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Ramallah: The Mini-Beirut at the Heart of the West Bank

Allix Denham is a journalist and author, whose novel Hotel Jerusalem was inspired by a month-long visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Not the prettiest of cities, but fun all the same

Not the prettiest of cities, but fun all the same

We travelled to Ramallah from the divided city of Hebron. To be honest, it was a relief to leave Hebron. The weather had turned and become cold and wet and the atmosphere of the place is, quite frankly, oppressive. I still think of the people we met there, caught up in a situation not of their making. My heart goes out to them.

By comparison, Ramallah, otherwise known as mini-Beirut, for its glamorous shops, cafés and nightlife, feels light and joyful. It's a modern, commercial city, with not a lot of monuments or attractions to speak of, but a great place to hang out in all the same.

Breakfast is served

Breakfast is served

Area D Hostel

With our combined age of 104, we put the youth into youth hostel, staying at a fabulous place called Area D, located on the top floor of an office block with a shopping mall underneath. Its rooms were spacious and sun-filled, and overlooked a busy market and mosque.

There was a lovely sense of collectivity and communal living, with a big shared kitchen and fridge, sitting area with books and magazines, and beautiful products for sale, such as artisan olive oil based skin care products.

Breakfast was a do-it-yourself job, but there was a constant supply of delicious hot sage tea. We met NGOs, volunteers and two representatives of the French Palestine Solidarity Campaign group. It was a great place to mix and chill out. We booked for two nights and stayed for five.

From the noise of the fruit and veg market down below you’d think a mass protest was taking place, but it was just every stall holder trying to out-shout their neighbours – in between calling out 'welcome' and 'which country' as we walked past. On our first morning we bought fresh warm flatbreads from the bakery, eggs we carried carefully back in a plastic bag, and bananas, apples and honey for our breakfast.

Taking Food Seriously

Food is taken seriously in Palestine. Markets overflow with rugby ball-sized aubergines, bananas grown in Jericho, peppers, cabbages, vividly coloured oranges and clementines, bright red and green apples, melons and pineapples, lemons and limes, and plump, ripe tomatoes.

Juice stalls prepare freshly-squeezed cocktails of orange and pomegranate, but one particular central Ramallah stall offered all kinds of adventurous selections, using fresh carrots, apples, melons, pineapples, ginger and sugar cane, to name just a few ingredients.

On hot days we ordered lemon juice with just the right amount of sugar and lots of finely chopped mint, both delicious and refreshing, to drink as we ate lentil soup and tabbouleh, or chicken shawarma with pickled vegetables, or falafels stuffed in pitta bread with salad and delicious garlicky sauce. We never went hungry!

The bustling market place

The bustling market place

Shopping and Eating

Ramallah is vibrant, busy place, with lots of main streets interconnected by roundabouts, frenetic markets and bustling café culture. The floors at Area D were tiled, and as the bathrooms were down the corridor, I didn't want to wear shoes or boots all the time, so set my sights on a pair of slippers. I was delighted to come upon a pair of soft faux leopard skin ones at a market stall. The stall holder, delighted by the sale, gave me a huge smile, not quite believing that a) I was there in the first place, and b) of all things, I was buying slippers.

In the wonderfully-named Stars and Bucks café, we chatted with a young NGO worker, up from Bethlehem for a night on the town with some mates. They were planning a bar crawl – alcohol is widely available in Ramallah, and there's a big brewery not far away. His Palestinian friend told us about how he once went to the Israeli town of Jaffa. 'It looked like Palestine, it smelt like Palestine,' he told us, 'but I couldn't help thinking, who are all these visitors?'

Mahmoud Darwish

One day, we decided to walk to the museum in honour of Mahmoud Darwish, an award-winning poet and Palestinian symbol, who died in 2008. Ramallah is surprisingly hilly, and what looked like a shortish distance took far longer than expected. Thinking we'd got lost, I saw a woman getting out of her car, dressed in hospital clothing, and asked her the way. She'd probably just finished her shift, but immediately volunteered to drive us there. Such is the kindness of Palestinians. Needless to say, I declined her offer, but by then, we weren't that far away.

It's a beautiful place, both museum and cultural centre, with an outdoor theatre, lovely garden and tombstone where Darwish is buried. It's peaceful, the kind of place you can easily lose yourself in for a couple of hours.

Feeling Happy in Ramallah

Live Life to the Full

We saw many wedding cars, decked out in flowers, and these seemed to represent the spirit of Palestinians. Everyone knows their lives could be dramatically changed at any time, and so they live them to the full, enjoying each day as it comes, and take their celebrations and festivities seriously.

There are images of a young Yasser Arafat all over town, and his tomb lies here, even though he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem. We went to visit it. The soldiers guarding it asked to check my handbag, immediately apologising for having done so. They were polite and respectful – in total contrast to the shambolic and surly Israeli soldiers we came across in Jerusalem and Hebron, who were more interested in playing with their smartphones and lighting cigarettes than in engaging with foreign visitors.

On our last day in Ramallah, as we sat on a street café, sipping our fruit cocktails, my eyes kept wandering over at yet another poster of Arafat hanging from a tall building. He is revered here, like a kindly uncle or grandfather, but I couldn't help thinking that if he'd only had the looks of Che Guevara and the charisma of Nelson Mandela, things might have worked out a hell of a lot better for the Palestinians.