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The Ramallah I Remembered

Courtesy Pamela Olson

JOINING THE CIRCUS: Life goes on as Olson takes trapeze lessons in a war zone.

I lived and worked in Ramallah from June 2004 until December 2005. When I traveled back for a two-week vacation last year, my excitement almost matched my trepidation. Violence broke out in the Gaza Strip just as I arrived and soon put Hamas in control of the tiny strip of land. I wondered, would the fighting spread to the West Bank? Would a few young men with guns incite riots—even civil war—in the tense atmosphere? Worst of all, had the kindness and tolerance of the Palestinian people been stretched past its limit? Had the easygoing Ramallah I'd known been suppressed?

As my bus approached Ramallah, my fears began to ease. The streets were still clean and colorful, and people still greeted each other with smiles and kisses. In the central square sat a beautiful new coffeehouse sardonically named the Stars and Bucks Café.

I arrived just in time for the wedding of a Palestinian-American friend. After the ceremony in a soaring Latin Church, guests toasted bottomless shots of Johnny Walker at the Orthodox Club and danced to Arab and American pop music. Drunk on the lively atmosphere and chatting with friends, I finally relaxed. Ramallah was its old self after all.

I savored two sunny weeks of concerts, long chats in beer gardens, sunset barbecues, trips through familiar and beloved Biblical landscapes and, improbably enough, trapeze and juggling lessons at the new Palestinian Circus School. The school is managed by two brothers whose dedication is matched by their classic Palestinian kindness—the same impulse that leads cab drivers to exclaim in English, “Ah, you speak Arabic better than me!” if I so much as mutter the Arabic word for “thank you.” One does get used to such hyperbolic hospitality, but it remains a key reason why many foreigners come to Palestine for a day or a week and stay for a month or a year.

All in all, I was abashed to have been taken in by the media's dismal coverage and to have nearly reconsidered my trip. Life under military occupation remains harsh and often devastating, but it goes on. People get married, meet friends at beer gardens, even learn to juggle. It reminded me of the gift I had cherished most from living in Palestine: restored faith in the grace, resilience and colorful beauty of human nature.

—PAMELA OLSON, '02, recently moved back to Palestine.

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