Conflicted fantasies and spatial identities: from Ramallah to Paris
You can find more blog posts on the thematic focus “Space & Conflict” here.
Conflicted fantasies and spatial identities?
The question of space transcends the geographical borders of space and is ultimately made up of a combination of formations such as politics, culture, religion, language, and other things that come together to fundamentally define different parameters of space. In general, space is a made up human construct, and different spaces have different definitions based on the people who occupy these spaces. In Palestine, and because of the heightened political atmosphere and the never-ending fight over the land, space has turned into the central object of conflicts in the region and has become fundamental to shaping the identity of Palestinians. In addition to spaces being defined by external objects, concepts, and politics, they simultaneously also become, intentionally or unintentionally, what defines the objects and people occupying and living in them. In this paper, I will try to reflect on the different spaces I have interacted with inside and outside of Palestine and the effects these spaces and their definition has had on shaping my personality.
I grew up in Ramallah, a city now considered to be the de facto capital of Palestine. In essence, Ramallah is the metropolitan city where most of the rich Palestinians reside and it makes for a complete juxtaposition of living realities in relation to the rest of the Palestinian population. It is commonly known that, even in conservative societies and countries, the capital and metropolitan cities usually have looser rules and regulations with regards to their conservatism. Beirut, Dubai, and Istanbul are key examples of this. On a superficial level, one could assume this is the case for Ramallah, too. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is much more complex than that.
As the detailed history of the Israeli occupation/ colonial regime is long and complex, I will only briefly mention some key points of its politics and history.
The Oslo Accords were introduced in Camp David in 1978 but were signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The accords suggested a distribution of the land between Palestinians and Israelis, giving Israel three quarters of the land and Palestine one quarter of the land with Jerusalem as its capital. Currently 42% of Palestinian land is de facto occupied by Israeli settlements, and 60% of the rest of the land is Area C – land designated to be “gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction” [Oslo II Accord, 1995], yet remaining under continued Israeli military control. Clearly, there was no respect for the accords from the Israeli side, and settlements were being built systematically and illegally on Palestinian land. The second intifada broke out in 2000, and in 2002 Israel started building the apartheid wall, claiming it was necessary for its security. Shortly after, Jerusalem was no longer accessible for Palestinian residents of the West Bank secluding the Palestinians from their legitimate right to their capital.
The Oslo Accords were thought to be the start of a peace process. In actual reality, Israel seized the opportunity to further increase their colonial spatial project by exerting its power in an indirect way by controlling different Palestinian spaces and the access to them.
Although a huge part of the success of Israel’s colonial agenda is owed to its strong military (aided in billions of US dollars by different external entities), in addition to its thriving economy and strong lobbying, it is also due to the fact that they were able to control even the smallest details of Palestinians’ lives within their own private spaces – for example, by secluding different Area A cities (under Palestinian authority and security) from each other and ensuring that the only way to get from one city to another is through C Areas controlled by Israel, almost always by permanent checkpoint or flying check points. The presence of checkpoints is a ‘softer’ mode of control that projects Israel’s continuous denial of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Israel holds immense power in the region; nothing goes on without their knowledge nor approval. Thus, it’s important to note that nothing in Palestine can be discussed without recognising and analysing the ever-present external role of Israel as an occupying power. Furthermore, upon accepting this as a fact, I’ve come to realise that under this current brutal military occupation, nothing exists arbitrarily; rather, everything is carefully positioned and orchestrated in a way that benefits Israel. Ramallah, as a physical and conceptual space, is no different. In 2005, with the end of the second intifada, and with Yassir Arafat’s announcement that the Palestinians would put down their guns in exchange for peaceful negotiations and existence alongside Israel, a drastic shift took place and Ramallah as a city and a concept was reborn and redefined, slowly but surely.
Ramallah is a very specific place; its appearance, its people, its bars, and parties speak a faraway truth from the rest of Palestine. Over the past 10 years, Ramallah reformed itself into an underground, open-minded, rebellious space – often considered taboo for the rest of the population. It became so popular that it was featured on boiler room (“an online music broadcasting platform based in London, England, commissioning and streaming live music sessions from around the world”). The live show was so popular that the broadcasting platform decided to do an additional mini documentary about the underground scene in Palestine. The boiler room party and documentary were streamed by millions around the world who wondered what the hell these Palestinians were doing. After scrolling down the comment section of the video, I wasn’t surprised to see that most comments were either in disbelief that this was Palestine, or in confirmation that, indeed, Israel wasn’t such a bad occupying power. In hindsight, one could sense a lack of the “classic Palestinian struggle” when watching the videos of the Boiler Room event. Nevertheless, it becomes really easy to fall into this trap and deny the existence of a violent colonial regime; indeed, some instruments of Israel’s colonial campaign are designed to look and achieve exactly that.
