RAMALLAH - It's 10 o'clock in the wealthy Masyoun neighborhood of Ramallah, and the enormous screens just finished playing "Ba'ab El Hara" (Neighborhood Gate), the most popular TV series from the Arab world. Famed Ramallah singer Mohammed Mansour gets up on the stage. His assistants tune a guitar and arrange the bongo drums. The audience is sitting comfortably around the pool, under the flaps of the Hafla Tent set up for Ramadan.
Manager Abed El Karim, responsible for the venture, is overjoyed. The place is full, and his waiters are zooming all around the guests. Sitting nearby, his friend Aamer Sanduka, an East-Jerusalem electrics merchant, says that "people are looking to escape the hardship. Instead of intifada, they go to feasts and coffee shops. Ramallah is Ramallah."
Early in the evening, as the Iftar fast-breaking dinner begins, Ramallah's streets are as empty and deserted as Jerusalem on Yom Kippur; no cars, few people and just a few Palestinian policemen observing central intersections. But when the family meals conclude, Ramallah's residents leave home for some public recreation. The four Hafla Tents are among the most popular destinations, especially the largest one in Masyoun, next to the luxurious Grand Park Hotel.
They don't serve proper meals here, but provide the basics - coffee, tea, nargile, some nibbles - and most importantly - the opportunity to see and be seen. Ramallah is the West Bank's Tel Aviv, and this is its hottest night spot. Aamer, a man in his 20s, is comfortably seated at the back of the tent. It may not offer the best view of the screens, but it's a good vantage point from other perspectives. "There's no problem in Ramallah about boys and girls dancing together," he says. "It didn't use to happen a lot, but then a lot of Palestinians who grew up in the West came back, and the whole boy-girl thing really took off. It's not Tel Aviv - not as permissive, and you still have religion and tradition and all of that but things have definitely progressed from about 10 years ago."
"It's also still a bit difficult to chat up a girl in, say, a coffee shop. It's better to meet at university or school, but at parties it's completely different. You get more courage, and some girls hit on boys."
"Besides, Facebook is the third most popular Web site in the city. Let's say that if you aren't on Facebook, people will think you're weird."
Aamer says Ramallah suffers from the "bubble syndrome." "This city, and Bethlehem, are very different from the rest of the West Bank, but you see other places changing as well. The people are tired. Occupation, stress, forget it. People want to live. Even the Palestinian Authority itself helps out. I organize a lot of parties, and if I bring an artist from abroad, it's the PA that provides security. We brought a lot of musicians, like Outlandish. We don't have big clubs like Tel Aviv, but many coffee shops have DJs on Fridays and throw parties"
In the background, Mansour is singing an Abed El Halim song. It's not so much a party as a family show. The decorated tent keeps filling up. Next week it will host a stand-up show, titled "Ramallah to Gaza."
Zaher Hamidat, a local contractor in his 40s, is sitting by the pool with his friend Jihad and brother Abed. He doesn't see thing as rosy as Aamer. "As long as there's no political change, things will remain very problematic," he says, drawing on his nargile. "We want a dialogue between our leadership and your leadership, because it creates a better atmosphere. It's true there's been improvement thanks to the removal of some checkpoints, but we would really like to see all of them removed. This will bring security and stability. Even here in Ramallah you have many poor people not really enjoying the economic change. Here, tonight, you see the elites. You won't find people from the El Amari refugee camp in this tent."
"This atmosphere is special to Ramallah," says Jihad. "The economic situation is better. You have more educated people. But not long ago there was a study that showed that 30 percent of West Bank children have never seen the sea. People in Tel Aviv shouldn't think that just because people in one neighborhood are sitting around a pool means it's like that in all of the West Bank."
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