A month ago the first backpackers' hostel in Ramallah was opened by Chris and Bobo Alami. Chris owns a hostel in East Jerusalem, Bobo left his job in an Arab bank, and they divide their time fixing up the new hostel, which could look like another sign of the economic boom in the West Bank in recent years, after a difficult period.
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Named, plainly enough, Hostel in Ramallah, it is on a quiet street in the city center, a minute from Arafat Square, where someone is climbing a pole and hanging a flag, in contrast to times past when hanging the Palestine Liberation Organization flag on electricity poles was to risk one’s life.
When I stayed at the hostel as its first Israeli guest, there were tourists from Germany and Denmark, a Dutch woman whose family name is Aljiri and who was subject to a long debriefing at the entry point from Jordan, and a Swiss man who had converted to Islam and showed me pictures of him flying in a paraglider above Nablus and scaring the Palestinian policemen to death.
The atmosphere is family-like and the prices are cheap and suitable for backpackers: NIS 50 for a bed or NIS 150 for a separate room. The brothers are members of the Alami family, which has produced many public figures and businessmen, headed by Musa Alami, a Palestinian lawyer, philanthropist and founder and president of the Arab Development Society. Chris, who as an East Jerusalem resident has an Israeli ID card that enables him to move around freely in the territories and Israel, is a collector of vintage cars and was educated in Canada. The brothers are very interested in Israeli tourists, if only to show tourists that Ramallah is no longer a dangerous city.
I was taken for a tour among the city’s bars, which due to Ramadan were emptier than usual. The Ramallah residents I met were happy to see an Israeli, and most of all missed the days when they could earn a living in Israel. A resident of the Qalandiyah refugee camp, a shift manager at an upscale restaurant, said he receives NIS 2,000 a month for working from morning to night, and misses the days as a salesman in a beverage store at the Bar Ilan junction and his friendship with the people in the nearby yeshiva. He still contacts his boss every month. "My dream is to travel to Tiberias again," he says in Hebrew, on the verge of tears.
Days of lynching are long over
My only political dispute was with an Englishman who demanded that I recognize the one-state solution, while he drank expensive whiskey and smoked a cigarette in the Pronto Resto Cafe, a Palestinian restaurant that is not connected to the one in Tel Aviv. In Arafat Square they were marching in favor of a prisoner release, just when in Jerusalem they were demonstrating against it. On Twitter an Italian tweeter complained that many locals preferred to sit in cafes. "In Ramallah people don't want to deal with politics," explains Chris. "They only want a good life. People here are tired of politics."
Although the dark days of the lynching in Ramallah came and went 13 years ago, a general's order prevents Israeli Jews from entering Area A (which is ostensibly under full Palestinian control). In my opinion, aside from the fun, a trip to Ramallah is a patriotic issue and something that every Israeli must do, in order to see and to show that there are Israelis who are not soldiers at a checkpoint. The law, which is based on British Mandate-era regulations against underground movements, prefers separation, and perhaps the time has come to change it.
Entering Ramallah is easy. Bus No. 18 from the Central Bus Station next to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem goes to the center of Ramallah, or to Qalandiyah, where you take a taxi. We recommend not coming on Fridays because of the pressure of people heading for prayers on the Temple Mount. Thursday is the main night for entertainment.
Leaving is more complicated. At the Qalandiyah checkpoint they examine those who leave. The most common solution is a detour via the Hizme checkpoint in a shared sherut taxi with an Israeli license plate. I decided to return via the Qalandiyah checkpoint, and I was told that a file was opened against me for violating the order, so that writing the article you are reading is illegal (maybe so is reading it).
The soldiers at the checkpoint who politely took me off the bus asked several times whether I'm Jewish, since Israeli Arabs are permitted to cross, and they looked frightened. Nobody has ever related with such fear to my religion. The Druze soldier at the checkpoint was more practical and asked whether Ramallah is worth a trip. He has fallen in love with a girl from the city and wants to visit her, but is afraid to travel because people know him from the checkpoint.
