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Place Descriptions

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> The Hebronite Spirit of Enterprise
> Nablus Revitalised
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> Nightlife in Ramallah
> The Bethlehemian Smile
> Nablus: The Uncrowned Queen
> From the Ottomans to Modem Times
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> The Site of the Town of Bethlehem at Its Earliest...
> The History of Nablus
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Stroll along Ramallah’s Main Street
   
submitted by This Week In Palestine
30.08.2007

By Margo Sabella

When people look back on what they remember from a particular place they grew up in, it is the energy, the street games they played, the sounds and smells, the way the breeze felt on balmy summer nights, and the taste of ice cream - Rukab ice cream in this instance. The place is Ramallah. Ramallah’s town centre of today has become so drastically different from what people recall that it is ever so much harder to reach back into the depths of history to paint that once-idyllic picture of what it used to be.

It is not a question about reviving the past or resisting modernity; it is more about trying to preserve an identity of the faces that have built up the city and remained steadfast despite the changing tides that are rising all around them. A few shops remain along Ramallah’s main street to give testament to simpler times. Despite the political turmoil and the hardships that ensued, there was still life to be lived and people’s needs and desires to be met - the same need for food and clothing that remains unchanged across the ages. More or less, that is.

Who still buys yards of cloth to sew these days? The first in a series of old shops along Ramallah’s main street that have witnessed the changes in the past five decades is Barakat’s Textiles shop. One of its owners says that in order to keep business alive these days, one must keep up with the times. He and his brother, who inherited the place from their father, may well turn the shop into a boutique in the future but worry about the pitfalls of such a move. The truth, however, is that they are not quite ready to make that break from the past that they grew up with. A sense of nostalgia seems to keep them firmly behind the counters that may well have come into being on the first day of business on a forgotten date sometime around 1950.

Originally from Jerusalem, their father opened his shop for business after the family became refugees during the 1948 Nakba. Situated across the street from the Red Rose florists, you almost miss the shop entirely, possibly because, as the owner says, no one really buys fabric to make their own clothes these days. In the past, he recalls, people from the villages surrounding Ramallah came in droves to buy enough material to dress the whole village for a wedding, which was the norm back then. These days everyone wants the ready-made, instant gratification; people no longer have patience for the process of making their own unique fashions.

Farther down the street, the 94-year-old original owner of Nassar’s, stands on the sidewalk amid the pedestrian traffic to take in a puff of smoke, or possibly to survey the changes that he has observed for nearly 60 years since he first set up shop. There is no longing for the past here, only a regret to see so many people who just give up, pack up, and leave Ramallah. “We are the stalwarts,” Raji raises his fist in triumph while taking out a blonde Gauloises cigarette from his shirt pocket. He suspects that some of the last remaining “stalwarts” are ready to throw in the towel, too, he tells me in a hushed tone. Many of Ramallah’s original families emigrated to the U.S. in the early- and mid-20th century and have since been replaced by a population fleeing from the Nakba or by entrepreneurial-minded folk, like Raji, who found Ramallah to be the ideal place to make a fresh start.

The shop, which sells everything from spoons and vegetable peelers to fancy crystal vases and pots and pans of various shapes and sizes, probably has a few buried treasures from Italy, where Raji used to travel regularly to buy his inventory during his youth. Nevertheless, you are unlikely to find these treasures easily among the clutter of colanders and practical crockery. The wooden door that customers enter through is probably the original, as are the window displays and counters. The shop may have never been painted since 1948 when Raji first opened, but air-conditioning seems to have been introduced sometime along the way.

Funny, he does not remember the day of the shop’s grand opening, as most likely there was not one. In fact, not one of these last remaining testaments to Ramallah’s history remembers its opening day, and it is as if each one just sprung up like a fragile mushroom on a crisp Sunday morning but then transformed into deep-rooted olive trees that survived the treachery of supply and demand influenced by unrelenting political turmoil. Ceremony was not important then. Nobody ever thought of taking photographs either; people barely had enough money to buy food, let alone a camera to indulge in capturing what seemed to be just another moment in time.

Nothing rang in the end of the school year and the beginning of summer better than street vendors all across Palestine shouting out “Rukab” as loud as they could while rolling the “r” and elongating the second syllable as long as their breath would carry. One of the oldest places on the main street is Rukab’s ice cream shop, across the street from Nassar’s. Jamil Rukab, his son Ihsan says, used to sell homemade ice cream after school, at parties, and at football games. The recipe was his mother’s adaptation of a Greek one. It may have been on a spring day in 1940, when 18-year-old Jamil opened the shop and the rest, as they say, is history. There is nothing like the taste of Rukab’s ice cream, and people from far and wide come to experience that exquisitely unique taste of Palestine.

