Ramallah shows new vibrancy


RAMALLAH, West Bank - There certainly is no truly grand shopping street here, no Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysees, but this city, the Palestinian capital of politics and culture, is by far the most cosmopolitan in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, and showing new signs of life.

The shopping hub is Manara Square, a chaotic intersection surrounding decorative stone lions and a tall tower rusted with age. Sidewalks are crowded with families shopping, merchants hawk cookware from China, money-changers clutch fistfuls of cash and cooks dip balls of chickpeas into sizzling oil to make falafel.

And there are changes, too. The city of 45,000 people - a few miles and two Israeli checkpoints north of Jerusalem - is moving upscale, a mini-renaissance that began while Yasser Arafat was confined to the presidential compound here.

This is where audiences pack the West Bank's only movie theater to watch first-run American and Egyptian films; children crowd a new candy store boasting European confections; and shoppers accustomed to crowded open-air markets and tiny shops are starting to take to an air-conditioned, two-story mall, the Plaza Shopping Center, with the West Bank's only escalator.

Samer al-Batrawi, co-manager of Samer's Restaurant, stepped away from his crowded dining room not long ago to talk about business and politics.

"We live for the moment," he said. "If there is death in Gaza, of course I'm sad, but it is routine. I've lived in Egypt and I've seen life. I've seen what fun is like, and I want it here. It's possible because the Israeli army is no longer standing on every street corner."

Nearby, the al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque screens three movies a night in two auditoriums, as well as plays and Palestinian-made films that document the past four years of violence. Over the summer, patrons packed the theater to watch a series of 18 Israeli-made films on the Palestinian uprising and then debated how Palestinians are depicted in Israeli media - an event almost unthinkable in other Palestinian cities. In Nablus and Jenin, television stations broadcast continuous loops extolling the fighting.

"Some of the films that I can show here would not be allowed in other places," said Samer Makhlouf, the manager. "This place would be burned down. Here in Ramallah, it is accepted. And it is necessary for people to gain a better understanding of what is going on beyond their community."

Ramallah, long known for its greater tolerance, has discreet bars, even dance clubs, plus the shopping mall in nearby el-Bireh. Its anchor store is the Bravo, managed by Tawfic Husseini, who was born in East Jerusalem and holds a master's degree in business administration from George Washington University.

After working 23 years in Saudi Arabia for U.S. companies, he returned to the West Bank last year and introduced a small revolution in food-selling. In Bravo, the meat for sale is sealed and refrigerated, not hanging from hooks in the hot afternoon sun, as at downtown butchers. Bravo workers - there are 62 of them - wear uniforms and gloves when handling food. The magazine rack is stocked with Vogue and Seventeen. There are cereals from the United States, juices from Germany, milk from Israel, fruit from local farmers. No other grocery store in the West Bank has bar code scanners at the check-out counters.

Still, politics intrude. Nearly every day, he said, several workers fail to make it past Israeli army checkpoints. Food shipments are sometimes delayed. And Husseini feels compelled to join other merchants in closing their stores for strikes called by militant groups.

Husseini said militant leaders sometimes visit to warn against failing to comply, a reminder that a harsher reality exists outside the controlled environment of the mall.

"They tell me that we're no different than any other store, we have to close down," said Husseini. "I tell them that I will donate all my profits for the day to the cause, but it doesn't matter.

"We are not immune from what is happening outside our doors. It's not like we are having fun and living a good life. But at the same time, we have to live."

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