bedouins and their sheep. There were places where space stopped, too. Fences choked serenity, and walls blocked everything but air. Militarization was not lost on us. It was just that, in a moment without the distraction of time, we could see the world as it is.

Beauty doesn’t disappear  when it is shrouded in injustice. Brilliant archaea exist beyond the realm of microscopes, and some paintings spend all their time in bedroom closets. Beauty unseen is still beauty. There is only so much that the Empire can take from us. That which the Empire cannot take – that which makes the earth, earth, and us, human – persists in the face of colonizers, occupiers, and the very destruction of the planet itself.

I sat in the back of the van. I sat in the back because joy is watching joy embodied in others. Our guide, Atta, had been so stressed for most of the time together. Our youth had been so quiet. But there was a brief shift on the road to Ramallah. Everyone was playful. Atta had something up his sleeve. We were going somewhere, and it seemed that only he knew.

Let’s keep going, I thought, let’s keep going in this moment, because outside the world is beautiful, and inside this van we are living as though we are alive. We are living into what the world could be for a change. We are bodies in a small space, and we are glad to be near each other.

P1030559The van stopped along the way. We met the River Jordan, and the Jordan we met was quiet. There were pavilions on each bank, and wooden planks over the marsh. I watched Russian women trying to hide their pale, naked bodies as they toweled off among the reeds. Their ancient breasts hung low like those of my grandmother’s sister when I’d bathed her in the sink at her nursing home. I was only 16 when she said to me, “This is what they look like when you’re old.”

On the opposite shore of the Jordan, an African-American pastor dunked an entire crowd one-by-one, all wearing tunics. They sang “Wade in the Water.” We sang back. It felt good. Then a group of young Palestinians jumped into the river next to the baptizees. The men had stripped down to their brightly colored briefs, revealing tight abdomens and brown skin. They looked incredible to black women in white tunics.

I got down on a wooden blank, and slid off my sandals. I put my feet in, one by one. I didn’t wade. I didn’t need to. There have been so many times that I have struggled to believe in anything, and that was okay at the Jordan. I’ll cross the river soon enough, I thought. For right now, all I have to do is get back in the van.

It felt good to be on the road again. Lunch was a while off, and Atta decided that it was time to sing.

“There is a love song that the people sing,” he said into the microphone. “It’s about a man whose lover went to Ramallah. He tells her that she stole his heart, that he will not forget her, and then he laments that she is away for so long.”

There was no need for the microphone. There were only six of us in the van, and the speakers made his sweet voice echo. It sounded far off and warm, like the bees outside my parents’ screened-in porch in the summertime. We moved so slowly. I felt as though the whole trip to Ramallah were about us chasing something. We didn’t know what it was, and we weren’t in a great hurry to catch it.

We stopped a second time on the way to Ramallah, at a tiny, empty amusement park. There was lunch, and a parrot, and 10 P1030568vely and so wasted. Some of them had college degrees in advanced math and science. They seemed bored working at a park that was the size of an American midway, and there didn’t even seem to be any work that day. It was cold, and the park was closed. Who knows how Atta got us inside, or why we were there?

It did not seem to matter to the young men who offered us coffee and shisha, both much too powerful for so late in the day. Time warped, but it did not stop completely, because at some point we were told that we had to go. We had to get to Ramallah.

In my mind, Ramallah was a bright city, with streets that smelled like cardamom. My grandmother and her sister were waiting on a bench when we got out of the van. While I was buying coffee, I ran into my college roommate, who’d taught me how to iron my pants my sophomore year.

“A crease down the from tells them you mean business,” she’d said.

Ramallah isn’t life after death. It is life after living. It is touching the pieces of everything we have broken, at the risk of cutting ourselves on the shards of glass. Ramallah is possibility. It is where we pray we will find our loved ones, or the people we wish we could have loved better.

P1030570The van eventually pulled into a town 10 kilometers north of Jerusalem. We were told it was Ramallah, but it wasn’t. Not really. The real Ramallah is somewhere else, and I know we won’t get there anytime soon. If the separation wall comes down, somewhere the Empire will build another. If the occupation ends in Palestine, somewhere else, occupation is just beginning. Even now, I live on occupied land; land that belongs to people who did not invite my ancestors here. I know in my bones that there is no Ramallah in my lifetime.

We are not in a high-speed train to a tangible space. We are in a van. We are moving at 50 kilometers per hour. We are passing through a place and a time that are both beautiful and holy, in spite all of the harm we do to each other. We are packed in tight, and the only noise is something far off and tinny.

Where is Ramallah? I don’t know, but the van found its way back to road. Atta said we are going to Ramallah, and also, that we had just left there. Along the way, we pulled over for a hitchhiker. It was an old woman. She sat down next to me, with a plastic bag on her lap.

“Are we close to Ramallah?” I asked her. These are words from Atta’s song. The woman kept her silence, and pulled some figs out of her bag. She handed me one.

In the song, the young man follows one question with another. He asks his beloved, “Do you not fear Allah?”

He is being dramatic. He is accusing her of stealing his heart.

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