In fact, Ramallah plays an important role in further assessing the continuing strength of the Israeli occupation. First, it was redefined and re-created to decentralise Jerusalem for Palestinians and shift the focus to another metropolitan city, thus creating an easier path to full annexation of the land. And second, it was slowly curated by the Israeli colonial regime as a way to whitewash their various illegal activities and war crimes in the region. By creating a bubble of security around Ramallah, Israel was able to shift the focus from what’s happening to the 95+% of the Palestinian population and pretend Ramallah life was the prevailing standard of life for the average Palestinian.
The Fantasy of Ramallah
Ramallah is a fantasy, with its nightlife, its underground art scene, filled with drugs and alcohol, its fancy cars and insanely expensive private schools – surrounded by fancier suburban areas (diplomatic compounds, Rawabi, al-Rihan) which offer a higher quality of life than the rest of the region. In Ramallah, there are no housing demolitions in the al Masyoun area (fancy residential area in Ramallah), nor are there unexpected raids at 5-star hotels, no clashes on the weekends during the weekly parties held at different bars.
The space is a dilemma for me. It’s the place I grew up in, it’s where I created the larger portion of my memories and discovered my identity as an individual. Ramallah offered me the space to think outside of the scope of the Israeli occupation, but not fully displaced from it. It was specifically designed to ignore the external reality of colonialism and the occupation. Ramallah didn’t suffer from direct violence as in Gaza or different villages in the West Bank. Instead, Israel’s control was soft and almost invisible; one could forget it was even there. However, it was there, in the economy, in the currency, in the electricity and water supply, in the restricted freedom of movement, in the chaos and corruption, it was even, dare I say, in the president himself with the shameful security coordination and his failed series of negotiations with Israel.
The equation in Ramallah is simple: if you have money, power, and status, you have a place there, otherwise it is impossible to afford. The current national minimum wage is set at 310 Euro. A single person’s estimated monthly costs are 628.72 Euros plus rent which is approximately 320-450 Euros. Coffee, wine, or a meal have similar prices to Paris or Berlin. Private schools cost around 3800-5100 Euros or more depending on the school and age. Importing a car is also insanely expensive; this is largely due to the fact that, when importing goods, Palestinians must pay an added tax to Israel on top of the tax they pay for the Palestinian authority, approx. doubling the price of any car.
Practical assessment of human rights
The first time I realised I was living in a tiny little bubble disconnected from the rest of the Palestinian population was when I went to University in Abu-Dis, Palestine. I studied international law and human rights in Al-Quds Bard University from 2013 to 2018 – an ironic statement in essence given the nature of the atmosphere in that area and the number of human rights abuses and violations one witnesses while attending Al-Quds university. In fact, the university suffered from the highest systematic attacks from the Israeli military on educational spaces in the past 10 years.
Some of the direct attacks as documented by Al-Quds university range from rom the use of sound bombs and tear gas canisters causing a fire (Oct. 2015), the use of rubber bullets and tear gas injuring 50 students (Oct. 2016), to multiple campus raids, involving the arrest of security guards, resulting in costly damages to university equipment and materials, and disrupting student exhibitions (Apr 2016; Nov. 2016; Dec. 2018).
In fact, these kinds of attacks are codified in the Israeli military law under “military order 101”. The vagueness of the parameters of order 101 produced grey areas that have been exploited in different ways by Israeli forces. Additionally, the draconian line of the order in any case runs contrary to international law and Israeli law. According to B’tselem “Military order 101 prohibits any assembly, vigil, procession, or publication relating to ‘a political matter or one liable to be interpreted as political.’ The order does not include a precise definition of what is to be considered such content. This vague and sweeping phrasing is open to interpretation, and, accordingly, could be used to restrict a broad range of subjects on which people wish to express their opinions. Such restriction is not compatible with freedom of expression.” 
