Flower Power

During the long years of bereavement, closure and military incursions, flowers and house plants have become an important part of life in Ramallah

In the past, when there was only one flower shop in Ramallah, people emerged from it carrying wreaths, not bouquets. Nadia, a native of the city who is about 55, remembers this well. Back then, in the 1960s, there wasn't a house without a garden around it. Mostly red or white roses grew in the gardens, but on Christian holidays, Christian weddings, birthdays and - alas - Christian funerals, people went to the Ramallah Flowers shop, opposite the Dunia Cinema and the Grand Hotel, and ordered flowers from Farhan Ma'arouf and later from his son Amin Ma'arouf (who was born in 1954). That was long ago, when there was only one flower shop in Ramallah, and not seven, like there are today. Four of these shops opened during the current intifada.

Farhan's flowers were woven into wreaths with branches of cypress and lemon. Up until 1967, the flowers were brought from nurseries he had in Jericho, in Ramallah and in the area of the Kufr Malk village east of Ramallah. After the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Ma'arouf and his son started to buy flowers in Israel. It was hard to compete with the quantities and the variety. They bought their first flowers in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem - they would get there at 4 A.M. to choose the best. Then they expanded their circle of acquaintance: Amin Ma'arouf recalls Yehuda, from Bethlehem Road in Jerusalem, from whom he bought flowers. Ma'arouf, a self-taught landscape artist, also designed Yehuda's home garden. The young man, who has leased one of the four new flower shops, says that Yehuda is also his main provider of flowers today.

But until 1985, the Ma'arouf family's gorgeous nursery on the northern edge of Ramallah continued to provide special flowers with a personal touch for the arrangements that were purchased by the inhabitants of the city. In Ramallah, the name "Ma'arouf" was synonymous with flowers. The shop that the pater familias opened in 1961 in the center of town was the first in the countries of the region (apart from Israel). Kuwaitis who came for summer vacations in Ramallah bought the flowers. Guests at the nearby hotel (they say that King Hussein also stayed there) visited the shop. The churches adorned themselves with the Ma'arouf family's flowers.

After 1967, there were quite a few Israelis among the shop's customers. Policemen and soldiers bought flowers on Thursdays. "What's his name, Captain Maurice, used to come and write reports in my shop," says Ma'arouf. On Saturdays, Israeli civilians would come in.

Although the shop closed in 1998, Amin Ma'arouf still has faithful customers. For special occasions, like engagement parties, they order the flowers from him, only from him. He picks the flowers - of lemon and wild orange as well - in the home garden he cultivates.

The flower shops in Ramallah today look like flower shops anywhere. Chrysanthemums, roses, carnations, lilies, dahlias, asters and green branches - in buckets, alongside plastic and silk flowers. Climbing plants and potted plants, glass vases of every shape and size, ribbons and the latest thing: colored nets to wrap the bouquets. As is the custom today, people buy cocktails of flowers: a number of different kinds, a number of different colors. Like that woman of about 60 from El Bireh, covered in a traditional robe and veil, who at the beginning of May wanted to buy a pretty bouquet for NIS 30, in the shop in the Ein Musbah neighborhood, which was opened about half a year ago. Five hundred meters away stands the partly destroyed Muqata, the headquarters of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The flowers are intended for a relative who is in the hospital. True, she confirms, 10 years ago she would not have thought of bringing flowers. And three high-school girls, also veiled, came in to buy 40 red roses for a social event at the Red Rose flower shop near Manara Square - formerly a popular restaurant that the owner turned into a flower shop around 1980. Each rose costs NIS 3.

A sad melody

A colorful bouquet was also given to composer and oud and bouzouki soloist Khaled Jubran at the end of a concert he gave in May at the Sakakini Cultural Center. The gaiety of the bouquet stood in stark contrast to the explanations given by Jubran, an Israeli citizen: He did not perform familiar, beloved and inspiring tunes (songs of love and struggle), but rather works that he has composed during the past two or three years. Not familiar, less catchy, more complex. He wanted to express feelings that traditional Arab music cannot express, he said: sadness, hatred, boredom, despair, fury. Everything the Palestinians have been experiencing during the past few years. There was a lot of fury, anger and melancholy in his melodies, but the bouquet he received was cheerful.

