Washing Hands in Ramallah, an essay by Josip Novakovich


While teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, I thought of visiting a friend of mine in Beirut, but that proved difficult, as in Lebanon they would ask me whether I had ever been to Israel. If I said yes, they would kick me out of the country, like the East Germans once did, when they saw American visa stamps in my Yugoslav passport. To make a trip of about 150 km, I’d have to fly to Istanbul and then back southeast to Beirut, covering the same distance as though flying to Zagreb. The hell with it, I thought. I am not a tourist. I don’t need to see many places. It’s hard to understand and see one place, why rush to another? But friends from everywhere kept asking, How can you live in Israel and not wonder how the other side lives? I don’t even know how this side lives, I replied.

A month after my stay in Jerusalem I went to Ramallah, with my friend Tom, who worked for the international organization, Protect the Children, so he’d show me around. We drove down from the French Hill, one of the highest points in Jerusalem that looked over the yellow landscape of the Jordan Valley with the river in the distance and a corner of the Dead Sea. The sight vanished, and we were surrounded by minarets of Northeast Jerusalem. We passed by the white gravestones of a Muslim cemetery, and small shantytown style shops with aluminum roofs. We drove past the checkpoints into the West Bank without being stopped by Israeli and Palestinian police as we had UN license plates. Part of the wall of separation with observation cubicles was burnt out.

I saw this image on French TV last night. A dozen guys lobbing Molotov cocktails to the Israeli side, I said.

Yes, it’s the usual Friday night entertainment, Tom said.

I hear a lot of gunfire or crackers, from my window, especially on Fridays, I said.

It’s all gunfire. The Palestinians like to disturb the Sabbath.

Well, that’s kind of strange. Jews have to listen to Muslim prayers five times a day all over the city, and they allow that. Kind of tolerant.

That’s one of the few things they allow, Tom replied.

By the way, I said, a few weeks ago my friend David and I sat at the Austrian Hospice below a minaret in the Old City, and suddenly, the prayers came on, full blast. I wasn’t used to that, so I said to David, that’s kind of impressive. Jews don’t have such loud prayers.

You’ll see that Judaism is very quiet and humble, David told me. Christians bang the bells, Muslims shout over the valleys, and Jews whisper and nod in the prayer halls.

So even when Arabs lob missiles here, the Muslim prayers go on? I asked David.

Yes, David said. And the worst thing is that you don’t know what they are saying. You don’t want to know. They may be praying for the death of the enemy, and we are the enemy.

Israel is in many ways a tolerant country, I reiterated to Tom. Not many people pay attention to that.

Having lived in Palestine, I don’t see it that way. It’s a ghetto.

We passed by the Central Palestinian Authority Building. That’s where Obama’s helicopter landed a few days ago, Tom said. I don’t think his visit was well received. He didn’t even mention the illegal Jewish settlements.

Yugoslavia had the largest PLO embassy in the world. It recognized Palestine as a separate country.

It should be, of course, he said.

Yes, of course. If the Palestinian National Authority and its allies recognized Israel it would be recognized in turn, I replied.

I have no idea—I have quit offering solutions, Tom said.

The buildings were closer together in Ramallah than in Jerusalem. There were boys playing soccer in the streets; somehow there were more people here in the streets, and true enough, Ramallah is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Well, I said, it looks better than I expected. Almost prosperous, pretty much like Pristina in the new state of Kosovo.

Ramallah actually has better services than Pristina—better hospitals, for example. It’s more equipped to be a country than Kosovo.

How do you know? I asked.

There’s more infrastructure here by now, and there’s a lot of money here, one way or another. But the postal system still doesn’t work. They introduced new street names several years ago, but nobody goes by them. They just say it’s the street where the old olive presses used to be. Or, the street with three shoe stores. So I experimented, and had a package sent to me using the new addresses. The post office didn’t deliver it. And Ramallah is one of the few places where Google maps do not work. They work in the Brazilian jungle, but not here.

That’s crazy. It’s as though the Israelis designed Google maps.

Actually, they did. GPS systems come from military technology. Israeli engineers developed much of it so they could bomb Iran and Iraq and take out their nuclear plants. I don’t know for sure, but it’s one theory I heard.

