To get to the West Bank we drive along a long stretch of depressed blocks, lots filled with rubble and pockmarked streets. To our right is a gray concrete structure, maybe 25 feet high. To Israelis, this is a security fence, built during the Intifada to keep suicide bombers away from the streets of Israel’s cities. To the Palestinians, it is a punitive wall that encloses them and narrows their territory. Either way, it is indisputably ugly.
Things are quiet in Ramallah’s central area when we arrive on Friday morning. That makes it easier to drive around to see the city’s many beautiful houses and buildings in its hilly residential neighborhoods, a mix of old and new, most made of limestone. On one hill sits a recently built performing arts center. Our translator, a former administrator at nearby Birzeit University, tells us stories of the city and is greeted by people everywhere we go – a small-town touch. At a restaurant, the diners are well dressed and relaxed. At our next meeting, with the group of young poets at a local cafe, the atmosphere is anything but relaxed. A day earlier a young man had been killed nearby in an altercation with the Palestinian police. (We’d seen the funeral procession go by earlier, and posters with his picture were on walls in the center of the city.) Apparently, a group of young “thugs” had come by the cafe today to demand that it remain closed during the mourning period. They threatened more violence. On our arrival, a well-armed fellow guards the door and our young poets are understandably frightened. We all go off to find another spot to talk.
These young poets, men and women in their twenties, are in many ways like young poets I meet in the United States – passionate and filled with the energy of discovering language. As we talk, the differences become clear. They want to write about little things, normal things, but nothing in their world is normal. Except perhaps this: one of the young men tells me of how he read a poem in a newspaper once and was so taken by it that he felt he must find the poet. He searched for a month before finding her. They met over poetry and then, well, the rest is what happens everywhere. The poet he found is, of course, the young woman sitting next to him, who then continues the story for us. They are so obviously in love with each other – married just seven months – and with poetry. But she also tells me: "Part of the reason I write is because with all that goes on here I feel I will explode if I don’t."
On the way back to Jerusalem we come upon a large overturned billboard sitting in the middle of the road – a barrier in a street battle. Up ahead the street is filled with rocks – probably where the Israeli soldiers had been. We learn later it was a protest over the barrier.
That night we listen to three wonderful musicians in the restaurant at the Hotel Jerusalem – two young drummers and an older man in a cap playing the oud. Those who can, sing along. Soon enough, those who can (and a few who can’t) are up and dancing. The local producer we work with tells me these are old songs, known all over the Arab world. I ask what the songs are about and she looks at me like I’m crazy: “About love, of course! About the hands, the lips, the hips, every part of the body.” Yes, about love, of course. Let this then be my one travel guide tip: Friday night at the Hotel Jerusalem.