A Palestinian Engagement Party in Ramallah, West Bank

When I traveled from Tiberias to Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I hooked up with a Christian Palestinian friend of mine who invited me to what he called a marriage ceremony in the town of Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank. How exciting, I thought, I get to attend a Palestinian wedding! The following day my friend Saed told me a little more. This was not a wedding but an engagement party. Okay, this will still be interesting, I thought. I get to go to Ramallah and enter and exit the West Bank with a Palestinian family, both for the first time. This is thrilling stuff for me.

Note: I took many photos of the engagement party, however Saed asked me not to post any of the party or him and his family, so of course I won’t.

I set out with Saed and his family from Jerusalem’s Old City for the approximately 15-kilometer drive to Ramallah at about 6:00 p.m., with the party due to start at 6:00 p.m. So you were late to the party, you must be thinking. No, we weren’t. The West Bank and Gaza Strip don’t always change their clocks on the same dates as the rest of Israel. This year the West Bank reverted to standard time before Israel, I think in an effort to make the Ramadan fast a little easier. So we arrived at the party well before 6:00.

Our drive took us along a long portion of the infamous eight-meter-high concrete wall that separates Israel from much of the West Bank. We drove straight through the checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank with no lines of traffic. Palestinians don’t have to stop at the checkpoints when entering the West Bank, I learned.

Portion of the wall separating the West Bank from israel, with animal graffitti on it

A portion of the wall in or near Bethlehem, which I saw on a previous trip to Israel

Once in Ramallah we walked into a modest banquet hall and sat near the front, at one of dozens of long tables decorated in pink. One professional photographer and one videographer moved in and out of the 200 or so guests, photographing and videoing the hall and the people arriving as Arab music began to play. This is some party, I thought, if it has to be professionally filmed. It was then that Saed floored me with this bit of information: This was not just a party to celebrate a recent engagement. At this party tonight the couple was going to actually get engaged!

Christian Palestinians, Saed now told me, like their Muslim counterparts and indeed like most Middle Eastern Muslims, do not date. I knew that in some Muslim cultures parents arrange marriages for their children while in others couples court rather than date before they marry. Both the Jewish and Arab populations of Israel, though, are so affected by the Western world due to tourism that I never dreamed the Arabs, Muslim or Christian, did not date. But now I know. Christian Palestinian couples are not even allowed to spend time alone together until they are officially engaged, so getting engaged is a major event. And the official engagement of this particular couple was about to occur.

Soon a new song began to play at a much louder volume, and everyone turned to look at the back of the room. A tall, thin man in a dark suit and pink satin tie along with a woman wearing a beautiful fancy pink dress with her black hair piled atop her head began slowly walking arm in arm toward the front of the room near where we sat. The music stopped, and three priests walked up to the couple and began speaking in Arabic to them. After a few minutes they finished speaking, everyone clapped, the music resumed and the engaged couple began dancing the night away along with their guests. They paused only when an enormous pink cake appeared with what seemed to be extremely large candles on top. The “candles” were lit, and flames shot up halfway to the ceiling. These were not candles but veritable torches. I missed seeing how they were extinguished, but suffice it to say no one was injured.

We stuck around for an hour or so after the engagement, then climbed back in the car for a ride to downtown Ramallah on what was not just a special engagement night for this Christian couple but one of the final nights of Ramadan for Muslims. Now I can finally post a few photos of the evening. Unfortunately, since it was nighttime, none of them are exactly good.

Ramallah, West Bank one night during Ramadan 2011

The sun had set a couple of hours earlier and the streets were packed with people eating, shopping and enjoying themselves. I was really surprised to find that there were a lot of high-end boutiques in this West Bank town, so high end I wasn’t about to buy anything. No matter how you slice it, Ramallah was all decked out for Ramadan.

Many helium balloons for sale in downtown Ramallah on Ramadan

There was also this uniquely attired man selling drinks of some type from a…thing. Such a seller of drinks might be a staple of Ramadan life in Israel’s Muslim population, as I saw someone else dressed just like him one night in Jerusalem.

A uniquely attired man selling drinks in Ramallah on ramadan

We had three small children with us, so finished the night early and piled back in the car for a ride back into East Jerusalem. I’ve heard about the lengthy lines Palestinians have to wait in to get out of the West Bank, and when we drove into the line at the checkpoint this particular night I said Wow, this is a long line. With about 10 or 12 cars in front of us, it looked long to me. This is nothing! Saed and his wife said. Sometimes we wait an hour.

Checkpoint near Bethlehem, West Bank

Checkpoint somewhere near Jericho, taken on a previous trip to Israel

In about 15 minutes we were the first car in line, and Saed hopped out to give the Israeli soldier our passports. You were supposed to have walked through a separate line since you’re not Palestinian, Saed told me when he got back into the car, but the soldier said you can go ahead and drive through with us.

I enjoyed seeing what it’s like driving through checkpoints with a Palestinian family. Now, though, I’d like to see what it’s like to walk through on my own. Well, next time.

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