The beginnings of this shop in particular were met with challenges. As the pioneers in the Palestinian community in the ice cream business, they had to use old-fashioned methods in the making of this delicacy. Lots of ice and salt were involved in the process to keep the product frozen because the British, during the late-Mandate period, would shut off the electricity generators every once in a while, disrupting the procedure and threatening to dissolve into puddles any ice cream that managed to be made. Rukab’s ice cream is still made today using variations of these old-fashioned methods.

Along with classic favourite flavours of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, lemon, and “mistaka,” an ice cream flavour heavily infused with gum mastic, you will find an assortment of gourmet choices to entertain the palates of a connoisseur clientele: school children, young couples, growing families, the avant-garde intellectuals, and political activists. The shop is a hub of energy, and discussions flow from various tables; depending on the time of day, the debates can vary from current affairs to lovers’ harmless tiffs. The shop, situated at the corner of an intersection, has been a witness to stone-throwing activity and a victim of tear gas that very well could have choked off any chances of its survival. Yet, like many others, the shop stood the test of time and defied the hardships of the first Intifada, so much so that the street has become known as Rukab Street.

As you continue to walk in the direction of old Ramallah, the street slowly leads you to Abu Iskandar’s shwarma shop. The delicious aromas wafting out of the open glass door are enough to entice the most resolute person on a diet, when after a long day of hard work or an exhausting shopping spree in town, all one needs is something satisfying to quell the hunger. It has been exactly fifty years since the late Abu Iskandar, never having seen the actual process of making shwarma yet driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, decided to open the shop after an uncle had simply told him how it was made. His son, Iskandar, now runs the place and explains that in the old days when they first opened, the meat on the skewers was cooked using coal.

The street is different; the people and their footsteps have become too fast and too harried, with no time to stroll lightly and greet passers-by except with a cursory acknowledgement. Iskandar’s earliest memories were of less noise pollution from the latest car models whizzing by the narrow street that was obviously not built with forethought to accommodate modern means of transportation.

Most of the men in these shops elected to remain and run their family businesses despite having entertained other dreams at some point in their lives. They all went to university and some even taught there for a while, yet with a precarious job market, where else to turn than to father and his business? It may have started out as a convenient escape, but Iskandar El Hin and his two brothers feel strongly that their profession is not just a business but a philosophy of life. Across from where the old Dunya Cinema once stood, the brothers run the barber shop that their father established in 1952 after becoming a refugee from Jaffa.

It may not have been their aspiration to become barbers, but they feel lost on Mondays, the day that hairdressers and barber shops are officially closed and they have to take a much-deserved break. After a quick spin around town, Iskandar remains restless until he pulls out a stool and sits beside the door to his shop, greeting passers-by and engaging in debates with fellow shopkeepers along the street.

What may have started out as a profit-making business became a lifeline for these two brothers as it grew into an inseparable part of their being. Despite the dangers of becoming entrapped in a boring routine, Iskandar El Hin and his brother derive satisfaction from knowing that they have served generations; having not only inherited the shop when their father passed away in 1987, but also its clients, who keep on proliferating. They speak with pride about the old men who come into the shop - having come for a brief summer holiday from their new life in the U.S. - dragging along with them young grandsons to have their hair cut according to the latest styles in the barber shop where they were once children.

Iskandar pulls out a wooden board, painted pale yellow, with two hooks that attach to the chair to make a booster seat for children. The plank, he says, is as old as the shop and was never replaced. Some things are worth holding onto. Regardless of how things have progressed in the outside world, in that barber shop, the simple wooden plank still serves an important purpose, not just in functionality but in sentimentally evoking childhood memories in the now-grown men who still frequent the shop. Iskandar is insightful into human nature, as only someone who has observed and heard people trustingly share their worries and joys under the strangely comforting spell of the scissors and razors.

But Iskandar feels that time is working against him and, with each passing day, he has less time to give to his work. His love for his job comes from knowing that he does more than just cut hair and shave beards; it is about being a social club of sorts, as he described it; a place where people meet and reconnect with one another, constantly building and reaffirming a sense of community.

What we value after all is not the place itself, and what we seek to hold onto is not the past but the happiness and hopefulness of a world view that was brimming with all the possibilities that life had to offer. What nostalgia we have for the past is just our human nature trying to protect memories that bond us to a place and time in order to keep us connected as a community.

You may have walked past each of these shops, never thinking to stop and look in, never thinking that they were more than mere businesses. But they are more than that; they are a gateway into our history that is fast closing with every modern building that springs up, casting ugly shadows on Ramallah’s main street.



Margo Sabella is a Jerusalem resident who works in the non-governmental sector. She can be reached at magotes@yahoo.com


Source:
This Week in Palestine
September 2007

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