Palestine, the alternate universe

I am in Ramallah. Restaurants with creative menus and talented chefs abound. You can run into tiny spots with out-of-this-world food, places worthy of a role on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” There’s a Domino’s, a KFC, and a Starbucks (well, it’s called “Stars and Bucks,” but that’s a minor detail). There’s even a five-star Swiss hotel, the world-famous Movenpick. The nightlife is lively, with bars and lounges seemingly on every corner. In fact, without looking too hard, you’ll even find art galleries, hip cafes, and discos.

There’s no reason to think there’s anything wrong. Almost no reason. Except for one thing. There’s a military occupation going on. Forty-eight years later, unfortunately, this still has to be explained. And I don’t want to try to explain it to you by exploring international law or geopolitics. Wikipedia has that pretty well covered. Instead, let’s just talk about some of the things that go on in Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza that simply don’t happen anywhere else in the world.   In fact, let’s just call it the WBG (West Bank and Gaza). See, we even abbreviate our occupation. That’s weird enough, right?

To be Palestinian is to live ludicrously. What might seem preposterous to anyone else is typical to us. The ordinary is bizarre, and the bizarre is ordinary. Being Palestinian means being an actor in the theatre of the absurd.

First, the WBG, even the apparently free-for-all atmosphere of Ramallah, is just one big prison. Sure, it has liberal visiting hours, good food, and minimal security. (Of course, the condition of minimal security only applies as long as you don’t protest your captivity.) They say you can put lipstick on pig, but it’s still a pig. Well, you can put $30 steaks in a prison, but it’s still a prison. Why is the WBG still a prison? Because it possesses the one main distinguishing feature of one: The prisoners can’t leave.

If you have ever entered the West Bank, you will remember that the Israelis (the prison guards) don’t bother you too much when you enter the gates. Leaving, however, is a totally different story. Unless you have some sort of almost-impossible-to-get restricted special permission, entry into the non-prisoner population of Israel is forbidden. This means that when I come from outside the West Bank to visit a friend inside the West Bank, after he has shown me great hospitality and grace, I cannot offer him the simplest of remarks: “Next time at my house.”

If you’re not convinced yet, the WBG has an added layer of abnormality. There are a bunch of non-prisoners roaming throughout the prison, living on the prison grounds, using a disproportionate amount of prison resources, and assaulting the prisoners with impunity. These people are called “settlers.” To add to the inexplicability of the whole thing, when the Israeli government offers any mild criticism or curtailing of the settlers’ activities (which are all illegal under international law, by the way), the settlers engage in “price tag” attacks. But while these attacks are meant to be in “protest” of government intervention, they are directed not against the powers that be, but against the prisoners, the indigenous Palestinians. That is some real alternate-universe type stuff.

Finally, we have the ultimate level of madness. Many who watch our saga in the news think that there is a country named Israel, a country named Palestine, and they’re fighting each other. But this is not the case. The Palestinians who live in the WBG are legally stateless. They are citizens of nowhere. They do not vote for the parties who ultimately rule them. The Israeli prime minister and parliament control the everyday fate of about 12 million people throughout Israel and the WBG. Only about 7 million of them actually have the ability to vote for him. Bizarre, right?

Being stateless comes with one last point of ridiculousness. Palestinians who live in the WBG live, well, nowhere. If you don’t believe me, you can just ask Google. If you look for Palestinian cities on Google Maps, you will find them. But there will be some things you won’t find, like street names. The Gaza Strip contains over 1.8 million residents (who are citizens of nowhere). I think I found two street names on Google. You would think 1.8 million people would buy you a few street names. Even Nairobi has street names! (Sorry, Kenya, but hey, you got an American president.) What this means for residents of the WBG is that they cannot surf on Amazon, order something, and have it sent to them, because the internet has no idea where they live. They don’t have addresses! Even Kenyans can order from Amazon! (Sorry again.) Even the smallest of the (illegal) Israeli settlements in the West Bank have street names. They have points of interest too. The 4 million residents of the WBG are given no such thing. It’s almost as if nothing is going on here at all. As a firsthand witness, I can assure you the opposite is true.

I hope I’ve been clear. Describing the phenomena of an alternate universe is extremely difficult. It’s like trying to explain what happens in a dream. Unfortunately, what’s going on in Palestine is not imaginary at all. If only it were.

About Amer Zahr 181 Articles
Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."


  1. Excellent article. You got me interested in looking at other “hole in the wall” and see how they compared to Gaza City, which showed no street names that I could find. I started with Windhoek, Namibia. Lots of street names. Okay, I need to scrape at the bottom of the barrel. Fine, El-Aioun, Western Sahara, which is not recognized as a country. Sure enough, a considerable number of streets were named with a far smaller population living in the middle of the desert. Go figure, I guess prisons don’t need to post street names in Google. :-S

  2. Not bad it was a good explanation But you have forgotten one important thing.
    (The Social life in Ramallah) … You should explain how easy would be to socialize. Anyways we are makeing a lot of events back in Palestine for new foreigners that gives them the aprotunity to meet locals and foreigners that live in Palestine .
    For any further information please do not hesitate to find me on Facebook (John Josef Emerezian) !! Cheers

  3. It is really sad to know about this and nobody can fix it or try to do something about. It makes ur heart full with pain and wish if u can help. Thank you for ur amazing article and the time u spend writing it.

  4. So true, I was in Ramallah in June to visit and prior to coming I had to ship some documents to a friend, There was no street name to address the package, there was only an “area” well since the FedEx courier in israel is ran by israeli’s they held it for weeks and would not have it delivered because “there was no address” ultimately the package made it a day before I arrived (I should have just came with it myself)

    But Ramallah Palestine is POPPIN!!! bursting at the seams, I was amazed at how much growth has occurred since I was last there. But hey, when you’re in a bubble there is nowhere to go, nowhere else to go do things… so you have to make the best of it. I felt bad because I got to come home when the vast majority of the people there were stuck.

    One day….
    One day…
    One day…
    maybe there will be peace and justice for us.

  5. So Aza does not have street names?
    Well, Aza has hardly any streets.- just piles of rubble, raw sewage and donkey dirt!
    But then such a faked up people never existed or never will.

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