Abu Dis and Al-Quds Bard University are fascinating to me. Abu Dis is in a C area, which means it is under Israeli military control with virtually no presence of the Palestinian authority. The second irony is the placement of Al-Quds Bard. While Abu Dis is a slightly conservative village, Al-Quds Bard is a liberal arts American university, run by foreigners and catering to English speaking Palestinians, many of whom belong to elites. It is placed inside a much bigger and conservative university (Alquds University), and it is the only university that offers a bachelor’s degree in human rights and international law, yet is surrounded by the “Apartheid Wall” (the wall literally makes up the students’ view from the gardens and cafeterias of the university).
While searching for references, I contacted my friend and professor at Alquds University, Osama Alrishiq, who also runs the legal clinic in Al-Quds University. I was telling him about the topic I’m writing about – at that point I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write, I only knew that I would be trying to answer the question, ‘does space define identity or does identity define space?’ While having a casual conversation about the topic, he asked me, rhetorically perhaps, ‘Do you think the space defines you, you as Aseel Aldeek? That’s un-factual in your case, given the number of times you rebelled against every social construct in Palestine, up until the point you left.’
I wouldn’t really phrase the escalation of my life events like this. But simply put, I would say, after a series of confrontations between society and myself, I realised that in Palestine there was no future for me. Not just because of my perception of the society, but also because of how it perceived me. It was a two-way street. So, I left and emigrated to France.
France and Europe were also a fantasy. I didn’t really know what to expect and I didn’t even have a stable home when I arrived. Now, a year and a half later, I still don’t have a stable home, a comfort space that is mine and a place where I can always return to. Therefore, finding a place to put my things and sleep became my top priority. I applied for asylum here. For over a year, I was an asylum seeker with almost no rights. I had no right to education, work, travel, and rent. Europe, a huge space geographically holding a variety of identities in the same place – borderless as they would say –, is bigger than I could ever imagine. Yet I felt so trapped in a small place with no ability to interact with the space in the same way others who belonged to different categories did, e.g., European citizens and students. The place I came from, which defines me to some extent, defined me here as well, but in relation to the definition of France and its constructed physical and conceptual space. In Palestine, I was also Palestinian, but a privileged one based on the distinct aspects that defined me, like being born in Ramallah, attending private school, having access to good education, and traveling. Being a Palestinian refugee in France defined my identity differently and placed different limitations on me as I would have had to deal with in Palestine.
I feel lost in a world filled with categories, subcategories, labels, and identities. I only know who I am based on what I have been told as a child. On a personal level though, I always find it hard to define myself, my fundamental objective beliefs removed from society and pre-given identities. I have come to realise that nothing has a static definition, even ourselves. I would like to add my favourite analogy here: “a knife can be used to cut bread and kill someone”. Depending on the circumstance, different objects can hold different meanings. In relation to myself and how I perceive my identity, I have come to the conclusion that every space I was placed in resulted in a personality shift in me – plus every space was equipped with a different lens for me to view the world. The circumstances of these places, the people pre-positioned there, and the different subcultures that exist in a specific place slowly became integrated in me, thus allowing me a smoother transition through that space. Additionally, and because space is a made up, human social construct by definition and in the way we physically and conceptually relate to it, it’s impossible to define space without us in it.
Aseel Aldeek, born and raised in Ramallah, Palestine, graduated from Al-Quds Bard university in Palestine in 2018 with a degree in International Law and Human Rights. In 2019 she emigrated to France and obtained asylum there. Currently she is working on launching a virtual community collective “Astrolabe de Mariem” , a Palestinian founded establishment for minorities and others in the diaspora. The collective aims to produce art and writings derived from personal and shared experiences, reclaiming their narrative from the mainstream exploitative industries and represent themselves authentically without external directive.
 Tahhan, Zena. “Israel’s Settlements: Over 50 Years of Land Theft Explained” (2020).
 World Bank report, “West Bank and Gaza: Area C and the future of the Palestinain economy” (2013).
 “Israel’s Apartheid Wall: We Are Here and They Are There – Israel.” ReliefWeb, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,
 Congressional Research Service “U.S Foreign Aid to Israel” (2020).
 Grim, Ryan. “Pro-Israel Lobby Caught on Tape Boasting That Its Money Influences Washington.” (2019).
 “Boiler Room Company Profile: Valuation & Investors.” PitchBook, pitchbook.com/profiles/company/82745-83#overview.
 B’tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in The Occupied Territories, “Military Order 101”, (2011)