The brothers considered opening a hostel in Tel Aviv, but in the end, for ideological reasons, they preferred to develop Ramallah, despite the checkpoints and its vulnerability to the unstable political situation. Chris plans to expand the chain of hostels to Hebron and Nablus, and to start a tour company.
"If we don't do something for the benefit of this place, nobody will," he says. "The significance of a full hostel is another $10 million annually in income from tourism. I thought of also opening a place for eco-tourism, but most of the attractive places are in Area C [under Israeli control]."
Despite the dreams, Chris does not forget the intifada that caused his Jerusalem hostel, the Citadel Youth Hostel, to become deserted, and he speaks fearfully about another storm that will sink tourism once again.
Although the visit was pleasant and I was reluctant to leave, Ramallah isn't the most fascinating city in the Middle East. It's a pleasant stop on trips to turbulent Nablus, to Hebron or to relaxed Jifna. The prices in the city are very cheap, the food is excellent, the weather is cool, and Manara Square is livelier at 2 A.M. than Dizengoff in Tel Aviv at noon.
"Think how great it would be for someone from Tel Aviv to arrive here after a two-hour drive and find this weather," says Chris hopefully. At about the same time, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni declared that she is opposed to the vision of a new Middle East, and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid talked about peace the way you talk about divorce.
Chris, like many people in Israel and in the territories, doesn't believe in the new peace talks, but he's crossing his fingers. He assumes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to gain time to build settlements. He is convinced that a third intifada is on the horizon. "The Palestinians have no freedom. How long will that last? I hope that there won't be an intifada, but it's inevitable."
I ask about the new houses and the shopping malls. "It's not an economic boom. It's like when someone is lying on the floor and picks up his head, they say that his condition has improved. A lot of the economic boom is based on loans that the banks gave in recent years. People buy cars and apartments in installments, and they barely have any money left for food. The residents of Ramallah like a good life."
Due to the lack of hostels, the municipality and the Palestinian Tourism Ministry don't really know how to deal with the place. Chris is also confronting basic problems of tourism infrastructure: There are no bus schedules, and the destinations are written in Arabic only. He had no idea when he rented the hostel that three days a week there is no water in the faucets, as part of the PA austerity initiative, so he purchased water containers.
For five years Chris advertised the hostel on the Internet to see if there was a clientele for it. To everyone who asked, he said that the place was full. In recent months there were a large number of requests and he decided that this is the time to jump into the water. The rental fee is only $1,000, the tax is very low in the PA and there's no real property tax.
Bobo Alami explains that even three guests a day are enough to return the investment. But this is not an ordinary hostel, rather it is a place of normalcy in the heart of an occupied and fenced-in area. The logo of the hostel chain shows the separation fence with the bustling city behind it. "It's not a political logo," Chris explains to me. "The logo presents the reality. That’s the Ramallah skyline. Enter via the Qalandiyah checkpoint and that's what you see – a wall."
Recommended sites in Ramallah-Al Bireh:
* Samer Restaurant – John Kerry visited recently
* Hiba Restaurant – we recommend buying meat in the adjacent butcher shop and asking them to grill it
* Rukab's Ice Cream – an ancient Turkish recipe for gum-based ice cream
* Darna Restaurant – less popularly priced than the rest, and more luxurious
* SnowBar Garden, Pool, Restaurant and Bar – an outdoor site with shows, dancing and a swimming pool
* Falafel Saba – the best falafel in town
* Atia Bakery – the pretzel temple that is open all night
* Shawarma Iskandar – the number 1 shawarma, according to the brothers
* Siyuri Restaurant – behind Rukab's Ice Cream
* Café La Vie – an international café with hens that lay eggs for the cakes
(During Ramadan some of the restaurants are closed for renovations or open only in the evening).