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Palestine's secret oasis

Surrounded by conflict, the West Bank city of Ramallah is undergoing a quiet renaissance

As the sun rises between the hills and disperses low-hanging mist, Ramallah wakes up to a normal, urban life. Vegetable shops roll out their shining, fleshy wares. The exhausts of the city's orange taxis shake off the chill of night. And although, unlike most other cities, Ramallah has been many decades under occupation, this, for its inhabitants, is just another day.

Despite its violent and difficult past and its uncertain present, Ramallah has an air of normality that is striking. So, too, does the stark, arid land that falls away from its hilltop perch, rising again to where its urban twin, al-Bireh, meets the university town of Birzeit. It is hard to imagine Israeli tanks growling along these vibrant streets, as they did during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Or pitched battles being fought near the lush municipal park, complete with faded playground equipment.

The comparative calm of recent years has allowed this city of some 30,000 people, at the heart of a much larger governorate of 280,000, to experience something of a quiet renaissance. While the World Bank this year put unemployment across the West Bank at 19 per cent, Ramallah, as the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has become a centre of relative affluence.

"You can't feel the conflict here so much," said a friend who works for a local Palestinian NGO. "In Bethlehem, the wall cuts right through the town. In Hebron, there are the settlers [many with a reputation for attacking both the Israeli security forces and Palestinian civilians]. In Nablus, the tension is palpable."

In this less pressured environment, fortified by inflows of aid, a little private-sector investment and a large international presence, Ramallah is advancing its revival, the city steadily supplanting East Jerusalem - now cordoned off by the "security barrier" and inaccessible to most Palestinians - as the economic and cultural centre of Palestinian life in the West Bank.

On Thursday afternoons, when the working day and week come to an end, the city's commercial centre seems to resonate with a spirit of carnival. Young men - often arrived from nearby villages to seek odd jobs - swagger through the streets radiating from the vigilant stone lions of al-Manara Square. Fashionably dressed young women, many with their heads uncovered, gossip animatedly in twos and threes. Families swarm between the shops: the jewellers abounding with gold, the pharmacies, the shops peddling household electronics, mobile phones, football boots, hijabs and sunglasses, the physiotherapists, the cafes serving Ramallah's distinctive chewy ice cream, and the fishmonger Mr Fish, implausible in this dry, encircled land.

On the city's outskirts, new blocks of flats and houses have appeared, some mimicking the villas dotted through the old town that were once rented by vacationers from the Gulf, come to cool off in the mountain breeze. At night, wealthy Palestinians and expatriates sip on imported wine and Taybeh beer - from the West Bank's very own microbrewery - in stylish bars and eateries.

Ramallah's cultural life is also flourishing, carefully chronicled in This Week In Palestine, the Time Out of the occupied Palestinian territories. Public endeavours through renowned artistic projects such as al-Kamandjâti (meaning "the violinist" in Arabic) form its backbone. Nestled behind the walls of the old city, this startling centre - in a renovated house dating from the Ottoman period, complete with open-air performance space - aims to bring music to impoverished Palestinian children. Most come from refugee camps close by, as did its founder Ramzi Aburedwan, who now plays in Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Other established venues such as the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre and al-Kasaba Theatre play host to drama, films and fine art, while concerts and other events are held regularly in Ramallah's crowded bars. Rap and hip-hop are hugely popular among the young Palestinians taking advantage of the creative space opening up in the city, and such acts dominated the late slots at the recent Taybeh Oktoberfest.

Inevitably, much artistic expression focuses on the political situation. Akram Malki, a playwright and theatre director who trained in Baghdad, but works as a travel agent by day, told me that even though he tries, it is hard to write about anything else. "It not only stretches your nerves, it also stretches your soul," he said, framed by posters for improbable holiday destinations. "Theatre groups in different parts of the West Bank can no longer travel to rehearse together. And I haven't been able to go to Jerusalem for ten years."

For, despite the lively nightlife of this beautiful city, "the Bride of Palestine", few people walk the streets after midnight, as the favoured hour for occasional incursions by the Israeli army approaches. The young soldiers guarding al-Muqata'a, the restored presidential compound and site of Yasser Arafat's imposing mausoleum, may joke and flirt in their boredom, but the oversized portrait of the late leader - marking the spot where he crouched as Israeli troops shelled the compound in 2002 - is a sharp reminder that this city was once under siege.

Ramallah at the moment does not bear physical scars of that conflict, nor does it choke under a tightening blockade like Gaza. However, its streets are not yet free from incursions and riots, and the imminent end of the PA president Mahmoud Abbas's term next month carries further risk of a severe intra-Palestinian struggle.

But, in the meantime, life goes on. On weekday mornings, the metal grates will be pulled back at the DVD Box and by the tailors at Moda Fashion, the bakers will pile high the sweet ka'ak prepared in the early hours, and the green-and-white number 18 buses will commence their stuttering journeys into congested East Jerusalem.

I leave Ramallah on a bus doing the school run. My appearance and passport somewhat cushion me from the weary aggression of the Israeli soldiers at the Qalandiya checkpoint. But not from the gloomy watchtowers and concrete slabs, adorned with graffiti by the English urban artist Banksy and marked in one place, in wide letters: CTRL+ALT+DELETE. My travel companions, two young girls with neat ponytails who peek back at me around the seat, are less perturbed. They put their IDs back in their Bratz backpacks and pull out their exercise books to do some last-minute revision. It is, after all, just another day.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror