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Newly confident Ramallah struts out at Ramadan

Palestinians shop at a market ahead of the start of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in the West Bank city of Ramallah.


It was 10 p.m., Thursday night, and the crowd under the giant Ramadan canopy was eager for the floor show to begin. As the last gaggle of people moved to their seats, a glamorously dressed Palestinian woman holding a baby in her arms stopped suddenly. Her four-inch spike heel had gotten caught in a grate that ran around the outdoor swimming pool of the patio that, temporarily, was this city's most lavish nightspot. Calmly handing her child to another woman in her party, the young mother gave a graceful tug with her foot and the heel came free. Taking back her baby, she resumed the procession to her stage-side table.

That was the moment it became clear: Ramallah ain't what it used to be - not before the last intifada ; not before the first intifada . And members of the old guard here say that not even prior to the 1967 Israeli occupation was this venerable old town ever quite like this.

Never before has Ramallah been this glitzy and full of confidence, almost like its more sophisticated cousin, Beirut.

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For three hours that evening, just as every other night since Ramadan began three weeks ago, the streets of the downtown had been swarmed with people, shopping, schmoozing, watching, waiting. Cafés turned into shoe stores and vice-versa as merchants competed to lure and hold the crowd.

Earlier each evening, the streets are mostly empty as families break Ramadan's daily fast with a traditional iftar at home.

Come nine o'clock, whether on the street, in the café or at home, everyone gathers round the nearest television set and watches the Arab world's hottest television drama, Bab el Hara (Neighbourhood Gate), now in its fourth Ramadan season.

The Saudi-financed Syrian soap opera depicts life in 1930s Damascus, when people yearned to be free of the occupying French forces, and an old generation sought to keep the young in check. Sound familiar?

But it's not just Ramallah's crowds and glamour that are different. This year, it's also the Palestinians' own television fare, and the freedom that seems to accompany it.

A new, hugely popular 15-minute comedy show, Watan ala Watar (Country on a String), is being broadcast daily during Ramadan just about the time most Palestinian families are clearing the iftar table. The satirical sketches - more Wayne and Shuster than Air Farce - lampoon every walk of Palestinian life and every politician.

Thursday's show mocked Hamas, as two of its members were depicted keeping watch over the infamous tunnels that smuggle goods into the blockaded Gaza Strip: Everything that was brought through the tunnels, even a single sheep, was seized, to be divvied up later, many times over.

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In an earlier episode, set 500 years in the future, a Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas XIII, was left wondering when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will ever be over.

It's not the sort of thing Palestinians are used to seeing anywhere, let alone on their own state-run television channel.

"But it's the kind of thing we Palestinians have to see," said Imad Farrajine, 32, the writer and principal star of the three-person cast. "Politics has imposed itself on our lives," he said, "and we need to see it for what it is."

Has there been any backlash to any of the criticism of the Palestinian Authority?

"None at all," said Mr. Farrajine, who noted that the television station has asked them to extend their run by another eight shows. Each show is taped the day of, or day before, it is broadcast.

The Palestinian Authority hasn't always been so tolerant of criticism. But Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior government official and newly appointed head of Palestine TV, now boasts of Watan ala Watar as an example of new freedoms under the PA.

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"The president watched the episode [about Abbas XIII]and was very happy with it," he said.

Watan ala Watar grew out of a popular stand-up comedy act Mr. Farrajine and his colleagues began two years ago in the wake of Hamas's takeover of Gaza.

Entitled From Gaza to Ramallah , it was staged by the three 30-something actors who had performed in theatre together for a decade.

Harder hitting than its TV spinoff, FGTR is like nothing seen before in Palestinian society, and in very few places in the Arab world. Palestinians can't get enough of it.

On Thursday night, the act was the headline attraction at the glittering tent in Ramallah's toniest new neighbourhood, Masyoun. Members of the political and business elite paid a 40-shekel ($12) cover charge, sipped nothing stronger than coffee and smoked aromatic narghiles . Every seat had been reserved days in advance. It was the place to be seen.

And Mr. Farrajine & co. didn't disappoint.

They lampooned Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, whom they referred to as "Fufu," even though one of the PM's most senior aides was sitting only a few metres away - laughing heartily.

They mocked Hamas fighters who kept trying to capture more Israeli hostages such as Gilad Shalit, but who only ended up capturing other Palestinians.

The funniest sketch depicted two couples: one couple house-hunting in Gaza (imagine); the other looking for a villa in Masyoun, where many in the well-heeled audience live. It was strangely hilarious in a very black-humour kind of way.

"I think they're funnier live than on their TV show," said Tahani Abu Daqqa, the minister of culture who left chuckling at the end of the performance.

As lively as Ramallah has been, Jerusalem has been deadly quiet this month of Ramadan. There's little street life after hours, and very little glitz.

Is Ramallah the Palestinians' real cultural capital? "Shhh. It's dangerous to say that," Mr. Farrajine said. "But I think it's true."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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