This is an established tradition at Sakakini, a center that opened in the mid-1990s and has only expanded its activities during the intifada years, despite the closure, the curfew and the military incursions. Instrumentalists, performers, lecturers and art guides receive a colorful bouquet at the end of their appearances. Flowers, it turns out, were to be found in Ramallah even during the months when there was a nighttime curfew that began around 6 P.M. The performances at the Sakakini center would start at 3 P.M. and last until 5 P.M. so that spectators would get home safely and the guest artists could hurry to get through the Qalandiyah checkpoint, on foot, carrying their colorful bouquets in their hands. Flowers that were all imported from Israel. Flowers from Israel were also taken to Palestinians hurt by IDF fire and hospitalized in the city. And a person who has no money to buy fresh flowers makes do with the plethora of plastic flowers, made in China, that are sold at stalls in the center of Ramallah.

At the beginning of the current intifada there was an attempt - mainly declarative - to boycott Israeli products. Ostensibly, there is no product more easily boycotted than flowers and ornamental plants: After all, they aren't essential products like milk, vegetables and fruit. But the past four years have shown that flowers and ornamental plants have become an important part of life in the city and they have established themselves as a new tradition that is already hard to relinquish. Evidence of this is the four new flower shops, which opened in the midst of the years of bereavement, closures and prolonged military incursions, along with a few more plant nurseries that sell saplings of trees and bushes, herbs, houseplants and various climbing plants.

Dr. Samir Abdullah, an economist who directs the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, offers a prosaic explanation for the flourishing of plant nurseries and flower shops: The investment needed is minimal, and therefore the losses - should the business fail - are not devastating. There are few signs of economic recovery at present, says Abdullah: a few new building starts, a rise on rates on the Palestinian capital market, a decline in unemployment rates. But this, he says, is because "we've hit bottom with respect to economic activity. From here the only direction is up."

Evading unemployment

Flower shops - like the fruit and vegetable stores that have sprouted up in Ramallah like mushrooms after rain during the past three years - are an expression of people's attempts to adjust to the difficult economic circumstances, to try and float above the figures for unemployment and non-employment that the Israeli policy of roadblocks has created. Perhaps there is an expectation that the number of weddings will increase now, after many families postponed weddings during the first two or three years of the intifada. Therefore, according to Abdullah, the opening of a flower shop should not be seen as a dramatic economic activity.

Ma'arouf says that sometimes heavy losses accumulate for the small investor: when a large shipment of flowers wilts at the closed Qalandiyah checkpoint, or withers in a shop that is closed by a sudden curfew or because of the days of mourning for the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The fact is that three additional flower shops opened and closed during recent years. Because of the closure and the uncertainty at the checkpoints, flowers like anemones and ranunculus are not brought to Ramallah: These are much less durable than chrysanthemums and carnations.

The drama inherent in the desire and ability to buy flowers, to adopt and develop a new and not inexpensive custom is that bereavement, death and the economic low of recent years have not engendered a culture of asceticism. The shops for flowers (and decorative items) in Ramallah are indicative of a number of social developments that have not stopped, despite the shocks of recent years. Ramallah, says Lisa Taraki, a sociologist at Bir Zeit University, has in recent years become a Palestinian mini-metropolis, the unofficial capital that nurtures and encourages a middle class while the latter, for its part, nurtures and shapes the character of the city.

In Christian Ramallah (as distinct from Muslim El Bireh), the Christians have long ceased to be the majority. Of this Ma'arouf says critically: Christians from Ramallah and Muslims from El Bireh went to America to make money. The Christians have come back in order to sell off their assets here and have left for good while the Muslims have come back after 20 years in order to invest here. However, says Taraki, the "Christianity" of Ramallah has contributed to the way it sees itself and the outside world sees it as an open, tolerant city. Over the years Ramallah has become a magnet for 1948 refugees and for immigrants, alongside the "original" inhabitants.

Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, women's and students' organizations that were established by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and that had their centers in Ramallah gave rise to a group of self-confident political activists who had come from a village background, but who integrated well into urban life. Some of them went on to acquire a higher education at the new universities in the West Bank. When in 1993 East Jerusalem - the economic, political and cultural capital - was cut off from the West Bank because of Israel's closure policy, Ramallah began to take its place. The trend strengthened after the establishment of the PA and the basing of the institutions of Palestinian self-rule in Ramallah. Diplomats and foreign officials often come to Ramallah, bringing with them their preferences.

Tastes seep in

The policy of internal checkpoints and roadblocks that has been pursued in the West Bank for the past four years has reinforced the trend toward migration from the villages into Ramallah. Before the intifada officials, academics, teachers and students continued to live in their native villages, up to an hour or an hour and a half away from Ramallah. The roadblocks and the vast amount of time needed to bypass them or wait until they open, if they open at all, caused many people to move to Ramallah. The academics, the officials and the teachers have a permanent and steady income. For these reasons there is more money in Ramallah than in other cities. And this money also goes toward the purchase of items that satisfy the tastes of the middle class. These tastes have seeped from one group to another - from Christians to Muslims, from veteran urbanites to new city-dwellers, from the upper middle class to the lower middle class.

The Red Rose shop sells dried flower arrangements in glass vases for NIS 200-250. Not long ago, they relate there, the bureau of Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia ordered four of these arrangements. The arrangements are designed, on commission from the owner, by an Israeli woman from Petah Tikva. The hotels in the city also regularly order flower arrangements. However, the proprietors confirm that people have still not grown accustomed to buying flowers just for themselves for Friday.

One of the proprietors of a flower shop is an engineer who returned from his studies in Russia before the intifada broke out. He did not find work in his profession and during the days of the curfew he sat at home bored and began to cultivate his private garden. If I enjoy this so much, he thought, maybe this will succeed as a business. For a year and a half now he has been selling house plants and in recent months he has begun to sell cut flowers as well.

"Don't ask about the customers," he says. "Ask about the suppliers: We can't bring plants and flowers from Palestinian nurseries. Only from Israelis. There used to be a nursery in Nassariya [in the Jordan Valley], and it closed. Its owners were not allowed to transfer their merchandise through the Al-Hamra [Bekaot] checkpoint. Nurseries in Qalqilyah were closed or destroyed. As for flowers from Gaza - don't even think about it."

The greenhouses in Gaza were destroyed by Israel Defense Forces bulldozers in recent years, and some of them folded because the closure made it impossible to market the flowers. In Jericho the PA had a huge nursery that sometimes provided 20 percent of the world consumption of anthuriums (flamingo flowers). It was closed down. The roadblocks and the closures created difficulties in marketing that are unknown in the economics books.

The freshness of the flowers and their variety indicate which of the florists have permits to enter Israel and which of them do not. The one or two who are lucky or who have the right connections, choose the flowers and can seek out the least expensive supplier. The rest have to place their orders by phone and to suspect that they have intentionally been sent flowers that are not fresh and wilted plants. Therefore, Ma'arouf decided to close up shop: Since 1991, when Israel began its policy of exit permits and restricted the Palestinians' freedom of movement, his freedom to choose his flowers has been severely limited. It used to be that he couldn't leave in his car. After 1996, with the establishment of the PA, he was not given an exit permit.

"If someone orders a dark pink flower arrangement from me, and I order the flowers by phone and can't see them with my own eyes, I could very well get purple flowers that I didn't want. How can I fulfill the order?" says Ma'arouf. For him, as for his father, raising flowers was an art, not just a business. Therefore his visits to the new flower shops that have opened do not arouse longings in him. Now he is dreaming of establishing a bank of flower seeds.