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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ramallah: The new Casablanca

This past week the New York Times travel section fired the opening salvo in what will surely become a trend in travel circles, by publishing a triptik aimed at the adventure set that paints Ramallah in the glamorous sepia tones of WWII era occupied Casablanca. 

With the title of the piece, 'Ramallah attracts a cosmopolitan crowd', travel writer Michael T. Luongo telegraphs that, like the international mixture of exotic travelers who were far more memorable than the physical structure of Rick's Café Américain in the film Casablanca, much of Ramallah's charm stems from the transient visitors from around the world who huddle together there for weeks or months or years, making the most of life under the heel of Israeli occupation.

Throughout the article, the descriptions of the various cafes and restaurants are, themselves completely unremarkable.  What brings them to life is the description of the denizens who inhabit them:

There is...

"John Saadeh, 24, a Palestinian-American from San Francisco, moved to Ramallah last year after his parents opened a pizzeria near Ramallah’s historic Old City. He likes the night life, he said, because “everybody knows everybody out here. You’re like a celebrity..."

Also...

"Veronica Grant, a Jewish American from North Carolina, also 24, lives in Ramallah but commutes to graduate school at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “I wanted to experience the Palestinian side, because I grew up with the Jewish side,” she said. “I find Ramallah one of the more liberal places in the Middle East..."

The writer ups the hip factor (and lowers the average age of the target audience) by pointing out...

"Part of the appeal for these young travelers is the sophisticated culture embodied by night spots like Orjuwan, an Italian-Palestinian fusion restaurant and bar..."

And playing the role of Ric in this place is restaurateur Sari Sakakini who helps reinforce the myth of a unique Palestinian culture  ...

“We wanted to make five-star gourmet Palestinian food.  We wanted to tell people that, even occupied, we can make something above standard.”

Still, in case the air of excitement and manageable danger isn't thick enough yet, the writer fills the air with the fragrance of European cigarette smoke...

"On the dimly lighted, leafy patio around the cafe, an Australian, Ben Sefton, 25, who was visiting friends, puffed on a Gauloise. He described a “forceful interrogation” from Israeli security, which controls access to the West Bank at checkpoints, but added, “I am looking forward to coming another time.”"

All in all, a travel article that spans a mere 1000 words (roughly analogous to the clear picture he paints), manages to directly mention the occupation/conflict eight times, with several more veiled references thrown in for atmosphere.

But to make sure he hasn't scared off potential travelers who might be worried by the suggestion of a combat zone or (Allah forbid!), a repressive Muslim enclave, there are plenty of calming references to free flowing alcohol...

"The restaurant has a couch-strewn patio, a wine bar under a vaulted Ottoman ceiling ..."

Dancing...

"The open-air deck pulsed with the rhythmic dancing of hundreds of young people, their hands raised toward the pine trees above them, needles sparkling yellow, red and blue in the disco lights. Couples watched from the sides by bonfires, huddling against the breezes billowing in from the valley below the club. "

Permissive behavior...

"Foreigners are welcome, though, at plenty of cheap, local places like the oddly named Stars and Bucks Cafe, which overlooks Al Manara Square, in the city center. Here, young couples kiss behind screened-in booths, out of site of families."

And attire...

"During a recent tour of the hotel’s future pool area, Daniel Roche, a general manager for the chain, said he expected to see even women in bikinis there. “It’s not an issue” in Ramallah, he added. “People are so open-minded.” "

And personal testimonials from people JUST LIKE YOU who have visited Ramallah and lived to tell the tale...

"That’s what worried the parents of Molly Toomey, a 23-year old Chicagoan who has lived in Ramallah for a year, working for a non-governmental organization. Ms. Toomey said her father was concerned because “his idea of this place was it was somewhere he would never willingly let his daughter go.” This changed, she said, when her mother visited, “and didn’t want to leave.” "

And of course what Casablanca-esque story would be complete without accompanying night-time photos of neon lit club marquees and a weary proprietor reminding the listener how tenuous the existence is...

