An American suburb in the PA

The village of Mazra’a a-Sharkiya is a little slice of the US hidden away from public view.

Mazra’a a-Sharkiya 521 (photo credit: Roni Pelleg)
Mazra’a a-Sharkiya 521
(photo credit: Roni Pelleg)
Just down the road from Ramallah lies another world. Gone are the bustling marketplaces and commercial enterprises of the Palestinian Authority’s administrative capital, having given way to hilltop villas and expansive olive groves nestled peacefully among the Samarian hills.
Traveling with a local guide on an overcast and gloomy day last week, I arrive in the Palestinian town of Mazra’a a-Sharkiya, an extraordinary community only 16 km. from Ramallah. A small village of some 13,500 people, Mazra’a a-Sharkiya’s most notable feature is that, in the words of Mayor Marzouk Shalabi, “more than 60 percent of the village’s population [now] lives in the United States.”
The city sits upon over 1,600 hectares (about 4,000 acres) of land on a series of hills at over 950 meters above sea level, making it chilly and unpleasant during the winter. However, it is during the summer that the community really comes to life, with between 500 and 1,200 expatriates coming home from abroad for an extended vacation. It is during this period, local resident Khalid Mansi said, that there are so many Americans in the streets that you “feel like you are in part of America.”
During the summer, says Mansi, who has lived a considerable portion of his life in Kansas City, “you can hear more English being spoken in the streets than Arabic.”
Due to the American presence the locals live a “healthier and wealthier life” than most other Palestinians, my native guide told me on the way to his home, where he began introducing me to the local hybrid culture.
While he does express his wish that his name be withheld from publication for personal reasons, he is extremely forthcoming regarding his life in his village, inviting me to meet his elderly mother and arranging meetings with the mayor and various local residents.
MANY OF the large and forbidding mansions that we pass on the way through town stand empty, he notes, explaining that the owners live nearly full-time in the US, Brazil and other South American nations. However, through the largesse of such absentee residents, the local economy has boomed.
With the relatively inexpensive cost of building a house in the West Bank, at least by American standards, the expatriates can afford to create for themselves sprawling homes that would be unattainable for them abroad. The resultant building boom has created jobs and helped the local economy achieve a level unmatched by that of neighboring hamlets, he said.
Moreover, my guide asserts, the support of the Anglo-Palestinians has allowed for the development of an infrastructure beyond that which the local government could provide otherwise.
Pointing to the main thoroughfare of the town, my guide notes that besides the several million dollars from the Palestinian Authority earmarked for roadwork, over a million came from American donors.
The infrastructure is indeed impressive for such a small community; Mazra’a a- Sharkiya boasts four schools with around 1,300 pupils, a newly built municipal building, a sports club, a cultural club, two mosques, a health center and two kindergartens.
The town is “well-to-do compared to other towns, and anything you can buy in Ramallah is available here,” my guide points out as we pass a shop with advertisements in English plastered onto its glass doors.
According to local residents, the origins of the town’s unusual circumstances date back to the 1930s when “people left the village because of the lack of jobs.” Many went to Cuba and, beginning in the 1950s, began arriving in the US as well. Once a villager received American citizenship, he would usually bring along as many members of his extended family as possible.
However, local ties run deep and many of those who have left, even those who have intermarried with Americans, return to their village to tie the knot.
Despite the local ties, many expatriates have also found love among their newfound neighbors across the ocean, with one resident informing The Jerusalem Post that one of his uncles is “married to a Hispanic” and another to a “Mexican American.”
Moreover, the local stated, a number of residents are actually non-Arabs who have joined the community by marrying in.
SITTING IN the mayor’s comfortable office in the recently built municipality headquarters, funded by a combination of German government donations and remittances from villagers in the US, Shalabi explains that even though the numbers of those returning every summer has decreased from a high of 2,000 to 3,000 visitors only three years ago, the “foreigners” have a substantial cultural and social impact on the town.
Even though, as a Muslim community, there are red lines that residents cannot cross, such as drinking alcohol in public, the local culture has become much more “open” and tolerant than it was previously.
