On Genies and Depression: A Day Running Errands in Ramallah

'Isn’t it the most natural and healthiest thing for the two peoples that we make peace already?' wonders one weary Palestinian as others recount their tribulations.

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Palestinians shop at a market in Ramallah, March 25, 2015.
For all the daily problems, life goes on in this Ramallah market.Credit: Reuters

The car radio is tuned to Ajyal Radio from Ramallah. The destination: Abu Khaled’s garage in the industrial area of El Bireh, and other errands.

The car gets lost among the winding streets and an interesting discussion develops on the radio. A gentle voice and passages from the Koran and Hadith hint that the speaker is a religious guide. The literary Arabic he speaks stands out against the spoken Arabic, filled with slang, of those calling in.

“Sheikh, you didn’t really answer me last time about my question concerning a work permit in Israel,” complains a young man. The sheikh listens patiently, and says: “Of course it is our right to be there, it is our land, our homeland, but ... [the ringing telephone in the car cuts him off].”

The second questioner is from Nablus. A bit embarrassed, hesitant, he has a hard time finding the right words, tells how his wife after giving birth is a bit nuts. “She is scared of everything, sensitive. One sheikh told me a jinn [genie] had entered her, and I suggested maybe she should go rest in her parents’ house. What do you recommend? We always listen to your program.”

The sheikh on the radio explains that postpartum depression is natural. Moreover, “it is your responsibility to be at her side, to show love, to take care of her.” And then, in something between irritation and resolve, he adds: “And don’t let them mess up your mind with all sorts of notions.”

In the middle of Ramallah I by chance run into E. from Jerusalem, who immediately began recounting her troubles. Years ago her son dared to marry in the United States. The relationship failed, and he returned divorced only to discover that his residency status in Jerusalem had been revoked. You settled permanently in America, he was told by the officials. He needs to prove he returned home, without an American passport, without even a Green Card. Since then, for about six years he and his mother are running around in the Kafkaesque mazes of the Israeli Interior Ministry, whose mission is to reduce the number of Arabs in Jerusalem.

E. is depressed because her son is depressed. “Without an identity card he cannot work, he is not allowed to pass through the checkpoints, in other words he is stuck at his (rented) home. Housing prices in Jerusalem are high and all the money we don’t have goes to lawyers so they will give his ID card back.”

Y. notices me from where he is sitting in a coffee chop and immediately invites me for tea. Sage or mint? And then he begins to recount his troubles. His family is in Gaza and has not received a permit to visit him in Ramallah, even though he fell ill (more details in another item).

Next to him, Hassan al-Batal, a columnist for the Al-Ayyam newspaper in Ramallah, points at Y. and says: “We are both from the same village. From Tira in Haifa. Only he was born in Syria and I was born there, in Tira.”

And then he asks concisely: “Isn’t it the most natural and healthiest thing for the two peoples that we make peace already?”

A question of the naive who returned from exile with belief in the victory of logic, an honest desire to live as good neighbors and belief that the Israelis are interested too. The question of a person who has been through a lot, and has had enough of bloodshed.

On the way back to the garage my eye is drawn to a bookstand along the sidewalk. Poetry, history, original, translated. “Have you seen the new biography of [Palestinian poet and author] Mahmoud Darwish?” the young bookseller jumps up and asks. After the initial amazement over the identity of the buyer, the standard conversation begins. “Where are you from? Jerusalem. No, no, originally? Sarajevo. I mean my mother is from there. And you? From the Jalazun refugee camp. And originally? From ruined Beit Nabala [near Ramle].”

Ah, I show off my knowledge, Omar Assaf, the leader of the teachers strike in 1998, is from the same village. And I always remember how, at the order of Yasser Arafat, Jibril Rajoub’s forces arrested him for a few weeks and the refugees of Beit Nabala demonstrated in Ramallah, demanding his release. And I continue to show off: “Ziad Khadash is from your village too.”

The remnants of the bookseller’s suspicions disappear. Khadash, who teaches creative writing, is his neighbor. In a Facebook post this week Khadash told about a class he taught some 10 years ago on the topic: “Break the barriers and fly.” He encouraged the students to talk about what troubles them, embarrasses, frustrates and is hidden deep down inside them.

M. was one of the more active students in the class, and his liberated tongue flew off to distant places. On Monday, a Palestinian checkpoint stopped the cab in which Khadash was riding on his way to the teachers’ demonstration. His former student M., mummified in his uniform, looked inside the taxi and ordered: “Teachers among you, get out.” Khadash hid his face.

In the garage, alongside the waiting car, Abu Khaled with his Gazan accent answered that he was born in Rafah, but originally from the destroyed village of Aqqer. During his childhood, his father was appointed to a senior position with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Ramallah. Now it is impossible to receive permits to visit Gaza.

Longingly, I tell how I have friends who were from the ruined village of Burayr, and there was a time I could visit them in the Shabura refugee camp in Rafah.

“Burayr? That’s next to us,” he says.

“You mean in [the refugee camp named after] Yibne?” I ask.

“Yes, next to the clinic,” he answers.

The yearnings continue to speak from my mouth: “Dr. Yusuf’s clinic? Once, in half a minute, he put my dislocated shoulder back in place,” Abu Khaled said in amazement. “He’s my cousin.”

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