November 27, 1997
One Saturday Night in Ramallah
The bad news is that the peace process is going nowhere. The good news is that the Palestinians are learning all over again how to enjoy themselves. Those who can afford it are, anyway.
Since it reverted to Palestinian self-rule two years ago, Ramallah, a suburban hill town 10 miles north of Jerusalem, has developed into the swinging center of West Bank night life. On Saturday nights, the streets crawl with drivers looking for a parking space.
Ice cream parlors and pizzerias vie with kebab and falafel vendors. Tall, old pine trees sway with fairy lights like a poor man's version of London's Regent Street before Christmas. Crowded restaurants offer Italian and Mexican specials alongside local grills. Barmen ask whether you want Chivas or Black Label, as if they have never heard of the Islamic revolution.
And at RR Cheers on the fourth floor of a nondescript office building, gilded yuppies dance the night away. "RR" is "Ramallah Restaurant"; "Cheers" is "cheers." Strobe lights weave dizzy patterns on the parquet, red, blue, green, yellow. A laser beam twirls a scarlet arabesque on the low ceiling.
Loudspeakers blare a mix of Arabic and American disco music, "darlings" and "habibtis," tapes imported from Cairo and Beirut, London and New York. Dozens of couples, in contoured jeans and micro-mini skirts, wiggle, stamp and twist. Waiters ferry wine, beer and fruit juice, humus and beef stroganoff to 20 tables fringing the dance floor.
By midnight, the air is saturated with nicotine. A local gay celebrity, who belly-dances in drag, drops in for a not-so-quiet drink on his night off. RR Cheers stays open until 3 a.m. When we leave, eardrums throbbing, at one, the revelers are still going strong.
They came from as far south as Bethlehem and Hebron, as far north as Nablus and Jenin. One engaged couple sneaked in for a weekend away from Gaza.
"We came especially for the night club," says Eman, a 19-year-old Moslem student whose father sells gold jewelry. "Places like this are hard to find in Gaza." He and his fiancée, Usama, are staying with relatives. "We can do what we want," she says. "We're engaged."
Even among the middle classes, Palestinian tradition still draws lines. Almost all the disco couples arrive together, husbands with wives, boyfriends with girlfriends. A few unaccompanied girls, foreign guests, come with their married hosts and dance with each other.
Politics intrudes. Eman managed to get a one-day permit to cross Israeli territory from Gaza to Ramallah. He's overstayed and fears he might be arrested on his way back. It's easier for girls. His fiancée has a one-week permit and plans to go home when it expires.
The young Palestinians go to the disco to get away from the conflict with Israel that still pervades their lives four years after the Oslo peace agreement was reached. "It makes us feel we are alive," says Sireen, a tipsy girl in a bright red blouse.
"We all suffer every day from the occupation," says Marwan, 35, a free-lance television cameraman who came to Ramallah two years ago from his native Gaza. "I can't visit my family in Gaza. I'm blacklisted in the Israeli computer, even though I have no security record. This place gets us away from the problems."
"I come here for a taste of normality," says Bassam, a 35-year-old Christian Arab shopkeeper who sells office equipment in Bethlehem. He and his wife, Doris, are regulars at RR Cheers. "In this way," he says, "things are better since the Israelis left."
Bassam, who chooses his words like stepping stones, complains that most Palestinians don't know how to live. "Things are not changing," he says, "they are going backward. The Moslems are not like us. It's not good for people to let religion control their way of life."
Ramallah is a handy bolt-hole for Moslems who don't want to be controlled. Nasser, a 30-year-old waiter, came to work here from Hebron, a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism. Sipping an unrepentant Scotch, he says: "My father drank when he was young. Now he's getting old, he prays."
So far, Hamas and other Islamic groups have allowed Ramallah to swing. It used to be a Christian town. Although it now has a Moslem majority, it remains predominantly middle-class, more open and more relaxed.
Many of the Palestinian officials have their homes and offices here. "They brought their lifestyle with them," says Nasser at the bar of RR Cheers. "They were drinking in Tunis while we were fighting the intifada."
Now, the veterans of the uprising are taking their turn. Those who can afford it, anyway.
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