“We are Muslims so there are lines there, but that doesn’t mean that we are not affected by [modernity and do not have a] more modern side compared to other villages,” the mayor states.
Among the examples of the community’s increasing openness and modernity, the mayor cites the presence of mixed wedding parties, in which men and women can dance together, and the increasing number of local women who are attending university, more than double the rate of only a few short years before.
Despite these changes, openness does have its limits, as the mayor states.
Sitting in the living room of one local resident, I am warned not to tell his family that I am Jewish, due to the antipathies of an elderly relative. “She thinks all Jews are settlers and soldiers,” I am told.
Flags with the crest of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) are strung throughout the town.
“There is no town in Palestine without representation of one of the Palestinian political factions,” I am told.
Moreover, additional green flags hanging from power lines were recently hoisted to celebrate the return of a villager released in the prisoner swap that freed captive IDF serviceman Gilad Schalit. Asked what the newly released prisoner’s crime had been, I am casually informed that he aided in the murder of a Jew.
However, the local says, “we are not celebrating his actions so much as the fact that one of our brothers is coming home after so long an absence.”
The sense of solidarity among the villagers is palpable.
Asked if there is any resentment on the part of local residents due to the social and other changes the Americans have created, the mayor replies that there is “absolutely not” anything that could be construed as an anti-American backlash.
“We want the Americans to come. They make the village come along and they support the whole society.”
Shalabi explains that “those who live in the United States support their [extended] families here by sending [remittances]. It supports the village because it goes to taxes to the municipality and [enables locals] to buy things from here and strengthens the economic situation.”
Despite the glowing praise for the expatriates, however, the mayor notes sadly that many of the younger generation raised in the US see themselves as more American than Palestinian. Many do not even speak Arabic, or speak it with a western accent, he lamented.
ONE TYPICAL example of an expatriate villager is Tawfig Halim. A portly and bespectacled man in his mid-sixties with smooth cheeks and a trim white mustache, Halim exudes confidence and wealth, at least by the standards of the West Bank.
Sipping hot coffee to ward of the winter chill at a café in the town center, Halim tells the Post of his journey from the village to the US shortly after the Six Day War.
Settling in northern Florida, he laments his distance from his childhood home. Despite this, however, he says that he feels that as an “older man” he needs access to better doctors than are available near the village. Despite his long residency in the US and his decision to continue living there, the naturalized American allows that he feels “anger” at the fact of his children and grandchildren “feeling more American than Palestinian.”
Interestingly, many of the concerns and feelings expressed by the villagers echo those of Israelis worried over the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation in the US, which led to the recent controversial Israeli advertising campaign warning expatriates of the consequences of marrying American Jews.
After Halim walks out into the cold, bracing himself against the chill wind, Rufaida el-Mansi enters and sits down, eager to share her story.
Sitting in the seat just vacated by Halim, Mansi is an anomalous sight, with her hijab-covered head combined with Western dress and topped with a thick Midwestern accent.
Married at the age of 15, the mother of five says that it is “hard not to bring America with you” and that one of the changes wrought by the influx of American culture over the decades has been a change in the status of women.
While many locals still believe in marrying off their daughters at a young age, she explains, “the role of women [here] now incorporates education. We brought that idea to a lot of Palestinians.”
Moreover, she asserts, she and other women are less reticent above expressing their opinions in public than they would have been a generation earlier, especially in light of the support they receive from their westernized husbands.
Mansi, whose husband and brother both work full-time in the US, lives off the money sent back from abroad. Many of the women in the village, she says, similarly have spouses working in the West.
Since the Americans have arrived, the town has undergone drastic changes, she says, citing both cultural and economic revolutions in local life, including the disappearance of the taboo against women driving.
Mazra’a a-Sharkiya, like the US, is a “melting pot,” she says, referencing both the blending of peoples and the mixing of ideas.
In this way, the village is the Palestinian counterpart of such Israeli cities as Modi’in and Beit Shemesh. Once the “Anglos” move in, the culture and economy are forever and irrevocably changed, and just as the Sabras have expressed their thanks for the influx of Americans, so have their Palestinian neighbors.