Rue Amelot

Couchsurfing (And Keeping Secrets) In Palestine — Part 1

Walking in Ramallah's al-Manara Square
Walking in Ramallah's al-Manara Square
Alex Correa

-Essay-

There must be an infinity of good stories to tell about the bus from Jerusalem to Ramallah. At its starting point, the streets are well kept, like in a first-world country, and the white stone buildings standardized. At sunset, they give the Israeli city a golden yellow hue. When you reach Ramallah, the dusty streets are marred with holes, the miscellaneous buildings and narrow pavements force pedestrians to compete for space with the cars. One glance and you know you've left Israel behind. This is Palestine, and it's scary to see how everything can change in just a 40-minute bus ride.

Mohammad is waiting for me at the main bus station at 5 p.m., as planned. I first met him online, via couchsurfing.com, a few hours ago. When I found out the platform was also active in Palestine, I decided it would be the best way for me to discover the country.

Mohammad turns out to be an effusive man, with almost Latino gestures. His black, deep eyes give him a serious, rigid appearance that doesn't match his body language or his 1.65-meter (5 ft 5 in) height. He prefers to talk about himself than to ask me questions. And yet he has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about the world.

Like most Palestinians, he's not allowed to leave the country. So instead of going to other places, he brings other places to him. Sitting in a café on al-Manara Square, the city's most buzzing plaza, my host tells me about the people he's welcomed, a twinkle in his eyes as he lists out the nationalities of these past visitors with the same exhilaration as someone talking about a trip to Paris.

Sunset over Ramallah — Photo: Felix Abraham

After our first tea, Mohammad tells me he won't, in fact, be able to put me up. His wife didn't agree with my staying. The presence of a male stranger means she'd have to wear a full veil inside her home: not a very good idea in the Middle Eastern summer. Temperatures recently topped 100°F (38°C) and the lack of rain doesn't help. Instead, he suggests I stay with his brother-in-law, Maan, who lives just outside the city. I agree.

Sharing the floor

Maan joins us in the café and takes me to his home. The sun is already setting when we reach our destination. Maan's street is in a good state. You can see Ramallah's mountainous terrain from here. It reminds me of Teresópolis, the town I grew up in, back in Brazil.

Maan lives alone in less than 20 square meters, in the basement of a modest building. The squat toilet and shower from which almost no water comes out are separated from the main room by the flat's one and only wall. The only window is covered by an improvised beige curtain. On a chair, an ancient fan without a protection grid takes care of providing scarce fresh air. Three of us are going to sleep here tonight: Maan and I, plus Samuel, who arrived today from New York.

Our host doesn't speak any English, which means communication between us and him is, at first, almost nonexistent. Maan is a taxi driver and looks rather stressed out most of the time because of the traffic, so the best course seems for me to stay quiet during our journey.

But as soon as we're out of the city, of its never-ending horn toots and risky overtakings, he turns into an entirely different person. He turns up the volume to the max as Taylor Swift starts playing and he blurts out all the English words he knows in one go: welcome, nice, shit, fuck.

In Ramallah's al-Manara Square — Photo: Montecruz Foto

Maan is different from his brother-in-law Mohammad. He doesn't care about religion and has as Western a lifestyle as it's possible to have in this part of the world. In his car, the pirate CDs include all of the current U.S. hits. In a corner of his flat, he keeps a dozen pairs of sneakers. He also has a girlfriend. And he's not a virgin anymore, he explains in a conversation made of gestures and nonsense translations, courtesy of Google. He looks to be around 30 but he seems to see life through the eyes of a prepubescent boy.

Samuel, the New Yorker, sleeps on the room's only bed while Maan and I sleep on the floor. It's almost the crack of dawn when my host hugs me and rests his head on my shoulder for a few minutes.

Keeping secrets

These days, Ramallah acts as the virtual (or "temporary," as they prefer to call it) capital of the Palestinian state, and on top of being home to the offices of the Palestinian authority, the city is a bit more secular than the rest of the territory. With its bars and intense flow of people, Ramallah is nicknamed the "Palestinian Tel Aviv," a comparison that's completely disconnected from the reality.

The capital has 200,000 inhabitants, about 5% of the country's population, but the mess in the streets makes me think they might have gotten the number wrong. Four Palestinian cities have more inhabitants than Ramallah: Jenin (260,000), Nablus (460,000), Hebron (560,000) and Gaza, home to about 1 million people.

The vast majority (90%) of Palestinians are Muslim. This means in practice that even the most modern city in the country still clashes with many religious dogmas. As we take a stroll through the streets at night, Mohammad tells me that women who wear tight clothes "mustn't be taken seriously," even if they use a veil to cover their heads.

"The right thing to do is to wear the full veil, with loose clothes, so men can't see the shapes of their bodies." When I ask him about Koranic rules regarding male clothing, he tells me that "we also have rules, for example not wearing shorts above the kneecap."

Mohammad doesn't drink any alcohol but he says he doesn't have any problems with foreigners who do. Still, when I buy a small bottle of whiskey and another of white wine for a dinner with eight people, he asks me whether I'm not overdoing it a bit. Similarly, when I pour myself a second glass of wine, he starts wondering ironically whether more guests have just arrived. And the next day, I would wake up with a message saying he's worried about the quantity of alcohol he saw in the house the previous night.

But the dinner isn't taking place at his. Our host is Ehab, a friend of Maan's who lives above him. Mohammad used to be Ehab's friend too until he found out that Ehab drank alcohol. Now, for that reason, he calls him a traitor.

The atmosphere during dinner is tense, with heated arguments in Arabic, until Mohammad leaves. Before he does, he adds me on Facebook. It suddenly hits me that my profile shows plenty of messages and pictures that expose my homosexuality. So I quickly send my password to a friend of mine in Brazil and ask her to change or hide any such post. I don't want Mohammad to see that.


Alex Correa is a travel writer and journalist from São Paulo, Brazil.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions at info@worldcrunch.com.

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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