"Still, Mr. Sakakini is concerned about the fragility of a business where tensions with Israel can flare at any moment. “It’s not easy,” he said. “Something could happen tomorrow.”"

It's amazing, reading this you almost expect Major Strasser and his Gestapo comrades to come marching in as the band strikes up 'La Marseillaise'.

Well... as they say in the travel business, "We'll always have Paris".

Posted by David Bogner on June 10, 2010 | Permalink

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Well done, David. If someone had told me (because I do not read the Times) that the article would have said they turned the Tomb of Joseph into a nargila cafe, with spinning disco balls, loud techno music, and bikini clad women performing exotic dances atop it, I simply would have shrugged saying, "And this surprises you?" In this topsy-turvy world of backwardness and injustice, does anything really shock us anymore? Not me. It's sad, especially because that is the attitude that is tantamount to giving up.

Posted by: Erica | Jun 10, 2010 4:38:49 PM

Erica ... Where you been, girl?! Nice to hear from you. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 10, 2010 4:51:00 PM

The article also offered helpful travel tips, such as not entering through Jordan unless you want your passport stamped by the evil Israelis "no entry into Israel".

They advise instead to fly into Tel Aviv.

Posted by: Yossi | Jun 10, 2010 5:52:14 PM

Ha, thanks...I've been...around. I always read you, mostly on the feed reader, but I reckon a tractor beam of some sort sucked me into the evil facebook vortex. Gots me a new blog now...with pictures! :-)

Posted by: Erica | Jun 10, 2010 6:21:11 PM

"Of all the chumus joints in all the towns in the world, she had to walk into mine."

Posted by: Jack | Jun 10, 2010 8:47:33 PM

While I didn't read the article, and can't really comment on the tone or the message, I have to admit that I find the idea of tourists visiting Ramallah or anywhere else in the territories to be a good thing.

Bibi has been talking about "economic peace" for a while now, and tourism certainly seems like one of the easiest things that could be encouraged that would help there and also here.

I personally believe that if the Palestinians had a little bit more money and therefore had something to lose, they would spend more time thinking about their livelihood and less time thinking about killing us.

I don't know, call me naive but I guess I just really buy into the whole idea of development bringing moderation and all that.

Posted by: Jonah | Jun 10, 2010 9:32:16 PM

I'm so glad that the humanitarian aid that came in last week was turned to good purposes. The despair, the hellish starvation, the utter deprivation inflicted upon the innocents in the Strip was simply a crime against humanity. But, thanks to the blockade-busters, suddenly they can open bars and five star restaurants. Thank you, Turkey, and all those other turkeys out there.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jun 10, 2010 10:21:56 PM

I keep waiting for the other shoe to fall. The Ramallah party-goers are faring well under "Israeli occupation." If Sharia law ever steps into the nightclubs, they might be dancing to a somewhat different tune.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jun 10, 2010 10:37:13 PM

I would like to agree with you Jonah. On the other hand we have Gaza and Northern Sinai. With the billions available for development, it could have been turned into a prime tourist destination. Instead,Hamas would rather destroy and make war on Israel.

Posted by: Ed | Jun 11, 2010 5:43:44 PM

You know, despite the article, if I was given the choice I'd prefer to go to Casablanca!

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jun 13, 2010 1:38:53 AM

Trep: from experience, I can describe for you what this passage means: "huddling against the breezes billowing in from the valley below the club."

Where I live, "breezes billowing in from the valley" average about 35 mph and carry sand large enough to pit windshields. I assume the rest of the article hews as closely to the truth. No worries! ;o/

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jun 13, 2010 9:21:11 AM

Occupation? Didn't we hand Ramallah over to the PA? What occupation? This just reinforces why I cancelled my Times subscription.

Posted by: Marsha | Jun 14, 2010 6:50:13 AM

finally had a chance to read the whole article. not only was your "casablanca" comparison right on, but i'd call the author disingenuous in not mentioning it since it's so obvious.

Posted by: jonathan becker | Jun 14, 2010 1:27:31 PM

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