Nine Questions for ...

Beate Becker on Ramallah: “There is Nothing That’s Impossible”

Copyright: Beate Becker
View over Ramallah, which, translated freely, means “Mount of God” (Photo: Beate Becker)

6 November 2010

Most people associate Palestine with the Middle East conflict und refugee camps. Beate Becker has come to know Ramallah as an open city where a person can feel at home. In our interview she talks of the city’s charms, the art of improvisation and her unforgettable experience in no man’s land.

What do you think of young western Europeans who wear a Palestinian scarf as a fashion accessory?

I ask myself a number of questions: What are these people trying to say? Are they for something or against something? Are they protesting against repression, standing up for their right to personal freedom? Nowadays even stars like Mary-Kate Olsen are wearing these scarves; new colours have cropped up like turquoise, yellow and purple. Although I think it’s interesting to see how an item of clothing can evolve over the years, I think not much is behind it besides fashion. I can hardly imagine that someone who is aware of the situation would return to Europe and wear a Palestinian scarf – certainly not as a fashion accessory and also not as a symbol of their beliefs. Even the shops in Ramallah that sell these scarves are more souvenir shops.

What preconception about Palestinians ought we rid ourselves of right away?

In the west we hear that many Palestinians have been living in refugee camps for years. We often imagine these camps as provisional housing like temporary accommodations outside of town. Instead they are located in the centre of the city limits and only recognizable by their narrow streets and high population density. I live across from Al-Amari refugee camp in the south of town, where people have been living since 1948. Today, there are 7,000 inhabitants. The camp publishes a brochure about its organizational structure. I was surprised at how organized it all is.

What is your own favourite place in Ramallah?

I like places where people meet. My favourite place is the relatively new Café La Vie, especially its garden where you can enjoy a cool beer from Taybeh under pomegranate, acacia and olive trees. Taybeh is a town near Ramallah that has its own brewery. The owners of La Vie – two brothers who lived in the United States for a long time – converted their parental home into a modern café; their father planted the trees. They serve cakes and the recipes for some of them came from books from our media library. Delicious cake under olive trees in the evening about seven when the breeze is cooling off – that’s lovely.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut
Goethe staff member Becker: “Restricted physical freedom of movement is countered by the idea that there is nothing that’s impossible.” (Photo: private)
What experience will you never forget?

In May I travelled to Gaza for the first time, where we were able to set up a dialogue point in late 2009. To get to Gaza from Ramallah, you have to pass the Erez checkpoint in the north of the Gaza Strip. I was familiar with other checkpoints and was not prepared for a sort of terminal that reminded me of Terminal B at Frankfurt airport shortly after it opened: almost empty of people, hardly any movement, but functioning perfectly. You are observed by the employees from upper floors; below there are only people behind glass asking questions through a microphone. After the questioning, they send me further into the empty building; I am told to pass through revolving iron doors, but apparently first have to wait until the red light above them turns green. You just stand there and wait. No one troubles to explain how you get to the other side. Then at some point you can go through and enter a long, cage-like corridor going right through hot no man’s land. You walk and walk; now and then someone passes in the other direction or you encounter half-corroded wheelchairs that have been left there. This combined loss of control and desolateness affected me deeply. On the return journey they put a Gaza exit stamp in my passport as if I’d travelled to another country.

Who comes to the Goethe-Institut?

Our course participants are mainly young people. In the summer months especially they are school leavers who want to study in Germany. Medicine is still the number one choice of majors. We recently began a course for physicians who plan to complete their specialist training in Germany. Their education is so important to them that they manage to take three hours of German lessons three days a week after work.

What is culture in Ramallah?

Every kind of culture is available here that you need: cinemas, art exhibitions, concerts, restaurants, bars. One of the principle attractions is Al-Kasaba Theatre with two auditoriums, a restaurant and an art gallery with regular exhibitions taking place. In October 2009 Al-Kasaba also opened Palestine’s first acting school: the Drama Academy Ramallah. So it’s not that there are no cultural events in Ramallah; the problem is rather that the arts scene here is isolated and there are not enough opportunities for exchange.

What do you look forward to in Germany?

Mostly the feeling of being back in Germany. Then I find myself in situations where it suddenly dawns on me that there is a lot about Germany that I like and admire, but somehow seem to take for granted, for example the great public transport, the varieties of bread and cheese, the calmness and thoughtfulness in public life.

What do you look forward to when you are back in Ramallah?

After a few days in Germany I am looking forward to the bustle of Ramallah, to the chaotic streets, to the freshly-pressed juice, to the unpredictability.

What can we learn from the Palestinian people?

Palestinians are extremely talented at improvising. Sometimes I think that people psychologically counter their restricted physical freedom of movement by the idea that there is nothing that’s impossible. We Germans can learn from them that a rule needn’t be followed mindlessly; that there are rules that make no sense for a certain person in a certain situation and that you don’t need to follow them then as long as you aren’t harming yourself or others.

Sophie Rohrmeier asked the questions.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut
The Franco-German Cultural Center is located in the centre of Ramallah (Photo: Goethe-Institut)

Beate Becker (44) has been working with the Goethe-Institut since 2003. She offered student advisory services at the Goethe-Institut Damascus and held examinations with the language department as part of her work as a DAAD editor in Syria. In the summer of 2006 she moved to Buenos Aires, where she taught at the Goethe-Institut. In May 2010 Beate Becker became the head of the language department at the Goethe-Institut Ramallah where she is presently expanding the language course programme.

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