Tom took me to a café some blocks away from the Al-Manara Square, where most of the protests take place. The café owner looked like an American hippie. He showed us his garden where he was planting trees. I told him I had planted at least a thousand trees. I have contributed to the oxygen on the planet.

What kinds of trees? He asked, his face lighting up, eyes shining.

I said, Douglas fir, Norwegian fir, and Serbian and Turkish spruce. I put Serbian and Turkish trees together to see whether they can get along. I thought it was a good practical joke, but my host didn’t smile.

What other trees? He asked.

It was impressive how much he loved trees. I, for some reason, couldn’t recall all the types I had planted. Some were hybrids, which I got for free from the agriculture department at Penn State, so it would be hard to describe them anyway.

So I said to my host, it’s too much to ask of me right now in my groggy state. Could you make me a double macchiato first?

He prepared coffee using one of those large hissing machines imported from Italy. He said, I am buying two acres of land in the hills, close to east Jerusalem and the

settlements. Guess how much it costs me, in American terms? 1.6 million.

How much should a tomato you grow cost then to make sense economically? Ten dollars each?

The host, whose name I have forgotten, brought me a menu.

Chicken parmigiana. OK, I’ll have it. It comes with eggplant, I said, and in the Middle East, you all know how to do eggplant better than anywhere else on the planet.

It does not come with eggplant, he said.

How is it parmigiana then? I thought eggplant was part of the deal.

No, if you want aubergine parmigiana, you can order one more meal and we can put it together. It will be very satisfying.

Go ahead, Tom encouraged me.

I went to the bathroom to wash my hands. The water trickled. I remembered the gruesome stories of people in Ramallah being reduced to a liter per person a decade ago. In the summer there was not enough water to drink, let alone to bathe and wash the dishes. In my apartment above Jerusalem, the best feature was the shower as it created quite a blast. Washing my hands left me depressed. (If you want to signal that you are not guilty, you wash hands, but if you can’t wash hands, how can you signal you are not guilty?). The food came, and everything was unusually soft and mushy, even the chicken. Should the chicken be this soft? It wasn’t juicy soft, but bland.

A dozen people gathered in the café, and as Tom and I were finishing our meals, we chatted. I looked around the café. There were young women in scarves, and a quartet of American students with Harvard brick colored T-shirts (our future policy makers and rulers of the universe, who need to see the crisis points in the world before designing bad policies…) and a couple of guys smoking shisha, sucking tobacco smoke filtered through water. More people came. I talked about the Hebrew University, and that many international intellectuals such as Stephen Hawking boycotted it for being an apartheid institution. It was unfair. In my small class at the university I had at least three Arab students. At first they sat together and didn’t speak but later on they became communicative and relaxed. While my voice was not loud, I could see that the mere mention of the Hebrew University seemed to enlarge people’s eyes. I then talked about how in Jerusalem the Arab neighborhoods during the Shabbat were the hope for peace. Jews could avoid the prohibitions of Shabbat by living in Arab neighborhoods where they could buy coffee on Saturdays at 1 pm, get fine hummus and bottles of red wine. Arabs could save Jews from the paralysis of the Shabbat.

That’s why I was tempted to live on the French Hill, Tom said. It seemed to be an integrated neighborhood. But more importantly, I liked the fact that the market place on Ha Hagana had excellent artichoke year round. Nobody seemed to understand, not even my wife, that where I’d choose to live would be based on artichoke.

I finished the chicken parmigiana and the eggplant and Tom said, We’d better leave right now. Rush hour hits Saturday afternoon. (I thought my visit would be longer, but maybe my conversation hastened our departure, I wasn’t sure.)

We drove back to Jerusalem. The road by which we came was too busy. Cars were making U-turns, sometimes from the middle lane, to get onto the road back. We did the same. We passed by some illegal Israeli settlements and did not see a single human being outside, only a couple of German shepherds.

The strange thing is that the real estate values are very high there too, said Tom. See the settlement on the opposite hill? That’s a rich Palestinian settlement—mostly Palestinians from Argentina. Why anybody would want to live there beats me. The real estate there is higher than the Israeli settlements. See, some houses are huge.

