From Across the Line: Do Palestinians have a life?

‘I BELIEVE there is a need to represent Palestinians in such a manner; as fun-loving and seeking relief from the daily, weekly and yearly grind; as not much different than Israelis on the personal level.’

By NIDA TUMA
February 3, 2012 17:54
Palestinians celebrating.

Palestinians celebrating fun joy 390. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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Accompanying an Israeli couple on a short tour of Ramallah, I opt to take them to a nice Palestinian American-style coffee shop – one of my favorite places to go. Interestingly, one of their first comments on the visit is that the coffee prices are just as high as those in Tel Aviv. NIS 15 for a cup of coffee is quite expensive considering the average Palestinian income, but still affordable to some.

I am not a tour guide or a politician so the informal tours I give my Israeli and foreign friends are personal. No political or public relations agenda is behind our little forays into the streets of Ramallah, and these tours reflect my own views on the city and the political situation.

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Some Israelis hear a lot about Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus and are enthusiastic to visit, whereas others are afraid to venture into the “territories.” Whether they are right- or left-wingers, I believe it is vital for visitors to see Palestinian cities firsthand, to talk to people and walk in the main streets. I try to show how we live in Ramallah, what kinds of restaurants we have, the farmers’ market and even our health gyms.

My friends make a lot of interesting observations; they note that while Palestinians are not overly concerned with general fitness, they are very enthusiastic about the bulging muscles that are produced by regular body-building training. Another comment refers to the prevalence of men sporting mustaches. Culturally, mustaches are a source of pride for Arab men. Other friends have been surprised to see so many Israeli products openly sold in our grocery shops.

As we enjoy our morning coffee, we begin to discuss the desire of some Israelis to see what the nightlife in Ramallah is like. I explain to them that there are varied and interesting venues that I frequently visit with some of my friends but that, compared to Israel, nightlife here is more conservative and family-oriented – although this may change in the near future.

Both of my guests are from the Israeli Left. One of them says that Israelis should not see Palestinian nightlife because it distracts attention from the fact that we are occupied.

“But isn’t the point of establishing an independent state being able to live freely and enjoy oneself?” I ask my guest. His girlfriend points out that Palestinians have needs for entertainment and fun just like everyone else.



As they are talking together in Hebrew (in a Ramallah coffee shop!), I am reminded of a conversation some Palestinian journalists, myself included, had with the staff of the German ZDF TV channel in Berlin a few months ago. One of the morning show’s senior editors had discussed her preference to present Palestinians in a “good” light by showing the fun and human aspects of their lives, thus presenting a side of Palestinians not directly related to the conflict. She wanted to illustrate the humanity of Palestinians by presenting aspects of their cultural and social lives.

I appreciate that approach but I do take issue with some of its ramifications. As a “West Banker” writing for a non-local audience, I have often wondered about the difficulties inherent in representing my people, the Palestinians, to the world and especially to our closest neighbor, Israel.

On the one hand, it is my duty to discuss the injustices that occur as a result of the ongoing conflict with Israel. On the other, I am always inclined to emphasize the cultural and human aspects of our lives. The difficulty lies in balancing the two perspectives.

WHILE IT is impossible to ignore the challenges that we face on a daily basis, it is also difficult to speak about the lighter side of things without worrying about misrepresentation.

And there is quite a bit of fun going on in Ramallah.

In fact, fun is necessitated by the harsh reality of a conflict that has pervaded almost every aspect of our lives for the last six decades.

A few days ago, at a karaoke party in Ramallah, it occurred to me that while this might not be the life of most Palestinians, as some of them are too conservative and some might not be able to afford it, everyone wants to enjoy themselves and shake off the stress of a hard week. Most weeks in Palestine these days are hard weeks.

The economic difficulties we face have culminated in a civil flare-up against an initiative to raise the income tax that came on the heels of a drastic rise in tobacco prices.

The Palestinian government, facing a financial crisis, decided to raise income taxes. The decision was halted Tuesday, awaiting the outcome of a national dialogue on the topic. The temporary freeze of the new tax law came after numerous complaints from the private sector, NGOs and unions. Regular citizens took to the streets and filled the prime minister’s Facebook page with negative remarks. The tax law, though only applicable to salaries over NIS 125,000 a year, triggered people to actually protest against inflation and unemployment.

I was at Manara Square as a crowd gathered to protest the new tax law, when I noticed a young boy selling Barcelona soccer team flags in preparation for the Copa Del Rey (The King’s Cup) quarter-final game league last week. (Whether one is a Barcelona or a Real Madrid fan has become as important here as political party affiliation or how one plans on voting in the next elections.) So I do not feel it is wrong to speak to the world about culture, entertainment and nightlife in the West Bank.

On the contrary, I believe there is a need to represent Palestinians in such a manner; as fun-loving and seeking relief from the daily, weekly and yearly grind; as not much different than Israelis on the personal level.

However, something is not quite right when foreign news agencies want the nice and “interesting” stories to report on while refraining from discussing the frightening reality of Palestinian daily life. I am aware of the debate over reporting what people need to know versus what people want to know, but I think it is a journalist’s duty to inform her audience in the most accurate manner possible.

I have no problem with the interest or the curiosity of any Israeli, journalist or visitor, to learn about and experience Palestinian nightlife, culture or social life, but concentrating solely on these issues takes it out of perspective.

Not all of our life is occupation. We like to party, sing karaoke and treat ourselves with luxurious dinners every once in a while because it is not always about the permits, the checkpoints, the settlements or even the peace process. Because life is too short, but also because those who know how to live life can appreciate the beauty of freedom.

The writer is a Palestinian freelance journalist and producer working in the West Bank.

nidatuma@hotmail.com

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