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Book Review: Outrunning occupation in Palestine's 'capital'

A new book offers a fresh look at Ramallah, Palestine’s ‘temporary capital.’ Unfortunately, the book is dominated by a foreigner’s personal essay – the voices of those who live under occupation should be front and center. 

Running tests boundaries—both those we place on ourselves as well as those imposed upon us by the outside world. Whether those external limits are social, cultural, or political, the runner collides with them in a way that the casual pedestrian does not, thus, serving as a mirror for the issues that are relevant to one’s particular time and space. A woman in a male-dominated society, for example, might face cat calls or even physical assault while running; Palestinians living under Israeli occupation have, literally, nowhere to run. Trapped inside a labyrinth of Israeli military checkpoints and permits, bordered by illegal Israeli settlements, Palestinian freedom of movement is severely restricted.

In Ramallah, Running is a collection of prose and visual art that expresses how one moves through—or doesn’t move through—occupied space. Edited by Samar Martha, the co-founder and director of ArtSchool Palestine, and London-based writer Guy Mannes-Abbott, the book brings together prominent Palestinian artists and writers as well as internationals. They offer reflections on Ramallah, the city that has become the de facto center of Palestinian cultural and political life in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the ongoing Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. As contributor Najwan Darwish writes in his powerful but all-too-brief essay “Ramallah Versus Ramallah,” the post-Oslo focus on Ramallah as a “temporary capital” is “meant not only to make us forget Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, the Galilee, and all of Palestine that was occupied in 1948, but also to overshadow the importance of Jerusalem.”

Mannes-Abbott’s contribution to the collection is a 14-part series about his runs and walks through and around Ramallah. His descriptions sometimes border on the lyrical—rendering the beauty of the land and his love for the place and its people. But they are also laden with the claustrophobia and fear that typify Palestinian life: “…in the prison of these hills, in lovely Ramallah itself, there is no freedom. Here, in this place, life spirals within abysmal limits.” His essay reveals the physical limitations imposed by the Israeli occupation; more importantly, Mannes-Abbott points to how those restrictions linger inside the psyche, long after one has entered the so-called “autonomous” Palestinian areas.

But Mannes-Abbott’s depiction of Palestinians is so sympathetic that it sometimes toes the line of fetishizing. One villager is “comically, sweetly” emphatic. The “volume and tone” of another local’s voice “betrays a sweetness of character that is very Palestinian,” Mannes-Abbott writes. I couldn’t help but think of Samir Kassir’s book Being Arab, in which Kassir writes the “gaze of the Western Other… prevents everything, even escape. Suspicious and condescending by turns, the other’s gaze constantly confronts you with your apparently insurmountable condition.”

As a foreigner who can easily leave Ramallah and its suffocating environs behind, Mannes-Abbott spends a little too much time on stage. There are less than 150 pages of prose and art in the book; Mannes-Abbott’s essay—while moving, nuanced, and deeply researched—takes up more than 70. In Ramallah, Running is at its best when those whose very existence is intertwined with dispossession and occupation—the Palestinians—speak for themselves.

Khalil Rabah, a Palestinian artist who lives and creates in Ramallah, presents the reader with a simple image: a photograph of two, worn, leather loafers. At first glance, the brain interprets it as a pair of shoes. But something is amiss. It is actually two right shoes. It is, perhaps, the perfect metaphor for Ramallah today. The shoes are shiny and seem perfect for a businessman—just like the city, which is awash in foreign aid and seems to be booming—but the person who wears them is cobbled; if they manage to run, they won’t get far.

A shorter version of this review was first published in The National.

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