While Ramallah isn’t as old as some of the places that claim more biblical origins, it’s still been around for a good long time. It’s said to have been founded by Christians fleeing from the east after a snafu resulting from a misunderstanding over a mixed Christian/Muslim betrothal, but whatever the true story of its origin, it’s been there since the 1500s. As it stands, in visiting I guess we were just bringing the whole mixed marriage concept back–closing the circle! For most of Ramallah’s history, it was predominantly Christian, but more recently, its population has become more Muslim with a still-sizable Christian minority.
Nowadays, it’s grown to be the largest Palestinian city, and moreover is the de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories; it’s also often called the “Tel Aviv of the West Bank” because of its comparable nightlife and culture. Regarding the more political aspects of recent history, I’ve started and then read more and then started again trying to write about them…I’ll have to come back to that, though. Even in the few labels I’ve already typed, I suppose I’ve pegged on a certain stance, but there’s a lot more to the very complex situation that encompasses Ramallah than I want to get into right now.
So, I’ll focus on what’s most important to me about it: it’s where my amazing mother, Najwa, grew up, along with her wonderful siblings, Grace, Nuha, Raja, Saleh, and Maha. And following that thought, Bonnie and I finally got to go there, which is a fantastic cap on almost a year of travel abroad!
practical notes for other travellers
That is, because we wholeheartedly recommend others go to Ramallah–it’s one of our favorite places that we’ve been to. Our public transportation adventures and foibles in just getting to Jerusalem from our village aside (though I do have one question for the Orthodox part of Jerusalem…why are your hats so small?!), getting from there to Ramallah is pretty straightforward. Except on Friday. Which is when we were there. It was still fine–you just hop on a bus at the bus terminal in East Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate, which would normally take you into the center of Ramallah, but on Fridays it only goes to the Qalandia Checkpoint. Luckily, we met an utterly adorable Muslim couple who guided us through the bus, checkpoint, and sharing a service taxi the rest of the way to our destination, but it would have all been doable to figure out…just less pleasant and efficient without our new friends! On the way in, you just walk across the border–no check or anything. Leaving is pretty easy too; when we did it, we just stayed on the bus as a couple soldiers came on and quickly glanced at paperwork and our visas in our passports (didn’t even seem to look at the info page). All we got was a raised eyebrow of the perfectly neutral, “…huh,” but they did mysteriously take away one Palestinian teenager.
Regarding lodging, we definitely recommend Area D Hostel. It has a fantastic location a couple blocks away from Al Manara square and almost literally across from the bus station, and it has the bar-none best views of any hostel we’ve been in throughout our travels. It’s also quiet, spacious, and has a full kitchen available, plus, a witty name if you’re up on West Bank political geography. We also learned some interesting details about things you just don’t hear about in Israel from unobtrusive books and postings around the hostel, like how only 17% of the water from the West Bank’s aquifers goes to Palestinians; the other 83% is pumped to Israel or directly to settlers.
practical stuff aside, back to family history
Modern Ramallah, I should note, is very different than the very small town that my mom described growing up in. Nonetheless, we were determined to find out what we could that might remotely be the same. The first thing we looked for were my family’s old houses–we had several landmarks to orient ourselves by, schools and churches and the like, and to look for pink stone, and so we headed into Ramallah’s Old City and started peering around. We did find many old houses amongst the newer apartment complexes, but there were a lot–we’re excited to go through with our relatives and see if any are recognizable, though. We did get glimpses of the hills around Ramallah as we explored, which was nice especially because it’s the first place that’s rivaled Sapa for such gorgeous valley vistas.
My favorite thing we found, though, was my family’s old church. The inside is gorgeous, albeit dark for photos, but filled with a icons, stained glass and a beautiful altar. Best of all, though, was that we were able to obtain a copy of my mom’s birth certificate, and get it certified by the priest! That felt like quite a coup, and helped us with our next attempt, which we’d been encouraged to do by our village co-workers…
…trying to find family connections amongst the people living in Ramallah. Although most people we encountered spoke English very well, it was still helpful to be able to show them the birth certificate. The attempt did lead us what felt like a bit of a wild goose chase, though, admittedly–for example, from a tourist information center to an electronic store to a pharmacy to an apartment where a woman who didn’t speak any English eventually called her son, wherein we eventually figured out that his great-grandfather might just maybe have been brothers with my great-grandfather. Well, it was amusing, at any rate.
We found a couple great places to contribute to the local economy, also. Dar Zahran Heritage House is placed within the historic house of a mukhtar, or local leader. It has historic photos, rotating art by Palestinian artists, and a very affordable shop with jewelry, art, and more made by local artists. And: free Arabic coffee!
The other shop we actually just stumbled across during the aforementioned wild goose chase–Abood Food. It’s a small shop, but it has a fantastic selection of every sort of tea, jam, honey, olives, and other foodstuff we could think of, also all grown and harvested in the West Bank.
stuffing ourselves silly
If we’re honest, the main thing we really did besides looking up family history was, well, eating. And loving every bite–we went to a bakery by our hostel three times in two days, getting spinach pies and bread stuffed with grilled halloumi cheese and za’atar. And, we tried two different places for the famous Palestinian ice cream, which uses Arabic gum to create a unique, taffy-like texture (check out this NPR story on the one we preferred, Rukab’s). And then we went back to Rukab’s, because we liked it so much.
Also of note: the shawerma shop who’s name we’re not sure of, but it was the first shawerma I’ve had since the Lebanese restaurant that no longer exists at the University of Arizona more than ten years ago that I was actually excited about (so naturally, we went there twice). Bonnie tried falafel, which was quite different than the Israeli style in that the toppings were simpler and the falafel itself is shaped more like a log than a ball. We also tried Stars and Bucks which sounds as goofy as a Starbucks spoof can be, but it’s actually a pretty nice sit-down place for breakfast. At Ziryab, we enjoyed freekeh soup, fatoush salad, vegetarian fukhara and beer from Palestine’s only microbrewery, in a cozy, low-light and tapestries environment. During the day we were given free oranges at the market at the foot of the hostel’s building, and Bonnie picked up some sesame seeds in a small shop for mind-boggling prices; we also snagged some green almonds from a street vendor, just like my mom used to buy us at the Arabic store in Tucson! And, we were happy to discover La Vie Cafe, where they grow most of the food they make on their rooftop–we were able to enjoy limonana while sitting under the lemon tree they used to make it!
definitely visit Ramallah!
We certainly weren’t the only Westerners by any stretch–we saw plenty while walking around, even more than in many places we traveled in India–so don’t feel shy about heading there on that count. Ramallah is a bustling city with more good restaurants than we knew what to do with, great views, and very friendly people. Check it out!