I have a student from the settlements, I said. She’s a talented writer, and instead of going to Columbia University, which would have cost her parents fifty thousand dollars a year, she came to study at the Hebrew University for free. She’s well educated and beautiful. I have never seen her hair—she wears a wig to keep her head covered, in accordance with the Talmud. She’s just taken a vacation in Paris, but still looks gloomy. I am not sure she likes her future as a baby-maker.

Sure, ideally, she’d have a dozen. I’d be nervous in her place too—two decades of pregnancies ahead of her.

We tried to visit an Israeli settlement. It was raining—and the rain turned into a hailstorm, a strange sight in the desert. The sign at the gate said to ring the bell to be admitted. I rang the bell on the intercom, heard some noises, but nobody answered. I stared up at a blinking security camera, a little self-conscious of whatever image I was presenting. I rang again, no response. Maybe they were not allowed to operate the gate on Shabbat (in Jerusalem there were elevators that went up and down by themselves, stopping on every floor, so that the ultra-religious would not violate the Talmudic law that prohibits operating any machinery on Shabbat), or they simply didn’t like our secular appearance.

We got back to the French Hill and I invited Tom to come in and have a shot of Talisker. I had bought the whiskey in London on the way back from the Book Fair where I was one of the writers representing Croatia upon her entry into the European Union. Tom enjoyed a large shot, looked around, and said, Why don’t you get a maid to clean your apartment?

I neglect it because of my trips. The apartment is small enough; I can clean it myself.

There are students here who will do it cheaply, especially the Arab kids. Anyway, I’d better be going.

Several hours later, I went down the hill to meet David for dinner at a Moroccan restaurant, feeling a little queasy. We took the bus. I never feel sick from a bus ride, but on the way back, I felt really sick. When I made it back to the apartment, I vomited. I kept waking up at night, sick. And the following day, I was still sick. I took two aspirins to get rid of the headache, although aspirin never seems to work as a painkiller for me. It occurred to me that it would be a big mistake, after the Talisker. I behaved foolishly, for sure, perhaps provoking an ulcer. Pretty soon, there was blood. What the hell was going on? I got serious food poisoning, probably salmonella. But where? Probably in Ramallah. That damned chicken didn’t seem right and neither did the eggplant with cheese. I was sure the poisoning was not deliberate, on account of my loud conversation about the Hebrew University. It was supposed to be a fine, hip café, where the young met in the evenings to party, and some of the young women in scarves were modern, promiscuous. They’d all used Mac computers. They did not worship Allah as much as Steve Jobs. The café had looked clean. But, how could it be entirely clean, when there was not enough water? They had the yellow-mellow California style advice pasted on the WC wall. (If it’s yellow, stay mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.) So, whose fault was it that I was poisoned? The Palestinian’s for serving me contaminated chicken or contaminated utensils, or the Israeli’s, for not allowing enough water to flow into the West Bank? I decided I couldn’t draw any conclusions from the experience. It took me a week to recover from the poisoning. Now, when I hear the word Ramallah, I have a queasy feeling. It’s not fair, I know, but I have that association. It’s also possible that I poisoned myself by not cleaning my kitchen enough, and by eating eggs on the soft-side. I am kind of a suicide bomber in the kitchen. That could be it, but that would be a disappointing conclusion, not enlightening global affairs in the least. In any case, that day I had cooked nothing, so probably that’s not it.

Next time, entering Israel, I was asked only one question, Have you ever been to the West Bank? Did they know? Tom and I had passed the checkpoints in the UN vehicle without inspection. Now what if I answered yes, would they not allow me the visit? How would I finish teaching my class at the Hebrew University? Probably they’d have to let me enter the country. No, I haven’t visited the West Bank, I said. And really, I thought, that short visit, how could it count?

Josip Novakovich emigrated from Croatia at the age of 20. He has published a novel, April Fool’s Day (in ten languages), three story collections (Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust, Yolk and Salvation and Other Disasters) and three collections of narrative essays as well as two books of practical criticism, including Fiction Writers Workshop. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize collection and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award and an American Book Award, and in 2013 he was a Man Booker International Award finalist. Novakovich has been a writing fellow of the New York Public Library and has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Die Freie Universitaet in Berlin, Penn State and now, Concordia University in Montreal.